Interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. By Tamsin Angus-Leppan
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, 71, formerly known as Diane Perry, was one of the first western women to be ordained as a Buddhist nun, in 1973. Three years later she secluded herself in a cave high in the Himalayas, where she underwent twelve years of intense meditation, as described in her biography Cave in the Snow. In 1993 Jetsunma began preparations to open the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Tibet. In 2008 she was granted the title Jetsunma, or Venerable Master, in recognition of her spiritual achievements and her efforts to raise the status of female practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Her latest project aims to support nuns in other parts of the world.
How do you come to this path as a Buddhist nun?
Since I was a child I’d always wanted to be a nun but since I wasn’t particularly Christian, I was always a bit puzzled as to what kind of nun I could be since the only nuns I knew were Christian nuns. But when I came to the Buddha dharma (teachings), I recognised that this was the most important thing in the world as far as I was concerned and therefore I wanted to lead a life which had the dharma at the centre and with the minimum of external distractions, or emotional distractions, and it was logical to become a nun.
Why did you start a nunnery?
My Lama (teacher) had a on a number of occasions said to me, I want you to start a nunnery but at the time I had no money. After I left the cave in 1988, I went to Italy for a few years. I tried going into retreat in Italy, but it was disastrous, it was not meant to be. I felt well if I’m not meant to be in retreat, then what? And the answer was to return to India and when I got back to India in the early 90s the Lamas said start a nunnery and I thought yes, that’s what I should be doing now. At the beginning I had to raise some funds and Vicki Mackenzie hadn’t written the book about the cave yet. It was quite difficult because you can’t go around giving talks if no one invites you. In those days people were interested in Tibetan Lamas and when I spoke about nuns, basically the reaction was “oh nuns…nobody ever talks about nuns, the Lamas talk about monks”. Nuns were really very overlooked in those days and very underappreciated. Now it’s much better. There has come more realisation of the great potential there is in the female. Nowadays nuns are far more educated and given so much more opportunity for practice and are living in much better, well run, disciplined nunneries and showing they are more focused and devoted and often more intelligent than their male counterparts.
What is your new project?
We are about to start something called the non-Himalayan nuns alliance. The Himalayan nuns, the nuns from Tibet and surrounds, on the whole they’re doing okay now, they are being supported and encouraged, they are in good nunneries, they are studying and so forth. Who are not okay, who continue to be overlooked, are nuns from Australia, America, Europe and women from other Asian countries who become Tibetan Buddhist nuns. People assume if you become monastic you are going to be looked after and supported and trained: it is simply not true, if you are not part of the traditional background. In Australia, there are many Australian nuns running Buddhist centres and they have to do everything, including pay the rent, support themselves, give teachings, raise funds to bring in Lamas…the fact that these women are slaving away is completely ignored. It’s called seva, but it’s exploitation. We have gathered together a group of eminent western nuns to try to raise awareness and funding so that if for example a nun wants to do a retreat or a study course they can.