I’m reading ‘Cave in the Snow’, the story of Tenzin Palmo, an Englishwoman who spent 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. I have a mixed response to Tibetan Buddhism. On the one hand I feel quite a strong affinity with it, you can see people around it who have a lot of power and insight and compassion, and yet who are also unassuming and down-to-earth. But I just don’t get the whole renunciative thing, it seems to me like cutting off limbs that are there to be used. And I don’t get strange notions like aiming for perfection, for Enlightenment. That’s like imposing an idea onto our lives, and life is far too vast and unknowable to be able to do that. Nor do I get the first Noble Truth, that life is inherently uncomfortable and painful, and that we need to do something to end that (the 3rd and 4th Noble Truths). I’m quite happy to live with a certain amount of discomfort, and anyway discomfort is often creative, it’s like an astrological square.
When Tenzin Palmo (then Diane Perry) was about 20 (in the early 60s) she bumped into the soon-to-be famous – and notorious - Chogyam Trungpa in London. He was still a young man and had only just arrived in the West. He said to her that he’d been used to being a high lama in Tibet, and that he now had no disciples, and needed one, so could he teach her? She was only too pleased, and benefitted from his teaching. The book continues:
‘But Tenzin Palmo also experienced at first hand the more controversial side of Trungpa. She was neither upset, nor outraged (unlike his recent detractors), nor did she take the high moral ground. Quite the contrary. ‘I can remember the first time I met him. As I walked into the room he patted the seat next to him on the sofa, indicating I should sit beside him. We were in the middle of afternoon tea, eating cucumber sandwiches and talking about deep Buddhist subjects when I suddenly felt his hand going up my skirt. I didn’t scream but I did have on stiletto heels and Trungpa was wearing sandals! He didn’t scream either, but he did remove his hand very quickly,’ she said laughing as she recalled the event.
Trungpa was not to be deterred. ‘He was always suggesting I sleep with him. And I kept saying “No way,” she continued. ‘The fact was, he was not being truthful. He was presenting himself as a pure monk and saying that meeting me had swept him off his feet etc, which I thought was a load of baloney, although I did think he was ‘pure’ because I couldn’t see how a high Tibetan Lama would have had the opportunity to be otherwise. And I certainly was not going to be the cause of any monk losing his vows. I didn’t want anything to damage Mahayana Buddhism. If he had said to me “Look, my dear, I’ve had women since I was thirteen and I have a son, don’t worry about it,” which was true, I would have said, “Let’s go,” because what would have been more fascinating than to practise with Trungpa? None of the men I knew were anything like him,’ she said with surprising candour, referring to the fact that in the higher stages of Tibetan Buddhism in tantra, one takes a sexual partner to enhance one’s spiritual insights. ‘So, he lost out by presenting that pathetic image!’ she added.