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We drive up to Kinmount, a country meditation centre. We pass through Fennelon Falls, having left behind us the wintry landscape of Toronto. on the journey, you speak of the conversion of Yasa, a rich young man, who had encountered the Buddha in the Deer Park. Upon hearing the Discourse of the Blessed one, the immaculate and stainless mind arose in him. Yasa immediately begged the Buddha to allow him to make the renunciation. This acceptance of Yasa by the Blessed one was the first formal ordination. It was only after the Fourth Buddhist Council in Ceylon, about 80 B.C. that the teachings of the Buddha were collected in the Tripitaka. The Vinaya, the disciplinary rules of conduct for the Sangha, were later committed to writing. During the Buddha's lifetime, the communities of monks and nuns were well established. Such a ripening has occurred in three western women about to be ordained as nuns at Kinmount. Sister Palmo, the perfect bikshuni, you are anxious to witness the ceremony.
The ordination Ceremony is conducted privately in the Shrine Room presided over by the Karmapa, and attended by only the monks and yourself. After the ceremony the new nuns emerge. They stand awkward in the winter sunlight, shifting new robes about their bodies, and feeling with frozen fingers their newly shaved heads. Later, in the cabin, you share with an elderly nun, you explain:
"The requisite for a Buddhist nun is not necessarily a mastery of meditation. It is rather an ability to live a special kind of life. A woman who wishes to become a nun should examine her motive carefully. She should be able to live alone, no longer desire men, and abstain from alcohol. The vocation of a nun is more "dependent upon a lifestyle than control of the mind."
Anna, a newly ordained nun impresses me. She is a nurse by profession, and already in her late forties. She tells me that she had visited Cape Town, trying to be a settler there, close to a married daughter. The atmosphere of racial tension, and that strange society, had not been able to accommodate her. Driven by a spiritual need, she had visited India and come to see the ashram of Swami Muktananda. Here, the Karmapa was paying a courtesy visit. Seeing the Karmapa, and receiving His darshan, she understood that her quest was over. The Karmapa accepted her, and advised her to take further teachings. Two years later, she had travelled to Kinmount, for her ordination as a nun.
Sister Palmo, you are a Mother in Dharma. You are a help to the new nuns in a hundred different ways. You advise on the cutting of robes; the rules of conduct; and meditation practice. You repeat the injunction given by the Blessed One, one Century earlier:
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"Go forth, monks, and teach the truth, which is glorious in the beginning, the middle, and the end, for the good of all beings. There are some whose eyes are not obscured by dust. Teach them, they will understand."
At Kinmount, I sit a moment with you. I try and explain what it has meant for me, both meeting and travelling with you. You sense the question that shyness prevents me from asking:
"What people experience in meditation is not attributed to the powers of the guru. Bliss and radiance occur of themselves when the mind is tranquil. They are elements within the mind of the meditator."
I wait in silence beside you, happy to be in the presence that inspires such warmth, and contains the hidden elements of wisdom.
Our journey, next day, is through the darkness of a Canadian November evening. The monks, together with us, chant the Mahakala puja. I listen to the praises of these protective deities. The Mahakalas usually ride a mule. They carry a bag of poison which kills the enemies of the teachings, which hangs from their saddle bags. They possess too a mirror of judgement and a snake lasso, and a bow and arrows. The Mahakalas remove all obstacles to the growth and practice of Dharma.
Beyond the window of the Combi, I sense the landscape and trees. Further across oceans and continents, lies Africa. The Karmapa, the monks, and yourself leave soon for Samye Ling in Scotland. I shall lose you soon. I must return to Africa, where my daughter in a boarding school patiently waits my return. My responsibilities crowd in. These few days have seen me severed from my ordinary life. For a brief spell, I have fallen within the mandala of the Karmapa.
There is a final initiation at Bodhisattva House in Toronto. In the crowded shrine room, I find a place behind the newly ordained nun, Anna. The seductive pealing of the bell, and the eloquent mudras of the Karmapa, fail to distract my attention from small scars on the head of the new nun. I recall how Anna had been shaved with the help of students at Kinmount. The harshness of life is symbolised in those small scars. Between the mudra of the Karmapa, and Anna's scarred head, exists different worlds. Suffering and my desire for transcendence overwhelm me. I turn towards you, Sister Palmo. Yet your head is bowed in a total acceptance. You have gone beyond the rugged terrain of the dualities. You have reconciled the opposites. You do not put constructions upon such observations. You have awakened from the slumber of ignorance. All that arises in the mind is spontaneously pure.
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That night I dream of you, sister Palmo, in the form of the Vajra Yogini. You wear a crown of dried skulls, a necklace of severed heads. You carry a skull cup full of blood, and a hooked knife. A trident leans against your shoulder. In the morning, you give teachings. I sense the essence of the yidam in your own nature. You judge my progress. You understand my difficulties. You admit that the meditation text which I had been studying for three years is difficult. Yet you stress that the detailed visualisation of a deity, colours and ornaments, is there to exhaust the mind. It is a process similar to that used in the Zen teachings. After the mind is exhausted comes a blow from heaven. Realisation is often sudden.
Your departure is at hand. Sister Palmo, you are certain of our next meeting. It cannot be otherwise. Lady of Realisation, you are so certain of your powerful grasp upon life.
I had returned from America to my family in Africa. You, Sister Palmo, in contrast are travelling in the party of the Karmapa through the European winter of 1974. You are visiting the capital cities of Europe. In Rome, Pope Paul receives the Gyalwa Karmapa in private audience. You have a sense of the dialogue begun by Thomas Merton continuing in the presence of the Karmapa at St. Peters. From Denmark, you write of the enthusiasm of the hippie community for the lineage teachings. Marpa, the translator, and Milarepa, the poet and yogi, truly live for Scandinavian youth. From Amsterdam, you write in answer to my letters that have followed you across Europe:
".....so many earthquaking and glorious things have happened and we are travelling on the good earth, and not in the sky. Glory be! Kosmos, and the Theosophical-Vedanta setting have made Holland interesting. Now we wait for the web of many colours called Paris. Dear, love and blessing of the Three Jewels. ...."
Months pass on these travels. Later, Barbara writes that you have had a heavy bout of the flu. She has seen that you rest in the Paris Hilton Hotel. The crowds, the northern winter, and the monotony of vegetarian food, have taken their toll. You are no longer young, but a woman in the early sixties. Sister Palmo, you have always driven yourself hard in the service of others. Hearing this news of your fatigue, I am reminded of the weary letters of Swami Vivekananda, written at the turn of the century. A letter, written to Mary Hale, from Vivekananda, reflects the exhaustion that spiritual teachers surely suffer today:
"…Now I am longing for rest. Hope I will get some, and the Indian people will give me up. How I would like to become dumb for some years and not talk at all."
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In May, 1975, the long tour ends. You who have visited continents, witnessed foreign cities, and encountered thousands of faces in this grand cavalcade of Dharma, now go into a retreat.
You write on arrival at Rumtek:
"My retreat begins in a few days time, and there are piles of mail, things to study, to write. One month. The birds sing. We all feel happy to be home, and His Holiness is well. So am I. In the grace waves of the guru-lama...." You make your retreat upon the Chagchen Mahamudra. Your mind is understood as arising spontaneously - natural, free. There is no effort on your part; all is without meaning. You remain constantly in the natural self-nature of the mind.
Two years pass before we meet again. You write from Rumtek Monastery, and give news. The Indian ocean stretching between Africa and India, keeps us apart. Yet your presence is still felt in my world.
From Rumtek you write:
"His Holiness is well, and all's right with the world. Today one of our Incarnates, aged about 14, left for Ladakh and it was quite moving to see him leave the scene of his childhood. He will be trained to take charge of Kagydupa monks there....."
Travelling to Bombay in September, you write:
"The first hint of Spring in this winter atmosphere. Everything is within the good black earth, and not even a hint of a shoot, green or otherwise shows the way to release...but in the refuge of the Triple Gem, we understand, our labours.....
In November, writing again from Rumtek: (You also refer to the possibility of my joining you in California in1976.)
".....the comforting feeling that we shall be able to meet in California next year...if that is in the stars and planets whirling in the great Cosmic Sky Mandala. once his Holiness had an interview with a woman who had come by jet all the way from South America to see him. She had an impossibly difficult married life to an older man. His Holiness gave her one of his radiant smiles, and said: "When things are at their worst say, "Thanks to the Guru" and you will understand."
In February of the following year you had been on a visit to Nepal. You had again been a member of the Karmapa's party. The tour had been a special visit to the monastery in where the Karmapa had given a series of high initiations. You wrote of this event:
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"His Holiness is a golden glowing Chenrezi Padmapani. Nepal was a saga of which I shall speak to you personally. The Monkey Temple at Swayambunath moves me more than Bodh Gaya which is old and wonderful too. The country of the Buddha; it has some transcendental quality of otherness and "nowness" too.
The extraordinary patterning of karma does indeed bring me to California. My flight across the Poles is exhausting. Yet I am convinced that I must spend this time with you; live out the California Spring. You are the guru; the one who can impart the seed of Buddhahood. I recognise this fact. What had begun in the summer lit room in Cape Town five years ago will continue in the house in San Mateo.
I am again in your presence in America. Time has stood still. Sister Palmo, you fill the room with a great translucence. There is a terrible knowledge too. A heart ailment has been diagnosed. You are ill. I know this at first glance. The warmth of your embrace is drenched with a poignancy. A sense of time running out. There is no certainty that I shall find you again. Each morning I come to your room, and receive a blessing. You are the embodiment of Tara, the Vajra Yogini, and the other deities of the mandala. I know no self consciousness in bowing before you.
At the Asian Institute, you give discourses. You reflect insights of your years of study, and also your own mystical experience of Burma. A woman pandit, you address jean-clad America. You discuss enlightenment and all its profound implications. You consider the psychological leap; the supreme logic; the brave bodhisattva; all are elements of Buddhahood. You advise each student to meditate for himself. Certain realisations are the fruit of intuition.
Despite a heavy schedule of interviews and lectures, you always preside at the luncheon table. You possess the palate of a yogi - demanding, changeable, and subtle. Sometimes you desire a spare vegetable dish. Another time, it is pork chops, or shrimps. Visitors come to lunch - Alan Ginsberg, Claudio Naranjo, and Buddhist scholar, Stephen Beyer. You talk of philosophy, family life and culture. You are a good listener, yet, you seldom laugh. Your insights into impermanence and death have not lead you to the "joking" realisations of the Zen Masters. Perhaps this is because you are also an Englishwoman of an earlier and more conservative generation. After lunch, you rest in the garden, peaceful among the blue jays and flowering shrubs.
There are many accomplished woman yogis in the history of the Vajrayana. Tibetan Buddhism abounds in female deities,
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dakinis and consorts of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. This feminine energy represents the principle of openness, and a cutting through the confusion of mind. Historically too, the woman yogi is of great importance. Niguma, who lived in the eleventh century, was an accomplished woman siddha. She was in early life the wife of the Mahasiddha Naropa, who later renounced the householder's life and became a monk. Niguma too followed the path of Renunciation. She mastered Tantric teachings, and became renowned for her magical attainments. With this background, of a long tradition of woman siddhas, and yogis, it did not seem incongruous that Sister Palmo, you bestow an inner initiation of the Kagyu lineage.
The text of the initiation speaks of the samsaric nature of existence, and the skilful means to transcend suffering. As the Vajra Master, you welcome us into the mandala and crown each of us as your equals in Dharma. At this stage of the initiation, which deals with purification, you hand us two reeds of kusa grass. You explain your reason for this.:
"Put the long reed under your body, and the short one beneath the pillow when you sleep tonight. The power of the initiation will cause dreams of a symbolic nature to occur."
Following your instructions, I place the reeds in the manner in which you suggested, on retiring. I immediately fall into a deep sleep and experience three different dreams. In the morning, I encounter you in your room, maroon clad in the robe of the bhikshuni.
I explain the first dream; how I had simply found myself in an ancient Indian temple garden, a place of perfect peace. You merely nod, and are silent about this dream.
The second dream had been more in the nature of a nightmare, which I recount:
"there was a terrible weight, a dark figure upon my chest, crushing life out of my body. It was both terrifying and threatening...."
You interrupt my recounting of the nightmare and remark:
"The dark figure symbolises purification. This is not an uncommon dream. It is a good sign of impurity coming away. Think of delusion leaving you forever. Ignorance and fear cannot sway you again."
The third dream is more difficult to recount, for it involves you, Sister Palmo, appearing in an inner form.
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"In the third dream, I am witness in Africa to terrible battles, and turmoil. You, Sister Palmo, appear in the form of a white yogini. You wear a white robe, and possess upstanding hair. Your visage is fearful. You wear a necklace of skulls about your neck and brandish a trident. You pacify the hordes of darkness."
I did not know it then, but when I returned to Africa, all the unleashed violence of the Soweto riots had broken out. You admit that the vision of the white yogini is yourself but in an inner form. You are silent about this emanation of your mystical presence in my dream. There are aspects of the yogi about you that manifest in extraordinary ways. You have a power to emanate and teach on inner levels. You are without doubt an accomplished yogi, in the long tradition of woman siddhas going back to the all powerful saint, Niguma.
Sakyamuni Buddha, in his earthly life, studied medicine in the forests of India. Tibetan Buddhism has elaborated further, and transformed him into a blue celestial Buddha of Medicine. Sangyes Menla, who appears in a lapis lazuli colour, and wears the three Dharma robes. He holds in his hand the Trimphala Amla fruit.
Sister Palmo, you too possessed an insight into healing. You had encouraged the nuns at the Tilokpur Monastery to learn the preparation of herbal remedies under the instruction of a lama. Often, you could sense an illness either physical or psychological in a student, and suggest a remedy. You always advocate that healing is a full time study and occupation. You encourage students to pray to Sangyes Menla, the Buddha of Medicine. At San Mateo, you perform a special healing Buddha Puja, and distribute blessed pills to the sick.
Later in the garden, you talk with elderly Major and Mrs. Knight. you speak about Dharamsala, and the presence of the Dalai Lama, whom you honour and revere. Major and Mrs. Knight have lived many years in India, and have given support to exiled lamas. You did not realise it then, that only a week later, Major Knight would die of a heart attack. When you heard this news later, at the breakfast table, you said:
"It is no great sadness to die in old age. Easier to leave life in good health. Why suffer, if when karma is worked out, the thread of life snaps. Major Knight had lead a good life. We cannot shun the inevitable. Death comes to all."
You take up the vigil beside Major Knight's body. You conduct the Phowa prayers. The aggregates that had left the physical body now make the journey to the bardo realm. You console Mrs. Knight. Your vigil beside the body is of a classical simpli
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city. I recall your visit to South Africa, when you had been called upon to perform the Buddhist funeral prayers at the cremation of a Chinese seaman who had been murdered in a dockside brawl over a prostitute. You had seen beyond the sordid aspects of the man's death, and rather perceived his radiant essence. An extraordinary woman from India, Sister Palmo, you had come to Africa in order to guide a seaman through the realms of the bardo night. Africa and Asia met in you in an unusual interweaving. Now, you are linked with Major Knight, and again perform the ancient rite for the newly dead.
During this memorable week, you talk to an enclosed order of Carmelite nuns. The nuns are dark shapes, behind grilles, who listen intently to your lecture. You speak about Buddhist meditation, and life at Rumtek Monastery. You explain how Buddhists meditate alone in a cell. This had been the method in Tibet, when yogis had inhabited caves, and monks have sought out isolated hermitages. Buddhists like Christians come together for prayers or as in the case of Buddhists, for the celebration of puja. Yet, I know from my discussion with you that the Buddhist sects have in their discipline rich aspects of yoga. It is the energy of passion, transmuted and controlled, that forms the basis of realisation. Such insights are surely not intrusive upon these women, Carmelite nuns, dedicated, like yourself, to a life of the spirit.
In California, you spoke often of Trungpa Rinpoche. As a youth Trungpa had come to your home in India, together with Akong Rinpoche. Both lamas had begged your assistance. Like a mother, you took them as sons into your own home. Later, you arranged for a scholarship to Oxford for the young Trungpa. In those early years, Trungpa had possessed a radiant purity. But now you understand that the Lama had taken on Western karma, and taught in the manner of a siddhic teacher. The Karmapa on his visit had called Trungpa Rinpoche the Padmasambhava of the West.
Trungpa Rinpoche, dignified in a tailored suit, receives you in a house in Berkeley. The lama greets you in a formal fashion - the head blessing customary between a guru and disciple. You had brought a text of a Mahamudra translation for the Rinpoche's comments. Conversation is between old friends. The Lama speaks of the coming visit to the Karmapa to America in the winter. He talks too of his own intention to make a year long retreat.
Trungpa Rinpoche sees in you, Sister Palmo, the generous woman who had helped him in India. He senses too the depth of the yogi within you. He had helped to bring these powers fruition. The Rinpoche recalls that he had not dared give
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the Phowa teachings for fear that you might not have returned to your body. He new the exquisite delicacy of your insights; the deftness of your manipulation of the veins and the airs of the Six Yogas of Naropa.
On this afternoon in Berkeley, the Rinpoche is totally at ease; the links between you both span fifteen years. You possess the same Vajra energy, and an integrity that makes the efforts of ordinary people seem strained in comparison.
Later, when I had returned to Africa, Barbara writes that Trungpa Rinpoche had come to bless the Shrine Room at San Mateo. on this occasion, the lama had changed the lineage prayers of Karma Pakshi. Sister Palmo, you had knelt in contemplation in the shrine room. The Rinpoche had turned to you, and remarked:
"I shall not see you again. But after the passing of time, we shall be re-united."
A look of compassion shadowed the Rinpoche's face and gave a sudden presentiment of your passing.
From Africa, I had written earlier in the year requesting the Green Tara Initiation from your hands. Here, in the California Spring, you confer this empowerment, the authority to meditate upon the green and lovely form of Tara.
During the initiation, you instruct me not to see your physical aspect as a Buddhist nun, the composed woman of sixty-five, but I must instead concentrate upon you in the form of Green Tara, a sixteen year old virgin girl, bejewelled and blossoming in youthful vigour.
I enter the shrine room, and prostrate before you. The altar is piled high with offerings, flaming candles, and an image of the Buddha. I see you in the form of the radiant Goddess, Green Tara.
Before you bestow the initiation, you say:
"Every teacher, before giving an empowerment must speak of their authority and competence to do so. I have heard His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, speak very humbly of his own attainment before a great initiation that he was about to have given in India. The Dalai Lama was humble and modest as is any great lama. It is hard for me, with this in mind, to present my own accomplishments. Simply believe that I have the authority, and the ability, to bestow this initiation."
The reformer, Atisha, and Marpa, the translator, are among the ancient lineage holders of this initiation which has come down
through the line of Karmapa Lamas. As the ceremony progresses, you finally place the torma of initiation upon my head. At that moment, I see myself as the embodiment of Green Tara; she is both a reflection of yourself, and the deity beyond. This insight is one of the deep mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism, the knowledge that Tara is both a creation of mind, and a real deity.
In the Shrine Room, I meditate upon the beauty of this peaceful empowerment Tara's tranquillity is about your presence, Sister Palmo. It suffuses the Shrine Room, and makes those who have received the initiation aware of a centre of peace within their own hearts. Yet, even at this moment, I sense the poignancy. I must leave you again. I no longer have the certainty of finding you once more. Your life energy is diminishing.
Shortly before I leave, you receive me formally in the sitting room. In the robe of the Mahayana nun, you indicate the territory of shunyata, which the meditator will encounter in practice.
"The experience of shunyata shakes the foundation of one's being. But you must not despair. For a period, emptiness in the sense of living in a world without concepts, name and form, overtakes one. there is a sense of total aloneness, even meaninglessness. Students suffer intensely. Yet, it is essential to the path. All the practice of meditation upon form, sadhana, and empowerments lead only to this realisation. If we do not experience shunyata, then all the teachings of the Buddha remain dry discourses."
I listen intently. I recall your experience in Burma, the warning given by the Thai monk; the vision of the lotus upon the sea; how your life was irrevocably altered.
You continue to speak about the problems inherent in the practice of meditation:
"Meditation is never easy. Even with myself, it has been hard. Babajie allowed me simply to remain at home when as a lay woman I felt shattered, or unable to take upon the practicalities of daily life. Meditation means coming to terms with one's own energies."
I sense the rightness of your insight, and know from my own fragmented self just how delicate the energies of the subtler realms are.
"Recently, I received empowerments from His Holiness the Dalai Lama that had left me withdrawn. I felt removed from life.
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His Holiness Karmapa encouraged me rather to return to daily activities, and give up on the long hours of sitting practice. He urged me to practice Mahamudra, the awareness of life itself. You will discover this for yourself along the path."
This last profound advice is the final instruction that you give me. In retrospect, the essence remains. Now with you gone, this injunction still sustains me.
It is fitting that on the evening of my departure, Barbara plans a program of Tibetan music and mantra chanting. Sensing my departure soon, I feel the need to pay a special tribute to you. Barbara and I find the originals of the original Gelongma Palmo in a text, which you had translated into English. This ancient text speaks of Gelongma Palmo, who is a woman saint of remarkable siddhic powers, dwelling in the forest hermitages of India. Barbara reads this tribute to you, Sister Palmo, before the presentation of Tibetan music in the Shrine Room:
"The biography of the original Gelongma Palmo (known in Sanskrit as the Bhikshuni Srimati) who lived in the eighth century in India still exists.
"One should imagine the form of a woman with the yellow robe who lived in a hermitage, following the path of the yogi, dwelling in a forest, living a life of seclusion and meditation. We should not forget the powerful energies of Buddhism of that period. This was the time of the great Nalanda University, and the writings of the sublime poetry of Santideva.
The biography tells us in its spare fashion that the Gelongma Palmo showed herself in her outer form as the Bhikshuni, wearing the yellow dharma robe, with an uhsnisha mound upon her head, like the Buddha.
In her inner form, she manifested as Tara in green colour, removing all obstacles and hindrances. Thinking of Gelongma Palmo, in this form, we should recollect the very beautiful initiation of the Green Mother, which we experienced this morning.
In her secret form, the Gelongma Palmo appeared as a siddha, one who possesses miraculous powers. The story tells us that she appeared in the form of a siddha, cutting off her head, and put it on the trident of Guru Padmasambhava.
It is enough to see the Gelongma Palmo as one who had embodied a triple identity - the outer form of the woman in the yellow robe, the nun who had taken the renunciation, the inner form as an emanation of Green Tara, and the secret form of the siddha, the one of magical attainment.
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The Gelongma Palmo reached the Tenth stage of the Bodhisattvas when the natural, "the simultaneously arising of the mind" occurred, in its nature very pure, the understanding of the Dharmakaya is clear. The nature of thoughts are utterly pure, clear and transparent. The Gelongma Palmo possessed the Sambhogakaya body of celestial bliss.
All this happened in the heart centre of Bodh Gaya centuries ago, and where pilgrims still flock to the holy places of the Buddha."
You, Sister Palmo, of the twentieth century are moved at our insights into your pure nature. You are indeed an emanation of the ancient siddha, Gelongma Palmo, who dwelt in the forests of India. I follow the reading of the biography of the original Gelongma Palmo, with your translation of her outpouring of praises, the hymn to the bodhisattva, Chenrezi.
"The following lyric hymn to Chenrezi was composed by the Gelongma Palmo as an outpouring of praise. What is the nature of such praise? Most modern poetry is about people with blunted sensibilities and heavy samsaric experience. Little today is understood about an outpouring of praise. We have to retrace our steps back in time to those who did understand such an outpouring of the heart - Rumi, the great Sufi poet and sage, and St. John of the Cross...."
Then follows the hymn to Chenrezi.
"Om, Protector of the Universe, I bow down.
Praise him, lama of the Universe and the Three Spheres,
Praise him, the King of the Gods and Mara and Brahma
Praised by the Sakyamuni, supreme among Jinas, giver of
You, sister Palmo, listen to the rendering of the hymn to Chenrezi. It is the outpouring of your own great heart. You too know the ecstasy of St. John of the Cross, the heightened bliss of the Sufi poets. All this joy overflows from the hymn to Chenrezi, the glorious bodhisattva of compassion. As if an echo to all this, a bearded youth, chants with a deep resonance of sound, the Mani mantra. You acknowledge our tribute to you with a wordless recognition. We have penetrated your heart's essence.
Next morning, before my departure, you receive me. You are simply Sister Palmo, the woman who has taken the ordination, and wears the robe of the nun. You are formal, and place a traditional white scarf about my neck, and bestow the "head blessing", a bond shared between guru and disciple. The warmth of your brow amazes. How can I ever doubt that this life energy might cease! Then I leave your presence for the last time.
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On my return to Africa, I am moved by Barbara's letters from Mount Shasta, which describe a retreat you made on the slopes of that ancient mount, revered by the American Indian. Here at the foot of Mountain Shasta, a non active volcano, 14,000 feet high, you completed a two week retreat. Attended by Barbara, and your Tibetan nun, Pema Zangmo, you spend the days in meditation. The cry of coyotes, changing winds and the gusting of trees does not disturb. The mind remains natural, beyond the dualities. The territory of formless Mahamudra meditation.
Sister Palmo, you emerge from the retreat with a radiancy. You possess the mien of a wise and powerful deity. You have achieved an insight which is far from empirical thought. A deeply intuitive insight of the unity of nature, and the acceptance of impermanence and death.
Returning to San Mateo, you celebrate the tenth anniversary of your ordination as a Buddhist Nun. A decade earlier, you had on ordination adopted the name Karma Khechog Palmo. You wore the maroon robe of the Bhikshuni for the first time. You went about shaven headed. With a fierce devotional energy, you had worked for the welfare of Lamas, and the bringing of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Now, in the garden at San Mateo, you look back on those eventful years. Many come to the anniversary celebrations. Musicians play in the garden. There is an anniversary cake with ten burning candles, one for each year of your saga as a nun. old friends in America, new young students, Allen Ginsberg and Lama Karma Thinley, of Toronto come to wish you well and great happiness. I who am far from you that day send you a letter in which I try and speak of the meaning of your ordination to me in my own life:
My Dear Mummy:
I would wish very much to be in your presence during the celebration of your Renunciation. As this is not possible, I shall simply meditate at my own shrine.
In my own life, I see with clarity the three poisons - greed, ignorance and hatred, the feelings which sway both the mind and the emotions. The only release is to cease from suffering in the manner in which the Buddha discovered it for all. The natural outcome of such thoughts is the taking of the Renunciation or the Going Forth. Surely, the Renunciation is not only the relinquishing of attachment and craving, but also the reaching out towards a greater compassion and emotional maturity.
In reading the life of the Buddha, I find again and again this phrase. Here it is repeated as when Yasa, the young man, said to the Buddha:
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"Lord, I wish to receive the going forth and the Full Admission of the Blessed one." "Come Bhikku," the Blessed one said: "The Law is well proclaimed. Lead the holy life for the complete end of suffering."
This is the great simplicity, which is found, when all else has been exhausted.
When the Blessed one spoke to Yasa, and others, the phrase repeatedly recurs:
"...the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma rose up in him."
I wonder what is meant by that immaculate vision of the Dhamma. Is it the thought that urges one to enlightenment? Is it the essence of bodhicitta, the Buddha nature? These are words that suggest complex intellectual stirrings. But in essence, I think that the "spotless, immaculate vision" does not refer to a vision of life that is purely intellectual. Rather, it is an innate understanding of original mind, the radiant void.
These are my thoughts on this day of your perfect Renunciation. There is nothing material that I can offer since all material things are exhausted and subject to change..."
My letter does reach you on that anniversary day in California. Your reply, Sister Palmo, arrives some weeks later. You continue on your journey - first to New York, and then make an unexpected trip to your son, Kabir, who is filming in South America. After this detour, you cross the Atlantic for a brief two days in London. Finally, when you do return to India, in September, you write from Calcutta:
"....your beautiful anniversary letter, and the poem that is deep and meaningful, as well as the book, "The Life of the Buddha".....just the cool water of Dharma, I was looking for....reached me. All treasures. This is the true meaning of His Holiness Karmapa' Guruji's stress on Triyana Dharmachakra. Without the Golden Buddha and the sutras, the very foundation of Tibetan Buddhism is missing."
"I am truly happy that you have found it all....and I know in my heart that this is a sign for you one day, hopefully in this life itself, there will be a Rabjung or Going Forth, when your family responsibilities are fulfilled...."
Your letter was something that I could hardly bear to read. I am a woman, with a family, and a vocation. But that you should have considered me worthy of such a revolutionary step, as the
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ordination of a Buddhist nun, moved me to tears. Rather, I now think of this progression in a future life time. The present, the power and beauty of the world still summons me. Significant therefore, that this knowledge of an aspect of my own nature had to come miraculously from your intuitive insight. I would never have had the courage to speak about any of this directly to you.
There comes a day when I am far from you. I am sitting in meditation before my shrine. You are in retreat in Rumtek Monastery. Yet, I sense your presence, the warmth of your hands upon my head, the joy of your smile. Quite suddenly, I see it. Realise that this quality has always been there. It is the innate purity of my own mind, the radiant void that is without beginning or end. The first glimpse of Mahamudra, the naked awareness of mind itself. A verse of meditation, which you had translated returns to me:
"As the Great River flows on
Whatever meditation sitting you do silently
This then is always the Buddha's nature enlightenment
The world just isn't there
And all this is the great Bliss."
You, Sister Palmo, have always known this. Your mind is the effortless and flowing mind o the state of Mahamudra.
Sister Palmo, you died on the 28th of March, 1977. Pema Zangmo, your attendant nun, wrote on that last day of your life. It was no different to any other day that you had crowded with love and care:
"...now I would like to tell something about our late Mummy. Before the death of Mummy - that is about 6 p.m. - there was a Tibetan Friendship Group Conference. AL that time she had no trouble or illness at all. There were many people from different countries there. They had a grand feast, and our late Mummy gave a speech. After the conference, we went for a walk to see her relatives. Moreover she gave advice to many devoted disciples. .
"After a few hours, we had a short rest, and I went to see her. I thought she was sleeping. But unfortunately, she had gone forever, leaving me behind. There were many good signs on that day. She passed away in the meditation pose, her face tangled by rainbows. A light rain was falling outside. Everybody was surprised at the auspicious signs rare for this time of the year. Many spoke that they were lucky to have seen the MAHATMA - the great holy one...."
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Sister Palmo, your death was peaceful. By the manner in which you departed, in the meditation pose, you defeated the terror of death. You had escaped by the power of yoga, through the brahmananda, the exit of the yogi's, at the crown of the head. Only your physical body journeys to the cremation ground. You are dressed in the maroon robe of the Mahayana nun, and flowers surround your body. Your sons kneel and weep joyfully. Numerous rainbows are seen in the sky. Many high lamas chant prayers in order to reconcile your essence in the bardo world. Kabir, your son, and Pema Zangmo, take your ashes to Rumtek monastery. What is left of your physical body is returned to its rightful place. What is of the essence, the spirit, lingers in the Clear Light Void.
Though death had manifested itself in you, my beliefs are not shattered. Rather, I see the wisdom in becoming reconciled to impermanence and suffering. These are the basic tenants of Buddhist thought. Sister Palmo, you were as much a bundle of flesh and tendencies as myself. I grieve for you, but only out of my own loss of your presence in my life.
Yet, by virtue of your Bodhisattva Vow, you must return to Samsara in order to work unremittingly for the sake of all sentient beings. You embody too much of the nature of Green Tara, the female bodhisattva, to abandon re-birth and seek a high place in the Sukhavati Heaven. on the forty-ninth day of the bardo period, you will incarnate in a new body. Your essence will again touch the living. Yet, I will not. see you again, Sister Palmo, in this life. The experience was lived out. The texts which you had translated continue to inspire. I travel the path of Dharma which you opened.
Since your death, I have had three consecutive dreams. In these dreams, you appear in repose. You are dressed in the robes of the Mahayana nun. In your right hand, you hold a bunch of golden hanging fruit. You speak the words:
"This is the teaching. This is all there is to understand."
The Koan which you gave is the jewel of the Tibetan teaching; the realisation that Samsara and Nirvana are in essence one. An understanding that goes beyond any formal sitting practice. The essence of Mahamudra, awareness in life itself.
Sister Palmo you passed through the "gateless gate" on the journey of "there being no path to traverse." The world simply is, and your presence allows life to flow on.
First Edition: Maitri Publications, Cape Town, 1984.
(Copyright) The Library of Congress No. Txu 140-945
Electronic Edition. Cape Town - 19th April 1999.
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