Is There Still a Glass Ceiling on Enlightenment?
An Interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
It is the close of the final day of her last teaching tour before retirement, and the legendary Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, in the maroon robes of her calling, is taking questions from the floor. Until this point, it has been a fairly uneventful — if luminous — lecture on “transforming the mind.” Then a tousled, torn–T-shirted youth in the back raises his hand and shouts, “I heard women cannot become enlightened!”
Tenzin Palmo blinks in a state of mild shock. “Is that a question?” she asks.
“It’s my brother’s question,” he sidesteps, presciently, as the 66-year-old nun palms a large glass water bottle and makes to hurl it at him. “Can you maybe say something about it?”
“What exactly is it male bodies have that female bodies do not?” she raises an eyebrow and asks, pausing, so that everybody can catch up. “And can you tell me, what exactly is it that’s so essential and incredible about that particular male organ?” The young man can only laugh then, as Tenzin Palmo duly explains with great wit, insight, and precision the obstacles women face when walking a spiritual path. It is telling that she, of all people, should still have to explain herself.
The Path of a Pioneer
More than 40 years ago, in “a moment of sheer frustration, after [she’d] been rejected yet again for being female,” Tenzin Palmo famously made a vow: she would attain enlightenment as a woman. At that time, she was living in a monastic community in the Indian Himalayas. She had sailed there from her home in East London, leaving her beloved mother, her job at the local library, and everything she had ever known. With an astonishing degree of certitude, Tenzin Palmo had met her guru on her 21st birthday and three weeks later, became only the second Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
But at every turn, her quest for “perfection” was thwarted. “As the only Westerner, plus the only nun in an all-male community, one didn’t fit in anywhere.” She recalls, “I was terribly lonely. It was as though I had joined this big male club. I couldn’t live with the monks, eat with them, sit with them, study with them — [not] anything. I used to feel as if there was this huge banqueting table of incredibly vast and complex thought and practice, and somebody would give me a little crumb here and there.
“Eventually,” she says, with characteristic brio, “I got very fed up.” Her lama advised her to practice in the remote mountain region of Lahoul, but again she ran up against a wall of institutional sexism. “As is the custom in Lahoul, the monastery was shared by monks and nuns. Of course, the monks were up front, doing the rituals, while the nuns were in the kitchen, doing the cooking. I joined the monks. I hadn’t come to Lahoul to learn how to cook!”
The main problem posed by gender, as Tenzin Palmo sees it, is that women are not taken seriously on the spiritual quest. In the Tibetan tradition, for instance, women still cannot receive full ordination as nuns. They remain novices all their lives, despite His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s publicly supporting full Bikshuni ordination for women. “My response,” says Tenzin Palmo, “was to learn Tibetan and read the books for myself,” rather than wait to have them explained by a nonexistent teacher.
“Also,” she adds, “on the advice of my lama, I went off and undertook retreats on my own.”
Following in the footsteps of countless spiritual seekers, from Hinduism’s Ramana Maharshi in the last century to Buddhism’s Rechungma in the eleventh, Tenzin Palmo stepped out on the solitary path to realization. In 1976, at the age of 33, with her lama’s blessing, she took up residence in a six-by-six-foot cave, 13,200 feet up in the Himalayas. She lived there for 12 years, practicing meditation during four three-hour sessions a day. At night, she practiced “dream yoga” in a traditional two and a half-foot, square meditation box. Never, while she was in the cave, did Tenzin Palmo lie down. For the last three years she was in a total retreat, speaking and interacting with no one.
Irina Tweedie, the late, great Sufi teacher, reflected that on the path to liberation from fear, attachment, and the illusion of separateness, “the man has to learn to control his sexuality. The woman has to overcome attachment to worldly objects.”
For Tenzin Palmo, neither proved any obstacle at all, though she finds talking about it today unutterably boring (“it was a hundred lifetimes ago”). She was entirely happy in her cave, though most Westerners would have found the privation maddening. “There was never anywhere else I would rather be,” she says simply. “I was extremely grateful for the opportunity and felt totally safe. I was able to focus on meditation, training the mind to be present, without the eternal commentary, and eventually to see into the limitless, eternal nature of the mind itself.”
Does Gender Matter?
Once the mirror of the mind is clean of all delusion, gender becomes irrelevant, says Tenzin Palmo. Before that, however, she does detect key differences between male and female practitioners. “Women are naturally at home in the intuitive realms,” she says, “whereas men like to have their feet on the ground. Women, when the mind shifts towards the infinite, don’t feel threatened; they feel at home in that kind of mind. To me, the Dakini [the fabled, fiery female spirits in Tibetan Buddhism] principle stands for this intuitive force. Women get things in a flash — they’re not interested in intellectual discussion. One very straight-laced meditation teacher said to me that actually his best students are not monks but the village women. You tell them what to do; they do it — and get results. With the men, you tell them and they say, ‘He said “Do this,” but I also read this, and what about this or this?’ They spend so much time analyzing and doubting, they don’t get anywhere.
“Female spiritual energy is very quick — like Tara [the striking, green, female Buddha of active compassion]. You don’t have to be a great yogi to communicate with Tara. She’s always ready. Once women get going on meditation, their experiences are very rapid and high.”
There are, however, some things of which women should be aware when walking both in the world and on a spiritual path: “To be giving, nurturing, and loving is a great advantage,” Tenzin Palmo says. “However, it must be balanced with inner strength and centeredness. Many women are able to generate loving kindness, but they need to take time out to develop awareness and equanimity. Particularly if they have a family, they need to cultivate space — a center of inner tranquillity and poise. Basically, we need to balance a warm, emotional response to others with the inner detachment of clear seeing.”
Closing the Gender Divide
After her retreat, Tenzin Palmo traveled to Italy to reconnect herself with Western culture. She had fully intended to remain in India, but several high lamas approached her, saying that they had no facilities to house young Buddhist nuns. Tenzin Palmo recalls, “I thought, yes, I really should do something to give the women a place to study, train, and practice; opportunities that were not available to me. So I’ve spent a lot of time since, trying to raise interest in the plight of the nuns who, at that time, were uneducated, unhoused, uncared for, and totally overlooked.”
By 1998, Tenzin Palmo had single-handedly raised enough money to buy the land and build the foundations of her nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India. Founded in 2000, the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery now houses 60 nuns; a group of senior nuns are currently in a three-year retreat, preparing for initiation into the Togdenma tradition. (Togdenma were yoginis, special nuns who lived in caves in the mountains of Tibet and performed Tantric practices. These practices must be handed down orally, like a living flame, from established Togden practitioners. Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the lineage has stood in grave danger of permanent extinction. )
Tenzin Palmo is optimistic that — not only for the Togdenma but in a wider context — “things are changing.” She says, “One of the problems in the past was that even if women became very accomplished, it was very difficult for them to express what they had realized since they were illiterate. Millions of women have attained enlightenment, but nobody wrote their biographies, so you don’t hear of them. They were outside the hierarchy; they didn’t found big monasteries or start lineages, therefore they weren’t considered important. They were the unheard voice.
“Now, women are becoming much more educated,” says Tenzin Palmo, “and are able to express their experiences. Traditionally, if you were born female you’d pray every day to be reincarnated as a man. Women were basically marking time until they could come back as men and start the real work. But the lamas who talk to our nuns today say, ‘In the past things were different, but you have every opportunity now. There’s nothing you cannot attain in this lifetime. Go for it.’”
The Female Roots of Sexism
Surprisingly, Tenzin Palmo believes that the problem now is not sexism from men but from women. “The age-old problem is that women tend to idolize men. They give their deepest respect and devotion to the male teachers and spiritual leaders. Until this fundamentally changes and women begin to support and appreciate their own gender, they will remain weak and overlooked.”
But Tenzin Palmo, never weak and very seldom overlooked, is no defeatist, and her conclusion is a clarion call, not only for women but for dedicated spiritual practitioners everywhere: “Each of us has something to do in this lifetime. We all have negative emotions to be purified and positive emotions to be cultivated. All of us need to reconnect to our source and drop our personal stories, don’t we? Men, women, old, young, from here, from there — it is the same. All you can do is your practice. There is nothing else. Don’t get caught up. Don’t stop. We have to learn how to get out of our own way. Because ultimately, the only thing standing in our way is ourselves.”
Lucy Powell is a creative writer and arts journalist, living in London. She is the author of Fever! and True or Falsetto!, and has written many articles on the arts for London’s Time Out and the Times. She first visited Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery in Himachel Pradesh in 2003. This interview is from her last lecture tour to London, earlier in the summer of 2009.