Interview in Nova Holistic Journal June 2008
by Rosamund Burton

Rosamund Burton meets an extraordinary woman embodying faith, perseverance and the pursuit of happiness for others.

Tibetan Buddhism does not at this time have full ordination for its nuns and is, despite its highly evolved spiritual practices, still very much a male bastion. Yet Tenzin Palmo has not only earned the admiration of people all over the world, but also the deep respect of many Tibetan Buddhist lamas, not to mention His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Originally from the East End of London, she became a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the 1960s and spent 12 years living alone in a cave high up on a mountain before founding the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery.

In February this year, Tenzin Palmo was given the title of “Jetsunma”, which means “venerable master” by His Holiness the Twelfth Gualwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage – the particular form 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 extraordinary woman who has survived incredible physical hardships in her dedication to her meditative practices. She is currently undertaking a tour of Australia, giving public talks and seminars, and is speaking in Melbourne on 1st, 3rd and 4th May, before going to Sydney for the Happiness Conference on 9th and 10th May.

I wonder what effect so much spiritual practice has had. On the one hand she seems very normal. She smiles and chats, and I feel instantly at ease. Then I feel her brilliant blue eyes pierce and touch me in an indescribably profound way.

She is extremely eloquent and answers my questions in a very systematic and logical way, and as she laughs or emphasises a point, you are aware of a strong underlying serenity.

This is the woman who made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form no matter how many lifetimes it takes.

“For many centuries, millenia probably, women have been the overlooked second half of the human race, so that most of the spiritual leaders are male and the texts are written by men from a male perspective,” she explains. “Therefore, it seemed to me obvious that we don’t need more male spiritual leaders; we need more female spiritual leaders, and so it made sense to vow to come back always as a female in order to help women who are so overlooked.”

Theravadan Buddhism, which is practiced in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, and Tibetan Buddhism do not have fully ordained nuns. Therefore, in these countries the nuns have been ordained by the monks, but that means they are always novices, because full ordination must be given by a nun who herself is fully ordained.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Tenzin Palmo explains, remaining as novices means that there are many texts which nuns are not allowed to study, and also offices and rituals which they can not carry out. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, she continues, is very supportive of the move to enable nuns to receive full ordination, but knows that his geshes are not supportive, and doesn’t want to move on this issue if the rank and file are not 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 into line immediately.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has suggested that Tibetan Buddhist nuns go to Hong Kong to be ordained, as Tenzin Palmo did herself in 1973 when she was thirty years old, but she explains, the nuns do not want to go outside their own lineage.

Tenzin Palmo, then known as Diane Perry, was born on 30 June 1943. Her father was a fishmonger and died when she was only two, so she was brought up by her mother and older brother, living above their fish shop in Bethnal Green. Her mother was a spiritualist, and the weekly séances held at their home meant that this young girl was used to unusual spiritual experiences. In “Cave in the Snow” there is description of the night the large mahogany table with an 18 stone woman sitting on it lifted off the ground and into the air.

Diane Perry’s realisation that she was a Buddhist occurred when she picked up a book called “The Mind Unshaken”. She started studying Buddhism and discovered that it was the Mahayama branch that interested her, which is practiced primarily by the Tibetans. With further reading she realised that the school she needed to study was Kargyupa and, aged 20, she decided to travel to Dalhousie in Northern India where an English woman called Freda Bedi had started a small nunnery for Kargyupa nuns, and a school for young reincarnated lamas.

1963 was an extraordinary time to be in Dalhousie because it was a major Tibetan refugee centre, and the great monasteries that had been recently destroyed when the Chinese 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 as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

She stayed with Khamtrul Rinpoche and his monks for six years, but became increasingly frustrated and despondent about being unable to learn the teachings which the monks had access to. Finally, one day she told her guru she was leaving. At that point he instructed her to go to Lahaul, a remote region of the Indian Himalayas near the Tibetan border, in order to undertake more intensive practice.

She stayed in a small monastery there for several years and then, wanting more seclusion for her practice, she found 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 meditation box. Here she lived for the next twelve years, and for the last three years in strict solitary retreat. One winter there was an avalanche and the snow completely blocked her door, so she had to dig herself out. Another time 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 an abrupt end in 1988 when a policeman knocked on her door saying there was a problem with her visa, and that she would be arrested if she did not report to the local police station the following day. Having been in India for 24 years, and suddenly no longer in retreat Tenzin suddenly felt she needed to return to the West. Friends invited her to stay with them in Assisi, so she went there.

Before HE Khamtrul Rinpoche died in 1980 he had asked Tenzin Palmo several times to start a nunnery. Then in 1993, she attended the first Western Buddhist conference held in Dharamsala, at which she spoken passionately about the plight of women in Buddhism. Shortly after this, she took on the task of starting a nunnery for the women of her order, and began to give talks all around the world to raise funds and interest in the project.

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 are from Tibet and others from nearby countries such as Bhutan and Ladakh. They undertake an initial six-year program, after which they may choose to do a long retreat and, if they have the necessary qualities, go on to train as Togdenmas, the female equivalent of the highly spiritual Togdens.

Tenzin Palmo is 65 years old this year and admits that after a tour of Europe in 2009 she is not going to do any more traveling. She says that she is always telling the nuns that as soon as they are ready, she would like them to run the nunnery themselves.

“At that time it will certainly be good to go back and do some more strict practice,” she says.

At her public talk in Sydney she will discuss the mind and the control it has over us. Rather than trying to control our minds, she explains in her slightly European sounding accent, which has no trace of her East End roots, most of us try and control our external circumstances. We put a lot of effort into creating what we believe will 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 need to become more present.

When asked her view on Tibetan attempts to raise awareness of the plight of their country via protesting along the route of the Olympic torch relay, she says: “The Tibetans are a symbol of oppressed people around the world, and they know that this is their last chance to get the world to notice their incredible plight.”

Tenzin Palmo adds that it was both admirable and brave of Kevin Rudd to bring up the Tibet question on his recent trip to China. She believes that the best strategy for the West at this time is to try and put a little pressure on China to get them at least to talk with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She says that Western countries need to have the integrity to say to China that they are not prepared to trade with them unless they have a better code of ethics when it comes to human rights.

Tenzin Palmo’s final words are simple and yet profound: “I think the most important thing is to live in a way which brings the most benefit both to oneself and to others. So you live your day really sincerely trying to bring happiness to as many people as you can find, starting with the people closest to you and around you.”

This is how Tenzin Palmo has lived her life and it would be true to say that she has brought enormous happiness to the many people with whom she has come in contact.

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