Good biographies leave us feeling better informed and closer to the humanity of some historical figure. Mirka Knaster’s Living This Life Fully does both, establishing the beloved, much-cited Bengali vipassana teacher Anagarika Munindra (1915–2003) as a critical figure for world Buddhism in the mid- to late-twentieth century and recording his lasting beneficial imprint on hundreds of students, Western and Eastern, whose tender reminiscences form the backbone of the narrative.
Munindra’s personality combined darting inquisitiveness with humility, affection and dedication to dharma. Above all he was broad-minded, and the current ongoing explosion of Western spiritual, scientific and academic interest in Buddhism owes a huge debt to his openness. He is best known as the mentor of practitioners, writers, researchers, popularizers and meditation teachers who later became eminent, such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, cofounders of the Insight Meditation Society; psychologists Jack Engler and Daniel Goleman; brain researcher Richard Davidson; and the Bengali meditation master Dipa Ma Barua. As the Theravada representative in the Antioch Education Abroad program in Bodhgaya, India, Munindra inspired a generation of college students; some are now professors of Buddhist and Asian studies—fields that didn’t exist in the 1960s when Western backpackers first met him in Bodhgaya.
It may surprise readers that Munindra filled an equally pivotal role in Buddhism as viewed from the Asian side. He was the first Buddhist supervisor of the Mahabodhi Temple, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, in 1,200 years. Returning to India from Burma after a decade of dharma education, he was seen as a prophesied reviver of Buddhism in his (and its) native land. This man never wrote a book and once refused to have a telephone. Self-effacement was part of his spiritual vision, Knaster’s book makes clear.
The biography does possess its flaws. Knaster documents the origin of just about everything in the text, yet long passages, including an account of Munindra-ji’s enlightenment experience, remain impossible to trace. A tad more background would be welcome, including a clear statement on whether the author met him while he was alive. Finally, she omits any truly difficult parts of Munindra’s life, including a murky episode in 1983, known to this reviewer, after which he never returned to the U.S. to teach. Knaster’s project seems infused with vindicating energy, building a case for Munindra’s fallible humanity, hinting at problems. Yet without the concrete examples that make the rest of the book so meaningful, the whole man is not delivered to the reader, and the message tilts toward hagiography. The editorial decision is understandable, surely based on the wish to protect human hearts. Yet Knaster’s trust in “living fully” seems to have flagged at the last minute. Where is the human who never erred? Is forgiveness not a part of love, learning from suffering most of liberation?
In balance the book is delightful, touching, instructive. Knaster, an independent scholar and longtime meditator, does an incredible job of organizing a plethora of material. Just as Munindra’s personality resisted stereotyping, this book is not quite a biography, more a collection of stories, an extended eulogy. Once a reader gets used to paragraphs full of attributions, it becomes a warm print version of the oral recitations that have carried Buddhism across its 2,600-year history. The tales of Munindra here are funny and varied; most stimulate a blast of clarity, just as his teachings did while he was alive. The light of dharma, finally, is what shines from his life.