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Tenzin Palmo: There Is Nothing a Woman Can’t Accomplish

Dominique Butet and Olivier Adam profile Tenzin Palmo, the nun who’s altering the position of girls in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Translated from French by Susan Maneville.

Tenzin Palmo. Photo by Olivier Adam.

Just a few days after Losar, the Tibetan New Year, spring gave the impression to be dawning on the Kangra plain, located in Northern India within the province of Himachal Pradesh. Bougainvillea and magnolias had been in full bloom, brightening up the dominating inexperienced of the area. The climate was already sizzling when our taxi dropped in entrance of the open gates at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, a neighborhood of ninety Buddhist nuns based by Tenzin Palmo almost fifteen years in the past.

Straight away we puzzled what pushed Diane Perry, a younger English lady who had grown up in London, to go away every little thing behind for India, shaving off her pretty chestnut curls to turn into the second Western nun within the historical past of Tibetan Buddhism. Now often known as Tenzin Palmo, she is over 70 and what she has achieved has turn into a dwelling supply of inspiration.

We arrived on the convent door. She greeted us with a giant smile and a agency, beneficiant handshake. She modestly agreed to speak about herself.

Young Diane was born in 1943 and was a solitary little one. During adolescence, themes on struggling, ageing, and dying haunted her. She remembers being 13, watching a bus move in entrance of her, and observing the individuals in it speaking and laughing. Her response was fairly stunning: “Don’t they realize, don’t they know what’s going to happen to them?”

“Reading my first book on Buddhism at 18 is what changed my life completely,” she’s mentioned. When she was midway by way of it, she introduced: “I’m a Buddhist” — to which her mom replied, “Finish the book and we’ll talk about it!” But Diane had discovered her religious path and would observe it with all her energy.

Her assembly with Chögyam Trungpa in London guided her in the direction of Tibetan Buddhism and a seek for her personal grasp. In February 1964, she launched into a cargo boat for a two-week journey that took her to Bombay after which went on to Northern India, the place she discovered a place as an English instructor in a college for younger lamas. Just at the moment, the headmistress of the varsity acquired a letter from the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, lately exiled to India from Tibet. “Just reading his name,” Palmo recollects, “I knew that he would be my master.”

When he arrived on the college a few weeks later, she hurried to greet him, with out daring to take a look at him instantly. She whispered to her headmistress: “Just tell him I want to take refuge with him.” “Of course,” he answered. “I knew immediately,” she says, “that he was my master. And he knew immediately that I was his disciple.” The eighth Khamtrul ordained younger Diane as a nun and gave her the title Tenzin Palmo.

She went with him to the Tashi Jong monastery in Himachal Pradesh, the place she found the existence of the Togden, “beings who have realized the nature of the mind and are able to control it, after a retreat of more than fifteen years.” With their hair in dreadlocks and sporting the white gown inherited from Milarepa, these yogis had been mentioned to have uncommon religious capacities. The younger nun discovered that whereas in Tibet, her guru lived among the many Togdenma (the feminine Togden), although they didn’t survive the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

“I then told my master that I wanted to become a Togdenma. He was so happy. He said he’d been praying I would re-establish this order. However, when the monks heard about the project, they declared, ‘a woman is not going to live with the Togden.’ And so, I had to renounce.” She was the one nun in the course of about a hundred monks. “I made the vow to be reborn in the feminine form until I attained enlightenment.”

Tenzin Palmo was solely twenty-six when the Khamtrul inspired her to go on a retreat and despatched her to Lahaul, close to Keylong. “This retreat was a vocation for me, it was what I was called to do in life,” she recollects. The cave she selected for her goal was located at an altitude of 4300 meters, tough to entry. She would spend twelve years there.

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One winter, after seven days of steady driving blizzards, Tenzin Palmo found that the peak of snow had lined the openings of her cave and that she was imprisoned. At first she acquired herself able to be buried alive, however then she heard an inside voice telling her, “Dig!” She instantly seized her saucepan lids and began digging. After lengthy, terrifying minutes, she lastly reached outdoors air. However, when she went again into her cave, she “realized that the ambient air was not contaminated but fresh. This was how I discovered that caves and snow breathe and that I wasn’t going to die.”

“Another advantage of the cave,” she says, is that it all the time provides you the house mandatory for good focus. And for me this was a supply of nice pleasure. I wouldn’t have needed to be wherever else.” Did she have any difficulties? “Of course, certain days were marvelous and there were others of extreme unease when I wished I could do something other than sitting and meditating! But, these highs and lows are natural. Whether it rains or the sun shines is not important. The weather passes and we continue meditating.” Was it harder for a lady to reside as a hermit within the mountains? “Not at all,” she replies.

Next we requested Tenzin Palmo in regards to the actions she’s led in favor of girls. Her enthusiasm was unmissable.

The Dongyu Gatsal Ling undertaking started a while after the top of her retreat. Tenzin Palmo had responded to an previous request of her guru: “to found a community for young girls from Himalayan regions [e.g., Ladakh, Bhutan, Spiti, Nepal] who want to become nuns and study according to the traditions of the Drukpa Kagyu.” As her work to reintroduce the Togdenma lineage was starting to take form, she praised the dedication of “the nuns who not only seriously study Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and the founding texts of the tradition, but also practice the rituals with a lot of dedication. At the end of their study program, they can decide to go on a long retreat.”

“Throughout Tibetan history,” she notes, “there have been many great female meditators—yoginis—but little has been written about them, so they are not very well known.” But the tide is popping. “After having been completely neglected, ignored, and underestimated by Tibetan society, the nuns are now starting to become more popular. People are at last aware they exist and are bringing them real support. And there will soon be geshema! [The geshe degree is the monastic equivalent of a Ph.D in Tibetan Buddhist studies, and until recently has granted to men only.] From now on, there is nothing you cannot accomplish in a woman’s body.”

After a pause, her forehead instantly darkens. “The ones that haven’t [benefited] are the non-Himalayan nuns. Not just the Western nuns but also those from places such as Taiwan or Vietnam and so on that have joined the Tibetan movement. They receive no financial or moral support from anyone. In most cases, they dedicate themselves to running the Western Buddhist centers and have to pay rent and electricity, without any income. This is why I’ve undertaken the creation of an Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns, so they can stay in contact and are no longer isolated. But the first thing to do is to spread the message that they exist so that people become aware. It was the same when I started talking about the Himalayan nuns twenty years ago. First people said “Oh! Are there nuns? I never realized…” And then, they requested: “What can I do to help them?” That was after I was in a position to increase cash to construct this nunnery. Now the time has come to take care of the non-Himalayan nuns.”

Indeed, in June 2015, she took half within the Sakyadhita Conference, a world gathering of feminine Buddhists created in 1987 of which she has been chairperson since 2013. Her presentation there involved the non-Himalayan nuns.

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In 2008, when the Gyalwang Drukpa urged awarding her the title Jetsunma in recognition of her religious development and her work with girls, Tenzin Palmo’s first response was to refuse such a distinction. “But,” she says, “I received so many e-mails saying how wonderful it was and how it highlighted the status of women that I realized this title had nothing to do with me but concerned women in general. And for this, I could only say thank you.” So she took benefit of speaking with Gyalwang Drukpa in regards to the names often given to the nuns, like Ani (aunt) or Chomo (lady of the home). She then urged “Tsunma”—a reference to one thing noble, delicate, pure. The nuns permitted the thought and began utilizing this time period with one another. “When the Karmapa came to visit Dongyu Gatsal Ling in 2014, I noticed that he also used this term. That was wonderful. The sound of the word immediately gives a positive impression in the Tibetan mind and you know how much we are influenced by language.”

Further Reading

  • Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously, By Tenzin Palmo
  • Waking Up to Patriarchy: One helped rework American society, the opposite helps to remodel the lives of Buddhist nuns. In an occasion on the Rubin Museum of Art, feminist trailblazers Gloria Steinem and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo speak candidly in regards to the private challenges they’ve confronted, the progress they’ve seen, and why there’s nonetheless extra to be performed.
  • Breaking Through: After twenty-one years of intensive research, Kelsang Wangmo, a German-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, has turn into the primary lady to obtain the celebrated geshe diploma. Amy Yee experiences on her unlikely and brave journey.

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