It was the Northwest's great fortune to be included on Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's last teaching tour in the United States. Due to the vision of Ani Gilda Paldrön Taylor of the Portland Sakya Center for Tibetan Buddhism, Jetsunma accepted an invitation to teach in Oregon. A sizeable audience at the Portland Dharma Center reflected various Vajrayana lineages, Zen practitioners and the wider community from both Washington and Oregon.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was the second western nun to be ordained by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa. However, probably what has earned her attention worldwide is her reputation for being the English woman who spent 12 years in a cave doing retreat in the remote Himalayan region of Lahul. She reluctantly stepped onto the world stage in the 90’s to become a leading spokesperson for the plight of Buddhist nuns and lobbies tirelessly for the full ordination of women in the Tibetan tradition (she herself is a fully-ordained Bhikshuni).
Jetsunma taught from "The Eight Verses on Training the Mind" by Geshe Langri Tangpa (1054-1123), a highly-revered text from the Mahayana mind training (Lojong) tradition. Although extremely short, this text encapsulates the bodhisattva ideal to positively change the mind. According to Jetsunma, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recites this same text as part of his daily practice.
After a European tour planned for 2009, Jetsunma is determined to remain at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, the nunnery that she founded in northern India. “I feel like a worn-out gramophone record,” Jetsunma said with a twinkle in her eye, insisting she is not a teacher. She feels the time has come to discontinue world tours in order to be available fulltime for the nuns.
After the formal teaching, a few audience members took the opportunity to ask questions about women's contribution to Buddhist practice. Jetsunma's passion lit up the entire room as she related stories of women practitioners and their potential. In particular, her enthusiasm was palpable when describing the unique female lineage she is destined to revive since its collapse in Tibet when invaded by Chinese military. This lineage of "togdenma," (female yoginis) dedicated their entire lives to spiritual practice as guided by the Khampagar Monastery branch of the Drukpa Kagyud.
Recently, the head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, enthroned Tenzin Palmo and bestowed upon her the title of "Jestunma.” His Holiness was adamant that a woman's achievement of spiritual practice be acknowledged, believing that such achievement has been overlooked for far too long in a predominantly male-centric culture.
Quick to point out that it is not a question of whether men are better than women (or vice versa) Jetsunma told the Portland gathering that her objective is to address a long-time imbalance that has deprived women of equality in education and spiritual practice. Speaking from the humility of her experience with striking clarity and wisdom, she emphasized:
"The world needs yoginis. This is the point. We need women who are not just realized but very deeply stabilized in their realization, with real understanding and knowledge of the Dharma because they have studied … so that in time they can come out and also teach. Because you know, all we women, we don't have so many female teachers and for the future we need them, don't we? It's just an example of what women can do."
After 2009, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo will continue for the remainder of her life to set the right conditions for training the yoginis. For the younger generation present at her talk there is every reason in their lifetime they will be able to reap precious teachings from these highly advanced women steeped in deep and stabilized practice.
For more information about the Portland Sakya Center, please visit www.portlandsakyacenter.com.
Contributor: Caterina De Re.
Photos: Caterina De Re.