Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was born in England in 1943 and named Diane Perry. She and her older brother were raised in London by her mother, after her father’s death when Diane was 2 years old. Mrs Perry was a spiritualist who held séances in the family home, and Tenzin Palmo credits this as being a strong and positive influence on her development as a seeker of truth.
Aged 18, she realised she was a Buddhist while reading the book “The Mind Unshaken” by John Walters. “Reading my first book on Buddhism is what changed my life completely,” she’s said. When she was halfway through it, she announced: “I’m a Buddhist” — to which her mother replied, “Finish the book and we’ll talk about it!” But Diane had found her spiritual path and would follow it with all her strength. Three years later she went to India where, aged 21, she became one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monastic.
Ordained in 1964, aged 21
In 1970 she moved to the Himalayan valley of Lahaul in order to undertake more intensive practice. She stayed in Tayul Gompa, a small Lahauli monastery for the next 6 years, remaining in retreat during the long winter months. Then in 1976, seeking more seclusion and better conditions for practice, she found a cave at 13,200 feet above sea level. The cave was enhanced by building enclosing walls, creating a living space around 6 feet square. In the summer months supplies were delivered from Keylong and she grew turnips and potatoes nearby. She stockpiled for winter, when the cave was snowbound. She slept and meditated upright in a meditation box. Despite many hardships and life-threatening experiences, Tenzin Palmo thrived in her solitary spiritual practice and lived in the cave for 12 years, from the ages of 33 to 45. For the first 9 years she occasionally had visitors or took trips away from the cave, while the last 3 years were spent in strict retreat.
Her retreat ended in summer 1988 and after 24 years in India, she returned to Europe to stay with friends in Assisi, Italy. There she rediscovered her western roots and started to accept requests to teach.
When I was staying in a small monastery in Lahaul I saw for myself that nuns, however intelligent and devoted, had no opportunity to study and no access to higher teachings. It made me so sad because the monks were given all the teachings and put into retreats while the nuns were overlooked and treated as servants.
Tenzin was asked for several times to start a nunnery. After the publication of her biography “Cave in the Snow” by Vicki MacKenzie in 1998, her profile increased exponentially and she began annual international teaching tours to raise funds. “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. 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.”
In January 2000 the first nuns arrived and in 2001 construction began at the Padhiarkar site. The nunnery is named Dongyu Gatsal Ling, which translates as “Garden of the Authentic Lineage”.
Traditionally all the religious texts were written by men for other men so of course, they present only the male point of view. Hence the misogyny throughout religions. But now that women are gaining the knowledge and confidence to write books and teach in accordance with their own experience, the tone changes to a more feminine voice which helps to balance the mainly male chorus. With the rise of the feminine voice, the confidence and empowerment of women will naturally follow. The rise of the Sacred Feminine. This will benefit everyone.
During the past women were usually left under-educated and relegated to subservient roles within society including religious organisations. Nowadays as women are becoming more self-reliant and able to think and act for themselves, they are also stepping forward in areas where previously they would not have been welcomed. Since women are usually more open to an interest in spiritual matters and more in tune with their emotions, including devotion and compassion, and nowadays they are also more free to pursue their interests, they converge at spiritual centres and often reveal a natural talent for organisation as well as for teaching.
In February 2008 Tenzin Palmo was given the rare title of Jetsunma, which means Venerable Master, by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, Head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage in recognition of her spiritual achievements as a nun and her efforts in promoting the status of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism. Today, her monastery Dongyu Gatsal Ling provides educational and spiritual instruction to over 100 nuns.
Buddhism is about waking up –
and right now we urgently need to wake up to the vital role that women must play in propagating and upholding the Dharma in the modern world through their study, practice and social outreach.
Advice for spiritual practices: It is important to understand that ‘practice’ does not just mean sitting on our cushion or listening to spiritual talks. Our daily life must become our practice. We must remember that we need to cultivate our compassion, loving kindness, patience, generosity, ethics etc. and where better than in our daily meetings with others – family, work colleagues, friends and everyone we meet. All these encounters with others are our opportunity to practice kindness and awareness. We can develop our mindfulness under all circumstances and thus our daily life becomes our spiritual practice.
Tenzin Palmo spends most of the year at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery and occasionally tours to give teachings and raise funds for the ongoing needs of the DGL nuns and Nunnery. More about her work can be found at www.tenzinpalmo.com