Overview of my Conversation with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

I retreated at Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s women’s dharma centre in the Indian Himalayas recently on a full moon day. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and I talked about the power of loving-kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and self-assuredness (a great faith in oneself and/or oneʼs abilities, she clarified). And how these qualities must truly first be cultivated in oneself before we can truly practice them with others. I shed some tears. She shed one.

We also talked about how we reflect “other” simply by just being in our power, our Truth – re: living our life righteously. How sometimes this reflection can be so glaring that “other” can come back with all kinds of fear in the form of anger, resentment, and attempts to control. Yet our practice continues to simply be that which we naturally are – following the tune and rhythm of our heart and soul. The rest – well, don’t worry about it, she advised. By worrying, we play into the fear of being dished at us, and further, perpetuate it. We give it traction, we give it life. Can we respond with a form of love instead? One that truly supports the path we are walking, and simultaneously evokes love for “other.” As the Sanskrit mantra goes: Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhanvantu. (Translation: “May all beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.”)

I thanked Jetsunma for her work; for creating and holding the space at this dharma centre; for supporting the RISING of women. It was truly a delight to sit with her, a gift that I am so very grateful for. I hope to walk with what has reflected me, and share it with those around me through simply Being it.

Jetsunma only further inspired me as a woman walking the path as my whole life, despite the unrelenting and conforming attempts of family and society. Just like she did, she said.

On Belonging

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s father left his body when she was just two-years-old, so she was raised by her mother and an elder brother. She remembers her mother as always being a very strong lady who was spiritually inclined, therefore she never missed having a father.

In India, when she became a nun, she found herself in a world where monks were the establishment. Because she was not a monk or a layperson, she didn’t seem to belong anywhere.

In the beginning, she thought this was the issue. However later in the 70s, she traveled to the Himalayan town of Manali. She stumbled upon a big book of writings on the subject of feminism. She had never encountered the term previously. She read eagerly through the articles, with everybody around her amused. However, for her, it was like unexpectedly taking a big drink after being in a desert for so long.

Empowering Women – The Beginnings

In 2008, when His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa (Head of the Drukpa Lineage) granted her the “Jetsunma” title (which means “Venerable Master”), a nearby Drukpa nunnery of 50 nuns had invited her following the ceremonies to enact the ceremony themselves. Afterward, the head nun cried. She said, “Of course I like to make offerings and to honour. But in 20 years of doing this…it’s all been, males. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to honour a female.”

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo had apologized for being Western. And the head nun had said, “No. Western or Eastern makes no difference – you’re female. Finally, we have a woman we can look up to.” (Source: An Interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition)

And it was then that Jetsunma had thought, this is true because we do look for insight and wisdom amongst our own sex.

“We go into temples and they’re full of all the lineage lamas who are male. What message does that give to a young girl, except that somehow she got trapped in the wrong body because of the bad things she did in a past life?” (Source: An Interview with Jetsünma Tenzin Palmo, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition)

Obstacles & Inspiration

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo has conveyed challenges inflicted on her simply because of her gender. For instance, when she first arrived in India she lived in a monastery with 100 monks. She was the only nun and equates this to why she ultimately went to live in solitary in a cave. She remembers the monks as kind and had no issues of sexual harassment. Yet she has said, she was unfortunately within a female form.

They actually informed her that they prayed that in her next life she would have the good fortune to be reborn as a male so that she could join in all the monastery’s activities. In the meantime, they said, they didn’t hold it too much against her that she had this inferior rebirth in the female form. Because it wasn’t too much her fault. (Source: Feminism Awakens in Buddhist Art & Meditation, Huffington Post)

In fact, gender bias has only made her more resolved to do her part in ending it. “I have made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form – no matter how many lifetimes it takes,” she has lamented.”(Source: An Interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition)

Fervent for guidance and training, Jetsunma felt disturbed that she was excluded from the majority of monastic activities because of discrimination, for what turned out to be the next six years.

Cave Life

She then stepped out of the monastery upon her teacher’s suggestion to go to Lahaul in the Indian Himalayas, where she would subsequently enter the cave and begin a 12-year period (1976 to 1988) of uninterrupted, intensive spiritual practice. This powerful experience imparted many struggles, inner expansion, and transformation, (as chronicled by Vicki Mackenzie in the book, Cave in the Snow – a biography on Jetsunma).

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo says despite that traditionally all the religious texts were written by men for men – they, of course, present only a male point of view.

“With the rise of the feminine voice, the confidence and empowerment of women will naturally follow. The rise of the Sacred Feminine. This will benefit everyone,” she has affirmed. (Source: The Sacred Feminine, Shallow Holes and Practicing In our Daily Life – Interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Freedom Yoga)

“So what we are trying to do now is allow the feminine voice to also emerge, as you’re doing. And that comes through education and through practice and through the nuns’ sense of their own self-worth, which is the hardest thing. The education and the practice they can get very easily; the sense of their own self-worth is the harder one for them. But it’s happening and in a very short time. The monks themselves are very keen for the nuns to become educated; they are the teachers, and they encourage the nuns a lot. I don’t want to give the impression we’re doing this in the face of tremendous resistance from the male side, because that’s not true.

“But there is resistance toward higher ordination for nuns in the Tibetan tradition. At the moment, they can only take novice ordination. We’ve received surprising resistance from the monks over allowing nuns to receive the full higher ordination, even though this was granted to them by the Buddha himself. There is also resistance to giving the nuns—who have studied maybe 12, 15, 20 years – any official acknowledgment or title. It’s like going to college and, at the end of it, not even getting an MA or a Ph.D. You just say, well, I studied. So we have a ways to go, but we’re going.” (Source: “Waking Up to Patriarchy, Lion’s Roar)

“Throughout Tibetan history,” she has noted, “there have been many great female meditators – yoginis – but little has been written about them, so they are not very well known.” But the tide is turning. “After having been completely neglected, ignored, and underestimated by Tibetan society, the nuns are now starting to become more popular. People are at least aware they exist and are bringing them real support. And there will soon be geshema! [The geshe degree is the monastic equivalent of a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist studies, and until recently has granted to men only.] From now on, there is nothing you cannot accomplish in a woman’s body.” (Source: There’s Nothing A Woman Can’t Accomplish, Lion’s Roar)


The Formation of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery

Following the guidance of her teacher, the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, Jetsunma’s vision was to found a nunnery to grant young nuns of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage the chance to explore and recognize their intellectual and spiritual potential after many centuries of neglect and also to re-establish at the nunnery the Togdenma (yogini tradition).

“When we ask these girls, teenage girls, why they want to become nuns, they often say, “I look at my mother, my aunt, my older sisters—I don’t want that life. I want to do something really meaningful with my life; I want to benefit myself and benefit others by study and by practice.

“You might think being a nun is very difficult and restrictive, but for them, ironically, it’s actually freedom from the alternative, which would be to get married, have a child every other year, work in the fields, work in the home, take care of their aged families, often while married to someone who drinks and comes back and beats them. Especially nowadays, when they can be educated and do long-term retreat, this is an incredible opportunity for them to discover who they really are and do what they really want to do.

“Because we have to reestablish in India and Nepal more or less what we had in Tibet. We’re very much bound by traditions. Everybody wants to repeat how it was before. But you are starting something new, so you can do anything you want. Just think it out very carefully because once you start, it’s difficult to change.” So I sat down and thought about it: If I were starting out as a new nun now, how would I like to be trained? What would I like to be given? And that’s how I worked out the program, so I could give them what I never had.” (Source: “Waking Up to Patriarchy, Lion’s Roar)

Dongyu Gatsal Ling is a Nunnery for Himalayan women in the Drukpa Kagyu Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, founded by Jetsunma. It means “Garden of the Authentic Lineage.” The nunnery’s intention is to support nuns with education, practice, and practical skills that will empower them to facilitate nunneries in the future. Encouraging more women to become teachers of Buddhism is also a pressing matter.

Background on Jetsunma and her Roles

In addition to her role as Founding Director of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, Jetsunma is President of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, Founding Director of the Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns; Honorary Advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and Founding Member of the Committee for Bhiksuni Ordination.

In 1967 she received the sramanerika ordination at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim from H.H. the 16th Karmapa. As full ordination is not yet available for women in the Tibetan tradition, in 1973 she traveled to Hong Kong to obtain the bhikshuni ordination at Miu Fat Temple.

Tenzin Palmo lives, teaches, and oversees Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery most of the year. She periodically tours to teach and raise funds for the nunnery.

Moving Forward in the Rising of Women

Awarding her the rare title of Jetsunma” was in recognition of her spiritual achievements as a nun, and her growth and her efforts in promoting the status of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism. Her initial response was to renounce the recognition.

“But,” she says, “I received so many e-mails saying how wonderful it was and how it highlighted the status of women that I realized this title had nothing to do with me but concerned women in general. And for this, I could only say thank you.” (Source: There’s Nothing A Woman Can’t Accomplish, Lion’s Roar)

She decided to confer with Gyalwang Drukpa about the names typically given to nuns, like Ani (aunt) or Chomo (woman of the house). She suggested “Tsunma” – a reference to something noble, delicate, pure. The nuns accepted the proposal and began using this term with one another.

“When the Karmapa came to visit Dongyu Gatsal Ling in 2014, I noticed that he also used this term. That was wonderful. The sound of the word immediately gives a positive impression in the Tibetan mind and you know how much we are influenced by language.”(Source: There’s Nothing A Woman Can’t Accomplish, Lion’s Roar)

Actually Buddha Was A Feminist

The Buddha was the first teacher who gave women the absolute freedom to engage in spiritual life. Prior to this, women had been restricted to the kitchen and were not permitted to enter temples, nor recite scriptures. During the Buddha’s time, women’s place in society was very depressed. The Buddha was chastised by the prevailing establishment when he gave this freedom to women. His support for women to enter the Holy Order was exceptionally radical for the times. The Buddha backed women to step up and show that they too had the capability to reach the highest position in the spiritual way of life by attaining Arahantahood.


Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery Website

“An Interview with Jetsünma Tenzin Palmo” (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition)

“Waking Up to Patriarchy” (Lion’s Roar)

“There’s Nothing A Woman Can’t Accomplish” (Lion’s Roar)

“The Sacred Feminine, Shallow Holes and Practicing In our Daily Life – Interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (Freedom Yoga)

“Feminism Awakens in Buddhist Art & Meditation” (Huffington Post)

“Female Enlightened Manifestations and Female Teachers and Lamas – Wisdom Action; Reader Poll and Interview with Lama Shannon Young” (Buddha Weekly)

Buddhism & Women (BuddhaSasana)