BORN: March 25, 1911 • East Bengal, India
DIED: September, 1989 • Calcutta, West Bengal, India
Indian religious leader
During a lifetime that spanned most of the twentieth century, Dipa Ma overcame tragedy by meditating (engaging in continuous and profound thinking) and living quietly, surrounded by her family, friends, and students. She became an important figure in the history of modern Buddhism as a teacher and role model for ordinary people trying to achieve enlightenment while carrying out family responsibilities. Her life was a source of great inspiration to her students, many of whom went on to spread her version of the Buddhist message of dharma to others.
"The whole path of mindfulness is this: 'Whatever you are doing, be aware of it.'"
Dharma is a concept rooted in Hindu philosophy. Although the word means "protection," it can be used to refer to the basic principles of existence, which might be called divine law. Buddhists and others who follow dharma protect themselves from unhappiness and discontent by living in accord with these principles of existence. Buddhists, in particular, do so by following the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 bce; see entry), the founder of Buddhism. Some of these teachings address the importance of compassion, cherishing others, and transforming oneself in the face of difficulties. Followers of dharma believe that through meditation they can achieve happiness and enlightenment, even if they are suffering from poverty, tragedy, or simply the daily concerns of life. Dipa Ma made her life's work the teaching of dharma to those who sought her out.
Birth and early life
Dipa Ma was born Nani Bala Barua on March 25, 1911. Her birthplace was a small village in the Indian province of East Bengal (modern-day Bangladesh), near the border with Burma (later called Myanmar). She was born to a clan that could trace its lineage back to the time of the Buddha. The people in her community practiced Buddhist rituals and customs, but they did not practice meditation, which was primarily left to monks and nuns.
From an early age Nani showed great interest in Buddhist rituals and practices. She helped monks at local temples and made statues of the Buddha. Instead of playing with other children, she read and studied, often discussing matters of Buddhist faith and practice with her father. Because she was a girl, she had little opportunity to obtain formal schooling in her village. Girls were expected to marry early. These marriages were typically arranged by the parents of the couple. When Nani was twelve years old, she was taken from her village and married to a twenty-five-year-old engineer named Rajani Ranjan Barua. She had been with her husband for just a week when he left to take a job in Rangoon (renamed Yangon in 1989), which was then the capital city of Burma. For two years she lived with her husband's parents until she was finally put on a boat to join him in Rangoon.
Soon after arriving in Rangoon, the teenage Nani, expressed interest in meditating. For a Buddhist, meditating is not simply a matter of sitting in a chair and thinking. The discipline of meditation has to be studied and practiced, often with the help of a Buddhist master. Without guidance and focus, Buddhists believe, meditation can turn into pointless daydreaming. Nani asked her husband for permission to study meditation. Her husband was not opposed to the idea, but he and his wife were "householders," the term used by Buddhists to refer to people who are not monks or nuns. Traditionally, householders did not engage in intense religious practice until after they had fulfilled their responsibilities as householders, especially the raising of children. Due to this Rajani told Nani to delay studying meditation until she was older.
Nani encountered great difficulty when she tried to have children. Because a woman in her circumstances was expected to be a mother, this was a source of shame to her. In time, she did become pregnant, but the child died in infancy. A second child also died while still very young. Finally, after she had been married for twenty-seven years, Nani gave birth to a daughter who survived. The daughter's name was Dipa, so Nani took the name Dipa Ma, which means "mother of Dipa." Dipa means "light" in the Bengali language, so Dipa Ma can also be translated as "mother of light." Dipa Ma and her husband also adopted Dipa Ma's younger brother Bijoy.
Soon after her daughter's birth, Dipa Ma's health began to decline. She suffered from severe hypertension, or high blood pressure, and for several years was unable to leave her bed. Her husband nursed her, but one day in 1957 he came home from work complaining that he was also feeling ill. He died a few hours later from a heart attack. Dipa Ma, overcome with grief and sickness, almost died herself. She concluded that the only way to survive would be through meditation. She said that during this period of sadness and confusion, she had a dream in which the Buddha chanted these verses from the Dhammapada, a sacred Buddhist text:
Clinging to what is dear brings sorrow.
Clinging to what is dear brings fear.
To one who is entirely free from endearment
There is no sorrow or fear.
Dipa Ma turned both her property and her daughter over to a neighbor and enrolled at the Kamayut Meditation Center in Rangoon. Her intention was to spend the remainder of her life there, but events took an unexpected turn. On her first day, she fell into a deep meditative state. She found that she was unable to move her leg, although she felt no pain. Finally, she realized that a dog had seized her leg and would not let go. Monks pried the dog off, and Dipa Ma was sent first to a hospital for treatment, then home to recover. Her daughter, glad to have her mother back, insisted that she not return to the center. Dipa Ma then decided that she would practice meditation at home.
For several years Dipa Ma meditated at home. A friend then encouraged her to attend the Thathana Yeiktha meditation center in Burma, to study under the well-known teacher Mahasi Sayadaw. By this time Dipa Ma was fifty-three years old and so frail that she could barely climb the stairs to the center. After a short period of study, Dipa Ma was able to enter stages of deep concentration and meditation that transformed her life. The condition of her heart improved. Her blood pressure went down. The weakness in her legs disappeared. Instead of feeling ill and grief stricken, Dipa Ma found herself a healthy, vigorous, happy woman.
Dipa Ma's friends and family were inspired by her changes. Several of them, including her daughter and Dipa Ma's sister, Hema, joined her at the center. For nearly a year, they followed the center's code of discipline, which involved maintaining silence, avoiding eye contact with others, sleeping for just four hours each night, and eating no food after noon. In 1967, however, the Burmese government ordered all foreigners to leave the country. The monks at the center believed that Dipa Ma could have stayed if she wanted to, but she decided to move to Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. She believed that in Calcutta her daughter would have more educational opportunities. She and Dipa moved and took up residence in a small room above a machine shop. The room had no running water, and the two had to share a toilet with another family. They cooked on a small charcoal grill on the floor. Dipa Ma slept on a thin straw pallet on the floor.
Word quickly spread throughout the city that a gifted teacher of meditation had arrived from Burma. Soon people were appearing at Dipa Ma's door looking for instruction. Traditionally, teachers of meditation had been monks or spiritual masters, and were always men. In fact, traditional Buddhism taught that only men could become enlightened like the Buddha. A woman had to be reborn as a man in a future life in order to become enlightened. Dipa Ma, however, taught meditation to ordinary householders, many of them women, who were trying to balance domestic chores with a desire for spiritual enlightenment. Some of her followers referred to her as the "patron saint of householders."
The key lesson that Dipa Ma shared with the students who came to her was "mindfulness." This word refers to focusing intently on a task, whatever that task might be. For example, she would teach mothers of infants to become "mindful" as their infants were nursing. By becoming mindful, they would focus on their bodily sensations as the child nursed. Similarly, she taught busy shop owners to become mindful of their business or family, even if only for a few minutes each day. Her goal was to help people not go through their lives being unhappy because they had too much to do. Mindfulness made her students fully and deeply aware of their activities and made those activities important and a source of contentment.
The type of meditation Dipa Ma taught is called vipassana, or "insight" meditation. This type of meditation was practiced by the Buddha. The purpose of vipassana is to focus awareness on the body and on the experiences of the senses. Some practitioners focus separately on the various parts of their bodies, doing what is sometimes called a "body sweep," concentrating in turn on their toes, their feet, their legs, and so forth. Others focus on their breathing. By intently concentrating on the rhythms of breathing, a person is said to be able to "breathe out" negative states of mind and "breathe in" such qualities as tolerance and patience. A person may also visualize his or her breath as a light that radiates from the body, spreading peace and happiness.
As a practitioner of vipassana becomes more relaxed and aware, unhappiness, confusion, and even tragedy can be overcome. Teachers of insight meditation stress that what a person concentrates on is not important. One can even concentrate on a pain or discomfort in the body. What is most important is the process of the concentrating. And as with any process, people improve their ability to concentrate over time. Through practice and discipline, they become more mindful both of the surrounding world and of their inner feelings.
Dipa Ma's students said that they learned not by what she did, but by who she was. They claimed her presence alone was enough to promote a sense of peace and mindfulness in them. She was a demanding teacher, insisting that her students not be lazy as they practiced meditation, but she was kind and loving as well. She would greet her students by blessing them and stroking their hair, and she shared her blessings with people, animals, and even inanimate objects on the street.
In the 1980s Dipa Ma traveled to the United States to teach her techniques at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. The society was created by three Westerners, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg. These three had traveled to Calcutta frequently to meet with and learn from Dipa Ma. As quoted by Amy Schmidt in Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master, Goldstein said, "There may be a few times in our lives when we meet a person who is so unusual that she or he transforms the way we live just by being who they are. Dipa Ma was such a person…. 'Her' stillness and love were different from anything I had encountered before."
Dipa Ma died in September 1989. According to a neighbor who was at her side at the time of her death, in her last moments she folded her hands in prayer and bowed to a statue of the Buddha. She then stopped breathing, dying as calmly as she had lived during the last decades of her life. Her teachings have survived through the efforts of her students, many of whom went on to teach others.
For More Information
Glickman, Marshall. Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation. Boston, MA: Journey Editions, 2002.
Schmidt, Amy. Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master. New York, NY: BlueBridge, 2005. Excerpts available online at http://www.dharma.org/amys/bio.html (accessed on June 1, 2006).
Salzberg, Sharon. "Awakening Confidence in Our Capacity: The Blessing of Dipa Ma." Shambhala Sun Online. March 2000. http://mambo.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1815&Itemid=243 (accessed on June 1, 2006).
Schmidt, Amy, and Sara Jenkins. "Mother of Light: The Inspiring Story of Dipa Ma." Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly. Spring 2003. http://www.thebuddhadharma.com/issues/2003/spring/Schmidt_Jenkins_dipa_ma.html (accessed on June 1, 2006).