Few people, much less women, had as much courage and drive as Tenzen Palmo. As the second Western woman to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun, she faced a great many challenges just being able to practice, much less achieve enlightenment. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the concept was laughable. Men dominated Tibetan Buddhism. And she, the only nun among a hundred or so monks, was told (kindly of course) that they’d pray for her to have a favorable rebirth as a man so that she could achieve enlightenment.
Tenzin, however, would have none of it. She set out to prove not only could she become enlightened in one life time but as a woman as well. During her time as a nun (she still is one) she stood up to high lamas, debated and taught, and even spoke up boldly to none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama, bringing him to tears in regards to the plight of Tibetan nuns.
She left the monastery and went high up into the Himalayas, above a tiny village, and moved into a cave. There she meditated for twelve years, and would probably be there still if it hadn’t been that her visa ran out and the newly elected authorities invited her to leave. On her website, Tenzin says those twelve years were “the happiest years of her life.” Now she guides people up to the site on annual pilgrimages.
I found this an intriguing work, although not quite as theologically accurate as I had hoped. Tenzin seems to be as dismissive of the female Buddha’s or, Taras as her male counterparts seem. She does sing praises to Tara, but then at the same time did not seem to gain any inspiration from her or other female Buddhist saints and Deities. One comment made in the book regarding my patron deity, Chenrezig states, on page 125, thus: “…the male Buddha Chenrezig, who saw the suffering of all sentient beings but was unable to do anything about it.” This is clearly incorrect as anyone who has worked with Chenrezig can tell you, and after I read this, I felt less interested in reading, which is a shame, because I begged for this book. Indeed, while I read, I often wondered why she found more inspiration in the Virgin Mary, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa, than in the Buddhist saints and teachers. I couldn’t help but wonder, after I finished the work, why she hadn’t converted to Catholicism instead of Tibetan Buddhism.
I did find her story interesting and engaging, but I received no inspiration from it as I had hoped. It was quite a letdown, especially after reading Footprints in the Snow, which was amazing. I am glad Tenzin continues to teach, and happy that she has finally built the nunnery she dreamed of, but I still can’t help but wonder, why did she choose Buddhism instead of Catholicism? After all, she did spend time meditating in a cave in Italy after her tenure at the caves in the Himalayas, which in and of itself isn’t unusual, but the cave she picked was one where a famous Catholic saint prayed. No disparagement intended against this fine teacher. I am merely curious. Maybe someday I can get an interview with her and she can tell me. If I find out I’ll let you know.
~review by Patricia Snodgrass
Author: Tenzen Palmo
Bloombury Publishing, 1998
Footprints in the Snow review