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Dipa Ma (March 25, 1911 - September 1989) was a Bangladeshi meditation teacher of Theravada Buddhism, a student of Anagarika Munindra. She also taught in the United States, influencing the so-called Vipassana movement.
In Nani's childhood, she showed an exceptional interest in Buddhist rituals and preferred to study rather than play. She very much wanted to attend school, unlike many other local girls, but at the age of twelve she was married and later went to live with her husband who was an engineer, in Rangoon. But he soon left to work in Burma for two years, leaving her with her in-laws.
She moved to join her husband to Burma when she was 16. When Nani was 18, her mother unexpectedly died, leaving behind a baby boy named Bijoy which Nani and her new husband took to raise in Burma, as they had not yet had a child.
She later openly spoke of her unhappiness in her marriage in the early years, however, she said she eventually came to love her husband deeply, and they lived in Burma together.
At the age of 35 (very rare for the times) Nani did conceive and give birth to her first child, a baby girl, who fell ill and died at three months of age. Four years later, Nani gave birth to a daughter Dipa, at the age of 39, whereupon she began to be called Dipa Ma "Mother of Dipa" as her daughter's survival was a momentous event. This was followed by yet another loss of a child (her first son) at birth, the sudden death of her husband, and subsequent extreme grief and physical weakness before training as a Vipassana meditator.
Beginning Vipassana training
After her husband died in 1957, and her only surviving child, daughter Dipa, was seven years old, Nani "Dipa Ma", was drowning in sorrow and at the lowest point in her life. One day a doctor said to her: :"You know, you're actually going to die of a broken heart unless you do something about the state of your mind."
Because she was living in Burma, a Buddhist country, he suggested that she learn how to meditate. It was then she had a dream in which the Buddha appeared to her as a luminous presence and softly chanted a verse from the Dhammapada:
Clinging to what is dear brings sorrow, clinging to what is dear brings fear. To one who is entirely free from endearment, there is no sorrow or fear.
In Dipa Ma's own words:
You have seen me. I was disheartened and broken down due to the loss of my children and husband, and due to disease. I suffered so much. I could not walk properly. But now, how are you finding me? All my disease is gone. I am refreshed, and there is nothing in my mind. There is no sorrow, no grief. I am quite happy. If you come to meditate, you will also be happy. There is no magic to Vipassana, only follow the instructions.
In the words of Dipa Ma's daughter, Dipa Barua:
My mother, Dipa Ma, always advised me that in this world nobody is perfectly good and nobody is perfectly bad - there is a mixture.
Dipa Ma understood the Buddha's advice as a call to master Vipassana meditation. She attended her first meditation retreat at the Kamayut Meditation Center in Rangoon, expecting to simply die there due to her weak health. And she almost did die, as while walking in deep meditation, she was bit by a rabid dog, even though she felt no pain, she had to leave the retreat early and receive medical treatment. She didn't give up her meditation practice however, and soon after embarked on her second retreat in a different frame of mind, at the Thathana Yeiktha center, where the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw (the most renowned monk, scholar, and meditation master in Burma at the time) was teacher-in-residence. There she experienced irrevocable transformation. At age 53, after six days of serious practice, Dipa Ma reached the first stage of enlightenment.
Dipa Ma and her daughter were soon joined by her sister, Hema, and her children coming to live and meditate. The two sisters would have up to six children with them at a time. They found a balance with family life always adhering to the strict retreat discipline, taking their children with them to the center and sharing childcare as the only women at the monastery, housed by the monks on the far outskirts of the facility.
In 1963, due to her impeccable morality and her powers of concentration, she was chosen to study the siddhis or spiritual powers with her teacher, also a family friend, the Indian master Anagarika Munindra, a senior student of Mahasi Sayadaw. These practices included dematerialization, body-doubling, cooking food without fire, mind-reading, visitation of the various realms of heaven and hell, time travel, and knowledge of past lives. Upon mastery she dropped them, as instructed in the eastern tradition.
Teaching students where they are
In 1967, she moved to Calcutta where she taught meditation to a wide range of students. Her first formal student was her neighbor, Malati Barua, a widow trying to raise six young children alone. Malati presented an interesting challenge: she was eager to meditate but unable to leave her house. Dipa Ma, believing that enlightenment was possible in any environment, devised practices that her new student, a breastfeeding mother, could carry out at home. In one such practice, she taught Malati to steadfastly notice the sensations of the suckling infant at her breast, with complete presence of mind, for the duration of each nursing period. This amounted to hours each day and, as Dipa Ma had hoped, Malati attained the first stage of enlightenment without ever leaving her house. When someone asked Dipa Ma if she found her worldly concerns as a single mother and dutiful grandmother a hindrance, she said:
My worldly concerns are not a hindrance, because whatever I do, the meditation is there. It never really leaves me. Even when I'm talking, I'm meditating. When I'm eating or thinking about my daughter, that doesn't hinder the meditation.
Addressing her female students
Dipa Ma was also not afraid to challenge the traditional Theravada doctrine that claims only men can be Buddhas, which sometimes surprised her students:
Women can go more quickly and deeper in the practice of Vipassana than men because your minds are more supple. Women's tendency to be more emotional is not a hindrance to practice.
Softness of mind, Dipa Ma explained, is what brings more emotion, more movement. This is something to be witnessed, not identified with.
Coming to the West
Thus Dipa Ma began her career of leading householders to wisdom in the midst of their busy lives. In the 1970s, she was a teacher of Sylvia Boorstein, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Michelle Levey, and Sharon Salzberg, who later became prominent teachers in America. In the early 1980s Dipa Ma taught at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Leaving this life
She died in 1989 in India, while meditating before a statue of the Buddha. She is survived by her daughter Dipa, an employee of the Indian government, and her grandson, Rishi.
Ten lessons to live by
- Choose one meditation practice and stick with it. If you want to progress in meditation stay with one technique.
- Meditate every day. Practice now. Don't think you will do more later.
- Any situation is workable. Each of us has enormous power. It can be used to help ourselves and help others.
- Practice patience. Patience is one of the most important virtues for developing mindfulness and concentration.
- Free your mind. Your mind is all stories.
- Cool the fire of emotions. Anger is a fire.
- Have fun along the way. I am quite happy. If you come to meditate you will also be happy.
- Simplify. Live simply. A very simple life is good for every thing. Too much luxury is a hindrance to practice.
- Cultivate the spirit of blessing. If you bless those around you this will inspire you to be attentive in every moment.
- It's a circular journey. Meditation integrates the whole person:
- Schmidt, Amy. Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master, pp. 34-35
- Living this Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Anagarika Munindra, p. 70
- Findley, p. 210.
- Findly, Ellison Banks (2000), Women's Buddhism, Buddhism's Women: Tradition, Revision, Renewal, Wisdom Publications
- Knaster, Mirka Ph.D., "Living this Life Fully: The Stories and Teachings of Munindra". (2010) Shambhala Publications, Boston. ISBN 978-1-59030-674-1
- Amy Schmidt, Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master. ISBN 0-9742405-5-9 (USA); ISBN 1-899579-73-7 (Europe)
- Mother of Light: The Inspiring Story of Dipa Ma by Amy Schmidt and Sara Jenkins
- Video of Dipa Ma in San Francisco on YouTube
- Dipa Ma's Dharma Talks at Insight Meditation Society Retreat Center, 1984
- Awakening Confidence in Our Capacity for Loving Kindness: The Blessing of Dipa Ma, Sharon Salzberg, Shambhala Sun, March 2000