An interview with Jack Engler
“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” Jack Engler wrote twenty years ago in Transformations of Consciousness, and recently revisited in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. A supervising psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, where he teaches psychotherapy, Engler has a private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a former president of the board of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and a founding member and teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
While at university, Engler became frustrated by the academic study of philosophy and theology in the absence of experiential knowledge. He began spiritual practice as a Trappist monk under the guidance of Catholic writer and Buddhism enthusiast Thomas Merton. Engler met Vipassana teachers Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma while researching his doctoral thesis in India for the University of Chicago; both Munindra and Dipa Ma became his mentors. In November of 2003, Engler shared with Tricycle editor James Shaheen what these remarkable teachers taught him about human potential, the power of presence, and the possibility of enlightenment in this lifetime.
So many paranormal powers, or siddhis, have been attributed to Dipa Ma—telepathy, being in two places at once, hearing conversations far away, and the like. And yet many of us in the West are quite skeptical of these claims. What can you say to those who have difficulty taking these in? You find these powers in all traditional cultures, in all the yogic and shamanic traditions, including native American cultures, although different traditions value and use them differently. The Buddhist teaching is simply that they have nothing to do with enlightenment or freedom from suffering. They can be cultivated, and sometimes occur spontaneously as a by-product of practice, but they’re incidental to the main goal of liberation.
Yet the stories persist. Because they’re true. And because they reveal the vast potential of the mind, and how little appreciation we have for that potential. We see within the narrow band of visible light, while at the same time there are so many other wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that we don’t see. People like Dipa Ma lived in the whole spectrum. A rich realm of human possibility was open to her that most of us are ordinarily unaware of and find hard to fathom.
With regard to understanding siddhi powers, would empirical proof be helpful? Research will undoubtedly help further our understanding of human potential, but I’m less confident it will provide empirical proof. “Proof” depends on what you accept as evidence. Dipa Ma says she once walked into someone’s room and had a conversation with him while, at the same time, miles away, a colleague witnessed her meditate in the ashram. If that doesn’t fit your worldview, you can simply hold it as an anomalous experience—it’s just there, you don’t know what to make of it, so you don’t think about it. But for Munindraji and Dipa Ma, the siddhis were part of that whole spectrum of possibilities the mind is capable of. They are incidental to the main goal of practice, and yet an extraordinary testament to the mind’s power and to the strength and power of one individual’s resolve and dedication.
Should a student who has a difficult time with the idea of these powers be discouraged? No. Munindra’s attitude was “Look, all this is true, but it doesn’t matter. Just do your practice.”
It seems it would be easy to be seduced by the siddhis, and to let them become a diversion from the goal of enlightenment. That’s why Buddhism has always been wary of them. Munindra once said he would teach me the siddhis, but only after he was confident I was enlightened enough not to misuse them. If he were alive, he’d still be waiting! It’s almost impossible to exercise this kind of power without ego.
In any event, Ma’s psychic prowess has become legendary. You know, inevitably there’s probably some hagiography involved. There’s always a tendency to idealize our teachers. But even when you strip the hagiography away, what’s left is pretty special. Dipa Ma had all the powers—to an extraordinary degree—but she didn’t talk about them, and she didn’t teach them. There’s something else about Dipa Ma that needs to be mentioned, which is much more important, and that is her sila—the ethical quality of her actions and behavior. I spent nearly every day with her over a spring and summer, and her behavior never seemed less than impeccable. It was so clear that it was just a spontaneous expression of who she was and what was alive in her. This didn’t mean she hesitated to act forcefully or speak out passionately if she felt something was wrong. But she did it without judgment or blame. She honored Munindra as her teacher, but didn’t hesitate to take him to task one day for keeping a group of her students waiting an hour and a half in the Calcutta heat and humidity for a talk he’d promised to give them.