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Tenzin Palmo: There Is Nothing a Girl Cannot 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. Picture by Olivier Adam.

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

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

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

Younger Diane was born in 1943 and was a solitary little one. Throughout adolescence, themes on struggling, ageing, and demise 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 understand, don’t they know what’s going to occur to them?”

“Studying my first e book on Buddhism at 18 is what modified my life fully,” she’s mentioned. When she was midway by it, she introduced: “I’m a Buddhist” — to which her mom replied, “End the e book and we’ll discuss it!” However Diane had discovered her non secular path and would comply with it with all her power.

Her assembly with Chögyam Trungpa in London guided her in 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 trainer in a college for younger lamas. Simply at the moment, the headmistress of the college acquired a letter from the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, just lately exiled to India from Tibet. “Simply studying his identify,” Palmo recollects, “I knew that he could be my grasp.”

When he arrived on the faculty a couple of weeks later, she hurried to greet him, with out daring to take a look at him immediately. She whispered to her headmistress: “Simply inform him I wish to take refuge with him.” “In fact,” he answered. “I knew instantly,” she says, “that he was my grasp. And he knew instantly that I used to be his disciple.” The eighth Khamtrul ordained younger Diane as a nun and gave her the identify 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’ve realized the character of the thoughts and are capable of management it, after a retreat of greater than fifteen years.” With their hair in dreadlocks and sporting the white gown inherited from Milarepa, these yogis have been mentioned to have uncommon non secular capacities. The younger nun realized that whereas in Tibet, her guru lived among the many Togdenma (the feminine Togden), although they didn’t survive the Chinese language Cultural Revolution.

“I then advised my grasp that I needed to develop into a Togdenma. He was so completely satisfied. He mentioned he’d been praying I’d re-establish this order. Nonetheless, when the monks heard in regards to the mission, they declared, ‘a lady isn’t going to reside with the Togden.’ And so, I needed to surrender.” She was the one nun in the course of a couple of hundred monks. “I made the vow to be reborn within the female kind till 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 used to be referred to as to do in life,” she recollects. The cave she selected for her function was located at an altitude of 4300 meters, troublesome 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 interior voice telling her, “Dig!” She instantly seized her saucepan lids and began digging. After lengthy, terrifying minutes, she lastly reached exterior air. Nonetheless, when she went again into her cave, she “realized that the ambient air was not contaminated however recent. This was how I found that caves and snow breathe and that I wasn’t going to die.”

“One other benefit of the cave,” she says, is that it all the time provides you the house essential for good focus. And for me this was a supply of nice pleasure. I wouldn’t have needed to be anyplace else.” Did she have any difficulties? “In fact, sure days have been marvelous and there have been others of utmost unease once I wished I may do one thing aside from sitting and meditating! However, these highs and lows are pure. Whether or not it rains or the solar shines isn’t necessary. The climate passes and we proceed meditating.” Was it harder for a girl to reside as a hermit within the mountains? “Under no circumstances,” she replies.

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

The Dongyu Gatsal Ling mission started a while after the top of her retreat. Tenzin Palmo had responded to an outdated request of her guru: “to discovered a neighborhood for younger ladies from Himalayan areas [e.g., Ladakh, Bhutan, Spiti, Nepal] who wish to develop into nuns and examine in keeping with 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 solely critically examine Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and the founding texts of the custom, but in addition apply the rituals with numerous dedication. On the finish of their examine program, they will resolve to go on a protracted retreat.”

“All through Tibetan historical past,” she notes, “there have been many nice feminine meditators—yoginis—however little has been written about them, so they aren’t very well-known.” However the tide is popping. “After having been fully uncared for, ignored, and underestimated by Tibetan society, the nuns at the moment are beginning to develop into extra standard. Persons are finally conscious they exist and are bringing them actual help. And there’ll quickly 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.] Any further, there may be nothing you can’t accomplish in a lady’s physique.”

After a pause, her forehead instantly darkens. “Those that haven’t [benefited] are the non-Himalayan nuns. Not simply the Western nuns but in addition these from locations similar to Taiwan or Vietnam and so forth which have joined the Tibetan motion. They obtain no monetary or ethical help from anybody. Usually, they dedicate themselves to operating the Western Buddhist facilities and need to pay hire and electrical energy, with none revenue. Because of this I’ve undertaken the creation of an Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns, to allow them to keep in touch and are now not remoted. However the very first thing to do is to unfold the message that they exist so that individuals develop into conscious. It was the identical once I began speaking in regards to the Himalayan nuns twenty years in the past. First individuals mentioned “Oh! Are there nuns? I by no means realized…” After which, they requested: “What can I do to assist them?” That was once I was capable of increase cash to construct this nunnery. Now the time has come to take care of the non-Himalayan nuns.”

Certainly, in June 2015, she took half within the Sakyadhita Convention, a global 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 recommended awarding her the title Jetsunma in recognition of her non secular development and her work with girls, Tenzin Palmo’s first response was to refuse such a distinction. “However,” she says, “I acquired so many e-mails saying how great it was and the way it highlighted the standing of ladies that I noticed this title had nothing to do with me however involved girls basically. And for this, I may solely say thanks.” 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 recommended “Tsunma”—a reference to one thing noble, delicate, pure. The nuns authorized the concept and began utilizing this time period with one another. “When the Karmapa came visiting Dongyu Gatsal Ling in 2014, I observed that he additionally used this time period. That was great. The sound of the phrase instantly provides a optimistic impression within the Tibetan thoughts and you understand how a lot we’re influenced by language.”

Additional Studying

  • Cease Taking Your self So Significantly, By Tenzin Palmo
  • Waking As much as Patriarchy: One helped remodel American society, the opposite helps to rework the lives of Buddhist nuns. In an occasion on the Rubin Museum of Artwork, 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 completed.
  • Breaking By means of: After twenty-one years of intensive examine, Kelsang Wangmo, a German-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, has develop into the primary lady to obtain the celebrated geshe diploma. Amy Yee studies on her unlikely and brave journey.

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