Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is a remarkable human being. One of the first western women to be ordained into a Tibetan Buddhist monastic lineage (in the early 1960s), she's been a dedicated and inspiring practitioner ever since, even going so far as to spend 13 years in retreat in a cave in the Himalayas. Today, Tenzin Palmo lends her not inconsiderable moral authority to a burgeoning women's monastery in Nepal, touring the world to give teachings and spreading the Dharma far and wide. Powell's Chris Faatz caught up with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in late May for the following interview.
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Chris Faatz: First of all, I'd like to ask you about your title, Jetsunma.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: There's no real equivalent in English. It means something like "Venerable Master." It was conferred on me by His Holiness the 12th Gwalyang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa lineage, because he wanted to promote women. He himself is very involved in raising the status of women as much as he can. For example, he lives in his nunnery, not in his monastery. He therefore wanted to show his appreciation of the feminine.
Chris: That's wonderful.
Palmo: Yes, it is wonderful. It's very kind of him. He's very supportive.
Chris: Is that Khamtrul Rinpoche?
Chris: As I understand it, you were ordained into the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in the early 1960s.
Chris: You were one of the first Western women to do so, is that right?
Palmo: No, there was before that another English woman, actually, whose Western name was Freda Bedi. When I got my Shramenerika ordination, I was the first one, but then she took a higher ordination before I did.
Chris: What did your vows and intentions entail? How has your view of practice evolved over almost 50 years?
Palmo: [Laughter] Good question!
Chris: You don't have to tackle it all at once.
Palmo: In the beginning, of course, my interest was on personal practice, which is why I went to Lahul in the Himalayas and was in the cave. But now my focus is on raising the education and training for young women, especially for young nuns from the Himalayan region, including Tibet. So this is why we started a nunnery, to help them to develop their potential, which until very recently had been, as usual, overlooked.
Chris: One of the things I've found most compelling, interesting, and inspiring in your books is the idea of choosing one's future incarnation. I found myself deeply moved by your vow to continue to return in a woman's body until you'd achieved enlightenment as a woman. Is that a big break with tradition?
Palmo: Well, the Bodhisattva Tara made the same vow.
Chris: I didn't know that.
Palmo: I'm following in her noble footsteps. But the thing is, it's not male or female, it's just thatsince there are already so many males who are dedicated to wanting to attain enlightenment, then I think it's also important that we have a few people who wish to embody the same in female form to help the ladies along a bit.
Chris: I think you're right.
Palmo: If it turns out in the end that there are too many women and not many men, then one could change one's mind and come back in the male form. That's fine.
Chris: I'm also very interested in your childhood, because you were born into a Spiritualist family, as I understand it.
Palmo: That's right, yes.
Chris: What is Spiritualism, and how did your family's, and particularly your mother's, interest in affairs of the spirit help shape you as you went forward on your path?
Palmo: Our form of spiritualism was trying to get in contact with spirit guides. The belief in Spiritualism is that everybody is born with certain spirit guides, people who themselves have died and as part of their own continuing evolution volunteer to help other human people. So mainly we were trying to get in contact with them, to discuss things with them and find out what's happening on the other side.
I'm very grateful for that childhood because it made me conscious at a very early age that there are so many other dimensions and other realms of being around us, of which we are usually totally unaware. Also, death was an everyday subject of interested conversation. So I've never regarded death as something terrifying and not to be thought of. On the contrary, I think of it as a great adventure.
Chris: You spent 12 years in a cave in the Himalayas, including a three-year solitary retreat. How did you handle the extreme isolation that entailed? Did you concentrate on your practice to the exclusion of all else?
Palmo: You couldn't concentrate on formal practice to the exclusion of all else, because you also have to cook, you have to clean, you have to clear away the snow in the long winter months. In the summer, I grew potatoes and turnips, and chopped wood. There were many things to do; if you're living alone, you have to take care of yourself.
Chris: Yes. I read the part in Cave in the Snow where you waxed poetic about turnip greens.
Palmo: [Laughter] They're a really underrated vegetable, if I may say so. Turnip greens are the most nutritious vegetable in the world. You have to get them when they're tender, of course; otherwise, they're a bit bitter. But if you're growing turnips, then take some of the greens when they've just come up and they'll melt in your mouth. No wonder I wax lyrical. [Laughter]
Chris: Like I said before, I'm deeply moved and inspired by much that you have written, and the sheer accessibility of the most complex ideas. Where did you learn to write like that? Or is the book composed mainly of dharma talks?
Palmo: Yes. Much of it is from transcripts of talks I've given over the years.
Chris: They're so powerful, and so easy to read.
Palmo: Well, I think that my mind takes the most complex subjects and simplifies them out of all recognition. [Laughter] That's why they're so easy to read.
Chris: But they have meaning, too.
Palmo: Well, I hope so.
Chris: The stuff in the new book on the Paramitas is, I think, germane to everyone today, not just to Buddhists.
Palmo: Most of Buddhism is very, very helpful for everybody. That's why I say that most of Buddhism, most of the Dharma, it's just enlightened common sense. You know?
Chris: What a great way to look at it.
Palmo: When you say it, people say, "Yes, right, exactly!" But the point is that then there are also these wonderfully developed techniques for teaching something that we intellectually ascend to into our daily life. That's the important thing.
Chris: A friend of mine has bipolar disorder. He's been hospitalized twice this year with it, and he's been told by his doctor not to meditate, because of the mental states it can create. What would you say the role that Buddhism can play in the life of someone who's schizophrenic or bipolar, or who has another serious mental illness?
Palmo: I'm not a psychologist, so I wouldn't like to put my foot in it too much, but certainly I know of several forms of psychological trouble. Nowadays, they are certainly emphasizing how helpful mindfulness can be.
Chris: My friend goes to a day treatment facility one day a week, and mindfulness is a big part of what they do there.
Palmo: It's important, andthat's the essence of the Buddhist path. The Buddha himself said that there is one way to enlightenment, and that is through mindfulness. And I would say, anyone could do some basic metta meditation. The Buddha said that we start by sending loving-kindness to ourselves. So one starts by giving oneself loving-kindness and compassion and acceptance and caring. And from that, you can reach out to extend it to all these other beings.
Last night I was talking to this large group of caretakers, mostly young hospice workers and things like that. They wanted to learn about tonglen. Do you know the tonglen practice?
Chris: I know of it; I've never done it.
Palmo: That could also be a possibility. One could start off using tonglen on oneself.
Chris: What exactly is tonglen?
Palmo: The basic concept is that you visualize someone who is in trouble in some way — perhaps they're sick, or very unhappy — and then with the in-breath you take in a dark light or smoke of their suffering, like a vacuum cleaner. You suck it all up into yourself, down into the center of your heart. And then, on the outgoing breath, transform it into the bright light of your Buddha nature, or good nature, and all the wellbeing which is at the essence of our nature. So you're bringing in their pain, wanting their pain for yourself, and then giving out happiness, wellbeing, and light.
One could start by doing that on oneself.
Chris: Can you do that with a mala [prayer beads]? Is that appropriate?
Palmo: You could. But it's not necessary. You just have to follow the breath. Breathing in, breathing out. If it would help, one could visualize oneself, or look in a mirror. In that sense, it's almost a kind of metta meditation. You're improvising with your own pain. And you're replacing that with happiness and joy and wellbeing, which is your true nature. And when that begins to move something inside you, you can extend that towards everyone else. You could think, “All people who have bipolar problems, let that come on to me. I will take their problems, and I give out my wellbeing.” In a loving way to yourself also, not in a punishing yourself way, to make you feel more depressed. It's supposed to all come out, to create potential for inner beauty, not to make you feel worse.
Metta is always a good one, to wish yourself to be well and happy.
Chris: We have a book by Pema Chödrön on tonglen.
Palmo: Well, that would do. I'm sure she must bring that into it somewhere.
Chris: How can your normal, everyday Westerner bring these practices to bear in his or her own life in such a way as to be transforming?
Palmo: I think it's very important, especially in this day and age, because the amount of time that one can sit formally on one's cushion is minimal compared to the amount of time that the present-day practitioner is out there with their families, with their professions, and with their social lives. Unless we transform our daily life into our practice, nothing is going to change.
Mostly what I'm talking about is just that — how to use our daily life as our practice. The essence is to really try and be conscious and aware as much as possible during our daily life, and to open up the heart to recognize that every single being that we meet in the depths of their being wants to be okay, wants to be well and happy and doesn't want to suffer, and to wish that for them. Just as we would like to be happy and not suffer, all beings want to be happy and not suffer. So if everybody that we meet, we give that sense of wellbeing to them — you can sit in a subway and just do metta meditation. Because then it takes us out of our own preoccupation to recognize our interconnection with all beings.
Books mentioned in this post