I know already from her biography that Tenzin Palmo was born Diane Perry, the daughter of a fishmonger in London’s East End; as a teenager she had long blonde curly hair, wore stilettos, loved jazz clubs, dancing and Elvis Presley; she had boyfriends, several marriage proposals and a personality described as ‘bubbly’. But a photograph from this time, showing her dressed as a brides- maid, her youthful face framed by a crown of flowers, already captures a wistful look. From a young age, she says, she knew she did not want to marry or become a mother. She wanted independence and felt a strong yearning to travel to the East. After meeting in London some of the first Tibetan lamas to come to the West, she resolved to travel to India where most were then settling in exile.
To earn the money for her sea passage to India, she worked as a librarian in Hackney. By 1964 she had saved enough to take up a post she had been offered at a temporary school set up in the Himalayan hill station of Dalhousie, teaching English to refugee Tibetan tulkus—young boys recognized by Tibetan lamas as reincarnations of previous spiritual masters. At the time, conditions for refugees were pitiful and her temporary accommodation there was plagued by giant rats. But shortly after arriving in Dalhousie, she met a high lama, the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, with whom she felt an immediate and intense spiritual connection. Within a few hours of the meeting she felt very clear that she wanted to become a nun.
At the time of her ordination as a novice, she was just twenty-one and only the second western woman to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (the first was anoth- er indomitable Englishwoman, Freda Bedi, founder of the Dalhousie school). Following her ordination, Tenzin Palmo went to work as Khamtrul Rinpoche’s assistant and found herself the only woman living amongst 100 monks, all trained to keep their distance.
In addition to intense feelings of isolation and loneliness, she immediately hit a spiritual glass ceiling. Chauvinistic attitudes, which for so long in Tibet had reserved the heights of spiritual endeavour for monks and relegated nuns to subservient positions, continued to prevail in monastic communities in exile. The monks, though kind, said prayers that in her next life she would have the good fortune to be reborn a man. Despite her deep devotion to Khamtrul Rinpoche, after enduring years of such treatment, Tenzin Palmo became convinced her spiritual path lay in a different direction.
With his blessing, she undertook to become the first western woman to follow in the footsteps of male yogis, or spiritual practitioners who, through the ages, have retreated to remote caves for long periods of seclusion. Travelling by foot over a high Himalayan pass, she sought solitude in a remote corner of Himachal Pradesh called Lahaul, close to India’s border with Tibet, an area renowned as a place conducive to meditation. Once there she eventually found a small cave perched at almost 4,000 meters— the height of some of the tallest peaks in the Alps—that would become her refuge for the next twelve years. The cave was little more than an indent in the mountains, a space she closed in with a simple brick wall, window and door, giving her a living area of approximately three by two meters.
During the twelve years she spent alone in this cave, Tenzin Palmo survived blizzards, avalanches, the attention of wolves, even a snow leopard, and temperatures plunging to -35 degrees celsius in the winter months that lasted from November to May. On a small stove she cooked simple meals of rice, lentils and vegetables—supplies brought up to her occasionally by local villagers. Her days began at 3 a.m. and were divided into three-hour periods of intense meditation. During one stretch of three years, she neither saw nor spoke to a single soul. Tenzin Palmo was thirty-three years old when she entered her mountain retreat and forty-five when she was forced to emerge by a policeman who scrambled up to her eyrie to warn her that her visa had expired.
When I ask Tenzin Palmo about her time of solitude in the mountains, she deftly sidesteps the question. Talking about such an intimate spiritual experience is, she has argued, akin to a person discussing their sex life; some people like to talk about it, others don’t.
Much of the discipline and forms of devotion she practiced during those long years of solitude belong, in any case, to some of the more esoteric practices in Tibetan Buddhism known as Tantra, many of which remain largely secret to all but those who have advanced far enough along the path of practice to be able to truly comprehend their meaning. Even the Dalai Lama admits he hesitates to try to explain Tantric ritual and practice to those who do not have a deep understanding of Buddhism, as they are too often misunderstood. Some of this practice relies on complex visualizations during meditation to challenge fixed views of reality and the self. These visualizations are sometimes represented in intricate paintings.
I find myself wondering if Tenzin Palmo undertook such painting, though I can hardly imagine conditions in a damp mountain cave being conducive to the making of spiritual art. ‘Have you any reminders from that time?’ I ask, unsure what to expect. At this, Tenzin Palmo disappears into a side room and returns with a framed picture in her arms. I am taken aback both by its delicate beauty and by its graphic detail. The painting depicts a pubescent girl, entirely naked, with full breasts and vagina bared. She is wearing a necklace of human skulls and in one hand holds a cup overflowing with blood. Pressed under one foot is a small red figure, symbolizing the quashing of anger—and under the other a figure representing greed. I recognize it as a painting of Vajrayogini; often referred to as a female Buddha, she is an important meditational figure in Tibetan Buddhism. When I ask Tenzin Palmo again if she is able to talk a little about the spiritual practices she undertook in the cave, ‘Those centered perhaps on this painting?’ she declines again with a simple ‘no’, polite but firm. The painting is returned to its rather unceremonious place on top of a fridge in an adjoining room. Some have described those who become masters of esoteric Tantric meditation as ‘quantum physicists of inner reality’, with a profound understanding of the nature of the mind and of consciousness. Realizing how little I would understand were I to ask a physicist to summarize the intricacies of quantum science, I let the matter rest.
Instead, I ask about a subject with which Tenzin Palmo clearly feels more at ease: how far nuns have come since the days when she first ordained. ‘In the last twenty years there has been quite a revolution,’ she begins. ‘Not only are nuns now living in well-run nunneries, they are also being taken seriously.’ The leading role she herself has played in changing traditional attitudes towards nuns is not to be underestimated. Before our meeting, I read moving accounts of how she had once reduced the Dalai Lama to tears when she spoke at a packed conference in the early 1990s about the plight of the Tibetan nuns and, in passing, mentioned her own unhappiness during her early years as a nun; she recalled how monks had told her that it wasn’t ‘too much’ her fault that she had had ‘an inferior rebirth in the female form.’ By the time she finished speaking, the Dalai Lama had his head in his hands and was silently weeping. ‘You are quite brave,’ he said softly.
…She had once reduced the Dalai Lama to tears when she spoke at a packed conference in the early 1990s about the plight of the Tibetan nuns and, in passing, mentioned her own unhappiness during her early years as a nun; she recalled how monks had told her that it wasn’t ‘too much’ her fault that she had had ‘an inferior rebirth in the female form.’
Following an outpouring of similar frustration by others attending this conference, Tenzin Palmo joined a small group of women lobbying for the right of Buddhist nuns to become fully ordained. It is a cause that she has continued to champion. Those who have resources to travel, like Tenzin Palmo, have been able to fully ordain abroad, in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam or Korea, where traditions of full ordination have flourished for centuries, but this option is impossible for most novices, and progress towards full ordination within the Tibetan tradition has been painfully slow. At the time that I meet Tenzin Palmo, the consensus of senior monks needed to approve this is still out of sight.
‘We need the lamas to fully support it, otherwise it looks like a bunch of western feminists interfering,’ says Tenzin Palmo. When I ask what the main sticking point is, she answers with one word: ‘Fear. Some of those in the big monasteries are simply afraid of women becoming more powerful,’ she says. ‘In their mind it’s like a cake, and if you get a bigger slice, I get less. Instead of recognizing that as women become more empowered it just adds to the general empowerment of humankind.’
Christine Toomey is a journalist and author who lives with her family in London.
From In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads, by Christine Toomey, copyright © 2015 Chistine Toomey. Reprinted by permission of the The Experiment, LLC.