Among the first wave of young Americans venturing into Asia in the early 1970s were Jack Engler, now a prominent psychotherapist and supervising psychologist at Harvard University, and Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. Both men were deeply influenced by Indian meditation master Nani Barua (1911-1989), affectionately known as “Dipa Ma,” and her teacher, Anagarika Munindra (1914-2003). Perhaps what most characterized these young Americans and their approach to the dharma was their boundless enthusiasm—and the plucky belief that enlightenment could be attained in this lifetime. While many Asians had come to believe that such high aspirations were best deferred to a future life, Munindraji and Dipa Ma insisted that such goals were not only to be encouraged but that they were also entirely realizable.
Returning from their travels, Engler and Goldstein were both instrumental in establishing the Vipassana tradition in North America. To this day, both remain deeply indebted to the teachings of Munindraji and Dipa Ma.
In the following section, Jack Engler shares for the first time his conversations with Dipa Ma, which formed the foundation of his doctoral work, and in a candid interview, he speaks with Tricycle about his own journey. Joseph Goldstein, in the wake of Munindraji’s recent death, remembers a teacher for whom he was the first Western student, and ponders a world beyond the life of his two most treasured mentors.
Nani Barua (1911–1989) was her given name, but in accordance with Indian custom, she was known and addressed as Dipa Ma—“Dipa’s Mother”—or even more simply as “Ma.” She was in her late 50s when I met her, in l975. She was a venerated teacher by then in the small Buddhist community that had migrated from East Bengal, in India, to Burma during the British Raj and had then resettled in Calcutta after Burmese independence. She taught out of the one room she shared with Dipa, her twenty-six-year-old daughter and only surviving child.
Dipa Ma was without any of the outward trappings or symbols of recognized Buddhist teachers—no ashram or center, no titles or ordinations, and no degrees, monastic vows, or attendants. Just a tiny woman in a tiny room in an impoverished neighborhood of old Calcutta, unknown outside her circle of friends and students, teaching in the traditional Indian way, “at home” all day, every day, for anyone who wanted to come by and talk about dharma. At the same time, she was a great yogi who had not only experienced the depths of liberating insight but had also mastered the deepest levels of samadhi, or states of concentrative meditation (jhanas), and most of the psychic powers as well—rare in contemporary Buddhism, especially in Theravada. She was a gifted teacher who had helped many of her students to realize their essential Buddha nature.
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