It is 2010, a new year. Instead of listing resolutions, I create a list of reflections from my recent study of Tenzin Palmo’s life story and teachings. From time to time, a book can open your heart. This book split open my desire to sit with my own suffering.
To sit with ourselves - this should be our only resolution. We must transform our suffering into seeds of compassion. We must first offer kindness to ourselves and then to others.
Below are ten insights that I gathered from the book, "Cave in the Snow" by Vicki Mackenzie.
1. We are lazy.
“The reason why we are not enlightened is because we are lazy. There’s no other reason. We do not bother to bring ourselves back to the present because we’re too fascinated by the games of the mind is playing.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
2. We must genuinely renounce.
“If one genuinely thinks about renunciation, it is not a giving up of external things like money, leaving home or one’s family. That’s easy. Genuine renunciation is giving up our fond thoughts, all our delights in memories, hopes and daydreams, our mental chatter. To renounce that and stay naked in the present, that is renunciation.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
3. We live in isolation.
“I see isolation everywhere and it has nothing to do with being alone. It’s about having an alienated psyche.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
4. We have innate wisdom.
“We’ve got innate wisdom. People can put off practice forever, waiting for the magic touch that is going to transform them or throwing themselves on someone who is charismatic without discriminating whether or not they are suitable. We should just get on with it. If you meet someone with whom you have a deep inner connection, great, if not the dharma is aways there.”~ Tenzin Palmo
5. We need retreat.
“Going into retreat gives the opportunity for the food to cook. You have to put all the ingredients into a pot and stew it up. And you have to have a constant heat. If you keep turning the heat on and off it is never going to be done. The retreat is like living in a pressure cooker. Everything gets cooked much quicker. It’s very good to have an opportunity to be alone with oneself and see who one really is behind all the masks. We must be able to withdraw from society for a time, be it for a few hours, a few days, a few months or a few years. The other requirement is being able to take whatever we have gained from our experience in isolation and bring it back to the world – to our relationships and into our everyday life. Like breathing in and breathing out, we need both.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
6. We confuse attachment for love.
“People, especially family, get upset if you are not attached to them but that’s only because we confuse love and attachment all the time.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
7. We must stop counting.
“It is not so much the quantity as the quality that counts. Anyone can sit in a three-year retreat with a distracted mind and not gain very much from it. Or anyone can sit for a three day retreat, very focused on what one is doing in the practice, and even in three days can experience transformation. So, I think it is not a matter of the length of time or how many mantras you do, how many prostrations you do, how many this, how many that. The important question we always have to ask is – fundamentally, has there been any change? It doesn’t matter how many millions of mantras we have done, how many inner tantras we have accomplished. All these practices are nothing if they do not transform the mind.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
8. We must aid the mind and others.
“Any practice that we do is for aiding the mind, transforming the mind so that we genuinely help others. If this doesn’t happen, we just become kind of smart and satisfied that we are such good Dharma practitioners because we do three hours of meditation every day, always do our practice, and let everyone know how often we do our practice and how early we get up – then what is the use? Do you understand? The whole of our Dharma practice is to reduce our Ego, not to increase it. We have to be careful of this.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
9. We have achievement issues.
“We are not taking a business attitude into the Dharma realms. The whole idea of achievement is Ego, and we are trying to drop all of that. ‘I did a hundred million mantras, they only did ten… I did this much and accomplished that much.’ This is totally counter-productive. This is not what we are meant to be doing, carrying that worldly Ego-driven mind frame into our Dharma practice. We are trying to see through that, relax the mind and learn how to drop and see through the Ego and all the Ego’s aims and goals. Somebody asked the lama, ‘what is the aim and goal of meditation?’ He replied, ‘In a way, meditation is dealing with the very idea of having an aim.’ Why don’t we sit and practice the practice, just because it’s a nice thing to do and not because we want to achieve anything?” ~ Tenzin Palmo
10. We need to wash the dishes in order to wash dishes.
“A basic quality which is extremely useful for all of us to develop in this lifetime is what is traditionally called mindfulness. Normally, whenever we do something, we are thinking of many other things at the same time. When we have a sink full of dishes, our thought is that we will wash these dishes, then we’ll get clean dishes and they will be out of the way and then we can do something else. And so when we wash the dishes we are trying to get it over with as quickly as possible.
What we are not thinking about is the dishes. We are never present with what we are doing in the moment and life just goes by. We do this every day, not only with what we think of as unpleasant things like washing dishes but also with pleasurable things. We’re not there. We don’t experience it. So, Thich Nhat Hahn says that instead of washing the dishes to get clean dishes, we should wash dishes to wash dishes.” ~ Tenzin Palmo
I read “Cave in the Snow” by Vicki Mackenzie in one day… curled under blankets and crying. The story of Tenzin Palmo tenderizes my heart… page by page, simple truths pound my psyche. The story of how a sickly British child evolves into a Buddhist master grips me.
Diane Perry pays attention to the soft whisper of her soul. With nurturing, the whisper grows louder and louder, becoming a fearless voice that poses the question, “how do we become perfected?” She spends her childhood questioning and following her spiritual calling.
The dots quickly connect: a book on Buddhism and a library job. Soon after, she takes a trip to India. At this juncture, at age 20, many things are confirmed: she is buddhist… she meets a Tibetan lama who becomes her guru and spiritual teacher… she is one of the first western women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun… she receives the name Tenzin Palmo which means “Glorious Lady who Upholds the Doctrine of the Practice Succession.”
For six years, Tenzin Palmo lives with the sorrow of being the only female in a monastery of 100 monks. Despite the deep connection to her teacher, Tibetan tradition denies her monastic practice and direct teachings. Sitting with much suffering, she turns again to the soft whisper… her inner wisdom speaks of the need for her own dwelling space.
With her lama’s blessing, Tenzin Palmo relocates from the monastery to a cave. She dwells in this cave and practices deep meditation for 12 years. In this space, she asks herself often, “is there anywhere else that I would rather be?” The answer is simply, “no, I am where I need to be with everything I need.”
The cave is the place where her pain meets her purpose. She vows to attain enlightenment in the female form - no matter how many lifetimes it takes. She presently runs a nunnery dedicated to women around the world, especially those of Tibetan lineage, to practice deep meditation.
I have literally held this book to my heart… penetrating her story and strength into my chest. I want so deeply to do the same things: to listen and follow my inner voice, to meet my masters, to deeply practice their teachings, to boldly transform my life pains into great purpose.
I feel so much that her story is my story… and in fact, all of our stories. Who isn’t seeking to understand themselves and the purpose of their lives? Who doesn’t suffer? How do we take our suffering and turn them into seeds? How do we convert pain into progress along our crooked paths of truth?