Bohemian Buddhist Review

Into the Heart of Life by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

A skeptical English woman becomes a Tibetan Buddhist nun and hangs out in a cave for 12 years

I first met Ani Tenzin Palmo at the Spirit Rock dharma center in Woodacre, California quite a few years after her mountain retreat and the subsequent fame of her book, "Cave in the Snow."
 
She was "Ani" -- or nun -- then, but has since been named a "Jetsunma," which is a special title for very special ordained women.  She was a charming, self-effacing, and bracing teacher, having spent 12 years in a cave on retreat under the guidance of her guru, Khamtrul Rinpoche, both the former and the present incarnations. Going to India from London when she was still in her teens led her to all kinds of experiences of both hardship and spiritual wisdom.  In this book, she compiles the basics of the dharma path with very relevant references for Westerners.
 
When I made a rather naive remark about how shoveling snow in front of her cave must have been good exercise, she grimaced slightly and said what was hard was keeping her nun's robes on while she did so.No stranger to physical hardship, she reminds us that we can't avoid it. "Even the Buddha had physical suffering.  Everybody, as you see if you live long enough, has aches and pains and accidents and sometimes very serious illnesses.  We have a body and our body is going to deteriorate.  It is inevitable.  But what is not inevitable is mental suffering, and in this we have a say.  We can train our mind so that even if the body suffers the mind does not."
 
Reminding us that difficult things -- such as physical pain -- are the practice, she goes on to equate the eight worldly concerns of praise and blame, good and bad reputation, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, with the Eight Worldly Hang-ups.  "Life is unsatisfying because it is always changing."  Just as we run after all the Eight Worldlies, i.e., relationships, careers, cars, houses, everything we try to make permanent only makes us more insecure.  "Security is very insecure," she writes, something the global economy is experiencing first-hand.  "True security only comes from comfort with insecurity."
 
Three interesting definitions of laziness struck me as pertinent to our overly-busy times.  The first is obvious, not wanting to do anything.  The second type of laziness is feeling ourselves unworthy or incapable of doing anything, especially meditating.  But "the third kind of laziness is being busy with worldly things . . . being occupied may even make us feel virtuous.  But usually it's just a way of escape."  In these circumstances, it's a good idea to ask ourselves what we are doing.  "Our human life is only precious if we use it in a way which is meaningful."
 
Which thought leads us to the topic of renunciation, quite a charged term in certain Western circles.  What does it really mean?  "Renunciation doesn't have the same connotation in Tibetan as it does in English,"
Jetsunma writes.  Rather than giving up something, painfully, it's more about naturally out-growing things, as a child does with toys.  "Renunciation is a matter of letting go.  And the ultimate renunciation is to release one's grasping at a self -- an autonomous, enduring, and separate me at the center of the universe." 
 
"What keeps us in samsara is our belief in ourselves as individual sentient beings.  Therefore, the vow to save everybody already contains two wrong views:  the belief in an 'I' that will save sentient beings, and the belief that there are sentient beings to be saved.  Nonetheless, although there is no one to save them and nothing to be saved, one still takes the vow to save all beings."
 
Dontcha just love those bemusing Buddhist paradoxes?
 
"Wisdom says there's nothing to be done; it has already happened.  But compassion says, 'Get to work!'"  In other words, we need to start saving those still mired in the swamp of samsara.  Jetsunma tells a very moving story of her realization that her root guru had no need to be here at all -- he was  fully realized, in other words -- but kept coming back to help us out of our delusions. 
 
"... in order to help you must first be able to help, and that comes through practice and study.  From a Buddhist point of view, as we come back again and again, any knowledge, and especially any understanding or realization that we gain in one lifetime, will be carried over into the next life."  This is very good news for those of us who sometimes feel disappointed with ourselves in regard to practice.   
 
More good news is her take on the change from Eastern monastery life to modern house-holding practitioners:  "In order to really actualize an inner transformation, an inner change, we have to realize that everything we do . . . if done with genuine awareness and understanding, is the Dharma."
 
Jetsunma's words on our responsibilities, from her chapter on Impermanence, are very comforting:  "Our everyday life is our spiritual life.  If we have the awareness to be able to use our everyday life as practice, then our lives have meaning." And in the face of impermanence -- especially not knowing when we're going to die --  we need to make every moment count.
 
"Each one of us is responsible for our own life, and for helping and giving love and understanding to those who are closest around us.  Our family, our children, our partners, our parents -- they are our practice. They are not an obstacle to practice.  They are the ones who need our loving-kindness, our compassion, our patience, our joyous effort.  Our wisdom.  It's not so difficult to sit and meditate on loving-kindness and compassion for all those sentient beings out there somewhere on the horizon. But the sentient beings for whom we really have to generate loving-kindness and compassion are the ones who are right in front of us, especially those for whom we are most karmically responsible.  They are our objects of practice."
 
Paki S. Wright, September 2011