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Buddhist nun explains the importance of spiritual retreats

By Chris Bagley Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 06, 2002

The 20-somethings in slacks breeze into a café on University Avenue, hardly taking notice of a woman sitting hunched with her back to the sunlit doorway. They don’t know that she lived for 12 years in a cave smaller than the café’s restroom or that she has come here to help them along the path to enlightenment and happiness. 

The woman removes her hands from the folds of her crimson robes only to whisk away the flies that swoop down from the café’s high ceiling toward her close-shorn head. He pale blue eyes are piercing.  

“We never step back and look at what’s going on inside because we’re so captivated with what’s going on outside ourselves,” the Venerable Tenzin Palmo said, her hands now shooting from her sleeves to grasp the forearms of her tablemate.  

Tenzin Palmo, a nun in the Kargyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, will discuss that idea 7 to 9:30 tonight at the Berkeley Shambhala Center on Fulton Street, as part of a 12-day Bay Area tour that started Thursday in San Francisco. A seven-hour workshop at the center Saturday is entitled “Compassion in a Violent World.”  

It’s 1:50 p.m. Thursday, and the Venerable Tenzin Palmo has 10 minutes to sip down a latte before she begins her daily fast. The 59-year-old Buddhist nun was accompanied by the two Bay Area residents who were waiting to bring her back to San Francisco, where she held the first talk of the series. 

Tonight Tenzin Palmo will discuss the importance to Tibetan Buddhists of extended spiritual retreats, and how Easterners can balance the need for retreat with the pressing demands of daily life. 

“The people we’re facing are not monks and hermits and nuns,” she said. 

Tenzin Palmo, however, is a hermit and she always knew it. She was born Diane Perry in 1943 and grew up happy in the East End of London, but said she knew from the beginning that she was different. 

“I always felt that I was in the wrong place since I was a child,” she said. 

She would beg her mother to take her to London’s Chinatown, where she loved the food. She would draw Japanese Geishas in elegant Kimonos, she told biographer Vicki Mackenzie in “Cave in the Snow,” an account of Perry’s spiritual development. 

She boogied down to the tunes of Elvis Presley, but in the daytime she read the likes of “The Mind Unshaken.” She dated only Asian men at a time when interracial relations were still uncommon in Britain. 

When she read “Seven Years in Tibet,” one Austrian’s account of the mountain kingdom, something jelled in her, she said. In 1964, at the age of 20, she packed her bags and headed for the Himalayas of northern India, where Tibetan communities were growing in the wake of Communist Chinese repression. 

In the summer of 1964, Perry became the second Western woman to be ordained as a nun in the Kargyu order. She took on a Tibetan name.  

When Tenzin Palmo began her isolation in 1976, she didn’t set a specific time frame. But a cave at 13,200 feet became her home and a three-foot box became her bed. She continued her life there until 1985, leaving the cave for a couple of weeks each summer. During her final three years there, she neither spoke to nor saw anybody. 

But that silence, she said, fills her even now with a certain peace. Part of her mission tonight and during the rest of the tour is to bring the peace of the crisp, shimmering air of the Himalayan cave to the people of the workaday United States. 

“When I’m in the middle of great chaos, that’s when the clarity comes, and with that clarity comes great compassion” for people who feel only confusion, she said. 

“People are interested in hearing about how to live their lives skillfully. Everybody has this desire to be happy, but despite our best efforts, we wind up being miserable nonetheless. It could just be that we’re looking for happiness in the wrong places.” 

The nun leaves the Himalayas each year during the three-month monsoon season for a series of speaking engagements, workshops and meditation sessions. Entry to tonight’s talk is $20. Saturday’s workshop, which begins at 10 a.m., will cost $70. 

The money, she said, is going toward building a nunnery near Dharamsala big enough for 160 girls and women, along with a nearby retreat. Now, she said, she has 24 nuns living in a three-room mud-brick house. So far, her efforts have raised about half the money she needs. 

The nun declined through a spokeswoman to specify how much the total project will cost.