“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” Jack Engler wrote twenty years ago in Transformations of Consciousness, and recently revisited in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. A supervising psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, where he teaches psychotherapy, Engler has a private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a former president of the board of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and a founding member and teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

While at university, Engler became frustrated by the academic study of philosophy and theology in the absence of experiential knowledge. He began spiritual practice as a Trappist monk under the guidance of Catholic writer and Buddhism enthusiast Thomas Merton. Engler met Vipassana teachers Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma while researching his doctoral thesis in India for the University of Chicago; both Munindra and Dipa Ma became his mentors. In November of 2003, Engler shared with Tricycle editor James Shaheen what these remarkable teachers taught him about human potential, the power of presence, and the possibility of enlightenment in this lifetime.

So many paranormal powers, or siddhis, have been attributed to Dipa Ma—telepathy, being in two places at once, hearing conversations far away, and the like. And yet many of us in the West are quite skeptical of these claims. What can you say to those who have difficulty taking these in? You find these powers in all traditional cultures, in all the yogic and shamanic traditions, including native American cultures, although different traditions value and use them differently. The Buddhist teaching is simply that they have nothing to do with enlightenment or freedom from suffering. They can be cultivated, and sometimes occur spontaneously as a by-product of practice, but they’re incidental to the main goal of liberation.

Yet the stories persist. Because they’re true. And because they reveal the vast potential of the mind, and how little appreciation we have for that potential. We see within the narrow band of visible light, while at the same time there are so many other wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that we don’t see. People like Dipa Ma lived in the whole spectrum. A rich realm of human possibility was open to her that most of us are ordinarily unaware of and find hard to fathom.

With regard to understanding siddhi powers, would empirical proof be helpful?Research will undoubtedly help further our understanding of human potential, but I’m less confident it will provide empirical proof. “Proof” depends on what you accept as evidence. Dipa Ma says she once walked into someone’s room and had a conversation with him while, at the same time, miles away, a colleague witnessed her meditate in the ashram. If that doesn’t fit your worldview, you can simply hold it as an anomalous experience—it’s just there, you don’t know what to make of it, so you don’t think about it. But for Munindraji and Dipa Ma, the siddhis were part of that whole spectrum of possibilities the mind is capable of. They are incidental to the main goal of practice, and yet an extraordinary testament to the mind’s power and to the strength and power of one individual’s resolve and dedication.

Should a student who has a difficult time with the idea of these powers be discouraged? No. Munindra’s attitude was “Look, all this is true, but it doesn’t matter. Just do your practice.”

It seems it would be easy to be seduced by the siddhis, and to let them become a diversion from the goal of enlightenment. That’s why Buddhism has always been wary of them. Munindra once said he would teach me the siddhis, but only after he was confident I was enlightened enough not to misuse them. If he were alive, he’d still be waiting! It’s almost impossible to exercise this kind of power without ego.

In any event, Ma’s psychic prowess has become legendary. You know, inevitably there’s probably some hagiography involved. There’s always a tendency to idealize our teachers. But even when you strip the hagiography away, what’s left is pretty special. Dipa Ma had all the powers—to an extraordinary degree—but she didn’t talk about them, and she didn’t teach them. There’s something else about Dipa Ma that needs to be mentioned, which is much more important, and that is her sila—the ethical quality of her actions and behavior. I spent nearly every day with her over a spring and summer, and her behavior never seemed less than impeccable. It was so clear that it was just a spontaneous expression of who she was and what was alive in her. This didn’t mean she hesitated to act forcefully or speak out passionately if she felt something was wrong. But she did it without judgment or blame. She honored Munindra as her teacher, but didn’t hesitate to take him to task one day for keeping a group of her students waiting an hour and a half in the Calcutta heat and humidity for a talk he’d promised to give them.

Rick Colson
Rick Colson

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.

Is that what took you to India in the first place? I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on Buddhism, particularly on practice. I wanted to study the changes people actually experience in their lives as a result of practice. In Theravada Buddhism, there are four “paths,” or stages of enlightenment. So I thought, “I’ll go and work with people who have experienced at least First Path.” It seemed simple. I had no idea how ambitious a project it was at the time, or how strange and presumptuous it would look to traditional Buddhists!

I guess it’s a good thing that you didn’t know what you were taking on. Yes, in a way it was my own naivete that enabled me to do it.

For a long time I was afraid to approach Munindra about the research, but I had to come back with some data! So one day I reminded him that he had said he would help me with my research. Of course he had no idea I would ask his help in identifying individuals who had experienced at least First Path. He was a bit taken aback. I didn’t know at the time that a Vinaya [monastic code] statute prohibits monks—and, by custom, laypeople—from talking about “attainments” in practice. But students were of course permitted to talk to their teachers, and could talk to others with their teachers’ permission, which is how they were able to talk with me. Nevertheless, Munindra took a lot of persuading. I think in the end he finally just trusted me because I had lived with him for a year by then and he was convinced of my sincerity and devotion to practice. Finally he said, “Well, if you really want to do this, then we’ll have to go to Calcutta and talk with Dipa Ma and see if she’ll help. She has a lot of students who have experienced path.” So he took me to Calcutta to see Dipa Ma, who understood the rationale for my research even less than Munindra did! Again, I think the only reason she agreed was because Munindra was her teacher and she trusted his support for the project. I was very fortunate.

Can you say something about the “paths” you’re referring to? The way Vipassana practice seems to unfold, there are four separate enlightenment experiences, referred to as “path moments,” when one “enters the path.” In other words, awakening or liberation doesn’t happen all at once. At each successive experience of awakening, specific types of mental activity that cause suffering to self and others are said to be weakened or permanently extinguished from the mind—a pretty radical claim. These mental activities are calledsamyojanas, or “fetters,” because they bind us to the wheel of existence. Three are extinguished in the experience of First Path: the false view of self as separate and having independent existence; any doubt about the efficacy of practice to liberate; and the false belief that anything—rites and rituals, even moral action—can lead us to awakening, apart from confronting the ways we actually create suffering.

At Second Path, two additional fetters are described as “weakened”—sense-desire and ill will. These are then extinguished at Third Path. The remaining fetters are said to be extinguished at the moment of Fourth Path. These include subtle attachments to spiritual states of consciousness; “restlessness,” meaning any remaining tendency to dwell on the past or the future, or to be anywhere else than always and completely in the present moment; “ignorance,” or resistance to the truths of anicca [impermanence], dukkha [suffering], andanatta [no-self], which are now completely realized; and the hallmark fetter of Fourth Path, which is “conceit,” the last residual tendency to compare self with others.

These changes aren’t as linear as this makes them seem, though. As in psychotherapy, these mental factors wax and wane, are strengthened and weakened, resisted and defended against, modified and recast many, many times in the course of practice. It is only in the four “path moments” that they lose their hold on us once and for all.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the sequence of the paths? Yes. If you look at the way they cluster, First Path has to do with modifying core beliefs and assumptions, especially the false view of self. Second and Third Path have to do with altering the instinctual-drive bases of behavior—roughly equivalent to aggression and libido in psychoanalytic theory. Fourth Path has to do with extinguishing narcissistic attachments. This is pretty much the same sequence of change that occurs in psychotherapy: Cognitive changes come first because cognitions are more accessible and easier to modify. Affective-motivational change is more difficult because altering basic motivational patterns and satisfactions reaches deeper into the psyche. Hardest of all to modify are root narcissistic investments in the self. So change in practice parallels the sequence of change we experience in other transformational processes like psychotherapy. In my mind, this makes the claims for practice more credible. Practice is of a piece with the rest of our experience.

Many of us Westerners can’t imagine eliminating these fetters, which appear to be the very energies that keep us alive. Can you say something about that? The energies that keep us alive are joy, generosity, compassion, curiosity, truthfulness, serenity, equanimity, wakefulness, one-pointedness, and impeccability—the qualities of mind that Buddhist teaching sometimes calls paramitas, or perfections, or sometimes bojjhangas, the factors of enlightenment. They are qualities of awakened mind as well as qualities that can be cultivated to aid awakening.

You’ve said that talking about teachers like Munindra and Dipa Ma is especially pertinent now because they are no longer with us, and so it’s a good time to reflect. But if their Western heirs are skeptical of their own embodiment of the dharma – at least by comparison with their teachers – does that make it all downhill from here? Downhill, uphill, it’s just another hill! One that Buddha-dharma has climbed each time it’s migrated to another country and culture. Great teachers carried the teaching from one culture to another, but each time a whole new generation of teachers had to emerge who were native. It’s happened before, it’s happening again. It’s one way dharma stays fresh and in the moment. We have our own opportunity—and our own need—to realize the dharma in our way.

One of the biggest differences between Buddhism’s host cultures and our own is that we place such a fierce emphasis on individual achievement. In some ways this helps, in other ways it hurts. It can help in fostering self-reliance and “being a light unto yourself.” At the same time, that spirit can make it difficult to foster community and interdependence—Sangha, the Third Refuge, which is just as important at the first two. It’s been easier to import the Buddha and the Dharma—both travel well and fit into an ethos of self-reliance. But Sangha doesn’t. It can’t be imported. It has to be built, and built in our own way. Without it, it’s very hard to find the support we need for practice. That’s one of our weak spots. We’re only just beginning to establish sanghas in the West. In the Asian cultures, at least until recently, so much is taken for granted and understood, whereas in the West we have to create a context for practice almost from scratch. We have plenty of work to do if we’re going to make it happen. What Dipa Ma manifested in her person and her life is testimony to what can happen when you do this work. May remembering her inspire us to do it.

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