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The high road to wisdom
Tenzin Palmo's spiritual journey involved 12 years in a cave in the Himalayas. But, she tells Ali Gripper, there are simpler paths to enlightenment.

In March 1979, Tenzin Palmo was in her remote cave, 4,020 metres up in the Himalayas. A blizzard had been raging for seven days and nights. She was used to storms, used to the unrelenting cold, used to living alone without a telephone, a bath or even a bed. For three years she had been cut off from the world by mountains and snow, living in total seclusion, meditating intensely, and surviving on an austere diet of tea, rice, dahl and vegetables. She'd already almost starved when a food delivery failed to show up. But as an avalanche swept down the mountain, as the snow piled higher and higher, gradually rising above both her window and door, an awful truth dawned: She had been buried alive.

Plunged into darkness and cold, unable to even light a candle because it would use precious oxygen, she prepared for death.

Until then, she'd been quite content in her cave house. There, the most senior Tibetan Buddhist nun from the Western world had finally found the solitude for 12 hours' meditation a day in her search for enlightenment. She grew turnips, potatoes and flowers, and had a ledge which looked out over the top of the world.

"I was never bored - not once!" she says.

As it turned out, Palmo was saved by a few saucepan lids which she used to tunnel her way though the blackness.

But what kind of person would choose 12 years in an icy retreat high in the Himalayas? And how would she be changed by such an experience?

Palmo - or Dianne Perry as she was christened - certainly looks ascetic, with cropped hair, luminous blue eyes, and no more worldly possessions than can fit in a small shoulder bag.

Yet despite years of solitude she is warm, vivacious and at ease in a crowd. "People who come out of retreat are not antisocial, or cold and distant," she says.

Palmo was 33 when she entered the cave in 1976, long before Buddhism became fashionable chat at dinner parties. The daughter of an East London fishmonger, she had moved to India, been ordained a nun, and moved to her solitary retreat as a natural progression on the road to enlightenment. It was not, she insists, an escape, but rather a confrontation - with herself. She describes it as arduous, this journeying inwards, facing her own nature in the raw. On her own, she had to find a way of working with her delusions, her faults, all the things that continued to lead her in the wrong direction.

In the relentless cold, stripped of money, friends and all physical comforts, she "slept" upright in a meditation box every night for 12 years. It was, she says, all essential to finding her true self, the part of her which she describes as beyond her own thoughts and emotions, beyond her identification in the world: "When you live in society, there are different roles you play according to your gender and nationality. We actually believe in them. But ... it gets very boring playing them with [just] yourself."

She says you must understand yourself before you can truly understand others. "[On] retreat, so many of the knots that we have in our mind [fall] away and the spontaneous nature of the mind can shine through."

Palmo says she had the equanimity to quickly readjust to Western life, switching from intense isolation to jetting around the world giving lectures.

In Sydney this week, she will talk about how to integrate spiritual practices into family, career and social life, as well as the Four Noble Truths - the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. Her talks will raise money for a nunnery she is building in northern India.

But her life on the international lecture circuit does not detract from what journalist Vickie Mackenzie, in her biography, Cave in the Snow, describes as "the most glittering prize of all: enlightenment - a mind blown open to encompass universal reality. And accompanying it, a sublime happiness and inconceivable peace ... the highest state ... humankind could ever achieve".

In the process of achieving it, Palmo has also become an inspiration for thousands of women seeking deeper spirituality. Retreating to a cave is nothing new in northern India and Tibet. Cut off from the world by the Himalayas, and left alone by the modern world to perfect their spiritual practices undistracted, a long line of lamas and gurus has come from the area that has been irreverently termed an "enlightenment factory".

Today, Tibetan Buddhists are highly esteemed for their mastery of the mind; their revolutionary techniques for controlling the emotions.

Such are the spiritual riches some find in such teachings that the hottest dinner companion in Hollywood right now is a penniless refugee who doesn't even have a girlfriend - the Dalai Lama.

But a woman tilting for enlightenment, vowing to be reincarnated again and again as a woman, if that's what it takes, to be the first female Buddha - and a Western woman! That was extraordinary.

Palmo has already faced intense prejudice and hardships, all catalogued in Cave in the Snow.

The 20th century has seen the steady emancipation of women in most areas of life - except religion. And Buddhism, like many other religions, has always been heavy on testosterone. While the monks may spend their days learning the secret spiritual practices or engrossed in intellectual debates, she found the nuns were often left to cook and clean and serve.

Palmo says the first six years after she was ordained were agonisingly lonely.

"I never felt lonely in the cave. [But] I was alone in the monastery." She was the sole woman among 100 monks in Dalhousie, northern India. The monks, though warm and affectionate, kept her at a distance, and she was not allowed to listen to the sacred teachings.

She was even barred from living with the community and sharing its daily activities. She worked as a secretary by day and at night stayed in a rented room in town, big enough to hold only a bed and a table. Her bath was an old standpipe, her toilet a bucket. She ate by herself and slept by herself, belonging to neither the lay community nor the monks. It was a male-dominated club. "It was like seeing everything through a plate glass wall," she says.

She realised that if she didn't move, she would "die here and not receive any dharma". Encouraged by her guru, Khamtrul Rinpoche, she packed her belongings and set off northwards to Lahoul, near the border of Tibet, where she found her refuge in the Himalayas.

But her spiritual journey has proved invaluable, especially for later helping to spread Buddhist teachings to the West. Articulate, lucid, and having grown up in London's East End, she is perfectly placed to teach Westerners how to build a spiritual life from scratch, without having to don saffron robes and wander the world with a begging bowl. Or retreat to a cave.

"Look, practitioners used to be spiritual professionals - monks and nuns. These days most are people with jobs and families. So there is a need for their daily existence to become their practice - not retreats," she says.

Solitary retreats are certainly a hothouse, speeding up spiritual development. But failing that, our families, our careers, our social life, far from being obstacles to generosity, ethical conduct, and tolerance, are conduits, she says. "How much patience do you need living alone in a cave? A mother with naughty children - now that's an opportunity!" The ultimate aim is to integrate spirituality into everyday life.

Such attitudes are endorsed by Gerda Cohen, a retired genetic scientist, who despite describing herself as "very level-headed" burst into tears when she heard Palmo speak.

"She touched something in me. She was talking about how everything is impermanent and how ultimately you have to let go of everything: your nice career, your relationships, your house ... It was like being struck by lightning. When you take such a notion to heart, it totally changes your view of the world. It makes me cherish every moment. It makes life seem so very vivid, and so precious."

Palmo has proved to be in great demand in a society racked by stress, insecurity, and job losses, where the sense of community obligation has been crushed by economic rationalism.

The new luxuries, she notes, are silence, space, time. "People are parched with thirst," she says. "We are all incredibly busy, but most of what we do is meaningless. There is a level of prosperity - we have this unique opportunity to get more and more and more - but we are realising that a new car, a bigger house, just leads to the next thing and the next thing, and there is a growing realisation that this is going nowhere - only for the big corporations."


"Palmo has proved to be in great demand in a society racked by stress, insecurity, and job losses, where the sense of community obligation has been crushed by economic rationalism.


Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (, July 10, 2000


I don't have a moment's doubt this woman has founded her spiritual life upon a solid rock. No one with the moxie to spend 12 years alone in a cave in search of enlightenment comes back out until they've got a firm grip on what they wanted.

I'm a little sorry her story sent her to India and then the Himalaya. There is just too much of an aura of glamor about those places in the mind of some Westerners. She could probably have achieved the same effect in Saskatchewan.

-- Brian McLaughlin (, July 10, 2000.

She's British, Brian. The vista was probably better than that of an East London fishmonger's.

-- Pieter (, July 10, 2000.

>> She's British <<

And she'd be welcome in Saskatchewan. Canada is proud to put ERII on their money!

>> The vista was probably better than that of an East London fishmonger's. <<

In Saskatchewan, you can see a million stars at night, and the prairie opens up like God's open palm.

Honestly, I don't think there is more magic in looking at steep rocks across the valley than looking at the rim of the world forty miles off and a big sky overhead. Or more magic in eating dahl than eating oatmeal.

The important thing (as she said) is that "the knots that we have in our mind [fall] away and the spontaneous nature of the mind can shine through."

-- Brian McLaughlin (, July 10, 2000.

>In Saskatchewan, you can see a million stars at night, and the prairie opens up like God's open palm

Nice image! I know where I'm going for my next camping trip.

-- (, July 10, 2000.

>> I know where I'm going for my next camping trip. <<

Prepare for conditions to be a bit windy. There's not much to stop the wind in Saskatchewan.

-- Brian McLaughlin (, July 10, 2000.

The new luxuries, she notes, are silence, space, time.

Dreaming time. That's what it is called here. The Dream Time. To me it means an endless expanse of our sky over the coastal lagoons nearby. To others it's the infinity of heaven in a touching caress beyond the whisper in red sands. And when you swirl full circle there's no beginning and no end.

-- Pieter (, July 10, 2000.

The search for self-realization isn't about glamour, Brian. It is about committing to the effort and following instructions. It is about listening to that silent inner voice instructing us on where to go and what to do. Palmo was called and she listened. She put forth effort & was sincere, she endured the harshness of the high mountain climate. Most of all she sought her answers within.

What does it matter that she didn't seek enlightenment in Saskatoon? You with the tourist board?

-- Bingo1 (, July 10, 2000.

>> The search for self-realization isn't about glamour, Brian. <<

Granted. I agree. My concern about the "glamour" of the Himalaya is that many spiritually yearning folks will hear her story and think, "someday I would like to go sit in a cave in the Himalaya and achieve enlightenment", not realizing that the spiritual path is no place special. I chose Saskatchewan because it is about as opposite from the Himalaya as you can find.

There are people out there who naively think you need brass bells and incense, saffron robes and a guru to get started. But the last I heard rancid Yak butter doesn't have any special ingredients that promote enlightenment - unless maybe as a mortification of the flesh. It's awful stuff!

-- Brian McLaughlin (, July 10, 2000.


I agree with you to a large degree. There is nowhere to go but within to find enlightenment-it can be found by a homeless person sleeping in a new york subway station.

Each one has their own path, and for this woman, it took 12 years in the "desert" experience. I have no problem with her lectures as long as she is objective and tells everyone that her path is her path and only her path.

-- FutureShock (gray@matter.think), July 10, 2000.

this is a wind up isn't it

-- richard (, July 11, 2000.

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