Dipa Ma Calls: My Journey to Kolkatta

When I began reading about the path of other meditation teachers I came across the biography of Sharon Salzberg. She described one of her primary teachers Dipa Ma with the feeling of being deeply loved. During one of her early trips to India, Dipa Ma asked Sharon,

                             'Are you happy?' 'Are you sleeping well?' 'Did you eat well?'

I was so touched by this it made me cry. The way Sharon depicted Dipa Ma it was as if you could feel her asking you these questions in a very personal and sincere way. Of course, when I shared the story to my 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. Even if my doctor did ask if I was happy (and I don't recall her doing so), she would not be talking about my soul's happiness.

The soul's happiness, however, is what Dipa Ma was concerned with.

These tender questions were the impetus in learning more about Dipa Ma. So much in fact I travelled to Kolkatta to visit her only living daughter Dipa. I guess you could say I was searching for my own teacher too. I recalled many years ago my teacher in Mysore saying the spiritual teachers you really want to be with are not passing out their palm cards (he meant their business cards). To a large degree, I knew he was right. Possibly the most authentic and truly evolved teachers are not those who are feverishly advertising themselves. Like Neem Karoli Baba they don't want anything from you. They might also act like he did and say, "So now that you have seen me --- you can leave."

It was my eleventh trip to India and I had always told myself travelling within India did not include Kolkatta. It's fairly ironic I should then organize, plan and figure out a trip there. I had heard Kolkatta was worse than Mumbai and been told from a travelling yoga student she was sexually assaulted in the street. These were pretty good reasons not to go. However, my purpose to visit Dipa took presidence over these trite details.

Who is Dipa Ma? She was a very rare and special woman known to have reached several stages of enlightenment. But more importantly she studied and practised meditation during a time when women were openly discouraged and certainly not recognized for doing so. During her practice she developed incredible insight 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 learn meditation. Dipa Ma was also married off at a very young age as was the norm in India and lived in poverty.

Today, in the United States there are many well-known meditation teachers who had the privilege of studying under Dipa Ma. She was a true and authentic teacher who was not seeking fame, fortune or popularity. When she died in 1989 there were around 400 students who travelled to Kolkatta to pay their respects. Some of her prominent students are Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield. Like the Buddha, she believed if you did not achieve one stage of enlightenment you had wasted your human birth. For life, as the Buddha also taught is not intended for getting rich or famous alone, but for inner evolution.

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 a student there and who then believed Dipa Ma´s son might know something. 

'God, will I ever get connected to the right person?'

Back and forth with e-mails and 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 reassurance of a warm welcome from Dipa. She was looking forward to meeting me.

This was wonderful and exciting news. It was even more meaningful because my travel partner (who is now my husband) felt I might be viewed as a noisy tourist. You know, some people might be plain noisy. Some people might not have the passion, will or even the interest to make such a trip. I am curious, yes, but never noisy.

Fast-forward and  I am at the airport waiting to check-in. “Oh, Dum-Dum,” said the attendant at the counter. "Kolkatta's other name. Dangerous."

Grabbing my boarding pass and scoping up my carry-on bag I must admit thinking how everyone is always just so encouraging. Going to Kolkatta was not to visit another dumb, dirty, busy, chaotic and albeit interesting city of India.  Besides which I lost interest when I mentioned earlier that a woman had been fondled by men in a streetcar. (Kolkatta, by the way, is only one of the cities in India that actually has cable cars.)

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 to Kolkatta. (As an aside, the Maidens is an old colonial-style hotel that was established in 1903. Since 2000, I have stayed regularly and it remains one of my favourite heritage hotels in India. With high ceilings, white columns and a few friendly faces who remember me, it is always a treat.)

Travelling within India is certainly never what it looks like on paper. I imagined the time in between with the rest of the hotel was totally doable. My exhaustion set in somewhere along the line and I slept most of the time on the train. Spending the entire day travelling usually leaves you spending the next day resting. At any rate, by the time this entire Indian trip is over I will have gone from one end of India to the other and sideways.

Notwithstanding the facts about Kolkatta as a dirty, ridiculously overcrowded and congested city it is also the city of lovers, poets, mystics and great saints. I concentrated on these points while I stared at the wilted rose we received upon boarding the train. We had a first class cabin and were served corn flakes and milk for breakfast and french fries and cutlets for dinner. I gave the latter to my husband who will eat just about anything (at least on the way there).

Perhaps people don't consider a 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 many 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 truly an enlightened soul.

Riding a train for close to twenty-four hours gives you a lot of time to 'think' (or sleep). There isn't much else to do. And funny enough we had the same routine on the return trip. A wilted rose, a paper wash cloth and a snack before dinner at 8 p.m. Dinner, however, was a bit better with rice, sambar and samosa. Breakfast was worse. Four fries (literally), two vegetable cutlets (they looked like they were dead), mouldy toast (and that was after I had taken a bite) and instant coffee. Totally gross. It must have been the left-overs from last´s night dinner. Talk about spoiling the diet regime of healthy living. I tossed them aside and even my husband was disgusted (a rarity).

Kolkatta Train Station

Once in Kolkatta we choose a richshaw driver (not difficult to do and the same protocal in all major cities) who followed us from the train to the exit gate. We drove three hours to west and eat and  looked at three different hotels. According to the Internet they were ‘lovely.’ In reality they were crappy. Nothing but run down and completely in the middle of nowhere. We ended up driving all the way back from the east to the west and settled at a nice resort.

Our Spa Towels

By the time I called Dipa it was early evening. I was not sure what to expect or not to expect. The conversation was natural as I heard a soft and tender-hearted voice over the phone. Not long into the conversation she asked if we would stay for lunch.

"Lunch? Wow, we would love it," I replied. This is great I thought.

On the following morning we made our way to see Dipa through the Kolkatta rain. It rained for the whole day. Because of this we were over an hour late. Apart from the rain we were also up against other obstacles (see below). When I called Dipa to tell her we would be late she misunderstood and thought we were not coming.

"Noooooooooooo", I said on the mobile. This will be terrible if she disappears. When we finally arrived Dipa had waited in the rain at a subway station just outside of her apartment. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. What a lovely and humble woman.

Local Traffic

Dipa still resides in the same home where her mother Dipa Ma was living and past away in. I found her home so beautiful as we sat in the same room Dipa Ma had greeted foreigners and meditated. Many Western students who visited her here described the room as small, but with an incredible feeling of lightness and space. It like like this and so much more.


Inside of Dipa's home

Indeed a small and ever so modest room. For many this would not even be enough to be considered comfortable. But what it had over any fancy room was a very big heart. There was an extremely good feeling of comfort, ease, calm and peace. Several pictures of family members, monks, teachers and the Buddha accompanied this simple, quiet place. 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 busy streets of India and the poverty but miss its spiritual heart.

There is a lot to share about my visit with Dipa. The important part, however, is an exceptionally kind and gracious woman and being the space of an enlightened mother. After serving lunch, Dipa offered 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.”

With this she began to weep, which took me by surprise. I felt helpless and so deeply for her as I tried to understand her loss as best as I could. A loss that really was not much more for me than as a curious stranger could understand. Death, a mother and especially Dipa Ma are such personal and private matters. I do not think anyone can rightfully say they understand. And frankly speakly, I can't believe it can be any other way.

After I met Dipa it felt so right that I had meet her. She is a small woman physically, but a strong one internally. As a gift (a surprise for sure) she gave me a large picture of Dipa Ma for my meditation room. She had left it sitting on the sofa while we talked. I hadn't noticed it, which was funny because I am usually very observant about any misplaced items in a room. Dipa told me she had taken it to the photoshop to have it enlarged. I was overjoyed and touched. The photo is of Dipa during one of her trips to the United States. She is standing dressed in a white sari and wearing a black socks.

In the Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master one of Dipa Ma´s students shares the story of having given Dipa Ma a pair of socks. I presume it is these same ones as seen in the picture. For the sake of this post I have shortened the story, but 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 in your meditation room and mother is there. She is your mother as she was a mother to all.`` It was just a photo, but it felt like a piece of gold.

When we left Dipa walked us back to the driver who was waiting for us. Even despite the busy traffic of cars, taxis, cows, bicycles and goats 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 friendly and unreserved. Her words were exactly like those of my own mother when we parted.

Dipa and Heather Morton  

In my mind, I still see Dipa standing in the middle of the street. As we parted I took a few steps away and looked back. It was as if she knew I would and turned around to wave again. I waved back and tried to memorize the fleeting moment of saying good-bye as the traffic moved, the lights changed and we climbed into the taxi.

During the taxi ride to the hotel my husband and I fought over who would take care of the picture.

I claimed it should not be folded and how we better make sure it doesn't get damaged.  He was busy replying, ``Do I look like I am folding it?`` After wrangling back and forth we both agreed to place it on the ledge of the back of the taxi. Once we were back at the hotel we would store it safely in the suitcase for the train ride.

Our visit was simple, clear and filled with meaning. There was no heavy fan-fare. It was in many ways a quiet lunch, a relaxed talk and a happy time. Lunch, tea, cookies, our talk and finally our departure seemed like a dream. It was complete and whole. There was nothing undone, no where to do and nothing to do.  

This visit is makes me think of life in so many ways. We cannot stop or hold a single moment in it. But a moment can be etched into us to last a long time; even a lifetime. 


The Journey So Far

Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.

What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.


My Photo
Heather Morton
is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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