A Skeptic's Path to Enlightenment podcast logo - meditator with headphones

Vicki Mackenzie on Buddhist Nuns Tenzin Palmo and Freda Bedi

Vicki Mackenzie, author of Cave in the Snow, The Boy Lama, and The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi on A Skeptic's Path to Enlightenment podcast

subscribe for free AND GET the latest PODCAST episodes in your favorite player:

“I had been wondering where the women were in Buddhism. All the Dalai Lamas were men, all the monks were men, all the main reincarnations that we saw were men. It was the same in Christianity: all the Popes were men. The Buddha was a man. Jesus was a man. Muhammad was a man. It seemed, I was just waiting to get some fantastic inspiration by a woman, for a woman, who had actually vowed to become enlightened as a woman.”

—Vicki Mackenzie

I’m honored to have acclaimed author and journalist Vicki Mackenzie join us to talk about the extraordinary lives of two Buddhist nuns, Freda Bedi and Tenzin Palmo. In her definitive biographies, Vicki eloquently writes about these two women who were among the first to become ordained Westerners. Freda Bedi was extremely active as not only a nun, but also a freedom fighter for Gandhi and a teacher to young Buddhist lamas; while Tenzin Palmo spent twelve years in a mountain cave alone in solitary meditation retreat. 

In the episode, we hear about the extraordinary qualities of these two women who broke with the tradition of their time to travel alone to India from their native UK. And we also learn from Vicki about the bias and prejudice they faced in a system that for thousands of years excluded women from the full path to enlightenment.

Vicki Mackenzie’s articles have appeared in The Sunday TimesThe ObserverThe Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and many national magazines. She has written extensively on Buddhist topics and was the first person to publish an interview with the Dalai Lama for The Sunday Times. Vicki Mackenzie has been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1976 and is the international best-selling author of Cave in the Snow; Reincarnation: The Boy Lama; Child of Tibet; Reborn in the West: The Reincarnation Mastersand Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom

Scott Snibbe:  Vicki McKenzie, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the podcast. I’m a huge fan of your books and I’m very excited to have the chance to have you share some of what you learned about all these wonderful people you’ve written about, but also, especially to share a little bit about yourself today, if you’re willing to. So thanks for joining us on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

Vicki Mackenzie: Oh, it’s a great honor. Thank you very much for asking me.

Scott Snibbe: Steven and I are going to take you through a few different questions about a couple of your books and about yourself. But I’d love first if you’d share with us a little bit about your own journey with Buddhism. I understand you’ve been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1976. And I wonder if you’d just share what brought you onto this path and how did you find Buddhism?

Vicki Mackenzie: Well, I’d always been interested since a small child in spirituality. And I was very fortunate in having a mother who, although she was Christian, she was very broad-based, and she was spiritual and she taught me that God was love and Jesus was love. And it didn’t matter what religion you were. That was the foundation of all religions.

And she believed that everybody is inherently good as self inside. She was very ecumenical, and I was encouraged to go to whatever church I wanted to go to. And as I grew up, I had a tremendous affinity for Christianity and Jesus and the stories of Jesus, and it was just inside me.

And then as I grew older, I wanted to explore more. I had a sense that there was a hidden order behind the kind of arty show of things. I read a lot of poetry at university, the poets, people like William Blake and T.S. Elliot and Milton and Gerald Manley Hopkins. And all these big poets, they all were hinting at something which they obviously had insight into which I didn’t have insight into. And I desperately wanted to know the hidden meaning of things. Always there was this spiritual search going on in the background.

I was trained actually in journalism in Australia, in Sydney on the news desk. So I was always a very curious person and journalism allowed me to explore all that. I loved asking questions all the time.  And then I moved to London and joined the national newspapers there.

Then at a breakup of a big relationship, I thought, well, now it’s my chance to actually go looking for what I really want to look for. So I went to Hong Kong, which was in a British colony because I had a sense that something was in the East that I was looking for.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I hated Hong Kong. It didn’t give me anything that I was looking for. It was completely materialistic. So I hurried back to London with my tail between my legs and rejoined the newspaper.

Then one day the phone rang and it was the health and beauty editor of Harper’s & Queen, who I knew. She was a friend. And I said, “Oh, hi, Leslie, what are you up to?”

And she said, “Oh, I’m going to Nepal to meditate with the lamas.” And I said, “Gosh, that sounds absolutely wonderful.” And she said, “Well, come.” And I said, “Well, yes, I will.”

And I don’t know where that came from because I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. I wasn’t interested in Buddhism particularly, but there was just something that came out of me and she was leaving in three weeks’ time.

That’s how I discovered Buddhism. I knew nothing about it. And I thought I’ll never be able to do it: never, never, that’s not my style at all. But I went anyway and that was 1976 where I met Lama Thubten Yeshe, who became my guru, my main teacher, albeit slowly. It wasn’t fast. It wasn’t a quick thing. And Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

And I was just fascinated by this extraordinary wisdom. I’ve met and interviewed many, many, many interesting people, very famous people, very well-known people of all walks of life. I was not green at all. But these lamas had something that I’d never met before in every day walks of people that I’d met during my life. And although I didn’t buy everything they said, because I was never an easy believer, I bought them. Because they were genuine, they were speaking from that own experience rather than from dogma.

And they had humor, they laughed, they laughed all the time. And I thought, wow, if this is spirituality, I’m going to buy it because I love the humor. And they took themselves not seriously. They were very light. And also, best of all for me, as a journalist, they encouraged questions. I was a digger. I wanted to get to the nub of the matter. And that was my profession: to ask questions. And the lamas said, bring it on, bring it on, ask the questions, as many as you like.

And I thought then that these lamas ha something really special to offer. It was very new. Nobody really knew about Buddhism in the West. There was nothing available. And so I hung around thinking, questioning, doing what they suggested, not agreeing with it. I couldn’t accept some things at all, other things I accepted immediately. And so that’s how it all began.

Scott Snibbe: As a journalist, as you mentioned you were critical, skeptical. Could you talk about one specific element of Buddhism that you had some doubts or questions about and how your journey took you over that hump?

Vicki Mackenzie: Well, there was karma, that was the thing I couldn’t cope with at all. I thought it was absurd. And I thought it was ridiculous. The theory of kara was that everything that happens to you, you have created it; maybe not in this lifetime, but in previous lifetimes. And I would think of little children who have cancer. I found that very, very hard. For years and years, I put it on the back burner because there was so much that I did agree with.

But that karma thing, it wasn’t many years later that I began to accept it with difficult things that happened to me, particularly in terms of relationships. And I began to wonder, well, why is this happening? Why does it repeatedly happen? And then, failed relationships were due to misconduct in previous lives.

Well, I knew I hadn’t had misconduct in this present life. I began to at least play with the idea that maybe I had created the cause not to have a truly successful relationship in this life, maybe it was due to something I was carrying with me. And after a 19-year relationship which suddenly ended very abruptly for no apparent reason, I was devastated. And thinking about karma, funnily enough, helped help my situation. Because I stopped feeling like a victim, if that makes sense. So it took many years; many, many years for me to begin to get my head around karma.

Scott Snibbe: So in the beginning it felt like karma was blaming, but in the end it was somehow empowering for you.

Vicki Mackenzie: It was for me, yes. Reincarnation was another thing. I was open about reincarnation. My family was very open-minded. And to explore things, as a journalist, you don’t dismiss something, you question and you look, you find out and you research. I did a lot of research.

And then, when Lama Yeshe died and the Dalai Lama ratified that his reincarnation had been found as a Spanish toddler, for me this was a quantum leap. Because you have a theory, but then you’re given something. So the first book I wrote was an investigation I did it like a journalist, an investigation of reincarnation. And Bloomsbury asked me to write it. Bloomsbury is a very mainstream publisher who published Harry Potter and so forth. And they asked me to write it. I was surprised!

And it was a tremendous success, which just shows that, much to my absolute astonishment and theirs, it went into many different languages. And I got interviewed by the BBC. And it was tremendous success. So that was an investigation too. Though I wasn’t as against it as I was against karma.

Scott Snibbe: Did you come to a conclusion about reincarnation? Have you established that you believe that’s true from your perspective?

Vicki Mackenzie: Scott, the more I went into it, the more complex it became. It is not a simple thing. It’s not one person shuttling backwards and forwards. It’s far more complex than that. To understand reincarnation or to have a genuine interest in reincarnation, even just to investigate it, you have to take on board first of all, the Buddhist concept of what mind and consciousness is.

Because what’s reincarnating is some aspect of consciousness, which has got nothing to do with materiality. And I think that there is a trajectory, mind-streams, it’s like aspects reincarnate. I did so much research on it. And it was amazing the number of people who really believe, people like General Patton: he believed he was reincarnated. I mean, he was completely open about it. So I think it behooves us not to just close our minds to it.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it does seem complex, like you say. I heard Lama Osel speaking recently and someone asked him if he remembered anything from his past life. And he very honestly said that he didn’t.

Vicki Mackenzie: So does the Dalai Lama. I’ve interviewed him three times as well. And I asked him who he thought he was. I was just very bold. And then he said, “Well, I’m just a humble Buddhist monk.” And I said, “Yes, but you’re meant to be the continued reincarnation. People believe you’re the fourteenth reincarnation of the living Buddha of Compassion.” And he said, “That is a matter of reincarnation.” And then he stopped and he said, “Well, I have some connection with some beings.” He didn’t deny it and he didn’t confirm it. “But I’ll tell you, one thing,” he said is, “I am sincere,” which was a perfect answer.

I think there are some very, very intelligent, amazing people on this planet who sincerely believe in reincarnation. So I think we should at least have a look at it.

Scott Snibbe: To at least be open to it. It sounds like even people who are labeled as reincarnated have their own questions and doubts and curiosity around that too.

Vicki Mackenzie: I asked Lama Zopa about reincarnation and how it actually worked. He gave me a very good answer. He said, “It’s like a rose bush.” He said, “All the roses come out of the rose bush. And when one rose dies, another rose comes out.” He said, “It’s not the same rose.” The image was very useful for me.

It doesn’t really make any sense until you try and understand what consciousness is and the subtle levels of consciousness, which is what the Buddhists believe goes from life to life.

Scott Snibbe: So before approaching reincarnation, we have to approach incarnation and try to understand what we are and what our consciousness and awareness is in the first place.

Vicki Mackenzie: Yes.

Scott Snibbe: My favorite book of yours is Cave in the Snow, which to me is a book that’s on par with Autobiography of a Yogi or The Life of Milarepa, an incredible story about a deeply spiritual person.

Briefly, for those that don’t know the story of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is that she left UK as a young woman. She traveled to India alone in 1963. She ordained as a Buddhist nun. She spent 12 years in a cave alone, which is the singular event of your book that I think fascinates people so much. And then she started up a nunnery and also reestablished the Togdenma lineage of female meditators.

Can you tell us what drew you to her story and what inspired you to write about her?

Vicki Mackenzie: Sure. Well, it was before I met her. I was reading a very small Buddhist magazine. And it was an interview with Tenzin Palmo as she came out of her cave. And I was reading it thinking, oh, this is very extraordinary. But way down towards the end of the article, there was this one paragraph which said, “I have vowed to become enlightened as a woman, no matter how long it takes.” That’s what hooked me in. Because I had been wondering where the women were in Buddhism. All the Dalai Lamas were men, all the monks were men, all the main reincarnations that we saw were men.

It was the same in Christianity: all the Popes were men. The Buddha was a man. Jesus was a man. Muhammad was a man. It seemed, I was just waiting to get some fantastic inspiration by a woman, for a woman, who had actually vowed to become enlightened as a woman. I thought that was extraordinary. So when I met her in Italy, I was in the process of trying to write a book called Meetings with Remarkable Women in order to try and fulfill this wish of mine, to find out where the women inspirations were on the spiritual path. And then I came across Tenzin Palmo and I asked her if she would be interviewed for a chapter. And as I began to talk to her, her story was so strong and so extraordinary I realized that hers would eclipse all the other stories I’d been gathering.

So I asked if I could write just this book about her. So I was very inspired by her.

Scott Snibbe: One thing that interests me about Tenzin Palmo is how much she has in common with you. Of course you didn’t live in a cave, but you did go quite against the expectations for yourself and your career in the UK a woman at that time. Are there any parallels you see in your lives?

Vicki Mackenzie: No, absolutely not. I love comfort and nice things. I’m a real princess and the pea. So, no, I couldn’t dream of doing what she’s done at all. But we’re both Londoners, we both come from similar backgrounds. No, no, no. She is absolutely single track. I’m also a seeker, but I’m nowhere near— I couldn’t do what she had done at all.

I’m interested actually in presenting her and other beings like her to the general public. I’m a writer. I’m a journalist and a writer. I want to share. That’s the other thing a journalist wants to do: they’re always looking for fantastic stories, wherever they are. And they have this urge: Wow, isn’t this fantastic. I must share it. So that’s my path.

Scott Snibbe: I was struck by how openly Tenzin Palmo talked about her own practice in the book. And for those of us who are Buddhist practitioners, I felt like there were a lot of incredible tips in her book. For our audience of open-minded skeptics, can you think of any practical examples of practice that she talks about in your book?

Vicki Mackenzie: I prodded her and probed, trying to get more out of her on the actual practice. But of course, being a genuine nun, she wouldn’t tell me. All I can say is that Tenzin Palmo, having moved around the world with her and stayed in the same places as she stayed and being very close to her, all I can say is that the fruit of her practice is extraordinary. 

She’s very, very humble. She emanates something. If I go for a walk with her, like in Kew Gardens, the famous botanical gardens in London. And people would just come up to her and kind of bow. And she’s kind of small and a bit hunched over, but there is this total warmth and compassion that comes out of her for everybody.

I watch her in India, she goes by and she always greets the same lepers. Nobody’s watching except me because I’m a journalist and I’m checking up the whole time. I get in a taxi with her in London or something and the taxi driver refuses to take any money. You know, it’s just extraordinary. She just gives and gives and gives and gives without actually doing anything ostentatious.

What can I say? She’s remarkable, even when nobody’s looking. She doesn’t care about money at all. She’s helpless with money. And yet she just gives. It’s hard to describe. She’s just got time for everybody. Of course she’s now become, apart from setting up this amazing nunnery, she’s now perhaps the foremost female Buddhist teacher in the world. She’s a rock star. Thousands of people queue up to see her in these vast arenas all over the world.

It hasn’t touched her at all. It’s a bit like the Dalai Lama, it hasn’t touched her at all. She’s amazing. Her teachings are so direct. She doesn’t go by the text. She speaks from her own inner knowledge, like all the good lamas do, you know, from their own absolute wisdom knowledge.

And what is wonderful about Tenzin Palmo being English, being British, and speaking the vernacular, she’s an absolutely amazing reader. She will read everything in sight: magazines, newspapers, novels. So she can speak in terms of our language, of the context in which we all move.

When I asked her what she really learned from her cave, she said, “Vicki, it was actually completely ordinary.” Because every spring her cave got filled with water because the snows melted and came into her cave. It was terribly small, it was like a cupboard. I climbed to the cave in my research to check it out. It was minute. You just couldn’t believe anybody could live in this tiny space. Snow would melt. And it will pour into her cave. And it would soak everything she had. So every day she had to take everything out and dry it. It was tedious.

And in the winter, she had to chop wood endlessly for her stove in order to cook her one meal a day. But when I asked her what was the biggest lesson she had learned, it wasn’t that she seen some burning bush or the Buddha descending, or great lights in the cave or anything I was hoping for.

She said, “Vicki, I learned that this is Samsara.” Samsara, for people who don’t know Buddhism, is that, for as long as we are in this world and in this life, and in our present state of development, we can expect problems. We’re never going to be free of them. There’s going to be one thing after the other. We cure one thing and another thing crops up. We solve that thing and another thing pops up. So she said, “That was the most liberating thing for me. I learned we are in Samsara.” What she said was very useful.

Scott Snibbe:  One thing you mentioned that also struck me from your book is her engagement with popular culture: how she talks about when she came out of the cave, that she spent a very long stretch of time reading novels, listening to music, visiting friends. Can you talk more about that? Because traditionally monks and nuns have this walled off existence. And that immediately struck me about her. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Vicki Mackenzie: Oh, yes, she was totally honest with me. She said she was very dry when she came out of her 12 years in the cave. Because not only did she spend 12 years in the cave, she spent six years before that in a very secluded nunnery just a few miles down the mountain. So she’d been practicing for 18 years.

She said, “I was very dry, Vicki. What I really wanted was music.” And she wanted Western music. And she loves Mozart. So she hurried over to Italy to get the music. And she got into the pasta and she adored tiramisu, which she loved. So she needed to balance that up. And she still loves films and music, any opera, and classical music.

I took her to a Christmas carol service in a church here in London and she came and loved it and sang her heart out and belted them all out. So she’s very modern, she’s very sane. That was one thing that surprised me enormously. When I first met her, I thought anybody who’s been locked up in a cave for 12 years is bound to be reclusive, withdrawn, not wanting to be around people. She’s very chatty. She’ll talk to anybody easily. And she’s very accessible.

Scott Snibbe: I’d love to keep asking you many more questions about her, but I wanted to turn it over to Stephen to ask you a little bit about another incredible woman that you’ve written about.

Stephen Butler: Thank you so much, Vicki. I have been able to work with you before and read your books and worked on programs with you. And I’m learning so much just in this time here. So thank you for that. As you mentioned before, this project maybe is a lifelong project of writing about extraordinary women. I don’t want to pin you down on that, but certainly your most recent book, The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi, is another remarkable tale of another British woman. And again, for those who don’t know about Freda Bedi, the elevator pitch is very long because she led a very magnanimous life.

Your book tells the story of Freda, whose path like Tenzin Palmo, was to go to India, but on a bit of a different trajectory. She married. And both she and her husband were deeply involved in the Indian independence movement starting in the late thirties. They lived in India. She later joined a women’s militia. She was imprisoned in that process. And then eventually at the request of the emerging Indian government she was requested to assist the Tibetan refugees that were coming over the Himalayas starting in 1959 and into the early sixties.

She also set up a revolutionary school for young Lamas in those refugee communities. Finally, if that wasn’t enough, she became the first westerner to become a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun. It’s a mouthful. What was it like to write about somebody like Freda and what struck you most about that experience of writing about her life?

Vicki Mackenzie: It was difficult to write about Freda Bedi because she has such a big life. With Tenzin Palmo it was easy, she was on one track. Freda Bedi, she did everything: she was a wife, she was a mother of four children. She was a social worker. She was an activist. She was everything. So it was very, very hard, actually, for me to get the thread to join all these bits of her life together. But all the way through, like Tenzin Palmo, she was a seeker. And all her social work and her political work was actually motivated by the wish to benefit others, to build a fairer, better society.

She was just extraordinary. She was a complete powerhouse. And she was a lighthouse. She was the first woman to do so many things. She also crashed the spiritual glass ceiling. She was complex. She was a complex woman. She was an intellectual. She was very clever. She was an Oxford scholar. Like Tenzin Palmo, she was hugely articulate. It wasn’t the Tibetan government who asked her to go and help the Dalai Lama and the refugees, it was Nehru who she was friends with, Prime Minister Nehru. And she knew Indira Gandhi.

She was very connected. Nehru had also sent her to Burma and it was while she was there that she met Buddhism for the first time. And it was instant. She sought out a Theravadan teacher—the best of course, because shoe only ever went for the best. And she had the most amazing kind of spiritual, mystical experience.

And then she just gave everything up and wanted to become a nun. And then when Nehru sent her to look after the Dalai Lama and all the refugees pouring out of Tibet, because of all the work she had done looking after refugees during partition, she had the insight to know—and nobody else knew it then, nobody knew it—that it would be these reincarnated lamas who would bring Buddhism to the West, which was true. So she set up a school to help educate them. It was so hard to cram all of this into a book.

And, I think my questioning of of Freda Bedi, was that the Tibetans regarded her as an emanation of Tara, who’s the female Buddha, like the universal mother who looks after us, like the Virgin Mary is to the Catholics. Because she gets on with it. She’s action. She just doesn’t sit round talking. All the Tibetans love Tara because she answers very quickly. And this is what she did. Freda solved everybody’s problems. You know, they came to her endlessly. They loved her. She helped everybody.

And my question was, she kind of left her own children to become a nun. Admittedly, most of them were grown up. But it was a big question, which I think a lot of women face who also have a strong spiritual calling but are also married and have children: Can you become a nun as Freda did and be Che Guevara at the same time? Can these two roles mix?

Because in the West and throughout the world, the mother has this amazing status to uphold, which is the mother will forsake everything for her children. That’s why her love is so enormous, that the children always come first. But Freda didn’t work like that. They still adored her and they won’t say a word against her. But nevertheless, she did leave and left them in quite a perilous position because she was the major breadwinner.

So I asked these questions too. I think the journalist in me never really goes away. Which I think is valid, I don’t think they’re unkind questions.

Stephen Butler: It’s a testament to your skill as a journalist and a writer to take such a massive story and make it singular and to find that thread and convey that to others. One thing that strikes me about both Freda Bedi and Tenzin Palmo, they were revolutionary in the sense that they were women who were also living and existing and offering service in a particularly male-dominated landscape within India and Tibet. What can their stories say to women in society today?

Vicki Mackenzie: Oh, I think they’re lighthouses to the women’s movement, extraordinarily single-minded in their own way. Neither of them wavered at all. But Freda particularly broke many, many glass ceilings. She was the first white woman to marry a man of color at Oxford University. So she completely broke the race barrier too.

These women were bold, very, very bold. Underneath both of these books, I worked out that the patriarchy that we all women face—and it’s coming into focus today—God is the father. God the father, God the son, God the Holy ghost. The Buddha emanates as these men. And Muhammad.

So after that, the patriarchy was set in motion. But before that it was a matriarchy, it was the goddess that ruled before. In the Middle East, it was the goddess. It was the female fertility goddess. And then along came the patriarchy and said, no, no, no, it’s got to be all men. But before then it was all women. All our laws and the pictures on our bank notes and everything, everything, the man was in charge. It stemmed back to the religion.

So that’s why I was so keen to bring out into the general public these books on Tenzin Palmo and Freda Bedi because they were both mainstream books. Again, Bloomsbury did publish the Tenzin Palmo book. And it got more letters than any book except Harry Potter. It’s still going strong, it’s extraordinary.

So I wanted to do that, to actually balance up the patriarchy; to balance it not to then go back all over to the female again and do the see-saw; but to try and make it more equal, which I think is important. Otherwise, we just ricochet backwards and forwards.

Stephen Butler: Certainly the books themselves, the lives are such that they resonate out. And even though they may draw upon times and traditions and periods in history that may seem distant from the general readership, your writing makes it very applicable to the present moment. And specific to those questions, as you said, that are now coming into focus.

Scott Snibbe: We’ve been very positive of course, about the beautiful experiences in these women’s lives. But you also write very clearly about the kind of injustice and the inequity that these women faced as monastics. You write how one of the reasons Tenzin Palmo went into retreat was because she found a qualified teacher, she was in an incredible monastery, and yet they wouldn’t let her study the texts or go to the classes because she was a woman.

Vicki Mackenzie: Most of the nuns who were desperate to learn and their hearts were just devoted to the Buddha, they couldn’t get the material which would help them to do that.

And they wouldn’t let Tenzin Palmo have access. I think she wanted to become a Togdenma herself. It was terrible. And most of the nuns spent their lives just doing very simple prayers or serving in the kitchens for the monks, serving the monks.

And they were called “ani,” which means, I think, aunt. And so, Tenzin Palmo has stopped that now. She is calling them all tsunmas, to give women some confidence, some self-esteem. And she’s certainly done that with her own nunnery, which she has established. She’s got wonderful nunnery going and the Togdenma lineage restarting.

Scott Snibbe: And after that, she also played a role in pointing out some of these inequities in the existing monastic system, right? Where women have to always sit behind the men, and a lot worse, a lot of other challenges too.

Vicki Mackenzie: Actually, I am very proud that Cave in the Snow, which has gone into all those countries, Thailand and Burma, everywhere, it’s helped a lot to elevate the nuns there. It’s given them confidence too. I’m very proud about that. And I’m also proud that Cave in the Snow is published in mainland China now too, not secretly.

Scott Snibbe: And do you think we’ve seen sufficient progress with female monastics now? Or is there room to grow still?

Vicki Mackenzie: It’s hard to tell, because I’m not a nun. I think there’s still a lot of room to grow. I don’t think they get the financial support. Tenzin Palmo, she’s helped so much all the Tibetan and the Himalayan nuns, enormously. She’s now focusing on the Western nuns, who have a hard time financially and don’t get the support she thinks. They often serve in dharma centers without being paid and have to actually finance themselves. They find it quite hard. So I think there’s a long way to go within the monastic tradition for both monks and nuns.

Stephen Butler: I think the unique thing about that nunnery too, is that it being founded by her, she was very determined not just to reestablish this really amazing lineage, but she wanted them to be supported as human beings; and that they integrate different types of education modalities into the curriculum alongside the monastic education. She has been so good in that respect.

Vicki Mackenzie: It’s a very broad curriculum she’s introducing them to, which is wonderful. They’re doing terribly well scholastically, they’re debating, and they’re doing very, very well. It’s a beautiful, it’s just a wonderful nunnery. She’s very hands-on. She’s a bit like Freda. She hugs all her nuns, young and old and older and gave all the youngsters soft little toys. So she’s forgot the female touch there as well.

Scott Snibbe: Could you share some practical tools that you’ve learned from your teachers, maybe some of the tools from analytical meditation, of how to look at the world and see the world on a daily basis, that helps steer your mind to its better nature.

Vicki Mackenzie: Well, I don’t know whether this is answering your question, but for me it was always the lam rim. It’s so practical in everyday life. You can apply that. Because the Buddha had such insights into the mind and our psyche. And the lam rim organizes this. It’s brilliant. I mean, just knowing that everything is impermanent has helped me enormously: don’t expect anything to stay the same. Because it won’t.

It’s kind of pointing out the obvious, but we don’t like things to change. If you look at all the stress charts, all the stress charts are to do with change. And it could be good change, like having a baby or getting married or moving house. Let alone death, which is the big one at the top of the charts, is death.

But once you understand that nothing stays still, everything is moving, everything is in the state of flux. Once you just think about it on a daily basis—everything’s changing everything—you don’t get quite so startled when you suddenly get the sack, or when your wife walks out or something. I mean, it is shocking. I’m not saying it eliminates the shock of that, but it’s not quite as shocking.

I have to say death was the big one for me. It changed my whole career, that first lam rim meditation on death is definite and the time of death is indefinite. It punched me in the solar plexus. And I completely changed my life.

I came back to London and I became a freelancer in order to write the kind of stories I wanted to write. Because I thought, My God, I reach literally millions of people every week with my stories. I might as well try and write something intelligent and sensible, which would be useful for them. So I drew on all that lam rim material, but putting it into ordinary, everyday words and an ordinary everyday context.

So, all of the lam rim is fantastically useful if you put it in your own language and your own context. It helps you lead a much kinder, satisfactory life. Even if we don’t get enlightened, just in everyday life. I ran my own meditation group for many, many years talking on these subjects in this way. I had all the neighbors in, just how to look at life. But it was all based on Buddhism, Buddhist psychology.

Scott Snibbe: I like that because the lam rim hasn’t just been a guide for your personal life, but it sounds like it’s been a career guide in terms of the topics you’ve taken on as a journalist.

Vicki Mackenzie: You’re absolutely right. It’s actually guided my whole career.

Scott Snibbe: You you’ve shared so much already, but before we sign off, are there any other practical ways of viewing the world that you’d want to share with our listeners before we say goodbye?

Of course from the lam rim, from the Buddhist perspective, you mentioned impermanence and death as topics that were very powerful to write about and very motivating in your life.  Any others you’d like to mention before we sign off?

Vicki Mackenzie: The most important thing is the good heart. It’s got nothing to do with how clever you are, how you can read texts or anything. The whole crux of Buddhism, and all religions, is actually the good heart. And if you get inside your head, that we’re all interconnected, then whatever you do, to open your heart to somebody, even a stranger on the tube or a bus, or just smile, or look in their eyes, or the beggar on the street, or whatever, that is the most enriching thing of all, because we’re all connected.

So it comes back on you, it makes you feel better too. It helps your life. If you think, really, Buddhism has so many beautiful, incredible complex arguments about emptiness. But actually if you boil emptiness down, it’s all to do with getting rid of the ego.

Because if you’re absorbed with yourself, you’re never going to be happy. But if you can break through this ego, which is just thinking of me, me, me all the time, and I want, and I don’t want, the core of it all is just getting over this I want, I want, I don’t want, I don’t want, and actually thinking of somebody else.

Love. It’s so simple. Love is the actual essence of emptiness, because then you don’t have ego. So you don’t go into all these highfalutin texts and everything else. You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. I mean, it’s very, very satisfying and fascinating and can keep you enthralled for years and years and years on end. But you don’t have to do that. You just have to open your heart and love and then you’ll get it anyway.

Scott Snibbe: Well, thank you. I can’t think of a better place to end than that. So thank you so much for spending this time with us and sharing not just these incredible stories you’ve told over the years, but about your own personal life and practice, which is particularly special. So thank you very much.

Vicki Mackenzie: Thank you both so very much for your wonderful questions.

Stephen Butler: Thank you so much, Vicki. It’s just been wonderful. A lot to ponder, just so beneficial for us as interviewers.

Scott Snibbe:  Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Vicki Mackenzie. If you’d like to read any of Vicki’s extraordinary books, please visit this episode’s website at sketpicspath.org where we have links to her books about Tenzin Palmo and Fredi Bedi, and more.

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization. All our content is free and ad free thanks to our generous donors. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.

If you are on an Apple device, we’d be grateful if you took a moment right now to review us in your podcast app. The reviews help new people discover our podcast.

If you’d like to deepen this conversation, please join our newsletter, or our social media accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIN, where we can be found under the name “skepticspath.”

Thanks to Stephen Butler for producing this episode and Russel Marsden for audio editing and mastering.

We wish you a wonderful day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe and Stephen Butler
Produced by Stephen Butler
Edited & mastered by Russell Marsden
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


Related Posts


Log in



Sign up and receive our free “Simple Ten-minute Meditation”