An interview with Jack Engler
Many teachers who were in that first generation of Western students feel that they do not embody the teachings to the same extent their Asian masters did. Can you say something about that? It’s one thing to teach the practice. It’s another thing to embody it deeply in our own lives. Our Asian teachers were the heirs of twenty-five hundred years of lived tradition and practice. We didn’t grow up with the dharma in our bones like they did. We bring a lot of personal history, self-doubt, self-judgment, and ambivalence to practice. We have to work through a lot on the way, unlearn a lot. Our Asian teachers encountered the dharma with a depth and a breadth that’s going to take us more than this first generation to catch up to.
Where does that leave us? I was talking with Joseph [Goldstein] the other day about Munindraji and about the real sense of loss we feel, for him as a person and as a teacher, and perhaps more importantly, as an inspiration for Western dharma. He got us started. He was the root teacher for a number of us, and it feels like a core piece in the mandala is missing now. We’re on our own. How are we going to manifest the dharma? It won’t be the same way he did, or Dipa Ma did. Munindra actually welcomed that difference. He had a kind of divine playfulness that refused to become codified or standardized. He and Dipa Ma never believed in a one-size-fits-all practice. They rarely taught retreats. They taught each student in an individualized way. They had a great trust in us, as well as in the dharma. They didn’t worry about it becoming corrupted or dumbed down.
As Buddhism becomes more and more integrated into Western culture and Western idioms, we’re moving away from the classical forms of the practice and its traditional goals, anyway. That’s both scary and exciting, a challenge and an opportunity.
Can you give me example of what you mean? Western teachers don’t talk as much about enlightenment now as they did thirty years ago when they first started teaching, nor do they emphasize it. True, there are risks in encouraging students to practice for enlightenment. Enlightenment can be objectified as a goal to be striven for and obtained. It can be embraced unconsciously as a narcissistic ideal. But at the same time, there’s a risk that we will lose the depth and potential transformative power of practice if we aspire to anything less than the end of suffering for ourselves and all beings. We’d be repeating what has happened again and again in Buddhist cultures: enlightenment gets deferred to a future birth because people stop believing they are capable of it now—“in this very life,” as Sayadaw U Pandita says.
If you ask most Buddhists in Southeast Asia, including monks, if they are practicing for enlightenment, most would look at you oddly. Or they’d say, “No, it’s not possible for me, at least not in this lifetime.” They don’t embrace enlightenment as a realistic aspiration for themselves. It’s Westerners who have gone to Asia and have taken up the aspiration for enlightenment in this lifetime and brought it back.
The aspiration to get enlightened right here and now? Yes, to realize freedom from suffering here and now. Perhaps it’s our innocence or naivete, or just plain chutzpah, but there’s something wonderful and inspiring about believing that it’s possible, and practicing for it.
Did Munindraji and Dipa Ma encourage that? Absolutely. Dipa Ma had this unshakable and contagious conviction that of course enlightenment was possible! It never crossed her mind for a minute that it wasn’t. She conveyed that in everything she said or did. It was one of her gifts as a teacher, I think, to make you say, “Well, of course it’s possible!” When she thought a student’s practice was “ripe,” she would tell them to settle their affairs at home and come and stay in a room next to hers and devote themselves exclusively to practice. “Give me a week, give me two weeks,” she would say.
It was typically during this one short period of intensive practice that they experienced awakening. That’s another reason for remembering people like Dipa Ma. She embodied an incredibly deep level of realization in a very traditional way, and was able to convey it just through her presence—the promise that Buddhism holds out for human life: an end to suffering, nirvana. It’s so easy for that to get lost in readjusting our sights on more clearly realizable aspirations.
You’ve said you were moved to tears when you first found yourself in Dipa Ma’s presence. Why? I had just been introduced to Vipassana through four months of intensive practice at some of the first retreats held in the States, and I left for India immediately afterward. When I landed in Calcutta, I set out to find Dipa Ma. I finally found her, and when I tried to introduce and explain myself, I suppose feeling I had to justify my being there and hoping to make an impression, and wanting her to see me as someone who was on the path, I broke down in her presence. I virtually came unraveled, thread by thread. I began sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with anxiety and humiliation, face to face with all the artificial constructions of who I thought I was and wanted to be in front of her. It was impossible to sustain that kind of pretense in her presence. She just listened with complete acceptance and nonjudgment. Like any genuine teacher, her presence was a mirror in which I could not avoid seeing myself—all of my ideas about myself just collapsed. I felt completely undone. But Dipa Ma never changed. She was the same at the end of the interview as she was at the beginning—attentive, gentle, kind, just listening without judgment. When I couldn’t go on any longer, she put her hands on my head and then held my face in her hands and gave me her blessing.
If you try to position yourself in relation to someone like Dipa Ma by creating an image of yourself, you find you can’t do it. Your idea of self has to drop away because it’s not being reinforced; nothing’s coming back from the other side. If you’re like I was, this “self” collapses. On the other hand, if you’re not trying to project an image, then a great calm settles in because it’s completely okay just to be who you are. Because everything is just as it is.