For a long time I've been wanting my dear spiritual friend Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo to meet Gloria Steinem. Jetsunma is a British born Tibetan Buddhist nun, who started the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery Project in northern India for nuns of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. I met her in 1995, when she was touring the U.S., teaching the Dharma and expressing her wish to build a nunnery for nuns of her lineage. She reflected often on the poor conditions in which a female spiritual seeker in the East must thrive. Nuns are rarely given equal treatment to monks, and are rarely supported in their spiritual development -- although that situation, due largely to cultural norms, is changing now.
Tenzin Palmo traveled to India from England at the age of 20 to find a spiritual teacher, and spent close to 14 years in retreat in the Himalayas. Some time before he died, her teacher, Khamtrul Rinpoche asked her to set up a school for nuns. I met Tenzin Palmo on the occasion of her giving a teaching at the Namgyal Institute of Buddhist Studies in Ithaca, New York, where I was studying at the time. As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I was thrilled to meet someone who was not only thoroughly versed in Tibetan Buddhism, but seeped in the cultures of East and West, and, to top it all, a woman who spoke English! Not only is the combination I just spoke of very rare, I can count on one hand the number of individuals who have impressed me profoundly with their level of kindness, sincerity and depth of spiritual knowledge. She is definitely on that list. So anyway, after attending a couple of her teachings, I felt compelled to help her with an east coast tour and had the privilege of traveling around with her for a few months. Subsequent to that, a biography, A Cave in the Snow, by Vicki MacKenzie, and a compilation of teachings, some of which I transcribed, became Reflections on a Mountain Lake, Practical Teachings on Buddhism, by Tenzin Palmo. This year, Jetsunma published her second book, Into the Heart of Life, which I just finished reading. It is available through Snow Lion publications, and is a startlingly lucid and beautifully practical account of what we must all do in order to be happy in this lifetime. One can only ask oneself at this juncture, who wouldn't want to read it? My quick answer is, lazy people who do not wish to be responsible for their own happiness. Hopefully, the individuals reading this article, are of the other variety.
I have kept in touch with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo through the years, maintaining a proper level of astonishment at her remarkable accomplishments while I trudge along in Western samsara. Now and then I have had the wish that she meet Ms. Steinem, someone who clearly has influenced women's development in society in the the West, and particularly, after noting in recent years that Steinem has been plumbing and writing about her own inner life. We are all indebted to Ms. Steinem in the West for her many efforts to help elevate the status of women. I was very pleased therefore when I heard that she and Jetsunma were going to be meeting for a talk at the Rubin Museum in New York this June. The talk, part of Jetsunma's recent tour, went swimmingly, although I was disheartened to hear afterward from Ms. Steinem that "Buddhism has absolutely nothing at all to teach feminism."
On this point, I have to disagree. Feminism has mostly been concerned with freeing women from the shackles of society. Buddhism is concerned with freeing all beings. If feminists had launched out with the latter attitude in mind, we would have come further. Secondly, anger, often part of the activist agenda, and certainly part of the feminist agenda, has done no good whatsoever to advance causes. Buddhism recognizes the devastating consequences of this emotion, and has practical methodology for dealing with it. Feminism does not have such strategies, has not cared to employ them, and therefore, we are, arguably, suffering the 'two steps back' at this time after the big step forward made by feminism in the last century.
What the discussion between Ms. Steinem and Jetsunma proved above all is how two accomplished masters who understand the importance of 'keeping the peace,' can agree to disagree.
There were many interesting points shared, and it was illuminating to attend the discussion between Jetsunma and Ms. Steinem at the Rubin. What it boils down to is this: You can come to the Buddha within, the Christ within, from the outside in, as Ms. Steinem did, or from the inside out, as Jetsunma did. The proof is in the pudding. I'll opt for the latter, and for smaller steps backward.