Words of Wisdom from a Buddhist Nun in Times of Coronavirus

I talk with Tenzin Palmo, who spent 12 years alone in a cave in the Himalayas, about solitude, presence, ego and, of course, coronavirus.

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Meeting Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

I talk to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo over Zoom on a Monday morning, my hair still damp from the shower, feeling rather below par after a weekend in which the days were spent writing, the nights tossing and turning with coronavirus-related money worries.

The Zoom connection is swiftly made, the internet bandwidth from the nunnery she founded in northern India giving us a clear connection, albeit with a slight time lag that will lead to me occasionally speak over her by mistake. She looks as robust, healthy and serene as I don’t feel. She is sitting in front of a white wall bearing a colourful banner of a Tibetan deity. When she flashes her smile, which is infrequent but broad and dazzling, it reminds me of somebody. It is only later than I place it — Cameron Diaz, if Cameron Diaz were a shaven-headed, seventy-six year-old Buddhist nun from Bethnal Green.

Cave in the Snow

It was early 2004 when I first read the book about Tenzin Palmo’s life, Cave in the Snow (I include several quotes from the book below). It had been recommended by a friend I’d met while traveling in Peru. He said there was this amazing book about a British nun who had spent twelve years meditating alone in a cave in the Himalayas. I said it sounded really boring.

But then I read it, and found an amazing story of a brave, pioneering woman who boldly aspired to attain enlightenment while incarnated in a female body. This mission would involve not only unwavering dedication to her spiritual path, but doggedly ploughing her way through the institutionalised sexism and misogyny of organised religion.

I can’t do justice to her full story here, and urge you to read the book, but to give you an extremely potted biography: Diane Perry was born in 1943, and realised she was a Buddhist at the age of eighteen when she read The Mind Unshaken, by John Walters, which finally provided answers to the questions she had about herself and about life. Aged twenty-one, she travelled to India and was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monastic.

Having diligently pursued her calling in various Indian monasteries, in 1976 she felt called to find a more ascetic location for her meditation practice, and found a small cave — really more of a rocky overhang — in a remote location in the Himalayas, 13,200 feet above sea level, well above the snowline. They built out a wall to enlarge and protect the cave, but it was still tiny.

Life was harsh. She grew her own vegetables (she is a huge fan of the humble turnip), and in the summer supplies were delivered from a nearby village, although they didn’t always arrive. In the winter the snow prevented access, so she relied on stockpiles. Temperatures were often below minus thirty degrees. Once her cave was completely buried in snow, and she had to dig her way out with a saucepan lid. She meditated for twelve hours a day in a meditation box. She slept in it too, sitting upright.

The cave was her home for twelve years, from the age of 33 to 45. For the first nine years, she made occasional trips away or had visitors, but for the last three she was on strict retreat, with no human contact.

So she knows a thing or two about solitude.

The Gifts of Solitude

When I started writing about The Gifts of Solitude, Tenzin Palmo immediately came to mind. Without her inspiration, I don’t believe I would have set out to row across oceans. In my own, very different, way, I hoped that my solitude on the ocean might lead to, if not enlightenment, at least to some greater understanding of myself, life, and the nature of reality. I often thought of her as I was rowing, especially to inspire me when I was feeling sorry for myself.

In preparation for our interview, I had revisited Cave in the Snow, this time listening to it as an audiobook, and had discovered new layers of meaning which made sense only now, after my own experiences of solitude. It had also struck me anew what an exceptional story — indeed, what an exceptional woman — this was.

And now I was talking to her.

I confessed to feeling somewhat starstruck, and found myself babbling. On the recording of our conversation I can hear my usual eloquence caught up in umms and errs, and seem to have developed a new and annoying habit of clicking my tongue on my teeth just before I say something. Tenzin Palmo, meanwhile, is composed, articulate, and wise. I will attempt to do justice to our conversation here, although I have edited for length. The recording is available in its entirety, umms, errs, clicks and all, on the Gifts of Solitude website.

In Her Own Words

RS: You tell Vicki Mackenzie (author of Cave in the Snow) how solitude takes away our masks, and forces us to hold a mirror up to ourselves. You say, “In retreat you see your nature in the raw, and you have to deal with it”. Maybe this is exactly what some people fear about solitude — they don’t want to see themselves that clearly. What would you say to a layperson to help them believe that the gifts will make the effort worthwhile? And how can they overcome their initial fear?

TP: The Buddha’s advice for people in their practice, right from the start, is the four brahmavihārās, or the four immeasurable states[1], of which the first two are loving-kindness and compassion, and so you’re supposed to wish well, and you start by wishing well to yourself. In other words, you make friends with yourself.

Most people are not friends with themselves. This is why they fear solitude and want always to be distracted. When there’s no external entertainment or other people, it’s very important just to make friends with yourself, to forgive yourself, to accept yourself. Okay, you’re not perfect — who is? — and just to get on with it and be nice and think kind thoughts towards yourself.

And a lot of people, especially nowadays, are estranged from themselves, which is why they put on this false persona, and why they never want to be given the opportunity to actually look at themselves in the mirror.

“I think it would be very helpful for many people to have some period of silence and isolation to look within and find out who they really are, when they’re not so busy playing roles — being the mother, wife, husband, career person, everybody’s best friend, or whatever facade we put up to the world as our identity. It’s very good to have an opportunity to be alone with oneself and see who one really is behind all the masks.”

RS: I’ve had some people say to me that they couldn’t do what I’ve done, spending so much time alone with myself, because they’re afraid to get to know themselves, which seems extraordinary, given that as far as I know, they’re not axe murderers.

TP: Even axe murderers have good points! We all have buddha nature. Our fundamental nature is fine. There are lots of hiccups along the way, but so what? People looking for the spiritual path — the whole reason we want the spiritual path is because we’re not perfect. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need the path. We would already be there. So to accept ourselves how we are, and get on with it from there, makes good common sense.

RS: Some people might look at you and think you are a lot closer to perfection than most of us (TP laughs). But maybe the more we strive for perfection, the more aware we become of our imperfections?

TP: But that’s okay. The important thing is that all of it is perfectly okay. If you have a good friend, you don’t expect them to be perfect, and you take them with all their little ways, because despite all that, they’re still your friend. So why are we so critical and hard on ourselves? You wouldn’t have any friends if you talked to other people the way we talk to ourselves!

RS: You talk about peeling away the layers of the onion, and I certainly felt like I was doing that on the ocean. I imagined that as I peeled away the layer after layer I would eventually get to my core, and maybe find this little homunculus there, but I never did.

TP: Good. Because there isn’t one. Buddhism always talks about non-self. And the whole point is that the more we look for me, the “I” behind it all, the less we are able to find it. But it doesn’t mean we don’t exist. The problem is our normal consciousness, our conceptual mind, is naturally dualistic. There is me, and there is everybody else who is non-me, you, other. And so that is kept going by our sense of self, our sense of ego. But the fundamental level of our consciousness, our primordial awareness, is by its very nature non-dual. That means that, rather than disconnecting us from everything else around us, that level of consciousness shows us that it is not like that at all. And that actually, at the most fundamental level, we are all interconnected. There is no self and there is no other. There is perception but there is no perceiver. And that’s like (snaps fingers) waking up, that whole shift in consciousness when we recognise that the whole time we’ve been in this dualistic perception of inner and outer is part of our dream, and so we need to wake up. It’s what connects us with all beings, instead of divides us. That is what meditation is about. It is about finding out who we truly are, which is nothing like who we think we are.

“You think you’ve got it when you understand that you are not the thought or feeling — but to go further and know you are not the knower … that brings you to the question: “Who am I?”,’ continues the questioner. ‘And that was the Buddha’s great understanding — to realize that the further back we go the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid little eternal entity, which is “I”, we get back to this vast spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings. In this space you have to ask, where is the “I”, and where is the “other”. As long as we are in the realm of duality, there is “I” and “other”. This is our basic delusion — it’s what causes all our problems.”

RS: I love that idea, that the deeper we go in the more we realise that we are connected to everybody and everything else, but for me it’s still an intellectual idea rather than a deep knowing.

TP: That’s why you meditate, sweetheart! Honestly, anything we say about it is spoken from the level of the conceptual mind, and this is non-conceptual reality. Which all genuine religions have understood — the Catholic mystics, the Sufi, the great Hindu saints — they all say the same thing: that there is divinity within us, that is blocked off by our small self. God isn’t some kind of being up there in the sky pulling strings. That the true divinity is within us — that is our true nature. But we don’t recognise it because we are so absorbed in our ego. All genuine religious traditions — no, not religious traditions, tradition is dogma — spiritual traditions, they have realised it, but then how to express something that by its very nature is inexpressible. A finger can point at the moon, but it’s not the moon. So they all express it in their own terminology, but it all misses the point. The thing is it can’t be spoken about, but it can be realised. Definitely it can be realised. Even just a glimpse shatters all our preconceptions. Our brain sees a very limited picture. It can’t see beyond the rational mind. It is very hard for the brain to take a leap beyond that. The fundamental aim — what we are trying to do is to wake up to our true nature. It is very hard for the brain to take a leap beyond that. Women’s brains are better at it than men’s.

RS: That is very encouraging to hear. Why?

TP: Because women are more naturally in tune with the intuitive. Many meditation teachers — male — have said so, that women are able to take that jump off the cliff, while men want to get there step by step by step, feeling the ground underneath their feet. The way the female brain functions is different. But it doesn’t really matter, male or female. The fundamental aim — what we are trying to do is to wake up to our true nature. And our true nature is not male or female. And so everything that comes in between that is just experience, it’s not the actual reality of our true nature. Sometimes female experiences are different from male experiences, but they are just experiences. They are not the fundamental reason why we are practising, which is to get back down to something that transcends all thoughts of male or female. In that state, you’re not male, you’re not female, you just are. Reality has no gender. You have a front of a hand, and a back of a hand, but it’s just a hand. They go together. In the end when you are looking at your mind, it’s just mind — it’s not male, or female.

RS: Many different ways to the top of the mountain.

TP: And many paths don’t get to the top of the mountain. They stop part way. But when you get to the top of the mountain, and you get a 360 view, and then you come back down the mountain the same way you went up, and you assume it’s the only way.

RS: Around the same time I read Cave in the Snow, I read the Perennial Philosophy, and he talked about self-naughting, which I found quite affronting to my ego — I didn’t want to be self-naughted, thank you very much…. When we’ve had a glimmering, and we try to put it into words, we find it’s not capable of being expressed in language. It just has to be experienced.

TP: It goes beyond words. A finger can point at the moon, but it’s not the moon.

RS: You talk about dropping from the head into the heart space, and operating from there. Can you say more about how this feels, and how it helps?

TP: The head can never know. And when we’re talking about the heart, we’re talking about the heart chakra, not the boom-boom-boom heart. The chakra heart is in the centre of our being. You can have a heart transplant, but it doesn’t alter who you are. We are talking about this centre of our being. When we talk about ourselves, we point here (pointing to her heart). We don’t point here (pointing to her head), where our brains and all our sense organs are. This is not just theoretical, practitioners in the Tibetan tradition stay in the state of tukdam. they stay in meditation when they die, sometime for days, hours, weeks. They are brain dead, and those who have died in the west have been tested — they are brain dead, and their bodies are cold. But here (pointing at heart) they are still warm. And doctors have discovered that. And the body does not go into rigor mortis. The body does not decay. If this goes on for weeks, the body actually becomes more beautiful, and gives off a very beautiful perfume. And sometimes shrinks. The point is that here (heart) stays warm. Everything else dissolves into this one point which is here. This is the primordial awareness which then is centred in the heart chakra. When that goes the body collapses and decays. This is true, it has been found over and over again. When lamas die in hospitals, the staff themselves have seen this. They can’t explain it, but they know it’s true. So there’s something happening here — sometimes you know something, and your brain is telling you the opposite, but inside you know.

RS: You said you were never bored in your cave. Yet it seems a lot of people are struggling with boredom during the coronavirus lockdown. Can you suggest a way they could reframe boredom into something more positive?

TP: Most of my day was taken up with doing my set practice, or with household tasks, whatever they might be, like clearing snow or chopping wood or cooking, or whatever. And then the rest of the day I was doing my sessions, or I was writing out texts, or reading books, or painting. The day was filled up, and there was no time to be bored. Even if you’re not doing any particular meditation practice, you can take up doing something — reading, learning something new, carpentry, there are so many things you could do. If people spend all their time looking at television, no wonder they get bored. They are mind-bogglingly boring.

RS: And I wonder — is there anything wrong with being bored? Maybe we need more time to allow ourselves to get bored.

TP: They are afraid. A lot of people get very frightened of being alone. They are like trapped animals in the cage, pacing backwards and forwards, not knowing what to do with themselves. Because we are so used to being distracted, non-distraction feels very threatening.

RS: Maybe this is our opportunity to give up our addiction to distraction.

TP: A lot of people plunge straight into it — they are endlessly, you know (mimes texting on a smartphone), Twittering everybody and on Facebook and that stirs up the mind but it’s not satisfying. Because it’s very much on the surface of the mind, so at the end of the day you feel tired or stressed, but you haven’t actually accomplished anything. There’s nothing that is inwardly giving you any sense of satisfaction that you’ve done something worthwhile with your time, so then you get very frustrated. And then plunge more and more into thinking that you’re not doing enough — video games or whatever — anything rather than sit and just be, without doing.

“…‘being’ is often better than ’doing’ and that taking time out to be still and think is often a better investment for future productivity than cramming every waking moment with feverish activity.”

RS: You do a lot of teaching, and I’m sure a lot of people arrive at your retreats still going at a million miles a minute, so how do you bring them into presence?

TP: In Buddhism, in all schools, they bring the attention to the breath. It’s not the pranayama[2], it’s just that you’re breathing, and you know you’re breathing. Keep the session short — 5 minutes, 10 minutes — and just breathe, and bring your attention to the breath. And it’s not even so much the importance of the breath, as it is the importance of being aware. Because normally we breathe, we walk, we talk, but we’re not even aware what we’re doing, because our body is doing one thing, but our mind is running off into the past, into the future, circling around the present, but it never settles. So the first step is how to settle the mind in the present moment. The good thing with the breath is that we cannot breathe in the past or in the future. We only breathe now. If we are noticing the breath as it comes in and goes out, at that moment we are present. It is very, very soothing for the mind, actually, knowing it can just be.

RS: Vicki Mackenzie suggests that you coped well with solitude because you have a naturally cheerful and pragmatic disposition, and you may well also have had several previous lifetimes of practice in solitary contemplation. This is a walk in the park for you, but what about the rest of us mere mortals?

TP: Like with any skill, you start with small steps. To people who tell me they want to go and live on the mountain for years and years, I say, start with a two-day guided retreat with other people. Then do a week’s retreat with other people. Then a month. Then, if you really know what you’re doing, you can do a week by yourself. And then see how you get on. So gradually, gradually build up.

“One goes into a retreat to understand who one really is and what the situation truly is. When one begins to understand oneself then one can truly understand others because we are all interrelated. It is very difficult to understand others while one is still caught up in the turmoil of one’s emotional involvement — because we’re always interpreting others from the standpoint of our own needs.”

RS: So clearly there are a lot of people who didn’t get the chance to prepare psychologically for the lockdown, they were just thrust into it overnight, so if they’re completely out of their depth trying to handle this isolation, what might be helpful to them if they’re drowning?

TP: If they have some good friends they can contact who can help, so they know they are not alone. Nowadays most people are on some kind of social media, so call up some good friends and have a chat and a laugh. For people who do have psychological problems, meditation by themselves is maybe not such a good idea, and they might be better off reading a good book or watching a nice movie, because meditation can bring things up, and unless you’re able to deal with those things, it may be better, if you’re by yourself, not to open that door.

RS: Especially when there is anxiety thrown into the mix.

TP: Some loving-kindness — that is good. Give loving kindness to yourself, and then imagine sending all this loving kindness out into the world. There are so many millions and millions of people who are really suffering because of this, so from your heart, send the love and compassion to everybody. Just sit there and send out love. And imagine the whole globe is covered in light and love. And stop thinking about yourself so much.

“…it’s a warm spaciousness. It means that one is no longer involved in one’s ephemeral emotions. One sees how people cause so much of their own suffering just because they think that without having these strong emotions they’re not real people.”

RS: I’m guessing it would be hard for you to imagine a life without a purpose, because your quest for enlightenment has been such a driving force, but as a thought experiment, do you think that having a sense of purpose helped you endure the trials of your time in the cave?

TP: Well, I don’t think they were very hard. I always felt myself extraordinarily lucky to be where I was. I didn’t think of it as a hardship at all. To my mind, I thought if I could be anywhere in the world, there is nowhere else I would rather be. And it’s not because I’m a masochist. I just thought, aren’t I lucky to be in such a wonderful, wonderful situation, where I was in a land which is known for its connection with these female dakinis[3], these people there all being Buddhist, there was no threat, I had this completely beautiful solitude, endless time to practice, and I felt incredibly blessed. So it didn’t seem like any hardship at all.

RS: So maybe another example would be the fundraising to build the nunnery, which is maybe less in tune with your natural inclinations. Did purpose help then? Or was there joy in that too?

TP: Traveling around the world, you’re generally in contact with people who are very sympathetic to what you’re doing. It’s not like a political rally. People want to come and learn something and to listen, so you’re just sharing with people who are very happy to hear and it’s a very joyful experience. I hate teaching, it’s true, but nonetheless, to share the dharma[4] with people who are interested is always a joy. The problem for a lot of people is that they don’t really know what they are doing with their life. So many people come to me who have outwardly gained much success in their life, both foreigners and Indians. They’ve got everything, they’re corporate managers, or they’re into banking, and they’ve got lots of money, and they got married, they have a big house, and three cars, and then at some point they ask, is this it? Will another car really bring me deeper satisfaction? I’ve got everything that I was told would bring me enduring happiness, and I’m not happy. And so, then they say, I’m still young enough to change course, and let’s try to find something that will bring inner satisfaction, that will bring genuine happiness. And that’s when they start on this spiritual path.

“Here people are hungry for some real meaning and depth to their lives. When one has stopped satiating the senses one wants more. That’s why people are aggressive and depressed. They feel everything is so futile. You have everything you want, and then what? Society’s answer is to get more and more, but where does that get you? I see isolation everywhere and it has nothing to do with being alone. It’s about having an alienated psyche.”

RS: Wouldn’t that be great if that was the gift of these times, to recalibrate what we think is important. As you say, when we’re on our deathbed, we’re not going to be thinking about how many cars there are in our garage. Wouldn’t be it great if this was our chance to connect with a bigger “why”?

TP: And yet, we went through two world wars, one after the other. And everybody said, now we’ve really learned. Now we’ve learned what is important and what is not important. We’ll never make that mistake again. And then you blink, and off you go again. In the Wheel of Life, this diagram of the various places of rebirth — animals and humans and god-realms and so forth — and it’s like a wheel which is endlessly turning, called samsara. At the centre of that wheel is a hub. At the hub of the wheel are three animals — a pig, a rooster, and a snake. The snake stands for anger, the rooster for desire and greed, and the pig for ignorance. And they’re biting each other’s tails. And they’re going round and round and round. And their going round and round and round is what sets the whole wheel spinning. And that’s the problem. Our delusion about our true nature, which gives rise to greed and desire for what gives pleasure, and aversion and anger towards that which does not give pleasure. And it keeps the whole wheel circling, no matter our best intentions. So the only way to stop the wheel is to break the hub.

RS: And how do we do that?

TP: Well, that is why you’re meditating! Within those three, the important one is our ignorance, our ignorance of our true nature. We identify with our ego, and although our ego is a good servant, it’s a terrible master, because it’s blind.

RS: COVID-19. We have a global health scare, which is affecting a lot of people in a way they’ve never been affected before. And it’s affecting everybody, all at once. Everybody has grief in their lives, but suddenly there are a lot of people in fear. I wonder if you have a sense of the bigger picture of this. What is going on? Is there an invitation in these times?

TP: I was just reading this message from the Kogi[5], who are saying we’re in disharmony with the environment, we’re killing our own planet. My own feeling is there are fires, there are floods, but they are always somewhere else. Now suddenly this is the one thing that has hit home for everybody, everywhere. Everyone has to go home, and stay home, and deal with themselves and their own situations, and it’s not something out there on the other side of the planet. And either people can open up and say this is going to happen again, or they can say, “Oh, somebody will come up with a cure, and we’ll be okay again”, and put it aside.

RS: Like we can technologise our way out of everything.

TP: Like the world wars, people say we can change, but in no time at all, those lessons are forgotten. The world cannot go on like this. Personally, I also feel very much that as far as this virus is concerned, and other viruses that will come, modern allopathic medicine is based on testing animals. And so you have all these millions and millions of animals that have been tortured and killed in order that human beings can get good health. We are not making karma for good health. You cannot make karma for health and wellbeing through killing and torturing other beings. How can you? You are making the karma for death and disease. And so of course we’re going to get it back, endlessly. You might cure one, but something else is going to come up, even worse, and that is what has happened.

RS: So it is that theme again, isn’t it, of everything being connected.

TP: We get the results of our own actions. If our actions are not towards healing and health and loving-kindness and compassion, how can we expect to get that coming as a result?

RS: Is there any hope? If we haven’t woken up yet… I’m picturing a bodhisattva task force coming in and waking us all up. Any chance?

TP: I don’t think so. The Buddha couldn’t manage it. Krishna didn’t manage it. Jesus didn’t manage it. Mohammed didn’t manage it. We’re the same old beings, plodding along, creating havoc wherever we are, to ourselves and all the beings around us. As long as we are still governed by our greed… Everybody writes letters, and goes to conferences, but they don’t want to change their lifestyle. And the organisations running the world are not going to change. The fundamental point is that we have to feel comfortable with ourselves. If we are comfortable with ourselves, we are comfortable with others. If we seek friendship, it should be because it’s nice to be with others, but not because we are unable to be with ourselves. It’s very sad that people reach out for others in the hope that they are going to give us the happiness that we cannot get just from being who we are, with ourselves.

“Once we realise that the nature of our existence is beyond thought and emotions, that it is incredibly vast and interconnected with all other beings, then the sense of isolation, separation, fear and hopes fall away. It’s a tremendous relief!”

Girl-Crush on a Nun — is that just wrong?

At the end of our call, in a momentary flash of boldness, I invite myself to come and visit her at her nunnery in India once we are free to travel again. She is gracious enough to look pleased, and tells me they have a guest house.

Afterwards, I tweet: “Is it inappropriate to have a girl-crush on a nun?”

[1] The four immeasurable states, in their entirety, are:

1. loving-kindness or benevolence (metta)

2. compassion (karuna)

3. empathetic joy (mudita)

4. equanimity (upekkha)

[2] Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath

[3] A Sanskrit word for the female embodiment of enlightenment

[4] Many meanings, but to massively over-simplify, dharma means something like spiritual ethics

[5] The Kogi are an indigenous tribe of Colombia who understand the Earth to be a living being. They keep their distance from modern society, but issues messages from time to time, warning of dire consequences if humans don’t change our ways.

Written by

Former management consultant who stepped out of the ordinary to row oceans solo. Currently writing at https://www.thegiftsofsolitude.com/ and www.rozsavage.com

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