Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment
By Vicky Mackenzie
Publisher: Bloomsbury, New York, 1998.
Living in a cave is not a necessary condition for spiritual development. Still, it is inspiring to read about the quest for spiritual growth that led Tenzin Palmo, a British woman, to spend twelve years in a Himalayan cave. Written by Vicky Mackenzie, a journalist familiar with Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this book presents Tenzin Palmo’s life in a lively and detailed way, so the reader can understand the choices made throughout her life – even when these choices seem to be quite extreme. The story of her quest for enlightenment reveals profound spiritual insights.
Cave in the Snow starts in 1943, the year that Diane Perry, who later took the name of Tenzin Palmo, was born in the East End of London. It ends in 1997, when she was busy raising funds for Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, which has since become a flourishing institution for nuns specializing in higher Tibetan Buddhist education. The author traces Tenzin Palmo’s sincere search for the spiritual path that would best meet her needs. In her early years this quest started as a search for her identity, driven by her penetrating mind and a highly questioning nature, inspired by the spiritualist seances in her mother’s house, meandering along different religious and philosophical traditions and finally, at the age of eighteen, bringing her to the realization that she was a Buddhist. Once she had realized this, the real work could begin.
Questioning Tenzin Palmo critically but empathetically, the author helps the reader understand the exotic choice Tenzin Palmo made to live and meditate in a snow-bound cave. Asked what had led her to the cave, she replied:
My life has been like a river, it has flowed steadily in one direction …. The purpose of life is to realize our spiritual nature. And to do that one has to go away and practise, to reap the fruits of the path, otherwise you have nothing to give anyone else.
Going into a long retreat is an accepted and important method of spiritual practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, Tenzin Palmo’s answer on the question of whether an extended retreat from ordinary life is necessary reflects her non-dogmatic view on the subject:
Even for short periods, [a retreat] can be helpful. You don’t have to do it all your life. I think it would be very helpful for many people to have some period of silence and isolation to look within and find out who they really are, when they’re not so busy playing roles – being the mother, wife, husband, career person, everybody’s best friend, or whatever facade we put up to the world as our identity. It’s very good to have an opportunity to be alone with oneself and see who one really is behind the masks.
Although there are many ways to go into a retreat, Tenzin Palmo herself preferred to do it the traditional way. For three full years out of the twelve she remained in complete solitude, without talking to or otherwise contacting another human being. Reading about the details of daily life during the retreat, one is amazed at the logistics required to organize even a severely simple life, just to provide the proverbial ‘two square meals a day and a roof over one’s head’ while keeping time for meditation.
But the real focus of the book is not on the rigours of her retreat, but on Tenzin Palmo’s firm resolve towards her spiritual practice in general and the mind in particular, which, she said, “like a wild horse, needs to be reined in and trained.” The difficulties she faced are similar to those of anyone sincerely struggling in meditation practice. Asked what kind of obstacles she had encountered in her lonely retreat, she said:
When you get into the practice you begin to see how it should be done, and when it is not you begin to ask yourself “why?” In my case it came down to laziness, a fundamental inertia. That’s my main problem. It’s tricky. It’s not like facing the tigers and the wolves of anger and desire. Those sorts of problems you can grapple with. My failings are much more insidious – they hide in the undergrowth so that they are more difficult to see.
Ultimately she lays the greatest stress on the central importance of effort:
One knows how to practise, and of that one is perfectly capable. But one settles for second or third best. It is like getting the progress prize at school – one is not really doing one’s best. It’s a very low grade of effort and it is much more serious than having a bad temper. The times when I have genuinely put my whole self into something, the results have surprised even me.
Besides telling the story of Tenzin Palmo’s spiritual quest, her struggles and her insights, Cave in the Snow also provides an interesting glimpse into the recent history of Tibetan Buddhism. The author’s thorough knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, combined with her journalistic style of writing, offers the reader an informative and often entertaining picture of critical events in the spreading of Tibetan Buddhism to the West during the last four decades of the twentieth century. For example, the author tells how Tenzin Palmo, in 1962, first met Chogyam Trungpa, who became a well known and influential Tibetan lama (spiritual teacher) in the United States in the seventies and eighties.
Like the other lamas of that time he was wandering around lost and ignored, no one having any idea of the calibre of the teachers who come among them. Tenzin Palmo happened to be at this cross-over point, ready.“Shortly after I met him he turned to me and said: ‘You may find this difficult to believe, but actually back in Tibet I was quite a high lama and I never thought it would come to this but please, can I teach you meditation? I must have a disciple!’”
Tenzin Palmo’s life story reflects an exceptionally firm determination leading to choices that may seem extreme from the outside, but turn out to be quite logical in the context of her search. Apart from the inspiration that reading about such a remarkable life may evoke, this book also invites us to reflect on our own lives. What is our objective in life? To what extent do the choices we make actually reflect that objective? For the reader who is sincerely aiming for spiritual growth, Tenzin Palmo’s extraordinary life story may serve as an inspiring mirror.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.