“Gradually I became acquainted with suffering,
the cause of suffering,
the arising of suffering,
and the end of suffering.”
Dipa Ma believed, unconditionally, that enlightenment—total liberation of the mind and heart—is the purpose of human life and the primary reason for meditation practice. She never tired of reminding her students: “You must practice to know at least one stage of enlightenment. Otherwise you have not made use of your human life.”
In the Theravada tradition, little is written about the actual experience of enlightenment. The reticence of many teachers on this subject is largely to avoid setting up an attitude of striving. This chapter brings enlightenment experiences out into the open, with the aim of showing that there is nothing secret or supernatural about them. Although it might be inferred from these stories that enlightenment can happen rather easily, there are also stories of awakening taking many years or even decades.
While there is no “right way” on this path, and consequently nothing to judge, compare, or anticipate, Joseph Goldstein offers this important caveat: “The experience of enlightenment is about letting go of ‘self.’ Over the years, I’ve seen people who have experienced enlightenment use it to create more self. They attach to the experience and identify with it. This is missing the point, and it can create a lot of suffering.”
My first two three-month retreats were blasting through, “bliss bomb”–type retreats, where I described myself as a kamikaze yogi. But my third three-month retreat was weeping from the first day until the end. At times, I would have such incredible internal aching and tearing apart that I thought I couldn’t sit more than five minutes. At first, when I reported this to Dipa Ma, she suggested I just “note it.”
But finally there was a certain point where I really thought I was going to explode if I sat any longer. Dipa Ma sat down next to me, took my hand, held it and caressed it with love and gentleness, like caressing a baby. While she was doing this, she assured me, “If you make it through this, you will earn great merit.”
Doing this, she gave me an absolute transmission of her confidence and love. My doubt disappeared; I totally believed her words. I went back to the hall and sat on my cushion, and . . . something just opened up. I don’t know how much I should describe of it. I started to have experiences like you see in the classical texts on enlightenment. She was guiding me with special resolutions during this time.
I am grateful that she kept me practicing. Even though for two and a half months I was racked with restlessness and achiness and wanted to “roll up the mat” and go home, she kept me going.
Dipa Ma came to teach a class at my school for three weeks. At the end of the class, we were to do a weekend intensive retreat with her. The day before the intensive she said to me, “You are going to have a ‘realization experience’.” I wondered, “What is this supposed to mean?”
That night, I meditated for a while, and then I got up because I was getting very sleepy. I went back to my room, and something shifted. I realized I needed to go back and meditate some more, so I went back to meditate, and I got extremely concentrated.
There was simply the watching of my breath. I was noting every microcosm of the rising and falling, every little bit, and I had the ability to watch the intentions of thoughts coming. It was like a bubble that would break, then the thought would be there, then it would pass, and there would be stillness, then another intention of the thought would arise, then break like a bubble on the surface of water and so on. It was not me doing this, because I absolutely had no capacity for that level of concentration. I think it was simply by Dipa Ma’s grace. There was incredible stillness, and a huge amount of space in between thoughts where nothing was going on.
Then there was a huge shift in awareness, as if I went “out” somewhere where attention reversed. There was no body anymore, just the arising and passing away of things. It completely blew me away.
The next day Dipa Ma asked me, “Well, did you get enlightened?” Later, because I was so new at meditation—I didn’t have a background or context for this experience—a lot of fear came up. First there was this incredible insight, then fear arose when I saw that everything was being annihilated moment after moment. My mind became so confused; I didn’t have the ability to watch the confusion, and it was a long time before the experience matured in me. It was three years before I had the desire to meditate again.
Enlightenment was rather matter-of-fact to Dipa Ma’s Indian students. Jack Engler recalls that they practiced within the context of their families and daily life. “When Dipa Ma recognized a certain kind of ripeness in them, she would say, ‘Arrange your affairs, see if you can get two weeks off from the family, and come and stay in this room next to me and just devote yourself for ten or fourteen days to this practice.’ That’s when enlightenment happened to them. That is all the intensive practice they did, and even then, some of them had to return home during that time to take care of family matters.”
Just two or three days
I took my mother [Dipa Ma’s sister Hema] every evening to the monastery, and once I met a Burmese lady there who told me about her practice at home with her small children. She worked in the day, and she did meditation at night when her children were asleep. Within two months, she said, she finished the first stage [of enlightenment].
So I took that example while I was teaching full time and studying in my master’s program. I got up at 4 AM and meditated until 5:30 AM. I went to school until 3:30 PM, then I took my mother to the monastery. After that I would do my homework until 9 PM. Then I would do walking meditation for an hour with my dog. Then I would sit for another hour until 11 PM. At 11, I went to sleep.
All the time, on the bus to school, during my classes, everywhere, I practiced noting [mentally noting each sensory experience]. After about two or three weeks, Munindra told me to take my vacation and come and meditate. I told him it was impossible to take time off school, and he said, “Well, just two or three days will do.” So I went for Thursday through Sunday. Since there was so little time, I decided to stay up all night Thursday, and I kept meditating into Friday.
On Friday night at about 1 AM, I thought something “went wrong.” In the morning, I told my mother and Dipa Ma that something strange had happened. They started laughing and laughing. They told me it was the first stage, and they were very glad for me.
-Daw Than Myint
Okay, a tiger is coming
On the very first day I met her, Nani [Dipa Ma] gave me meditation instructions and told me, “You can practice at home.” I went home that afternoon and immediately started practicing for twenty days. During the twenty days of meditation, I felt I had a high fever, I felt like a hot iron was penetrating my body. Then I saw snakes everywhere, and tigers were jumping at me. I reported this to Nani, and she told me, “Don’t worry. Don’t take any medicine. You have a fever, but it is not a disease: it will spontaneously leave. Just be mindful of it. Just feel it and note it. When snakes or tigers come, don’t worry. Just notice, ‘Okay, a tiger is coming.’ That is all.”
Then I began having vivid pictures of dead bodies. I saw many, many dead bodies in an arid place, and I had to walk on the dead bodies. I was terrified. Nani said, “Don’t fear. Just make a mental note of ‘seeing.’ These visions are from our many births. What we have done in previous births often comes to mind in meditation.” From her instruction, I noted, “seeing a dead body,” and “walking on dead bodies.” I also kept noting, “I’m seeing in my mind.”
Soon there was just awareness, everything stopped, my mind became clear and peaceful, and I came to awaken. All my pains were eradicated. I came to understand what was my body, what was my mind, and what was the way of meditation. There was no turning back. After twenty days, I left my seat and went out into the world.
This most precious thing
When I was doing my research in Calcutta, Dipa Ma brought her neighbor to me, a sixty-five-year-old woman whose name was Madhuri Lata. She had raised her family, her children were gone, and, unlike most Indian families, she was alone with her husband, with no extended family living in the same household. Her husband had said to her, “You have nothing to do now. This ‘aunt’ of yours, Dipa Ma, teaches this meditation practice. Why don’t you talk with her? It’ll give you something to do.”
Madhuri, who had mild developmental delays, went to Dipa Ma, and Dipa Ma gave her the basic instructions [to place her attention on the rise and fall of the abdomen with each inhalation and exhalation and] to note to herself “rising, falling, rising, falling.” Madhuri said, “Okay,” and started to go home, down four flights of stairs and across the alley to her apartment. She didn’t get halfway down the stairs before she forgot the instructions. So, back she came. “What was I supposed to do?” she asked. “Rising, falling, rising, falling,” said Dipa Ma. “Oh, yes, that’s right.”
Four times, Madhuri forgot the instructions and had to come back. Dipa Ma was very patient with her. It took Madhuri almost a year to understand the basic instructions, but once she got them, she was like a tiger. Before she began to practice, Madhuri was bent over at a ninety-degree angle with arthritis, rheumatism, and intestinal problems. When I met her, after her enlightenment experience, she walked with a straight back. No more intestinal problems. She was the simplest, sweetest, gentlest woman. After she told me her enlightenment story, she said, “All this time, I’ve wanted to tell someone about this wonderful thing that happened to me, and I’ve never been able to share this before, this most precious thing in my life.”
All emotion is from thinking
Despite severe emotional difficulties, a Vietnamese monk, Venerable Khippa-Panno, was able to attain insight with Dipa Ma’s encouragement. In 1969, he had gone on a retreat during which, for five days, he was unable to stop laughing and crying. His teacher, deciding Khippa-Panno had gone mad, told him to stop the retreat and return home. When Dipa Ma heard this, she invited Khippa-Panno to practice with her.
For a whole month, I practiced at her house. She advised me, “You will overcome this difficulty. If everything is noted, all your emotional difficulties will disappear. When you feel happy, don’t get involved with the happiness. And when you feel sad, don’t get involved with it. Whatever comes, don’t worry. Just be aware of it.” On a later retreat, when I felt the craziness come, I remembered her words. I had so much difficulty with the emotions that I wanted to leave the retreat, but I remembered her faith in me, and her saying, “Your practice is good. Just note everything, and you will overcome the difficulty.” With this knowledge of her confidence in me, my concentration got deeper. Soon I came to see that all emotion was from thinking, nothing more. I found that once I knew how to observe the thoughts that led to the emotions, I could overcome them. And then I came to see that all thoughts were from the past or the future, so I started to live only in the present, and I developed more and more mindfulness. . . . I had no thoughts for a period of time, just mindfulness, and then all my emotional difficulties passed away. Just like that! And then I had an experience. I wasn’t sure what it was. It was only a moment, and there wasn’t anyone to confirm it at the time. My emotional problems have never returned. Later, in 1984, when I saw Dipa Ma in America, she took me aside and asked about my meditation. When I told her, she told me that I had completed the first stage [of enlightenment]. She told me like a mother would tell a child. -Venerable Khippa-Panno