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Cave In The Snow

Cave In The Snow by Vicki Mackenzie

Some of my favourite excerpts…

What had led her there, to that cave, I asked. ‘My life has been like a river, it has flowed steadily in one direction,’ she replied, and then added after a

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‘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.’

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women were getting anywhere in the spiritual selection stakes. The lamas who taught us were male; the Dalai Lamas (all fourteen of them) were male; the powerful lineage holders who carried the weight of the entire

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This then, is Tenzin Palmo’s story – a tale of one woman’s quest for Enlightenment.

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Among them was Rato Rinpoche (who now runs Tibet House in New York and who starred in Bertolucci’s film The Little Buddha) and the brilliant, charismatic and latterly notorious Choygam Trungpa.

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‘Our mind is so untamed, out of control, constantly creating memories, prejudices, mental commentaries. It’s like a riot act for most people! Anarchy within. We have no way of choosing how to think and the emotions engulf us. Meditation is where you begin to calm the storm, to cease the never-ending chattering of the mind. Once that is achieved you can access the deeper levels of consciousness which exist beyond the surface noise. Along with that comes the gradual disidentification with our thoughts and emotions. You see their transparent nature and no longer totally believe in them. This creates inner harmony which you can then bring into your everyday life.’

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To the Tibetans, however, rebirth was a certainty. We are all born over and over again, they said, in many different forms and situations and to families with whom we have strong karmic connections. In the eyes of the Buddhist, therefore, your mother and father may well have been your parents in a previous life, or maybe even your son, daughter, uncle, cousin, close friend or enemy. The bond had been laid down some time back in ‘beginningless time’and had been cemented in place through countless subsequent relationships. And so it went on, round and round on the wheel of life and death, the mind or consciousness being irrevocably drawn to its next existence by the propensities it had developed within itself.

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Ironically, her emotional anguish and her longing for affection finally worked in her favour. She explained: ‘One evening I looked inside and saw this grasping and attachment and how much suffering it was causing me. Seeing it so nakedly at that moment it all fell away. From that moment on I didn’t need to reach out.’

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detachment. It was a fundamental Buddhist tenet, deemed essential for getting anywhere on the path to perfection. For how can anyone feel compassion towards all living beings, the Buddha had argued, while in their heart they were dividing them into ‘friend’, ‘enemy’and ‘stranger’? Ideally sound it might have been, but detachment was also extremely difficult to attain, for in reality not many human beings actually want to live with that much equanimity. Later Tenzin Palmo was to remark pointedly: ‘People are always asking me how they can give up anger, but no one has yet asked me how to give up desire.’

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commented. ‘I once visited to a nunnery where the nuns had just come back from hearing a high lama teach. He had told them women were impure and had an inferior body. They were so depressed. Their self-image was so low. How can you build a genuine spiritual practice when you’re being told from all sides that you’re worthless? ‘

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‘The Buddha was truly Enlightened and saw things as they really were. Others, however, used the Buddha’s insights to serve their own purposes. So, rather than looking at our identification and obsession with the physical, the Buddha’s teachings were used as a means of arousing disgust towards women. If you have a monastic set-up, it is useful to view woman as “the enemy”,’ she added pointedly. The idea that women were ‘dangerous’, wiling men away from sanctity and salvation by their seductiveness and rampant sexuality, was as old as the fable of Eve herself. Tenzin Palmo was having none of it: ‘Really! It’s not the woman who’s creating the problem, it’s the man’s mental defilements. If the man didn’t have desire and passion, nothing the woman could do would cause him any problem at all,’

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she continued. ‘Women are supposed to be these lustful, seductive creatures but when you look at it, it’s absurd. Who has the harems? Do women have courts of men on hand to satisfy their sexual needs? Are men afraid to walk in the streets at night in case women will jump on them and rape them? Look at men in prison and the army, how they behave together! And how many male prostitutes are there? Even the male prostitutes that do exist are there to satisfy other men,’ she said, warming to her theme. ‘It’s all unbelievable projection. Men have this big problem and they put it all on to women because females happen to have a shape which is sexually arousing to them.

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Tenzin Palmo said prayers for her mother’s well-being and consoled herself with the thought that Lee, like herself, had not been afraid of death. ‘She viewed death as merely the shaking off of an old body in order to start again refreshed and energized. I knew she was looking forward to seeing her spirit guides, who she believed would meet her and look after her,’ she said.

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knew this too: ‘A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty,’ he had said, using the same metaphor of a prison that had occured in Tenzin Palmo’s dream. Tenzin Palmo was a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer.’ Actually one doesn’t have to be a great yogi to help others – the practices in themselves have great power and blessing,’ she commented. ‘I believe there are infinite beings embodying intelligence and love, always beaming in, always trying to help.

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could see for herself clearly her friend’s exceptional qualities. ‘Tenzin Palmo has deep-seated purity and, I would say, innocence. And the other thing is that she has true equanimity. Things that happen to her she neither objects nor supports – she neither pushes nor obstructs. She has this neutrality. She deals with what is happening without attaching any ego involvement to it. It’s not that she’s trying, the ego is just not there. I was amazed by her reaction when she was trapped in her cave and she thought she was going to die. I know if I had been in that situation I would have panicked. Instead she calmly did her death meditations. And when I heard that her supplies didn’t arrive and she almost starved, I was furious! I would have wanted to know why. She never bothered to find out though. Nor did she blame the Superintendent for breaking up her retreat. She knows that people have their karma. Still, to me that amount of equanimity shows a definite degree of spiritual advancement.’

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‘Why does one go into retreat?’ she went on hotly. ‘One goes into a retreat to understand who one really is and what the situation truly is. When one begins to understand oneself then one can truly understand others because we are all interrelated. It is very difficult to understand others while one is still caught up in the turmoil of one’s emotional involvement – because we’re always interpreting others from the standpoint of our own needs. That’s why, when you meet hermits who have really done a lot of retreat, say twenty-five years, they are not cold and distant. On the contrary. They are absolutely lovely people. You know that their love for you is totally without judgement because it doesn’t rely on who you are or what you are doing, or how you treat them. It’s totally impartial. It’s just love.

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‘When we normally think of resting we switch on the TV, or go out, or have a drink. But that does not give us real rest. It’s just putting more stuff in. Even sleep is not true rest for the mind. To get genuine relaxation we need to give ourselves some inner space. We need to clear out the junk yard, quieten the inner noise. And the way to do that is to keep the mind in the moment. That’s the most perfect rest for the mind. That’s meditation. Awareness. The mind relaxed and alert. Five minutes of that and you’ll feel refreshed, and wide awake,’ she assures them. ‘People say they have no time for “meditation”. It’s not true!’ she goes on. ‘You can meditate walking down the corridor, waiting for the computer to change, at the traffic lights, standing in a queue, going to the bathroom, combing your hair. Just be there in the present, without the mental commentary. Start by choosing one action during the day and decide to be entirely present for that one action. Drinking the tea in the morning. Shaving. Determine, for this action I will really be there. It’s all habit. At the moment we’ve got the habit of being unaware. We have to develop the habit of being present. Once we start to be present in the moment everything opens up. When we are mindful there is no commentary – it’s a very naked experience, wakeful, vivid.’

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dialogues. ‘There is the thought, and then there is the knowing of the thought. And the difference between being aware of the thought and just thinking is immense. It’s enormous . . . Normally we are so identified with our thoughts and emotions, that we are them. We are the happiness, we are the anger, we are the fear. We have to learn to step back and know our thoughts and emotions are just thoughts and emotions. They’re just mental states. They’re not solid, they’re transparent,’ she said, before delivering the bottom line. ‘One has to know that and then not identify with the knower. One has to know that the knower is not somebody.’

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The world that she had re-entered was a radically different place from the one she had left in 1963 when she had set sail for India. She saw for herself the stress and the insecurity, the job losses and the new phenomenon of homelessness. She read about increased crime, escalating violence and the drug problems. She witnessed her friends pedalling faster and faster in an effort to keep up. She noted governments everywhere swapping the principle of public service for economic rationalism; and now the new luxuries were cited as silence, space, time and an intact ecology. And she experienced first hand the great need for spiritual values in an increasingly materialistic society.

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The Dalai Lama had his own recipe for distinguishing between an authentic guru and a fake: ‘You should “spy” on him or her for at least ten years. You should listen, examine, watch, until you are convinced that the person is sincere. In the meantime you should treat him or her as an ordinary human being and receiving their

teaching as “just information”. In the end the authority of a guru is bestowed by the disciple. The guru doesn’tgo out looking for students. It is the student who has to ask the guru to teach and guide,’ he said.

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and how much determination and effort one puts into it,’ she went on. ‘Whether one is a monk, a nun, a hermit, a housewife or a businessman or woman, at one level it’s irrelevant. The practice of being in the moment, of opening the heart, can be done wherever we are. If one is able to bring one’s awareness into everyday life and into one’s relationships, workplace, home, then it makes no difference where one is. Even in Tibet the people who attained the rainbow body were often very “ordinary” people who nobody ever knew were practising. The fact is that a genuine practice should be able to be carried out in all circumstances.’

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