By Wayne Furlong

 

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo is an English Buddhist nun. She follows the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Jetsumna became famous as the Buddhist nun who spent twelve years living in a cave in the Himalayan region of Northern India. This led to a book about her life – “The Cave in the Snow”- which was written by journalist Vicki MacKenzie. This book has been translated into both classical and simplified Chinese.

When she was growing up, as Diane Perry, she was looking for a path in life. At the age of eighteen she was working in a library and found a book on Buddhism called “The Mind Unshaken” by John Walters. Halfway through the book, she told her mother, “I think I’m a Buddhist.”

At the age of twenty she travelled to India. On her 21st birthday she met the lama who become her guru and two weeks later, she was ordained.

All her life, Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo has been grateful to the Buddha for showing her the path she was seeking.

We recently interviewed her before she went to Hong Kong to attend the International Sakyadhita Conference, focused on women in Buddhism. 

GoVeg: If someone calls themselves a Buddhist, does that make them one, or are there beliefs or practices which they must attempt to follow?

JTP: A Buddhist does not have to follow strict beliefs and practices, but he or she must have:

        - an appreciation of the Four Noble Truths

        - a belief in karma and rebirth

        - an understanding of impermanence and no-self (anatta)

        - an understanding of the unsatisfactoriness of life.

        - an understanding of suffering and its cause. Suffering is caused by clinging. We cling to   

          things but everything is impermanent. Everything arises interdependently so is

          impermanent.

Understanding these things, a Buddhist should be kind, honest and compassionate and not cause suffering.

 

GoVeg: What is the place of food in Buddhism?

JTP: Buddhism is not concerned too much with food. It is more concerned with other things. However the First Precept of Buddhism is not to take life. This was difficult for monks in early times who did alms rounds to get their food. They would accept meat but would never ask for it.

Buddhism is the middle way and this applies also to food. We should not eat too much or too little.

GoVeg: People who become vegans or vegetarians usually do so for one of three reasons- compassion for animals, concern for the environment, or concerns about health. Does Buddhism say anything about these three things?

 

JTP: Buddhism speaks very strongly about compassion. We are all interconnected. In our countless past lives, all beings have been our mother. We would never harm our mother.

 

Also, all beings want happiness and don’t want to suffer. We all want to feel okay and not to suffer. I want that too. Animals, fish and spirits all want the same thing.

Buddhism does not say so much about the environment. In the old days, when Buddhism began, the environment was healthier. There were not so many people. It was natural to care for the environment. In Tibet, when people dug the earth to grow food, they only dug to a certain level as they believed that the earth belonged to other beings, to spirits. The sea belonged to fish and to Nagas, the spirits of the sea.

As far as health is concerned, Buddhism emphasises moderation- this includes eating in moderation.

GoVeg: If a Buddhist abstains from animal products simply to follow dogma, is it a good enough reason?

JTP: It’s a reason. It’s not a perfect reason. A perfect reason would be compassion. However, the mere fact of following this would be karmically wholesome. This is because you are not responsible in any way for the killing of an animal. The intention to kill is a very negative thing karmically. It is a very impure motive.

GoVeg: The five moral precepts of Buddhism includes abstaining from harming living beings. Some people say it is natural to eat animals and that abstaining is joyless self-denial. Is there joy in not eating meat?

 

JTP: Yes. What joy is there in eating the flesh of an animal? We love animals. We love our cats and dogs. We do not want to harm them and they do not want to be harmed. Pigs, cows, ducks and chickens are just the same. They want to live. If you recognise what meat is, the flesh of an animal, and you really think about the animal, you will be happy not to eat it.

 

In English we give meat different names from the animal names. We use French words instead. We don’t say we are eating cow. We call it beef. We call pig meat ‘pork’ and we call sheep ‘mutton’. If we call it what it really is, the flesh of an animal, what joy could there be in that?

There is joy in being guilt free.

Also, there are thousands of things we can eat that do not come from animals so there is no deprivation in eating plants.

As well as this, eating meat, especially red meat, causes many health problems.

GoVeg: Are you a vegetarian or vegan yourself?

 

JTP: At the nunnery where I live we are vegetarian. We have milk in our tea. Traditionally, Tibetans ate a lot of meat so in the beginning Tibetan Buddhists followed that. Now almost all monasteries are vegetarian. The nunneries were the first to change to vegetarianism.

This has been a big change and it has happened quite recently. Vegetarianism has become a big movement in Tibet. There are now a lot of vegetarians in Tibet, not just in monasteries and nunneries.

GoVeg: There is a growth in veganism everywhere, including in China. Why do you think this is?

JTP: I think there is a resurgence in China because people are trying to restore their identity.

China has changed a lot in recent times. There has been an emphasis on materialism and economic development. Now there is a hunger in Chinese people to find their identity. An example of this is the popularity of soap operas set in various ancient dynasties.

To reconnect with their Chinese identity, many are looking at the old Chinese traditions of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. At the same time, these things offer people meaning. Many Chinese people are now prosperous but, like in the prosperous west, many people still feel empty. The philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism appeal to people who are looking for meaning in their lives.

 

This is being encouraged by the Chinese government in many ways because the values are good. The Buddhist values are good for society. Everyone understands that we should be honest, compassionate and not cause suffering.

 

The type of Buddhism that is popular in China- Mahayana- came to China from India long ago. The Mahayana Sutras have several big tirades against eating meat so this idea of vegetarianism is well grounded in Chinese culture. Now it is being rediscovered.

GoVeg: Many people want to become vegan or vegetarian, but find it difficult socially. What can they do?

JTP:  Personally, I have always found that Chinese people accommodate vegetarianism quite well. If you go to a banquet there will always be plates of rice and vegetables. If you let people know, they will always prepare some food for you.

It is more difficult in the west where meat is often the centre of the meal. When I was 15 years old, my mother and I decided to be vegetarians but it was so hard back then and we didn’t stick to it. We couldn’t even find recipes. This was in the late 1950s.

If we decide to be a vegan or a vegetarian, our family and friends must accept that decision. Some years ago I was Italy and I got sick. I had to stay in hospital for a while. When I asked for vegetarian food, the hospital chef came out to see me. He asked me why I was a vegetarian. I told him what George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish writer, had said: “Animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends.”

That chef prepared me the most delicious food.

GoVeg: Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

JTP: Thank you and good luck. If you spread the word and more people change, many animals will be happy and the planet will be happier.

By Wayne Furlong

 

Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo is an English Buddhist nun. She follows the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Jetsumna became famous as the Buddhist nun who spent twelve years living in a cave in the Himalayan region of Northern India. This led to a book about her life – “The Cave in the Snow”- which was written by journalist Vicki MacKenzie. This book has been translated into both classical and simplified Chinese.