Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: The Cave
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In 1976 Tenzin Palmo went to live in a cave in the Himalayas. The cave was ten feet wide and six feet deep. The mountain reached over 10,000ft in the Lahul region near a monastery she had stayed at prior, a region that would reach -30 degrees Fahrenheit and snowed over the year. A profound Western woman stretching the limits expected of Buddhist nuns, Palmo lived in the cave for twelve years parallel to the most devoted Tibetan yogis.
Related Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo articles:
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: A Brief Biography
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Root Guru
Jetsunma Tenzin Palm: Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Bikkhuni
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People waver between confusion and awe when hearing of Palmo’s twelve years, posing the question why? Palmo had been the only nun amongst dozens of monks who, while respectful, left her feeling isolated due to her sex. She left her root guru’s monastery for the region of Lahaul. The monastery offered a bit of relief from her feminine isolation, but it was not quite enough and deterred her spiritual longing. Palmo heard of a cave near the monastery and immediately wanted to go. Locals again made comments about her female body, noting that men would rape her, there were ghosts, and she would freeze to death. Ironically no male yogis undergo such attempts to thwart their mystical dedication. Palmo took up the matter with her guru, Khamtrul Rinpoche, who simply noted that if the cave was fairly dry and faced south she would be alright. So she went.
The First Nine Years
An alter was erected, a wall was built to help insulation in the winter, and a store room was created. At thirty-three, Palmo was physically isolated, but very content in her new home. She followed an organized routine that included four three hour time blocks of meditating in a traditional wooden meditation box. She would sleep sitting up in the box for three hours a night as was procedure.
Palmo grew her own food in a garden producing mostly turnips and potatoes. She would go down to the monastery to attend teachings. She would also visit her guru, gather supplies, and prepare for long isolated winters. It went on like this for nine years until Palmo decided she was ready for a strict retreat. Three years in total isolation.
Three Years Alone
Palmo went through the three years in almost absolute calm, remarking after that it was amazing she didn’t become at all claustrophobic. There was a blizzard that lasted over a week completely blocking her into darkness. The snow blocked the entrance and it took her a few hours to shovel out, something she had to do on more than one occasion. The retreat left Palmo with a new confidence and resourcefulness.
At the end of the three years Palmo was startled by someone’s presence at her entrance. On the other side of her door was a police officer that informed her she had been in the country illegally for the last three years. She was to evacuate the cave within twenty-four hours or they would incite action. This marked the end of Palmo’s twelve years in a cave, three in complete isolation. She left for Italy and began raising funds for the nunnery that would open twelve years later.
Cave in the Snow
Tenzin Palmo came out of the cave in 1988 and in 1999 Vicki Mackenzie published Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo’s Quest for Enlightenment. Palmo, who did not actively read the book about her life, believes that Mackenzie is a wonderful author. Believing that if she had written the book herself it would have been remarkably boring, however, Mackenzie managed to make the book honest and exciting. The book became a hit not just for Buddhist’s, but people who knew nothing about the religion. Recognized as an inspiration, the book brought a lot of attention to Palmo. The book was turned into a documentary with the same title in 2002, just one year after the opening of Palmo’s nunnery.
Longing to Return
Similar to the Buddha and his lack of desire to teach upon enlightenment, Palmo does not actively enjoy teaching and is eager to return to retreat in the future. However, when she came out of the cave, she was finally ready to take on the task of helping elevate women in Buddhism and continues to work for this cause today. She transcends the boundaries laid for women in her religion and maintains that she will continue to do so, as a woman, throughout all her future rebirths.
- Kate Mattes