Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Root Guru
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Tenzin Palmo was one of the first Western women to be ordained as a full bhikuni. A prominent figure for female Buddhists, she knew she was a Buddhist when she was eighteen. Traveling to India two years after the discovery, Palmo would meet her root guru, the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, a lineage holder in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. One cannot discuss Palmo without recognizing the deep relationship she had with her guru throughout many incarnations.
Related Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo articles:
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: A Brief Biography
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: The Cave
Jetsunma Tenzin Palm: Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Bikkhuni
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The 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche
Born in Tibet in 1931, the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche was young when China invaded during the Battle of Chamdo. He remained in Tibet during attempted resistance movements, but eventually had to depart a year before the 1959 Tibetan uprising. He moved around often for the first few years after leaving until he came near the Dalai Lama’s residence in McLeod Ganj. Along with other monks, Khamtrul was granted 37 acres of a holy part of Northeast India. The monks named the land Tashi Jong and rebuilt the Khampagar monastery on it.
The monastery was built by monks, lamas, and lay community. The Rinpoche created statues and paintings that exist in the monastery to this day. Tashi Jong has since flourished, holding the monastery and the Khampagar Institute, a school of Buddhist philosophy. The land is home to over a hundred monks and several hundred lay people and a few yogis.
Palmo took refuge in Khamtrul Rinpoche before she met him on her twenty-first birthday. When they met Palmo felt she had known the Rinpoche for a long time, feeling a deep relationship with her lama. Neither individual doubted their relationship, the Rinpoche claiming he had always kept her close to him throughout past lives. Her incarnation as a Western woman prolonged their most recent reunion. Palmo had been a Tibetan man in previous lives explaining the sense of wrongness she felt at a young age in her female body. Though, one should note Palmo is now grateful for her female rebirth as there is a lot of work to be done for women in the Buddhist community.
A Final Request
Tenzin Palmo lived at Khamtrul Rinpoche’s monastery, the only nun. It was here that she began to more recognize the prejudice against females in the monasteries. After six years of rigorous study, frustration, and a feeling of exhaustion Palmo left. The Rinpoche suggested a monastery in Lahual (higher region in the Indian Himalayas). Palmo studied here and soon discovered a cave in the mountain that she would make her home for twelve years, three in silent retreat.
Throughout the progression of these years Khatrul Rinpoche asked Palmo to start a nunnery. Not feeling ready for such a daunting task Palmo did not begin the mission until after her guru passed away. In 1980 the Rinpoche died at the young age of forty-nine due to poor health. This happened during the years of Palmo’s cave dwelling and she could not be present for his departure. Several years after the death and rebirth of the Rinpoche, the Lamas of the Khampagar monastery again asked Palmo to begin a nunnery. Remembering the importance of the task, she began fundraising, and in 2000 Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery’s construction began.
The Rinpoche had two reincarnations. The 9th Khamtrul Rinpoche Shedrub Nyima was born in 1980 and The 9th Khamtrul Rinpoche Jigme Pema Nyinjadh in 1981. The latter maintains the seat of Gyalwang Drukpa the Head of Drukpa Lineage while the former has an ongoing relationship with Palmo. Before entering her three years of silent retreat Palmo met Shedrub Nyima when he was three years of age. Upon meeting the young Rinpoche exclaimed “My nun! My nun!” The two played with her for several hours, a strong difference to the child’s general calm disposition and meditative posture upon receiving guests. The 9th Khamtrul Rinpoche Shedrub Nyima now holds the seat of Khampagar monastery and in the spiritual head of Palmo’s monastery.
Palmo remarks on the devastation she felt at the loss of her root guru and the sadness of not being present at the time of his death. A man of devotion and inspiration, Palmo is grateful to still be in his presence. He is different, quieter, but has the same quality of familiarity that Palmo recognizes as a lasting friend. While the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche would not see the fruition of her nunnery, his reincarnation would be an active participant in its growth. His teachings and devoted relationship remain from past to future lives.
- Kate Mattes
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