Spiritual Genius; 10 Masters and the Quest for Meaning
By Winifred Gallagher
Tenzin Palmo was born Diane Perry, the gifted daughter of working-class parents in London's cockney East End. At eighteen she became a librarian at London University and began her spiritual search in earnest. Photographs from this era show a slender, attractive gamine who, in the staid 1950s, must have seemed awfully cool. She began to read about Buddhism and was soon drawn to its Tibetan tradition, which was then regarded as a superstitious folk religion. She studied the Tibetan language at the university and met the first of her remarkable mentors, including the young, unknown Trungpa Rinpoche; this lama, or monk regarded as a spiritual master, would later become a highly influential guru in the West. At twenty Diane left high heels and boyfriends behind and boarded a steamer just ahead of the wave of young Europeans and Americans who would soon pour into India on spiritual quests. She joined the Tibetan refugee community in North India, where she taught English to young tulkus - recognized reincarnations of important lamas.
On her twenty-first birthday, Diane's life changed irrevocably when she met the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche. She immediately recognized this powerful lama as her root guru, or the teacher who reveals the nature of one's mind. (The Khamtruls are important figures in the Drukpa Kargyu sublineage of the Kargyu tradition; Tibetan Buddhism's three other branches are the Sakya, Nyingma, and Gelug traditions.) The rinpoche in turn recognized her as a close associate from previous lifetimes; in fact, some of his monks remembered a very old painting in Tibet that showed a blue-eyed, tilt-nosed lama who strongly resembled the Englishwoman. Within the month Diane Perry was a nun called Tenzin Palmo and the Khamtrul's secretary. Although she lived amidst one hundred monks, she was barred by gender from much of monastic life, including its formal religious training. Technically, Buddhism regards women and men as equal, because both have genderless Buddha nature. For all the usual reasons, however, the thousand Buddhas of this aeon have somehow all been male, just as the Buddha was in all of his past lives-even as a rabbit or monkey.
Almost immediately Tenzin Palmo determined that education was the key to unlocking the riches of Buddhism for women. With characteristic gumption she sought private instruction and studied until she was ready to travel to Hong Kong for her bhikshuni ordination-called gelongma in Tibetan-which few Buddhist nuns outside China receive. Her early frustration as a devout woman struggling against the status quo to fulfill her religious potential shaped her vocation: she would not only strive to achieve Buddhahood as a woman, no matter how many lifetimes that might take, but also work to ensure that the women following in her footsteps would face fewer obstacles.
After eight years Khamtrul Rinpoche told Tenzin Palmo that she was ready for solitary retreat. From fall through spring she lived alone in her tiny cave, completely snowbound for most of the year, returning to Tashi Jong monastery only for teachings in summer. After nine years of this rigorous preparation, she undertook a three-year-long unbroken retreat in her cave. This experience in particular has linked her with Tashi Jong's nearly mythic togdens - the Tibetan term for people who have become enlightened, or as they say, realized-who were among her early mentors.
Togdens are elite yogi-monks, especially associated with the Kargyu tradition, who from youth direct their whole physical, mental, and emotional being toward becoming realized in a single lifetime. During many years of training, in isolation even from other monks, togdens master all types of meditation and esoteric forms of yoga that cultivate subtle psychophysiological energies. Most of these practices are secret; the only one generally spoken of is tumo, in which the practitioner can raise his body temperature until soaking sheets wrapped around him in freezing temperatures steam-dry. The togdens are said to be very strong, fast, and agile into old age and to have metaphysical powers. The few who really know anything about such matters are very circumspect, making only vague allusions to what one person calls "that matter-energy, emptiness-form stuff." The only outward signs of the togdens' special status are their red and white robes and uncut hair, which is braided into long coils and bundled turban-style around the head.
Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, togdens have become an endangered species. Seven of the yogi-monks escaped with the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, and the three who still survive at Tashi Jong are among the few togdens left in the world. To keep their tradition alive, these elders are training eight young monks high above the monastery. Within a restricted area roped off by prayer flags, the trainees live in isolation and extreme asceticism for at least twelve years, often dwelling in caves and eating and sleeping only sparingly. One day an ani suggests something of the rigor of their practice when she mentions that the young men sometimes wear deep grooves into the wooden planks on which they do prostrations.
Ajam, the senior togden who had served the seventh, eighth, and ninth Khamtrul rinpoches, whom he described as "all the same," died last year at the age of eighty-seven. His death was a momentous event still being discussed at Tashi Jong. When he was cremated, his ashes contained ringsels, or little seashell-shaped objects of great portent; photographs were sent to the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, Ajam had spent thirty years in retreat, six of them in a small cave where he subsisted on water and tsampa, or ground barley. To ward off sleepiness during meditation, he sat on the edge of a Himalayan cliff. His memories of Tibet included togdenmas, or female togdens. "If you ever saw a togdenma," Ajam said, "you wouldn't even look at a togden."
Following the long years of retreat that have associated her with the togdens, Tenzin Palmo revisited Europe and her cultural roots. She spent six years in Italy, living as a Buddhist nun while reading voraciously and immersing herself in Western art and classical music. She then returned to India to fulfill her promise to the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche to build a Drukpa Kargyu nunnery that can "grow togdenmas from scratch."
It's rumored that Tenzin Palmo is a togdenma. She dismisses such talk as both embarrassing and ridiculous. Moreover, she is very circumspect concerning her personal religious life and never behaves in any sort of not-of-this-world way. Even the anis who are her closest associates can only speculate about what she experienced in the cave and its relationship to something one occasionally glimpses in Tenzin Palmo's eyes. "When she gives you that blue look," they say, "that's when you see it."