Filed in Tibetan

No Excuses

There are no obstacles, just opportunities. Take them now.

An interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo on the eve of her retirement

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Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was born Diane Perry during the Blitz, in 1943, the daughter of an East End charlady and a fishmonger. She decided she was a Buddhist in 1961, at the age of eighteen, traveled by sea to India in search of a teacher, and met her root guru, the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, on her twenty-first birthday. She became the second Western woman to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun three weeks later. At thirty-three, with her lama’s blessing, Tenzin Palmo took up residence in a six-by-six-foot cave, 13,200 feet up in the Himalayan valley of Lahaul, and lived there for twelve years. Since then, she has given her uniquely practical teachings around the world in an effort to raise awareness and funds for the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, in Himachel Pradesh, India, which she founded in 2000.

Lucy Powell interviewed the sixty-six-year-old nun while she was in London this year, giving her final teaching tour before retiring to India.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Your example is at once inspirational—that a Westerner, and a woman, could meditate in solitary retreat for such a prolonged period—and dispiriting: unless we can sit in a Himalayan cave for over a decade, we won’t make any real progress on the path. Certainly we have to do the work. This is true. It is really very impressive how many excuses we can invent for why we aren’t sitting. This idea we have that when things are perfect, then we’ll start practicing—things will never be perfect. This is samsara!

I remember once I was in the cave getting all depressed because the snows would melt in the spring and water would run down the back wall, making everything wet. Finally, I thought, “But didn’t the Buddha tell us it was this way? What is the first noble truth, after all? What do we expect? Why make such a big fuss when we suffer?” After that, I didn’t have any trouble.

Call something an obstacle, it is an obstacle. Call it an opportunity, it is an opportunity. Nothing is extraneous to the spiritual life. This is very important to understand.

So why retreat? Retreat is, in a way, a quick fix. I often think of the nuns of Mother Teresa’s order: they’re not picking up the dead and dying all day long—half the day is spent in prayer. If one is everlastingly giving out without breathing in, one becomes stressed and burned out.

Twelve years is an extremely long fix. Each of us has something to do in this lifetime; we have to find out what it is and do it. Retreat is what I was born to do. I was extremely happy in the cave and very grateful to be there. It was a rare opportunity.

Did you experience periods of doubt or fear? I find talking about my time in the cave extremely boring; it was a lifetime ago. But, no, nothing made me worried or afraid. Hundreds of thousands of hermits through the ages have done exactly the same thing, and ninety-nine percent of them were fine. You’re very busy doing your practices—you’re not twiddling your thumbs all day—and you get into a state of mind where you accept that whatever is happening is happening. Even the most awful things that happen, if you’re centered, you’ll be O.K. If not, the most trivial thing will send you off. It has nothing to do with the experience or the circumstance: it is the attitude that’s important. We have to stop clinging to the conditioned path and learn to be open to the unconditioned path.

Jetsunma Tenzin PalmoHow do we develop that attitude of openness? This is the question. Our fundamental problems are our ignorance and ego-grasping. We grasp at our identity as being our personality, memories, opinions, judgments, hopes, fears, chattering away—all revolving around this me me me me. And we believe that that self is actually a solid, unchanging entity that sets us apart from all the other entities out there. This creates the idea of an unchanging permanent self at the center of our being, which we have to satisfy and protect. This is an illusion. “Who am I?” is thus the central question of Buddhism. Do you see?

Most of the time, what we do is work to try to protect this false me, mine, I. We think the ego is our best friend. It isn’t. It doesn’t care if we are happy or unhappy. In fact, ego is very happy to be unhappy. And we must be conscious of not using the spiritual path as another conduit for the ego—a bigger, better, more spiritual me.

There are practices we can use against this egocherishing. In the company of very sick people who are suffering, one can visualize that one is taking in their fear and pain, in the form of dark light or smoke, pulling out sickness and negative karmas, and directing them toward the little black pearl of our self-concern. And it will start to disappear, because, really, the very last thing the ego wants is other people’s problems.

If we do experience pain or suffering ourselves, we can use it. We’re conditioned to resist pain. We think of it as a solid block we have to push away, but it’s not. It’s like a melody, and behind the cacophony there is tremendous spaciousness. <

What do we do when thoughts arise in meditation? The thoughts are not the problem. Thoughts are the nature of the mind. The problem is that we identify with them.

How do we learn to dis-identify with them? Practice.

What of emotions like anger? The Buddha said that it’s greed, not anger, that keeps us on the wheel. Nobody’s chaining us down: we’re clinging on with both hands. Many people come to me saying that they want to eradicate anger; it’s not difficult to see that anger makes us suffer. But very rarely do people ask me how to be rid of desire.

We have to cultivate contentment with what we have. We really don’t need much. When you know this, the mind settles down. Cultivate generosity. Delight in giving. Learn to live lightly. In this way, we can begin to transform what is negative into what is positive. This is how we start to grow up.

Can you explain a bit about the difference between love and attachment? Attachment is the very opposite of love. Love says, “I want you to be happy.” Attachment says, “I want you to make me happy.”

Do you detect a rising spiritual consciousness in the West? What I see is that modern society is based on what Buddha called the three poisons—greed and aversion arising from [delusion, which is] a very strong sense of self. That’s what our society encourages, believing that the more greedy and self-assertive we are, the happier we will be. So the very path to suffering is now being touted as the path to happiness. Naturally, people are very confused.

Nonetheless, I feel that people in the West have an advantage. Having so much material prosperity, they have already experienced everything our society tells us will give happiness. If they have any sense at all, they can see that it does not bring happiness. At most, it gives pleasure, which is very short-term; genuine happiness must lie elsewhere. If you’ve never had those things, you can still imagine that they would give the kind of satisfaction their promoters assure us they do. But as the Buddha said, desire is like salty water—the more you drink, the thirstier you become.

So why are we still drinking? The crux of the matter is laziness. Even when we know what we should be doing, we choose what seems to be the easier path. We’re gods acting like monkeys. We’re standing in our own light: we don’t see who we really are.

But how do we step out of our own light, step onto the unconditioned path, and realize our limitless potential? Our mind is a treasure. But it’s very absorbent, so we must also be very discriminating in what we hear, read, and see. And in the spiritual life, our fence is our ethics. If we know we are living ethically to the best of our ability, the mind will become peaceful. We will attract the same kinds of people we really are. If we have a mind full of defilements, we will attract that to us. Therefore we have to purify our mental state, because whatever is within we will project out. You bring people toward you by your work and by karma. You have to be ready, when someone of a higher level is in front of you, to meet them. You do this by connecting to your source.

But if the Buddha were here, all he could encourage you to do would be to practice. Nobody else can do our work for us—it’s up to us to do it or not. Swimming upstream toward the source takes effort and determination. Sorry, there is no quick fix. But in the end it is the only thing that’s worthwhile. The key is practice. But don’t put it on the shrine: take the key, open the door, and walk out of the prison. There are no obstacles.

Photos © Sarah Lee

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oliverhow's picture

...such a very beautiful article...much joy and peace to you....richard

Andrew Bellenie's picture

So much wisdom in so few words. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Thank you x

k3go's picture

Thank you for you gift of succinctly summarizing several concepts in a neat way and compact form.

I think I learned many years ago to always embrace each moment we have with positive energy because no one cares for complainers but what is so amazing is how much more willing total strangers are eager to pitch in for a given bad situation if you simply approach it as a positive event-opportunity and boom! It goes much easier

But the best part was you striping away ego and placing it in the right box with an excellent perspective that ego is best happy when unhappy I really enjoy that view as my ego compost pile sometimes does not convert into fertilizer fast enough to stay in balance.

You words were clear, direct and refreshing as a sparkling mountain stream high up on the slopes on a sunny crisp day

I wish I knew if you have a speaking engagement it would be interesting experience

Thanks again
Safe journey to you and friends

oliverhow's picture

...thanks, John, for "ego compost pile"...good one......richard

Wanderer33's picture

This is so clear! Thank you for the teachings, and to Tricycle for repeating the article.

John Haspel's picture

Two crucial points are made in this interview. Thoughts are not the problem in meditation. It is identifying with thoughts that is the problem. The ego insists on establishing itself in every thought, or grasping occurs. This is the nature of clinging mind.

The Buddha taught Shamatha-Vipassana meditation within the framework of the Eightfold Path to develop samadhi, a mind well-concentrated and free of the distraction of the need to immediately attach one thought with the next. The framework of the Eightfold Path develops the concentration and refined thinking necessary to recognize and abandon the ego-personality’s relentless need to cling.

In the next paragraph Ms. Palmo reminds us that Dhamma practice is not a struggle with emotions. The Second Noble Truth states that clinging is the problem. Greed arises from the ego-driven clinging mind insatiable desire to continue to establish itself where no permanence exists.

“We have to cultivate contentment with what we have.” A brilliant and utterly simple statement. When the Buddha gave a formal teaching he often began with teaching Dana, generosity, as true generosity, Ms. Palmo describes this as “delight in giving,” is the expression of release from clinging.

A wonderful article.

John Haspel

JKH's picture

I know this article was written years ago but thank you. Very pointed advice that I have found to be true. Only you can do the work.

waanid's picture

The retired Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo must be over seventy by now, how is she?

jigme_phuntsog's picture

She is fine and dandy, as they say. She continues to help the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery and gives teachings frequently. This year she will be giving a talk in Indonesia and have a weekend retreat in India. Her clarity when she teaches is incredible. I truly love her.

trendsjody's picture

For me the truth is that if I took just this article. Lived it. I would be on the path to being a Bodhisattiva. It's a precious distillation. Simple. Incredibly hard. But it's all right here.

Mrzader's picture

I am grateful to you Lucy for this interview and this article. For me it brings about inner peace and joy!
So very pithy and lucid.

katyyelland's picture

Really nice article. Thanks!

Melanie Palomino's picture

thank you so much.

jillstagner's picture

I like this! Simple instructions, but difficult to follow through. One thing I do understand is Practice!

fishman.ellen's picture

Great smile! Such joy is contagious.May we all taste this buddha nature.

wildhoney's picture

Wow... almost every sentence in this article is a gem of wisdom. I am writing so many quotes down in my notebook. I want to print them on card stock or something so I can hang them all over my wall so I don't forget.

jhlandis's picture

The biggest obstacle for me is physical pain. When my son was diagnosed at 3 yrs. of age with a fatal neurodegenerative disorder, Ataxia Telangiectasia, it was like all the abusive, negative things my Father had ever said about me became cemented into my being, into every cell of my body. Within six weeks of his diagnosis I had my first panic attack, and within six months had developed chronic, physical pain that was diagnosed as Fibromyalgia. I wish you had talked more about pain as a melody, and learning to tune out the noise to find spaciousness. I know that Shinzen Young works with this, and have his book, but your comment about pain feeling solid, but in reality being like a melody we can tune out was so helpful. If there is an article where you've expanded on that I'd love to know. I bow to you, Bodhisattva Tenzin.
Peace, and blessings,

littleblue's picture

I see this was posted quite some time ago, but in case you still visit here, I wanted to direct you and others to Ian Gawler's effective pain management CD/ audio download:

Here is a link to a blog Ian recently wrote about pain:

I have found this CD so helpful with my own pain.

FCaplow's picture

Dear Janet,

I know of two very wonderful books on working with pain - one is called Turning Suffering Inside Out, by the late Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest and teacher who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years. Another is Dissolving Pain, by Les Fehmi. Although the second is not explicitly Buddhist, as a long-time Buddhist practitioner I was amazed by the exercises, which definitely lead one toward spaciousness. May your pain decrease and your understanding deepen.


Zenshin Florence

moonaysl's picture

Thank you so much for these references!! I suffer from chronic pain and am still in my 20s. I often wonder how I will get through a life time of watching my body struggle with movement, especially as it naturally gets more difficult for everyone with age.

littleblue's picture

I see this was posted quite some time ago, but in case you still visit here, I wanted to direct you and others to Ian Gawler's effective pain management CD/ audio download:

Here is a link to a blog Ian recently wrote about pain:

I have found this CD so helpful with my own pain.

sajitar's picture

Thank you.

Jakela's picture

"Who Am I?" This is the fundamental question. From the Gita to Shakespeare to Buddha. From reading this interview, I am sure Jetsumna Tenzin lives it.
Are there books by her or transcripts of her dharma talks? If not, there should be.

Camille Martinez's picture

Inspiring. Thank you.

Danzen's picture

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo if you read this thank you.You have just described most of the things that have been in my life that has caused my pain and suffering.Also I have lived a little more than half of my life and have come to a point of were I am looking for enlightenment .I hope this is not a desire as you have explained it. I just started meditation and exploring Buddhism the last few months and I feel that this is the path I am going to take. But the things you said have made so much sense to me that i will keep them in mind on my journey to find out who i really am. And i will take your advice and practice.Many blessing to you and much metta. Also i like the picture of you, i love to see people smile.