Interview in The Age, Australia
by Steve Waldon May 2008
Diane Perry’s life journey has taken her from the East End of London to a nunnery in India, via 12 years in a cave. She spoke to Steve Waldon.
It is impossible not to make the comparison between the Templestowe house where we meet this remarkable woman and the Himalayan cave in which she spent 12 years seeking enlightenment.
The first is close to opulent — comfortable furniture, smooth floors, beautiful decorations and a grand piano. The second was a rocky overhang, its front and sides bricked up to counter the unremitting cold; mud and cow dung slapped onto the walls; a small storage area for the food that had to last months at a time; a small stove; a box; a bucket for ablutions; no bed, just a meditation box.
It was 1976, and more than a decade of privation and isolation followed.
“I loved my meditation box. I’d wrap myself up in my cloak and be perfectly snug there, out of the draughts,” she told her biographer a few years ago.
“I don’t know what happened to it (the box),” she told The Age this week. “Probably chopped up for firewood.”
This is Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, in Melbourne to raise interest in (and funds for) the Buddhist nunnery in India that has become her life’s mission. This life, anyway.
She was born Diane Perry in June 1943, and raised in London’s East End. Her childhood was pretty normal, though often marred by serious illness.
But there was something else, most uncommon — she often felt she was a misplaced being. In her early teens, searching for spiritual meaning, she tried reading the Koran, and thought about what Christianity meant.
At 18, on a trip to Germany with her mother and already yearning for Eastern philosophy, she took three books. She read the Sartre and the Camus, but curiously overlooked The Mind Unshaken, a book with Buddha on the cover that she had brought along almost as an afterthought. During an eight-hour delay at the airport on the way home to England, she began reading it.
According to the account in her biography, Cave in the Snow, she “got half-way through it, turned to her mother and said in a small, surprised voice: ‘I’m a Buddhist’. Lee Perry replied in her down-to-earth way, ‘That’s nice, dear, finish reading then you can tell me all about it.”
What follows is an often surprising story of transformation and discovery, with Jetsunma sometimes running on the spot awaiting guidance, which often arrives suddenly.
“Occasionally, I hear what you might call an inner voice — a male voice, very clearly making a statement,” she says.
It was that voice that told her with great authority to move aside when she was shovelling snow off the roof of her cave. The voice was insistent, so she moved, just before a boulder landed where she had been.
In 1979, she was buried alive in her cave when a relentless blizzard piled snow higher and higher around her.
She dared not light the stove or any candles because they would use up precious oxygen.
As the days of dark, cold and loneliness mounted, she meditated on the Buddhist beliefs about death and rebirth, and prayed to her guru, Khamtrul Rinpoche, for the refuge of his love and wisdom.
Then came the voice: “Dig!” For more than an hour, she attacked the snow drifts with a saucepan lid, finally emerging into the fresh air. But the blizzard continued, and she retreated to the cave. Twice more over the following days she had to crawl on her belly, along the icy tunnel, and scrape to the surface.
Despite the intensity of her prolonged, self-imposed asceticism, Jetsunma treats this phase almost lightly.
“I’ve practically forgotten it — it really was a past lifetime,” she says, offering a beatific smile in place of more details.
If “past lifetime” is not an excellent Buddhism joke, it should be.
She is a champion of elevating the role of women in Buddhism, but Jetsunma is concerned that readers might perceive incorrectly from her biography — that she is an arch feminist. Not so, she says: it’s just that she saw women being disregarded through lack of education.
Before he died in 1980, Khamtrul Rinpoche encouraged Jetsunma to start a nunnery. Later, when she emerged from seclusion and wondered what she was meant to do next, the request was repeated by the lamas of the Khampagar monastery in India.
But how to raise funds? Who would listen to her?
“I’m not a lama, I’m not a Tibetan, I’m not anything exotic, so why would anyone invite me to talk on dharma?” she says.
Probably because of her extraordinary devotion, and with the help of sympathetic lamas, her reputation is spreading.
“Slowly, slowly, I began to get invitations to talk. When I spoke about the plight of the nuns, who had no education and nowhere to stay, people would say, ‘It’s true, for 20 years I’ve been donating to monasteries and you’re the first one to mention the women’.”
Jetsunma says she is not bridling against chauvinism. Hers is a more considered entreaty on behalf of women, emboldened perhaps by the Dalai Lama’s acknowledgement that there was no prohibition to Buddha in a female form.
And anyway, inequality for women is scarcely restricted to Buddhism, she says. “This patriarchy is not just in Tibet, it’s everywhere around the world. All religions and most social systems are patriarchal.”
She says she sees a parallel between the plight of the Tibetan nuns and the struggle for Anglican and Catholic women to attain priesthood.
On the current ruckus between China and Tibet, Jetsunma neither shies from comment nor allows it to swamp the purpose of this visit to Australia.
It is, she says, a difficulty. And like anyone, she probably prefers the succour of a calmer karma.
Please feel free to view the multimedia presentation.