Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: A Brief Biography
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Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She is also the most senior Western Tibetan Buddhist nun, being ordained for over 51 years. Palmo is a nontraditional woman’s rights activist and a respected teacher. She has spent years in strict retreat, authored books, opened a nunnery, and vowed enlightenment. A woman dedicated to the dharma and to her fellow nuns, Palmo is an exceptional being.
Related Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo articles:
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Root Guru
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: The Cave
Jetsunma Tenzin Palm: Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Bikkhuni
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London Library to India Monastery
Diane Perry, now Tenzin Palmo, was born in Hertfordshire, England on June 30, 1943. Growing up in London, she felt wrong. Palmo believed she was in the wrong place and the wrong body, wanting to leave London from an early age. Her mother was a widow of poor health, but a pleasant disposition. Spiritual séances would occur weekly at their home exposing Palmo to an open mindset. She had a kind family and a lovely job as a librarian. She spent a lot of her childhood reading about different religions, though she could not identify with any.
When Palmo was eighteen she was delayed in an airport with her mother and the only book with her was about Buddhism. Palmo declared halfway through the book that she was a Buddhist. Her mother’s remark was how nice that was. A few years later she informed her mom she would be leaving for India for a Buddhist teacher, again her mother was supportive asking when she would depart. Her mother, leading a spiritual life, understood her daughter would follow her own path.
Palmo wrote Freda Bedi, a Western woman teaching English to Tibetan refugees in India. Bedi’s response was simply telling Palmo to come. So at the age of twenty Palmo moved to India to teach English at the Young Lamas Home School and by her twenty-first birthday she met the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, her root guru.
An Ordained Nun
Tenzin Palmo was ordained in the Vajrayana tradition in 1964. The name given, Drubgyu Tenzin Palmo means “Glorious Lady who Uphold the Doctrine of the Practice Succession”. She was ordained as a novice nun until in 1973 she was ordained as a full bhiksuni. Palmo lived at Khamtul Rinpoche’s monastery for six years, the sole nun amongst a hundred monks. While the monks did not harass Palmo at all, they would inform her it wasn’t much her fault that she was a female and they prayed she would be reborn a male so she could more readily practice. After a while, Palmo left at the advice of her guru and traveled to the mountain region of Lahaul.
Palmo enjoyed the monastery, but wanted solitude. She discovered there was a cave nearby and wished to go for retreat. Several people discouraged her from this endeavor saying she would be raped or freeze to death. However, after discussing the matter with her guru she was fortified and at the age of thirty-three she moved into the cave.
Caves, Italy, and Nuns
Palmo spent nine years in the cave, going to the monastery to hear teachings and to gather food and supplies. The solitude was lovely, but she decided to enter complete isolation and do a long retreat. At the end of this retreat she was informed she was in India illegally due to visa problems. It was 1988. She moved to Italy and has been active in the fight for equal rights for Buddhist nuns. Palmo traveled and fundraised so that she could open a nunnery, as she had been requested to do by her root guru for several years.
The Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery opened in 2000 for women from Tibet and the Himalayan border. The women receive education and training at the nunnery. Palmo also intends to restart a dead lineage of togdenmas at the nunnery. Palmo is now a member of the “Committee of Western Bhikshunis” which is meant to aid the establishment of bhikshuni ordination in Tibetan traditions. She received the title Jetsunma (reverend lady) in 2008 for her active involvement in encouraging female status in Buddhism.
A True Bodhisattva
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is revered worldwide for her dedication and work for females in Tibetan Buddhism. She has made a vow to attain enlightenment in the female body no matter how many rebirths it takes. Having spent twelve years in a cave, similar to some of the most dedicated yogis, Palmo has transcended the limits of female accomplishment in Buddhism. Changing the mind of monks one day at a time, Palmo continues to offer opportunities to other women through her growing nunnery. True devotion can as easily be seen in the acts of nuns dedicated to equal chance. Tenzin Palmo is a revolutionary bodhisattva.
- Kate Mattes