Many of you have heard of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo ("Jetsunma" is a title given to women in the Tibetan tradition to honor their spiritual prowess--roughly translated, it means "venerable master.") And many of you probably know her teachings, gathered in the magnificent volume, Reflections on a Mountain Lake. (2002) For those of us who are interested in a Tibetan practice, this volume clearly and intelligently takes us directly to the heart of many of the features of Tibetan Buddhism that baffle Westerners. One chapter, for example, is called "Difficult Points for Westerners," and another, "Women and the Path." From my point of view, the book has become essential reading. I refer to it often.
Part of the strength of Jetsunma's teachings, for Westerners, derives from the fact that she is a Westerner, born in England, a working-class Cockney woman, who would become one of the great dharma practitioners in the world. Her biography is little short of extraordinary. Growing up in a world of seances and spiritualism, Tenzin always felt close to Asian spirituality, and so when she turned twenty, she moved to India and began her monumental ascent in Tibetan Buddhism. After five years of attending to Khamtrul Rinpoche (her guru), the only woman among 100 monks, she left to go to a small nunnery high in the Himalayas, having seen first-hand how difficult serious spiritual practice was for women in the Tibetan tradition.
She was warned about the rigors of solitary retreat; she was told of its unique and demanding difficulties. Nonetheless, in 1976, she moved into a cave, after a few renovations, that measured 10' x 6', and she didn't emerge until 1988! She has made a vow to obtain Enightenment in the female form, no matter how many lifetimes it might require. Apparently, she is well on her way to achieving her goal. You can read her remarkable story in several places, one of which is Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West by Jeffrey Paine, which devotes a chapter to her life.
She has established a nunnery a couple of hours outside of Dharamsala, the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery, and you can visit the website here. I'd certainly recommend spending some time here.
Finally--a day or two after Obama was elected President of the United States, Jetsunma gave a teaching (entitled "The Value of the Contemplative Life") that I find exhilarating. You can hear it as a podcast here. Very seldom are we able to hear teachings from Tibetan practitioners who have achieved what she has achieved and can speak to us in English, our native tongue. The podcast lasts about an hour. You can listen to it through a Quicktime audio, or on the left hand side of the page you'll see a sidebar labeled "Podcast Feeds," and if you use iTunes, you can download it to your iTunes account and play it on your iPod.
Over the past several days, I've listened to it incessantly, and I learn something new each time. If you have a chance, stop by and listen to the teachings of an extraordinary woman.