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.
Do you still find yourself acting against the precepts sometimes? After First Path, I found I couldn’t intentionally do something which grossly violated the Five Precepts [the precepts lay practitioners agree to follow: to refrain from lying, stealing, improper sexual conduct, killing, and taking intoxicants]. If I did, it was usually a reflex action out of habit. I knew it right away, and I acknowledged it and asked forgiveness. After Second Path, right action became second nature. It seems natural to me now.
Have your relationships changed—the way you relate to others and interact with them? Yes. Before, I used to discriminate: “This is my friend”; “These are my relatives.” And there was attachment. Now I feel loving thoughts and metta [lovingkindness] toward everyone. I don’t discriminate. I don’t say, “This is my daughter—I have to give her more attention.” My love feels the same toward everyone.
Before Dipa was born, I wanted to adopt a son. My husband said, “There are lots of boys everywhere. Why don’t you give your love to them as your son?” I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was a great teaching.
Do you enjoy others’ company now, or do you prefer to be alone? I love to be around people who talk about dharma or the mind, or about themselves. I like to hear about these kinds of things, and I like to help if I think I can. But ordinary or useless talk doesn’t interest me, nor does going out to visit someone just to visit. In that case, I would rather be by myself.
Are you ever lonely? I enjoy being alone. I never feel lonely. I used to spend a lot of time going here and there, meeting this person and that person. Now I’m not interested in that. Whenever I’m alone, my mind automatically turns inward, observing the way body and mind are working. I do what is necessary day to day, but with detachment. If my body needs food, for instance, I eat. Whenever I meet a friend or relative, I don’t get into much conversation about what is going on at home or about daily affairs. I ask whether they are practicing meditation, and if not, why not, and I encourage them to devote themselves to it and not waste time.
Is still living a lay life and having all the day-to-day household and family concerns a hindrance to your practice? No. Whatever I am doing, mindfulness is present. In fact, meditation made me much more certain of my responsibilities toward my family. I became more confident as a mother, for instance, more certain of my responsibilities toward Dipa. I was asked to stay in Burma and become a sayadaw [J.E.: an honorific used for an accomplished teacher; there were no female sayadaws at that time to my knowledge], but I didn’t want Dipa to lose touch with her Bengali roots and people. So I moved us back to Calcutta from Rangoon.
How do you experience this life now? Is it something to be enjoyed, or something to detach from and leave behind? There is nothing ultimately desirable in this world, nothing to cling to. But still, we can make good use of everything in it. So samsara [the phenomenal world of suffering] is not to be rejected. It can be used for personal betterment and to help others.
Has your basic outlook on life changed as a result of your practice? It’s changed greatly. Before, I was too attached to everything. I wanted so much. Now it feels like I am floating free, not attached. I am here, but I don’t want anything for myself any more. I’m living, that’s all. That’s enough.
Are you afraid of death? No. I understand the living death. I have already seen death and dying in living, and I accept them as part of life.
What kinds of things make you happy now? What makes me happy has changed. Before, I used to take a lot of pleasure in nice clothes, nice friends, nice food. Now if I’m allowed to hear dharma, practice meditation, and work in my own way, I’m happy.
Do you think it is possible for a human being to be completely happy in this life? As long as one is not yet arahanta [fully enlightened], has not yet extinguished all the “fetters” [specific types of mental activity that bind one to the wheel of existence], one is not fully happy. My journey is not over. There is still work to be done.
What kind of work? Mind should be entirely free from greed, hatred, and delusion. I still experience some.t
Many thanks to Irene Shemaria for her help in preparing this material. — J.E.
Siddhi, the Pali word loosely translated as “power,” has so many meanings that no one English equivalent can do them all justice. Other definitions that have been suggested include “success,” “accomplishment,” and “prowess.” In the context of “power,” however, the word specifically means the supranormal powers that can be developed through concentration, such as levitation, walking on water, clairaudience, clairvoyance, remembrance of past lives, the ability to read the minds of others, and the cessation of mental effluents. In the Buddhist analysis, only the last of these powers is transcendent; it is the only one absolutely necessary on the path to awakening. The others are optional and not always desirable, for an unawakened person might find that the attainment of any one of them can cause greed, aversion, or delusion to arise in the mind. The texts record cases where even arahants, fully enlightened beings, not fully sensitive to the effect that their actions might have on others, display their powers in inappropriate contexts. This was why the Buddha forbade his monastic disciples to display their powers before the laity. None of the displayable powers, he said, is any match for the wonder of a teaching that gives the promised results when put into practice.
— Access to Insight (www.accesstoinsight.org)
Jack Engler is supervising psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a founding member and teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
Image: (Left to Right) Dipa Ma teaching from her bed, Calcutta, 1973; Dipa Ma with her husband, Rajani Ranjan Barua, and her younger brother, Bijoy Barua, in Burma, approximately 1937; Dipa Ma with Munindra, Calcutta, late 1970s
© Roy Bonney; Courtesy of Amy Schmidt