Dipa Ma died on September 1, 1989. When I heard about her death, my initial response was to cry. The next moment a strong wave of lovingkindness arose in my heart. It flooded my entire being and spread out to all beings. The next wave was of silence and peace. Whenever I would think of her, waves of peace and metta would appear.
Dipa Ma’s seventy-eight-year-old body died, yet there is no need to feel sorrow. I only feel enormous gratitude to her because she has been such a profound role model for me and for myriad others. I am sharing my own and others’ personal stories about Dipa Ma so that people who didn’t know her may also be encouraged by her life. As a woman, mother, layperson and teacher, she transformed the difficulties in her life and became a powerful, spiritually developed human being.
Someone once asked Dipa Ma, “What is it like in your mind?” She closed her eyes for a moment and answered, “In my mind there are three things: concentration, lovingkindness and peace.” “That’s all?” “Yes,” she answered, “that’s all.”
She was a tiny woman—perhaps four feet—who radiated great peace and love. We all felt graced by her presence.
Nani Barua (Dipa Ma) was the oldest daughter in a Buddhist family in Bangladesh. She was married at age twelve to a young man of twenty-five; arranged marriages were, of course, the custom. Within a week after the wedding, her husband left to work with the civil service in Burma. For two troublesome years she stayed with her in-laws and then, at the age of fourteen, Mrs. Barua joined her husband in Rangoon. She later told us that “we fell in love and were very close.” They had an “extremely happy married life.” She felt that her husband was her “first teacher and a very rare human being” and “hadn’t come across anyone like him.”
At age thirty-two, Dipa Ma gave birth to her first child, a daughter who died three months later. When she was thirty-six, her daughter Dipa was born. At thirty-seven, she had a son who died at birth. Soon after, her husband, who had been quite healthy, died without warning. So much loss was overwhelming; Dipa Ma became very sick and bedridden for a long time. A doctor finally told her that she had to get her mind together or she would probably die. Knowing that she was dying but still having her daughter Dipa to take care of, she decided to go to a monastery in northern Burma to practice vipassana meditation. Since the time of her marriage, she had been interested in meditation. Now contact with the heavenly messenger of death motivated her to search for serenity beyond life and death.
On the first day of her practice, Dipa Ma achieved such depth of concentration that a remarkable thing happened. At one point, while she was doing walking meditation, she suddenly realized she couldn’t move. She noticed painful sensations in her leg and that it was quite heavy. When she looked down, she found a dog biting her leg quite hard. She had been so concentrated that she hadn’t even been aware of what was happening! Dipa Ma had to take a boat down the Irrawaddy River go to the hospital to receive inoculations against rabies. Very weak after the injections, she had to return home. Later she continued meditation practice with Mahasi Sayadaw at his monastery in Rangoon. Within one week there, she had experienced some of the deepest stages of insight and awakening within the vipassana practice.
Later, Munindraji became Dipa Ma’s teacher and further trained her in concentration practice. Dipa Ma had extraordinary concentration and developed many psychic powers. She said she was able to go back in time to listen to the Buddha’s sermons. I asked her once how she could do that. She smiled and said, “I went back mind-moment by mind-moment, but you don’t have to do that!” She also described reading minds, telling people’s past lives and visiting other planes of existence, such as the deva worlds. However, Dipa Ma never encouraged her students to seek such powers but rather focused on the freedom that is the true goal of practice.
When Dipa was nine years old, Dipa Ma brought her to Mahasi’s monastery for ten days. The following year, Dipa moved to the Center with her mother and studied meditation while attending school in Rangoon during the day. Dipa Ma was asked to stay and teach at the Center, but she wanted Dipa to remain in contact with her Bengali roots, so the two of them moved to Calcutta where they have lived for the past twenty-eight years.
In the stories that follow, there are several descriptions of Dipa Ma’s household life with Dipa and her grandson, Rishi. Once she was asked if she found having worldly concerns a hindrance for her. “They are not a hindrance because whatever I do, the meditation is there. It never really leaves me. Even when I am talking, I am meditating. When I am eating or thinking about my daughter—this does not hinder the meditation. I know these are the things I have to do. I will not spend time gossiping or visiting people or talking unnecessarily, or do anything I don’t consider necessary in my life.”
Dipa Ma came to teach in America in 1980 and 1984. The rest of her time was spent teaching retreats in various parts of India. However, most of her teaching was centered around her tiny room in Calcutta. Numerous lay disciples went there for meditation instruction, and countless others came daily for blessings, teachings, food and tea. Dipa Ma was a highly esteemed teacher both in Bengali Buddhist circles and for many Westerners.
I first met Dipa Ma in her little apartment on a run-down street in Calcutta. By that time I had been a monk for a while and I was used to the custom of bowing to teachers. You would light a little incense in front of the teacher who’d be sitting up in front of the meditation hall with all the big buddhas. That was fine, I like bowing. But it was a bit awkward at Dipa Ma’s place. She wasn’t a monk, she was a householder. I really didn’t know what to do. I started to bow to her. She picked me up off the floor and gave me this great big bear hug. It was wonderful. None of this bowing stuff. “I’m not this big teacher that we have to make a big deal about.” Just a huge hug. That’s how she greeted me every time I saw her.
That first time, when I was introduced to her, she said, “They tell me that you’re a meditation teacher.” “Oh, oh,” I thought, “I’m really in trouble!” Then we talked for a while about teaching and my own practice. She asked a lot of questions about how I live my life, what my inner life was like, how I worked with things. Finally, in the end of that conversation she gave me a blessing. That was the thing she did most in working with people. She would chant and give blessings, she would sing and give blessings. “May you be blessed, may you be blessed, may you be blessed.” It was wonderful. She actually had an extra-special blessing.
I remember going to see her once after I had been studying and training in India for some period of time. I had been through a lot of difficulty in my life—I forget what about, but something like money or women or ego, the normal stuff. After staying in a wonderful ashram and spending time with some teachers, I went to Calcutta on my way back to teach the next three-month retreat in Barre. I paid my respects to Dipa Ma, we spent some time talking, and when I was about to leave, she gave me her usual big bear hug and then said a blessing.
Now, to receive her blessing, you would down on your knees which made your head about equal to her hands. She would gently stroke your head and your whole body, blow on you and say Buddhist prayers. This time, it was a very, very long blessing. At first it felt just nice, and as she kept going, if felt better and better. By the time she was done—it was probably five minutes—I was grinning; everything was lit up and open. It was extraordinary. She said, “Go and teach a good retreat for all of those people. Go with my blessings.” It was like the grandmother sending you off with her deepest blessings: “May you be blessed.”
I left her place for the Dum Dum Airport. The trip took about two hours in an Indian taxi with the driver leaning on the horn the whole way, dodging between rickshaws, through traffic jams, fumes, pollution, poverty and the incredible heat and humidity of the Calcutta summer. At the airport, getting through Indian customs involved another hour of standing in line, being scrutinized and grilled by officials, getting luggage stamped. The flight took a couple of hours from Calcutta to Bangkok. At the airport there, I again stood in long lines and went through customs. Then I took a taxi for an hour and a half through Bangkok traffic to my hotel. I did not stop grinning the entire way. Through all the taxis, planes, custom lines, traffic jams—I just sat there smiling. It just wouldn’t wear off. “May you be blessed. . .” It was extraordinary.
One of the first stories I ever heard about Dipa Ma was from a man who had spent years practicing in temples, ashrams and monasteries in India in the late sixties and early seventies. He was a very avid meditator. He had shaved his head and wore white all the time. His parents hated it. This man was somewhere in his early thirties at that time and they probably thought he should have been in medical school or law school or some place like that. His mother was particularly unhappy. It was as if he had died, as if she had lost a son. Every time he went to see Dipa Ma, she would ask about his mother. “How is your mother? How is she doing? When you do your sittings, are you doing metta for your mother? Every time you sit, you should put your mother in your heart and send her lovingkindness.” One time when this man was visiting her, Dipa Ma went to her back room and pulled out the roll of lndian banknotes tucked into her mattress. (That’s the way it’s done there.) She took out the biggest bill, a one-hundred rupee note—worth about twelve dollars, which was a lot of money for her—went back out to the front room and put the money in the young man’s hands. “Go buy a present and send it to your mother,” she said. That was the way Dipa Ma taught. A few times when I visited, I shot some footage of her with a video camera. My favorite scene is a long shot, lasting two or three minutes, of Dipa Ma hanging out the laundry and smiling, just enjoying hanging out the laundry. She washed her things by hand, like you do in India, and hung them out to dry. And there she was, beaming about it. I’d like to make a still life of that image and call it something like, “Laundry with Saint.”
We would walk to Dipa Ma’s apartment through the streets of Calcutta, which were a mass of people, buses, taxis, rickshaws, bicycles, oxcarts, small herds of goats, cows, dogs—through an intensity of noise and dust and smells, down a narrow alley and up flights of darkened stairs to a couple of small and very special rooms. Special because of Dipa Ma’s amazing presence, because of the stillness she created in the midst of one of the noisiest, most crowded cities in the world.
Dipa Ma was the most wonderful combination of loving grandma, who would feed us like children, and wise dhamma mother, who would encourage our efforts in practice, and deeply enlightened being who inspired us with her love and simplicity and profound emptiness. One of the great events of each visit would be her blessing before we left. She would stroke our heads and hearts with her hands, repeating the ancient Buddhist blessing Sukhito hotu. Be happy. She meant it! And it felt like she was expressing the great wish of the Buddha—be happy. Be truly happy.
Often, just watching Dipa Ma do the ordinary things of her life was the greatest teaching. One particularly vivid image is of her in the meditation hall in Barre bowing to the Buddha. It was the first time I really understood the meaning of a bow. Respect, devotion, love and deep, deep selflessness. It was the dhamma bowing to the dhamma.
Dipa Ma could also be a demanding teacher, pushing us past self-imposed limits. I was once sitting with her for eight or nine days before one of the three-month courses, and she asked that I sleep only three hours a night, and not lie down during the day. Although at times it was really difficult to do, I had a great spirit of willingness which came as a response to her deep interest and care in my practice. I wanted to do it because she asked me to.
More recently, and just a few months before she died, we were with her in Bodh Gaya, and she suggested I sit for two days—not a two-day retreat, but a two-day nonstop sitting. At first I laughed, it seemed like such an impossibility. She simply said, “Don’t be lazy.” A very little lady, with a heart and mind of great power. She showed us what love and wisdom can mean.
What always surprised me about Dipa Ma was the depth of strength and energy that lay under her fragile exterior. More than anything else in my life, spending time with her taught me what a powerful force metta, lovingkindness, is. Her presence taught me that metta springs from strength and courage and incredible commitment, not just from good wishes. After being with Dipa Ma, I understood how the power of metta could stop a raging elephant in its tracks. She was tough.
I last saw her in Bodh Gaya in February, 1989. I was in poor health at the time; at one point she called me to her to give advice and a blessing. I cherish the memory because so many seemingly contradictory aspects of her nature shone forth. The clear and uncompromising teacher told me to make my peace with my death and the limitations of disease, and then ignore them and get on with my life. The metta-filled, gentle and compassionate grandmother spent many minutes blessing me with touch, voice, blowing on me; I felt her love radiate through me. It was exquisite. Then the strong and practical woman of the world advised me to do exercises. To demonstrate, she leapt up and went through several vigorous exercises, including jogging in place. She quite tired herself out and sat down puffing. This from a tiny woman with a heart condition!
As always, I came away filled with love and appreciation—and also a sort of awe that one person could abide with such a depth of understanding and love, yet still be so down-to-earth, simple and practical.
In 1974 I went again to visit Dipa Ma in Calcutta. She had been one of my teachers for many years. This time, I was on my way to America for what I was convinced would be a short visit before an eventual return to India for the rest of my life. After giving me her blessing, Dipa Ma said, “When you go back to America you’ll be teaching with Joseph.”
I was stunned. I considered myself a student, not in any way capable of being a teacher, and my heart resided firmly in India, with my own teachers. After hearing my protest, she said, “You are going to teach in America. You can be a really great teacher; the only thing that will hold you back will be your belief that you can’t do it.” That has been an unforgettable lesson—the role of a self-imposed sense of limitation, the consequences of holding back, the importance of faith in moving ahead.
At that visit, she’d gone on to say that I should teach the dhamma because I had such a strong understanding of dukkha (suffering). On hearing this, I suddenly saw with a radically different perspective that all the suffering I’d had in my life had really been a gift, allowing me to open to the truth so that I’d have something priceless to share with others.
This was also a lesson I haven’t forgotten. Dipa Ma was and remains one of the most important people in my life.
She named me, “She who pleases everybody.” How I hated that name! On her first visit to America, in 1980, I rushed around busily helping take care of her. She said to me, “You must bring mindfulness to all daily activities, not only to the formal sitting and walking periods.” She always hit the mark with me.
In 1984, she returned to IMS to teach the three-month retreat. Joseph and Sharon were one teaching team; Dipa Ma and I were the other. What a partner to teach with! There was no separation between her meditation practice and her daily life. When I would visit the living room where she was staying, her young grandson Rishi would run around the room full blast, her daughter Dipa would be cooking or watching the television at high volume. And Dipa Ma would do her sitting meditation right there. Whenever anyone sat down in front of her, she would open her eyes and shower the person with blessings. Even in the midst of such active family life, she manifested an exquisite balance of softness, love, and strength of wisdom.
What heartened me most about Dipa Ma was her untiring commitment to having a clear and radiant mind. During that three-month retreat, after doing interviews all morning, I would come up to my room to take a rest. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, I would look out my window and see Dipa Ma doing walking meditation after finishing her interviews. She just never stopped. She was very sickly during that course, and quite old by India’s standards. Even though her mind was so awakened, she was more devoted to her daily practice than anyone I have ever seen. It wasn’t so much what she said that has remained with me, but how completely she lived the teachings. She was totally unpretentious, expressing the qualities of heart that I most respect. Of all the teachers I have had, Dipa Ma inspired me deeply because she provided me with an actual model.
I did almost all of my research on meditators in Dipa Ma’s room in Calcutta. We would go over every day from the Ramakrishna Mission in Gol Park, halfway across the city, and spend the day in her room interviewing or testing. Afterwards, her small room would begin to slowly fill up with people wandering in to see her, usually students of hers, middle-aged and older women like herself for the most part. She said she had quite a few men students as well, and that they would have been good subjects too, but that they were usually working during the day and so I was seeing mostly just the women. I had a feeling that these women students had a special bond with her as woman who was a wife and mother like themselves yet who commanded respect in a society that was even more male dominated than ours. Dipa Ma seemed to share that special bond as well and a deep affection for them. They could feel her appreciation of their personal struggles.
Dipa Ma lived in a tiny room with few furnishings in one of the oldest and poorest sections of the city—up four flights of dark concrete stairs, off a balcony that ran round an inner courtyard. As poor as her surroundings were, her room was immaculate—warm and hospitable and lived in, yet as clear and spotless as her own realization of dharma. I was told that when she first moved in, the complex was a pretty noisy place with a lot of bickering, arguing and yelling among the tenants—amplified by the open courtyard. Everyone knew everyone else’s business because it was being shouted back and forth all the time. Within six months of her moving in, the whole place had quieted down and people were starting to get on with each other for the first time. Her presence there and the way she dealt with people set an example and made it impossible to carry on in the angry, contentious way they had before.
It so happened one day that I was not interviewing or testing. Munindraji was visiting Calcutta and Dipa Ma had invited him over to meet with some of her students. I had picked him up at the Mahabodhi Temple and brought him over to Ma’s. When we arrived, she knelt down and pranam’d him, kissing his feet as she usually did. She always venerated Munindraji as her teacher, even though I think they both knew and accepted the fact the she had attained more deeply. At an earlier stage of her training, he had taught her all the jhanas and psychic powers and she had attained an unusual degree of mastery in them. Munindra said he had not had time to practice these himself once he had started teaching in Burma, but he had wanted to know if what the texts said about them was really true. So he taught Ma and she demonstrated them. He said it was just like the texts said!
On this particular day we were all sitting on the floor of Ma’s room. Dipa was also there. It was very crowded, and very hot. Munindraji was sitting on a chair in the corner talking to Ma’s students about dharma and about their practice. He and I were the only men in the room. While he talked, Ma was sitting on her wooden bed, leaning back against the wall, with her eyes closed. It looked like she dozed off. She hadn’t been well and no one took any notice. The conversation was about rebirth. Somehow it got on to the rebirths of the Buddha. Obviously not thinking much about it since it was part of the tradition, Munindra happened to mention that only men could take birth as buddhas. Suddenly, Ma bolted upright, eyes wide open, and said in a tone of spontaneous and utter conviction, “I can do anything a man can do!” Everyone’s reaction was immediate—we all laughed, Munindraji included. I think we all knew it was absolutely true!