Have you ever dreamed of leaving the comforts of the Western teaching room to go to the East in search of a true spiritual
master in their element? Or wished you could have more one to one time instead of just listening to what seems like a dot on the stage of the auditorium? Coming to India this time I had a dream… I wanted to find a female master of Tibetan Buddhism that I could learn from and have direct communication with. My reasons for this were a deep desire within to get the female perspective on this Buddhist philosophy that I was growing more and more fascinated with by the day. Having attended many teachings and read many books I was keen to have the burning question answered…as a women do we need to be approaching the teachings of Buddhism in a slightly different way?
I really didn’t know what would come of this dream so as I was running my most recent spiritual tour in Dharamasala, India to attend teachings by the Dalai Lama, I put it on the back-burner of my mind. Then of course India being the magical land that she is, effortlessly provided me with a possible contender as I’m sitting there on my meditation retreat with my group. Towards the end of our ten day retreat we were shown a video of a teaching given by Jetsumma Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun originally from the East end of London who spent 12 years meditating in a cave. A reincarnation of a previous Tibetan master, she found herself in the unique and at times very difficult position of not only being the only Westerner in a Tibetan monastery in India but the only woman as well. Being treated as an outsider by the general consensus, she was excluded from necessary teachings and important Buddhist ceremonies known as ‘pujas’. As time past her grasp of the Tibetan language, which was necessary to learn from the sacred texts increased, but also did her impatience with the sexual discrimination that was keeping her from realising her spiritual goal – to become the first enlightened female Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a person who has vowed that upon attaining enlightenment they will keep returning life after life to work until all sentient beings are liberated from suffering or ‘samsara’. So in other words for Jetsumma Tenzin Palmo there was much work to be done. After finally reaching breaking point she packed her bags to leave the monastery in search of the teachings she needed. Only then did her heart guru and teacher finally take her difficulties seriously and he instructed her to go into long term retreat. She was ready for this massive commitment that no Western woman had done, despite all the hinderances she experienced.
Over a period of 12 years she lived in a cave in total isolation high up in the mountaneous ranges of India where she faced brutal weather conditions, encounters with all sorts of wildlife and a curious nomad who hindered more than he helped. In short what Jetsumma Tenzin Palmo achieved has resulted in her being highly revered by both Tibetans & Westerners alike. And I’m happy to include both men and women in that. Having discovered this wonderful woman I devoured the book written about her life ‘Cave In The Snow’ in about two days. Then after doing a bit of investigation I was delighted to discover she would be teaching about two hours drive away from Dharamsala in a place called Bir. I booked myself in and off I went. What struck me the most about Jetsumma was her ability to cut to the chase in a way that incorporates the East & the West, and for once in my experiences of Buddhist teaching the masculine and the feminine. Keen to get my questions answered I requested a private audience and was told I could book in a whole hour with her at her nunnery so without hesitation I did so the following Monday!
The nunnery she has created is yet another amazing feat. When China invaded Tibet it unfortunately brought about the disappearance of the Tibetan female yogis called the Togdenmas, only their male counterparts the Togdens remained in India. Whilst living in the harsh conditions of the male dominated monastery, the Togdens were the only men at that time that truly saw Jetsumma and treated her with the respect she deserved. Living a much stricter lifestyle than the average monk, these great masters have incredible abilities and therefore much to teach. Jetsumma has created the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery with the goal of reviving the female Togdema tradition. She has built it down the road from where the male Togdens reside today, so they can easily teach the lucky nuns who have found themselves in this unique position.
Whilst I was there for my audience the first nuns in this decade long training had just come out of their first three year, three month, three week & three day retreat. Their hair was beautiful and long as they don’t cut it whist on retreat but what really struck me was their presence. Sitting waiting for Jetsumma I ended up across from them as we curiously eyed each other up, offering something fresh and new from our respective norms. I noticed how other wordly the look was in their eyes and how they couldn’t seem or want to hold a conversation for too long as they quickly went back to clicking their malas. These women have made a commitment to do a 12 year retreat in total and I had come across them during a small break before they go back in to do another three year, three month, three week and three day retreat in total isolation.
As if that wasn’t enough excitment for a wannabe such as myself, I had the privilege of being taken on a tour of the nunnery by my friend Aileen who is the nun acting as secretary to Jetsumma who also happens to be from my homeland Ireland. We walked into the shrine room and I was mesmerised. Every single statue and painting was in the female form. It was so inspirational and an absolute first for me. In fact during my interview with Jetsumma I asked her is that the norm for nunneries to have such an open reverence towards the enlightened feminine form and her reply was “Well I haven’t seen it anywhere.” She then went on to explain that if she wants her girls to truly believe that they can realise nirvana or enlightenment then they need to have authentic female rolemodels to follow. The artist that created the paintings and statutes spent a long time going back into the history of Tibetan Buddhism to pull out these seemingly long forgotten figures of the feminine.
Now I don’t want to paint Jetsumma in an extreme feminist light, in fact during my time with her I found words of wisdom that sought only a balance. Having been taught herself by men she has nothing but the deepest gratitude for all she has learnt which is demonstrated by the pictures of her male teachers all around her nunnery. Finally finding myself in a position where I felt the answers to my questions would have equal representation from both sides, I asked Jetsumma what is the best path for a woman in a system dominated by the patriarchal where we are believed to be a lesser rebirth. Her response was that even in a group of women some things that work for one, don’t necessarily work for another. That there are no specific methods that suit just the feminine or the masculine and it is my job to check what works for me as an individual in everything that I am taught.
Those words brought me great peace. Yes the world needs to come more into balance and when I sit on retreat after retreat looking at the consistent female dominating percentage I know it is happening. However every teaching has that pearl of wisdom in it and whether we are male or female, I believe it is still our choice to swallow or not. What do you think?
Tashi delek from Dharamsala
If you wish to go see Jetsumma Tenzin Palmo or make a donation to her incredible vision the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery please visit her website at www.tenzinpalmo.com.
- “Blessings” Gifts of Women’s Lives (peoplesadvocacycouncil.wordpress.com)