Review of “Living this life fully: the life and teachings of Munindra.”

Review of “Living this life fully: the life and teachings of Munindra.” August 30, 2011
“Living this life fully” is a magnificent work, documenting the life of a man dedicated to the Dharma in a way that is truly rare these days. Anāgārika (homeless-one) Munindra, or simply Munindra-ji to his friends and students, was a Bengali Buddhist teacher and was well-known for bringing Buddhist teachings to bear on the individuals he was with, in both India and the West. And yet he is largely unknown today because he neither wrote nor had his talks published while he was alive. Mirka Knaster has therefore produced a very precious gift for anyone interested in how vipassanā meditation made its way to the West. The book contains a forward by Joseph Goldstein, an historical introduction by Robert Pryor (my boss from last year’s Antioch Bodh Gaya program), and contributions from over 100 people who knew Munindra. Included are many if not most of the ‘big names’ of Western vipassanā practice, including Jack Kornfield, S.N. Goenka, Daniel Goleman, Ginny Morgan, Larry Rosenberg, Sharon Salzberg, Christopher Titmuss, and John Travis, as well as academics including John Dunne, Robert Sharf, and Peter Skilling.

The book is divided up into 16 chapters, each under the heading of of a Buddhist virtue, such as Sati (Mindfulness) or Viriya (Energy, Vigor). The contents of each chapter are then further divided into anecdotes and stories about Munindra to show how he lived and taught these virtues. Chapter 8, “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” on Energy, Vigor, for instance, begins with the section By Your Own Bootstraps in which Munindra’s “can –do” attitude toward his own life and that of his students is expressed in some of his quotes and stories from his students, including the then 18-years old Sharon Salzberg. The stories themselves become teachings, and I found myself marking up what I felt to be the central idea of each one, and trying to take it to heart. In the book you see that Munindra was in many ways quite orthodox, as we might think of it, in the Theravādin school of Buddhism. He says there is no guru, only a “spiritual friend” to show you the way and it is you who must do the walking. He tells one student to, “transform the energy of […] rage so it becomes a fountain of love” with the power of loving-kindness.

With so many contributors in the project, what is sometimes lost is the sense of narrative and authorial coherence. One person who comes up a lot in the book, relatively, is Kamala Masters. And there is just about enough information in the story to get a glimpse into who this person is. But then not quite. Other contributors are here and gone in a flash and I found myself flipping through the contributor list at the end of the book regularly to see just who was who. It is often precisely when the contributors voices fall away that Mirka Knaster’s artful prose and story-telling are best capable of gripping the reader. But what is lost in fluidity is made up for in countless brilliant short teachings, each appropriate for the situation in which it was presented. In those moments Munindra the person comes to life just as his wonderful teachings do in the words of the contributors.

Like any biography, this book will no doubt be a must-have for those who knew this remarkable man. Likewise if you are in the vipassanā practice, you will no doubt know some of the contributors, personally or at least in name. Hearing about one of their great teachers might come as a welcome treat, and certainly the wisdom of the teaching here will hit home with any reader.

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