A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Mirka Knaster
Diminutive yet striking in his signature white robes and white hat, Munindra was an enthusiastic, energetic, and immensely inquisitive Bengali meditation master who had a profound impact on people everywhere he went, even on many who never met him. Those whose lives he touched remember him not only for his erudition and expert guidance but, most importantly, for his embodiment of dharma—he lived what he taught. Through his presence and actions, Munindra made otherwise abstract ideals come alive. Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra focuses on those ideals or qualities that lead to awakening: mindfulness, compassion, loving-kindness, determination, conviction, integrity, generosity, delight, curiosity, one-pointedness of mind, equanimity, relinquishment, wisdom, patience, vigor, and virtuous conduct. Inspiring yet down-to-earth, poignant and humorous remembrances from nearly 200 people illustrate how Munindra embodied them. These anecdotes are from such well known teachers and writers as Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Daniel Goleman, Ram Dass, Lama Surya Das, Sylvia Boorstein, Larry Rosenberg, Christopher Titmuss, Christina Feldman, James Baraz, Kamala Masters, Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, and others in Canada, Europe, South America, and Australia, as well as from former students of the Antioch Education Abroad Program in Bodh Gaya, family members, and friends in Asia.
Like his fellow countryman Mahatma Gandhi, Munindra was one of those rare individuals who demonstrate seamless integration, rather than conflicted separation, between daily life and spiritual practice. Through his attitudes and behavior, he held out the potential of what is attainable: to be at home in this body, in this place, in this time, under these conditions; happy and at peace with oneself and in harmony with others. For Munindra, spiritual life was not limited to meditating in silence, living in a monastery, or attending intensive retreats. Nor did a life steeped in dharma have anything to do with arcane and esoteric doctrines or ritualistic and exclusionary practices. Munindra made dharma highly accessible and himself widely available. His easygoing, outside-the-box, nonsectarian openness, as well as a no-frills, no-airs attitude, had great appeal. According to Munindra, dharma was all about “living the life fully.”
Munindra was also an illustration of what neuroscientists are now able to confirm through sophisticated technology: By training the mind, one can change the brain so that positive emotions become enduring character traits, rather than just occasional states. Based on his personal knowledge, Munindra was convinced that even nowadays people are capable of tasting what the Buddha and his disciples experienced more than 2,500 years ago. What may seem out of the ordinary or even impossible is actually within reach of those who make the effort. Yet he never pretended to be extraordinary, exceptional, or perfect. Munindra was simply a flourishing human being, not a saint. With all his idiosyncrasies and fallibility, he walked the path and enabled others to walk it too. Living This Life Fully helps readers understand how they can do so as well.
Mirka Knaster is an independent scholar and freelance writer and editor who holds a PhD in Asian and Comparative Studies. She has studied Vipassana meditation since 1981.
Basic guidelines for reading Living This Life Fully:
As you read about Munindra embodying a particular quality, try putting that quality into practice in your everyday life, even in what seems to be insignificant ways. Notice what happens as you shift between reading and living out each day. If you like, carry a small pad with you and jot down your observations, experiences, feelings. After you've finished the book, look back and reflect on any changes over the month.
Before diving into the book, consider the quality of adhitthana (unshakeable resolve, determination, vow), which is the focus of Chapter 7. Munindra was hugely determined and resolute when it came to fulfilling his deepest aspirations. You don't have to read that chapter first, just think about the following:
Without the firmness and stability of resoluteness, we cannot accomplish any endeavor, spiritual or otherwise (even finishing a book!). There's great power in making a resolution or vow and sticking to it. Naming the direction you want to head in facilitates taking the right turns whenever you're at a crossroads. Vows also help you stretch beyond perceived limits. You can make all kinds of vows, and they certainly don't have to be restricted to New Year's Eve.
So ask yourself: What is my spiritual aspiration? What am I willing to commit to?
It could be anything at all that helps you cultivate the qualities that lead to awakening, if awakening is your aspiration. It doesn't have to be. Too often, resolutions fail because there's possibly not enough truth or clarity behind them or they're more than you can handle. Maybe a particular resolution is not what you really want, but what you think you should want. At the same time, don't be afraid to reach for the stars. The Buddha didn't shrink from what he wanted, even though it took lifetimes to gain it!
Breaking down a big aspiration into small basic acts can be a more effective way to begin and not get discouraged. Each time we do what we set out to do, we feel encouraged to repeat it. That brings on a momentum that moves us forward. Some simple efforts could include these examples: Instead of expecting yourself to be mindful every minute of every day, try being mindful as you walk from one room to another. Read an inspiring passage before going to sleep. Eat one meal a week in mindful silence. Count to ten and slow your breathing before responding in a heated situation. Have a kind word or a smile for people you meet as you move through the day. Donate some time each month to help in a community program whose work you believe in. Contribute financially (even a minimum amount) to an organization whose efforts you want to support. Refrain from speaking ill of others. Wait patiently at the checkout line and send loving-kindness to those around you. And so on. You decide what you'd like to put into practice.
Then ask yourself: What gets in the way of attaining my goal?
What things distract you from fulfilling your aspirations? Each time you feel your determination waver, inquire within: What is most important right now? Which action is is alignment with my vow? What can I eliminate to help further it? For example, is it absolutely necessary to keep texting, checking email, chatting on the phone, watching TV, or whatever might get in your way?
Finally, as you work with this, ask yourself: What positive steps have I taken toward achieving my goal?
It's important to recognize and acknowledge each time you assert determination and remain steadfast. It's not ego-stroking. The Buddha recommended that we rejoice in our wholesome ways. If you hesitate or backtrack, don't beat yourself up. Simply notice what's happening and recommit to your resolution.
Don't be surprised to find how that simple acts complement and feed each another. They're all part of living this life fully, living a life in dharma.