Akong Rinpoche acknowledges that you were the compassionate Mother, Tara, who had helped the lamas, when they had fled from Tibet. You had wept to see lamas forced to work in road gangs with other refugees in India. Moved by compassion, you had set up "The Young Lamas Home School," at Dalhousie, where Tulkus and lamas could continue their religious training and learn English.
Akong Rinpoche recalled the occasion when as young men, he and Trungpa Rinpoche had come to the verandah of your house. The lamas, still in their teens, were dressed in robes. They pleaded for assistance. You surrendered completely. You took both lamas into your home and your heart. They were treated as sons. In return, you learn the inner aspects of Tantric practices. Your agile mind saw that the Tantric Teachings far surpassed the slower path of the Hinayana way.
You talk of the young Trungpa when in robes. The light that you had witnessed in the lama's face. Celibacy, you explain, heightens compassion, and the energy to transmit teachings. Bodhicitta, sublimated sexuality is the means of this transmission. In your presence, I am constantly aware of your own vow of celibacy, and inner aspect that is blissful.
That evening, we watch on the television the wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Philips. Since your ordination, you have seen no films. You are simply an elderly English woman moved by the pomp and ceremony of the occasion. Memories bound up in images of the Queen Mother, members of the Royal Family, and the beauty of Westminster Abbey, moved you to speak of your own English background.
You, Sister Palmo, had been born in Derby, as Freda Houlston, in February, 1911. Your father, Francis Houlston, a merchant, died in battle in the First World War. You were brought up by your mother, Nellie Houlston, in the town of Derby. You attended the Parksfields Cedars School there. But your going up to Oxford changed your life. You helped a fellow scholar study for the entrance exam to Oxford. You made such progress that you too wrote the entrance exam. You unexpectedly were accepted, while the friend failed. A year of living in France with a French family prepared you somewhat for the experience of Oxford.
You went up to Oxford a provincial girl. You left it four years later as a determined radical thinker who had married a fellow student, an Indian, Baba Bedi. These years were so formative that you were already set upon a path that was characteristic of your future life. Two of the great minds of the century were to visit Oxford...and influence you. They were Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.
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Gandhi visited England and Oxford in 1931. You immediately came under the spell of the Mahatma. This was a religious leader who had evolved a humanism that went further than the Marxism or Socialism popular with your generation. The Ahimsa that Gandhi propagated was a spiritual path based on "correct insight" of the mind, and a "non-violence that aimed at ridding the personality of hate, passion and prejudice." It was a culmination of Gandhi's reappraisal of Hinduism and the writings of Tolstoy. Later, you came to understand this as an aspect of Buddhist meditation...the mind that is energetic in enquiry, and the practice of morality. In India, during the thirties, you became a Satyagraha, one who both believed and demonstrates the "firmness of truth". This was the beginning of your long struggle for Indian Independence.
At Oxford you fell in love. The man was a fellow Indian student, Babajie Bedi, a direct descendent of Guru Nanak, a founder of the Sikh religion. You loved Babajie Bedi, and shocked your contemporaries by marrying an Asian. Your need to break with conservatism was strong. It had begun with your decision to leave the Anglican Church at the age of seventeen, and become a free thinker. Your union with Babajie Bedi, an Oxford Blue, was your first commitment to India, the land that would claim you.
You followed Gandhi, and were attached to the Socialist leader, and disciple of the Mahatma, Jayprakash Narayan. You were in those days of political involvement, a professor of English at Fateh Chand College in Lahore. The violence that occurred later before Indian Independence shocked you. It also gave you insight into political change. You understood this during your visit to South Africa in 1972. You sensed that apartheid, like all intolerable systems, would ultimately fail.
Rabindranath Tagore, the ageing and bearded prophet came to Oxford. He was, in contrast to the austere Gandhi, flamboyant and radiant. Tagore spoke about the power of poetry, of an age of spiritual revolution. Tagore had come as an emissary to the west long before the later influx of gurus and teachers. Dr.Diasetz T. Suzuki, Krishnamurti, Hindu swamis, Zen roshis and lamas. Tagore threw a gorgeous fabric before you, the images of the country which you would soon visit, India. You would travel there with your husband Babajie Bedi. You would leave Derby, the last vestiges of provincialism, and find fulfillment.
Tagore loved and respected Buddhism. He had written a play, called "Worship of the Dancing Girl." Tagore had explored Buddhist legend. The play concerns Nati, a dancing girl, commanded by the King that she should dance before the sacred altar of the Buddha in order to desecrate it. Instead Nati dances a series of mudras of devotion. one by one, all the
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gorgeous wrappings of the dancing girl are put aside as she disrobes during the dance. Finally, Nati is left only in the ochre robe of the nun. Similarly, the outward trappings of your life, Sister Palmo, fell away. Like the dancing girl, Nati, you too are revealed in your essential nature of the nun.
Gandhi and Tagore both influence you at Oxford. Both minds were totally immersed in the new spirit of the age. Tagore was a man of poetry, who believed in the new humanity. Gandhi believed in the same humanity, but saw it transformed through action. Gandhi, you followed through the long political struggle. When Indian Independence came, you were exhausted. A spark had gone out with the assassination of Gandhi, and his cremation on the Ganges. You declined to enter Parliament as a minister. You renounced political life. Instead, you chose to work for the reconstruction of India. You strove to build something new from the ruins of British Imperialism. You turned to social work, Tagore, you kept in your heart. In your own life; you realized the essential vision of Nati, the dancing girl.
India possessed you. Like the Buddha, you had traversed all the holy places...the Four Sacred Shrines...Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal; Buddhagaya, where the Buddha had attained enlightenment; Varanasi, the place where the Buddha had preached his first sermon to the five enlightened ascetics; and Kusinara, the place where the Buddha had passed into Parinirvana in Uttar Pradesh.
You recounted all of this at Akong Rinpoche's home in Dumfries, as the images of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Philips faded on the television screen. You are that remarkable combination ...a westerner, who is also deeply oriental, yet so subtly blended that it is impossible to sense any line of demarcation.
The train left Dumfries. We travel to Stirling, home of your niece, Mary. Ancient stone walls, rolling grass lands, and a cloud filled sky are in view. on the journey through Scotland, I am released from taking teachings within the confines of a meditation centre. I sense the person beneath the robe.
You explain that you had been both a politician and a Professor of English. Yet, you do not elaborate either on literature or politics. Your appetite for knowledge has fallen away. This had happened in India, when you had first gone up into the mountains to meditate. Since then, you have not kept up with the computer like flood of information over the past decade. Meditation, Buddhist philosophy and the encounter with others in the religious sense is your prime concern.
At Stirling, your niece meets us at the station. You embrace this young Englishwoman, and her small child with customary warmth. You are her aunt, the magical visitor from India. You have that mistique of the Victorian era, of relatives returning from the East, who become magnified, even exotic, in the minds of others. Yet, you are profoundly conscious of your English roots. Your brother, the father of Mary, was a submarine commander in the Second World War. He had been torpedoed off the coast of India. He had survived many hours in the water.
After his rescue at sea, he had been re-united with you in India. Apart from this encounter, you had been cut off from your English relatives for years. It was only now that during your travels as a meditation teacher that you were returned to your niece in Stirling, an old aunt still living in the Lake district. Your mother, Nellie Houlston had already died; and your brother too had collapsed after a coronary. It is hard for Mary, your niece, to understand that you had grown up in her familiar England. Yet, your many years in India have altered you. You are a person infused by other cultures, different conduits of information, and unique in being the westerner who is also genuinely of the East, as well.
Responding to your niece's curiosity, and my own unspoken questions, you talk of the central experience of your life. This is your conversion to Buddhism that occurred in Burma. You had always been inclined to contemplation. In your school days, from the age of fourteen, you had meditated in the Anglican Church in Derby. Throughout your married life, you had found a period of solitude each day. Hinduism flourished about you in temples, works of art, the Indian way of life, and the yogis and sadhus. The Sikh religion was strong too, directly influenced by your husband, Babajie Bedi. Yet, none of this satisfied you. You read extensively into Christian and Sufi mysticism. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and the poems of Rumi moved you. Buddhism once strong in India at the time of the great Nalanda University, had been destroyed by Islamic invasion, centuries past. There were few books available at that time, either on the life of Buddha, or the practice of Buddhist oriented meditation.
You had reached the age of forty-three with your political career already behind you. As a social worker, an opportunity arose for you to join a United Nations mission to Burma. You arrived at Rangoon, and a country where Buddhism, in its present form, survives. You wander through the Golden Kioung monastery at Mandalay. The architecture, people, and a subtle atmosphere of Buddhism impress you. You view the great river, the Irrawaddy. You move into the interior of rugged hills and encounter crude peasants and artisans. You stand on the edge of vast forests with teak trees sometimes growing to a height of 120 feet. But, more important, in Burma, you found a
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teacher of meditation. There was a monk who was prepared to instruct you. It was no easy task. Westerners did not learn meditation in those days of the early fifties. You had a struggle with the initial lessons. Later, when the Venerable Sayada U Thittilla Aggamahpandita taught you personally, you truly understood the nature of meditation. The Burmese monk gave you a warning. Even after initial instruction, a student often underwent an experience. This experience was not confined to the hours of sitting practice. It could, and did often happen in life itself.
Sister Palmo, you left for the hills on field work. Here, the experience about which the monk had warned, happened. A vision of a radiant lotus floating upon the sea, appeared before you. It was an experience of mystical intensity. Tears had poured down your face. The experience lasted several hours. The mechanical aspects of behavior still functioned. You continued to speak to peasant women; and made observations on agricultural problems. Your fellow social workers sensed that you were elsewhere. They had left you alone. Later, your associates gently assisted you to the village sleeping quarters. You had found the essence of what you had sought over the years. The transcendental experience, the unitive wisdom. The solitary hours spent in the Anglican Cathedral in Derby had been the beginning. Those early hours of first light in prison had continued the pattern of meditation. Moments too, in married life, when you had broken away from the physical embrace, to a moment of interior silence. You had realised the ultimate bliss. You were like those precious gurus of Tibetan mythology who are born in the heart of a lotus. Miraculous, such beings nurture humanity.
The United Nations project came to an end. You returned home to India. You told Babajie Bedi of the experience. You implied that you could no longer be a wife in the physical sense. The vision of the lotus had cauterised, even burnt away that aspect of your nature. You were now a bramacariya, one who has renounced sexual life. But you remained as mistress of your home, and mother to your children. India had for centuries seen men and women live in chastity together in the home.
As a Buddhist in India, you were isolated from your teacher in Burma...the Venerable U Thittila Aggamahpandita...a condition which was worsened when that country was closed for foreigners. You diligently practised the Hinayana Path. But it was not easy to practice over the years without the closeness of a teacher, so necessary for progress on the path.
Apa Pant, the Indian diplomat, and a colleague of your political days, urged you to visit the Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the
Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gyalwa Karmapa had only recently arrived in India, had just fled from Tibet. Apa Pant had already been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and had visited the great Tantric monasteries of Samye, Ganden, Sera and Drepung in Tibet itself.
The encounter with the Karmapa was as unexpected as the experience in Burma. You, Sister Palmo, then a deeply meditative woman of the Hinayana tradition came humbly to meet a regal head of a sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa, with warmth and compassion, and a mind plunged in a constant samadhi, greeted you. The meeting was veiled by intimations of grace waves. The East abounds in stories of those who after years of searching suddenly encounter the being, the saint incarnate in flesh, who is the oceanic in the power to ripen others. You knew immediately that this Tibetan Yogi was your guru. You, who had wandered so long, had now arrived home. You understood by mudra; the manner in which the hands of the Karmapa moved across the crystal mala. This was a mind to mind teaching. Words and philosophic dialect were unnecessary. A radiance such as that which you had known in Burma, was born in you again.
The Karmapa, on his part, had recognized a relationship with you over lifetimes. He immediately accepted you as a personal pupil. He initiated you, and prepared you for the Tantric path. You subsequently made many retreats upon tutelary deities of the Kagyu sect. You developed the profound sense of bodhicitta, the inexpressible clear mind realisation of the Buddhas.
You recall both the encounter in Burma, and your meeting with the Gyalwa Karmapa to your niece and myself as we sit in the livingroom of the house in Stirling. You teach not only from a highly disciplined training of the Hinayana vehicle, but draw inspiration secretly from the visionary experience of Burma. In Stirling, I know your kindness as a meditation teacher. I labour with the details of the Tibetan Chakra system, and the complex visualisations of the tutelary deity of the mandala. You explain that through this intense path of form, the visualisation of the self as a deity, an inner transformation takes place. The pure and radiant mind emerges. You insist that I must find my own way, develop my own insights. Your knowledge remains mysteriously your own.
The Scottish November night is cold. Your niece makes me a bed on a sofa in the livingroom. You are distressed. You insist on lending me the outer portion of your robe for warmth. It is the self-same robe that I had once seen abandoned to the laundry in Cape Town. That robe had urged me to follow you to the mountain retreat in South Africa. Wrapped in this same robe, before sleep, I believe that I shall find you. Distant countries, and the isolation of your month long retreats can never cut you off.
Before sleep, I recall events of the life of the Buddha, Gautama, the prince had left the palace after witnessing the Four Signs...illness, old age, death and robed mendicant. The prince had cut off his long hair and donned the yellow robe of the mendicant. He became an ascetic, and practiced meditation and austerities.
Driven to despair at failing to find truth, the haggard prince, an emanation of privation, chose a spot beneath a Bodhi tree. He was determined not to rise from this chosen place until enlightenment had been reached. Forces of the unconscious assailed the royal mendicant. But Gautama crossed the barriers of ignorance, and the defilements inherent in human nature. The prince of the Sakya Clan, with a superhuman effort, abandoned all familiar territory of habitual mental processes, and won through to the state of enlightenment. He had severed the roots of desire. Karma, and all its entanglements were cut. There was no more re-birth. Buddha, was the muni, the one who had gone, utterly gone beyond.
The form of the Golden Buddha fills my dreams as I sleep beneath your robe. I stand on the thresholds of the places of meditation of the Buddha; mouths of caves; shade under the
great Pepul tree; beside flowing streams.
At breakfast, I return the maroon outer robe to you, Sister Palmo, the rightful owner. The robe is your daily attire. A garment that is rough, worn and travel stained. It is essentially you, the bhikshuni, the intimations of Buddhahood hidden in the cloth.
The stay is Scotland is over. For me, it has been a time to get to know you as a person. But the power of the woman to move me in no way erases my powerful initial impression of the yogi. A farewell to your niece in Stirling, and a brief visit to Glasgow. Then homeward bound, for us both, on the Glasgow-London express.
As you prepare for sleep, you notice that I am restless, and wide awake. You gently explain to me something about the yoga of dreams as practised in Tibetan buddhism.
"The Yoga of dreams is a method of entering the dream state, and exploring it without waking. In this manner, the adept sees that dreams are as illusory as reality experienced when awake. Both states will be seen to be identical. This teaching is part of the Six Yogas of Naropa. But it is a fairly advanced teaching. The foundation practice must be completed first, before the study of the Six Yogas is undertaken."
At Euston station, we drink early morning coffee on arrival. You are no longer the adept, or the teacher of philosophy making clear the essence of your study over the years with Khenpo Thrangu Rinpoche at Rumtek Monastery. Rather, you are an elderly woman, who has made a long overnight journey. The pallor of your face, and the lines of exhaustion about the eyes, remind me again of your frailty. Swiftly, I hire a taxi to take you to Indian relatives in Hampstead. They will have a comfortable room prepared for you on arrival. Travelling as your companion has enriched me beyond measure.
Next day I am in your presence. You are refreshed after the long journey. In the house in Hampstead, you are surrounded by flowers, fruit and incense. You suggest the insubstantial quality of Tara, the mother of compassion, in your gentle bearing. You observe that the dark forces of the unconscious that had threatened me at Samye Ling have been dispelled. You convince me that these forces can become transformed into creative energy. You then explain that you must leave shortly for India. The visit to England and Europe is over. You bless me formally. I know that soon you will be again at the Dharma Chakra Centre in Rumtek. You will be surrounded by distant snow-capped mountains, and the green rice valleys. It does not worry me that you will be far away. This is your place in time and space. There is the certainty of seeing you again. The Karmapa will be coming to the west, the following year. You will be in his party travelling as his translator. There is the assurance of the continuity of the teachings. It cannot be otherwise. You are the Lady of Realisation.
At the end of February, I return to Africa. In the cottage above the Indian ocean, I meditate before the shrine of reeds, shells and a Buddha Rupa. My life settles down to caring for a family, and writing. Your presence, Sister Palmo, is powerfully alive.
In a letter from Sikkim, later in the year, you inform me of the impending departure of the Karmapa and his party to the west. You are most certainly included in that auspicious group. I decide to join you in America.
I leave Johannesburg on a raw spring day. I arrive in New York in a blaze of autumn colour. I recall images of you, Sister Palmo, during my long flight; the nun in the silent house in Cape Town; the friend who lent me the bhikshuni's robe in Scotland; the elderly woman pale with fatigue, after the rushing night train journey.
I join you in San Francisco, and check into a hotel in Berkeley. Barbara, your American devotee, gives me news of an initiation which the Karmapa will bestow the following morning. You insist that I attend the ceremony, and receive the blessings and empowerment of the Kagyu lineage. I know only my good fortune to be in California during this auspicious visit.
Next morning, I take a cab to an address in Berkeley where the initiation will be given. Zen students, Hindu devotees and students of Trungpa Rinpoche wait respectfully for the arrival of the Karmapa. At last, the Karmapa Lama appears, dressed in the maroon robe of the gelong. He is leaning upon the arm of Trungpa Rinpoche, who is dressed in the yellow robe. Both lamas enter the hall, and they are followed by the monks.
The signal is given for us to file into the hall. All are neophytes, and sit cross legged upon the floor. The Karmapa Lama is enthroned upon a golden dais. He is the Vajra Master, surrounded by ritual implements. We, the neophytes hold rice, a stick of incense or a flower, as an offering. The Karmapa chants the refuge and bodhisattva vows. The invocation of the universe follows, and the world is seen as the mandala of the guru. Specific dieties are invoked. The empowerment is then bestowed upon those present. The spontaneity of Mahamudra, the highest non dual meditation is the seed of this empowerment. Finally, the Karmapa shares the merit with all sentient beings.
The beauty of this moment, the Karmapa's mudras, and the chanting of the monks cannot overshadow your precious form, Sister Palmo, silently in the background, yet so irrevocably part of this spiritual event.
After the initiation ceremony, I find you in the crowd. Sister Palmo, you emerge from a crowd of disciples, and embrace me with customary warmth:
"I'm so glad that you managed to come to San Francisco. It is a great blessing to receive an initiation from His Holiness, Karmapa. But you must receive an audience with His Holiness as well. Come with me, let me take you to Him.
Students of Trungpa Rinpoche, drive us to the solid and impressive American style house in San Francisco where the Karmapa and monks are housed. Good as your promise, you insist that I be presented to the Karmapa together with the American poets. You are always conscious that I am a poet of Africa. Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure are among the poets waiting to be received in audience by the Karmapa.
Together with Allen Ginsberg, I bow before the Karmapa. Without the dorje and bell, symbols of the Vajra Master, the
Karmapa is a man of simplicity. Michael McClure, the west coast poet, presents the Karmapa with a delicate miniature of a bird in a glass case. The Karmapa holds up the case enclosing the bird, as if invoking it to find wings and fly. The intense gaze of the Karmapa possesses all the mystery of a great siddha.
Allen Ginsberg, with a full black beard, and gentle hands, addresses the Karmapa:
"Does His Holiness recall my visit to Rumtek some years ago? Then, I had asked you whether the taking of LSD was a valid spiritual path."
The Karmapa smiles, and shakes his head, and replies, through an interpreter:
"The use of drugs creates an artificial sense of higher consciousness. Only mind in its natural state, a complete openness, the practice of mahamudra, achieves this."
There is laughter in response to Allen Ginsberg's question from the other beat poets, those who had progressed through the exploration of consciousness in the sixties. Lawrence Ferlinghetti sits in silence, like another Mahakashyo, the disciple of Buddha, who received a direct transmission by simply witnessing a gold flower in the hand of the Blessed One.
Aware of Africa, a world of harsh sunlight and rugged terrain, I ask the Karmapa for predictions for that land. This Guru, who had witnessed Tsurphu overrun by the Red Guard, replies:
"Suffering is inherent in life. Buddha is the remedy for suffering. Know that at some time the consciousness of a Buddha will awaken in Africa."
The audience is over, and the Karmapa smiles a farewell blessing. We respectfully file out of the room. So much has passed through my mind that I am silent before you, Sister Palmo.
You gently insist that I return to my hotel. A young poet gives me a lift across the bridges that link San Francisco with Berkeley. In the quiet room at the hotel, I meditate upon so much that has happened. All this experience has the texture of a myth with strands that link Asia, Africa, and America.
* * * * *
The Karmapa performs the Black Crown Ceremony at Fort Mason. Throughout history, it has been the function of each Karmapa to
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perform this ceremony for the sake of all sentient beings. Whoever witnesses this ceremony will never again take rebirth in the realms of suffering. The fifth Karmapa, Teshin Shegpa, first wore the present Vajra Crown in the Fifteenth Century. This is the crown which is now in the possession of the present Gyalwa Karmapa. When Teshin Shegpa visited China, the Emperor Yung-Lo, a devout disciple, saw an invisible crown hovering above the head of Teshin Shegpa. Emperor Yung-Lo had a physical replica made of the miraculous crown which he had seen in a vision. The crown is still said to have the power of transmitting enlightenment on sight.
A throng of two thousand people from San Francisco fill the Fort Mason area. Again, the beautiful people come, with flowing robes, flowers, Indian shirts, colourful saris, long hair and beads. All have come for the great blessing of the Vajra Crown Ceremony.
The stage is set for the Ceremony, as monks sound the Tibetan horns. It is like a scene from a medieval pageant. The Karmapa mounts the dais. The monks bow, and present the precious box containing the heirloom, the Vajra crown. (A monk wears a cloth about his face, so that his breath will not disturb the ancient fabric.) The crown is placed upon the Karmapa's head. The Karmapa prounounced a mantra: OM MANI PADME HUNG. The Karmapa enters a deep samadhi. He has assumed the attributes of Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of compassion. A great energy of compassion fills the arena. The concentration of the crowd reaches a breaking point. Then as mysteriously as it had arisen, the tension is gone. Your face, Sister Palmo, watching this yogic feat, authenticates the veracity of my experience. The Karmapa, all smiles, blesses each individual with a precious relic from Tibet.
As I leave Fort Mason, I wonder how such a guru, the Karmapa, comes to pass like an ordinary person in American society. Comprehending the needs of the divided psyche of Western man, this guru has come to America bringing gifts such as the Vajra crown Ceremony. The yogi, whom I had witnessed in deep samadhi an hour ago, is also a skilled diplomat, and friend, who mingles with ordinary Americans in parks, museums and homes.
There is a reception for the Karmapa at a Japanese hotel. Then we go to an old house in San Francisco, on Capp Street, the home of Tamara Wasserman. The house is tastefully furnished. Thangkas frame the walls, and butterflies are preserved under glass. You rest on a sofa. I remain sitting cross legged upon a cushion on the floor. As you sleep, I sense the areas of your life which I can never penetrate; the yogi; the renunciation; your relationship with the Gyalwa Karmapa. These facts remain closed, unspoken even. You are deeply mysterious as a
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person, despite the outward simplicity of the Buddhist nun. Your profile in sleep has a softness. Wisdom emanates from your form like an ancient stone Buddha from the temples of Ceylon. You wake slowly like an insect fluttering from a cocoon into a world of light. We drink tea in Tamara's kitchen. A breeze comes off the Pacific ocean. Later, you give teachings to those that come...Jose and Miriam Arguelles, Tamara, and others. You speak of the miraculous nature of the mind:
"Mind in its natural state is radiantly void. The sense of a permanent ego dims this inner light. The initiations and blessing which His Holiness Karmapa is giving purify the dross of ego. Abhisheka also means to wash, to purify. Through initiation, the vehicle of the body is made pure. The higher energies can be channelled into states of meditation. If there is effort, struggle with fundamentals such as kindness and generosity, then one is very much at the beginning of the path. Once the activity of the Bodhisattva energy begins to be activated, the flow of energy becomes subtle, direct and increasing. But at the beginning, there is the need for purification, and the blessing of the guru."
After the discourse, you bless upon the head with a text of the words of the Buddha. Again, I travel across the bridges that link San Francisco to Berkeley. I re-examine the truth about which you had spoken. Images of the initiation, and the great humanity of the Karmapa move me to assimilate the truths about which you have expounded. Like a thief, I enter my own room at the hotel. I am divorced from my clothing, personal possessions and books. They no longer appear to belong to me. Your presence, Sister Palmo, has freed me, briefly, from my own sense of ego.
In the Shrine Room of the Nyingmapa Centre in Berkeley, the ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism established by Padmasambhava, the Karmapa bestows the Buddhist precepts. Before the ceremony, sister Palmo, you comment on the necessity of taking the precepts:
"Precepts are rooted in the Hinayana tradition. They are the basic moral teachings of the Buddha. Precepts invite us to be true to ourselves. The first three precepts are concerned with killing, lying and stealing. The following two forbid adultery and the taking of liquor and drugs. Precepts form the basis of Dharma."
The Karmapa graciously conducts the ceremony. Twelve of us, a mere handful who had attended the Crown Ceremony at Fort Mason, are the recipients of the blessing. You translate throughout the ceremony, and finally say:
"His Holiness exhorts you to be happy. This is a joyous occasion. Morality is the basis of freedom."
In the garden of the Nyingmapa Centre, you elaborate further on the implications of the Buddhist precepts:
"We are all old warriors, who have lived many life times. We have inhabited the world of animals, fighting and quarreling, living only for the moment. We have passed into the state of hell beings, and the hungry ghosts suffering unremitting pangs of remorse. We have lived in the higher states of the gods, suffused in happiness. But even this joy has been incomplete.
Always we have been forced to take re-birth again and again. In this life, we have found a precious human body, and a mind capable of receiving the Buddha's teachings. Precepts held up create wholesome karma. They are the foundation of holistic living. They create a unity within the personality. We are no longer in conflict with the self. A calm mind naturally arises."
You give this discourse, with the Pacific ocean a distant rumble. Your words echo from the past; they are ancient. The core of these Teachings was propagated by Lord Buddha centuries earlier.
Sister Palmo, you are a rich presence in the San Mateo garden. You are at peace beside the stone buddha at the rockery. Barbara, a close devotee, is the decorator and landscape gardener. A hidden premonition prepared her to take trouble over the years with the house and garden knowing that you, the Lady of Realisation, would live and teach here. You emanate great happiness. The Karmapa has been warmly received in America. Many have received the blessing of the precious guru. You are fulfilled. In the garden, I recall aspects of your life.
You surely possessed this same radiance when you had entertained princes and politicians in your Kashmir home. The saris, which you had worn, flowers in your hair, and the glamour, which you had possessed, were all put aside. You had perceived an elusive vision, which was hard to realise. You understood the truth underlying reality. You understood that the constructions people place upon events and circumstances is born of ignorance. Reality, truly observed, is devoid of association. Existence, purified of emotional attitudes, is radiantly pure.
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You withdrew from the world. You took the ordination of a Buddhist nun. From that moment onwards, you dressed in a robe. Unresolved conflicts, disturbing emotions and ignorance were severed through meditation. Until your sixtieth birthday, you were cut off, meditating in the mountains, exploring the shoals of the mind. You reached a resolution, a conviction best interpreted as bodhicitta, the enlightened motivation to help others. Having understood profound mysteries, you could lead others to the source.
There are moments in the garden at San Mateo when I sense the past. The writers shine through clearly in the texts of beauty which you have translated into English from the original Tibetan. The social worker emerges in the practical assistance you give to the young. Nothing deters you. Problems of drugs, sex and alienation are understood. The Buddha is the remedy for suffering. I never think of you as old. You are timeless, accessible and deeply intuitive. You have in those years of retreat at Rumtek monastery come to terms with impermanence, sense of a permanent ego, and death. These subjects, the classical meditation of the Buddha, are not dry and remote. You make them facts of life for all to study.
You understand meditation. You have travelled the path from concentration and insight to Samadhi. You have completed the stages of Mahamudra meditation. The subtle insights bestowed by dieties such as the Green Tara and the Vajra Yogini are secret to you alone.
Yet you are more than a teacher of meditation. You are a symbol of renewal. I know that by your act of returning from the mountains, that you believe in humanity. Somehow goodness can prevail. The energy crisis, pollution, and terrorism, are only the familiar furies of history appearing in new guises. You have progressed beyond these painful dualities. You propound a realisation beyond good and evil. You learnt that during those years of retreat at Rumtek Monastery. This is the reason why you have come back. You, Sister Palmo, are marvelously intact. You represent the indestructibility of the pure mind. With you gone, I recall this valour in all its immaculate purity. I seek it, relentless, in my own nature.
In the morning you are on the way to Vancouver together with the Karmapa and monks. I gave you a promise that I would meet you in Toronto soon. The following day, roaring engines take me back to Kennedy airport. My strands of karma with you, Lady of Realisation, are already intermingled. Another pattern is emerging. A few short weeks and I will be again re-united with you, Sister Palmo.
Some weeks later, arriving at dusk at Toronto airport, I take a cab to Bodhisattva House, a Buddhist centre. You had left
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a message there telling me that you had gone ahead to Bellville where a Tibetan settlement had invited the Karmapa to perform the Vajra Crown Ceremony. You suggest that I join you there. A group of young Tibetans give me a lift to Bellville. These Asian teen-agers, now settled in Canada, have adopted a western lifestyle. Like nominal catholics, they know only the outward trappings of Tibetan Buddhism. They invoke the Bodhisattva, Chenrezi, and show respect to the Dalai Lama, and the Karmapa. But they look with humour at myself who attempts to meditate seriously.
At Bellville, I find you staying at a motel together with the Karmapa and party of monks. You simply accept that I have arrived safely. Sometimes I imagine that you and the Karmapa are like a magic show that might simply vanish into thin air! Yet here in this comfortable motel, you are flesh and substantiality. You have been reading the books of Carlos Castenada. You comment that the lore of the Indian sorcerer, Don Juan, can be interpreted in the Tibetan esoteric teachings. You compare the power of Don Juan to the Tibetan adepts able to create tulpas, a projected thought form which takes the human shape. These tulpas can be created and dissolved at will. Though you point out that the energy of a tulpa can become dangerous if the adept is not the complete master of his own projection. The idea of the tulpa is the same as the western concept of the "doppelganger", the replica of the real person. You insist that you have to keep up with some reading in order to answer the questions put to you by young Americans.
I bring a small Buddha rupa, a genuine Tibetan artifact, that bears the authentic seal of origin, for the Karmapa to bless. You immediately arrange an audience. You usher me into the presence of the guru. The Karmapa rests in a comfortable chair. I present a white scarf and prostrate three times, the customary protocol, before the head of a Tibetan sect of Buddhism.
The Karmapa, face wreathed in smiles, breathes life into the Buddha rupa. Quite simply, I know that I have come as a westerner, as naturally to this great guru, as any peasant had come centuries earlier to an ancient Karmapa in the past of Tibet.
In the morning, a slow train takes us to Montreal. You sit in the lotus posture on the train seat. I make you comfortable with a blanket and pillows. Turning from the bleak landscape, I question you about meditation. You speak of the arising of the bodhicitta, the enlightened processes of the Six Yogas of Naropa. I sense your power as an adept.
Mike and Ebba Breacher meet us at the Montreal station. You had met them on their honeymoon in Kashmir over twenty years ago. You had been Freda Bedi then, and it was shortly before
you had gone to Burma and embraced Buddhism. They show no surprise at the robe, shaven head, and spare profile. You are still Freda, the magical woman of Kashmir. Mike and Ebba sense your preciousness. You had been a good omen on their honeymoon Then Mike had been a colleague, a lecturer in political science in Fateh Chand College in Srinagar. Ebba, new to India, and imbued with a fierce Hebraic quality, had thrived on her friendship with you.
In the Montreal apartment, you recall life in India. You speak of Pandit Nehru. Your children had called this statesman "Uncle" and Indira Gandhi, his daughter, was your comrade in the political struggle. Somehow the robe which you now wear fails to obscure the woman whom you had once been. Freda Bedi is never diminished by Sister Palmo. Freda had travelled across India, made speeches from political platforms inspiring women of all classes...untouchables, peasants and illiterates. Sister Palmo has travelled across Europe, Africa and America, bringing a different message of hope.
There is an ease in which you have returned to Mike and Ebba Breacher though years have passed. You are again that mysterious traveller who has made the journey to the East. You have returned with a treasure, the innate purity of your own nature. A mind that shines with such a radiance that reflects those images of political and academic life in Kashmir, and yet remains silent at the centre. Here in the company of old friends, you revisit the past. Images of marriage, children, Nehru's profile, the deprivation of weeks in prison, appear before you. 0thers might have found these memories drenched with emotion. Through your mastery of Mahamudra meditation, such images are seen as radiantly empty. They appear as phantoms of the past.
You, Sister Palmo, acknowledge and recognise your old life. Yet, it has no power to move you to regret or sorrow. You had come up to 0xford a provincial English girl. There, you had encountered Gandhi and Tagore. A handsome Sikh, Babaji Bedi, had claimed you, and brought you to India as his wife. In middle life, you saw political strife, and encountered spirituality in Burma. Later, you became the pupil of the Gyalwa Karmapa, and finally took the renunciation of the Buddhist nun, bearing the name Karma Khechog Palmo. All are different textures of experience. The veils have been removed one by one, like Tagore's dancing girl, Nati. Now, you wear the final garment, the maroon robe of the Bhikshuni.
Returning to Toronto, you are anxious to attend an Ecumenical Congress which is being held in the city. Catholic and Protestant clergy mingle with the representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh faiths. The atmosphere is one of co-operation. Sister Catherine, a contemplative nun of the Redemptrist order,
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is the guest speaker. Sister Catherine, aged about fifty, has put aside the nun's habit and dressed in tailored slacks and cashmere sweater. A silver cross about her neck, a severe hair style, are the singular signs of her renunciation. She possesses a deep contemplative wisdom, together with a strong philosophic mind. She has spent the last number of years involved in Buddhist dialogue in Asia. She recalls the silence of the great stone Buddha at Polonnaruwa, in Ceylon. A silence that had filled her with the startling evidence of the reality of the void as described in Buddhist Sutras.
After listening to Sister Catherine's talk, you tell me that if you had not been a Buddhist, if karma had not brought you to India, you could certainly have found comfort in the contemplative orders of the Christian Church. Sister Catherine embodies for you the Christian ideal which includes aspects of Buddhist wisdom. Thomas Merton believed that it was this blending of Buddhism that could leaven Christianity in the west. Like Thomas Merton, you too are a bridge between East and West. You have fulfilled a unique role in the development of Buddhism in the west. It was through your endeavours that the young lamas who had fled Tibet were housed in the Young Lamas Home School at Dalhousie, which you had established. It is through your constant inspiration that the Karmapa has made this historic visit to America. Now, you teach western students the foundations of Buddhist practice.
In your approach to teaching Buddhism, you remember that most western students possess either a Christian or Jewish background. But despite this early conditioning, you never limited instruction in the Dharma to fit into comfortable categories. You explained that taking the Refuge in the Buddha is a total commitment, a single-minded path. You made clear too the fact that westerners practice the monastic path of Tibetan Buddhism. This practice goes far beyond the nominal faith of the average Tibetan who invokes the mantra of Chenrezi, and gives respect to the Karmapa. The westerner practices the arduous foundation path, the cornerstone of the Tantric Path of the Four Sects of Tibetan Buddhism. This foundation Path includes meditation upon Precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and suffering. Then comes the taking of the Refuge in the Buddha, the engendering of compassion, prostrations, the practice of Vajra Sattva Purification meditation, and guru yoga.
I recall Tantric images, seen in pictures, engraved upon the rocks of Tibet; red stained outlines of the Vajra Yogini; dark forms of Padmasambhava; and the immaculate white Chenrezi. Ancient forms that are still symbols of the psychic renewal of man. All move me to an understanding of the insubstantiality of the world.