Rosamund Burton meets an extraordinarywoman embodying faith, perseverance and the pursuitof happiness for others.
TibetanBuddhism does not at this time have full ordinationfor its nuns and is, despite its highly evolved spiritualpractices, still very much a male bastion. Yet TenzinPalmo has not only earned the admiration of people allover the world, but also the deep respect of many TibetanBuddhist lamas, not to mention His Holiness the DalaiLama.
Originally from the East End of London, she becamea Tibetan Buddhist nun in the 1960s and spent 12 yearsliving alone in a cave high up on a mountain beforefounding the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery.
In February this year, Tenzin Palmo was given thetitle of "Jetsunma", which means "venerablemaster" by His Holiness the Twelfth Gualwang Drukpa,the head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage – the particularform of Tibetan Buddhism to which she belongs.
I have read Vicki MacKenzie's wonderful book,"Cave in the Snow", about Tenzin Palmo,and now I find myself face to face with this extraordinarywoman who has survived incredible physical hardshipsin her dedication to her meditative practices. She iscurrently undertaking a tour of Australia, giving publictalks and seminars, and is speaking in Melbourne on1st, 3rd and 4th May, before going to Sydney for theHappiness Conference on 9th and 10th May.
I wonder what effect so much spiritual practice hashad. On the one hand she seems very normal. She smilesand chats, and I feel instantly at ease. Then I feelher brilliant blue eyes pierce and touch me in an indescribablyprofound way.
She is extremely eloquent and answers my questionsin a very systematic and logical way, and as she laughsor emphasises a point, you are aware of a strong underlyingserenity.
This is the woman who made a vow to attain Enlightenmentin the female form no matter how many lifetimes it takes.
"For many centuries, millenia probably, womenhave been the overlooked second half of the human race,so that most of the spiritual leaders are male and thetexts are written by men from a male perspective,"she explains. "Therefore, it seemed to me obviousthat we don't need more male spiritual leaders;we need more female spiritual leaders, and so it madesense to vow to come back always as a female in orderto help women who are so overlooked."
Theravadan Buddhism, which is practiced in Thailand,Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, and Tibetan Buddhismdo not have fully ordained nuns. Therefore, in thesecountries the nuns have been ordained by the monks,but that means they are always novices, because fullordination must be given by a nun who herself is fullyordained.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Tenzin Palmo explains, remainingas novices means that there are many texts which nunsare not allowed to study, and also offices and ritualswhich they can not carry out. His Holiness the DalaiLama, she continues, is very supportive of the moveto enable nuns to receive full ordination, but knowsthat his geshes are not supportive, and doesn'twant to move on this issue if the rank and file arenot really behind him.
"However," says Tenzin Palmo candidly,"many of us do feel that if he said 'Okay,I really do want this to happen, this really is my wish:who is behind me?' most of them would fall intoline immediately."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has suggested that TibetanBuddhist nuns go to Hong Kong to be ordained, as TenzinPalmo did herself in 1973 when she was thirty yearsold, but she explains, the nuns do not want to go outsidetheir own lineage.
Tenzin Palmo, then known as Diane Perry, was born on30 June 1943. Her father was a fishmonger and died whenshe was only two, so she was brought up by her motherand older brother, living above their fish shop in BethnalGreen. Her mother was a spiritualist, and the weeklyséances held at their home meant that this younggirl was used to unusual spiritual experiences. In "Cavein the Snow" there is description of the nightthe large mahogany table with an 18 stone woman sittingon it lifted off the ground and into the air.
Diane Perry's realisation that she was a Buddhistoccurred when she picked up a book called "TheMind Unshaken". She started studying Buddhismand discovered that it was the Mahayama branch thatinterested her, which is practiced primarily by theTibetans. With further reading she realised that theschool she needed to study was Kargyupa and, aged 20,she decided to travel to Dalhousie in Northern Indiawhere an English woman called Freda Bedi had starteda small nunnery for Kargyupa nuns, and a school foryoung reincarnated lamas.
1963 was an extraordinary time to be in Dalhousie becauseit was a major Tibetan refugee centre, and the greatmonasteries that had been recently destroyed when theChinese invaded Tibet were being re-established there.She met her guru, His Eminence 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche,and she became the second Westerner to be ordained asa Tibetan Buddhist nun.
She stayed with Khamtrul Rinpoche and his monks forsix years, but became increasingly frustrated and despondentabout being unable to learn the teachings which themonks had access to. Finally, one day she told her gurushe was leaving. At that point he instructed her togo to Lahaul, a remote region of the Indian Himalayasnear the Tibetan border, in order to undertake moreintensive practice.
She stayed in a small monastery there for several yearsand then, wanting more seclusion for her practice, shefound a small cave up in the mountains above Lahaul.The cave was only six feet deep and ten feet long, and,because she was training herself to do without sleep,she did not even have a bed, but only a wooden meditationbox. Here she lived for the next twelve years, and forthe last three years in strict solitary retreat. Onewinter there was an avalanche and the snow completelyblocked her door, so she had to dig herself out. Anothertime a supply of food she was expecting never arrived,and she had to eke out her minuscule supplies for months.
Tenzin Palmo's three year retreat came to anabrupt end in 1988 when a policeman knocked on her doorsaying there was a problem with her visa, and that shewould be arrested if she did not report to the localpolice station the following day. Having been in Indiafor 24 years, and suddenly no longer in retreat Tenzinsuddenly felt she needed to return to the West. Friendsinvited her to stay with them in Assisi, so she wentthere.
Before HE Khamtrul Rinpoche died in 1980 he had askedTenzin Palmo several times to start a nunnery. Thenin 1993, she attended the first Western Buddhist conferenceheld in Dharamsala, at which she spoken passionatelyabout the plight of women in Buddhism. Shortly afterthis, she took on the task of starting a nunnery forthe women of her order, and began to give talks allaround the world to raise funds and interest in theproject.
In January 2000, the first nuns arrived and in 2001,the construction of Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery began.Today, there are 45 nuns from aged 15 to 25. Some arefrom Tibet and others from nearby countries such asBhutan and Ladakh. They undertake an initial six-yearprogram, after which they may choose to do a long retreatand, if they have the necessary qualities, go on totrain as Togdenmas, the female equivalent of the highlyspiritual Togdens.
Tenzin Palmo is 65 years old this year and admits thatafter a tour of Europe in 2009 she is not going to doany more traveling. She says that she is always tellingthe nuns that as soon as they are ready, she would likethem to run the nunnery themselves.
"At that time it will certainly be good to goback and do some more strict practice," she says.
At her public talk in Sydney she will discuss the mindand the control it has over us. Rather than trying tocontrol our minds, she explains in her slightly Europeansounding accent, which has no trace of her East Endroots, most of us try and control our external circumstances.We put a lot of effort into creating what we believewill make us happy, such as acquiring money, relationships,houses and cars, and then find we are still not content.
"We have to start cleansing our minds,"she says, and becoming mindful, and to do that we needto become more present.
When asked her view on Tibetan attempts to raise awarenessof the plight of their country via protesting alongthe route of the Olympic torch relay, she says: "TheTibetans are a symbol of oppressed people around theworld, and they know that this is their last chanceto get the world to notice their incredible plight."
Tenzin Palmo adds that it was both admirable and braveof Kevin Rudd to bring up the Tibet question on hisrecent trip to China. She believes that the best strategyfor the West at this time is to try and put a littlepressure on China to get them at least to talk withHis Holiness the Dalai Lama. She says that Western countriesneed to have the integrity to say to China that theyare not prepared to trade with them unless they havea better code of ethics when it comes to human rights.
Tenzin Palmo's final words are simple and yetprofound: "I think the most important thing isto live in a way which brings the most benefit bothto oneself and to others. So you live your day reallysincerely trying to bring happiness to as many peopleas you can find, starting with the people closest toyou and around you."
This is how Tenzin Palmo has lived her life and itwould be true to say that she has brought enormous happinessto the many people with whom she has come in contact.
For more information about Tenzin Palmo's talksin Australia go to www.tenzinpalmoaustralia.net andto find out about the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery goto www.tenzinpalmo.com