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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
44 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 2 female half of the globe. But you were incredibly intrepid in going into a male tradition. Palmo: Quite honestly, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. My father died when I was two years old, so I was brought up by my mother and an elder brother. My mother was always a very strong lady, so I never missed hav- ing a father. The dynamics of fathers and mothers didn’t play in my life. In India, when I became a nun, I was in a society where monks were the establishment. Since I wasn’t a monk or a layper- son, I didn’t really belong anywhere. At first, I thought that was the problem. Then, in the seventies, I remember coming over the mountain pass to a place called Manali. Some- body had this big book of articles on feminism. I had never heard the word before. I remember just sitting there reading article after article, with everybody laughing at me. But for me it was like suddenly drinking after having been in a desert. Steinem: That was my sensation, too. Suddenly I thought: I’m not crazy, the system is crazy. Palmo: Exactly. For me that was a huge revela- tion. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just my situation. Steinem: That’s such a universal revelation for females of all groups and races and ethnicities who have been in a situation of invisibility. Palmo: It’s like waking up. That’s how it really is. Steinem: The ultimate goal of coming together is always the same, I think. Some of us tried to establish a female-honoring tradition as a prepa- ration for coming together, and some of us tried to transform and integrate from within. You stuck with it all by yourself— that is so extraor- dinary to me. Palmo: One has no choice. Steinem: But you did have a choice. Palmo: Well, it didn’t seem like a choice at the time. Steinem: You didn’t have a choice between going home and twelve years of meditating in a cave— three of them in strict retreat? Palmo: Oh, but that was the best part. You know, the lonely times in my life were when I was the only nun surrounded by monks and laypeople. I didn’t belong anywhere. Plus, I was a foreigner. That was very, very lonely. I remember often going home at night and crying. I had to eat by myself, and I lived by myself. But I was working for my lama, so that was the one thing that kept me there. I desperately wanted to understand Buddhism and practice, and the monks didn’t know how to teach me. And since I was female, they didn’t think it was important to teach me. I’m not try- ing to whine, honestly. But I remember that this American scholar came and wanted to study for his Ph.D. He wasn’t a Buddhist, and yet they gave him hours and hours every day. They taught him so much, which later he put into his thesis, which became a book. So in one year he learned far more than I ever learned in all the forty years I’ve been with that community. And he wasn’t even going to do the practice. He just wanted to get his doc- torate. I remember feeling, why? Here I had given up everything for the dharma, yet they didn’t take me seriously, in the way they took him seriously. Steinem: And now you are so clearly creating for other women, especially young women, what you didn’t have. Palmo: When I started the nunnery, one of the lamas said, “You’re very lucky because we have to reestablish in India and Nepal more or less what we had in Tibet. We’re very much bound by traditions. Everybody wants to repeat how it was before. But you are starting something new, so you can do anything you want. Just think it out very carefully because once you start, it’s difficult to change.” So I sat down and thought about exactly what you’re saying: If I were start- ing out as a new nun now, how would I like to be trained? What would I like to be given? And that’s how I worked out the program, so I could give them what I never had. Steinem: There are things that seem to be com- mon to patriarchal traditions. One, they’re body denying, and two, a priesthood interprets rather than there being a direct experience. And those two things, maybe because of theosophy and because of those other pre-patriarchal religions or spiritualities, I find really hard. Palmo: In Buddhism, you mean? Steinem: Yes. Palmo: Oh, I don’t think it’s body denying. When we ask these girls, teenage girls, why they want to become nuns, they often say, “I look at my mother, my aunt, my older sisters—I don’t want that life. I want to do something really meaning- ful with my life; I want to benefit myself and benefit others by study and by practice.” You might think being a nun is very difficult and restrictive, but for them, ironically, it’s actu- ally freedom from the alternative, which would be to get married, have a child every other year, work in the fields, work in the home, take care of JETSUNMA TENZIN PALMO, originally from London, was one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She is the subject of the biography Cave in the Snow, which describes her twelve-year retreat in the Himalayas, and is the founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nun- nery in Tashi Jong, India, where she currently resides. GLORIA STEINEM is a writer and longtime feminist activist. She cofounded Ms. magazine in 1972 and helped found the Women’s Action Alliance and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She is the author of Revolu- tion from Within and is cur- rently working on a new book, Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered, about her more than thirty years as a feminist organizer.