When I began reading about the paths of many meditation teachers I came across the work and life of Sharon Salzberg. In her biography, she described one of her first teacher’s as being Dipa Ma. She explained how she had such a feeling of being deeply loved. During one of her early trips to India, Dipa Ma had asked her,
“Are you happy?”, “Are you sleeping well?” and “’Did you eat well?”
I was so touched by this it made me feel teary-eyed. The way Sharon depicted Dipa Ma was as if you could feel her asking you these questions. Of course, when I shared the story to my yoga students during a meditation class one of them did not appreciate the reverie. He remarked, “My own doctor asks me the same thing.” I can only speak for myself but my doctor appointments are fairly routine. And I seriously do not recall my doctor ever asking me if I was happy.
This description of Dipa Ma served as the impetus for me to learn more about her. I took this into action and travelled to Kolkatta to visit her only living daughter Dipa.
By then, it was my 11th trip to India and I had always told myself travelling within India did not include Kolkatta. I had heard Kolkatta was worse than Mumbai with respect to violence against women and the general congestion. I knew of a female yoga student who had been sexually assaulted in the street. These were pretty good reasons not to go, but I felt I would need to overcome my fears and find a way to travel there as safely as possible.
What intrigued me the most is the way that Dipa Ma seemed like such a rare and special woman known to have reached several stages of enlightenment herself. But more importantly, she studied and practiced meditation during a time when women were openly discouraged for doing so. Despite this, she developed incredible insights and knowledge. Prior to this she had experienced many hardships including the death of her husband and ,a child as well as a severe illness. But it was during these painful events that gave her the motivation to practice more.
For me, planning this trip was a game of snakes and ladders, however. It was not as if Dipa was readily available. I had to hunt around to find out where she was living; whether or not she was still in Kolkatta and how to get there. The most obvious place to start was with Sharon Salzberg. She suggested I write to the director of the Insight Meditation Center who suggested I contact one of the administrators, who suggested I contact one of the teachers, who felt I might get a hold of one of their students who then believed Dipa Ma´s son could be helpful.
Finally, I got in touch with Rishi, Dipa Ma’s grandson. I received directions to Dipa’s home (the same house where Dipa Ma resided and taught many Western students). When I met with Dipa, I was truly given an unexpected warm welcoming. She was looking forward to meeting me too.
Fast-forward and I am at the airport waiting to check-in and to make my way to Kolkatta.
Getting to India involved flying to Delhi with two lay-overs and a total of seventeen hours of flying from Toronto. I rested at the Maidens Hotel (a beautiful heritage hotel) for about five hours only. The next evening I left for the train station to embark on a 17-hour train trip into Kolkatta.
Notwithstanding the facts about Kolkatta as being a dirty and ridiculously overcrowded city it is also the city of lovers, poets, mystics and great saints. I concentrated on these points while staring at the wilted rose I received upon boarding the train in First Class. Despite being in the higher class, I dined on corn flakes for breakfast and French fries with a cutlet for dinner. It was some of the worst looking food I have ever seen.
As for Kolkata, I can understand how most people probably don’t consider the city such a spiritual hub, but many saints and enlightened beings have made it their home. Mother Theresa, Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna lived and worked there for several years. Ramakrishna, the Guru to Vivekananda, spent 16 years at the Dakshineswar temple. In this temple, there are 13 inner cells dedicated to Lord Shiva and an inner one to Kali (the black goddess). Unlike most temples throughout India non-Hindus can enter the inner sanctum. The temple is situated near the Ganges where Ramakrishna is said to have experienced spiritual visions that included uniting all religions and entering Samadhi trances. Scholars claimed he was a mad-man but spiritual followers understand he was nothing of the short, but a rare, an enlightened being.
By the time, I settled into Kolkata and called Dipa it was early evening. I was not sure what to expect but our conversation was so natural as I heard a soft and tender-hearted voice over the phone. Not long into the conversation she asked if I would stay for lunch.
“Lunch?” Wow, I thought. “I would love it,” I replied.
On the following morning, I made my way to see Dipa through the Kolkatta rain. It rained the whole day. Because of this I was over an hour late. When I called Dipa to tell her I would be late she misunderstood and thought I was not coming.
“No no no. I am coming!”, I told her.
When I finally arrived Dipa had waited in the rain at a subway station outside of her apartment. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. What a lovely and humble woman.
At the time of writing, Dipa still resided in the same home where her mother Dipa Ma lived. Her home was beautiful (just as many of the students had described it as being). We sat in the same room where Dipa Ma had greeted several foreigners and included meditated. Many students who visited here often described the room as small, but with an incredible feeling of lightness and space.
It was definitely like this and more.
For most people, I don’t think her home would have been considered comfortable. But what it had over a fancy room was a really big heart. There was an extremely easy feeling of calm and peace. Several pictures of her family members, monks, teachers and the Buddha adorned the white-washed walls. It was so ordinary that anyone looking inside could easily turn their nose and think, “Nothing special here”. It’s like the people who see the poverty and busy streets of India, but miss its spiritual heart.
There is a lot to say about my visit with Dipa. But the most important part is about an exceptionally kind woman. After serving lunch, Dipa offered me her bed to take a nap and slowly began talking about her mother in a gentle and caring way.
She expressed, “I lost a gem in my mother, my only friend.”
At this she began to weep, which took me by surprise. I felt helpless as I tried to understand her loss as best as I could. Death and particularly that of a mother are such personal and private matters. I do not think anyone can rightfully say they understand. And frankly speaking, I don’t believe it can be any other way.
After I met Dipa it felt so right. She is a small woman physically, but a strong one internally. As a gift, she handed me a large photograph of Dipa Ma. She told me she had taken it to a photoshop to have it enlarged for me. I was overjoyed and touched. The photo is of Dipa Ma during one of her trips to the United States. She is standing dressed in a white sari and wearing black socks.
In the Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master one of Dipa Ma´s student tells the story of having given Dipa Ma a pair of socks. The are the ones she is wearing in the photo. But when Dipa returned to India she left them folded neatly on the bed. Her student was so shocked by this as the socks were a gift. However, it clearly showed the way Dipa did not believe anything belonged to her. She did not take anything for granted or make assumptions.
When Dipa gave me the photograph she told me,
“You put it in your meditation room and mother is there. She is your mother as she was a mother to all.”
When we left Dipa walked us back to the driver who was waiting for us. Even despite the busy traffic, Dipa stood out like a light amongst all the busy traffic. She waved good-bye and gently said, “I will miss you.”
“Wow, miss me?” , I thought.
For while Dipa had never met me before, she was so unreserved in her feelings and gestures. Her words were exactly like those of a mother when we parted.
When we said good-bye, I took a few steps away and looked back. It was as if she knew I would and she was there to wave again. I tried to memorize the fleeting moment of saying good-bye as the traffic moved, the lights changed and we climbed into the taxi.
Riding the train back into Delhi, I experienced the same routine. The wilted rose, the cutlet for dinner and the corn flakes at breakfast. My mind of course drifted back over our visit; a visit that was so clear. A simple, quiet lunch with a relaxed chat.
Lunch, tea, cookies, rest and finally saying good-bye. An example of the way each day can be lived in a simple, clear way.
Copyright of Heather Morton, The Yoga Way, 2012. All written rights reserved.