An interview by Danny Fisher with the authors of Living This Life Fully, a book reviewed earlier this year in Buddhadharma.
Anagarika Sri Munindra (1914-2003) was the much-beloved Bengali master whose many students included such luminaries as Dipa Ma, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Lama Surya Das. Many generations of young practitioners and up-and-coming scholars also had the fortune to study with Munindra-ji at Bodh Gaya on Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies in India Program, which he faithfully served for years as a vipassana teacher. (I was lucky to study with him as a program participant in 1999.) He is the subject of Mirka Knaster’s new book (with C. Robert Pryor) for Shambhala Publications, Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra. I caught up with Mirka and Robert to discuss Munindra-ji and the book.
Mirka and Robert, for those who are perhaps less aware of Munindra-ji and his contributions, would you put him into historical perspective for us? How has he been important in terms of the development of Buddhism in his lifetime?
Mirka Knaster: Munindra-ji’s importance lies in the transmission of Theravada Buddhism from Burma back to India and on to the West. Through his own travels and through his students who became well known teachers—e.g., Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg—vipassana practice has spread around the world. He is a grandfather of the mindfulness movement. Because of his emphasis on sati, Munindra-ji had an impact—again, through his students—on the development of mindfulness in a wide variety of secular arenas, including education, psychology, health care, sports, law, etc. His particular way of conveying Dhamma in everyday situations, not simply on retreat, was instrumental in making practice something that one can engage in anywhere and at any time.
Robert, I remember you going to do an interview with Goenka-ji during one of our holidays on the 2006 Antioch Education Abroad in India program. Would you both say something about doing research and interview gathering for this book? What were those processes like for you? Did the vision of the book change much after you had done all of this work?
Mirka Knaster: Before Robert and I decided to collaborate on the project, he had already amassed a series of interviews with Munindra-ji. While there was no intention to create a full-length biography, there was the desire to pass on his teachings because he had never written them down. But how best to do that? I thought that stories about what others had experienced with him, what they had learned from him, would be more captivating and memorable than a straightforward list of facts. Personally, I take in information more easily through storytelling than through a logical or chronological account. That’s why I interviewed as many people—former students, family members, friends and colleagues—as possible. I started with teachers who had been close to Munindra-ji and then fanned out by asking them to suggest other possibilities. Naturally, one person led to another and another. Also, during my visit to Munindra-ji’s family in Calcutta, his younger brother brought me upstairs to a small room on the roof filled with many boxes of Munindra-ji’s correspondence. What a treasure trove! I was able to find more people to interview through the letters and cards I read. However, given the years that had elapsed, locating these individuals was not so easy because return addresses were out of date. I don’t know how I’d have managed without the internet. Of course, some folks had already passed away and I wasn’t able to find others. In the end, I contacted some 200 people in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. I conducted the interviews either in person or by phone and email. In addition, when I visited Robert at the Antioch program in Bodh Gaya, he and I did several local interviews together. Because I could not go on to Bombay or Igatpuri, I encouraged him to interview Goenka-ji.
The interview process was an amazing experience. I felt privileged and honored that people would generously recount aspects of their spiritual journey to help the book project. As I listened to their stories, I found myself moved to tears and laughter over and over. During the years I worked on Living This Life Fully, I felt as though I were on retreat with Munindra-ji, but not in a meditation hall. Rather, he was teaching me as I transcribed an interview I’d done or a talk he’d given during his first visit to the US in 1977. I got to learn from him all over again, but this time I was able to absorb much more than when I had been with him on Maui, where he used to visit Kamala Masters.
Robert Pryor: The whole experience of working on the book was great for me as it kept me in touch with Munindraji. Every time I would hear or read one of the stories it would bring him to life for me and I could recall his enthusiasm, precise instruction, easy friendly manner, humor, and most of all the warmth of his metta. This spring at our Dharma Center in Yellow Springs I led a discussion group focused on the book. We met each Thursday evening for 8 weeks, and it was a wonderful experience for me to talk with the group about Munindraji and his teachings. Again, the whole experience brought him back in a very immediate fashion. It is clear to me that a great teacher lives on through the inspiration of his words and actions. We were all very lucky to know him in Bodh Gaya, and I appreciate that even more now.
Mirka, the book is arranged in chapters that correspond with specific teachings. Would you say something about the usefulness of organizing the book this way?
Mirka Knaster: Imagine trying to make sense of a few thousand pages! What helped me to organize the material is that the anecdotes I heard in the interviews reflected Munindra-ji’s embodiment of Dhamma, how he manifested the Buddha’s teachings. Those stories illustrated the bodhipakkhiya-dhamma, the 37 requisites of awakening (including the 7 factors of awakening and the Eightfold Noble Path); along with the brahma-vihara (the 4 “sublime” abodes of loving- kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), and the paramis or paramitas (the 10 “perfections” leading to Buddhahood—generosity, virtuous conduct, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resoluteness, loving-kindness, and equanimity). Since there’s overlap among these schemata, I was able to reduce the 51 factors to 16 chapters, each one focused on a quality essential to awakening, and then group anecdotes accordingly. Demonstrating how these qualities can be experienced in daily life seemed a useful and accessible way to pass on Munindra-ji’s teachings. So I combined people’s stories with Munindra-ji’s own words from Robert’s interviews as well as from Munindra-ji’s early talks in the U.S., and from a brief autobiography he’d written before leaving Burma. Again, there was never any intention to write a biography, but rather to provide a portrait of living a life of Dhamma, which Munindra-ji described as “living the life fully.” This seemed important particularly for most of us as householders because Munindra -ji stressed that Dhamma is not restricted to life on the cushion in a meditation center, but to be lived moment to moment, no matter what one is doing. The vision of the book didn’t change after all the groundwork. Robert and I both felt that the book should reflect how Munindra-ji was as a teacher, as a human being. He integrated scholarship and experiential practice, and he related to people personally, warmly, not hierarchically, like some aloof master. From feedback I’ve received, that is the impression readers get.
I remember as a student on the Antioch program in 1999 when Munindra-ji said, “There’s no pizza in nibbana—are you still interested in it?” This is the title of the chapter on nekkhama (relinquishment; renunciation). You very astutely tie this teaching and this concept to an important part of who Munindra-ji was: an anagarika. Would you both say a little bit about this renunciant lifestyle as his path of practice?
Mirka Knaster: While some people might look at the anagarika lifestyle as too restrictive or inadequate to meet one’s needs, Munindra-ji saw it as the perfect vehicle for his aspiration to live his life completely devoted to Dhamma. He eschewed attachments: he didn’t want to be in charge of a monastery or to oversee property; he didn’t want to be a householder, with all the concomitant responsibilities; he didn’t want to be burdened by possessions. From childhood on, he was determined to be free to study and practice. Munindra-ji even asked permission of his preceptor, Mahasi Sayadaw, to disrobe before leaving Burma, for he knew that being a monk in India would, among other things, limit his ability to teach anyone anywhere. Being an anagarika seemed the right fit for Munindra-ji’s free-spirited, iconoclastic, out-of-the-box style.
Lastly, this book is full of wonderful stories. Would you both share a story of an interaction that you had with Munindra-ji that has been especially meaningful to you in your life?
Mirka Knaster: Because I have been the fortunate recipient of so much hospitality around the world, most often by people for whom I don’t have the chance to reciprocate in my own home, I try to be generous and hospitable wherever possible. I learned an important lesson about generosity when I was living on Maui. After extending myself again and again to a visitor from another country, I became perplexed about the person’s behavior, so I decided to talk with Munindra-ji about it. He asked me, “To whom are you being generous? For what are you being generous?” and so on. I realized he was advising me to be discerning, rather than make a blanket practice of generosity, giving unthinkingly. Years later, Kamala shared an experience she had with M-ji at a train station in India. She saw that Munindra-ji didn’t automatically give to every beggar who approached and even told one to leave them alone. He chose when, where, and to whom he gave, as he understood the circumstances. This lesson can be applied to other qualities as well. For example, compassion without wisdom too often leads to burnout. It’s not uncommon to view spiritual practice through an otherworldly lens, but Munindra-ji had a way of making it grounded and practical. His teaching has helped me to bring the essential qualities down to earth rather than try to live them out in some ethereal or idealized zone.
Robert Pryor: You asked about Goenka-ji, who Dianeah and I interviewed for the book in 2006. He was very gracious and invited us into his home in Bombay for an hour even though his health was not very good at the time. It was inspiring to hear him speak of his close friendship with Munindra-ji. They were true brothers in the Dhamma and this came through so clearly in our conversation. They always had the greatest respect and admiration for one another and this is what Goenka-ji emphasized. After all, they were friends for a long time—from 1957 to 2003. Such a friendship in the Dhamma is an example that can be of benefit to us all.