I was born during the Second World War in England and brought up in London.
My mother was a spiritualist, and in our house every Wednesday evening we had
seances. From a very early age, I absolutely believed in the continuity of
consciousness after death; death was something we talked about constantly in our
family, so I never felt any fear or reservations about it.
As a child I believed that we were innately perfect, and that we were here to discover who we really were, therefore we had to keep coming back again and again and again until we uncovered our original perfect nature. And so the question was, "How do we become perfect?" I asked many people who I thought might know: teachers, priests, spirit guides. Everybody said, "Well you have to be good," or, "You have to be good and you have to be kind."
Even as a child I thought, "Yes of course but that's not it. Being good and kind is the basis but then there is something more we need to do. So throughout my adolescence I was searching for the answer to How do we become perfect? What does perfection even mean? I didn't know. I tried various religions. But the problem was that all these religions started with the explicit idea of soul and the soul's relationship with a creator outside itself. And for me that had no meaning.
When I was eighteen I happened to be working in a library and I picked up a small book called The Mind Unshaken, by an English journalist about his time in Thailand. It gave the very basics of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path, the Three Characteristics of Existence. It was an astounding revelation! Here was a perfect path, already laid out, of all the things I already believed, but I hadn't known that there could actually be a religion that taught it. Here was a perfect path, which led inwards and made any external being, creator, god superfluous.
It kept saying in the books I was reading that the essence of the practice is to be without desire, so I gave away all my clothes, I stopped wearing make-up, I gave up my boyfriend. Because I heard that yellow was a monastic colour, I started going around in this kind of yellow Greek tunic thing, and long black stockings!
After about six months I thought, "Maybe I should find some more Buddhists, I can't be the only one." So I went to the Buddhist Society were I found that the other people were not going around in Greek tunics. These other Buddhists, who had been at it much longer than me, actually wore ordinary clothes they even wore make-up and high heels!
At that time I was very strictly Theravadin and I became quite closely associated with the Singhalese vihara in London. I loved everything about the Theravada, I loved the clarity of it. The way it's taught in the West there's no ritual, no devotion, it's very logical, very clear, lots of emphasis on meditation, and this appealed to me very much.
The only thing I didn't like about it was the concept of an arhat. Somehow the arhat seemed kind of cold. And this worried me because if you don't like the end result of the path you're on, why are you on that path? When I thought of the Buddha, I would cry tears of devotion. I loved the Buddha, I wanted to be like the Buddha, I didn't want to be like those arhats.
And then one day I read about bodhisattvas: this was what I wanted to be, this was what was missing, the element of compassion, that one was doing this not for oneself but for the benefit of others. This was in the early sixties and Tibetan Buddhism in those days was basically Lobsang Rampa and was regarded as being degenerate shamanism, black magic, basically not Buddhism at all.
A year after I became Buddhist, I was reading a general overview of Buddhism and at the end there was one little chapter on Tibetan Buddhism which mentioned the four traditions: the Nyingmapa, the Sakyapa, the Kargyupa and the Gelugpa.
As I read the word "Kargyupa," a voice inside me said, "You're a Kargyupa." And I said, "What's Kargyupa?" And the voice inside said, "It doesn't matter, you're a Kargyupa." So I went along to the only person I knew who knew anything about Tibetan Buddhism and I said to her, "I think I'm a Kargyupa." She said, "Have you read Milarepa?" and she handed me Evans-Wentz's biography of Milarepa. I went away and I read it and my mind went through a thousand somersaults. It was like nothing I'd ever read before and, I guess, at the end of it all, I recognised that, yes indeed, I was a Kargyupa.
Then it was obvious that if one was going to take this seriously, one had to find a teacher. One day I heard that there was a Kargyupa nunnery in India, in a place called Dalhousie, and so I wrote to the person who was organising this nunnery, an English woman called Freda Bedi, who had started a school for young incarnate lamas. I wrote to her and asked her if I could come and work with her.
In 1964, when I was twenty, I sailed to India and went up to Dalhousie and worked as the secretary for Freda Bedi in the Young Lamas' Home School. One day, I received a letter about Tibetan handmade paper that some community was producing and they wanted to know if we could find a market for this paper. The letter was signed Khamtrul Rinpoche. As soon as I read that name, faith spontaneously arose, and the next day I said to Freda Bedi, "Who is Khamtrul Rinpoche?" And she said, "He's a high Drukpa Kargyu lama." And then she said, "Oh, he's the lama we're waiting for! " - I knew that we were waiting for some lama to come for the summer. "Can I take refuge with him?" and she said, "Yes, he's a wonderful lama. When he comes you must ask him."
This was at the beginning of May and we waited all through May, then all through June, and he didn't come. Then on the last day of June, my twenty-first birthday, the telephone rang and Freda Bedi answered it. Then she put down the phone and said to me "You're best birthday present has just arrived down at the bus station." And I was terrified!
I ran back to the nunnery and changed into a chuba, a Tibetan dress, and I got a kata, one of these long white scarves, and when I got back to the school, they were already there. I crawled into the room and all I saw - I was too terrified to look at him - was the bottom of his robe and his brown shoes. And I prostrated to the brown shoes. And Freda Bedi was saying, "Oh this is So and So and she's a member of the Buddhist Society." I said to her, "Tell him I want to take refuge." So she said, "Oh yes, and she would like to take refuge with you," and Rinpoche said "Of course," in a voice that said, Well of course she wants to take refuge, what else should she want to do?
When he said, "Of course," I looked up and that was the first moment I saw him. And as I saw him it was like two things at the same time. One was this sense of recognition, like you're meeting an old friend that you haven't seen for a long time, and at the same time as if the very deepest thing inside me had suddenly taken external form.
Freda Bedi was very kind, she sent me every day to Rinpoche so that I could be his secretary while he was there. And then I asked him if I could be a nun. Again he said, "Of course." So about three weeks later we went back to his monastery and that's where I took my first ordination.
Ven Tenzin Palmo lived for ten years, until 1974, with Khamtrul Rinpoche at his monastery in Dalhousie. Upon her guru's advice, she went into retreat in Lahoul. She found a cave and remained there for fourteen years.
Lahoul lies between Manali and Ladakh, and for about eight months of the year it is cut off from the rest of India by snow, because on both sides of the valley there are very high passes. For someone who wanted to do a retreat, it was perfect.
You had this tremendous stretch of time where you knew you were not going to be interrupted. In tantric retreat you're not allowed to be seen or to see others if they're not in the retreat, so in the cave I didn't have any of those worries. I melted snow in the winter and I could sit outside and not fear that anyone was going to come and see me, which meant that the mind became more spacious because you could look at the sky, look at the snow mountains, look at the trees.
In the summer there was a very beautiful little spring about a quarter of a mile away and in front I had a garden with potatoes, and turnips as well, which are very good because you get the green part and you get the bulb and you can chop them up and dry them for the winter. You have this long, long stretch of winter when nothing is growing. And once it snows, that's it if you've forgotten the matches, too bad! So you had to spend the short time in the summer getting ready for this long, long winter.
There were many animals there. Once it had snowed you would see all these footprints and hoof marks and paw marks everywhere. There was even the paw mark of a snow leopard, which put its paws on my window sill to look in. And there were wolves. One time as I was sitting outside, this pack of five wolves came trotting up and stood and looked at me very peacefully and I looked back at them. And they stayed there for several minutes just looking quietly and then they turned and just trotted off. And they would sit above my cave and howl, it was very lovely. . Usually in the winter I was in retreat and in the summer I was getting ready for the winter. In the autumn I would go down to Tashi Jong to see my lama to tell him what I had been doing, and to get instructions or further direction.
I spent my last three years there in a three-year retreat. And then I didn't go anywhere, and I had one Lahouli brother bring up supplies every year. One year he didn't bring up the supplies for six months. It was quite interesting.
It was wonderful, I was very happy up there. Sometimes I would think, "If you could be anywhere in the world where do you want to be?" And that was where I wanted to be. And I would think, "If you could do anything in the world, what would you want to be doing right now?" And that was what I wanted to be doing.
Looking back, I was deeply grateful for that opportunity because Lahoul is a very wonderful place. First of all it is blessed by the dakinis: Lahoul in Tibetan is called Garsha Kandroling, which means the Land of the Dakinis. There is a sacred mountain there of Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara and it is considered to be indeed a Land of the Dakinis. It's a very sacred place actually and I really felt the dakinis very close there.
And it is a place where the people are basically very honest and very peaceful. The whole time I lived there I never had any problems from them, ever, which for a woman living by herself is something. In India or even in the West, one couldn't be living alone in that kind of solitude and feel so confident, so safe.
Being alone for such a period of time gives the mind a great opportunity to become very spacious. Not spaced out, because you have to be very clear you have to be very present but the mind has this time and space to become very open and wide.
When you are alone in that kind of situation, whatever happens, externally or internally, you have to deal with it. You can't get on the phone and call a technician or call your best friend. You can't turn on the television to divert yourself, in the winter you can't even go for a walk. You just have to sit there and deal with it. One developed the confidence to know that one could deal with it and that one didn't need to keep running to somebody else. So that was really very useful for me because I had always thought, "Oh I'm not very practical and I can't do these things, and I don't know, should I go and ask advice of this one and that one?"
So through those years of having to deal with everything myself, I learned not only how to make mud walls and chop wood and be practical, but also how to deal with the mind, because one had this infinite amount of time without external distraction. So one could see what was going on, how the mind functions, how the thoughts and emotions arise and how we identify with them. And to learn how to disidentify with them and to dissolve all the thoughts and emotions back into spaciousness.
At the end of my three-year retreat I had been in India for twenty-four
years, so I felt it was time to reconnect with the West. I felt the need to
appreciate Western culture again, my Western roots. I had no idea where to go. I
thought, "Where do you want to go?" There wasn't anywhere I wanted to go, but I
felt nonetheless that this was the time to move on. Then some friends of mine,
an American couple I had known in India, who had been travelling around in
Europe, wrote to me and said, "We've found it! This is a perfect place, come to
Assisi! " and I thought, "That's it, Assisi!"
Italy seemed a very logical step after India. It's very like India, the bureaucracy, the hopeless postal system, the general nothing-quite-works. I felt very at home immediately. Assisi is a wonderful place. Of course, it's the birthplace and the home of St. Francis and it's very spiritual, despite all the commercialism and the millions of tourists running all over the place. That's basically where I have been living since I left India, although I would visit Asia again from time to time.
QUESTION: It sounds like you were blessed with confidence, clarity and
so forth.... I'm very interested in this nervous disorder called lung, which so many retreaters get, especially as it manifests as doubt and panic. I wonder if you have any advice about that?
VEN TENZIN PALMO: Basically the reason people get lung is because they try too hard. They set themselves impossible goals, they set themselves the ideal of the ideal practitioner and they push. The problem is that Tibetan practice encourages that because it gives you these vast numbers of things to accomplish. And when you come out of any kind of retreat the first question you are asked is "How many mantras did you do?" Not "How well did you do it?" or "What experience did you get?" but "How many?" This creates a lot of tension, which creates the lung
So what we need to learn is just how to relax, how to make the mind very spacious and clear so that we practice within openness, not within tension. Longchen Rabjam talks a lot about that, about being in retreat and having the mind, on the one hand, not thinking about the usual things - the body in the cave and the mind in the bazaar - not letting the mind just go anywhere it wants to, keeping the mind within boundaries of what it's doing, but at the same time keeping the mind very relaxed and not tensing up.
Once you get lung the only advice is to go and find a nice sunny beach and lie out on it because there's nothing you can do. The more practice you do the tighter you become, it's a vicious circle as you know. It's very important therefore, right from the beginning when one starts practicing, to start a little loosely, not too much, as you would with physical exercise. Then gradually building up as you get into it, until you're going fully for it, but still with this very relaxed mind and then at the end tailing off, so that when you come out it's again not a shock to the system.
We have to really look and see how to work with the mind so that the mind feels
happy or comfortable in a retreat. Retreat should be a pleasure not an ordeal. It should be a delight because if the mind is delighted with what it's doing, then it goes for it, it becomes one with what it's doing. If the mind is pushed too much, then it's rigid and then it rejects it. This conflict makes the lung.
What we need is to understand our own capacity, to have compassion for ourselves and to learn how to use the mind so that it is an ally. Even in one's sessions one should stop before one is tired because if one stops just before one is tired, while one is still enjoying the experience, then the mind remembers, "That was fun, let's do it again!" Then already there's this enthusiasm for more. If we push to the point where we are exhausted, then the mind says, "Enough!" The mind remembers that it got bored and tired, so there's this resistance to try again.
I was wondering what you did when your Lahouli brother didn't bring you your
I got very thin! I rationed out my food; I was already only eating basically once a day and then I got smaller and smaller portions. And prepared to starve to death if necessary. Milarepa said somewhere that he always prayed that he would die alone in a cave, and from my heart I also prayed that.
One time we had this huge blizzard that raged for seven days and seven nights and the whole cave was covered and was in complete blackness. When you opened the windows there was just a sheet of ice, when you opened the door there was just a sheet of ice. And I was in this tiny little space and I thought, "This is it." I got my little dutsi pills, these pills you're supposed to take at the time of death, and arranged them all nicely, ready for the last breath. I was sure the air was already getting much thinner and I was already taking deeper breaths.
I prayed to my lama from my heart. I really understood at that moment that the
only thing that matters is the lama. And I said, "Rinpoche, at least please guide me through the bardo." But then I heard Rinpoche's voice inside me saying "Tunnel out." So at first I used a shovel, and of course I had to bring the snow inside, there was nowhere else for it to go, and then I used a saucepan lid and then I made this tunnel, and then I was just clawing with my hands.
You looked behind and it was all black you looked in front and it was all black, and there was this tiny little icy tube. Eventually I got out and I looked up and it was still blizzarding. So then I crawled back in again and it filled up. And I did that three times. It took about an hour to scramble out. On the third day I got out and I looked, and there was nothing, just white. There were no trees. My prayer flags, which were very high, had disappeared, no cave, nothing. It was just white. And then there were all these helicopters coming over. Later I learnt that several
villages had been totally destroyed and two hundred people had died and the helicopters were flying out the wounded and bringing in supplies. So I survived. I spent weeks clearing away the snow and got snow blind, but I survived to tell the tale.
What did you find was your most powerful meditation or reflection to keep you
inspired in retreat?
I remember one spring when the snow melted and the cave became completely flooded and soaking wet. I also had a cold. I was feeling extremely not well, and I was thinking, "They're right what they said about living in caves. Who wants to live in this horrible wet place!" I was feeling horrible, it was cold and miserable and still snowing. And then I suddenly thought, "Are you still looking for happiness in samsara? Didn't Buddha say something about dukha, suffering?" And when I thought that, I suddenly thought, "Yes, it doesn't matter, it really doesn't matter. Samsara is dukha so it's fine, there's no problem. Why expect happiness ? If happiness is there, happiness is there; if happiness isn't there, what do you expect anyway? It really doesn't matter!" When I felt that - it was something not just in the head at all, it was really in my heart - this whole weight just went away: hope and fear. We're always hoping that everything will be pleasant somehow, we're always fearing that it won't be. And in that moment the whole thing dropped away, and it just didn't matter. This was an enormous relief, and at that moment I felt so grateful to the Buddha for the Four Noble Truths.
So to be there was such an incredible blessing. To be in a situation where one had
an infinite amount of time and space to practice, where one had the practice to do, where the people around were so sympathetic and helpful, where my health was fine, where basically the problems were irrelevant. That's what kept me going. For me it was a great joy. And I felt that I was also fulfilling my lama's wishes, upholding the lineage. I thought also that this was exactly what I was meant to be
doing and it was how eventually I would benefit other beings.
Later when I left retreat I went to see the Dalai Lama and one of the things I wanted to ask him was whether I should help to start a nunnery in the West or go back into retreat. I was sure he was going to say, "After eighteen years of doing practice, of course you should. Where's your bodhicitta? Go out and help others!" And so it was almost irrelevant to ask him this question, but I thought, "Well I will anyway." And he said, "Of course, to start a nunnery is very good and you should do that, but don't give it too much of your time, one or two years is enough, then go
back into retreat because for you it is most important to serve beings by being in retreat." And that is what I felt and that is what sustained me probably, that I felt I was indeed fulfilling the lama's intention.
Was there a set number of hours that you meditated each day?
I got up at three and did the first session till about six. Then I had some tea and tsampa, roasted barley flour, then started again around eight, did another three hours till eleven, then had lunch. After lunch I used to paint, and I was the scribe so I would copy texts. I had a number of Tibetan books so sometimes I would read. After another cup of tea I would start the third session of the day and then at six have another cup of tea, then do the evening session and then go to sleep. I had a meditation box in which I practiced and slept. So that makes some twelve hours. For some time I slept sitting up; it was very good for one's awareness, one didn't sleep very long but one slept very deeply, and the moment you woke up, you just straightened your back and there you were. It's very good for the awareness, the mind doesn't get very spaced out. But it was not very good for my back, and so eventually I would just curl up in my box.
Please do you have advice for those of us who are wandering aimlessly in samsara?
Normally I talk absolutely about how everybody can use their daily life as Dharma practice because I think this is extremely important. It is not necessary to go and spend years and years just living in caves. That's very nice if it is your karma, but it's not essential. The essential thing is to learn how to develop a practice which one can use moment to moment to moment in one's everyday life. How to develop awareness and how to develop all those qualities which are necessary for Buddhahood apart from meditation.
In order to attain enlightenment; you need the Six Paramitas, all six, not just one or two. We need generosity, ethics, patience, effort, meditation and wisdom. Meditation is only one; what about those other five? All of them are important and certainly generosity, ethics, patience and effort need a social context in which to be practiced. You need other people. It's very easy to think that one is living a lot by oneself, but when one is dealing with one's family, one's colleagues at work, one's own Dharma brothers and sisters, then that is where one needs to learn how to open up the heart and develop these qualities.
It's very important to realise that the Dharma isn't something you do when you go to your Dharma centre or when you sit on your cushion, Dharma is moment to moment in your everyday life. Everyday life has to be your Dharma practice, how we relate to people, how we relate to ourselves, how much presence we bring into our everyday life, how much kindness we bring into our everyday life, how we speak to people. Everything is a Dharma practice, moment to moment to moment and once one understands that, then there is no question about not having time to practice or that we are wandering in samsara.
Then why did you want to be in retreat?
Because there are certain practices which are better done if one gives a lot of time to do them in, certain tantric practices, which are not very relevant to other people. I'm a nun, so that's my job, being a Dharma practitioner. There are certain practices which you need, which will succeed only if you give it quite a long extended time in which you're only doing that and nothing else. That's why I did it.
Also because in that situation, where one has no external interruptions, at least from other people, it gives one time to really just become one with one's own mind. The mind is like an onion, you know, you peel off layer after layer after layer, and for me personally it was very useful to be alone in order to be able to do that. All my lamas had always said to me, "For you it is best to be alone." I see this very much as my practice. Other people are different, we are all coming from different directions, at different points on the circumference. We have different needs. For me it was extremely beneficial; for other people not necessary, even counter productive.
What sort of practices did you do in retreat?
The practice of my yidam, my personal deity, certain purification practices, certain inner yogic practices, also the kind of mind practices known as mahamudra and dzogchen.
What did your mother think about all this?
My mother? She came to India, she lived with me for about ten months. She loved India, she adored the Indians, she adored the Tibetans, she was in floods of tears when she left. She took refuge with Khamtrul Rinpoche, she was very devoted to Tara. She was a wonderful mother. When I said to her, "I'm going to India," she said, "Oh yes, and when are you leaving?" She was genuinely the reason why I was reborn where I was reborn because she was wonderfully supportive. She never used emotional blackmail to get me back.
From time to time after I had been away every ten years, she'd say, "Wouldn't you like to come back just for a holiday?" And so every ten years I would go back for a month and see her. For some years she supported me to the best of her abilities. She was a wonderful mother and I've always been very grateful to her. She died about ten years ago, when I was in retreat. My father died when I was two so he was not in the picture.
You said that you had so much time to have expansiveness of mind and I'm wondering, what your insights were about the purpose of the mind?
The purpose of the mind is to be aware. If we didn't have a mind we wouldn't be aware. We need to understand the mind and to become ever more conscious, ever more awake. Because our minds are usually half asleep, even though It seems as if we're thinking a lot and are very vital and very present. In fact we are almost somnambulant and robotic in our reactions. So the whole point is to learn how to wake up, to become more clear, more aware, more absolutely in the moment and not have so much of this robotic kind of automatic response, but to be conscious in the moment without all our usual projections and opinions and ideas and mental chatter going on. Because fundamentally we are awareness. We need to learn to connect with that awareness and to learn how to develop it and to be with it.