54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis

  1. Vijayananda
  2. Melita Maschman
  3. Brahmachari Gadadhar
  4. Bill Eilers
  5. Simonetta
  6. Swami Jnanananda
  7. Bill Aitken
  8. Bramacharini Atmananda
  9. Jamie Smith
  10. Martha Smith
  11. Radheshwari
  12. Omkara Das Adhikary
  13. Gopi Jai Krishna
  14. Ellen Schector
  15. Paul Ivan Hogguer
  16. Giorgio Bonazzoli
  17. Anil Bhai
  18. Russell Balfour-Clarke
  19. Norma Sastri
  20. John Clarke
  21. Peter Hoffman
  22. Dhruva
  23. Maggi Lidchi
  24. Sz. Regeni
  25. Baruni
  26. Michael Zelnick
  27. David and Sally
  28. Wilhelmina van Vliet
  29. Norman C. Dowsett
  30. Father Bede Griffiths
  31. Matthew and
    Joan Greenblatt
  32. Lucy Cornelssen
  33. Doris Williamson
  34. Lucia Osborne
  35. David Godman
  36. Hamsa Johannus de Reade
  37. Sir
  38. Joachim Peters and
    Uli Steckenreuter
  39. Richard Willis
  40. Chitrakara das Adhikary
  41. Aviva Keller
  42. Ma Prem Leela
  43. Swami Prem Pramod
  44. Ma Amanda Vandana
  45. Swami Anand Bodhisattva
  46. Swami Nadama
  47. Sister Arati
  48. Francis Reck
  49. H.H. Giriraja Swami
  50. Jean Dunn
  51. Raymond and
    Maree Steiner
  52. Bhikshu Ngawang Samten
  53. Ani Tenzin Palmo
  54. Kate Christie



Venerable Ani Tenzin Palmo

A cosy tent
Sakya Monastery
near Dehra Dun

4th March 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

A fellow tent-dweller — she’s sometimes called Anila, sometimes Diane, sometimes Tenzin Palmo — holds much fascination especially for the Tibetan community. She has totally renounced everything to become a Buddhist nun. She lives in a remote part of India which is inaccessible most of the year – in a cave! Tent-life must be dull for her. But she is a divinely contented person who says she is happy wherever she is. She radiates light and balance, and her severely shaven head hightens her beauty. She is open and responsive, as if years of isolation are comparable to being confined to a tent in a wheat field.

She has made one condition before starting the Interview; at the end I am to tell her about my own life. That’s an unusual condition… the interviewer being interviewed?



Interview 53

Can you start by telling me why you are being called Anila?
Ani is Tibetan for aunt — all Tibetan nuns are known as Ani: auntie; the la is only added for respect.

What made you take such a drastic step as total renounciation?
I first came to India in March 1964. I met my lama in June. By the end of July I took my first vows.

So quickly? You shaved your head from that moment?
Yes. I came to look for my lama… it was not unexpected.

Can you speak about your background?
I was born in England — Hertfordshire — in 1943. I grew up in East London where my father was a shop-keeper. When I left school I became a librarian. I was always interested in religion… like when I was 13 I read the Koran, and by 15 I was into books on yoga and doing hatha yoga. When I was 18 I read a book on Buddhism; it was a simple book — The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path — and as soon as I read it I knew I had always been a Buddhist. For me, theistic religions don’t reach me. The idea of a personal god is something I have never had a feeling for. On the other hand I deeply believe in the perfectibility of the being, and through meditation we can realize our true nature. But relating to an external deity had no meaning for me.

So there was Buddhism, which of course is a non-theistic type of religion with a perfect training path of morality, philosophy and meditation. As I knew I had always been a Buddhist, I started studying Theravada Buddhism, which in those days in London was not so easy — there were only a few Buddhists there. There was no interest whatsoever in Tibetan Buddhism, but somehow or other at that point I read about the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingmapa, Sakyapa, Kargyutpa and Gelugpa. And when I read the word Kargyutpa, something inside me said: Oh, I’m Kargyutpa! And I didn’t know anything about these sects — I had never even heard of them — but I knew I was a Kargyutpa.

Are they the yellow or the red hats?
Red. There were only two Tibetan lamas in the West at that time, and they were yellow-hat Gelugpa; they lived in Holland but they came over to England quite a lot. I got to know them. Meanwhile I applied for a job at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London: I was accepted, so I went to work there as a librarian. The head librarian was such a nice man, and because I told him I wanted to go to India — I had made up my mind — he said I could take a course in Tibetan and the School would pay for it. There were some Bon Po lamas there, so they taught me.

Bon Po is the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet?
Yes. I had heard that there was an English lady, Mrs. Bedi, who had married an Indian and lived in India about thirty years: she had become a Buddhist and she had started a school for young lamas and tulkus in Dalhousie, and also a nunnery for Kargyutpa and Nyingmapa nuns. I wrote to ask if I could come and help her. She said: Yes, please come. So then I started saving up to go. But meanwhile two Kargyutpa lamas turned up, so I was very happy: one was called Chogyam Trungpa, the other, Akong Rinpoche. I had such faith in Chogyam Trungpa although he was not the traditional idea of what a lama is like. As at that time no one was interested in Tibetan Buddhism, anyone who was had the lamas all to themselves, more or less. So I got to know them very well.

Had they opened the monastery in Scotland at that time?
They were still studying at Oxford — this was 1962 or 1963. I forgot to mention that six months after I became a Buddhist, my mother also became a Buddhist. So any lamas and monks we met would come to our house in London, and it was very interesting and informal. Trungpa Rinpoche had just come from Freda Bedi’s tulku school, so he encouraged me to go there. By the time I was 20 I had enough money, so I came to India and stayed at the nunnery in Dalhousie. During the day I worked as secretary for Freda Bedi at the lamas’ school — that was in March 1964.

Then on my 21st birthday, which was in June, there was a phone call, and Mrs. Bedi answered: Well, she said, your best birthday present has arrived at the bus station. Now I should go back because two weeks before someone asked me to write a letter to Khamtul Rinpoche, and as soon as I heard that name I said: Who’s that? Freda Bedi told me: He is a Kargyutpa lama and he lives in such and such a place — and then she added: By the way, he is coming here. I immediately said: If he is a Kargyutpa lama I can take Refuge with him. So he turned up on my birthday and I was so excited that when I walked in to meet him — I had no idea of what he looked like, whether he was old or young, or even who he was — I just knew he was my lama.

I sat down and I was so frightened I couldn’t look at him: I just saw his brown shoes and the border of his robe, and I couldn’t say anything. Mrs. Bedi wanted me to say something, so I just asked her to tell him I wanted to take Refuge. So she explained to the lama I was already a Buddhist and so on, and he replied: Of course, she must take Refuge. When he said this I looked up, and then two things happened at the same time: one was a feeling of recognition — like: So there you are again? It was like seeing some old friend after a long time; and at the same time as if the innermost core of my being had suddenly taken material form in front of me and we had never really been apart — like he had always been inside me but now was materialized outside.

At this point, would you like to explain what taking Refuge means?
O.K. It is the entry into the Buddhist Path: one takes Refuge in the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, and in those who practice the teachings. It dates back to the time of the Buddha himself. In the earliest Buddhist sutras whenever anyone made a commitment to the Buddha’s Path they would take Refuge in what is called the Three Jewels. That constitutes becoming a Buddhist: one starts off by taking Refuge. In the Tibetan form you take refuge in the lama, who is considered to be the embodiment of the Three Jewels: his mind is the Buddha — his mind and the Buddha’s are the same; his speech is the dharma — the teachings; his body is the sangha — the community of monks.

I then went back to Khamtul Rinpoche’s community at Kangra and took Refuge there and one precept. At that time I asked him if I could become a nun. He said: For the first year I will give you the first precept: the precept not to kill — you imagine you have all the others; but although I am not giving you them, if within one year you haven’t broken any and you still want to keep them, then that’s all right. So I was allowed to shave my head and put on robes from that moment.

Were you allowed to stay with your lama?
I actually went back to Freda Bedi where I met an American girl who was a disciple of the head of the Sakyapa called Sakya Trizin at whose monastery we are right now. This girl and I decided to travel, and she wanted to come to Mussoorie where the Sakya Lama was then living. That is how I met His Holiness. She was also the person who brought Maree Steiner, but much later. We were able to stay one month with him. At that time he was 19 years old and was living with his aunt. There we took the Bodhisattva vow and a number of initiations and he also gave us some teaching and set us to practice. He was really amazing — yes — outwardly you could say he was 19, but actually he could have been 90 or 900. I mean, he is changeless. All these years later, he is still the same. I had much faith in him although I was not a Sakya.

In Tibetan Buddhism one can take initiations and teachings from any of the four main branches — is that right?
That’s right. It is quite a common thing to do.

Where did you go from Mussoorie?
Rishikesh where we stayed doing hatha yoga, then Varanasi, and from there to Thailand where we stayed four months. From there I came back alone to Dalhousie where I found my lama, Khamtul Rinpoche, had moved with his community.

When you say community, what does that mean?
There were three or four hundred lay people and a monastery of about one hundred monks — they had got land in Dalhousie, so they decided to set themselves up there as a craft community. I lived with them as secretary to my lama and English teacher to the children. This went on for five years, so I was also able to get teachings. But then they were given land in Kangra so they moved again, and my lama suggested this was the time for me to break away and practice. He suggested I go to Lahaul near Spiti, which is past Kulu-Manali. It is a Buddhist valley lying between Manali and Ladakh.

Were the teachings given to you in Tibetan?
I could read it because I had studied Tibetan in England, but at that time my spoken Tibetan was awful. There was one incarnate lama who would give me the actual teaching in English. My lama would indicate what I should be studying. I had now plenty of practice, so I went to live for a time in a monastery in Lahaul which was very quiet. I stayed for five years. But as I was mainly doing retreats, I felt even this was too disturbing living in a monastery — it can be rather sociable and sometimes noisy. I visited my lama every year, but I wanted to go somewhere absolutely alone.

I had spoken about going off and living in a cave, but everyone said: Where there are caves with water there are people, where there are no people there is no water… I began thinking of building a small house, but one day when I had been looking for a site up a hill-side, when I came down I felt very happy and inspired and knew something was going to happen — I had prayed very hard to my lama and to the dakinis for them to find me something simple and quiet and I promised that on my part I would do nothing but practice as hard as I could. Two days later a nun said: Why bother building a house — it’s so expensive — better go live in a cave. Then she said: I remember an old nun talking about a cave on top of this hill that has water and trees. Then we got it together and a party of nuns and monks went with me to look, but they kept saying: No, no, this is too far, you can’t live up here, it’s too this, it’s too that…

But when we got there we saw it was a long overhang, and some villagers eight years before had built it up with stones to house their cattle. I said: For sure I am going to stay here! Everyone told me I would die of cold or there would be ghosts or thieves. Anyway, we persevered and got some carpenters to make a door and window and divide it into two rooms, and then I moved in.

How long have you lived there?
Five years. It’s perfect — there’s a spring with very good water; in the winter I melt the snow — from November until May I am snowed-in and nobody can come and I cannot leave.

How do you manage for food?
I get supplies in for one year and get donkeys to carry them up.

You can’t have any fresh vegetables or fruit?
I have a little garden, so in summer I grow turnips and marigolds. The turnips are good as I can eat the green tops and I dry them also.

How high up is it?
About 12,000 feet.

Is it incredibly cold in the winter?
Caves are warm, and I have a local square metal stove which I use for cooking and heating, both. On my side of the hill, because it faces south, there are a lot of juniper trees, so I can get enough wood cut for the winter. When the sun shines, it is actually quite warm.

Does anyone come to visit you?
In the winter no one can and I can’t go down — not that I have any need, but I couldn’t if I wanted to. In the summer, if I’m not in retreat, then people sometimes come from the monastery — that is the nearest place: about an hour and a half away. They come up in the spring to see if I am all right. No one can come up to find me unless there is someone to show the way. There are no paths.

So you really are cut off. How do you get your mail?
In the nearest village post office — which is three hours away — they save my mail and I collect it in May after the snows. It’s no problem. They are used to it up there. Lahaul is cut off from the rest of India for six months of the year. Like now I can’t go back until July as it is snow-bound.

You are all alone in your inaccessible retreat for months on end, how do you pass your time?
It depends what I’m doing: if I am in retreat, the day is divided into four meditation periods, so then I will get up at 4, do a session till 7. Then I make tea and tsampa, which is roasted barley flour. At 8 I will start another session till 11 which is followed by lunch: rice or fermented buck-wheat pancakes, or chapatis, then dal and potatoes, maybe turnips. After that I usually read Tibetan books or I copy some texts or I may paint Buddhas or bodhisattvas to give to people. At 3 I have a cup of tea — I don’t eat after lunch — then start another session which takes me to 6 or 7. Then I have more tea and start my evening session which goes on till I go to sleep.

Have you ever been snow-bound and unable to get out of your cave?
One year there was a freak blizzard which lasted seven days and I was completely buried under tons of snow. It was so black and silent in my cave, but I couldn’t get out and I didn’t know what to do. I decided I was going to suffocate — I convinced myself I was taking longer and deeper breaths. And although one part of me knew the air was still pure the other was convinced I was going to die of oxygen starvation. After six days under the snow I was preparing to die: it was very good because I faced up to the fact. I thought of all the bad I had ever done and felt great regret, then I tried to think of all the positive things that had happened, but above all I felt incredible devotion for my lama — when it all comes down to it the only thing is the lama: that is the only thing that is going to help you. I prayed to him to bless me in the bardo state.

And then the thought came: Try tunneling out! Now I had a spade, and the door opened inside, so when I opened it there was a big wall of ice. I just shoveled all the snow inside and made a small hole — it was really weird as it seemed like going through some birth and death experience. I was in total darkness. But after a while — about an hour — it became transparent, and gradually I got out. Only to find that everything was leveled deep in snow: no trees to be seen, my prayer flag buried, and the blizzard still blowing. I just scrambled back inside and waited another three days till I was able to really get out.

Your practices are sacred to you, but can you say something about them?
I’d rather not… I did explain that before we began.

Well, can you say why you have come down from your 12,000 ft dwelling to the plains and are living in this tent?
When I first came to India, I already explained how I spent one month with His Holiness the Sakya Lama. The following year I was able to spend more time with him, but this time with my mother who had come out to spend one year with me. I haven’t seen too much of His Holiness since then, but nonetheless we kept on corresponding. Last year I got a letter from him saying he was going to give his Lam Dre teaching — that is the Path and Its Result — and that I should attend it. For that reason alone I have come down. My lama, encouraged me and said it would be good for me to come.

Can you give a description of this Lam Dre teaching?
Basically it is the whole of the Buddhist Path, from the beginning of the renunciation of samsara — the round of birth and death — leading up to the fullest enlightenment, based on the Hevajra Tantra, that is a meditation deity sacred to the Sakyas. It is a course of training started in India in the 9th or 10th century and carried over to Tibet by the early founders of the Sakya tradition; it is now only taught by them.

It must be unusually rare to have the chance to receive this teaching.
Even in Tibet it was difficult to obtain. In India His Holiness has given part of the teaching only twice, but here he is giving the inner teaching for the first time in India, and it is the first time he is giving the Hevajra Tantra initiation to so many people. This inner teaching lasts three months because the initiations that form part of it can only be given to twenty-five people at one time. And some initiations last two days. There has also been the authoritative reading of the text connected with the Lam Dre teaching. The teaching is being given in Tibetan, but His Holiness has designated two of his highest lamas to give the teaching to all the foreigners in English. So every day after His Holiness has finished, we gather and get it again in English. At times we feel a bit overwhelmed and overstuffed, but they have been so kind to us.

Did many disciples from abroad come specially for this Lam Dre?
Initially eighty came from Malaysia and Singapore, and they were in fact the main patrons. For example, they offered to pay for all the food so that many monks from all over India could be fed — there were about eight hundred — otherwise for a three-month event like this they would not have been able to come here. Then about thirty-five came from the West; most of them from the Sakya Centres in the States and Canada.

Are there any other Western nuns living in India who have adopted the austere life you are following?
For many years Fredi Bedi and myself were the only Western nuns I knew of. But now there are quite a lot of Western monks and nuns, especially within the Gelugpa sect which stresses monasticism. Some know perfect Tibetan and have spent much time studying and meditating. For those going back to the West it is more difficult: people there are not particularly sympathetic — society is not directed towards renunciation. In the West, just being a monk or nun raises hostility in people. Of course, if we were in lay clothes it would be all right, I suppose. Here in the East one is freer — you can be as austere as you wish. I don’t meet so many nuns as I am cut off. I heard recently that Trungpa Rinpoche is starting a monastery in America. There are one or two in the West already.

Having renounced the world so totally, are you ever criticized for being an escapist and turning your back on the problems of the world?
When you are living with no external distractions, then that is the time you have to face so many things: the human condition, the mind, one’s nature. Then there’s no escape. Yes, people in the West think this sort of life I have taken to is escapism, but one can’t escape. Those caught up in Western life and its many so-called attractions are escaping. As soon as there is anything that is uncomfortable or disturbing they have a drink, or turn on the TV, or go to see a friend, or just smoke a cigarette — anything but turn inside and look at where the trouble is coming from. All their senses are stimulated from the outside, everything is coming from the outside, and when it breaks down they become neurotic. There is this terrible fear in the West of being put into any sort of isolation — it is actually a form of punishment there: they think if you are alone for any length of time you’ll go crazy. It’s because they have no foundation, no idea how to look inside and learn from oneself. And they do everything in the world to avoid the one thing that is nearest to them — coming to terms with the mind.

Do you follow the Tibetan way and eat meat?
When I was with my lama I did, but now I am vegetarian; one cannot live with the idea of compassion for all sentient beings and also eat the dead bodies of animals. I do not eat eggs now. I asked His Holiness Sakya Trizin about this; he said it was a sin. This doesn’t stop Tibetans… but I should tell you the lamas for sure, and most of the monks, do a special mantra before taking meat which is intended to help whatever animal they are about to consume. In the case of high lamas I’m sure this benefits the animal as there’s a karmic connection.

Am I right in thinking Tibetan Buddhists don’t recognize a Divine power which in the West is known as God?
It’s like this: the highest that can be imagined is a state to be realized and not to be propitiated. What we in the West regard as the Creation is due to the power of our own deluded mind and has grown up from the beginning of time through our perverted perceptions and karma, and is held together by that. We should purify this and attain to pure vision; the external world as we see it is a perverted vision projected from our own minds.

Do you recognize such a thing as soul?
In Buddhism the idea of such an innate entity, something static, permanent and always there was repudiated by Lord Buddha. He explained it as being a mental stream, a continual changing, of coming into being and passing away. This in its inherent nature is emptiness — it seems to be solid to us, rather like a river. You look at a river, come back the next day; it looks the same but every drop has changed. It seems to us we are an entity which we label as an “I”, but when we search for the “I” it cannot be found. And if you turn back the search-light on the seeker, the seeker also cannot be found; it’s transparent. This transparency in itself isn’t nothing, it’s awareness, it’s luminosity. At a lower level it’s compassion and love. It’s not a thing that separates me from you and everything out there: in its inherent nature it is emptiness.

How were we created?
The Buddha said there’s no way to find the beginning. His mind was so extended that he could see back through eons and eons of time, through evolutions and devolutions of whole universes, but he still couldn’t find the beginning. So to look for a beginning and an end is a perverted conception.

There are predictions about the imminent end of the world. What do Buddhists think about that?
In Buddhist cosmology the universe goes into expansion and then it turns into itself — that’s called the void, the empty eon. Then again, on account of the karma of beings, the universe comes together again. So, yes, the world can come to an end, but according to Buddhists predictions, not just yet. It is however in for troubled times.

What do you see for your own personal future?
If left to myself, there’s nothing I want to do other than what I’m doing because I’m happy, and there’s nothing else I want to do. But I do feel the time left in India is drawing to a close. If I ever left, it wouldn’t be due to internal causes; it would be for external reasons. I would rather stay… I feel I’m helping more beings in what I’m doing here than if I were outside doing something else. But I do feel within the next few years I will have to leave.

But wherever you are, you will go on with your practices.
I certainly hope so. Even as a child in Europe I felt I was in the wrong place; I wanted to go to the East. I remember working out my itinerary. By the time I got to be a teenager it was like an incredible home-sickness, a pain in my heart when I heard of others going East. It became unbearable. When I had enough money to come here everyone said: You won’t like it… you won’t find anything there you can’t find in your own country. The moment I got here I knew this is where I am meant to be, especially when I got to the mountains among the Tibetans. I was completely at home and I never felt home-sick even for one second.

You have never been back?
Eight years ago I went to see my mother — but only for a few months.

Now that Tibet is opening up do you have any desire to go there?
Not desperately. Anywhere I go is because there is some great lama or it is a place of pilgrimage — I don’t want to go anywhere as a tourist. And in Tibet most of the great lamas were either killed or they left. The majority of the monasteries are destroyed, so I think it would make me sad to go there.

Ani Tenzin Palmo’s continuously evolving story was brought to world-wide attention in 1998 with the much acclaimed publication of her biography written by Viki Mckenzie, “Cave in the Snow”. More recently, as the Venerable Tenzin Palmo, she has appeared with H.H. the Dalai Lama in a video programme where she was gently taking him to task for not offering more practical steps to help her remarkable project to establish a Nunnery for Tibetan women novices. His Holiness, with his usual smiling equanimity, took it extremely well, and can be seen calming Anila by gently stroking her cheek.

She has also become a world-travelled lecturer inspiring thousands of people around the world as a superb speaker and passionate fund-raiser for her very own successful creation, The Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, which after years of great patience and dogged persistance, and in spite of bouts of ill health, she was finally able to get built in North India. Here the highest Buddhist teachings are given to young Tibetan nuns. This is now her base. Her most recent book, a collection of her talks, “Reflections on a Mountain Lake, Teachings in Practical Buddhism”, is published by Wisdom Publications.


Anila with Ram Alexander in Rajpur Mussoorie


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© Malcolm Tillis 2006