The interview took place during the Drukpa lineage’s Annual Drukpa Council in the grand office bestowed upon Jetsünma Tenzin Palmo by His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa. This weeklong marathon of practice and meetings, co-led by Jetsünma, brings all the leading Drukpa masters together with an estimated 15,000 practitioners. The Drukpa lineage is a branch of the Kagyu, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jetsünma Tenzin Palmo, the subject of Vickie Mackenzie’s Cave in the Snow, is a Western nun and yogini, perhaps mostly widely known for spending 12 years in retreat in a remote cave in the Himalayas. She is also the founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. She was bestowed the title of “jetsünma” by His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa in recognition of her spiritual accomplishments.
Craig Kaufman: Walking around the mountain, one sees so much respect for you, including from monks. Having done all this so long, now as a jetsünma, do you ever sense any residual resentment or concern?
Jetsünma Tenzin Palmo: Concern? I don’t think I’m of concern to the monks one way or the other. The big lamas coming from Tibet, Ladakh, India – everywhere – have been very friendly. But I don’t figure in their world. For one thing, being Western puts you outside the limits. A token female doesn’t hurt – there’s only one.
CK: And if it were an Asian female?
JTP: Well, I think if there were a lot of us they might begin to get a bit worried. As long as there’s only one or two, we can be safely ignored.
CK: Token or not, your role is inspiring. How can this be built on?
JTP: I think His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa is doing everything possible to give a face to the female side. What more can he do? He doesn’t have that many people wanting to stand up and give a talk, neither Asians nor Westerners. He’s promoted 800 nuns here like this. He promotes me far, far more than ever happens at Tashi Jong. There, I’m an ani who’s been around forever. It’s only here that everyone’s so polite.
He elevates any female he can. There’s a little nun wandering around whom he recognized as a tulku of a male teacher. She’s done about two three-year retreats. There’s this princess from Kham whom he places on the platform. That’s three of us.
CK: And because of his stature, he can’t be questioned.
JTP: No. He’s always spoken up about female practitioners. Here, even among laypeople, women run top jobs, including Asian women. His nuns come from very simple villages. He trains them himself, and now they basically run everything. He really walks his talk, handing it to these ladies, who naturally do their best and succeed very well.
CK: And the men here?
JTP: They don’t mind. What interests me is that the monks are in harmony with the nuns. Nuns are telling them what to do and in no uncertain terms. The monks just trot along and follow, but not like wimps. They have enough humility to take orders. They treat the nuns as Dharma sisters. They all have the same spiritual father.
CK: Do you think other lineage heads and groups might pick up on this event?
JTP: Who knows? We just had two days of lineage talks. These leading Drukpa Kagyu lamas never mentioned nuns. That doesn’t mean they’re antagonistic. Nobody objects to all these nuns doing the main pujas for every event or feels threatened by that.
CK: Has His Holiness articulated publicly why he’s doing this?
JTP: He did in Ladakh some years ago, while showing the Naropa bone ornaments, which the Gyalwang Drukpas traditionally own and show only every 12 years. It’s Naropa, so hundreds of thousands of people turn up, even though it’s Ladakh. He put all the organization and rituals, everything, in the hands of nuns. It was the first time anyone had seen this. The monks were basically outside.
There’s a DVD with him telling everyone he’s aware that for so many centuries women have been suppressed and regarded as inferior. And that of course is not right at all, that we all have buddha-nature – so what’s the difference? It’s just two different ways of looking at human beings. And that he believes women are fully capable of doing everything.
But he said, “It’s no good my saying that. I have to show I mean this.” The people at the event were very deeply moved because they had never before seen so many nuns in control of everything. Usually nuns are in back and quiet, or else in the kitchen. They’re not in front leading the ceremonies.
CK: Did that generate dialogue for the nun ordination issue?
JTP: Nobody heard about it. The ripples didn’t reach far enough.
… When His Holiness gave me this jetsünma title, a Drukpa nunnery just below with about 50 nuns invited me after the ceremonies to enact the ceremony themselves. Afterwards, the head nun just started crying.
She said, “Of course I like to make offerings and to honor. But in 20 years of doing this … it’s all been males. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to honor a female.”
She just started crying. I apologized for being Western. And she said, “No. Western or Eastern makes no difference – you’re female. Finally we have a woman we can look up to.”
And I thought, “Yes … it’s true.” I feel sorry it’s me. I’m not an example of anything. But, it’s true. We do look for inspiration amongst our own sex. Why not? You go into temples and they’re full of all the lineage lamas who are male. What message does that give to a young girl, except that somehow she got trapped in the wrong body because of bad things she did in a past life?
CK: Do you feel His Holiness specifically instructs these women after promoting them?
JTP: He does give me strong encouragement by his admiration, which certainly isn’t earned from my side. He believes the future of Dharma is in women’s hands now because they have this energy which was never really tapped. The Dalai Lama has said basically the same thing.
… One thing in the Buddhadharma is that we are not our body, we are not our gender. We have the pure nature of the mind. Our pure awareness is not male or female. But we have to remember all the books were written by the boys. So naturally they’re going to write it from their point of view. That’s natural. Now, as women become more educated and confident, they can start adding their voice. It’s not like a competition. … I think that now it will become much more rounded, and everybody will gain.
CK: About bhikshunis – I know this is an ongoing issue – any updates?
JTP: Of course His Holiness the Dalai Lama instituted that Western nuns –bhikshunis – should start researching the subject, because Tibetans have researched for 25 years without reaching conclusions. He received 50,000 Swiss francs for some reward and gave this to the nuns and said, “You bhikshunis are very poor. So here’s some money to help you carry on your researches.”
He was serious. As a result, a lot of research has happened. There was a big conference in Hamburg a few years ago, with vinaya scholars from every Buddhist tradition. His Holiness came. So a lot of things have been done.
One problem, apart from the many monks opposed (they endless create objections), is that nuns themselves don’t really know what the issue is. We’re composing a questions-and-answers booklet now to translate into simple Tibetan. The usual questions a nun would ask: What is bhikshuni ordination? Why would I need it? What’s important about it? How would I do it?
We try to deal with the good points, the difficulties, etc. There are various ways it could happen. We have to find one that everyone would agree is valid, according to the vinaya.
On the whole, especially in Kagyu-Nyingma, lamas are very supportive. His Holiness the Sakya Trizin wrote a beautiful support letter. Some Gelugpa geshes have helped a lot. It’s not that everybody’s against it. But it’s a whole new departure. I think many monks hesitate to change things.
CK: Why? You’ve talked with them.
JTP: I think fear of the unknown … If nuns begin getting more empowered, where does that leave us? They cannot see any benefit for themselves, and things have all gone nicely for a thousand years, without nuns complaining. So obviously it’s just Western feminists stirring things up.
CK: But when the leaders articulate their reasons, does it just go through their ears?
JTP: …Yes. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama himself, stated publicly in Hamburg that he is in favor but most of his old geshes aren’t. He won’t oppose the whole weight of his tradition. He’s not a pope.
But we heard recently that even some conservative geshes are beginning to rethink things and say, “In Tibet it was right, but now we’re somewhere else. And as women are getting good secular educations, it’s not right that nuns aren’t given equal rights.” And I heard this is a top hot topic of debate nowadays in their colleges. So, that’s a good thing, because previously they never even thought about it. This begins to shake the edifice of their monolithic idea that it’s impossible.
CK: You pointed out that young tulku being enthroned here and how his predecessor did so many ngondros. And you then lamented the lack of “practitioners” nowadays. But many people lament that kids are pushed into this hard life so young. What do you think is the organic balance for training them or anyone?
JTP: … Well, how I started our nunnery was basically to try to give these girls the kind of training I didn’t get. I thought, “If I was starting out new, what would I want?” So I think, for East and West, the first thing we need is a good grounding in basic Buddhadharma. We have to know what is Buddhadharma and what is not Buddhadharma. It needn’t go on forever. You don’t have to spend 18 years at it. But still, a basic and uncompromised understanding of Buddhist principles is important. Very basic: the three signs of being, the four noble rruths, karma, and so on.
But then, once one has understand what is Buddhadharma, what is not Buddhadharma, and once one has had enough view to see the different approaches, then it’s important to really look at what speaks to one’s heart. Because one of the beauties of the Buddhadharma is there are so many approaches, and not everything is right for everybody. Different people are different.
People should find what approach really speaks to them, and then do it. Obviously, better with a good teacher, who can help you on the path. But in any case, basic principles. Learn not to be too ambitious; not to expect if you have a 9-to-5 job and three kids, that you’re likely to get buddhahood in one lifetime. You can still practice to be a better and kinder and happier person. That’s perfectly possible. And you can certainly learn how to rest in the nature of the mind. That’s possible, too.
Craig Kaufman first encountered FPMT a decade ago at a weekend teaching with Ven. Robina Courtin. This strongly inspired his work and studies, and he has gone on to stay for almost a month at the Root Institute, plus to attend Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings. He is on the Khyentse Foundation Buddhist Education Programs committee and did research work on its Survey on Buddhist Studies. He was senior writer for Garrison Institute’s book-length report on contemplative social action and has managed statewide political campaigns as well as having founded an arts/education non-profit organization in New York.Tags: interview, tenzin palmo