Cave In The Snow

You can visit Tenzin Palmo's website by clicking here

And you may find an interview from 'Ascent' magazine by clicking here.

The following interview was broadcast on Radio National "Late Night Live" in June, 2000.

Some selected excerpts from 'Cave in the Snow' follow after the interview ...

Tenzin: Traditionally, in any Buddhist country, when you receive ordination, you are absorbed into the monastery of whoever was the ordaining Master. Or at least he will then see to it that you are sent to a corresponding monastery for training. But for Westerners there is normally no such facility. Now, slowly this problem is being addressed by certain Lamas in the West. But still, the majority of people who attain ordination it's like they are newly hatched from the egg and they are just thrown out of the nest immediately and told to fly ...

Interviewer: What was your experience after ordination? Were you excluded from certain rituals & practices?

Tenzin: Well, I was excluded from all certain rituals & practices because of having a female form. My misfortune was that I was the only female in a monastery. It was not their fault but it was a monastery for monks. It was not somewhere for nuns and so therefore naturally I didn't belong. The difficulty was that being the only Westerner there also it was a very isolating experience because I didn't belong with the lay people either. So, I didn't belong anywhere.

Interviewer: So, what did you do and what did they expect you to do there?

Tenzin: Well, at that time, (and the reason I stayed on there) I was fortunately the secretary to my Lama, to my teacher. So i saw plenty of him and of the other incarnate lamas there. So, in that way, I had a very priveleged position in that I was always surrounded by these high incarnate lamas. So that was wondeful and that is why I remained. But, on another level, because I had to live alone, eat alone and ... socially i was very isolated in this way it was avery lonely and difficult experience.

Interviewer: You speak about your Lama. Is this Kantral Rinpoche?

Tenzin: Yes.

Interviewer: Did he understand your predicament?

Tenzin: yes, he did ... I mean he said, "It's very difficult. Previously I was always able to keep you very close to me but in this lifetime you have come back in a female form. So, what can I do? I'm doing the best I can but it's not easy."

Interviewer: So ... there was a sense here even with him that the female form was second best?

Tenzin: Not that it was second best but within a monastery it's not appropriate to have a female too close.

Interviewer: Now, you said that you are a recluse by nature ... that you don't actually relish what you are doing now ... what you're doing at this very moment which is travelling ...

Tenzin: Exactly (laughs)

Interviewer: We're sorry to be putting you through it ... we hope that some good comes of it. Uh, you don't really relish traveling the world and speaking so ...

Tenzin: It's not what I planned. No.

Interviewer: So why have you taken up this responsibility?

Tenzin: Well, two things. One thing because I'm again and again requested to come and talk with people. There are not that many female teachers in the Buddhist schools and so people like to hear a female voice ... and from my side also I am trying to generate interest in the plight of nuns and female practitioners throughout the world.

Interviewer: Now, most of your Buddhist life you've survived through patronage and sponsors but I gather that you're keen that the nunnery that you're trying to found should be economically self-sufficient.

Tenzin: Yes, in time we will do so ... at the moment they also have sponsors because they are just beginning. We are teaching them for example how to do sewing. They already know how to knit very nicely ... and in time they can also learn other handicrafts and I hope they will become more and more self-sufficient as the years go by.

Interviewer: Do you want to be Abbess yourself?

Tenzin: No, never. {laughs}

Interviewer: Now, I'm told ... is it correct that the Tibetan equivalent to the word "woman" actually means "inferior born"?

Tenzin: It does in fact.

Interviewer: Do you see any basic differences between men and women when it comes to the quest for enlighteenment?

Tenzin: No ... I mean the fact is that our essential Buddha-nature is neither male nor female is it? So, when one is in a state of meditation or even in a state of awareness ... where is the male? where is the female?

Interviewer: Do you have any understanding as to why you should have been born a woman in this lifetime?

Tenzin: Who knows ... but I don't regret it. I mean I do think that at this time women do need encouragement. This is a time when women are really beginning to question their own spiritual values and it does help to have other females who they can consult and who can encourage them along.

Interviewer: And would you hope to achieve enlightenment as a woman while in a female body?

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Tenzin: Who knows ... um ... I mean I did say this at one time and I was quoted on it and it keeps being quoted back at me ... but I don't mean to take a feminist stand on this ... a male body or a female body ... what difference? But, if it will help to encourage women to realise that they have total potential for enlightenment then to take enlightenment in a female body would be wonderful.

Interviewer: Now, in reading the book about your life, Cave in the Snow ... what really struck me was the fact that for Tibetans, reincarnation is simply a given. There's no question about it. And for example, your guru, whom we've mentioned, Kantral Rinpoche ... recognised you as a kindred soul from other lives immediately ... did you recognise him?

Tenzin: Oh, absolutely. The moment I saw him. It was a total flash of recognition and a sense of meeting again a very old friend whom I had known and hadn't seen for so long. ... And this happened again with his new incarnation. He passed away in 1980 and then I saw him again when he was two-and-a-half years old in his present incarnation and again he immediately jumped up and was so excited and recognised me and said "Oh, there's my nun! There's my nun!" and he was so excited ...

Interviewer: This experience of encountering someone whom we have never met before and it is as though they are old friends ... is possibly one which we have all, regardless of our beliefs, had ...

Tenzin: Absoultely.

Interviewer: ... but is it different in your case? Are we talking about deeper depths ...

Tenzin: I mean when I saw my Lama It was not only a sense of recognising an old friend. It was as though the very deepest part of myself, which is innate and behind everything had sudeenly taken external form. That, at one level, he had always been within me and now he was also outside.

Interviewer: Now ... being kept at a distance in the monastery ... you moved to a little place in Lahoul ... where you lived for six years ... in a cave ...

Tenzin: In a monastery ... when I first went to Lahoul, I lived in a monastery which had both monks and nuns.

Interviewer: But you did spend a lot of your time, am I right, living on your own in a cave ...

Tenzin: After that.

Interviewer: Right. And you've said that ... I mean what difference did the cave make to you? Why did you need it?

Tenzin: Well ... I needed ... more isolation in order to merge myself completely with my spiritual practice at that time.

Interviewer: And you did not have any sense that retreating to a cave was an escape?

Tenzin: An escape from what? ...

Interviewer: I suppose an escape from the world.

Tenzin: No ... because in order to understand who we really are - which is the great question of life - we need to have ... the time, you know? I think it's very pathetic that the West so often sees a time of introspection and isolation as being an escape instead of realising that actually it's the one time that we're really facing things ... in the modern world most people seem to be running away from themselves continually.

Interviewer: So ... distraction ... the distraction of the world is an escape ...

Tenzin: Yes, how distracted we are ... we never look inside.

Interviewer: You've also said that the time in the cave was one of the happiest in your life ...

Tenzin: Certainly.

Interviewer: ... despite the dangers - wild animals - avalanches ...

Tenzin: Wild animals are not a danger ... {laughs}

Interviewer: {laughs} What about ... you were snowed in once.

Tenzin: Ah, that could have been a problem but it really wasn't.

Interviewer: So, you had overcome any fear of death?

Tenzin: I was brought up as a spiritualist as a child and so death for us was an everyday family topic. It's not something I have ever feared. So, at times in my life when I really thought "Now I'm about to die" ... my initial reaction is "Oh, this will be interesting. Let's see what happens next."

Interviewer: After your time in India and your time in the cage ...

Tenzin: {laughs} Cage?

Interviewer: Sorry, I beg your pardon ...

Tenzin: Cage. Yes, indeed {laughs}

Interviewer: ... a Freudian slip {laughs} ... I'm sorry ... after your time in India and your time in the cave ... you returned to Europe. What was it like to return to the very changed Western world of the 1980's? Was it very shocking?

Tenzin: Well, it wasn't all that changed. I mean I returned to Italy. It wasn't a return as i'd never been to Italy before but I went to stay with friends who lived in the countryside outside of the very holy town of Assissi, associated with Saint Francis. In that area there are a number of Hindu ashrams and all the friends I subsequently made in that area were on some kind of Indian path. Either Hindu or Buddhist or the Christians whom I knew there were very sympathetic to Asian practices & philosophies. So, it was a home from home really.

Interviewer: And you yourself feel drawn to St Francis?

Tenzin: I love St Francis.

Interviewer: Which brings up perhaps to the relationship of Tibetan Buddhism to the West ... now that Tibetan Buddhism has found a home in the West, who do you think is going to be transformed? The West or Buddhism?

Tenzin: {laughs} Well, you know, historically Buddhism wherever it has gone has been very happy to absorb the local culture and colour. It has not felt threatened by its environment and ... the fundamental realities of the Buddha Dharma have remained surprisingly stable under the most unlikely external pressures. And so, I don't think there's any problem. I think Buddhism will transform through its contact with the West and hopefully Westerners, whether or not they become Buddhists, which is irrelevant, can help to transform their own lives through their contact with the Buddha Dharma.

Interviewer: Do you think that there is occasionally a certain frivolity in the way in which Westerners look to Buddhism? They look to a charismatic guru. They approach it without suficient seriousness?

Tenzin: Yes, that's a big problem. I mean in Buddhist circles this is a cause for great worry that we have no sense of discrimination. The Tibetans, ironically are much less gullible than Westerners. They are really quite skeptical about their Lamas and they watch them very carefully before they decide ... I mean they will be outwardly respectful but they will keep their allegiance only to those who have been tried and proven in this lifetime to have the necessary qualities. Westerners get caught up like with rock stars and movie stars, anyone who is glamorous & charismatic they will give them their lifeblood without any kind of examination of their worth at all. This is a big problem.

Interviewer: Is it a problem that can be adressed in any way?

Tenzin: Well, I would hope that gradually Westerners would become a bit more sophisticated on the guru scene and begin to get genuine discrimination and not be afraid to be skeptical.

{Interviewer then reads out list of contact numbers for Australian appearances and fund raising events}

Interviewer: Tenzin Palmo, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for joining us andd thank you for sitting patiently while I read out all those numbers. Thank you very much indeed.

Tenzin: Thank you, Alan.

There was also an interview in The Age which I may consider transcribing at some stage but don't hold your breath. :) It's not good for you.

Okay, here it is ... I had a break from contemplating my existence, so I decided to type up The Age interview ...


Tenzin Palmo, nun

1943: Born Hertfordshire, England

1964: One of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

1976-88: Lived alone in a cave in Himalayan mountains.

1988-92: Lived as a nun in Assisi

1998: Published her biography Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman's Quest For Enlightenment

1994: International teaching and fundraising

Lives: Northern India

Twelve years alone in a remote cave in the Himalayas, a diet of lentils and turnips, and. for a bed, a wooden meditation box too small to lie down in. Avalanches, illness, near-starvation and, of course, no heating.

Her long period of austere retreat is the hook in Tenzin Palmo's story that makes even the cynics take notice. Formerly Diane Perry, a British librarian who grew up above a fish sop in London's East End, she travelled to India in the '60s, found her guru and became one of the first Western women to become ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. When her lama suggested a period of solitary contemplation, she climbed a mountain and stayed there.

Interviews with her have been published internationally, everywhere from glossy women's magazines and tabloids - "Nun so Brave" - to religious monthlies - "Going beyond hope and fear."

For Palmo, the cave hype is expedient, but has little to do with her persoanlly. She is, she insists, an extremely ordinary person. She became a public figure in 1998 after meeting Vicki MacKenzie, who wrote her biography, Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman's Quest For Enlightenment. MacKenzie considered Palmo's journey remarkable; Palmo agreed on the basis that royalties would help fund a nunnery and international retreat for women she is establishing in India.

"The book is so completely not me. I am extremely ordinary; Vicki promoted this superwoman," Palmo says from Adelaide where she is on a teaching and fundraising tour. "I can step back behind this image because it is not really me, so it doesn't worry me. The cave was just a nice place to be, it wasn't heroic ... it was a relief to be by myself," she says of what was not really a cave but a ledge, 4000 metres above sea level, in India's Lahoul region, which borders Tibet. When the book was suggested, Palmo's initial reaction was "Who on earth would bother reading it?"

She would, quite frankly, prefer to be in retreat right now, pursuing the path to enlightenement, rather than being embroiled in international fundraising. But her drive to build a nunnery for women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions has taken her out into the world. Women, she says, must be allowed to "realise their intellectual and spiritual potential, to be equal with the monks. Traditionally the books and teachers and even the meditative visualisations were all male - there was no female voice."

There are now 13 nuns in temporary accomodation near the site of the planned nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, north India, and plans are being drawn up for the construction of the traditional stone and mud-brick buildings. With the support of the Dalai Lama, the project will give nuns access to the same spiritual education as their male counterparts.

Plamo, once reclusive, is now jetting around international cities, negotiating with Indian bureacracy, and cranking up the PR machine to raise the estimated $1.7 million required. Nothing she can't handle, her obvious intelligence, spiritual convictions, and Western savvy are a powerful combination - particularly perhaps for a Western audience. If it fits, she'll use the movie Groundhog Day - in which the character Bill Murray lives the same day over and over, making a better fist of it each time - as a metaphor for reincarnation.

You might get an other-wordly response to a question, or an extremely wordly one. During this tour of Australia, she visited Uluru. Was she interested in the rock as a spiritual site, or in experiencing something of Aboriginal culture? While she did meet some local people and "Felt a sense of sandness because of the plight of the Aboriginal people", she really wanted to go there after seeing the movie Priscilla, Queen of the desert, she says.

On the other hand, ask her about Enlightenment and she'll explain, with barely a moment's pause, that in a lay person'e terms, it is a "direct realisation of the absolute reality of your inner nature; within us we all have this level of consciousness beyond thought and concepts but that is directly knowable, a well of compassion ... (it is) to be cognisant of that and use it in everyday life".

Of course, she has that Buddhist detached acceptance that means her answers can seem elusive. What was the most difficult aspect of returning to what must have seemed an overwhelming, clamorous world after her years alone? She pauses for a long time: "I can't really think of anything ... I have the sort of mind that wherever I am, that's where I am."

A solitary life suits her - "For me to be alone is wonderful; solitary confinement is considered a punishment, but if I was in prison, i'd have to cosh a guard to get it."

Even as a child - a fairly unusual and precocious sounding one - she was quite introspective and had a fascination for nuns. In Cave in the Snow, she laughingly recalls how, as a teenager discovering Buddhism, she kept reading about the importance of relinquishing desire. "I thought: 'Right'. I proceeded to give all my clothes to my mother for her to dispose of and I started going around in this kind of yellow Greek tunic type thing ... I stopped wearing make-up, I pulled my hair back, wore sensible shoes and stopped going out with boys ... "

It became a profound and life-changing journey. When she first met her guru, she felt she knew him, and Diane Perry, aged 21, was recognised as the reincarnation of a monk he had known well. She farewelled her fiance, shaved her head, and began a new life as Drubgyu Tenzin Palmo or "Glorious Lady who upholds the Doctrine of the Practice Succession". And she was to help pave the way for other Western Buddhists.

She believes the rapid growth of the religion in the West is because, despite our material wealth, many people feel a gap in their lives. "It is a very practical, do-it-yourself religion. It is not dogmatic - you can use the methods of meditation in your everyday life."

Her cave retreat fascinated people because of its symbolic resonance, she says. "They don't want to do it but the idea that someone did affects them at a deeper level. Modern society is so off-track, people are so alienated from who they really are, so cut off from their inner depths. The cave symbolised a coming back to the inner centre."

Palmo's biographer, Vicki MacKenzie, had known er for almost a decade yet she still found her essentially unknowable, calling her "alluring yet enigmatic". When this description is read back to her, Palmo laughs long and loud. "I am not enigmatic; I am so simple that she misses it."

Reporter: Rebecca Lancashire

You can visit her website at -

And you may find excerpts of her book Cave in the Snow by clicking here.

Wisdom from the 14th Dalai Lama

For excerpts from Awakening the Buddha within - click here.

Okay, here are some notes from the day we went along to hear Tenzin speak and answer questions, July 2000 -

{These notes might be greatly expanded when the audio tapes of those sessions arrive. They can be ordered from her webiste - Click here - well worth it, IMHO, those 12 years in the cave weren't wasted!}


Anyway, here's a feww notes i jotted down through the day ...

These notes are somewhat sketchy due to learning fairly early in the day that some kind soul had ordered the audio tapes of the day's proceedings for my upcoming birthday. :) So I spent most of the day just listening and absorbing.

Nothing she said was essentially "new" to me but the way she seamlessly strung it all together without sounding "rehearsed" in any way was wonderful. Like threading pearls onto a piece of string. "It aint what you do, it's the WAY that you do it." :)

Tenzin is a sublime communicator for someone who spent 12 years alone in a cave in Tibet. Like most enLIGHTened biengs, she has a fabulous sense-of-humour and never takes anything too seriously. Her discourse on the open, spacious nature of the mind was has us spellbound. But, of course, to do justice to her words I will have to wait until the tapes arrive and trancribe them. You may have to nudge me through cyberspace to remind me to do so.

I do remember her emphasis that wisdom & compassion need to go hand-in-hand. That one is not much use without the other. There was also a long discussion on how we identify with our bodies, thoughts, feelings, judgements, social role etc. and especially our suffering. She said 'We weave our entire identity around our sufferings. We are such perverse creatures.' This was said in a matter-of-fact tone rather than a tone of judgement or condemnation.

At the end of the day, we dedicated the collective good karma of the day to the benefit of all beings everywhere. It was a memorable day for me as I had not been present at such a gathering before (discounting previous lifetimes :)

Actually, these first few were just my own thoughts & questions ... I started thinking about people I know who categorise humanity and "rate" everyone as "higher" or "lower" than themselves and HOW detructive this is. Yet, it becomes a habit and seems very legitimate and "real" while you're doing it because I've been there ...

Why is it SO much hard work to "connect" with our "true nature"? Why doesn't it JUST flow?

Most of the day concerned meditation and the cultivation of wisdom. She mentioned the two main streams of Buddhist meditation. I had heard of Vipassana or Insight Meditation but the first kind was a word i hadn't heard before. Sounded like "Shamatta" and is a calming of the mind in preparation for that deeper meditation. I found it interesting when she said some people get attached to the calm or inner bliss and STOP there. She used a wonderful analogy to a mountain lake as representing our minds. BUT for most of us, it is a lake which is filled with mud and constantly being churned up so it doesn't reflect the world around it at all well and if you try to look deep into it you can't see very far due to all the mud.

The first stage is to allow the mud to settle somewhat. The tougher task is to pull out the weeds that are growing in the mud and have very long root systems ... I'd like to get that imagery spot on from the audio tapes ... it was about the only time she mentioned her time in the cave - these little weeds but when she traced the roots she was amazed how intricate and tangled and how vast the roots were ...

The other imagery was to compare our minds to a rubbish dump. They are bombarded with so much garbage from books, TV, magazines, our opinions, judgements, negative emotions ... then we want to build a beautiful temple on top of it called "the spiritual life". But nobody builds a temple on a rubbish dump ...

She spoke of winning the co-operation of the mind rather than trying to coerce it or subdue it like a wild horse, if you break its spirit all you end up with is a broken, sad horse ...

We all have the capacity to be totally engrossed and absorbed in an activity. The challenge is to bring that quality of attention to something which s not immediately teribly fascinating like the ingoing and outgoing of the breath.

The Buddha himself must have experienced the problems of meditation and "getting the balance right" otherwise he could not have come up with the solutions ...

Good analogy with physical training or exercise - initially keep the sessions short so as to avoid burnout or a sense of "I'm no good at this" ...

Some sessions will "click" and you think "Ah, now I've got it"

A genuine meditative state is very vivid & clear & alert & aware. People often confuse a relaxed mental state with meditation. Good idea to not be too warm. Milarepa used to meditate with a lighted butter lamp on his head! That's an incentive to not get drowsy! She lamented the fact that a period of "family prayer" has become a thing of the past. Some excellent tips about children & meditation or at least a "quiet time". Looks like my notes were a bit sketchy ... :)

Meditation is actually better & more restful than sleep and the dream-state. She mentioned dream yoga. Interesting Question & Answer session at the end of the morning session ... one young woman experienced headaches during meditation and Tenzin said it sounds like she's trying too hard or too long and FORCING her concentration, trying to subdue the mind ... She has a great sense-of-humour as well, as all beings of light seem to have. A sense of play and not being too serious even on "serious" topics ...

One of the questions surrounded meditation & psychiatric patients. Tenzin said you'd need to make sure the person's mind was significantly calmed down before doing any deep insight meditation, especially if the person has a fragile ego. To start dismantling th layers of the ego could be risky. You'd need an expert guide in meditation who also was an expert in psychiatric matters. Such people are tought to find ... The fragile ego needs to be healed before it can be dismantled. And yet, at the same time, she said something about the greater your emotional distress, the greater the potential wisdom energy since thoughts & emotions are just energy and one can learn to transform negative into positive. (Sounds a lot like Way of the Wizard)

(AND form my own experience, on some medications, you'd almost be incapable of meditating as they shut down some higher brain functions, or subdue them significantly.) But I have read where those with a psychiatric diagnosis are advised NOT to attempt certain techniques ...

"I don't know what the answer is - it is a phenomenon that has been noted." I think that was in reply to a question about the sort of people in the West who are "drawn" to Buddhism and the reasons and whetehr these reasons are sufficient motive.

"I've never brought up a child, so I honestly wouldn't know." I think that was in response to a question about whether children go into a kind of "spontaneous meditative state" or whether they are just "tuning out".

She did advise meditating with eyes OPEN and focused on a pebble in front of you because it's hard to find a pebble all that fascinating!

At lunchtime I had a few thoughts ... We're often advised not to make judgements or comparisons but the reality is some people have ACTUALISED more of their potential than the rest of us mugs and there does seem to be a whole spectrum of degrees to which people have done this ... not quite sure where that line of thinking was headed ...

Well, as Tenzin said, try not to be too fascinated by the train or flow of thoughts. Simply observe them as you would observe a river from the riverbank. Don't try to dam up the river or alter its course ...

There was an excellent discussion of how us Westerners are so "head-oriented" and how our meditation tends to stay in the head and not influence our heart (chakra), so it tends to all fall apart when we go out into the world. All of our senses are located in the head.

An artists asked her an interesting question and she said that in many countries people do not sign their art and they make their art part of their practice.

There was also the observation tht people are often not "screened" before signing up for long retreats and the organisers may not be equiped to handle someone who has a BAD experience if they happen to have a fragile mind or ego. Sometimes you can experience great fear during insight meditation. And if you are travelling in unknown territory without an experienced guide, you can get into trouble ... the process must be done gently & skillfully to help the mind heal itself.

"When we are worrying, we KNOW that we are worrying even though worrying is a totally useless emotion."

She cited the Dalai Lama as a wonderful example of someone who responds quite naturally with wisdom & compassion to whatever situation he is in. It takes time to cultivate enough wosdom & compassion so that you spontaneously know how to respond to any situation without having to think about it.

She mentioned a Buddhist text on the "Perfection of Wisdom" which apparently is in verse form and full of contradictions and paradoxes ... worth checking out if I can find the actual name of the text. Yet, ultimately even compassion is a paradox since it is based on a false identification. (Not sure of what she actually said there - something about our unity & that there are no sentient beings to have compassion for ???)

This could be it - Kalama Sutta

... More to come ... (when I get around to it) ...

Then a week later, I have my hands on a copy of Cave in the Snow and my usual trick of opening it at random -

Page 144 -

While being like an "empty house" may seem desirable to a meditator, to the average person, brought up on the notion that passion and emotional involvement is what gives life its colour and verve, such a state could seem vapid and remote. Was being an "empty house" the same as being a "shell" of a person - cold and unfeeling? And what is the difference between detachment and being cut off from your emotions anyway?

Tenzin Palmo, as might be expected, refuted all such insinuations. 'It's not a cold emptiness,' she stated emphatically, 'it's a warm spaciousness. It means that one is no longer involved in one's ephemeral emotions. One sees how people cause so much of their own suffering just by thinking that without having these strong emotions they're not real people.

'Why does one go into retreat,' she went on hotly. 'One goes into a retreat to understand who one really is and what the situation truly is. When one begins to understand oneself then one can truly understand others because we are all interelated. It is very difficult to understand others while one is still caught up in the turmoil of one's emotional involvement - because we're always interpreting others from the standpoint of our own needs. That's why, when you meet hermits who have really done a lot of retreat, say twenty-five years, they are not cold and distant. On the contrary. They are absolutely lovely people. You know that their love for you is totally without judgement because it doesn't rely on who you are or what you are doing, or how you treat them. It's totally impartial. It's just love. Whatever you did they'd still love you because they understand your predicament and in that understanding naturally arises love and compassion. It's not based on sentiment. It's not based on emotion. Sentimental love is very unstable, because it's based on feed-back and how good it makes you feel. That is not real love at all.'

Page 195 -

In England, another well-known Buddhist teacher, Stephen Bachelor, tended to agree. He had been a monk for ten years, both in the Zen and Buddhist traditions, before becoming one of Buddhism's most famous skeptics, openly questioning such fundamental doctrinal principles as reincarnation. As a friend of tenzin Palmo, he was in a good position to comment on whether a cave was necessary for advanced spiritual practice.

'It doesn't make a lot of sense to make generalisations. So much has to do with the temperament of the person who is going to the cave. Knowing Tenzin Palmo it has obviously been an experience of enormous value, something which has had its knock-on effect afterwards. She is so clearly warm, outgoing, engaging in life. But Tenzin Palmo doesn't conform to the standard norm of the solitary hermit, who is usually introverted and world-denying. I can think of other instances where people are not so psychologically solid and where prolonged periods of meditation in complete solitude can lead to psychotic states. People go in looking for answers to their insecurity and alienation and can get locked into their neurotic perceptions rather than going on beyond them. You have to be wired in such a way to cope with this sort of isolation.'

As a monk, Stephen Bachelor had conducted his own retreats. On one occasion, doing three months in, three months out for a period of three years. He knows what kinds of traumas such an exercise can induce. 'You do confront your own demons (if you have any), which is of enormous value. You come up against yourself and you have to respond to your reality usin the tools you have been given. My long retreat eroded my belief system,' he acknowledged. 'I was in a Zen monastery where all we did was ask the question, "What is this?" My retreat was about unlearning. It was a very different approach from Tenzin Palmo's. In Zen there is no devotion to a particular teacher. One of Tenzin Palmo's great strengths is that she has great faith in her guru and the tradition she is part of. Frankly, it is a faith which I find inconceivable.'

Page 187 -

By the time Tenzin Palmo was travelling around the world on her dharma circuit, the new disciples were beginning tentatively to form 'Western Buddhism', prising the golden nuggets out of the Buddha's wisdom out of their Eastern casing to adapt them to their own culture. This was absolutely in keeping with Buddhist history. Throughout the centuries, Buddhism has travelled from one Asian country to the next and such was the flexibility of its thought that it had changed its colour, chameleon-style, to suit whatever envrironment it found itself in. As a result, Japanese Buddhism looked very different from Sri Lankan Buddhism, which in turn looked radically different from Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese or Tibetan Buddhism. Underneath the surface, the fundamental truths were the same - the suffering of cyclic existence and the necessity to find the path of escape. Now, for the first time in 2,500 years, the Buddhist tide had turned irrevocably westward and hit the many shores of Europe, the Americans and Australasia all of which carried their own distinctive culture and psyche. Each in time would endow Buddhism with its own unique characteristics.


Tenzin Palmo, who had no choice but to weld herself to Tibetan Buddhism in its purest form, looked on in fascination at the changes that were unfolding. 'I believe the West is going to make some very important contributions to Buddhism. Tibet was a very unique and special situation and they created a kind of Buddhism that was ideal for them. But the circumstances which Buddhism is now facing in the West are very so the dharma has to change. Not the essence of course but the way it is presented and its emphasis ... Bu these are very early days. The dharma took hundreds of years to get rooted in Tibet. There's no Western Buddhism yet. Buddhism will not get rooted in the West until some Western people have gone and taken the dharma and eaten it and digested it and then given it back in a form which is right for Westerners. At the moment it is like that period in Tibet when they went to India to bring scriptures back and Indian masters visited Tibet. Only gradually did Tibetans evolve it into a form that was right for them, just as the Thais and Burmese did. Westerners are eventually going to do that, but it has to happen very naturally.'

Page 53 -

Tenzin Palmo, it seemed, had learned the lesson of detachment. It was a fundamental Buddhist tenet, deemed essential for getting anywhere on the path to perfection. For, how can anyone feel compasion towards all living beings, the Buddha had said, while in their heart they are dividing them into 'friend', 'enemy' and 'stranger'? Ideally sound it may have been, but detachment was also extremely difficult to attain, for in reality not many human beings want to live with that much equanimity. Later, Tenzin Palmo was to remark pointedly, 'People are always asking me how they can give up anger, but nobody has yet asked me how to give up desire.'


Her frustration was enormous. 'It was like being at this huge banquet and being given a few crumbs her and there. It drove me nuts. I could get absolutely nothing in any depth. If I had been a man, it would all have been so different. I could have joined in everything. It was as though I had entered a big male club. The monks were very kind to me but on a deeper level there was resentment. They regarded having a woman on their turf as a challenge!'

Tenzin Palmo had hit the spiritual glass ceiling - the one which all Buddhist nuns with spiritual aspirations crashed into. Over the centuries they had had a raw deal. While their male counterparts sorted in the monastic universities, engrossed in profound scholarship and brilliant dialectical debate, the Tibetan nuns were relegated to small nunneries where, unable to read or write, they were reduced to doing simple rituals, saying prayers for the local community, or worse still, working in monastery kitchens serving the monks. This was why there were no female Dalai Lamas, no female lineage masters.

Page 170 -

To more advanced congregations, the talks get meatier and livelier, often spilling over into animated dialogues.

'There is the thought and there is the knowing of the thought. And the difference between being aware of the thought and just thinking is immense. It's enormous ... normally we are so identified with our thoughts and emotions, that we are them. We are the happiness, we are the anger, we are the fear. We have to learn to step back and know our thoughts and emotions. They're just mental states. They're not solid; they're transparent. One has to know that and then not identify with the knower. One has to know that the knower is not somebody.'

There is a silence while the listeners digest the information. Tenzin Palmo has ventured out onto profound philosophical ground. A voice from the floor speaks out: 'The knower is also not somebody,' the voice repeats slowly, thinking it over. 'That's difficult.'

'Yes! but that was Buddha's great insight,' Tenzin Palmo comes back with a voice quiet with respect.

'You think you've got it when you understand that you are not the thought or emotion - but to go further and know that you are not the knower ... that brings you to the question: "Who am I?" continues the questioner.

'And that was the Buddha's great understanding - to realise that the further we go back the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid, little eternal entity, which is "I", we get back to this vast spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings. In this space, you have to ask where is the "I" and where is the "other". As long as we are in the realm of duality, there is "I" and "other". This is our basic delusion - it's what causes all our problems,' Tenzin Palmo says with finality. 'Because of this we have a sense of being very separate. That is our basic ignorance.'

The dialogue from the floor continues: 'This duality, this sense of being separate, is the cause of our fundamental pain, the deep loneliness that human beings feel at the core of their being then?'

'Of course,' replies Tenzin Palmo crisply. It creates everything. Ignorance, according to Buddhism, is not ignorance about this or that on an intellectual level - it's ignorance in the sense of unknowing. We create this sense of an "I" and everything else which is "Not I". And from this comes attraction to other "Not I's" which "I" want, and this aversion to everything "I" don't want. This is the source of our greed, our aversion, and all the other negative qualities which we have. It all comes from this basic dual misapprehension.

'Once we realise that the nature of our existence is beyond thought and emotions, that it is incredibly vast and interconnected with all other beings, then the sense of isolation, separation, fear and hopes fall away. It's a tremendous relief!' she says. And the audience has to believe her. This si the mystic truth that saints from all religions have discovered - the joy of unity that comes when the ego has been shed.

Page 115 -

If the results of meditation could be sensational, the path to Enlightenment was plodding and exceedingly hard work. There was a lot to do and an inconceivably long way to go. The lamas said that if you reached there in three lifetimes you were moving incredibly quickly for the task at hand was the transformation of the body, speech and mind into that of a BUddha. No less. Understanding this, the Tibetans had developed the Way into a science. Anyone coulod do it, given the texts wwhich held the instructions, the initiations which conferred the empowerment and the right motivation which ensured the seeker did not fall into the abyss of self-interest. There were clear-cut paths to take, detailed directions to follow, delineated levels to reach, each marked with their own characteristics so that you knew precisely where you were. There were specific landmarks to look out for, special yogic exercises to do, and a myriad aids harnessing all the senses to propel the seeker forward. This was the mind working on the mind, consciousness working on consciousness, the task at hand unlocking the secrets of that three-pound universe contained within our own heads. In short, what Tenzin Palmo was engaged in was arguably the most important and significant adventure of all-time - the exploration of inner space.

Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, one of the world's most lucid and entertaining exponents of Buddhism, put it this way: 'What the meditator is doing on those very long retreats is a very technical thing. He's not just sitting there communicating with the Great Oneness. He's technically going down, pulling apart his own nervous system to become self aware from out of his own cells. It's like you are using Word Perfect and you are in the chip. And you are self-aware of being in the chip. The way you have done this is by stabilising your mind where you can go down to the dots and dashes and you've gone down and down even into that.

'In other words, the Mahayana Buddhist, filled with the technical understanding of tantra, has become a quantum physicist of inner reality. What he has done is disidentified from the coarse conceptual and perceptual process. He's gone down to the neuronal level, and from inside the neuronal level, he's gone down to the most subtle neuronal level, the supra-neuronal level and he's become where it is like the computer is self-consciously aware of itself. The yogi goes right down to below machine language - below the sub-atomic level.'

'When you have done this what you have achieved is not some kind of mystical thing but some very concrete, evolutionary thing. That's what the Buddha is defined as. The highest level of evolution.'

Personally, Tenzin Palmo had never doubted the efficacy of the methods she was following. 'Tibet had been producing Enlightened beings like an assembly line for centuries. For such a small population it was extraordinary.'

{July 21 - started reading in earnest - wow! I thought I knew a bit about Tibetan Buddhism but Tenzin brings the history and practice to life in a way that can only be done by one who has "been there & done that" ... basically couldn't put it down and despite a couple of very busy days, I've read 140 pages in well under 24 hours along with a few notes! ... until I transcribe all that ... see tenzin2.htm for some idea - though, now I would whole-heartedly recommend purchasing it if this much has whetted your apetite. The copy I have is not mine but I feel I'll probably buy my own copy ... the proceeds go to help build the nunnery so it's good karma all round ... :)

Page 17 -

Christianity, her home-grown religion, had never helf any resonance for Tenzin Palmo. In fact, it posed more dillemas than solutions. Tenzin Palmo, it seemed was confronting the problem of 'duality', good and evil, dark and light, big and small, looking for an answer that transcended the opposites.

She kept looking, looking for something. She wasn't sure what. She kept searching. A teacher at school read them Heinrich Harrer's book Seven years in Tibet about his journey to the land of Snows and his friendship with the Dalai Lama. And Tenzin Palmo marvelled that such a being existed in this world.


Tenzin had borrowed a copy of The Mind Unshaken from the library as the title had caught her eye. In the airport on the way home there was an eight-hour delay and as there were no shops or amusements on offer, Tenzin had no alternative to relieve her boredom but to open its pages. She got half-way through it when she 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 the book and you can tell me all about it.' Tenzin was not so phlegmatic.

'To me, it was astonishing. Everything I had ever believed in, there it was! Much better stated than anything I could have formulated for myself, of course, bu nonetheless! That view! It was exactly as I though and felt. And together with that was this absolutely clear and logical path to get us back to our innate perfection.'

Finally she had found it. 'That book transformed my life completely. I remember three days later walking to work and thinking "How long have I been a Buddhist? Three days? No, lifetimes." She did not know how right she was.

Page 23 -

'What it did was to split off part of my mind so that I had this kind of observing consciousness which was resounding with the "Om Mani Padme Hung". It gave me sapce in which I could develop awareness of what was going on rather than being right in the middle of it. '

'I wanted to be like the Buddha but i didn't want to be like the Arhats. They seemed so cold. Actually I think that was rather an unfair representation and I'm now much kinder to Arhats.' ... She kept refining her search until she came across a book by Nagarjuna and found in it a definition of Bodhisattva, the 'spiritual hero', who elects to forsake nirvana in order to return over and over to this world to help free all sentient beings. 'Immediatley I knew. That's what i want! That's the goal! To do it not for oneself but out of compassion for all beings. The idea of being a Bodhisattva really resonated.'

... While she was browsing through yet another book, she came across a brief description of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingmapa, Sakya, Gelugpa and Kargyupa. 'When I read the word "Kargyupa" a voice inside said "You're Kargyu" And I said "What's Kargyupa?" and the voice said "It doesn't matter. You're Kargyupa."

Throughout Tenzin Palmo's story, this same voice was to make itself heard again and again at strategic points, guiding her, warning her, steering her in the right direction. She always heeded it, regardless of what her head might be telling her. 'Actually it's been pretty hard to ignore - it has made itself fairly strong at times.'

Page 39 -

'It was a wonderful period. At that time, if you were a Westerner who showed interest in the dharma, everyone was amazed and delighted and all the doors were open.'

Page 43 - meeting Khamtrul Rinpoche -

She saw a tall, large man about ten years older than herself, with a strong, round face, almost stern in expression and a strange knob on the top of his head. It was similar to that depicted on effigies of the Buddha. 'The feeling was two things at the same time. One was seeing someone you knew extremely well whom you haven't seen for a very long time. A feeling of "Oh how nice to see you again!" And at the same time it was as though an innermost part of my being had taken form in front of me.' Such is the meeting with a true guru - it happens rarely.

Page 45 -

If rebirth was a given, and quite ordinary, reincarnation was not. Only those who reached the highest level of spiritual development, it was said, could train their mind at the time of death to reincarnate consciously in the precise place and circumstances they wanted. And only reincarnations were sought for and recognised under the elaborate Tibetan system developed over the centuries. These were the tulkus, the rinpoches or Precious Ones who had forsaken their place in the pure lands in oreder to fulfil their vow of returning to earth over and over again to rlease all sentient beings from their suffering. Tenzin suspected she had been a monk for many lifetimes and that her relationship with Khamtrul Rinpoche had started a long time ago.

Page 45 -

'You see, the relationship with your lama is so intimate, and on such a deep level, it's not like any other. How can it be? It's a relationship that's been going on for lifetime after lifetime. Your real lama is commited to you until Enlightenment is reached. What could be more intimate than that?'

Page 55 -

The effect of all this on the women, as Tenzin Palmo was now discovering, was crushing. Their self-confidence in their ability to get anywhere on the siritual path was reduced to virtually zero. 'Among Tibetan women, their main prayer is to be reborn in a male body. Theya re looked down upon from all sides. It is so unfair. I once visited a nunnery where the nuns had been away to hear a high lama teach. He told them women were impure and had an inferior boddy. They were so depressed. Their self-image was so low. How can you build a genuine spiritual practice when you're being told from all sides that you're worthless?'

'At one point, I asked a very high lama if he thought women realise Buddhahood and he replied they could go all the way to the last second and would have to change into a male body and I said "What is it about a penis that is so essential for becoming Enlightened?"

Urged on by her own unhappiness and the blatant unfairness of it all, Tenzin Palmo began to rsearch the reasons for this loathing of the female body. Her findings were illuminating. 'The Buddha never denied that women could become Enlightened. He was truly Enlightened and saw things as they truly were. Others. however, used the Buddha's insights to serve their own purposes.

... 'It was only gradually that I began to think no, wait a minute, this isn't right and to feel very sad.' It all reached a crescendo at one significant point in time. It was then that Tenzin Palmo made the vow that was to inspire hundreds of women around the world when they heard of it. The vow to attain Enlightenment as a woman.

'It was a moment of sheer frustration after being rejected yet again on account of being female. I made this heart-felt pledge: I'm going to continue to take female form and attain Enlightenment! I was so exasperated by this terrible male chauvinism that was all around me. And so, I mad this strong prayer; even if I can't do that much in this lifetime, in the future may this stream of consciousness go forward and take on the transitory form of a female rather than a male.'

Page 61 -

Undoubtedly the highlight of all those dark days in Dalhousie was meeting the Togdens. They were fascinating characters. With their dreadlocks and scruffy white skirts, they looked like Eastern Rastafarians. In reality, however, they were ordained monks, the elite yogis of Khamtrul Rinpoche's community. Selected from childhood fro the purity of their intenetion, they were removed from the rest of the monks to undergo the most rigorous and most secret of trainings. their mystic feats were legendary. One of their forebears, Amkha Dechen Dorje, who happened to be maried with children, managed to dematerialise not just himself but his entire family as well, plus his yaks, sheep, goats and dogs - an assembly of some sixty-two individuals. According to the story, Amkha went first to the Pure Land playing his damaru, followed by his wife, his children and finally his animals.

Among the present community, there were still some remarkable men. Back in Tibet, one old Togden, Atrin, had meditated on the edge of a precipice to stop himself falling asleep. He had lived for years on just water and tsampa. For a year, Tenzin lived with these remarkable men. At night, they would sit out in the cold, damp air, their bodies wrapped in wet sheets, learning to dry them through the force of raising the mystic inner heat, tumo. She had heard them leaping in the air and crossing their legs in the full lotus position before landing on the ground. She heard their chants. Out of all the monks, the Togdens alone treated Tenzin as one of their own.

'They told me that in Tibet when they were chosen to be Togdens and taken up to the caves they were so excited because they felt that now they were going to become yogis. But for the first three years they were instructed to do nothing but watch their mind and practice Bodhicitta, the altruistic mind. They did that and nothing else for three years! They said it was in those three years their minds transformed. After that, all the many practices they did were just building up on that foundation. One time one of them said to me: "You think we yogis are doing some very high, fantastic, esoteric practice and if only you had the teachings you also could really take off. Let me tell you that there is nothing I am doing that you have not been taught. The only difference is that I am doing it and you aren't."

'The amazing thing about these yogis is that they are so ordinary. There's no ego there. They're wonderful people, totally unjudgemental, totally unpretentious, absolutely un-self-regarding and the easiest people in the world to be with. Their minds are so vast.'

Page 66 - entering Lahoul -

When she got to the bottom she found that she had entered another world. 'It was like arrriving in Shangri-la. I had gone from an Indian culture to a Tibetan one. The houses al had flat roofs, there were Buddhist monasteries dotted all over the mountainsides, it was full of prayer wheels and stupas and the people had high cheekbones, almond eyes and spoke Tibetan.'

Page 73 - briefly back in London -

If ever she had any doubts about her vocation, her two and a half months at the Department of Employment soon banished them. 'I felt very sad. There were all these middle-aged guys saying, "What have I done with my life?" and young married people with mortgages, already trapped. All they talked about was what was on TV. I was in my robes and because of that they opened up.

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