REVIEW: Into the Heart of Life by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Title: Into the Heart of Life
Author: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, PO Box 8500, 83 Alexander St. NSW 2065, Australia.
Date: 30 May, 2011

Reviewed by Louise Gilmore

More than 20 people from around the world joined Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo last year for a pilgrimage to the cave in the Indian Himalayas where she had spent 12 years meditating.

Many of us were out of condition and some were ill or injured. The climb itself snaked across a system of nearly vertical goat tracks at over 4000 metres altitude and took four hours. The climb down required us to traverse a steep slope covered in scree – tiny loose pebbles – and lasted a leg-wobbling three hours.

Mysteriously, no one had even so much as a stiff muscle the next morning. Was it the simple exhilaration of the achievement, or, I wondered, could the powerful practice of Tonglen have been involved? After all we were travelling with a highly realised practitioner; some would say a living dakini, in an area known as the Land of the Dakinis (Dakinis are enlightened energy in female form). Also we were waved up the mountain by a tiny group of her fellow nuns; ancient women who have been practicing meditation in this remote area for many decades. (Tonglen is the energetically alchemical practice of taking on the pain and suffering of others and transmuting it to goodness and happiness).

I was reminded of this mystery when I read Tenzin Palmo’s new book, Into the Heart of Life. It contains one of the simplest and most beautiful descriptions of the practice of Tonglen that I have ever read.

Tenzin Palmo is an English woman who became a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition nearly 50 years ago. Her initial naivety about spiritual training was soon dispelled as she realised that she, along with all the other nuns, would not be receiving the same teachings in the science of the mind, leading to enlightenment, that the monks got. In fact they were expected to be little more than servants for the men. In the early days she had to fight for every teaching she was given.

This experience inspired her determination to reach enlightenment in the body of a woman, traditionally thought to be impossible. Has she done so? She’s not telling, any more than she would discuss whether she used Tonglen to help us climb the mountain. Her proviso on enlightenment is ‘no matter how many lifetimes it takes.’

She may not be enlightened – yet – but she has written a most enlightening book. Into the Heart of Life is a collection of teachings on Buddhist philosophy taken from her years of travelling and speaking around the world. Each chapter is a complete teaching, followed by a selection of questions and answers that tease out some of the main points.

And although this is absolutely a book of guidance on Buddhism, it contains such accessible descriptions, stories and examples, in such clear language, that it is really a simple guide to decent living for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Her lineage, the Drukpa Kagyu, values experience over philosophy. In line with this, she teaches from a deep and embodied personal knowledge. There are chapters on the meaning of Buddhist staples such as impermanence, karma, happiness, renunciation, ethics and more.

And for those of us who struggle with trying to balance a spiritual life with everyday and family responsibilities, it is instructive to have a celibate nun tell us in the context of loving kindness that: ‘Our family, our children, our partners, our parents – they are our practice. They are not the obstacles to our practice.’

She describes the teachings in language that we can all understand. The traditional dualities most of us face – our longing for pleasure, praise, acquisition and a ‘good name’ and our fear of pain, blame, losing what we have or being disgraced, become, in her language, the eight worldly ‘hang-ups’.

Go to Page 68 and there is a simple three-stage meditation to bring us into a sense of ease with ourselves and later, teachings on shamatha (calming the mind) and vipashyana (developing wisdom). She urges us to grow up, take responsibility and work towards becoming spiritually mature.

Underlying the book like a fine steel wire is her determination to change a tradition and belief system about the role of women that has held sway for more than 1000 years. Proceeds from the sale of the book go towards the nunnery she has built near Dharamshala in Northern India, where local and Tibetan refugee women now receive most of the trainings they were previously denied.

I also need to note that the Australian publishers have made an unfortunate decision to use an unusually small and light typeface, which is somewhat challenging to read.

Still, it is worth it. Get your glasses, sit under a strong light and prepare to enjoy.


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Louise Gilmore

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