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Dipa Ma: My Journey to Kolkatta

When I began reading about the path of meditation teachers I came across the biography of Sharon Salzberg. In her bio, she described one of her first teacher’s Dipa Ma with the feeling of being deeply loved. During one of her early trips to India, Dipa Ma asked her,

“Are you happy?”, “Are you sleeping well?” and “’Did you eat well?”

I was so touched by this it made me cry. 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 own yoga students during a meditation class one of them did not appreciate the reverie. He remarked, “My doctor asks me the same thing.” I can only speak for myself but my doctor appointments are routine. And even if my doctor did ask if I was happy, she would not be talking about my soul’s happiness.

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.

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 and I knew of a yoga student who had been sexually assaulted in the street. These were pretty good reasons not to go, but I knew now I had to go.

Dipa Ma was a very rare and special woman known to have reached several stages of enlightenment. 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, a child and a severe illness. But it was these painful events, which she said gave her the motivation to practice.

Planning this trip was a game of snakes and ladders. It was not as if Dipa was readily available. I had to hunt around to find out where she was living; if 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 lived). I was also given an unexpected warm welcoming from Dipa. She was looking forward to meeting me.

Fast-forward and I am at the airport waiting to check-in.

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 for about five hours and left the next evening on a seventeen-hour train trip into Kolkatta.

Notwithstanding the facts about Kolkatta as 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. I had a first-class cabin where I dined on corn flakes for breakfast and French fries with a cutlet for dinner.

Most people probably don’t consider Kolkatta 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 sixteen 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 an enlightened soul.

 

By the time, I settled into Kolkatta when I called Dipa it was early evening. I was not sure what to expect but our conversation was 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 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 replied.

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 as we sat in the same room where Dipa Ma had greeted foreigners and meditated. Many western students who visited here often described the room as small, but with an incredible feeling of lightness and space.

It was like this and more.

 

 

For most people, I don’t think her home would have been considered comfortable. But what it had over any fancy room was a really big heart. There was an extremely easy feeling of calm and peace. Several pictures of family members, monks, teachers and the Buddha accompanied the 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 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. 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. I presume it is these same socks as seen in the picture. When Dipa returned to India she left them folded neatly on the bed. This 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 said, “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. She waved good-bye and gently said, “I will miss you.”

“Wow, miss me?” , I thought.

Dipa had never met me before but she was so unreserved. Her words were exactly like those of a mother when we parted.

When we parted 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 to Delhi, I experienced the same routine with a wilted rose, the cutlet for dinner and the corn flakes at breakfast. My mind of course drifted back to my visit; a visit that was so clear. A simple, quiet lunch with a relaxed chat.

Lunch, tea, cookies, rest and finally saying good-bye. All with a feeling that life can and could be lived this simple, clear way.

 

Copyright of Heather Morton, The Yoga Way, 2013. All written rights reserved.

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