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.
What happened this time? I completed the first course of practice [i.e., experienced enlightenment or “First Path” in Theravada practice]. It took about six days. After three months, I returned to the center at Munindraji’s urging to practice for Second Path. This time it took about five days. [J.E.: In accordance with Theravada custom, Munindraji stopped me from asking Dipa Ma about her practice for Third Path. She later told me it isn’t talked about because very few people reach it.] [For more on the “paths,” or stages of enlightenment, see the interview with Jack Engler]
Munindraji told me he also trained you and Dipa in the eight jhanas [states of mental absorption]. Yes. My daughter and I used to play at moving back and forth as we wished between the eight jhanas. You can stay in them for predetermined lengths of time and emerge at precisely the time you’ve resolved. Once, with Munindraji’s guidance, I made the resolution to enter and remain in the eighth jhana for three days, eight hours, three minutes, and twenty seconds. That’s just what happened. But jhana practice doesn’t end suffering.
Munindraji also said he trained you and Dipa to access the siddhis just to see if they were real. He did. We experimented with all of them. Once, for instance, I was able to walk into the room of a professor at Magadh University and have a conversation with him while one of his students was watching me meditate in Munindraji’s room. But siddhis aren’t important. Enlightenment brings purity and liberation and understanding. Siddhis often become a hindrance because they tend to inflate ego. I don’t have siddhi powers now. I could practice for them again, but it would take a long time . . . maybe three days, if I really practiced. But it is so much more important to be practicing for liberation.
Outcomes of Practice
What changes did you notice in yourself after experiencing First Path? I had been overweight and had a number of physical ailments: high blood pressure, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, trouble climbing stairs, coldness in my extremities, insomnia. All of these got better. Mentally, I used to worry a lot about the future: how I would live, what would happen to me, how I would take care of my daughter. I felt so much grief over the loss of my husband, and that was a terrible source of suffering. I was burning day and night with it. That burning grief cooled down and left, though I continued to feel sad over losing him. I could accept that where there is birth, there is death. I still think about him. Any question of a permanent self became meaningless. For those who go to the depths of practice, the idea of a permanent “self” disappears.
Sense-desire comes up a lot in people’s practice. Does it come up for you still? It is important to distinguish between sense-pleasure and sense-desire. There is nothing wrong with sense-pleasure. Pleasure and pain are part of our human experience. Sense-desire, on the other hand, is the grasping at pleasure or the avoidance of pain. This is what creates suffering—grasping and avoidance. Sense-desire comes up for everyone. It came up for me, too. When it arose, I knew it—and that’s the way to overcome it. I don’t feel sense-desire anymore. Sense-desire and anger don’t go away after First Path. They are weakened after Second Path and completely go away after Third Path.
Westerners seem to struggle a lot with sense-desire and anger. I was older when I started practice, so naturally my sense-desires weren’t as strong. Sense-desire is also an instinct which remains in you through cycles of rebirth. It is already very weak in those who were born from the Brahma-loka [heaven realms], for instance. . . . You can stay in the world of sense-desires and still be a good Buddhist, though, because you can be out of the world at the same time, in the sense of not being drawn in or attached. All who are householders can proceed in this way. Buddha has said you can even indulge in sense-desire and be a good follower of dharma, and for most people this is part of an average, normal life.
Do you experience anger at all? As soon as it comes, at the very start, I’m aware of it. It doesn’t get any nourishment.
What do you do when you begin to feel irritation or anger? Anger is a fire, but I don’t feel any heat. It comes and dies right out.