This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Gifts of Solitude. This is just the introduction to the interview with Tenzin Palmo – for the interview itself, I would be most grateful if you would go to the full article on Medium.com, which will earn me a few cents in these financially challenging times. If you follow this “friend link“, you don’t have to pay to read it.
I talk to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo over Zoom on a Monday morning and I am rather dishevelled, my hair still damp from the shower, feeling rather below par after a weekend in which the days were spent writing, the nights tossing and turning with coronavirus-related money worries.
The Zoom connection is swiftly made, the internet bandwidth from the nunnery she founded in northern India giving us a clear connection, albeit with a slight time lag that will lead to me occasionally speak over her by mistake. She looks robust, healthy and serene – the exact opposite of how I feel. She is sitting in front of a white wall bearing a colourful banner of a Tibetan deity. When she flashes her smile, which is infrequent but broad and dazzling, it reminds me of somebody. It is only later than I place it – Cameron Diaz, if Cameron Diaz were a shaven-headed, seventy-six year-old Buddhist nun from Bethnal Green.
It was early 2004 when I first read the book about Tenzin Palmo’s life, Cave in the Snow. It had been recommended by a friend I’d met while traveling in Peru. He said there was this amazing book about a British nun who had spent twelve years meditating alone in a cave in the Himalayas. I said it sounded really boring.
But then I read it, and found an amazing story of a brave, pioneering woman who boldly aspired to attain enlightenment while incarnated in a female body. This mission would involve not only unwavering dedication to her spiritual path, but doggedly ploughing her way through the institutionalised sexism and misogyny of organised religion.
I can’t do justice to her full story here, and urge you to read the book, but to give you an extremely potted biography: Diane Perry was born in 1943, and realised she was a Buddhist at the age of eighteen when she read The Mind Unshaken, by John Walters, which finally provided answers to the questions she had about herself and about life. Aged twenty-one, she travelled to India and was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monastic, taking the name Tenzin Palmo. (Jetsunma is a rarely-bestowed honorific title, meaning “Venerable Master”, granted to her in 2008.)
Having diligently pursued her calling in various Indian monasteries, in 1976 she felt called to find a more ascetic location for her meditation practice, and found a small cave – really more of a rocky overhang – in a remote location in the Himalayas, 13,200 feet above sea level, well above the snowline. They built out a wall to enlarge and protect the cave, but it was still tiny.
Life was harsh. She grew her own vegetables (she is a huge fan of the humble turnip), and in the summer supplies were delivered from a nearby village, although they didn’t always arrive. In the winter the snow prevented access, so she relied on stockpiles. Temperatures were often below minus thirty degrees. Once her cave was completely buried in snow, and she had to dig her way out with a saucepan lid. She meditated for twelve hours a day in a meditation box. She slept in it too, sitting upright.
The cave was her home for twelve years, from the age of 33 to 45. For the first nine years, she made occasional trips away or had visitors, but for the last three she was on strict retreat, with no human contact.
So she knows a thing or two about solitude.
When I started writing this book about solitude, Tenzin Palmo immediately came to mind. Without her inspiration, I don’t believe I would have set out to row across oceans. In my own, very different, way, I hoped that my solitude on the ocean might lead to, if not enlightenment, at least to some greater understanding of myself, life, and the nature of reality. I often thought of her as I was rowing, especially to inspire me when I was feeling sorry for myself.
In preparation for our interview, I had revisited Cave in the Snow, this time listening to it as an audiobook, and had discovered new layers of meaning which made sense only now, after my own experiences of solitude. It had also struck me anew what an exceptional story – indeed, what an exceptional woman – this was.
And now I was talking to her.
I confessed to feeling somewhat starstruck, and found myself babbling. On the recording of our conversation I can hear my usual eloquence caught up in umms and errs, and seem to have developed a new and annoying habit of clicking my tongue on my teeth just before I say something. Tenzin Palmo, meanwhile, is composed, articulate, and wise. I will attempt to do justice to our conversation here, although I have edited for length.
(The recording is available in its entirety, umms, errs, clicks and all, on the Gifts of Solitude website.)
A reminder again: for the interview itself, I would be most grateful if you would go to the full article on Medium.com, which will earn me a few cents. If you follow this “friend link“, you don’t have to pay. Thank you!