Meeting My Teacher
Sometimes, a spiritual mentor seems to pick his students with a simple action
BY: Kamala Masters
Excerpted from "Voices of Insight," edited by Sharon Salzberg and used with permission ofShambhala Publications, Inc.
My first teacher Anagarika Munindra has, over the years, continually guided, influenced, and inspired my spiritual practice. He is also an early teacher of many who were instrumental in establishing the teachings of the Buddha in the West. So it can be said that Munindra is one of the grandfathers of Vipassana and lovingkindness meditation in the West.
It was during that weekend retreat in San Jose, California, that I first heard about Munindra (or, as he was often called, Munindraji, the ending--ji
-- conveying affectionate respect). He was described as a highly esteemed and well-loved meditation teacher with a great deal of textual knowledge, and a wealth of experimental wisdom from his meditative practice as well. In a few months he would arrive in America for the very first time to visit his students and to teach intensive retreats. The planning was underway for him to teach a one-month retreat in San Jose, near the town of Aptos where I lived.
Unexpectedly, I found myself filled with joy and anticipation at the thought of being able to devote myself to a month of practice, which was quite a big jump after only having just done a weekend retreat. And I didn't even have to go to India--a part of India was coming to San Jose! Out of sheer intuition, and a bit or impetuousness, I signed up retreat, not really knowing if this was the teacher for me or how I would work out the details of being away from home. As I took the steps to fulfill that decision, a mysterious flood of confidence filled my heart.
There are many arrangements to make so far in advance in order to be away for that long. Getting responsible care for my children, working overtime to save enough pocket money to cover expenses for the time off without pay as well as the cost of the retreat, stocking up on food and supplies, cooking and freezing some dishes ahead of time, and the usual endless clothes washing and housecleaning. The hardest part was preparing the children for my being away for so long. As it turns out, I was only able to participate in half the retreat because I just couldn't stay away from the kids the entire time.
By the time I arrived at the retreat venue, I felt worn to the bone with exhaustion from working so hard to get there. The retreat was at a large estate with a two-story home and beautiful garden in a suburban area. Because I arrived late and all the regular beds were taken, I was assigned a sleeping space on the floor in the upstairs hallway next to the large bathroom to be used by the teachers.
As I was nervously laying down my narrow folding mat and bedding in that hallway, Munindra came walking toward the bathroom and me. I had never met him before, but I knew from his shiny dark Indian skin, shaven head, and long white robes that it must be him. As he approached, I remember feeling totally at ease with his presence, which was unpretentious and light. His grounded composure helped me to relax. Being a newcomer to this ancient spiritual tradition, I somehow thought he would say something mystically profound. But he just stood there for a moment and looked curiously at the mat I was putting down on the floor, then at my haggard-looking face, then at the mat again. He surprised me when he asked in a matter-of-fact way, "Is that where you will sleep?" After a short conversation, during which he found out I was so tired mainly because I was a mom, he paused, pensively figuring out what to do next. What I remember most about our encounter was the look of concern and compassion in his eyes when he said (as I recall his words), "You cannot sleep well here. You must take good rest in order to practice. I will take your mat, and you take my bed."
Munindraji's kindness came forth with a practical directness. His giving came from a place of a very natural compassion for another human being and obviously not from a place of needing to impress. I was struck by the observation,though he is a meditation teacher, he truly doesn't consider himself to be more important than me.
In fact, it was as though he was treating me as respectfully as his own mother...
When we see the teachings embodied in someone, that living reality infuses us with faith that we have the same potential. And that faith holds us together through our practice. It's not just "good theory" holding it together. Munindra's example awoke in me the confidence and determination to realize my own spiritual aspirations. This is how I recognized Munindra as a true spiritual teacher for me.
Kamala Masters has practiced intensive meditation with Anagarika Munindra and Sayadaw U Pandita. Much of her practice over the past 23 years has been within her home, raising four children and being a householder and community member on Maui, where she is a co-director of the Vipassana Metta Foundation.