My past life as a dog

For 12 years, Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo meditated alone in a tiny cave in Tibet. Now she wants to elevate the status of other Buddhist women, believed to be reincarnated as females as punishment for past mistakes.

Published September 30, 2002 7:08PM (EDT)

There is, on Page 722 in the September Vogue, a red bag that captures the spirit and perversity of America's new devotion to Buddhism. It is a "yoga mat carrier" designed by Marc Jacobs, a white-hot couturier, with supermodel Christy Turlington, for her company Nuala, which makes Buddhism-inspired clothing and is devoted to the creation, through retail, of "symbiosis between the outer and inner being, the individual and collective experience." The bag costs $350 -- serious money for an accessory, but a small price, perhaps, for symbiosis.

On the opposite side of the world, in Tibet, British-born Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo practices a less ostentatious form of spirituality. For 12 years, the 59-year-old lived in a cave high in the Himalayas, meditating and chanting and doing her own yoga in a 6-foot-square hole in a mountain. That $350 would have kept her in lentils for well over a year. Now, after coming down from her cave, Palmo could use the money for the nunnery she founded in hopes of reversing Buddhism's patriarchal traditions. It is a place that Palmo hopes will help her reinstate an entire lost lineage of female Tibetan spiritual leaders.

Palmo is currently touring the world on a fundraising mission, enlisting supporters for her campaign to elevate Buddhist women from the status of unfortunate entities paying with gender for disappointing past lives, to roles of influence and worth in their religion. She recently stopped in Santa Cruz to lead meditation retreats and conduct meetings with devotees as she sat on the balcony of her host's hillside home.

While it would be very easy for Palmo to find humiliating truths comparing the austerities of Eastern Buddhist practices with the marketing of the West's current vogue for inner peace, Palmo, a devout believer in compassion, prefers not to criticize. Instead she simply acknowledges the chasm between the challenging traditions of her ancient religion, and the "instant enlightenment" hopes of American dabblers.

"People think: A weekend tantric course and you've got it!" she observes. "Recently someone asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 'What's the quickest way to enlightenment?' Of course, that had to have been a Westerner. But you cannot even think [of enlightenment] in terms of lifetimes, you have to think in terms of eons. People have no idea. You have to give your whole life to this."

Palmo stands out among Buddhists worldwide -- not only because of her intense and patient devotion, but because she is female. She comes from a religious culture that has often viewed women as little more than yoga-mat carriers, so the fact that she -- a woman, and a Westerner -- could match the feats of the most dedicated male practitioners of Eastern Buddhism is a revelation -- and an inspiration to Tibetan women who have chosen to follow her example. With the momentum of this admiration in the East, Palmo is beginning to quietly revolutionize the growing religion's gender traditions.

It is tempting to describe tiny Palmo, in her flowing saffron robes, as birdlike -- she is, but more owl than dove, with her sharp nose and piercing blue eyes. She looks frail, so thin that you can see every bone and vein on her shaved skull, and she is hunched from years of back troubles. Yet Palmo comes across as earthy, solid enough to live in a cave if she needed to. She is in possession of a sharp wit but also an ethereal spirituality; in mid-conversation she might fall silent while she unconsciously grooms the dead leaves from a houseplant, or mist over as she contemplates impending war in the Middle East.

Born as Diane Perry in 1943, the daughter of a fishmonger in London's East End, Palmo was fascinated by spirituality and the East throughout her childhood, eventually discovering Buddhism and giving up the frivolity of teen life -- dancing, high heels -- when she was 18 years old. By the time she was 20, Palmo was on a boat to Dalhousie, India -- a refugee zone for Tibetans in northern India -- where she studied Buddhism and taught rudimentary English to young monks who were the reincarnations of dead spiritual masters.

Within a year, Palmo had found a guru -- the reincarnated lama Khamtrul Rinpoche -- and joined a border monastery (there were no nunneries prepared to deal with an educated woman), eventually becoming one of the first Western women to ever be a fully ordained Buddhist nun. And then she climbed the mountain for the sojourn that brought her a certain amount of fame -- at least among other Buddhists.

The life of the yogi is perhaps as removed from Western comprehension of Buddhism as any practice of the religion. The Tibetan yogi spends most of his life in meditation and retreat -- he is, essentially, the wise guru living in the cave at the top of the mountain, long a staple of American jokes. At the age of 27, Palmo climbed up to a niche in the side of a mountain in the Himalayas, and decided to make it her home. For the next 12 years, she lived in this tiny cave at 13,200 feet above sea level, speaking to no one for months, even years on end, as she meditated and sought enlightenment.

For food, Palmo grew turnips and potatoes in a tiny hillside garden, and ate lentils and canned supplies brought up once or twice a year by villagers; she cooked on a small wood-burning stove, with a pressure cooker as her main luxury. She had no books other than religious texts, and no bed -- she slept sitting upright in her tiny meditation box. During the winter, heavy snows would block the entrance, and Palmo almost suffocated before she dug herself out. In the spring, the melting snows would flood her cave. Palmo doesn't talk much about her spiritual achievements up there in the snow, but says that she "was never bored."

In 1988, Palmo finally descended to discover that she'd become famous -- the strange Western woman who had undergone Buddhism's most demanding practice ended up lecturing around the world, and being profiled in the book "Cave in the Snow." Eventually, though, she decided that her new life's calling was to address the gender inequalities that she'd encountered when she was studying Buddhism. Feminism, which has infiltrated Western Buddhism and given rise to a large number of respected female teachers there, had almost entirely bypassed Eastern Buddhism. Palmo joined a small but growing group of Buddhist women -- Western women, but also a few Tibetans -- who were turning their attention to the needs of neglected nuns.

Although there are a few countries -- Taiwan and Korea, namely -- where Buddhist women play a strong role in spiritual life, most Eastern countries leave women out of the picture. Original Buddhist teachings had initially granted women spiritual equality, but years of patriarchal social practices had turned nuns into second-rate citizens (much, it should be noted, like the nuns in the Catholic Church).

"I once asked my lama why there were so few female incarnations in Tibet," she recalls. "He said, 'My sister had more signs at the time of her birth than I did. Everyone said 'Oh, someone very special is coming. 'Then it was a girl and they said, 'Whoops, mistake!' If it had been a boy it would have been taken care of. But because it was a girl, nothing was done about it. She was married off, with no education or training. The social structure was not prepared to deal with it."

Only a few countries even allow women to be fully ordained as nuns (ironically, neither of the spiritual centers revered most by Westerners -- Tibet and Japan -- offer ordination). Traditionally, nuns are denied anything but the most rudimentary education; and the situation has become worse since the Chinese occupation of Tibet. While new monasteries were quickly set up for monks who fled the country, few nunneries were replaced. Many nuns simply ended up as cooks or servants in the monasteries; there were few female spiritual leaders.

To remedy this, Palmo has launched a fledgling nunnery that will, she hopes, reestablish a lost lineage of female yogis, known as the togdenma. These women are the female counterparts to the togden yogis who, dreadlocked and dressed in tattered white skirts, live in caves and meditate for years at a time (and upon whom Palmo modeled her own retreat).

"That example of someone living in a cave in a state of renunciation is something which resonates deeply in the Tibetan psyche," she says. Although the female togdenma existed in small numbers in Tibet through the first half of the 20th century, all traces of these nuns were lost during the Chinese occupation.

Tenzin Palmo's Dongyi Gatsal Ling Nunnery in the mountains of northern India is only half-complete, but it already houses 24 young nuns; some of the girls escaped from Tibet, enduring rape and abuse at the hands of Chinese and Nepali soldiers, while others came from Indian families in search of a better life than their mothers or sisters. The nuns study meditation, rituals, debate and philosophy; English and Tibetan; along with practical skills like driving, tailoring and computers. For two months a year, the girls live in a silent meditation retreat; "You can imagine a group of 24 teenage girls keeping silent for this long, living in one house, eight to a room," Palmo says, wryly. "It takes great discipline."

The nunnery, once complete, will hold up to 200 nuns at a time; with an additional center nearby for international Buddhist women seeking retreat. The hope, says Palmo, is that the nuns will eventually become spiritual teachers on par with the male gurus and yogis. Already, her nuns have had audiences with the Dalai Lama, who has himself begun to preach spiritual equality.

"The Dalai Lama has said: Male body, female body, it makes no difference. If you really study and practice there is nothing you cannot accomplish in the female body," Palmo says. "This is important for the nuns to hear, because the message is always given that somehow if you have a female body you did something wrong in your last life. The best thing you can hope for is to be a good girl, work very hard, and come back as a boy the next time."

Palmo has been working to open her nunnery for nearly nine years, and in the time since she began, a number of other nunneries have also opened their doors in India, offering a real education to young Buddhist women. This is due partly to Western Buddhist women, who have been arriving in Tibet to study and provide the first feminist role models for young Tibetan girls.

In the last decade that she has spent travelling the world, lecturing and raising money for her nunnery, Palmo has seen all things Buddhist gain momentum in the popular Western media. This is not, she notes, the first time she's witnessed Buddhism become fashionable: Her own arrival in India in 1964 came just before floods of hippies flocked to India seeking gurus. Her hope is that at least a few in this round of "spiritual materialists" will see past the $350 yoga bags and quick-fix weekend retreats to find a more lasting religious practice.

"Buddhism is a trend. It rises and it falls; in the 1960's the hippies were all going to India in search of truth -- with capital letters and blazing lights. Most of them just got stoned and that was it," she says. "But most of the great teachers in America today were from those hippies. At a certain point they saw through their illusions and got down to work."

Perhaps Buddhism is currently on the rise because its simplicity offers such a contrast to the high-tech hustle of the last decade; even so, the "simplicity" that Westerners covet doesn't much resemble the austerity of Buddhism's eastern roots. Then again, Palmo suggests, you don't need to get rid of all of your possessions and live in a cave in order to seek enlightenment, even though materialistic trappings won't really help.

"People know that, in the end, getting a new car, or another set of clothing, another Haagan Daz, won't solve their problems," she says. "One of the advantages of being born in an affluent society is that if one has any intelligence at all, one will realize that having more and more won't solve the problem, and happiness does not lie in possessions, or even relationships: The answer lies within ourselves. If we can't find peace and happiness there, it's not going to come from the outside."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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