A woman recalled that during a flight from India to the United States, the aircraft abruptly encountered an air pocket. Drinks and other items flew up to the ceiling as the plane plunged downward, before stabilizing. Shocked, the woman cried out in fright. Another woman sitting across the aisle from her gently reached out, touched her hand in comfort, and said: “The daughters of the Buddha are fearless.”
The woman who spoke those words of confidence to the frightened passenger was Dipa Ma, a lay Buddhist meditation teacher who had much experience with fear and overcoming it.
Born on 25 March 1911 in a village in Bangladesh, she was named Nani Bala Barau. Her family regularly practiced Buddhist rituals and celebrated festivals. Although her family did not practice meditation, Nani nevertheless, developed a deep interest in Buddhism. Following the traditional path of most girls in Bangladesh, Nani married at the age of 12. Fortunately, her husband, Rajani Ranjan Barua, an engineer twice her age, was a kindhearted, sensitive, and an attentive partner. A week after their wedding, Rajani left in order to take up a position in Burma. His wife remained behind with her in-laws.
Two years later, Nani was able to join her husband in Rangoon, where they hoped to start a family. Sadly, there were fertility issues and she lost two babies before giving birth to a daughter, whom she named Dipa, meaning “light.” Eventually, Nani simply became known as Dipa Ma or “Mother of Light.”
Tragically, in 1957, Dipa Ma’s beloved husband died suddenly. The loss was devastating and the ensuing grief almost unbearable. She spent months confined to a bed suffering from the tension and stress of bereavement, barely able to sustain herself and her daughter. After exhausting all medical alternatives, a doctor strongly suggested that Dipa Ma practice meditation. Intuitively, she felt drawn to the suggestion, and made arrangements for a neighbor to look after her daughter so that she could participate in a meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Rangoon.
After receiving basic instruction in vipasanna meditation, Dipa Ma began to sit with others, discovering she had a natural affinity for meditation practice. While leaving the meditation hall one day, she was unaware of a dog in the hallway, which rushed at her, clamping its jaws around her leg. Incredibly, Dipa Ma didn’t feel pain—something she attributed to the lingering effect of meditation on her body and mind. Some monks were able to separate Dipa Ma from the dog, and she was sent to an urgent care center for anti-rabies treatment.
Returning home to recuperate, Dipa Ma began to consider becoming a Buddhist nun. However, as a single parent she recognized her responsibility to her daughter and decided that her spiritual life would have to be conducted as a householder. It was an amazing decision because she had no models for following the spiritual path in this way. She established a daily practice in her home, studying with various teachers. She became more and more proficient at her practice as well as teaching others.
In 1967, the Burmese government ordered all foreign nationals out of the country. Although her Buddhist monk friends assured her they could obtain an exemption for her to remain in the country, Dipa Ma chose to go to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where her daughter would have greater access to social and educational opportunities. In Calcutta, she found a tiny, one-room apartment for herself and her daughter. It was located above a metal grinding shop, had no running water, and only a charcoal burner on the floor and a bathroom that they shared with another family.
Before long, women in Calcutta began approaching Dipa Ma for meditation instruction, and soon she was busy teaching female householders. Gradually the women began referring to Dipa Ma as the “patron saint of householders.” As she taught the women, Dipa Ma demonstrated how living as wives and mothers was not a hindrance to meditation and the spiritual path. In fact, she often reminded them: “Being a wife, being a mother—these were my first teachers.” Dipa Ma offered them encouragement in their practice and words of wisdom like these:
“Whenever I get time alone, I always turn my mind inward.”
“You don’t need anything to be happy.”
“Everything is fresh and new all the time. Every moment is new.”
“Live simply. A very simple life is good for everything. You will not find any pleasure in plenty.”
“When I am moving about, shopping, or doing anything I’m always doing it with mindfulness. I know these are things I have to do, but they aren’t problems. On the other hand, I do not spend time gossiping, or visiting, or doing anything which I don’t consider necessary in life.”
Eventually, Dipa Ma had a steady stream of visitors, male and female, to her modest living quarters, all seeking meditation instruction. Visitors even came from other countries. In the early 1980s, several Westerners who had studied with Dipa Ma invited her to teach at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. At home in Calcutta, Dipa Ma was usually was busy teaching from the early morning until late into the night. When her daughter urged her mother to reduce her availability, Dipa Ma simply replied: “They are hungry for the Dharma, so let them come.”
Dipa Ma died on 1 September 1989, aged 78. After her death, Sharon Salzberg, one of her Western students recalled: “Many times I hear her voice whispering to me, challenging me to extend myself to find what I am actually capable of, especially in terms of love and compassion. She was an incredible model of kindness, the type that is born of great suffering, and a consequent, constant remembrance of what is really important.”
Her influence and example were considerable, and all the more extraordinary that she started as simply a pious mother who needed something to help her with her grief from losing her partner. Today, her aura of reverence can sometimes obscure her very human and relatable story. She would be the first to insist, rightly, that she was just like the rest of us.
Words of wisdom from Dipa Ma
Bless those around you. If you bless those around you, this will inspire you to be attentive in every moment.
If your life is in trouble, do metta—loving-kindness practices.
Human beings will never solve all their problems.
The first thing is to love yourself. You cannot progress by self-doubt and self-hatred. You can only progress by self-love.
Thoughts of the past and the future spoil your time.
This problem you are facing is no problem at all. It is because you think “this is mine,” or “there is something for me to solve.” Don’t think in this way and then there will be no trouble.
You can do anything you want to do. It’s only your thought that you can’t do it that holds you back.
Meditation is always possible, at any time. You cannot separate meditation from life.
Whatever beliefs you have, ask yourself, “Are you sure?” “Who says?” “Why not?”
There is nothing to cling to in this world. Ask yourself, “What can I take with me when I die?”
Practice now! Don’t think you will do more later.
Each of us has enormous power. It can be used to help ourselves and others.
Patience is one of the most important virtues for developing mindfulness and concentration.
What is your intention? For any action, physical, verbal, or mental—the Buddha gave the importance to intention. Know your intention in every action.
Meditation integrates the whole person.
Related features from BDG
Dipa Ma – An extraordinary female Buddhist master in the twentieth century
Karmayōgī Kṛpāśaraṇa Mahāthērō (1865–1927): The Forgotten Monk Who Built Buddhism in Modern India and Bangladesh
Nyanaponika Thera: Buddhist Monk and British Prisoner of War