This is the third private edition of « Lady of Realisation« . I wrote this account of the life of Sister Palmo shortly after her death in 1977. I realise now that it was written, unconsciously, in the form of a Tibetan Namthar – a spiritual biography.
The modern woman is very much in need of such models in order to enhance her practice. She is very much the equal of men, yet the path demands the use of feminine energy in practice. The Dharma is short on women saints. This is surely because of the time the Dharma has taken in coming to the West. There is a gap of literally hundreds of years when the Dharma was practised only in the East. Yet, women saints are there. There is Niguma – the consort of Naropa and Yeshe Tsogyal – the consort of Padmasambhava and a good many other unrecorded mystics. But these women remain mystified in the past of the siddhas, and little is known about their life as women, and their everyday devotion as practitioners.
Here the life of Sister Palmo is important. She was a contemporary woman in the richest sense of the word. She possessed a husband and children, and was successful both as a teacher of English, a writer, and a politician. Yet, she was also very close to sainthood.
Though written seven years ago, there is still an insistent demand for this book. This reprinting is being done in response to the needs of the emergent Sangha, and serious Dharma students. The author, and Karma Samten of Maitri Publications, ask only that any merit accrued from this book be dedicated for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Sheila Fugard Port Elizabeth 11th December 1983.
AMITABHA BUDDHA: one of the five Dhyana-Buddhas, the Buddha of Boundless Light, and discriminating wisdom.
AVALOKITESHVARA: The compassionate Bodhisattva of mercy.
BARDO: An intermediate state following on death, and before the aggregates of the individual take re-birth. It is usually considered to last for 49 days. The Tibetan Book of the Dead explains the Bardo teachings.
BHIKSHUNI: Another term for an ordained Buddhist nun.
BODHICITTA: The enlightened mind, often associated in practice with the thought of enlightenment, or seed of Buddhahood.
BODHISATTVA: one without ego, who works to liberate all sentient beings.
DHARMA: Doctrine of the Buddha, also the Law.
DHARMAKAYA: The Logos, Truth itself. The primordial ground of all appearance understood as shunyata. The all embracing ground of consciousness.
GAMPOPA: Lineage teacher of the Kagyu sect. A pupil of Tilopa, the poet. A renowned scholar and founder of the Kagyu school, and Karmapa lineage.
GELONGMA: An ordination which gives a nun the equivalent status as that of the monk. The gelongma ordination comes through a line of Zen teachings.
THERAVADA/HINAYANA: the way of the olders, called Hinayama which means the Lesser Vehicle by the Mahayana. The orthodox form of Buddhism as established in the lifetime of Gautama Buddha. The Theravada claims never to have left the true doctrine, which is set forth in the Pali Canon.
KAGYU SECT: A Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism founded by Marpa, the translator, in the eleventh century. The sect emphasises the oral or « ear-whispered »
LADY OF REALISATION
by Sheila Fugard
I did not expect to find you. When I did encounter your presence. for five years my life was touched by a magical quality.
You were as rare as the wishfulfilling gem. The magic jewel of the Buddhas, that grants all wishes. The language of Buddhism is decorative. Phrases bear the resonance of an exotic cultural past. « The Precious Minister », « The Wish Granting Tree », and « The Treasure Mountain ». A thousand alluring goddesses of unsurpassed beauty exist in the pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism.
You were named Karma Tsultim Khechog Palmo. The « Karma » signified that you were a pupil of the Tibetan Guru, Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The « Tsultim » depicted morality. « Khechog » meant knowledge supreme. You were best known by the name « Palmo », the lady of realisation.
I recognised you as the Lady of realisation. You were a Buddhist nun. You gave to my ordinary existence a profound awareness. Friendship: and my relationship with you as a spiritual teacher were gifts beyond price. You opened many doors to the Buddhist teachings and opportunities for encounters with high lamas. Beyond all this, there was your radiance that compelled me to make arduous journeys. I travelled from Africa to England, America and Canada to be in your presence. Yet you were not a person for whom a special relationship could exist. You had taken the renunciation of a Buddhist nun. You were tolerant. and open to all.
The aspect of the yogi about you fascinated me. I sensed this power. You were discreet about your attainments. You discouraged speculation about the states of meditation. Yet, there were moments when you seemed intuitively to convey truth: teaching by means of a gesture or unspoken word. You moved in the unfathomable depths of the adept. Yet you remained as seemingly part of this world of phenomena as myself or any other fallible being.
Cape Town; and the late summer of 1972. The mountains glisten with a last flush of sustained heat. The place is a secluded house in a quiet suburb. You had arrived from India, and are staying with Rosemary, an elderly devotee whom you had encountered in India ten years ago.
Sister Palmo, you sit cross-legged upon a couch. You are a woman of sixty-one. Shaven headed. Clothed in the maroon robe of the Mahayana Buddhist nun. You are a woman stripped to the ‘barest essentials. Grey deep set eyes. Firm bone structure. Your skin, though ageing, bears a unique softness. You gesture toward a chair.
There is a tranquillity about your bearing of one who has lived many years in the East. Yet, you possess an intellect that is eminently western. Skills of your early life add to your collectedness.
« Sister Palmo, I have visited many teachers seeking inner stillness…the void…written about in scripture and sutra. Sufi teachers and swamis have offered advice and explanation as regards the nature of mind; meditation; problems of living. None has really helped. The knots of personality remain unresolved. »
You see through my spiritual materialism. You sense that I am groping in ignorance. You speak in a soft English accent: Mind is radiantly pure. Emptiness, the primordial ground underlies both samsara and nirvana. Suffering occurs through desire. Meditation can cut through ignorance. Your experience of samsara is no different to others who are equally bound by attachment, and thereby incur suffering. »
You force me to listen. It is more than the words which you speak. It is your presence. A radiant and immaculate example of the Buddha.
« The world of meditation is of extraordinary beauty, » you explain. « In mastering concentration and ecstatic vision, all concepts and confusion fall away. There is only a unified and perfect vision. In Samadhi, the radiant Dharmakaya manifests. All is attainable by the pupil. Initiations of the guru, proper instruction and firm endeavour are necessary. »
Sister Palmo; you embody the silence of mountains, and the azure sky of summer. outside, in warm sunlight, I recall your image. The nun in maroon robe, aglow with an agile intellect and profound compassion that awakens a response in me. You have so keenly expressed truth. Buddhist philosophy declares samsara and nirvana to be one. This is the koan which you have now given.
Sister Palmo, you had written letters from Asia. You had been travelling then in Nepal and Thailand. You were usually resident at the Dharma Chakra Monastery in Rumtek; Sikkim, close to your guru the Gyalwa Karmapa. These letters had already prepared me for your arrival. The essence of your personality, that broad understanding of wisdom and compassion, had already sustained me during those months when your visit to Africa was only hinted at.
You had written from Nepal. Bounded by Tibet and India, Nepal was at the foothills of the Himalayas. High mountain peaks of Everest and Dhawalagiri arose out of the elevation of Nepal. Strange sounding rivers…the Kurnalli, the Rapti and the Gunuk watered the plains. In the hills; Nepal possessed a climate similar to Southern Europe. More important. Nepal was profoundly connected with the life of the Buddha. This was your reason for a short ten day meditation retreat. You wrote a brief description of this visit in a letter:
« ….in Nepal, which has all the freshness of an untouched Himalayan country, I had only ten days so chose to spend it quietly in the shrine of Buddhanath, near Kathmandu, known as the Temple of 0ne Thousand Buddhas… »
You had travelled in the same year to Thailand. Here in this country, north of Burma and Laos, you spent a quiet stay in a nunnery. Your eyes must have rested upon mangroves, rattans and the rich rice fields characteristic of Thailand. In the distance, the vast teak forests flourished. Thailand has always been a thriving country. As early as the beginning of the Christian era, trade with India and China was established.
In Bangkok, you had visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha,an impressive temple in a dark and ornate style. The precious Emerald Buddha is enshrined in a niche high in the wall of the temple. The delicacy of this ancient Buddha moved you to a deep Samadhi. Yet it was the simple life in the Thai nunnery that you wrote about:
« A quiet little Upasika Aramaye near Wat Mahadhatu housed me during my fortnight’s stay. A second visit. It was almost unbearably hot, and the modern little nunnery; built by the good dayakas of the family Wongsiri Na Ayuthya had cool laminated floors, electric fans, and a tiled bathroom where we sluiced ourselves with cold water twice a day. The early morning prayers of the Lipasikas led by the head nun, Chantramala were discreet and beautiful, in Pali and recited in a chant that seemed to mingle with the bird song and silence:
To the Buddha for refuge I go
To the Dharma for refuge I go
To the Sangha for refuge I go
The nuns and their friends could not have been kinder, and the delicacy and variety of food they offered me in traditional style on a circular wicker table amazed me afresh every day. »
You embody this background of Asia, and the different traditions of Buddhism. In those days in Cape Town, you are truly at the heart of the ceremonies which you perform. You erect a shrine with tiered candles, flowers, an image of the Buddha, a photograph of the Gyalwa Karmapa, and offerings of fruit and cake. Dominant is the image of Buddha Sakyamuni, in the enlightenment pose. You lead the meditation with a text of the Buddha; Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light, who appears with the red colours of the setting sun.
These ceremonies do not lessen the horror attendant upon Africa. The dark twisted roots of racism continue to proliferate. Rather, Sister Palmo, you bring an insight into indestructibility. You proclaim a doctrine of the Buddha that Communist China sought to eradicate with the invasion of Tibet, in 1959. In Tibet, all temples. images and precious texts have been destroyed. Yet the Chinese invasion was not new to the history of Buddhism. The ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda, a place of learning where erudite pandits engaged in debate, and philosophic and meditative studies reached a peak, was totally razed by Islamic invasion in India, in the sixth century. Then the light of Dharma had appeared to be quenched.
0ut of the destruction of Tibet, an influx of lamas who had escaped to India have travelled to the West and proclaimed the ancient doctrines of the Buddha. It is auspicious that you, Sister Palmo, bring this seed to Africa. Intuitively, I realise this, though I could not find words then. The beauty of your expression, maroon robes flowing, and a voice ringing out the poetic phrases of offering to the Buddha.
« All the Tathagatas I praise, with symbols, garlands, saffron water. sacred flowers, the ceremonial canopy, perfect butter lamps and pure incense. To the Buddhas I am making this offering. Ceremonial robes and rare perfumes, a pile of butter and barley flour, as high as a mountain … all I gather together, clean, pure and holy, and all these precious things I am offering to the Buddhas. »
These texts remain with me. They describe the myriad manifestations of form before all dissolves in the void. Images of deities that are beyond separateness, differentiation and ego. The texts. and the deities are as indestructible as the vajra and bell, symbols of wisdom and compassion. I marvel that you, Sister Palmo, perform these ancient ceremonies in Africa.
The new Rumtek Monastery was begun in 1961, the Tibetan year of the female iron ox, on the site of an elder sixteenth century Kagyu Monastery. Characteristic landmarks still made this area auspicious. Seven streams and seven hills were in close proximity, high snow capped ranges rose up formidably in the distance. A great river, swollen with power, was a torrent close by. This site was to be the seat of the new Kagyu Monastery of Rumtek. Further land about the monastery in Sikkim was obtained through Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, then the Indian Prime Minister. Food and free clothing was given by Tibetans who worked on the project. Building operations were soon underway.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet in the late fifties had forced the Karmapa Lama from his historic seat of power in Tsurphu, in Tibet. Hostilities worsened despite a peace negotiation made by the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama. Lamas were harassed. Monasteries were ransacked. The Red Brigade was loose. Dharma faced annihilation in Tibet. The Karmapa fled the country. He took with him only his sacred relics, tantric texts, statues, icons and rare books. A handful of followers escaped with him. The journey to India was dangerous and arduous.
Sister Palmo, you recognised the high teachings inherent in Tibetan Buddhism. You had worked closely with Nehru in establishing centres for Tibetan refugees. Your commitment was immediate. Intimations of the sufferings of a people, and a need to preserve this ancient culture, and the Tibetan Buddhist religion. Prophetically too, you had found your guru, the Gyalwa Karmapa. Devotion was alive in you. Meditation, profound enquiry and the aesthetics of puja entered your life. You took the insubstantiality of the void and understood both aspects of wisdom and compassion. You cut through all the officialdom of red tape. You offered immediate help to the lamas and monks.
The new Rumtek Monastery was completed in 1966. It was at the age of fifty-five that you became known as Sister Karma Kechog Palmo, the first western Tibetan Buddhist nun. You occupied a room in the monastery close to the four highest tulkus. You had done many retreats and moved further in the esoteric study of the Tantra than most westerners. You had passed beyond the superficialities and ambitions of worldly life. You had chosen the higher realms of the mind, and its pure manifestation.
Then you returned to us. You travelled from the isolated life of Rumtek Monastery to Africa. Now you project slides of the monastery that is your home. It was in Rumtek Monastery that you lived in the heightened atmosphere of authentic religious practice. You celebrated on special days the Rite of Long Life. You watched the preparation of mandalas. You bowed before the rites of the fierce Protector, Mahakala.
In the monastery, you absorbed the cultural heritage. Your glance took in a precious statue of the Lord Buddha, a face painted with gold, and hair sprinkled with lapis lazuli. Daily, you passed the great mural of the lineage gurus…Siddha Tilopa, Siddha Naropa, Father Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa… executed in the traditional Karma-Khadri style of Eastern Tibet. Intensive meditation, and retreats together with the cultural heritage of Rumtek monastery bore special fruit. You, Sister Palmo, were gifted with the power to transmit spiritual knowledge.
At the foot of the mountains, almost as impressive as those about Rumtek Monastery, I watch slides which reflect the faces of incarnate lamas. Sister Palmo, you talk of each lama with insight and knowledge. Delgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a teacher of the Nyingma- Kargyudpa Line, wears long plaited hair, a broad brimmed hat, and holds ritual implements. Khenpo Thrangu, an eighth incarnation; and a former Abbot of Rumtek Monastery, is jovial and poses casually for the photographer. Sabchu Rinpoche. who lives in Nepal, wears an enigmatic expression. The small Dru Pon Rinpoche, age seven, a child tulku presents a serious child’s face.
The faces and depth of expression of the incarnate lamas are moving. Then, from a profound depth of silence, a man dressed in a pure gold cloth emerges, wrapt in a state of samadhi. This is your own precious guru, the Gyalwa Karmapa. An elusive flash of recognition. Then again you project onto the screen the procession of incarnate lamas, all in maroon robes, religious hats and holding sacred objects.
Rumtek Monastery and its grandeur does not diminish your other activities. Rather, it was the pinnacle. Compassion too was as part of your nature as wisdom.
You pitied the women, nuns, a handful of whom had escaped from the nunneries in Tibet. You wept for them. You felt the need to re-establish the Community in India. You found land. You wrote to us in Africa of the building of the nunnery in Tilokpur, near the cave where the Siddha Naropa had meditated centuries earlier.
The erection of the nunnery was fraught with difficulties. The nuns, and yourself. lived in grass huts while actually building the structure. Then, the huts were accidentally destroyed by fire. You escaped with your life. But you lost many precious texts in Tibetan which you had been in the throes of translating into English. Yet you were stoical in the face of great loss. After the fire, you wrote about the continued labours at the nunnery. A fragment of this letter remains:
« .,,we must build a stone hall, and a few rooms at least before the summer, and it is now our own. »
A year later, you were still labouring under the heat of the Asian summer, with rations scarce and fruit virtually unobtainable. You wrote despite deprivation of the further developments at Tilokpur:
« our gonpa…the nunnery…building is something of an odyssey. We are clearing bricks and mud from the floor of the ruined fort on top of the hill. Seems like a mountain. Tibetan and Indian labour with the nuns of all sizes, including me, carrying stones for an hour a day. our little nuns carry pebbles. »
The nunnery at Tilokpur was eventually completed. A small community of both Tibetan and western nuns reside there. They live the life of renunciates, as they would have done in the great monasteries of Tibet. They receive instruction, meditate and make retreats. The liberation which they will attain has its seed in your actions. You are a « karma gatherer », a being able to influence others by perfect action.
Sister Palmo, you graciously accept Cape hospitality, and teach the dharma strenuously. But you are not blind to events in South Africa. The structures of apartheid are abhorrent. Yet you are no stranger to political injustice. You had been active in political life in India. You still visit Indira Gandhi in Government House in New Delhi. You had been a colleague in the Congress Party. You had then been a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. You had fought for Indian independence. You had even been imprisoned for your political beliefs. You had lived with social injustice a long time.
Later in the context of meditation, you inferred that your prison experience only added to the power of meditation. Meditating then in the dawn hours before the slumbering shapes of the other restless women in prison took shape, you had found peace. Drawing upon this knowledge of silence, you had come to terms more easily with deprivation, overcrowding and inadequate toilet facilities. This experience had nurtured your insights in later life as a teacher of meditation.
Sensing the predicament of conscience and compassion in South Africa, you say:
« It is always the intellectuals that suffer in any repressive society. But such situations toughen the moral fibre. It is a tenacity at the root of sila or morality. Non violence is understood through this experience. Gandhi’s teachings on « ahimsa » did much to formulate my political commitment in those early years for the struggle for independence in India. »
Tea is served. You reveal, over cake and biscuits, that you are the mother of an Indian film star, Kabir Bedi, your son is a matinee idol of the Asian film industry. Teen-agers from Bombay to Calcutta adulate this athletic and bronzed man. You show photographs…a bearded, Indian costumed hero of some mythic legend leaps and smiles from the stills of a colour film. The face of the actor is stunning.
Later, travelling with you, I learn of the paradoxes of your life. You worry about Kabir, and the pressures of the Asian film community at Juhu, Bombay. When the marriage of Kabir and his model wife, Protima, fails, you stand by magnificently as a resourceful grandmother. In the last year of your life, you had hoped that your grandchildren would spend time with you at the monastery in Rumtek. Kabir would then be filming in Europe. Protima would be touring the U.S.A. as a member of a dance group with Ravi Shankar. Such was the flexibility of Indian life, that it allowed you to be a grandmother as well as a Buddhist nun.
The enormity of your presence is already a burden. You sit, lotus posture, and with the power of discourse, shatter my veneer of composure.
« Leave the Wheel of Existence. You have seen enough of suffering. The facts of being born, bearing illness, growing old, and death are painful. Remember Prince Siddartha! Even he was forced to leave wealth, a wife, and an infant son. Resolve the knot of existence. Cut the roots of desire. Examine your life. See how you are bound to samsara. »
Bound on the Wheel of Life! I had been whirled from realms of existence as depicted in the Tibetan Wheel of Life. I had surely possessed the ignorance of the animal state. I had known the suffering of the hell beings. Conflicts had warred in me like the grotesque angers of the quarrelsome gods.
I had known deluded peacefulness similar to the pretas who live for aeons. Even these beings sense imminent death finally. Their dress becomes soiled. Garlands of fresh flowers fade. Perspiration breaks forth in the arm-pits. Evil smells arise from the body. I had observed these realms as psychological states. I possess too the rare human form in which it is possible to hear the words of a Buddha.
The tranquillity of your expression, Sister Palmo, and the manner in which you express truth, lead me to the commitment of taking Refuge. The shrine is decked with flowers, incense, candles and an image of the Buddha. You who are a member of the Sangha of the Buddha, and have taken renunciation, are able to give Refuge. You sit in the meditation pose, a prototype of the Buddha, who had taken refuge centuries earlier, and of your guru, the Gyalwa Karmapa.
You embody the same truth, the understanding of the ultimate ground of being. I repeat after you, the words of the Refuge Ceremony.
IN THE BUDDHA I TAKE MY REFUGE
Accepting that teaching supreme which is free from craving
IN THE DHARMA I TAKE MY REFUGE
Regarding it as the most excellent among communities.
IN THE SANGHA I TAKE MY REFUGE
Until my death comes, will you most Venerable one, take me as your disciple.
Like the Buddha of old, and Gyalwa Karmapa, you snap your fingers. I know at this moment that I have received the ordination of the Buddha. The energy that rushes down my spine, and the bliss that radiates my being convinces me of the reality of the experience. You give me the name, Dechen, meaning Great Bliss. The Tibetan form of Ananda, beloved disciple of the Buddha.
In giving Refuge, sister Palmo, you turn your vision in a certain direction. The goal of liberation. I am set upon a path that will demand complete openness, and the realisation of wisdom and compassion. I have made this commitment.
Sister Palmo, you urge me to accompany you on a short retreat. I am confused, unable to assent, surrender myself further. You leave for a wooded country area. Appalled at the loss of you. I return to the house in Cape Town, where I had taken Refuge a day earlier. I meditate before the familiar shrine, rich with the sense of your presence. In the corner of the room lies your discarded robe, destined for the laundry. I cannot ignore the symbolism of that garment. I know that I must follow you.
Next day, I travel across the arid landscape of the Western Cape. Past redolent backwaters, along dusty roads and approach the distant mountains. This is the first of the many incredible journeys that I am to make in search of you.
At the country retreat, you are the energetic teacher. You give teachings that are suitable for sustaining students over long periods without the aid of a lama. You teach aspects of wisdom from the HEART SUTRA, the pinnacle of Buddhist teaching.
The dialect of emptiness. The subject of Buddhas Second Turning of the Wheel of the Law on Vulture Peak.
« …Here, U Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions; impulses and consciousness. »
How can I not be moved by this sutra, the axis of Buddhist wisdom. Apart from classical teachings, you project the powerful energies of Tantra. You invoke archetypal forms of the ancient Tibetan Buddhist religion. In response, archetypal images of Africa in my own mind, mingle with these deities of Tibet.
In a moment of truth, you blind my eyes with a red cloth. Then you remove the covering, so that I, the neophyte, see the world anew. I celebrate my adulthood by casting a flower upon the mandala. This is the extraordinary fabric which you throw before me. I must piece the strands together for myself.
In the morning, I experience a return of memories that had been dormant in my life. I see myself again upon the Island of Crete. I had visited the island just before a serious illness. The wind mills of the Lasisthi plain, the tavern of Chersonnissos, return. I see the Aegean, vivid blue, translucent upon sand. Later, a ship took me to the island of Aegena, where wooded slopes and ancient Temples enthralled me. Images of Corinth flew past. The ancient palace of Phaestos visited in the heat of August shudders with the same kinetic energy as the deities of the mandala that you have aroused from my sleeping consciousness. Sister Palmo, you had come to Africa. You had shaken me by the arm and woken me from a deep sleep. As for your image, that of the maroon clad bhikshuni, I cannot put that aside either. I must find you again.
Sister Palmo, you return to India, yet your presence continues to inspire. I create my own shrine. The hours which I spend in meditation are full of distraction. The mind is like a rushing river in full torrent. Thoughts crowd in like a horde of enemies, seeking only to distract. The tranquillity that I seek is elusive, hard to realise.
I walk beside the ocean. The beach is fringed with lilies; reeds and ornate red hot pokers. Boulders take the weight of a fretted tide. I sense your presence here more than before my shrine. Meditation that is effortless is captured here rather than the tense hours spent in taming the mind according to the practice of samatha meditation. I hunger after wisdom. There exists in Zen and Tibetan texts, all the inferred splendour of the void. Gampopa, scholar of the Kagyu order, had written that one possesses such shunyata, there is nothing in the world that is not included in it. The Zen Patriarch, Master Huai Jang, had proclaimed in the Seventh Century in China, the following gatha subtly describing Voidness:
The mind-ground holds the (flower) seed
which sprout when moistened by the rain
The blossom of samadhi is formless
How can it decay or come into being?
I had written a letter explaining the depths of turbulence in which your visit had plunged me. I felt the need to practice more intensive meditation, study sutra and scriptural texts. But I lived in Africa, far from lamas. You reply with sympathy. You felt intuitively that karma will bring us together again. You had just returned from a visit to Hong Kong. There, you had received a special bhikkhuni ordination of the unbroken line of a Tibetan Indian tradition from a Chinese Abbot, the Ven. Ming Chi of the Chan order. You were the first western woman to receive this ordination in 1,100 years. You received the title of gelongma, which gave you equal status with the monk. Mahayana nuns had always been considered less than their male counterpart, the Gelong.
You wrote enthusiastically about this experience:
« The visit to Hong Kong was an amazing experience. The first sight of the energetic far east, which is far from our deep yogic India, and Tibet; and yet in certain things very much with us. When I returned to Rumtek…mid August…a great welcome with lots of honorific scarves…after having completed the full bhikkhuni ordination for which His Holiness Karmapa sent me, and there was your letter… »
Later, when I encountered you in Scotland, you spoke about this ceremony of the Gelongma ordination. You had first taken the bodhisattava vow, the promise to help all beings attain enlightenment:
« However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them;
However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them;
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them;
However incomparable the Buddha truth, I vow to attain it. »
A lighted stick of incense was implanted in the crown of your head. The incense stick burnt down into the scalp. You felt no pain. You recalled the Buddha Amitabha, and entered into a deep samadhi. You sent a photograph of yourself participating in this ceremony. You are dressed in a black robe for the occasion. Your face, as always, is translucent. The eyes are far seeing. The impression is of a bride, a woman wedded to an idea of truth far beyond the reach of others.
Months later, Sister Palmo, you arrive in England. During that Autumn of 1973, 1 am visiting London together with my family. I join you at Kham Tibetan House, a meditation centre in Saffron Walden.
You welcome me, and I sense the consummate yogi beneath the quiet exterior of the nun. You sit cross legged upon a couch. Texts, and letters are open upon a table. Flowers fill the room with fragrance. Incense burns, a fierce deity, the Vajra Yogini, decorates the wall. Tibetan Buddhism in all its totality is embodied in you.
You are well? You have been meditating so firmly. Such resolution and enquiry is commendable. But give me news of your family and friends in South Africa. of course, I wrote of my recent visit to Hong Kong, the Bhikkhuni ordination and that I am now a Gelongma… »
You continue to speak about Kabir; the Asian film industry; grandchildren; and your daughter Gulie who has recently become engaged. You speak of your elder son, Ranga, who is the manager of a tea estate. Then you tell me the news that Gyalwa Karmapa is to visit the west the following year.
« You must receive the darshan, or holy sight of the guru. He will celebrate the Vajra Crown Ceremony, the compassionate blessing of his lineage. You will experience the Maha Ananda, the great bliss attendant upon such an occasion.
I am awed by such a thought. I cannot believe that exiled in the harsh world of Africa, I shall fall within the mandala of the Karmapa Lama.
Chimey Rinpoche, a young lama born in the eastern province of Tibet welcomes you. Chimey Rinpoche has been brought up in the monastery of Benchen in Tibet and was destined to become its abbot. After taking up this high position, Chimey Rinpoche was forced to leave the monastery six months later and flee to India. He led many followers and lay monks to safety. Like so many other lamas whom you had helped as a social worker. Chimey Rinpoche had mastered English under your guidance and now taught western students. Chimey Rinpoche in his welcoming address referred to you, Sister Palmo, as an emanation of the deity, Green Tara. You modestly accept the compliment. Yet, in those early days when you had founded the Young Lamas Home School, you must indeed have seemed a manifestation of Tara, in all her mercy.
In your lectures, you talk of the origins of the Goddess, Tara. You explain how Tara had come into being. She had been born from the tear of the eye of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Legend tells how Avalokiteshvara, emptied the hell realms and lower states of every suffering being. Being satisfied that he had truly alleviated suffering in these realms, Avalokiteshvara returned to his home in Riptola. Again, when Avalokiteshvara looked, he saw that the hell realms were immediately filled again. It was as if he had never freed suffering beings in the first place. Avalokiteshvara shed tears for these beings. One tear turned into the form of the Green Tara.
Your stay at Khan Tibet House is a brief two days. You suggest that I join you at Samye Ling, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre in the west, which is situated in Scotland. I agree, and experience joy at this anticipation of further teachings.
The following week, I drive up to Samye Ling together with Rosemary from Cape Town and Akong Rinpoche, the abbot of the centre. It had been Akong Rinpoche, who, together with the young Chogyam Trungpa had received an invitation to teach at the Johnston House Contemplative Community in Scotland, a piece of land not far from Dumfries. The wildness and remoteness of the area reminded both lamas of the recently invaded Tibet. Here, they thought something of the contemplation deeply won in seclusion as in the hermitages of Tibet, might be wrested from the silence of the Scottish countryside. The offer to take over Johnston House came in April, 1967 and the centre, Samye Ling was named after the great monastery in Tibet, founded by the original Tibetan Guru, Padmasambhava, a yogi who came from India, bringing a powerful doctrine to a wild and nomadic people. Meditation flourished at Samye Ling, and it is still a remarkable place for students to take teachings, and make retreats.
We arrive at Samye Ling in the early evening. The centre looms as a presence in the darkness of Autumn. Sister Palmo, you are in the shrine room. You are celebrating a puja to the Green Mother, Tara. I sit behind your maroon clad figure. The sweetness of your voice intones mantras. The lyricism of the text sweeps over me.
« ..,in the state of illumination of the Acacia forest…awe inspiring is that supremely holy place…eternally merciful, of the colour of emeralds, in woman’s form, alluring to the heart, bejewelled always….
Ma! o Dolma, Mother of the Victorious ones
I bow in devotion before you
and sing your praises… »
you are performing mudras in association with the deity, Tara. I marvel at the elegant expression of your hands. A meaningful cosmic dance. Later, you tell me that the study of mudra is the most esoteric aspect of the Vajrayana.
Early in the morning, the gong calls from the Shrine Room. A five-thirty rising. I walk from my room. Pass through the rain filled dawn, my feet slithering in the mud of the court-yard. The Shrine Room is in darkness. The altar glows by candlelight. The Tibetan monk, Samten, fills the water bowls, and lights incense. He then chants a hymn to Avaloktesvara in Tibetan.
Later, Sister Palmo, you give a discourse. You are the powerful lecturer, the graduate in philosophy from oxford. You had for years studied Buddhist philosophy under diligent teachers such as Khenpo Thrangu Rinpoche, Abbot of Rumtek Monastery.
You stress the Four ordinary Foundations, the enquiry which leads the mind towards a religious attitude. The basic meditations upon karma and impermanence must be investigated before the Vajrayana Path is undertaken. You advise students also to consider the preciousness of this human birth. You remind all of the imminence of death. You teach with a gravity, and compassion for the student. The subjects are not dry texts, but universal conditions of life itself.
It is my empty hours spent in meditation in the Shrine Room that are difficult. I struggle with inner conflicts. I cannot face the inevitability of decay. I cannot either give up the sense of a permanent ego. Surrender seems impossible. This painful discovery remains hidden. I cannot bear to take these anxieties to you. Yet, you do sense my predicament, the tension that I manifest.
You speak of the radiant nature of the mind, the stainless quality of the Buddha, and the immaculate teachings of the Law. You explain that if only we can remove the veils of ignorance, the immaculate nature of the universe appears.
I remain unconvinced. I feel that to achieve such a tranquillity, you, Sister Palmo, must surely have hard decisions to make. I believe that even you must have found it difficult to take the Renunciation.
Sister Palmo…I begin, with hesitation…when you were a wife, a mother, a political figure, and a writer, surely the richness of your life was enough? Why did you put it all aside? How could you renounce the face of a sleeping child? I don’t believe that the concept that all life is illusion can be the answer. Does the experience of meditation surpass love, creativity and friendship?
You reply, speaking in a profound honesty:
« In worldly life, all people suffer, the roots of suffering are in samsara. I was active in lay life, even successful. But in Indian life, there is a natural order of events dating back to the time of the writings of the Upanishads. It is not surprising that a husband and wife both find their own spiritual identities once the rearing of children is past. »
I understand this fact to be true. The Upanishads speak of the Four Stages, of periods in life. The first period is that of the Chaste student. The second period is of the married householder. The third is of the recluse, who seeks a forest hermitage. The last period is of the mendicant, or bhikshu, who begs a daily meal and meditates.
You explain further:
« I was ordained a nun at the age of fifty-five. Transient pleasures had already fallen away. But the warmth of love and compassion remained. But in a wider context. All sentient beings are deserving of compassion. All compounded things wear out. These problems require deep meditation. You may have to face similar issues in your own life. The path is never an easy one. »
I believe your words, Sister Palmo. Your life has been a spiritual journey. I have at last understood something of the pure nature of the Renunciation.
The days pass at Samye Ling in meditation and study under your guidance. You had hoped that Rosemary would accompany you on a short journey through Scotland. But Rosemary must leave unexpectedly for Italy. You ask me to join you in her place. Soon the taxi will take Rosemary to the station, and the London bound train. I am awed by the prospect of travelling with you. Your radiance may consume me. I will be reduced to nothing, stripped of ego. Poignantly, I sit in the dining room, while a youth plays melancholy notes upon a flute. The taxi rumbles up the drive, and Rosemary is gone.
I sleep badly that night. Tension is manifest in my drawn expression. I have accepted your offer of the invitation to travel with you. Sister Palmo, you observe my discomfort and remark:
« You have begun; Foundation Practice. Meditation in the Shrine Room has been difficult. Purification is always necessary. The stains of the mind, the dross of karma, must be cleansed. There is nothing to fear. With the blessing of the Guru, all appears radiant self nature. I urge you to receive the darshan of His Holiness Karmapa, when he visits the west next year. »
The visit of the Karmapa seems far in the distant future. I know only the present. I will actually travel with you to the small Scottish town of Stirling. I am immensely grateful, and no longer afraid. Sister Palmo, you are the simplest of people to be with.
We break the journey to Stirling with a visit to Akong Rinpoche at Dumfries. The Rinpoche expresses great happiness at receiving you at his home. He arranges a Tibetan style meal in your honour; meat balls and dumplings; Chinese vegetables; and exotic dessert. The meal, eaten in the Lama’s kitchen, is far from the nomadic celebrations once held in Tibet.