CAVE IN THE SNOWIn 1976 Diane Perry, by then known by her Tibetan name, Tenzin Palmo, secluded herself in a remote cave, 13,200 feet up in the Himalayas, cut off from the world by mountains and snow. There she engaged in twelve years of intense Buddhist meditation. She faced unimaginable cold, wild animals, near-starvation and avalanches; she grew her own food and slept in a traditional wooden meditation box, three-feet-square-she never lay down. Her goal was to gain Enlightenment as a women.
Extracted from Chapter 14 : The teacher
Born in 1943, Tenzin Palmo was brought up in the heart of London’s East End, the daughter of a fishmonger. She grew up with an inexplicable yearning for solitude, the East and the desire to pursue perfection; at the age of twenty, following the dictates of an inner voice, she left her job as a librarian and boarded a ship bound for India. There, in 1964, three weeks after meeting her Guru, she became the only woman among a hundred monks, and experienced first hand the discrimination that had for centuries been directed at women with serious spiritual aspirations. Alone and unhappy, she vowed she would gain Full Awakening in the female body - no matter how many lifetimes it took. With this in mind, in 1970 she embarked on eighteen years of solemn retreat which culminated in her entering the cave.
In 1988 she emerged from the cave with a vision to build a convent in northern India dedicated to helping women to achieve spiritual excellence. From living as a mendicant on 50 pound a year, she became a globe-trotting fund-raiser, talking to thousands of people from the fount of her profound wisdom. As such, Tenzin Palmo had come full circle: being of the world, leaving it, and then returning once more to help it.
Tenzin Palmo tells her story to Vicki Mackenzie with candour, humour and clarity. She speaks of the challenges she faced, the hardships she endured, her spiritual aspirations and the insights she experienced in the cave. She also reveals the inner conflict between her love for a man and her calling. Cave in the Snow is a gripping story of courage and phenomenal persistence. Throughout, Tenzin Palmo proves that she is truly a heroine of our time, a torchbearer in the last frontier of women’s liberation - that of equal spiritual rights.
‘When we normally think of resting we switch on the TV, or go out, or have a drink. But that does not give us real rest. It’s just putting more stuff in. Even sleep is not true rest for the mind. To get genuine relaxation we need to give ourselves some inner space. We need to clear out the junk yard, quieten the inner noise. And the way to do that is to keep the mind in the moment. That’s the most perfect rest for the mind. That’s meditation. Awareness. The mind relaxed and alert. Five minutes of that and you’ll feel refreshed, and wide awake,’ she assures them.
‘People say they have no time for "meditation". It’s not true!’ she goes on. ‘You can meditate walking down the corridor, waiting for the computer to change, at the traffic lights, standing in a queue, going to the bathroom, combing your hair. Just be there in the present, without the mental commentary. Start by choosing one action during the day and decide to be entirely present for that one action. Drinking the tea in the morning.
Shaving. Determine, for this action I will really be there. It’s all habit. At the moment we’ve got the habit of being unaware. We have to develop the habit of being present. Once we start to be present in the moment everything opens up. When we are mindful there is no commentary - it’s a very naked experience, wakeful, vivid.’
At every given opportunity she stresses that to lead a spiritual life one doesn’t have to emulate her. ‘Meditation is not just about sitting in a cave for twelve years,’ she pronounces. ‘It’s everyday life. Where else do you practise generosity, patience, ethics? How much patience did I have to have sitting up in my cave listening to the wolves howl?’ The point goes home. ‘Ultimately the Buddha dharma is about transforming the mind, which in Buddhist parlance includes the heart. The transformation of the heart/mind cannot be achieved if we only sit in meditation and ignore the dharma of our everyday life,’ she stresses.
To specifically Buddhist audiences she expands her theme, going into greater depth and at the same time revealing the extent of her own wisdom and scholarship. ‘Mindfulness can be interpreted in two ways,’ she says. "Concentration", which is narrow and laser-like, or "awareness" which is more panoramic. One could take as an example listening to music. If one is really listening to music it is as if one is absorbed into the music. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it, "Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts." That is concentration. But to know one is absorbed in the music is awareness. Do you see the difference? When we are aware, we are mindful not only of what we are doing but the feelings, the emotions that are arising, and what’s happening around us as well.
‘It’s so simple we miss it. We think it has to be something bigger, more spectacular. What do people think spiritual development is? It’s not lights and trumpets. It’s not lights and trumpets. It’s very simple. It’s right here and now. People have this idea that Enlightenment and realization is something in the distance - a very fantastic and magnificent happening which will transform everything once and for always. But it’s not like that at all. It’s something which is sometimes so simple you hardly see it. It’s right here in front of us, so close we don’t notice it. And it’s something which can happen at any moment. And the moment we see it, there it is. It’s been there all the time, but we’ve had our inner eye closed. When the moments of awareness all link up - then we become a Buddha.
‘The Sanskrit word for mindfulness is "Smriti", in Pali it’s "Sati", and in Tibetan "Drenpa",’ she continues. ‘Significantly, they all mean "to remember". It’s what the Catholics call "being in a state of recollection". And it’s extremely difficult. If we can be aware for a few minutes that’s already a lot. If mindfulness is synonymous with "remembering" if follows that the enemy of awareness is forgetfulness. We can be aware for a few short moments and then we forget. How do we remember to remember? That’s the issue. The problem is we have this tremendous inertia. We simply don’t have the habit of remembering.’
She searches for an analogy to illustrate her meaning. ‘At the moment it’s as though we’re looking through a pair f binoculars and the perspective is blurred. When we experience anything we do so through the filter of ideas, preconceptions, judgements. For example, when we meet somebody we don’t see them as they actually are. We see them in relationship to what we’re thinking about them - how much we like or dislike them, how they remind us of somebody else, what sort of qualities they have. We’re not experiencing them in themselves. Everything we perceive is like that - everything we see, eat, hear, touch. It’s immediately interpreted back to ourselves in conformity with our thoughts and experiences.
‘We might think, "So what?" It’s not important. But what happens is that we’re living several paces back from the experience itself and therefore we become more and more conditioned, more and more robotic. We become increasingly computer-like. Someone "pushes our buttons" as they so aptly put it and out comes the conditioned response.
‘What we have to do is bring everything into sharp focus, to see things as they truly are as if for the very first time - like a small baby looking at the murals in a shrine room, as the Tibetans say. The baby sees the colours and shapes without judgement, its mind is fresh. That’s the state of mind we have to bring into our everyday life. If we can learn to do that, without doing anything else, it will transform the situation automatically,’ she promises.
‘People have this idea that to become a spiritual person you have to become this cosmic blob, which is what we’re frightened of. But it’s not like that at all,’ she continues. ‘It doesn’t mean you no longer feel, that you’re emotionally flat. One still has one’s identity, one’s personality - it’s just that one no longer believes in it. When we meet the high lamas they’re the most vivid people possible. That’s because so many of the knots that we have in our minds and which keep us so inhibited have fallen away and the actual spontaneous nature of the mind can shine through. The Buddha’s mind is not a blank nothing - it’s filled with compassion, joy and humour. It’s wonderfully light. It’s also extremely sensitive and very deeply intelligent.’
From a spiritual point of view it’s not advantageous to be a rabbit. It’s better to be a tiger,’ she continues, switching metaphors. ‘Rabbits are very nice and cuddly but they don’t have much potential for breaking through. Tigers, on the other hand, are very wild but that pure energy, if used skilfully, is exactly what’s needed on the path. All the great saints were very passionate people. It’s just that they didn’t dissipate their passions into negative channels. They used them as fuel to send them to Enlightenment.’
And at these points she seems to come close to that greatest cave meditator of all, Milarepa, the founder of her lineage, whose experience lead him beyond dogma.
Accustomed long to meditating on the whispered chosen truths.
I have forgot all that is said in written and in printed books.
Accustomed long to application of each new experience
to my own spiritual growth,
I have forgot all creeds and dogmas.
Accustomed long to know the meaning of the wordless,
I have forgot the way to trace the roots of verbs, and
source of words and phrases.