We are absorbed in a realm of our own thoughts and emotions, through which we continually interpret our external world: analysing, comparing, believing and projecting our world of ideation and so-called reality. Since we are conditioned by our culture, upbringing, education and the constant propaganda from the media, can we ever be free from this prison of conceptual enslavement? For millennia the Buddha-dharma has offered methods to analyse and transcend our ordinary conceptual thinking in order to directly see things as they really are both our outer so-called reality and ideas of our own identity. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, born in London is a renowned Buddhist teacher, popular worldwide for her warm, clear and down-to-earth presentation of the Buddha-Dharma and its application in daily life. Jetsunma ordained as a nun within the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition in 1964, when she travelled to India, where she has spent most of her life to date. The inspiring story of her life, including 12 years of secluded retreat in an Himalayan cave, is the subject for the well-known biography, “Cave in the Snow” by Vicki Mackenzie.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s life story is incredible and inspiring in equal parts. Born in London, as Dianne Perry, she was fascinated by the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism from the age of 18 and felt an instant and deep calling to engage more thoroughly with these ideas. She went to the Tashi Jong monastery in Himachal Pradesh, India when she was still a young nun and at age twenty-six decided to take retreat in a cave situated at an altitude of 4300 meters, spending twelve years there. Jetsunma started a nunnery in Himachal Pradesh for young girls interested in the serious study of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, in recognition of the social and economic barriers that female practitioners have historically faced. She says, "From now on, there is nothing you cannot accomplish in a woman’s body.”
Far from giving us an account of her life story, Jetsunma spoke to us at Rhodes House about the simple (and yet so very daunting) idea of learning to think outside the box. She approached this idea through Buddhist meditative practices. Speaking to a room full of many who had never practiced meditation before, she said “I encourage you to watch your mind. You will realise that the mind is a profoundly boring place, stuck in predictable patterns”. It is only once we realise this, would we be able to appreciate how important it was to open ourselves to the mind-heart – a space with more richness, self-awareness and as Jetsunma described “a delightful lightness". The ideas she grappled with were difficult, to say the least. But Jetsunma seemed to inspire the courage to begin contemplation. No matter what kind of change makers we envisioned ourselves to be, it was essential to grapple with these ideas of the self in order to live our professional and personal lives with humility and empathy.
Reflection by Amba Kak (India & Mansfield 2014)