In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimages with Shantum Seth across India and South Asia. Other spiritual journeys that transform. Mindful travel.
An Interview With Dipa Ma
In conversations that took place in Calcutta in 1977, Jack Engler got to know one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished meditation teachers.
Among the first wave of young Americans venturing into Asia in the early 1970s were Jack Engler, now a prominent psychotherapist and supervising psychologist at Harvard University, and Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. Both men were deeply influenced by Indian meditation master Nani Barua (1911-1989), affectionately known as “Dipa Ma,” and her teacher, Anagarika Munindra (1914-2003). Perhaps what most characterized these young Americans and their approach to the dharma was their boundless enthusiasm—and the plucky belief that enlightenment could be attained in this lifetime. While many Asians had come to believe that such high aspirations were best deferred to a future life, Munindraji and Dipa Ma insisted that such goals were not only to be encouraged but that they were also entirely realizable.
Returning from their travels, Engler and Goldstein were both instrumental in establishing the Vipassana tradition in North America. To this day, both remain deeply indebted to the teachings of Munindraji and Dipa Ma.
In the following section, Jack Engler shares for the first time his conversations with Dipa Ma, which formed the foundation of his doctoral work, and in a candid interview, he speaks with Tricycle about his own journey. Joseph Goldstein, in the wake of Munindraji’s recent death, remembers a teacher for whom he was the first Western student, and ponders a world beyond the life of two of his most treasured mentors.
Nani Barua was her given name, but in accordance with Indian custom, she was known and addressed as Dipa Ma—“Dipa’s Mother”—or even more simply as “Ma.” She was in her late fifties when I met her, in 1975. She was a venerated teacher by then in the small Buddhist community that had migrated from East Bengal, India, to Burma during the British Raj, and then resettled in Calcutta after Burmese independence. She taught out of the one room she shared with Dipa, her daughter and only surviving child.
Dipa Ma (1911–1989) was without any of the outward trappings or symbols of recognized Buddhist teachers—no ashram or center, no titles or ordinations, and no degrees, monastic vows, or attendants. Just a tiny woman in a tiny room in an impoverished neighborhood of old Calcutta, unknown outside her circle of friends and students, teaching in the traditional Indian way, at home all day, every day, for anyone who wanted to come by and talk about dharma. At the same time, she was a great yogi who not only had experienced the depths of liberating insight but had also mastered the deepest levels of samadhi, or singleness of mind, and most of the siddhis, or psychic powers [see final page]—a rare achievement in contemporary Buddhism, especially in Theravada. She was a gifted teacher who had helped many of her students to realize their essential Buddha-nature.
I met Ma in India while doing doctoral research for the University of Chicago on the impact of enlightenment on the structure of consciousness and mental life. There are actually four enlightenment experiences, or “path moments,” in the way Theravada practice is said to unfold. According to the tradition, and the testimony of ancient and contemporary practitioners, it is in these moments that the specific mental factors that produce suffering are progressively eradicated. This is when fundamental and irreversible changes are said to take place in the mind. For purposes of the study, I needed individuals who had experienced this kind of change. With the intercession of her teacher, Anagarika Munindraji, Dipa Ma and some of her most experienced students agreed to be “subjects” in the study. All had experienced at least “First Path” in the Theravada system of practice, or what we call “enlightenment.” All happened to be women. The men who had experienced “path,” Dipa Ma said, were working during the day and not available. So began a series of meetings with remarkable women in that same little room throughout the spring and summer of 1977.