“Dipa Ma exhibited no pretense, no fabrication. She was quite simple and direct, and there never was a sense that she was assuming the persona of a great spiritual being. Her lovingkindness poured out of that very simplicity and graciousness.”
In the transition of the Buddhist teachings from Asia to the West, there is an understanding that doesn’t come easily into our culture—the importance of confidence in oneself.
Traditional Asian teachings emphasize “Right Effort,” one of the elements of the Eightfold Path as reflected in the very last thing the Buddha said to his disciples: “Strive on with diligence.” Meant to be empowering and personally liberating, that message is somehow not understood in the same way in the West. Effort seems burdensome, or even terrifying. We might disdain or dismiss the whole idea that the path demands effort. At the heart of many of these reactions is, I believe, a feeling of helplessness. We might subtly think, “I can’t do it. I don’t have what it takes to ‘strive with diligence’ or to bring about a change in my actions.” The dharma has worked for twenty-five hundred years, but we assume, “I am the one who will defeat the entire methodology preserved for all of these centuries!”
Because we tend to think in this way, it is so important to understand what having confidence in ourselves means. For me the person who exemplified the power of transforming self-deprecation into self-confidence—perhaps more than anyone else I have studied with—was my teacher Dipa Ma. Her teaching of Right Effort was coupled with her ability to mirror to each of her students a powerful sense of his or her own ability.
Dipa Ma was born in Bengal, and, as was customary in the India of her time, her family arranged a marriage for her when she was twelve years old. At fourteen she left her home to join her husband, who was working in the civil service in Burma. She was lonely and homesick, but her husband was gentle, and they actually fell in love and grew quite close. However, when it appeared over time that she was unable to bear a child, their happiness was tested. Her husband’s family even urged him to put her aside and take another wife, but he refused. Year after year her inability to have children continued to be a source of great shame and sorrow to her. After twenty years a child was finally born, a daughter who died at the age of three months.
Some years later another daughter, Dipa, was born and lived. So significant was this occurrence that Dipa Ma acquired the name by which we know her: Dipa Ma—Dipa’s mother. The following year Dipa Ma became pregnant again, only to bear a son who died at birth. As she mourned the death of this baby, Dipa Ma’s health began to deteriorate severely. Just at the point when she was beginning to overcome her great sorrow and make some peace with all of the losses she had sustained, it was discovered that, at forty-one years of age, she was suffering from a severe heart condition. Her doctors feared that she might die at any moment.
Struggling with her own frailty and the possibility of her imminent death, Dipa Ma had to face yet another trial. Her husband, who had been in fine health, came home one day from the office feeling ill. Later that same day, he died. Dipa Ma was devastated. She couldn’t sleep, yet on the other hand she couldn’t get out of bed because she was so distraught. But she had Dipa, who was only five years old, to raise.
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. Dipa Ma very carefully considered his advice. She said she asked herself, “What can I take with me when I die?” And she considered the “treasures” of her life: “I looked at my dowry, my silk saris and gold jewelry, and I knew I couldn’t take them with me. I looked at my daughter and knew I couldn’t take her. So what could I take?” Dipa Ma’s answer was: “Let me go to the meditation center. Maybe I can find something there I can take with me when I die.”
Clearly everybody suffers to some degree or another in life, but it is a great mystery why some people emerge from their suffering with greater faith and determination to understand, to love, to care, to go deeper, while others do not. The Buddha said that the “proximate cause,” the condition that most readily gives rise to faith, is suffering. Dipa Ma endured tremendous suffering and loss and pain, and she transformed it into motivation to find a deeper truth. Somehow, despite all she had undergone, she seemed to have a belief in her own capacity to awaken, to make something out of all her pain and suffering. She was empowered by her suffering rather than defeated.
Dipa Ma went to a monastery, so weak from her physical and emotional suffering that she actually had to crawl up the temple stairs in order to get to the meditation hall. Her motivation was so strong that nothing was going to stop her. I often think about the intensity of Dipa Ma’s motivation to practice. I find it deeply inspiring to imagine her—a tiny, exhausted, worn-out, grief-stricken woman—crawling up the temple stairs to learn how to meditate, to find something that wouldn’t die. The strength of our motivation is the foundation of our practice. When we nurture our motivation to be free, we simultaneously nurture the confidence that our efforts can, in fact, lead to freedom.
When Dipa Ma first started meditating, Right Effort meant simply not giving up. As she tells the story: “When I started doing the meditation, I was crying all the time because I wanted to follow the instructions with full regard, but I couldn’t do so because I only fell asleep. Even standing and walking, I fell asleep all the time. I just needed to sleep. So I cried and cried, because for five years I was trying to sleep and couldn’t—and then, when I was trying to do meditation, all I could do was sleep. I was trying so hard not to sleep, but still I couldn’t do it.”
When she went to her teacher to report her difficulty, he said, “This is a very good sign that you’re falling asleep, because for five years you’ve been suffering so badly that you couldn’t sleep. But now you’re getting sleepy. That’s wonderful. Sleep mindfully. Just do the meditation as instructed.” With her powerful perseverance, Dipa Ma continued, and, as she relates, “One day all of a sudden my sleep disappeared, and I could sit.”
Movement, or progress in the practice, is not so much a matter of learning a skill, although there are skills involved, as it is a reflection of our motivation, of our depth of commitment and care. Because of this, it isn’t necessarily a sign of failure if you find yourself falling asleep all the time. What’s actually happening is not as important as the willingness to open, to look, to persevere, to carry on. Unfortunately, our extremely judgmental minds find that kind of progress hard to measure. It’s much easier to reflect on a meditation period and say, “Wow, this spectacular vision happened.” But to look back and say, “I kept going, even though it was hard,” is a true measure of progress.
When Dipa Ma began to experience the fruits of her practice, she began to say to people, “Come to the meditation center. You’ve seen how I was disheartened by the loss of my husband and my children and because of my disease. But now you are finding that I have changed and I am quite happy. There’s no magic to it. It simply comes from following the instructions of the teachers. I followed them and I got peace of mind. You come too, and you’ll also get peace of mind.”
Having come through that tremendous suffering to some level of peace, Dipa Ma was left with the gift of an extraordinary ability to love and care and have compassion. Her presence itself was a blessing. Students would go up to her, and she’d put her arms around them and stroke them; she’d do that with everyone. I never saw her interacting with people in a way that excluded them or created a feeling of separation. I think that came from her own experience of pain and her recognition that we are all vulnerable to suffering. Even if the current circumstances of our lives are happy, we all share this vulnerability. Our pleasure rests on a fulcrum in a very fragile balance, and the next breath might bring something very different, something undesired. Her own sense of this fragility translated into tremendous love and care.
Dipa Ma exhibited no pretense, no fabrication. She was quite simple and direct, and there never was a sense that she was assuming the persona of a great spiritual being. Her lovingkindness poured out of that very simplicity and graciousness. She could be as interested in feeding you dinner as in hearing about your meditation practice. The expression of her lovingkindness could center on an ordinary event, but she was so completely present with everybody that it became extraordinary.
She had raised her daughter by herself in great poverty, all the time doing her meditation practice. When Dipa got married and had a son, Dipa Ma became a grandmother. She then had a great many chores and responsibilities. When someone asked her if she found her worldly concerns a hindrance, she said, “They’re 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.”
When she was visiting the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I would watch her as she played games with her young grandson, both of them laughing with pleasure, then she would get up and give somebody meditation instruction, then do her laundry by hand and hang it outside on the line, then do some walking meditation, then go back in the house and sit for a while. Her grandson would be running around the room, and her daughter would be cooking and watching television, and she would meditate in the midst of all that activity. Someone would arrive and sit down in front of her; she would open her eyes and bless them, caress and hug them, and then go back to meditating. It was all quite seamless.
Later in her life, someone asked her what went on in her mind, what were her prevalent mind-states. She said, “There are only three: concentration, lovingkindness, and peace.” Her consistent response to life events reminded me of the Buddha, who rested upon the same qualities no matter what situation he was in – unlike many of us, who react one way in one circumstance and another way in others. We might be filled with lovingkindness when we’re all alone but have much fear and difficulty when we’re with people. Or we may feel connected and happy when we’re with people but uneasy at being alone. Our lives can be fragmented without this strength of integration. Dipa Ma seemed to be simply who she was, at all times and in all circumstances. I will always remember Dipa Ma for those three qualities of simplicity, love, and integrity.
The power of her tremendous motivation could be felt behind her warmth and lovingkindness. It was obvious how meditation practice had given her back her life. She did not take the practice casually in any way, and was a very demanding teacher. She was resolute about everyone’s capacity to be free, and she insisted that we all do our absolute best to realize and actualize that capacity through Right Effort. She had powerful faith and confidence in each one of her students, and in the Buddhist techniques of awakening.
Once in Calcutta she was asked about a teaching that is recorded, not in the actual scriptures based on the Buddha’s words, but in the later commentaries, that says only a man can be a fully enlightened Buddha. If you were a woman, you would have to be reborn as a man in a future life in order to attain the state of complete Buddhahood. Hearing this, Dipa Ma drew herself up to her full height of four feet and said, “I can do anything a man can do.” In a traditional context this was a radical statement. It symbolized her conviction that the power of endeavor and motivation to bear fruit is not limited in any way.
That was the gift she gave to those who came to her. She knew, and she let each of us know, that we could be free. The practice was not meant only for somebody in a long-ago time and faraway place, not only for the Buddha sitting under a tree or for people who had the luxury of leaving their responsibilities behind. We can do it ourselves. We can be free. And our effort to be free, which we are fully capable of, is a valuable measure of our success.
In 1974 I went to Calcutta to say good-bye to Dipa Ma when I was leaving India for what I thought would be a rather quick trip home before I returned. I was convinced that I was going to spend the rest of my life in India. “I’m going back for just a short time to get my health together,” I told her, “to renew my visa and get some money, and then I’ll be right back.” She looked at me and said, “When you go to America, you’ll start teaching meditation with Joseph [Goldstein].” I said, “No, I won’t,” and she said, “Yes, you will.” I said, “No, I won’t. I’m coming right back,” and she said, “Yes, you will.” “No, I won’t,” I insisted.
The amazing accomplishments I had seen in my own teachers had convinced me that I would need to be a student for the rest of my life. I told Dipa Ma that and continued, “I’m not capable of that. I can’t teach meditation.” She looked at me and said, “You can do anything you want to do. It’s only your thinking you can’t do it that can stop you.” Of course she was right.
So she sent me off to America with that blessing, which was a great empowerment. I knew the encouragement was not only about me; it was about everyone’s capacity for goodness, for wholeness, for understanding, for love. We are much more capable than we can imagine. Having confidence in ourselves is not to be confused with conceit, which focuses on the individual self. Instead we can have confidence in the potential for the innate human goodness within all of us.
We are all vulnerable to pain, and, like Dipa Ma, we are capable of using painful circumstances to understand more clearly, to connect more deeply. The tremendous urgency in someone like her can spark an urgency within us to find the truth, to live in a better way, to give up counting on superficialities for happiness, to not be dependent on that which crumbles, changes, and dies. Such a deep passion for freedom, for the dharma, can evoke passion in us, and her willingness to practice through any circumstance can inspire us to do the same. With that inspiration, those times when we are uncertain and afraid can become doorways into the unknown that are as wonderful as they are terrible.
We really can do it. We can be perfect embodiments of the coherency of being that Dipa Ma revealed. We can know who we are and be who we are through all of our changing circumstances. We can transform suffering into compassion. We can do so much with this precious life, with the innate capacity of our minds to awaken and to love. Right Effort arises when we have the confidence that we can be free.