Nani “Dipa Ma” Bala Barua

February 2, 2022

Nani “Dipa Ma” Bala Barua: A Q&A with Sharon Salzberg

The IMS Lineage Project
Module 1: Nani “Dipa Ma” Bala Barua (1911-1989)
Presented by Sharon Salzberg
March 16, 23 & 30
7:00 – 8:15 pm ET
(meditation: 8:15 – 8:30 pm ET)
Register to attend Module 1 of the IMS Lineage Projecthere.

After the loss of two of her children and husband, and suffering serious physical illness, Nani “Dipa Ma” Bala Barua sought meditation to free herself from her pain.

She began her training at a meditation center, but during a trip home to recuperate from illness, her young daughter begged her not to return. This is when Dipa Ma saw that her practice and teaching would be centered around the home.

Her transformation from a person overcome by grief to a radiant being offering compassion to all inspired many, particularly women, mothers, and householders who didn’t believe that practicing meditation and mindfulness was possible for them given their many responsibilities.

Dipa Ma was and is a role model for many people. She became one of IMS co-founder Sharon Salzberg’s primary teachers and ultimately one of the main influencers of IMS’s rich Buddhist tradition.

Here, Sharon talks with IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz about Dipa Ma, and how she influenced Sharon’s life and work.

How did you first meet Dipa Ma?

I went to India as part of a university program. My project was to study and learn meditation. In January of 1971 I ended up in Bodh Gaya, India, attending an intensive 10-day retreat led by S. N. Goenka. That was the beginning of my learning meditation. Anagarika Munindra was also a meditation teacher who lived in Bodh Gaya.

Munindra had spent nine years in Burma, studying and practicing meditation. When Dipa Ma began meditating in Burma, Munindra was her translator. After a while, he also became her teacher. They developed a strong bond.

And so, all these years later, Dipa Ma came to Bodh Gaya to visit Munindra and that’s how I met her. When Dipa Ma came to visit, there weren’t many Westerners in Bodh Gaya, so we got to really spend time with her.

How did Dipa Ma come to meditation?

Dipa Ma was from Bangladesh, but she moved to Burma because her husband was in the civil service. One day he came home from work and said he wasn’t feeling well. He died by that evening. They had three children, but they had lost two of them. She is nicknamed after her daughter, Dipa, who survived—”Dipa Ma” meaning mother of Dipa.

With the death of her husband she had Dipa to raise and yet she developed this heart condition so she couldn’t get out of bed. She was so frail and weak. They say the doctor came and told her that she was going to die of a broken heart unless she adjusted something about her mind. He told her to learn how to meditate.

So, she got out of bed and went to the meditation center. It was up a flight of stairs, and she was so weak she couldn’t walk up the stairs. She had to crawl to get up there. When she emerged from that period of practice, she had metabolized all that grief and pain and turned it into compassion. She was an amazingly loving and compassionate person.

How was Dipa Ma able to go from a place of so much loss, suffering, pain, and illness to finding the strength to get to that meditation center?

It’s analogous to the Buddha seeing the four heavenly messengers. Suffering is often a wake-up call that says, “Life is not like it has been promised to us.” We’re taught that we can control anything, but so many times we feel undone by sorrow. It’s just so strong or we feel we are so weak. And we don’t necessarily have the tools to navigate the situation. For example, when someone is sick or even dying you feel frightened or like you’ve done something wrong. So, the easiest thing in the world is to feel shame about what’s really a very natural condition of change. We tend to add on a sense of isolation or a sense of shame. We think, “I’m the only one.”

I imagine Dipa Ma may have been doing that. She may have learned to unwind it like we all do by seeing it and realizing we don’t need to do that. The original hurt is painful enough, we don’t need to add guilt, bitterness, shame, or isolation to it.

What was Dipa Ma like as a person and teacher?

She was a tough cookie when it came to meditation. She told her students to do strict formal dedicated meditation practice. She was much stricter than I am. In a retreat with Dipa Ma, there was no napping.

There are so many kinds of teachers. Some are mind-blowingly eloquent—they capture some kind of essential truth in a sentence, and they say it, and your mind does a turn and suddenly you see the world differently. Dipa Ma wasn’t like that for me.

Her presence, her energy, and her incredible compassion—that’s what I remember. She was extremely human, and her warmth was very personal. But she was also very insistent you do your best, though I never saw her reject anybody.

When you think about everything she’d been through—all the loss, grief, and pain—it’s a wonder that she even cared about anyone else. But she never had a kind of self-centeredness or self-preoccupation.

How did Dipa Ma influence you personally?

She changed my life because she told me to teach, so obviously, my whole life would look different if I hadn’t heard that from her.

When she told me to teach, I thought that was ridiculous because I’d only been practicing for about three years. Plus, I had enormous reverence for my teachers and couldn’t imagine that I would have anything I could really offer. In addition, I had a phobia about public speaking.

So, in 1974 I thought I was returning to the States for a brief visit and then I was going to return to India for the rest of my life. But when I went to Calcutta to say goodbye to Dipa Ma, she said, “When you go back to the US, you’ll be teaching with Joseph [Goldstein].” And I said, “No I won’t.” And she said, “Yes, you will.” I said, “Why are you saying that?” And she said, “You really understand suffering, that’s why you should teach.” And then she said, “You can do anything you want to do. It’s only your thinking you can’t do it that’s going to stop you.”

And I walked out thinking, “No, I won’t. It’s silly. How can she possibly think that I could teach?” So, I came back to the States and went to Boulder, Colorado to visit Joseph and met Jack [Kornfield] who was living down the hall at the Naropa Institute. Then we got invited to teach a retreat, and then another….and one morning I woke up and I thought, “She was right. Look at that.”

Dipa Ma is an inspiration and a role model for many, particularly women. Was this one of the reasons you were drawn to her?

I know many men, lay and monastic, who are very moved by Dipa Ma. It is also true that she, being a woman, and a householder, has been seen as significant for many women. I witnessed quite a bit of that in India, where she had a strong influence on the community of women in Calcutta, both those highly educated and those with virtually no education at all. For me, Dipa Ma was a role model because of the suffering she had turned into compassion.

Her compassion was always warm and friendly. There was a time when Joseph and I were in her room with a friend of ours whose mother had sent him this vitriolic letter saying, “You know I’d rather see you in hell than see you where you are.” This was a long time ago when meditation was often considered very creepy. Our friend was so upset, and he brought the letter to Dipa Ma and read it to her. It’s the kind of letter that could easily make you defensive and want to fight back but Dipa Ma reached her hand under the mattress (which was like the bank), and pulled out all these rupee notes. She was not well off by any means, but she pulled out these rupees and handed them to this friend and said please buy your mother a gift from me.

She was such a sweet person, and her compassion was immediate. I would love to think that I modeled myself on that.

How does Dipa Ma come up for you now?

A lot of the ways she comes up for me have to do with people telling me that they’ve been inspired by her. I meet a lot of people who never met her yet are very inspired by her and very moved by her and I think that’s just wonderful.

I miss her, but she feels close, especially with other people saying they feel a connection to her too. And that’s true, even when you haven’t met someone, it’s possible to have a very real connection.

Why is IMS’s Lineage Project important?

I’ve been gratified by the incredible increase in popularization of the teachings of mindfulness and lovingkindness in the West. But I know we can use these methods without much of a sense of tradition or history. In general, the Lineage Project will show some of the incredible variety of teachers and teachings that have had an impact on IMS.

It’s so easy for a student to think about becoming just like their teacher and that becomes the goal. Yet there are so many teachers who are very different from one another. It’s just different styles and I think that’s something we can appreciate the more we see the variations on the theme. So that was one of my goals in wanting to establish the whole project—to get as many kinds of people who feel close to a particular approach to be able to share.

There is no one right way. We must appreciate that it’s all methodology and it’s all meant to bring us to a place of greater equanimity and clarity.

What will the Dipa Ma portion of the Lineage Project provide for people?

With this series, I’m going to try to help people connect to Dipa Ma as vividly as possible. I’m hoping to include a collage of materials, including talks that Dipa Ma gave, possibly snippets of a movie about her, interviews with others who knew her or know about her life, and more.


Sharon will lead the IMS Lineage Project series on Dipa Ma, March 16, 23 & 30. Register to attend the IMS Lineage Project here.