The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and…
By Vicky Mackenzie
It began one hectic afternoon in 1976 at the Daily Mail, the fast, national paper in the hub of London’s Fleet Street. I was frantically meeting a deadline as a feature writer when the telephone rang. It was a friend, Leslie Kenton, health and beauty editor of Harpers & Queen, who wanted to speak to the editor. He wasn’t in, so I asked what she was up to. “I’m going to Nepal to meditate with the Lamas for a month. I’m leaving in three weeks.” “How wonderful!” I heard myself say. “Come with me,” she replied.
I’d never read a book on Buddhism, never seen a Tibetan Lama, had no notion of meditation, and had no secret wish to go to Kathmandu. Yet, somehow it seemed right. As a journalist, I had an insatiable curiosity to discover the new, the exciting, and the beguiling, and in 1976, Tibet and its Lamas were all of that. Having just emerged in exile from the secret Land of Snows, they carried with them the clouds of mystery of their special form of Buddhism. Maybe I could write about the Lamas and what they believed in? There was more. Strangely, for a sceptical journalist, trained never to be an easy believer, I had harboured since childhood a deep-seated interest in spiritual matters. In Sunday School, I loved the stories of Jesus; at University reading the mystical poets was a joy; and always my curiosity urged me to understand the hidden order that lay behind the outer show of reality. However, no priest, nun, or vicar could ever answer my myriad questions. “Have faith,” they said. It wasn’t enough. Perhaps these Lamas could oblige.
That month-long course, perch-ed in the Kopan monastery overlooking the Kathmandu valley, delivered more than I could have ever imagined. Lama Thubten Yeshe, round, jolly, extroverted, and his heart-disciple, the ascetic Lama Zopa Rinpoche, gave me insights that have sustained and intrigued me for decades. They were profoundly wise, funny, compassionate, and, to my delight, they loved questions and taught from experience not dogma. Trained in debate, where Buddhist tenets had to be justified by logic, blind faith was not for them. The big question at hand was how to alleviate the quagmire of misery, sickness, sadness, depression, irritability, anger, jealousy, dissatisfaction – in fact all the problems that afflict beings from birth to death and prevent them from finding lasting peace. “It is all to do with your mind,” they said. “Your thoughts, attitudes and mental habits create your reality. Understand and control your mind,” they said, “and you control your life.” To do that, you have to meditate. “Look within. Be your own therapist,” Lama Yeshe said.
I looked. My mind was clearly a mess. Thoughts, emotions, and memories were out of control. “Keep going,” Lama Yeshe encouraged. “Your mind has been with you since beginningless time. Slowly, like a wild horse you tame your mind.” My journey was obviously going to be long. “Never give up. Once started, you can see increments of contentment and understanding,” Lama Yeshe said. It was compelling stuff.
Returning to London I continued my meditation and Buddhist courses, while simultaneously introducing what I was learning into articles. I wrote about birth without violence, home deaths, near death experiences, mind-body links in medicine, the brave forays by the West into meditation. All pioneering stories – and Buddhism in disguise. My greatest (and proudest) scoop, was getting the first exclusive interview with the Dalai Lama for The Sunday Times in 1981. Over the years I’d interviewed countless celebrities, dignitaries, royalty, politicians, famous artists, and authors but none unnerved or thrilled me as much as His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
I was immediately off balance the moment he greeted me in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sitting room when he offered me the comfortable armchair, while he took the hard, upright one. Instantly I knew I was in the presence of The Presence, as his people call him. His eyes were the warmest I’d ever seen. There was no pomp, no self-importance, but a deep stillness, and a benign power coupled with a palpable compassion and empathy. As a professional, I organised my questions to fit the 40 minutes I’d been allotted. To my dismay, (and his minders’ who kept looking at their watches) His Holiness wanted to keep going. I improvised, asking questions about my own practice (off the record) and the benefits and problems of Tibetan Buddhism coming to the West. Never had an interviewee been so generous, or unpretentious. I conducted two further interviews with him, and became more nervous each time, as the magnitude of the man became more obvious.
My job and my spiritual quest were merging. Journalism segued naturally into books, when I was asked to write the extraordinary story of the reincarnation of my first teacher Lama Yeshe as a Spanish boy, Osel. But as I was putting the final full stop a thought hit me. Where are the women? Buddhism was full of magnificent spiritual masters, from the Buddha onwards, but had no woman reached high levels of attainment? If not, why not? If they had, why were they not visible?
And so it happened on a retreat in Tuscany, I met a Buddhist nun who had vowed to attain enlightenment. Tenzin Palmo, born Diane Perry in London, had just emerged from 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. And, she was glowing. Here was supreme spiritual achievement indeed!
Over several years I followed her. I accompanied her on her global teaching tours, from her hometown in Bethnal Green through Singapore, Seattle, California, Dalhousie, and Dharamsala. I climbed over 4,000 metres to her cave to see for myself the tiny space she had inhabited, with the breathtaking panoramic view of the snow peaks all around and a sheer drop into the abyss below. My admiration rose further.
Tenzin Palmo was always affable, happy to talk frankly about her extraordinary life, but became stern when I probed into her attainments and more personal areas that I knew the public would want to know.
I persisted, and she finally offered a cornucopia of spiritual gems, among them: “women aren’t satisfied with a lot of talk and theory, they want to crunch spiritual truths between their teeth”, and “real practice happens not in the cave but in daily life. There was no one for me to practise patience with in my cave.”
In Freda Bedi, subject of my latest book, I discovered another formidably inspiring woman with links to Tibet. Freda (1911-1977), born above a jeweller’s shop in Derby, England in 1911, broke all the rules of gender, race, and religion. She was the first Oxford undergraduate to marry a brown-skinned man, the first British woman to be jailed in India for siding with Gandhi against her own people, and the first woman of any nationality to gain full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in middle age. She also found time to have four children. Both Tenzin Palmo, who knew her, and the Dalai Lama thought she deserved a book. They were right. Another seven-year adventure ensued as I trekked throughout India, the USA, and Europe, tracing her footsteps and interviewing the many people who knew her. She emerged a complex and compelling figure, impressive in her many achievements, especially her fight for equal rights for women.
My own spiritual quest has been fed by my writing and my incessant questioning to try to understand what the Lamas were teaching. Through broaching the controversial subject of reincarnation, I was forced to acknowledge that the mind, or consciousness, is indeed vaster than we can ever imagine, and that while there was no material proof, there was enough visual ‘evidence’ and otherwise inexplicable behaviour in the Spanish boy, Osel, to suggest his mind was on the same trajectory as my former teacher Lama Yeshe.
Both Freda Bedi and Tenzin Palmo showed me that courage and persistence are essential ingredients in following a spiritual path. They took different paths: Freda went out into the world fighting for the dispossessed, refugees, the poor and the needy; Tenzin Palmo secreted herself away in a snow-bound, isolated cave before emerging as a wise, charismatic, and powerful teacher. Both women had one thing in common: a heartfelt compassion to help alleviate the sorrows of the world. And that, I was told, is what it is all about.