A cosy tent
near Dehra Dun
4th March 1981
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
— 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
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