Honoring a Life & Legacy in the Dhamma: Mirka Knaster on Munindra

photo by Arlene Bernstein
photo by Arlene Bernstein

A young man in the East Bengal region of India, born in 1915 to a Buddhist family that traces its roots to the time of Siddhattha Gotama, raised in a home that respects both study and practice, reads every book he can get his hands on. Becoming fascinated with the Dhamma, he comes to work for the Mahabodhi Society, a group devoted to reawakening Buddhism in the land of its birth.

Through this work he comes to meet with everyone who is anyone among those spurring the emergence of Buddhism in the West, from Mahasi Sayadaw to the Dalai Lama. After nine years in Burma, practicing vipassanā, studying the Pāli Canon virtually non-stop for five years, and then teaching, he returns to India, to Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

There he mentors most everyone who is now anyone among the Westerners prominent in the late-twentieth century manifestation of Buddhism in the West. He does all this with immense humility, scholarship, sincerity and intensity over the decades, including significant periods here in Barre, Massachusetts, including BCBS. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that his example of how the knowledge of the Pāli texts can aid meditation practice, passed along to his Western students, is one reason BCBS exists today.

In 2004, Mirka Knaster, on retreat at the Forest Refuge, wonders to herself whether anyone is documenting the depth of this influence. Consulting those who knew him and carried on his work, she learned that no one had begun such a project. So she did.

A student at BCBS as well as a yogi at IMS, Mirka has dedicated the proceeds from the book that resulted, Living This Life Fully, to a scholarship fund at BCBS to honor the life and legacy of Anāgārika Munindra. She and her husband have also added to this fund above and beyond those proceeds. The purpose of the Anāgārika Munindra Scholarship Fund is to support studies in the foundations of Theravada. It will provide assistance exclusively to those individuals who want to further their knowledge of the Pāli Canon, including the Pāli language and Abhidhamma.

Insight Journal asked Knaster to summarize what she learned in writing the book about this unique individual who so embodied the synthesis of study and practice, serving as a living example to so many people who are now familiar to those of us practicing Buddhism in the West. What follows draws on both her book and research for it that did not appear in the book per se, as well as reactions she has received since it was published.

What inspired you to write the book?

During the month of May 2004, I was on self-retreat at the Forest Refuge. Munindra had died the previous October, just before I went on a six-week retreat at IMS. I was simply sitting and minding my own breath in the beautiful meditation hall, when a thought arose out of nowhere. It was as though someone suddenly asked out loud, “Who is honoring Munindra-ji’s life and legacy in the Dhamma?” Of course, there was complete silence in the hall. Later, in my room, I jotted down this question in a little notebook and then let it go. But I was perplexed as to why this had arisen in my mind, for I had not been the kind of close student of Munindra that some others had been.

Once the month-long retreat was over, I went to Joseph Goldstein and asked whether he or anyone else was working on such a book. He knew of no one. Then, when I went home, I called Kamala Masters and asked her. Her response was the same as Joseph’s, but she added that there was someone who might have done some interviews with Munindra before he passed away. I eventually tracked down that person, who turned out to be Robert Pryor, co-founder and director of the Antioch Education Abroad Program in Buddhist Studies in Bodh Gaya, where Munindra taught from its inception. During the fall of 2000, Robert had recorded eighteen hours of interviews with Munindra in order to preserve a record of his life and teaching. Since we shared the same goals, Robert became my collaborator on the book.

I don’t know why, but I felt so compelled to work on this book that I pushed other projects to back burners and devoted myself fully to this project. I had no idea it would take six years, but it was like being on retreat with Munindra as I read interviews with him conducted by Robert and then did interviews myself with almost 200 people around the world. I got to experience Munindra more deeply through everyone’s recollections, as well as through his own words, than in the time I spent with him on Maui, when he used to visit Kamala.

So much about Munindra’s early life seems to have propelled him to his journey; was he always interested in study?

Munindra’s thirst for knowledge started in his childhood, when he read the story of the Buddha’s life and wanted to know what the Buddha knew. He was so curious that he read books from various religions, whatever he was given. That curiosity continued throughout his life. He became familiar with aspects of other traditions and even saw factors of enlightenment in different religions.

Despite his curiosity throughout life, it seems as if his time in Burma was really when he became a unique resource, when his curiosity encountered some great Buddhist intellects.

Yes. Throughout his life, Munindra read extensively, but in Burma, he did intensive practice with Mahasi Sayadaw and also engaged in equally intensive study of the Pāli Canon under the guidance of U Maung Maung, a highly respected Theravada scholar. He studied from dawn to dusk with such great enthusiasm that it took him only five years to complete all the texts. (I understand it would have taken at least 10 or more.) He told Robert Pryor that it was easy for him because he felt as though the Buddha were right there as he was studying the texts and because his prior intensive practice enabled him to deeply understand the written teachings.

With the combination of his natural curiosity and the opportunities to study, he became a unique intellectual resource.

By the later years of his life, he was well known as a walking encyclopedia of Dhamma. He spent many of these later years living at a center in Igatpuri, India, run by S. N. Goenka, the renowned vipassanā teacher. In an interview with Robert in 2006, S.N. Goenka told him that because Munindra was a scholar of Pāli, they used to have little discussions that were always special. Goenka understood the meaning of certain Pāli words according to Hindi and Sanskrit. Then Munindra would say. “Yes, this is also true, but at the same time, traditionally, the meaning of this word is like this.”

Munindra and Goenka also used to have Dhamma discussions in Burma, where they first met. Coming from the Hindu tradition, Goenka said, “Till the age of thirty-one, I never heard one page of Buddha’s teaching, so it was very important for me to discuss and learn from Munindra (raised in a Buddhist family) what the Buddhist tradition is. Then, of course, by reading pariyatti, the Buddha’s words, it became clearer and clearer. And, with my practice of patipatti, it became more clear that the Buddha’s teaching is so good. So, in this way, we were friends, and [later] in Bodh Gaya, while walking, we would discuss things like this.”

As a scholar, Munindra offered an important service to students as well as to other teachers. Gita Kedia (a relative of Goenka and a vipassanā teacher in his style) recalls that whenever she arrived at Goenka’s residence at Dhamma Giri, if she had any question or confusion, Goenka would direct his secretary, “Go and find Munindra-ji.” She said, “Munindra only talked about Dhamma, nothing else. And wherever he was, he solved everybody’s doubt. People were very much attracted to him because they knew he was such a learned person.” Shyam Sunder Khaddaria was one of them. He said, “I was doing some Bengali translation and recording. Then Goenka-ji told me that I should go tell Munindra-ji what I had done. He was to listen to it and comment.” After that first meeting, Shyam began visiting Munindra in his room to talk about the Tipitaka. “Whenever I used to have any problem regarding pariyatti, he used to guide me very nicely, give me lots of advice and explanation, and tell me what to read. Any question I put to him, instantly he used to give me the reference: ‘That is in such and such piṭaka and such and such gatha.’ It was very valuable that he knew by heart all the piṭakas, gathas, and suttas. His way was quite theoretical, scholarly, plus there was his own experience; both combined, it was very authentic.”

A Westerner at Dhamma Giri, Peter Martin, received similar help. “From time to time, there would be some questions, not about the practice but about the Pāli Canon. I was working with Goenka-ji’s chanting and trying to understand more about the Pāli passages. There were some where I wasn’t sure of the reference, and Munindra helped. ‘Yes, this is the story behind that.’ And I’d ask him about a particular line: ‘What is the translation of that and what is the meaning of that?’ Munindra-ji was somebody I could rely on and somebody who, even though I didn’t know well, I trusted so much.”

What was Munindra’s day like in Bodh Gaya, when he was teaching a number of people who are now teachers of Dharma in the West?

From people who were with Munindra in the same building or center, I learned that he always woke up quite early to practice and also attend to his correspondence. I imagine he read then as well, for once he was out and about, he dealt directly with people and was engaged in various activities. He spent most of his time making himself available to anyone who wanted to learn what he knew.

In spite of the depth of the knowledge, though, it seems that he never separated study and practice in his interactions with others.

Mostly, Munindra was a practical person and a practical teacher. For example, Kamala Masters told me that when he was staying with her on Maui, often for months at a time, they’d study together in the morning. She still has the complex Abhidhamma chart he made for her. Sometimes she didn’t understand what he was explaining. Rather than declare, “This is the only way it can be, you must know it like this,” he would say, “Test it out for yourself, see for yourself.” For Munindra, the Canon was not simply a text one memorized and recited, though he did both with ease. (In conversations or dhamma talks, he would quote from the Canon in Pāli, then offer his English version of the passage.) The Dhamma was not something Munindra split hairs over; rather, it was something he lived. As Joseph Goldstein told me, “I really appreciated the depth of his knowledge. Though I never did a systematic study the way he did, I learned so much of the Pāli Canon and some of the Abhidhamma through the way he taught. I got a very broad understanding of and very good grounding of Dharma because he was such a master of the study aspects as well as the meditation aspects. Those two parts were so well integrated in him that he really gave me an appreciation for both sides, and I see how well they feed each other.” In his introduction to Joseph’s first book, Ram Dass also noted that Munindra had so thoroughly absorbed the Buddha’s teaching, after deep practice as well as learning the entire Pāli Canon, that he grokked the Dharma, he merged with it.

Detail of Munindra's Abhidhamma notes made for Kamala Masters.
Detail of Munindra’s Abhidhamma notes made for Kamala Masters.


The Abhidhamma seems so difficult for many, and somewhat remote from practice, but apparently it didn’t seem that way to Munindra, and he was able to convey that to students.

One night in Bodh Gaya, Munindra’s talk to the students in the Antioch Education Abroad Program in Buddhist Studies was about Abhidhamma. This is what John D. Dunne, who taught philosophy in the program in 1994 (he’s now a tenured professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University), remembers of that exposition on the roof of the Burmese Vihar: “What Munindra essentially did was go through in very fine detail a number of the mental functions from the Pāli Abhidhamma and the way they related to meditation practice. I was really quite amazed and impressed. The only text that was remotely close was the Visuddhimagga, but I had never heard a living scholar go through on that level of precise detail and make the connections in such a fine way, and I had never heard a meditation teacher use the categories in such an almost scientific way. Of course, you could tell that he was a serious practitioner of meditation because of his bearing and his calmness…but until then I didn’t realize the depth of his scholarship. He not only had studied the texts and thought about them, but he’d really connected them to his own personal practice. What he did for me was make a bridge between my scholastic study and my meditation practice.”

When Munindra was staying with Kamala Masters in Hawai’i, she was not only deepening her practice with him but raising four children and holding down a full-time job. He gave her a list of books to read. But he also told her, “Don’t try to study so much now if you can’t, but do practice. Then, when you have time to read the texts, they’ll make sense according to what you have experienced.” He was basically giving her the kind of advice that had worked so well for him in Burma.

Often when someone becomes so deeply knowledgeable, they shut down to other points of view. But, if anything, Munindra seems to have become more open-minded.

Munindra viewed things through a wide-angle lens. It would have been out of character for him to suggest there was only one possible interpretation of texts or only one way to practice. His mind was open to seeing many sides to things and not putting down someone else’s view. Texts, books in general, were very important to Munindra. He was constantly reading the many booklets that came out of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka and also from the Pāli Text Society in England. They were commentaries and translations of the Pāli Canon by different people. He would say, “You can learn from every side. Clinging to views and opinions is one of the causes of great suffering.” As Peter Skilling (head of the Buddhist Studies Group at the École française d’Extrême-Orient and founder of the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation in Bangkok) commented about Munindra’s lack of rigidity in his scholarship, “He certainly wasn’t dogmatic or I wouldn’t have gone back and asked him so many questions.”

Reflecting his not being obdurate or insistent about holding certain views or clinging to certain translations, Munindra also used to say, “The Buddha said, ‘The world argues with me, I don’t argue with the world.'”

This open-mindedness extended to other Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions, too?

Munindra was so open-hearted and broad-minded that, through reading a wide range of books, he became familiar with the teachings of other traditions. When students came to him and spoke from those other backgrounds, he was able to respond warmly, with understanding, rather than being dismissive or judgmental. For example, early on, Munindra asked Kamala, “Why are you practicing?” Raised Catholic, she answered, “Because I want to know God.” In response, he quoted from the Bible, from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall know God.” Then he asked her, “Is your heart pure?” “Oh, no,” she said. “Well, then you need to purify your heart, and this is how you do it through practice.” He was always able to bring the conversation back to Dhamma practice.

Derek Ridler, who met Munindra during the three-month retreat at IMS: “One of the things that was very attractive to me [about Munindra] was his clarity. I would go to the small group interviews [at IMS], and I was really taken by his unassuming manner. These teachings on impermanence and suffering came from another culture, another time, yet he was able to express this wisdom in such a way that I could relate it to my own experience. I thought, ‘This makes sense to me on a personal level.’ There was also an impeccability about his teachings. I can appreciate now his background as a scholar. But that was not the thing that I found most attractive. It was really those immediate teachings that I received from him that stayed in my mindstream.” Although Ridler is a dedicated practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, he considers the importance of those Theravada teachings. “What arises for me is a deep sense of appreciation of having had the opportunity to practice vipassanā. It really helped me to learn how to sit in a nonconceptual way. I remember how Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche spoke about the Hīnayāna as a foundational vehicle, not the lesser vehicle, and how crucial that foundation was because, without it, Vajrayana was like building a beautiful mansion on a frozen lake. And we all know what happens when the lake thaws.”

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao has been following a Zen path since her mid-twenties, yet she too learned from Munindra, in Calcutta and Bodh Gaya: “He’d start explaining nāma-rupa and go on and on in this incredible detail. He was clearly a very intelligent man. I considered myself a new dharma student at the time, and suddenly being exposed to a whole other element of the tradition that I’d never been exposed to was fascinating.”

Munindra’s impact on Dharma in the West is hard to measure, since it spreads from the core group of Westerners who studied with him in the early days of that movement.

photo by Roy Bonney
photo by Roy Bonney

Yes, there are many stories about that in the book. Munindra’s wisdom opened many doors for others to gain knowledge. Dan Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence and many other books inspired by Buddhist practice) remembers Munindra’s unexpected and lasting contribution to his life as a psychologist: “He gave me a wonderful book by Mahasi Sayadaw on the stages of insight, which was one of the few books in those days in English about vipassanā. I was quite fascinated because it was a well-articulated phenomenology of the states of awareness, like I’d never seen in the West. Munindra helped me find sources. He told me about a book called the Visuddhimagga. On a trip to Delhi, I was lucky enough to find it and study it. I used to go and ask him questions, and he would help me clarify points that I wasn’t sure I understood. He…was extraordinarily precise and clear in his thinking and his teaching style. He was the first one to show me that there was a system of psychology that was quite cogent and robust within Buddhism, which was a shocker for me because I’d been a Harvard graduate student in psychology and I had never been told there was any psychological system outside of Europe and America. That was a major intellectual discovery for me and one that I pursued and, in some ways, continue to pursue. Today I’m involved with the Mind and Life Institute in having neuroscientists look at the outcomes of the methodologies of Abhidharma.”

Even now, the inspiration to others is continuing through the book, for those not lucky enough to know him in life.

There has been a steady stream of feedback, both from those who knew him in life and those who only encountered him through the book. I received emails from people who knew Munindra and others who never met him. Old students were happy to “relive” their memories of him and also learn a lot more about him. Some people felt encouraged to deepen their practice because of feeling re-inspired by Munindra.

Those who didn’t know him wrote that they found reading about him an inspiration. For example, one person wrote, “I am reading Living This Life Fully for the second time. As a matter of fact, it has become a source book for a deep look at how to live a life based on Buddhist principles. I particularly love the way Munindra’s life and teachings have been organized into the context of the paramis, factors of enlightenment, etc. It’s inspirational to read about this man from the first-hand experiences of the practitioners who knew him. My direct experience of the recollections combined with his own words and the pictures of him give me a sense of what it must have been like to be around him. This viscerally calms me down and opens me to the qualities of mind being discussed. This book has deepened my practice.”

Another reader commented, “How sad that I never had the chance to meet Munindra in person. Reading the poignant and detailed portrait of his life and work, through the eyes and ears of so many of his students, I felt the same way as I did when I read about Dipa Ma, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche. All four of these Buddhist teachers were living examples of what they taught. I read the book as slowly as I could because it has so much to teach me. Here was a man who believed that if it was possible for the Buddha to become enlightened, it was possible for any of us. And he spent every moment in that endeavor–and succeeded. What an inspiration!”

Why did you decide to set up the scholarship fund at BCBS?

I have long appreciated that BCBS exists with a separate function than that of IMS. It’s the reason why I set up the scholarship there. Munindra’s life in the Dharma was one of balance or integration between study and practice. Uno Svedin, one of Munindra’s earliest students in Bodh Gaya, felt that, in his profound knowledge, Munindra “combined in a very uncommon way the role of scholar and the role of experiencer and practitioner. This is very important for the West because we can recognize ourselves in his way of connecting the intuitive wisdom part and the scholarly part not as two disjunct domains but as a merged wholeness.”

I want to add something that Steven V. Smith said that I think would be useful for the importance of scholarship: “It is one thing to be fired up from feeling someone’s love of Dhamma and enthusiasm. It’s another for it to be backed up by an encyclopedic hold of practice, theory, instruction, and understanding of the Pāli Canon.”

~    ~    ~

The Anāgārika Munindra Scholarship Fund

The Anāgārika Munindra Scholarship Fund (AMSF) is being established to honor the life and legacy of Anāgārika Munindra, the Bengali meditation master and Theravada scholar who greatly influenced the teaching of Dharma in the West. In accordance with Munindra’s own interests, the AMSF’s purpose is to support studies in the foundations of Theravada. It will provide assistance exclusively to those individuals who want to further their knowledge of the Pāli Canon, including the Pāli language and Abhidhamma. It is not intended for meditation retreats per se.

The gift of $10,000 from Mirka Knaster will establish this fund. Yearly scholarships of $500 will be awarded to individuals interested in attending classes at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) until the fund is depleted. The Senior Scholar will be given the discretion to select those individuals he deems best suited to receive a scholarship. Such individuals will be required to pay 50% of the class fee; the AMSF will contribute the other 50%.

It is hoped that the establishment of the AMSF will stimulate additional dana. If so, BCBS and Mirka Knaster may mutually agree to expand AMSF’s capacity to award scholarships or make other changes as deemed necessary.

If you would like to make a donation specifically to the Munindra scholarship fund, please contact our office at bcbs@dharma.org or call 978-355-2347 x10.

Thank you for supporting BCBS.