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.
Dipa Ma herself was by far the most remarkable. She was a woman in a setting where teachers were traditionally men. She was a layperson teaching in a monastic tradition. She was a widow and single mother active in the world, without the protection of family, in an environment where women, especially widows, remained at home. Above all, in a Buddhist tradition that historically said the full dharma was only possible if you abandoned family life and “went forth” into homelessness and the monastic life, she had probably gone as far or farther in the practice than anyone I knew or had heard of. That is still true now, thirty years later. She was diminutive in stature, but no one I have ever met had a stronger mind, or a bigger heart.
Amy Schmidt’s book Knee Deep in Grace provides a more detailed account of Dipa Ma’s life and teaching, especially the impact she had on others. In the following interview, Dipa Ma describes in her own words some of the journey she took to becoming the person we knew.
Dipa Ma herself did not speak or read English. Her reflections on her life and the outcomes of her practice were translated by a trilingual Bengali woman translator, Srimati V. Her descriptions of her experiences in practice were translated by her meditation teacher, Anagarika Munindraji, at Dipa Ma’s request.
Early in my interviews with Dipa Ma, I once said, “When I try to imagine the enlightened state, it seems kind of gray and dull to me. Once you’ve extinguished all the desire, anger, and passion, where’s the juice? Where’s the pizzaz? Where’s the chutzpah?” As soon as Dipa translated my question, her mother broke out laughing. “Oh, you don’t understand! Life was dull and boring before. Always the same routine, nothing new. Once you get rid of all that stale stuff you’ve been carrying around, every moment is fresh and new, interesting and alive. Now everything has zest and taste. No two moments are ever the same.” The truth was not in her words; it was in her spontaneous laughter and delight.
On a stifling hot day, Munindraji was talking to some of Dipa Ma’s older female students about rebirth. Ma had not been feeling well and seemed to be dozing against the wall in the heat. Munindraji happened to mention the tradition that one must take birth in a male body to become a Buddha. At that she suddenly bolted upright from the wall and exclaimed, “I can do anything a man can do!” We all laughed because we knew it was absolutely true.
Childhood, Marriage, and Motherhood:
What were some of the major influences on you in childhood? I grew up in an extremely close family in Chittagong [in East Bengal]. We are all still close. Chittagong was a special place in those days. This was the main area where Buddhism survived in India into the twentieth century. It was a very open and tolerant place. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities lived together in the same village. I was very happy as a child, though I kept to myself growing up; I didn’t play much with other children. I was particularly close to my mother. I remember her as quiet and affectionate. She died unexpectedly when I was eighteen. I was married at twelve, and only saw her twice after I joined my husband in Rangoon two years later. Her death came as a great shock; I contracted typhoid immediately afterward. I didn’t get over her death until my first child was born. My father, on the other hand, was strict, though he was affectionate toward me. He was a man of strong principles. He never bowed his head to anything he didn’t think was right. I inherited that trait from him.
People often seem surprised by the extent of your learning. Yet you didn’t go very far in school, did you? I attended the local village school up to Sixth Standard [sixth grade] before I was married. That isn’t very far. But I enjoyed school a lot. Even if I was feeling ill and my parents gave me permission to stay home, I would slip off and turn up in school anyway. I loved to learn. My father was very supportive and used to go over my schoolwork with me at home. After marriage, there wasn’t any opportunity to continue formal schooling. Bengali wasn’t taught in Burma, and it was unthinkable anyway that a married lady of the house in the Bengali community would go to school and study. So I studied at home on my own, mostly books on Buddhism.
You were married very young, in accordance with ancient Indian custom, even though your family was Buddhist. I was twelve. My husband was twenty-five. It was an arranged marriage. Because I was so young, I was allowed to stay with my parents until I was fourteen. When I stayed with my in-laws from time to time, I cried a lot. I couldn’t settle down with them. I can still feel the fear in my heart just thinking of my in-laws’ house. When I finally joined my husband, it was a very difficult adjustment in the beginning, even more difficult because we were living in Burma. I was extremely lonely and homesick. I never feel alone now. Meditation is my constant companion. But I felt terribly alone those first years of marriage.