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Enlightenment in a dark cave
Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo spent 12 years alone in the Himalayas
The National Post

Baltimore -- 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?"

"Didn't you 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 howl.

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.)

Her spiritual 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."

Really? Where?

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.

"There is 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 muscles."

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 without fear?


Updated: 20-8-2001

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