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