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

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