Enlightenment in a dark caveBuddhist nun Tenzin Palmo spent 12
years alone in the Himalayas
The National Post
-- Last month, this newspaper ran a series called "What It Feels Like ..." in
which the writer Allen Abel interviewed miscellaneous Canadians about what it felt like to
be attacked by a polar bear, for instance, or to fall out of a plane.
In the spirit
of that series, may I alert you to the story of Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun from London,
England, who felt compelled to spend 12 years in the Himalayas, 13,200 feet above sea
level, living in a cave that was cut off by vast snowdrifts for eight months of each year.
Palmo is in
Toronto this week and next, and will then head to Vancouver, Victoria and Edmonton, trying
to raise money for a Buddhist nunnery she has founded in northern India, and I strongly
encourage you to catch one of her lectures. Don't be embarrassed, just let your hand shoot
straight up during the question period.
"Was it dark
in the cave? How did you read?"
"Did you just
start yammering away to yourself like a loon?"
crave stuff, like fish and chips, or a Coke?"
"What was it
like seeing the footprints of the yeti?"
And last, but not
least: "Did you find enlightenment, after all that, or did it turn out to be kind of
a waste of time?"
Of course, these
are the sorts of questions one doesn't dare ask such a fiercely intelligent and
spiritually influential woman, who has forged a shining path for aspiring female Buddhists
and also Westerners in the traditionally male-dominated hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism.
But they do pop
into one's head.
Mostly, I try to
get my head around that lapse of years. When I entered Grade 9 in 1976, she entered her
cave, which was too small to lie down in. She slept sitting up in her meditation box.
I graduated from
high school, and she was still in there, drinking melted snow and listening to wolves
I went through
university, moved in with my boyfriend, tried working in government, broke up with my
boyfriend, travelled, went to graduate school. And she was still in the cave, affecting
invisible, inner transformations in perfect stillness.
In 1988, when an
Indian bureaucrat suddenly showed up at her cave to tell her that her visa had expired,
Palmo had neither seen nor spoken to another human being for three years. She had been
meditating for 12 hours a day, and otherwise painting, reading and tending to a tiny
garden of English flowers, turnips and potatoes. (Other food staples were supplied to her
annually by a villager in the nearby valley of Lahoul, except for the year he didn't show
up, whereupon she almost starved. Such is life.)
quest for enlightenment thus terminated by red tape, she returned to the West, settling in
Assisi, Italy, for five years, where she discovered a yen for cappuccinos and Mozart.
"It was very moisturizing," she told her biographer, journalist Vicki Mackenzie,
of her new love for music. "I think I had become extremely dry somewhere."
In 1993, Palmo
embarked upon a jet-setting mission to raise funds for her nunnery, radically altering her
life in the process. Imagine going 12 years without so much as a weather forecast, and
then making an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.
more to the spiritual path than just meditation and introspection," she explained to
Ascent Magazine last year. "There are also the qualities of generosity, patience,
loving-kindness, compassion and so on, which you need to have other people around to
develop. It's easy to sit in a cave thinking 'may all beings be well and happy,' but it's
a different thing if you're out in the marketplace meeting these beings, many of whom are
quite difficult to deal with. So that's when you really develop those kinds of social
Palmo has said she
was never bored for an instant up there, in her alpine retreat, and I can understand that.
If one's ambition is to be a female Buddha, then the task is going to be no less absorbing
than a training regimen is for an Olympic athlete. Hey, you do what you have to do.
Even as a girl,
growing up in London's East End as the daughter of a fishmonger, the then-named Diane
Perry had a powerful sense of what she needed to do with her life. Her mother was a
spiritual dabbler who held seances in the parlour, during which a huge table once rocketed
around the room.
"There is no
way now that anyone can tell me that consciousness does not exist after death," she
later remarked, "because I have so much proof again and again that it does. It's not
a belief, it's a knowledge."
For her, the quest
was never to seek spiritual confirmation, as so many of us do, but rather, to perfect
herself within her chosen spiritual realm. Nonetheless, even while I understand that, what
fascinates me is her absence of fear.
She wasn't afraid
to live in a lightless, unheated cave in isolation for more than a decade with snow
leopards and yetis and wolves prowling about. She wasn't afraid when she was buried alive
by an avalanche for a week during one of those interminable winters. She wasn't afraid
when her food didn't come. She wasn't afraid to forsake love, and children, and all the
anchoring comforts of our lives.
That is what lures
me to her tale, and to the triumph of her spirituality. It makes me want to see her when
she comes to speak at the Royal Ontario Museum this week. When so much of our world is
governed by insecurity and paranoia, neuroses and anxiety: What does it feel like to live