Mackenzie, Vicky: Cave in the Snow, Bloomsbury, London, 1999.
Let me clarify something in case my grandmother reads this post: I’m not a Buddhist and I was raised a Roman Catholic, but I do feel attracted to the spiritual path that Buddhism proposes. I’ve been practicing meditation for a long time. Before E. was born I woke up every day at 6 am to do 30 minutes’ yoga and 30 minutes’ meditation before going to work, and I dream about the day I can get back into that practice again.
The idea of emptiness and the fertile vacuum as the origin and source of the universe, the commitment to awaken all sentient beings in the world, the compassion, the mindful observation and the idea of meditation as a way of changing yourself and the world resonate deeply inside me.
Besides, there are many Buddhist women that I truly admire: among them, Tenzi Palmo, Dipa Ma and Tsultrim Allione, all of different religious lineage and with different life experiences. Today I want to talk a bit about Tenzi Palmo, whose life story is narrated in Vicki Mackenzie’s book Cave in the Snow.
Tenzi Palmo is a Tibetan Buddhist master and is well known in Buddhist circles as one of the first Western female nuns to be ordinated in the Tibetan tradition, as well as for engaging in very strict practices such as living in a cave for 12 years. In my view she can be defined as a feminist, although in Mackenzie’s book she says that she doesn’t believe in the sort of feminism that shows anger towards men and blames them for oppressing women (me neither, and I’m a feminist). At the end of the day, she continues, a system like this has been sustained by women itself.
Palmo believes instead in the female qualities (which men also have) of sharpness and clarity. She also refers to the female nurturing and softness coming from the experience of motherhood as important elements that help to develop compassion towards all human beings. But regardless of the importance of these qualities, which in Buddhism are related to women, she has firsthand experience of lamas’ prejudices about women’s capacity for Enlightenment. But as Mackenzie mentions in her book, the late Kalu Rinpoche was very clear on this matter (I would like to mention that the same Kalu Rinponche was accused later by June Campbell, one of the nuns that worked as a translator for him, of abusive sexual behaviour):
“Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, if you have faith, confidence and diligence, if you have compassion and wisdom, you can become Enlightened. The reason for this total equality of opportunity is the nature of mind itself, which is neither male nor female. There is no such thing as the intrinsic nature of one person’s mind being better than someone else’s. On the ultimate level the empty clear and unimpeded nature of mind exhibits no limiting qualities such as maleness or femaleness, superiority or inferiority”. ( p. 137)
Tenzi Palmo never had second thoughts about having a family. She always thought that this was not for her, and is very clear that her happiness was in her hermit practice which could not be pursued with a family. She insists that women need to find their own practice that goes with the life that they want to live. In this regard she echoes the words of Tsultrim Allione when she talks about mothering:
“I went from being a nun to being a mother in one year, so it was a huge transition for me and I think what happened was that so much of what had been theoretical I had to actually apply. When you’re living alone in the mountains you study patience and you think you have a lot. You think you have overcome anger and jealousy, but then when I became I mother I realized that all these emotions were still there. I just hadn’t been in a situation that had been challenging. So it was really great in that way because I could see all these ways that I wasn’t as developed as I thought and I had to confront myself. As you know as a parent you’re not getting a lot of sleep. I had all my kids really close together. I had Sherab and then Aloka 17 months later, and then 5 years later I had my twins, and I figured out once that I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in seven years. Lack of sleep makes everything more difficult.”
Tenzi Palmo, among others, has spoken out about the discrimination and prejudices that Buddhist nuns suffer. She knows what all this is about as she has experienced rejection and discrimination herself just for being in a woman’s body.
When the first Western Buddhist conference took place in 1993, different women stood up for their rights and talked about the lack of female teachers and women’s references in Buddhism, along with the discriminatory practices that still remained at the heart of Buddhism such as not allowing nuns full ordination.
Tenzi Palamo was one of the initiators of this effort to improve nuns’ living conditions with access to mindful teaching and practicing conditions equivalent to those of male monks. With this desire, she built a nunnery in Tibet and devoted herself to helping other women in their spiritual path.
You might wonder why I like her so much, taking into account that in her book she doesn’t say anything nice about feminists. I like her determination to choose her own way, even when the sort of practice that she chose (being in a cave) was ultimately discouraged for a woman. After completing her retreat and obtaining wide recognition from the Buddhist community she did not pull up the ladder behind her: she committed to helping other women on their spiritual paths. She denounced discrimination against women at Buddhist conferences and private meetings, even reporting to the Dalai Lama on this issue. She was firm and determined, but never aggressive or hostile. From the book you can get a sense of her clarity, her will to pursue her goals, and also a sense of softness in her words that make her non-confrontational.
“’Of course, you can raise your voice but first you have to check your motivations. Is it out of love for other women and their needs or out of anger? If we’re speaking out of negative emotions the result will only be worse’, she repeated. ‘On the other hand, we don’t need to be simpering.’” (p. 200)
The lesson for me is very clear: do whatever you want to do, stay present and make your job, religious practice or lifestyle fit into your choices as a woman and never the other way around. Tenzi Palmo teaches us that it is possible to live a life full of meaning . She’s definitely an inspiration.