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.
Many young Indian wives don’t know anything about physical intimacy before marriage. They often find out about it first from their husbands. How did you first learn about it? The women in my family instructed me about my duties toward my husband and about running a household, but my husband was the first one to tell me about sex. I was very shocked, very nervous, and terribly ashamed. I was afraid of him at first. It took me almost a year to get over the shock and the shame. But my husband was very gentle and kind, not the kind of man who insisted on asserting his rights. He was extremely patient, affectionate, and generous. He could get close to people in a very short time. He was a rare human being. I’ve never come across anyone like him. I’ve always considered him my first teacher.
I understand your relationship was tested almost immediately. Young Indian wives are expected to have their first child, preferably a son, within a year or so of marriage. But I couldn’t conceive. Year after year went by, and still I hadn’t borne a child. But in all that time my husband remained unfailingly kind and sweet to me, unlike many husbands. He never criticized, never pushed, was never angry, was always loving and patient. He had a good position and a more than adequate income. We had many friends. Apart from not having children, my life with him was very happy.
You came from an old Buddhist family. Did you start meditation practice early in life? When I was young, meditation practice wasn’t that common. One or two of the older generation practiced meditation, but that was absolutely in private, not the way it is now. They didn’t talk about what they were doing. It was only after I was married that the idea of meditation became popular. I became very interested and wanted to learn, but my husband said, “We’re such a young couple. Why don’t we take it up later when we’re a little bit older?” At that time the feeling was that spiritual practice was not for the young but for the elders, after they had raised their family and finished working. So I took my husband’s suggestion.
How did you finally begin? Out of suffering and desperation. After waiting twenty years to conceive, my first child, a daughter, died three months after she was born. After waiting another long four years, Dipa was born. The following year a son died in childbirth. I never saw him. I mourned the deaths of my two children for several years. Just as I felt I was making some peace with the situation, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which was seriously affecting my heart. My condition worsened to the point that my life was in danger. It finally reached the stage where my doctors expected me to die at any time. At just that time, my husband, who had always been healthy, came home from work one afternoon feeling ill and feverish. Despite a doctor’s efforts, he died suddenly later that day. It was a terrible shock, completely unexpected. I’d been suffering so much, then this blow. Only Dipa was left. She was five, I was forty-one.
When I realized I was dying, I knew I had to begin to practice. I asked myself, “What can I take with me when I die?” I looked around at all the things I had and knew I couldn’t take them. I looked at my daughter and knew that as much as I loved her, I couldn’t take her, either. So I thought, “Let me go to the meditation center. Maybe I can find something there I can take with me when I die.” I decided to leave and live in the meditation center—I could die there as well as in the house. I told my friends of my decision, despite knowing almost nothing about practice. They were very supportive. I’ve always had one trait from an early age: When I make a promise, I keep it. Before going, I gave all my property and money to a neighbor and asked her to care for Dipa, expecting I would never return. “Please take whatever I have and care for Dipa,” I said. I was heartbroken and desperate.
What happened when you got to the center? Friends went with me. We were taken in by the monks, given basic instruction in mindfulness, and told to report the next day at four in the afternoon. I was walking over from the guesthouse the next afternoon to report on my practice when I felt myself suddenly stop. I couldn’t move my feet. I didn’t know why. I stood there puzzled for five or ten minutes or more. Finally I looked down and saw that a very large dog had clamped his teeth around my leg. My samadhi was already so deep that the sense doors had shut down, so I never felt it. Seeing the dog jolted me out of my samadhi and back to ordinary consciousness. The fear for myself and for Dipa came rushing back: “If I die, what is going to happen to my daughter?” They told me the dog wasn’t rabid, but I couldn’t get over my fear. I hurried to the hospital, and then instead of going back to the center, I returned home and resumed my life with Dipa. Gradually my fear of dying receded, and my health slowly improved. I started practicing at home a little each day. Munindraji used to come to the house and ask me about my practice. Eventually he started encouraging me to come to Thathana Yeiktha [a meditation center in Rangoon founded by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw], where he had started teaching. So I made arrangements for Dipa to stay with a trusted friend, and I went.