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Women, Buddhism, and Equality with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Buddhist Nun, Abbess, Teacher, and Icon

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Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is one of the world’s most revered Buddhist teachers and one of the very first Westerners to become ordained into the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is best known for having lived in a remote cave in the Himalayas for 12 years. She spoke with us about the role of women in Buddhism from a historical and contemporary lens, the nature of mind, and simple, powerful ways to meditate in the modern world.

Scott Snibbe: I had the privilege of speaking recently with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, one of the world’s most revered Buddhist teachers, and one of the very first Western men or women to become ordained into the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo spoke with me at length about the role of women in Buddhism, including the great contemporary and historical injustices female practitioners have endured. She also shared her wisdom on the nature of mind and simple, powerful ways to meditate in the modern world.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo Bio

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is a fully ordained tibetan buddhist nun in the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. She is an author, teacher and founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India. She is best known for being one of the very few Western yoginis trained in the East, having spent twelve years living in a remote cave in the Himalayas, three of those years in strict meditation retreat and for having made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form – no matter how many lifetimes it takes.

Scott Snibbe: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, it’s such an honor to have you join us on A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment. I’m very inspired by your life story, as it was told in Vicki MacKenzie’s book, Cave In The Snow, and also by your continuing wonderful activities in your life. So thank you so much for taking time out of those important activities to talk to us.

Cave in the Snow Book about Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo by Vicki Mackenzie

I thought I would just start out by asking you what’s important to you in your daily life right now at the Abbey as you’re mentoring young women who’ve committed to a Buddhist path?

Role as Abbess of her Nunnery

[00:02:09] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, basically just making sure that our nuns here receive the right kind of education, especially a good dharma education. They’re all studying philosophy. Along with the study, we also emphasize practice because so often, it’s missing in the Tibetan system. Either you do study or you do ritual; or for the few, you do a meditation practice, but you don’t combine all three, not all at one time. 

And so what is different in our nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, is that the nuns not only to a full study program, including debate, but they also do retreat practices and they also do ritual. They’re quite ritual masters at this point. So my feeling is for all of them to gain that kind of confidence, that inner confidence, which normally nuns lacked because of being so overlooked.

Now, in these times when nuns are not overlooked, where they are very much encouraged to gain that inner sense of good self-esteem, they need to be competent in all areas. They practice meditation. They also study and they also perform rituals. So that’s what I try to keep going during times throughout the year.

[00:03:45] Scott Snibbe: From the tradition I’m most familiar with, the Gelugpa, it seems that sometimes in the monasteries and the abbeys you’ll study for even a decade before you start much meditation. Is that the case? How have you changed that and how’s it working? 

[00:03:59] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: 

As I’m already saying to the nuns, it’s not enough to have it all up in your head. You’ve got to bring it down in your heart. You’ve got to become what you’re studying. 

And so every day they do some shamatha practice, as well as doing rituals, two hours of ritual every day. But also every year they do two months of silent retreat. So if you can imagine a hundred nuns, all keeping complete silence and they’re very strict.

Tenzin Palmo at her nunnery

For two months, they immerse themselves in their practice. Because I think it’s very important that they should gain actual experience from their own practice, rather than merely just trumpeting out what they’ve studied and been taught. 

They love it. And, of course, it engages a whole different part of the brain, as well as anything else, to actually do some practice apart from just intellectual endeavors. This is what we try to do.

We also have a long-term retreat center. We have about ten nuns now in long-term retreat. The majority of them have done nearly 12 years retreat now. And they are training to become yoginis trained by the yogis in our monastery. So there’s also that section which is very much respected by all the other nuns.

Benefits of retreat

[00:05:27] Scott Snibbe: For people who are less familiar with retreat and the benefits of retreat, could you talk a little bit about what that does to your mind and what the benefits are? 

[00:05:35] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, the whole point is to give an opportunity to become completely immersed in one’s practice with a minimum of external distractions. This is one of the reasons why one keeps silent. Because outer silence helps to reflect an inner silence and you’re not disturbing other people by your chatter.

Tibetan practice, especially, requires a lot of time. So what we try to do is to allow them the whole day and much of the night, just spent in immersing the whole mind and heart in one’s practice. That way, one becomes the practice without having to piecemeal it out to just sections. You become one, you’re swimming in an ocean of practice. It helps very much with inner transformation.

[00:06:30] Scott Snibbe: To go beyond the duality between the practitioner and the practice. 

[00:06:33] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: One tries at this point to give the opportunity for that to happen. That’s the most we can do. I have to say that the nuns themselves take it very seriously. And I’m really impressed because many of them are still quite young teenagers.

And yet they completely dive in to the practice. And of course, with a group of them all practicing, that also gives a special energy, which is why it’s good, especially at the beginning, to do group retreats. That way you also get that kind of special energy from all those around you. 

[00:07:14] Scott Snibbe: What’s the ethnic and cultural makeup of the nuns there in the Abbey? Are there Westerners and Indians and Europeans, Tibetans?

[00:07:25] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: They’re Himalayans and there are some Tibetans. We have about 120 nuns and maybe 15 of them Tibetans. But nowadays people are not coming from Tibet anymore. The borders are closed. So no newcomers are coming from Tibet. 

The majority, the vast majority are made up of girls coming from the Himalayan regions. Politically, geographically, they’re Indian, but culturally, spiritually, they are Tibetan; like Ladakh, or Himachal Pradesh, on the other side, also we have quite a few Bhutanese, Nepalese, and so forth.

So they’re all from the Himalayan region. There’s no Western nuns. The lingua franca is Tibetan. They all speak fluent Tibetan. 

Motivation for young women to become nuns

[00:08:12] Scott Snibbe: And can you talk about what motivates a young woman to become a nun today? 

[00:08:17] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, I was speaking with the nuns yesterday. One of the things I always ask when you first come is, Why do you want to be a nun? Often they kind of go, [shrugs], you know? But then some of them say, I want to be happy. Some of them say, Oh, I look at my mother, my aunt, or my sisters: I don’t want that life. I want to do something meaningful with my life. And so I want to study dharma and in that way benefit beings. 

And one said that, when she was with nuns, she felt happy. So she thought if she became a nun that would make other people happy. Their reasonings are fairly simple, but then they’re quite young when they come. But they’re from cultures where, as with the Catholic culture, to be a nun or a monk is quite normal. It’s not anything strange.

Some of them, their families didn’t want them to be nuns. And they said, Finish your education then if you still want to a nun, okay. Occasionally, especially with the Tibetans, they ran away from home to enter a nunnery. But generally the parents bring them along and they’re happy to. Because nowadays nuns have a status which they never had before.

Now the nunneries — not just our nunnery, but all nunneries — now mostly offer a good educational program. And the whole idea of what a nun can do has really transformed in the last 20 or so years. So it’s a good life option for these girls. 

Tenzin Palmo

[00:10:06] Scott Snibbe: And you’ve been an important part of making this a greater option for women today. 

[00:10:10] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, it’s happening everywhere. And not just in the Tibetan circles, but also in Theravada Buddhism and elsewhere, that there’s a real — education is the key. Once the nuns become educated, they begin to think for themselves. They begin to get a sense of self worth. They stop praying just to be reborn as a male so that they can get on with it. They recognize that even in female form, there’s nothing that they cannot do if they’re given the opportunity. So things have really changed a lot in the last 20 or 30 years, which is good for all Buddhism, not just for the women.

The vow to attain enlightenment in the female form

[00:10:53] Scott Snibbe: What you’ve just said reminds me of the famous quote that’s inspired a lot of women: that you’ve said you’ve made a vow to attain enlightenment in the female form, no matter how many lifetimes it takes. Can you talk a little bit about why you made that vow? 

[00:11:08] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, because the view always given at that time was that, of course to be human was a good thing, but nonetheless, in order to really make progress on the path, you needed a male body.

And in many ways, that was true because it was to the males that all the opportunities were given: for education and for deeper practices. And attention, just noticing that you’re there, you know? So therefore there are so many male teachers. And, even today, if you say, in Tibetan Buddhism, what about the female teachers? Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Labdrön, Jomo Memo: if you can do one hand you’re already ahead of the game. Whereas the male teachers are like stars in the sky. So therefore it seemed obvious that there was already more than enough males out there. 

What we needed was to travel the path as a female — as many females as possible out there — showing that there’s really no difference. Buddha nature’s not male or female. Women are absolutely as capable of realizing the path as the males. And the only way to do that is to be a female and realize the path. 

So it seemed obvious. I mean, if there ever comes a time when the females are the most strong and the males have dwindled, then I’ll come back as a male.

[00:12:41] Scott Snibbe: Then you’ll already be enlightened if you keep your vow!

[00:12:43] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Ultimately there’s no difference. We all know that, but on the relative plane in which we live, there has always been a big difference. And that is why it’s necessary to promote the feminine. 

[00:12:57] Scott Snibbe: Particularly in Buddhism, I think when people like myself first hear about sexism and Buddhism, you really scratch your head. Because the religion is founded on this idea of loving all beings, and compassion for all beings, all beings are equal in their capacity for enlightenment. And our attitude to all beings should be equal. So how can that attitude co-exist with sexism? 

[00:13:18] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, I mean, right from the time of the Buddha there was already a problem. And the nuns’ Vinaya, the monastic code, was already very much slated in that direction of making nuns subordinate to the monks.

And I think that as time went on, that division grew. Because if the monks were given the opportunities and the education and the nuns were denied it, then naturally the divide would come. 

Plus I think it’s not just on the male side. The females are just as guilty. If you have a group of monks, a group of nuns, and you only have limited resources who will you sponsor? A woman will sponsor the monks.

Even in America, this is true today. The monasteries are much better supported than the nunneries. And who is supporting them, mostly women, right? So it’s not just that the men taken all the glory. It’s also, they have been very much encouraged in that, by their female supporters. And social conditions being what they are in all these countries, not just in Asia, but in the West the same, women had their own role to play, but it was a subordinate role to the males.

For example, in my mother’s time, and that’s not going back to Queen Victoria, women could be nurses. They didn’t become doctors. They didn’t become lawyers, architects, and so forth, very few. 

So it’s not just “backward” Asia. It’s a global phenomena that women in general play the much more subordinate role in society and likewise in Buddhist society. So now, when there is much more equal education, especially in Asia, as well as in the West, then nuns likewise are coming up. 

[00:15:35] Scott Snibbe: So if we want to help the cause it sounds like you’d suggest giving to and supporting the abbeys.

[00:15:41] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Because the nuns struggle. Sravasti Abbey, which is excellently run by the Venerable Thubten Chodron and has been very successful because the whole program is so excellent there. But nonetheless, compared with the monasteries, it’s much less well known and well-endowed than a monastic center for males would be.

And also for the Theravadan nuns in America, they struggle for support compared with the monasteries, the Theravadan forest monasteries, which are really quite affluent. I’m not complaining about that. This is just the way things are, it’s always been that way.


And as I say, women themselves have contributed to the situation. But it is very good if people do recognize that the nuns everywhere do need support. And they’re very ethical. They are very focused, very intelligent, very devoted. It’s not like they’re stupid or lazy or in any way, just faking it. 

So it would be good to encourage them with your gratitude and support just for the life they’re leading, which is often very renounced in the midst of, even Western affluence, that sense of joy in renunciation; joy and contentment with little in a society which is so saturated with the idea that more is best. And, pleasure equals happiness. And sex is essential because otherwise you go weird. They show that’s complete nonsense. It’s the other way round. 

[00:17:32] Scott Snibbe: I think you’re absolutely right about that. It’s actually one of the things that greatly inspired me when I got into Buddhism here in San Francisco at Tse Chen Ling. There were three or four nuns, and I really did immediately feel that: the purity and the strength and the devotion of their practice. And we became very close friends. I really learned the Dharma, you know, sometimes more from the nuns even than the Geshe because the nuns are accessible and present all the time and leading the meditations. 

[00:17:58] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: That’s the other thing, too, you can approach them. And, as you say, I mean, the geshes and the lamas are there, but it’s much more difficult as a cultural divide. Especially also because nowadays the majority of practitioners are females. And if they have any problems, who can they go to? You know, you can’t tell the geshe all your problems, but you can talk to the nuns because they’ve probably been through it themselves. And they can give you some good down to earth advice on how to deal with life.

[00:18:32] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about what happens to the nuns after their education? Once they get through the entire course at your abbey and then once they leave, how do their lives progress? What happens to them? 

[00:18:42] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, this is a nunnery. They don’t leave. I mean, they can leave. It’s not a women’s prison, right? If you want to, just walk out, nobody’s stopping you from leaving. But very, very few nuns leave. The dropout rate for nuns is very small compared to monks. They have a 10 year study program, then they do a two years’ tantric program. And then after that they’ve graduated. So then what they want to do, many of them choose to go into long-term retreat, at least three-year retreat. 

Others become teachers. Before, we had to get teachers in from other nunneries who graduated from their own nunneries, they would come and become the teachers. Now they are leaving, going back to their own nunneries and our nuns are becoming the teachers. So our nuns are teaching the other nuns.

And then we also — not now because we’re in lockdown — but normally we have a guest house, we have a cafe, we have a medical center and various other different things for nuns to work at. And there are various roles within the nunnery, like disciplinarians, and scrollkeepers and so forth, which rotate every year. And then the senior nuns take those roles.

 I mean, it is a nunnery. It’s not just a study center. 

iPhones at the monastery

[00:20:03] Scott Snibbe: That’s very good news because there is a crisis among some of the monasteries where the boys, they come more for the education and leave at age 16, 17, and they’re having trouble filling the ranks and completing the programs, right?

[00:20:16] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: It’s a big problem in all the monasteries. But I think for the nuns, I mean with respect, you’re a teenage boy, then you think, Okay, now what? If I leave, then you know, I can get some kind of job, make some money, find some nice girl. You know, she’ll keep me warm at night, she’ll do the cooking and cleaning. And it sounds pretty good. Why not? 

But the girl has to think, if I leave the nunnery, then I have to get a job or do field work. Then I have to get married. Then I have to do the cooking and the cleaning, have a baby every year. And she thinks, Oh, I think I’ll stay where I am. So she has much more fun in nunneries.

Tibetan nunneries are great fun, you know? The nuns are always laughing and very cheerful and they actually enjoy themselves as well as dedicating themselves to study and practice. 

Tenzin Palmo as abbess of her monastery with young “tsunmas,” Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

There’s lot of laughter there, a lot of joy. In all nunneries, it’s not just our nunnery, the fallout rate from nuns is much less than the fallout rate nowadays for monks. 

Because also nowadays all in the monasteries, you know, they have iPhones and on the internet and so forth. So their minds are very distracted. And they have all this interconnection with what’s going on out there. People even report that they see even during pujas that monks under the table are playing around with their iPhones.

And in classes also the teachers are complaining about iPhones in the monasteries. But for example, in our nunnery, although many of their parents give them iPhones to contact them, we have a rule that during the week, they give their iPhones to the disciplinarian, and then they get them back on Sunday. So on Sunday, they can contact their friends and their family if they want to. But the rest of the week, they don’t have them. And that way they don’t get distracted.

I mean, I have to think what would the Buddha have done? The fact that there’s no rule about it doesn’t mean that we can’t make a rule.

[00:22:31] Scott Snibbe: The Buddha would have taken your iPhone away. 

[00:22:34] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: He would have said No, monks, I think iPhone’s not a good idea. Because it’s a distraction, because it becomes an addiction. And that’s going in opposite direction to where the monk’s mind is supposed to be going. There needs to be some understanding about what being a monk is all about. 

How the path for women changed

[00:22:56] Scott Snibbe: You started at a really difficult time for women in Buddhism and faced a lot of extreme sexism, even being deprived of access to the teachings you came to study in the monastery. How have things improved and what still needs to be improved for women in Buddhism? 

[00:23:11] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, I mean, certainly in the nunneries, as I say, things have improved beyond thought, really. I think what happened were two things: one that Western nuns like Thubten Chodron, and Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Jampa Tsedroen, et cetera. They went to India, they were studying at the school of dialectics and they were learning debate so forth.

And the Tibetan nuns, who had been told not to debate, that women couldn’t debate because we don’t have that kind of mind and we’re not aggressive enough. They said, How come you’re debating and we cannot? Then they said to them, You can. And then senior students just start teaching the nuns. So that was one side of it, nuns began to get confidence that they could debate. 

At the same time in the secular world, in the Tibetan school system, the girls were doing extremely well and often going to college and so forth, showing that women were perfectly intelligent.

Even though in Vajrayana, wisdom is female, but they didn’t quite catch onto that bit. But now the girls were showing that they were totally intelligent. Therefore the question was if in the secular world women show their intelligence, how come it’s not happening in the monasteries? 

So then gradually with the Tibetans Nuns Project and others, they began to invite geshes and khenpos to come and teach the nuns. And once they started, they really loved it because the nuns were so focused. And they were like dry sponges, just soaking up the liquid dharma. So they became very enthusiastic.

Once they recognize that it could happen, of course, it just took off. You couldn’t stop it anymore. And now, of course, there are female geshes. There are khenmos and so forth. And now more and more, monks are teaching nuns. Once you get that education, you get the concept of, recognize your own intelligence is there, you’re not inferior.

People are not not teaching you because you’re stupid, right? It’s just you got overlooked, but you’re not overlooked anymore. And so, you know, the road ahead is clear. 

So it’s been wonderful in these years to see these wonderfully bright women coming up. Like before they were buds, like a rosebud, and because they were not watered, the soil was very hard, there was no sunshine of approval. There was no water of the teachings. So they lived and died as withered buds. They never opened. Whereas now they’re opening up and showing how beautiful they are and center of the dharma is just wafting from all these nunneries now.

Advice for female practitioners

[00:26:12] Scott Snibbe: And would you have any advice for female lay Buddhist practitioners or observations of how opportunities have changed for them over time? 

[00:26:20] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, I think that now that in the West, for example, where a vast number of people in the dharma are female, the lamas themselves have recognized that they can no longer give this rather misogynistic message. Many of their brightest and most devoted students are the women: highly educated, highly articulate and devoted.

I think now the gap between the male and female is more or less closed as far as that is concerned. That anything the boys can do, the girls can do. Of course they can. And the message is always, you know, that on the ultimate level, there is no male or female. And many of the best teachers in the West are women.

So it’s changed. And it’s interesting that though Buddhism is always talking change, it resists it like anything else. But things will change. And of course, for the nuns now, the next big barrier to overcome is that of higher ordination. That’s a wall that’s been hit. It’s very interesting how much resistance there is to the idea of nuns being fully ordained as the Buddha himself wished. You know, the full sangha. He’s always talking about the full sangha. 

[00:27:43] Scott Snibbe: Yes. 

[00:27:44] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: They don’t want the four-fold sangha. They want the three-fold sangha, three and a half fold sangha.

[00:27:49] Scott Snibbe: Can you explain what the four-fold sangha is for people who aren’t familiar with that term? 

[00:27:55] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Sure. That means fully ordained monks, fully ordained nuns, lay men, and lay women. So it’s a monastic and lay sangha together. The Buddha said it was like a table with four legs or a chair before legs, very stable.

And also the Buddha said that as long the four-fold sangha exists — that means monastics and lay people together studying and practicing and preaching the Dharma — then the Dharma will flourish. He didn’t just say monks, he said the four-fold sangha. 

And even straight after his enlightenment in a talk with Mara who represents the forces opposed to him awakening, he said that his purpose was to establish the four-fold sangha. So right from the start, that was his purpose, it wasn’t that nuns were foisted on him. He already had that vision, that there would be a balance between the monastics and the lay people of both genders. 

Who am I: our fundamental goodness, Buddha nature

[00:29:06] Scott Snibbe: When we began this conversation, you said regardless gender everyone has a fundamental goodness. Everyone has Buddha nature. Also, in Vicki Mackenzie’s book you talk about having a very deep intuition that this was true too in your own life from an early age. Can you talk about what this is for people less familiar with that idea of Buddha nature or our fundamental goodness? What is that and how can we feel conviction in that fundamental goodness and get back touch with it?

[00:29:35] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Well, in one way, the whole point of meditation is to come back to our genuine nature again. It’s called the nature of the mind, mind hidden, meaning not the brain, but the nature of fundamental consciousness. And, normally, why we are stuck in this round of birth and sometimes happy, sometimes miserable, turned up and down on the ocean, is because we identify with our conceptual thinking mind.

We think, This is who I am. All my thoughts, my feelings, my memories, my anticipations, my plans. This is me. So from a spiritual point of view, we’re identifying with all the wrong things. I would say that in all genuine spiritual traditions — Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish — the mystical traditions have understood that there is something innate within us that’s blocked by identification with the small self. 

What we need to do is dissolve that small self to open up to a whole different level of consciousness, which is our true nature, who we really are. And that is sometimes described as being like the sky, like space, because you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t taste it, but it’s all pervading.

And our problem is that we just see the clouds. We are identifying with the clouds. When we look at our mind, we see the clouds, but we don’t see the sky. What we need is to come back to that basic essential nature, which is a non-dual consciousness.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo outside of the cave she resided in for 12 years in the Himalayas

Normally, we are caught up in our dualism. There’s me and everybody there who is not me. And so that sense of separation is always there. Then we reify our reality, our thoughts, and apparent external phenomena. We think each bit is very separate, very different, very individual to itself.

Neuroscience is very interesting nowadays, I have to say, because they are now exploring consciousness. Consciousness is not the brain, which is a huge step forward for them because before it was very mechanistic. If you couldn’t get it on the machine, it didn’t exist. Now they’re recognizing that the brain is a wonderful tool, but it’s not the energy running the tool. So our essential nature is described as being empty, meaning that it’s open and spacious and you can’t hold it. You can’t cling to it. 

But at the same time, it is this fundamental clarity and knowing nature of the mind. We all know, we are aware. All of us. So we are all that nature the whole time. It’s not we have to develop it. What we need to do is to recognize it. Because we have to become conscious of being conscious. And in that level consciousness, which is non-dualistic, it also interconnects us everything so that we recognize everything is interdependent.

It’s not separate little globules. We are not separate. Actually, everything is intrinsically interconnected. And that is a whole different way of understanding our consciousness. It has no male, no female. It doesn’t even have human and animal because animals also have Buddha nature. 

Scott Snibbe: I talked to Rick Hanson about this, and he said that fundamental goodness and satisfaction, some ways you can see more in an animal because when the animal their food and a comfortable place, they’re absolutely satisfied. They’re not fantasizing about what else they need. So maybe on that level we see that Buddha nature in animals?

All beings have Buddha nature. That’s the whole point. Why? Because all beings are conscious. And it is just our fundamental level of non-dualistic primal consciousness, which is what we’re talking about, it’s nothing magical.

That’s why it’s sometimes said it’s so simple that we miss it. Because we’re expecting great bliss and lights and luminosity. And it’s not. It’s so simple, like space. But space contains everything. Without space, nothing could exist. And that’s like the mind. The nature of the mind is so vast and open and spacious that everything can come to be within it. But we don’t recognize that. It’s like going into a room and you see the furniture and all the decorations, but you don’t see the space.

[00:34:54] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about how a person could get through to that non-duality and seeing the spaciousness and getting beyond reification, especially an ordinary person, not a professional monk or nun.

[00:35:08] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: I mean, our big problem is that we get lost within our thoughts and feelings. It’s like we’re in a river or in a sea and we’re completely engulfed in water. And if you think of an ocean, then the waves go up, the waves go down. And we’re always on the wave level, we never go deeper than that. Sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down, sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down.

So the Buddha said, you need a raft, right? And the raft is our mindfulness. But mindfulness just means being aware and having a sense of presence and knowing. Instead of getting lost and distracted, we’ve become more conscious. And we are. Anybody can do this in one second. We can either be swept along or else we are aware of what’s going on.

And so to help us, the Buddha said, In the beginning, because the mind is so crazy, it might be difficult to observe the mind. So start with something easier: the breath. Why? Because we’re always breathing, we cannot breathe into past. We cannot breathe in the future. We only can breathe now.

If we are really aware of the breath, just being aware of the breath as it comes in and out in that moment, we’re present. And so this is like something which, holds us, catches us. 

And then gradually, even during the day, we can learn how to be more conscious. You know, when the mind’s getting all crazy or we’re very tired or depressed or anything, just bring them the attention back to breathing. It’s so simple. And it doesn’t require any great philosophical knowledge or any great meditational skills. It just requires the determination to, as much as possible, even for a minute or two, to just be here. All right. In this moment, I’m breathing, then what’s going on in the mind?

What are the feelings, where do these emotions feel in the body? What is the body feeling in this moment? And then gradually making the awareness wider. What sounds, sensations, what’s happening outside as well as what’s happening inside. Anybody can do that. It’s not that it’s difficult. The problem is, we don’t do it.

And this is why retreats are useful. They give the discipline and the guidance for helping people to experience, to taste that they can do this. Yes, I actually I can meditate. They get infused. 

Dealing with the suffering of the world

[00:38:11] Scott Snibbe: And a big obstacle to this for people, of course, is our own strong attachments and our strong fears. For example, the pandemic for so many people is a big struggle. And especially now, it almost seemed like we were cresting the pandemic, at least in the United States where we’re lucky to have the vaccines. But what would you say to people who are now feeling more despair that, this is never going to be over? There’s so much suffering, children are getting sick. Other countries aren’t getting equal access to the vaccine. How do people deal with, large, difficult seemingly insoluble problems like this? 

[00:38:45] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: First of all, this is samsara. This a round of birth and death.

We are simply getting back what we ourselves have created. We have messed up this planet. We have completely messed up our relationships with animals and with other humans. And because of our own greed and aggression, we are where we are now. And, if it wasn’t now it was in the past that many human beings have been very irresponsible.

Of course, if you’ve look at history, we’ve always had a hard time. If it wasn’t one thing, it was something else. People are always saying, This is the worst time. It was much better than when I was young. And for thousands of years people have been saying that.

 The other point is that, as Shantideva said, If there is a solution, why worry? And if there is no solution worry doesn’t help. Right? Just worrying doesn’t help others, doesn’t help oneself, doesn’t help the situation at all. We have to accept this is how it is right now. 

It is very noticeable, Scott, that people who have some kinds of spiritual practice have almost welcomed this pandemic, not for the suffering that is caused, but for the space it has given in their own personal lives, that they can’t go to work, they can’t socialize, they can’t run around, they can’t get distracted, so they have more time to practice. 

And also of course, nowadays many teachers have stepped up and are doing a lot of online teaching. Far more than they ever did before. So many people now are, Zooming and YouTube-ing and podcasting. And are learning so much. Because now many of these teachers are out there giving talks, running courses and so forth, and people have time now to do this.

So for many people, not only in the Buddhist world, but in other spiritual traditions also. they have actually benefited from this very, very challenging time. 

The people I feel the most concerned for are the children. Because during this very critical time in their lives they’ve been separated and the social interaction is not the same. And that I think, for the future, that is going to be very interesting. What kind of adults will they turn into? That whole band of millions of young people who have been so arrested in their development at this time, and often in very threatening domestic situations also, everybody’s caught together.

But individually, then, this is a time to recognize, Yes, there is no security in samsara. We think we’ve got it all tapped out nicely. I’ve got everything worked out. I’m going to do this, then that’s going to happen, then this, and now it’s all blown away, you know? 

We have to see that the only genuine refuge is within ourselves. Because happiness and security are not out there and they never have been. We fool ourselves. It’s not like that. But inwardly, if we genuinely cultivate an inner practice, that is a refuge no matter what is happening outside. We have our own inner security. So this is the point. And if you have any belief system at all, now’s the time to bring it into operation and make sure that it works for you.

What else can you do? This is how it is, and then complaining and getting upset and paranoid and all that. It’s just adding dukkha on top of dukkha, suffering on top of suffering. 

The Buddha said that there are two kinds of suffering: there’s physical suffering, and there’s mental suffering. Physical suffering, you’re going to have to experience because that’s the nature of the physical. But mental suffering, that’s a choice.

We can choose to be depressed and upset and paranoid because of the external. Or we can choose not to be. That’s up to us. Even in the most awful situations. For example, when many nuns were imprisoned during the cultural revolution and torn apart by the prison circumstances under the Chinese communists, and many of them were interrogated and tortured for years. They were in prison with no fault of their own. They had never done any crime, but they were in prison because of their view: 20, 30 years. And by right, they should have come out either broken or completely bitter and angry — justifiably. 

But so many of them came out, just blissful, with so much love, so much compassion and saying how grateful they were for that situation. Because it taught them what genuine compassion really means, which they couldn’t have learned if life was very pleasant and nice and they were just standing alone. When you’re with a challenge, that’s when you show your strength or not, isn’t it? 

Next week’s meditation

[00:44:46] Scott Snibbe: You’ve kindly agreed to lead a meditation for us, which will play in the next episode. Can you talk a little bit about what that meditation is right now? Or we can let it be a surprise and just have you guide it. 

[00:44:58] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: The essence of practice, meditation practice, is to cultivate awareness.

And I think that this is the crux of the whole thing is that we are not aware, that we endlessly distracted. And non-distraction is the essence of the path. So the meditation will just be on, just the few little stages on how to cultivate our inner awareness. Because it’s not just when you are on the meditation seat, but throughout the day, as much as we can remember to ourselves back into the present.

And the good thing with this is that it doesn’t have anything per se to do with our religious beliefs. It’s nothing to do with whether you believe in Buddhism or Christianity or anything. It’s just to do with how to learn to be present and how to learn to be kind.

Because along with that awareness, it should be a loving awareness. Not just “I am being very mindful,” but with an open heart to recognize that everyone we meet would rather feel okay, than not feel okay. Whoever they are and however difficult they are, in their heart, they would like to feel good. You know, that life wouldn’t be difficult for them. So just as I would rather be happy than miserable, everybody would rather be happy than miserable. 

That empathy for all beings, as we meet them, is also a very essential part of any spiritual path. And certainly of Buddhism. That we cultivate wish for the happiness and wellbeing of everyone, not just humans. What I really like about dharma is that it includes all beings, all living beings, not just the ones we like; or our nation, our football team, everybody is included in this. And that includes all the animals who, as you said, like to be happy, right?

I mean animals want be happy just as we want to be happy. And their idea of happiness is on a more physical level usually, but they also want to be loved. They also want to be appreciated. I mean, we’re all animals.

[00:47:33] Scott Snibbe: Thank you so much sharing your wisdom in this discussion today, it is really a privilege speaking with you. Thanks for taking that time with us.

[00:47:44] Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Thank you, Scott. 

[00:47:46] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. If you’re interested to learn more about her teaching and support her activities, visit her webpage at tenzinpalmo.com.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Digital Production by Jason Waterman


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