Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, 78, has announced that she will no longer conduct teachings and talks in person. She will still offer a monthly question-and-answer talk for the public, to be recorded and posted online. A separate announcement made clear that Palmo is in good health and will continue her activities at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, some 48 kilometers southeast of Dharamsala, India.
The two announcements were met with joy and gratitude from followers and fellow Buddhist practitioners around the world. Palmo has represented the immense potential for people from all backgrounds to meaningfully pursue the spiritual life, especially women, who have historically encountered immense obstacles to religious life in Buddhism.
As recorded in her spiritual biography, she once said, “I have made a vow to attain enlightenment in the female form—no matter how many lifetimes it takes.” (5)
The famed spiritual teacher and activist on behalf of women in Tibetan Buddhism was born in England in 1943 as Diane Perry. Her mother was a spiritualist, which influenced her as a seeker of religious truth in her life. At the age of 18, she read the book The Mind Unshaken: A Modern Approach to Buddhism (Rider 1961) by John Walters. She worked as a librarian after school, including a period at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. There, she saved money for a trip to India in 1964. That year, she met the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, who would become her root lama.
In 1967, she was given the sramanerika ordination at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa. She was one of the first Westerners to be ordained in the Vajrayana tradition and only the second woman. Her full name is Drubgyu Tenzin Palmo, or “Glorious Lady who Upholds the Doctrine of the Practice Succession.”
As there was and still is no full ordination available to women in the Tibetan tradition, Palmo traveled to Hong Kong in 1973 to obtain bhikshuni ordination at Miu Fat Temple. She then returned to India where she eventually took up solitary practice in a cave for 12 years. In 1998, Vicki MacKenzie wrote Tenzin Palmo’s biography in Cave in the Snow (Bloomsbury), which launched Palmo into the international spotlight. She was able to then begin raising funds to create Dongyu Gatsal Ling, which translates as “Garden of the Authentic Lineage.”
In 2008, Palmo was given the title “Jetsunma,” which means venerable master, by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. In addition to her responsibilities at Dongyu Gatsal Ling and as a teacher, she is president of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, founding director of the Alliance of Non Himalayan Nuns; honorary advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and founding member of the Committee for Bhiksuni Ordination.
MacKenzie, Vicki. 1998. Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment. New York: Bloomsbury.
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