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Vickie Mackenzie

Cave in the Snow; Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment

New York, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998.
Mackenzie met Tenzin Palmo (born Diane Perry, in 1943 in London) after she emerged from her eighteen-year retreat in a cave in the Himalayas. When she heard Ven. Palmo speak, this sentence galvanized her: "I have made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form — no matter how many lifetimes it takes." (p. 5)
Even after several people had recommended this book to me, I avoided it because I thought it would just be about the experience of Palmo's very traditional Tibetan practice. And it is — but in order to do that practice, Palmo had to struggle against patriarchal structures and attitudes in the organization, and to find inspiration for a woman's way in a tradition with few female figures.
After Ven. Palmo accomplished all that, and got to her cave, she felt like she was doing what she was meant to do. But in 1988, her retreat was interrupted by visa complications. When she came out into the world, she found the need to encourage other women to practice was so pressing, that she felt responsible to work for it.
So now she found herself challenging sexism in a wider arena: not only her teachers, not only all of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the mainstream culture — for the sake of all women, for them to have an opportunity to receive training and support in spiritual practice, for the creation of a nunnery. She began traveling the world, teaching to raise money for this.
In 1993 in Dharamsala, at the first Western Buddhism conference, Tenzin Palmo addressed the Dalai Lama with a plea Mackenzie describes as "an impassioned, formidable cry from the heart," for the needs of nuns, who after ordination have no support system or communities — no nunneries:
"They start with so much enthusiasm, with so much pure faith and devotion and gradually their inspiration decreases. They get discouraged and disillusioned and there is no one who helps them. ... It's a very hard situation and it has never happened in the history of Buddhism before. ...
I pray that this life of purity and renunciation which is so rare and precious in the world, that this jewel of the sangha may not be thrown down into the mud of our indifference and contempt."
"When she had finished," Mackenzie recounts, "a great hush fell over the gathering." And the Dalai Lama "was sitting there, head in his hands, silently weeping" (pp. 155 -156).
In the course of Ven. Palmo's crusade for the nunnery, she also encounters developments in Western Buddhism, and Mackenzie relates her insight into them — including feminist issues like sexual misconduct of teachers, honoring the feminine, family and householder practice, and anger. "The push by the women to introduce these changes," says Palmo, "is going to be one of the greatest contributions the West is going to make to the dharma." (p.199).

For more information about Tenzin Palmo see her website, where you can also read about the latest developments at the nunnery of Dongyu Gatsal Ling (Delightful Grove of the True Lineage).

16 July 2003