Thursday, August 28, 2008

'Cave in the Snow'

by Vicki Mackenzie
Non-Fiction/Religion/Biography, 1998
Bloomsbury, trade pb, 217 p.
How an Englishwoman, the daughter of a fishmonger from London’s East End, has become a Buddhist legend and a champion for the rights of women to attain spiritual enlightenment.
In 1976, Diane Perry, by then known by her Tibetan name, Tenzin Palmo, secluded herself in a remote cave, 13,200 feet up in the Himalayas, cut off from the world by mountains and snow. There she engaged in twelve years of intense Buddhist meditation. She faced unimaginable cold, wild animals, near-starvation and avalanches; she grew her own food and slept in a traditional wooden meditation box, three-feet square – she never lay down. Her goal was to attain enlightenment as a woman.
I enjoy visiting temples and shrines in Japan, usually with camera in hand, for the beautiful architecture and the peaceful atmosphere, especially of the Zen temples. So I’d like to know more about the religions behind them (primarily Buddhism and Shintoism) and to that end I read a couple of books on Zen Buddhism last year, but they only left me more frustrated and confused than before I’d read them. So you can imagine that I was a bit relieved to learn that Tenzin Palmo also found Zen inaccessible when she was first introduced to Buddhism.
Zen, with its riddles and clever intellectual gymnastics, the other form of Buddhism on offer at the time, filled her with despair. ‘I can remember lying in bed sobbing because it was completely beyond me! It was so full of paradoxes. Now I enjoy Zen but if that had been the first book I’d picked up I would never have gone on,’ she said.
After those two books, I did wonder when I’d get around to reading more on the subject. Thankfully my aunt gave me this book when I was back in Canada last fall. (Thanks O!) This proved to be a very interesting read! Of course it’s focusing on Tibetan Buddhism, rather than the Japanese variation, but it was a great way to get a feel for some of the basic ideology and the story of how Diane Perry became Tenzin Palmo was in itself fascinating! The author, Vicki Mackenzie, did a wonderful job of telling the story. It was completely readable and she essentially turned the story of a Buddhist nun into a page-turner! Recommended for anyone who likes a good biography, or likes to read about strong, determined women, or who is interested in learning a little about Tibetan Buddhism or spirituality.
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.
‘Our minds are like junk yards. What we put into them is mostly rubbish! The conversations, the newspapers, the entertainment, we just pile it all in. There’s a jam session going on in there. And the problem is it makes us very tired.’
‘The film Ground Hog Day was a very Buddhist movie,’ she says. ‘It was about a man who had to live the same day over and over again. He couldn’t prevent the events occurring, but he did learn that how he responded to them transformed the whole experience of the day. He discovered that as his mind began to get over its animosity and greed and as he started to think of others his life improved greatly. Of course, it took him a long time to grasp this idea because at the beginning of the movie he was learning to play the piano and by the end he was playing a sonata.’
Interview with Tenzin Palmo
Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery

My Rating: 4/5
(#36 for 2008, Non-Fiction Five Challenge, What's in a Name Challenge)


  1. Hi Nat :)
    This is definitely a book I would like to read so i am adding it to my list.
    Wow, sleeping in a space 3 feet by 3. A courageous woman...

    I hope you have a nice week-end

  2. Madeleine- I sure can't imagine sleeping in such a small place. I love my bed! :)

  3. Sounds like an interesting book, will check it out. I have enjoyed reading Zen parables and have always wanted to know a little more about Zen.

    I just found out recently that the word Zen came from the Sanskrit word 'Dhyan' which means meditation.

    Hope you are having a good Sunday!

  4. A Reader from India- This book is actually more about her personal journey with Tibetan Buddhism so it only mentions Zen very briefly. It was an interesting read though.
    And thanks, I hope you had a good weekend too. :)


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