Jetsunma (a title which means Venerable Master in Tibetan Buddhism) Tenzin Palmo is the second westerner to become an ordained Buddhist nun. In 2000 she established, with the blessing of her male superiors, including the Dalai Lama, a nunnery called Dongyu Gatsal Ling (Garden of the Authentic Lineage) in the mountains of northern India.
The woman who made this happen was born in 1943 to a fishmonger in East London and a mother who fostered her spiritual search. In her teens, then called Diane Perry, Palmo read the Koran and Christian texts and after her mother gave her a copy of The Mind Unshaken, she knew she was Buddhist.
She made a vow to become enlightened in a woman’s body no matter how many lifetimes it might take. After years of studying, and actually living in a retreat cave in the Himalayas at 13,200 feet near the Tibetan border for twelve years (carefully documented in Vicki Mackenzie’s biography Cave in the Snow) her life inspired meditation practitioners all around the globe. She had no bed, but only a meditation box. She studied the dharma day and night. There she learned it “wasn’t enough to sit on your cushion and think may all beings be well and happy and send them loving kindness. This good feeling has to be taken into actual actions.” She vowed to bring compassion to Buddhist women desiring the training only men received.
She became a nun and arrived in India in 1964. There, she soon learned that a mystical Buddhist tradition of Togdenma that actually embraced the feminine, was virtually wiped out during the Chinese Communist takeover of Tibet in 1959. She points out in her fund-raising lectures that she now makes around the world, it is very hard for established religions of any sort to change, especially if it impacts the men. Few Buddhist monks see any need to ordain women. Most view women as perfectly happy in their novice state. They cook and clean and can become as enlightened as possible in a woman’s body, for they believe only male bodies can become truly enlightened or attain bull “buddhahood.” Full ordination for women can only be given by an ordained woman. A catch-22. How then are women to become ordained? Without people like Palmo, Buddhist women would remain forever in their lesser educated roles in society.
Palmo was forced to leave India after 24 years or face arrest in 1988. Since then, she has made it her life’s work to confront gender bias in Tibetan Buddhism and to support nuns. “As long as there is discrimination against females,” she says, “then one should strive to be born again and again in a female body to help that situation. Should the time come when males are in a weaker position, then one would vow to be reborn in a male body.”
She said, “Obviously, as far as the nunnery is concerned, we are hoping that some of the nuns will really continue with their philosophical studies and later become teachers themselves. I think it is very important. And His Holiness the Dalai Lama also feels it’s very important that the nuns rely much less on the monks and that they themselves become teachers of each other. So, this is what we are aspiring to.”
She started building her nunnery after the monsoon in 2007. Tired of straight lines, Palmo designed circular buildings connected by stone walkways acting as spokes of a transformative wheel. Nearing completion, the building themselves reflect her openness to change.
Built on a sloping site, it has a study center and small clinic. While there are only 50 there now, they hope it will eventually house over 100 nuns ranging in age from 15 to 25. Two circular wings surround a central inner private courtyard of grass and trees. Each wing has a kitchen, dining room, bathrooms and bedrooms, all with central solar powered heating. A large recreational room joins the two wings.
The temple, itself is more traditional looking but Palmo explains in an article in Ascent, June 8, 2009 by John Malkin that she’s thinking of introducing stained glass windows so sunlight might pour through a green Tara or mandala. A truly revolutionary thought for Buddhist architecture.
The nunnery is dedicated to inner as well as outer liberation. The nurturing environment makes a statement to anyone who visits. Here is a safe place for women to learn. “Women were the hidden potential within Buddhism that were being overlooked.”
She is quick to remind people that in the earliest sutras, Buddha himself assured his listeners that enlightenment is not confined by gender. Now a sacred place exists in northern India where women are honored as equals to men. They learn grammar, philosophy, languages (English and Tibetan), and Buddhist practices including all the rituals including chanting, and they take silent retreats just as the monks have for ages. No longer confined to cooking and cleaning within a patriarchal, hierarchical structure, the women at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery experience an environment where they can fully realize their spiritual growth. They can learn in this six year program balanced with study and meditation and then and go on to establish other well-run nunneries in their various remote regions and become ordained Dharma teachers if that is the path they choose.