Walking the perfect path

2007-12-07 00:00

Born Diane Perry in 1943 in the East End of London, Tenzin Palmo’s life has been driven by the question: “How do we become perfect?”

“I raised this question with many people who I thought might know, such as teachers and priests,” she recalls. “Everyone seemed to reply along similar lines, saying, ‘Well, you have to be good’ or ‘You have to be kind’. But even though I was only a small child, I remember thinking, ‘Yes, of course, but that’s not all there is to it’.”

Her question was answered when she discovered Buddhism. “I still remember vividly what an outstanding revelation it was to learn that there was already a perfect path set out and that it embraced all the things I already believed in.”

Following that path took her to India at the age of 20. There, among the Tibetan community in exile, she met the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche who became her guru.

She subsequently became only the second Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, taking the name Tenzin Palmo.

She stayed with Khamtrul Rinpoche and his community in northern India for six years and then he sent her to the Himalayan valley of Lahoul in order to undertake more intensive practice. “Lahoul is one of the many little valleys in the Himalayas which are geographically Indian, but where the culture and religion are Tibetan,” she says.

Tenzin Palmo stayed in a small monastery there for several years, going into retreat during the long winter months. “However, the location was’t really conducive to retreats. One day a young monk moved into the room above me and that was like having a wild yak living upstairs. So I decided it was time to move out and find somewhere quiet.”

“Somewhere” turned out to be a cave in the mountains. “It wasn’t actually a cave, to be honest,” she says. “It was more of an overhang.”

With a wall and some windows added it became habitable and she lived there for the next 12 years, the last three in strict retreat. The retreat came to an abrupt end in 1988 when a policeman knocked on her door to inform her that her visa had expired and she must leave the country. She went to Assisi in Italy and thereafter, visa problems sorted out, back to India. Then in 1993 she was asked to start a nunnery.

Author Vicki McKenzie, in her book about Tenzin Palmo entitled Cave in the Snow, concluded that “she has only one purpose in mind: to continue pursuing the path to perfection in the body of a woman.”

Key word here being “woman”.

Buddhism, in common with all the other world religions, and just about any other institutional structure you care to mention, is not female friendly. The monastery in Lahoul was shared by monks and nuns.

“Of course, the monks were up front doing the rituals while the nuns were in the kitchen doing the cooking,” says Tenzin Palmo. “I joined the monks — I hadn’t come to Lahoul to learn how to cook.”

Refusing to cook was one thing but then she found there were whole ranges of teachings to which the nuns were not admitted. “We do not teach this to women” — no other reason was given.

Prior to his death in 1980, Tenzin Palmo’s guru, Khamtrul Rinpoche, had asked her to start a nunnery.

“I was very young at the time and didn’t really take the request seriously.” But when, in 1993, the Lamas of the Khampagar monastery in Himachal Pradesh India again made the request she was ready to act.

Since then she has campaigned for equal rights and opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and has travelled the world fundraising for a Buddhist nunnery. In 2000, the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, near Dharamsala, was opened. It is now home to 45 young nuns.

In Tibetan Buddhism women do not get full ordination. The colour of their robes indicates that they are forever novices, second-class monks. Palmo is now fighting for full ordination. In this she has the support of the Dalai Lama, but some Tibetan Buddhist scholars oppose the move.

“It’s a boys’ club,” she says, “and they don’t want to let us in. But it will happen. We will get there slowly.”

• Some quotations in this article are from ‘Reflections on a Mountain Lake’ by Venerable Tenzin Palmo published by Snow Lion. The talk given in Durban by Tenzin Palmo is available on DVD. Inquiries to Elizabeth Gaywood at cormkt@mweb.co.za

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/News

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.