Mackenzie, Vicki. A Cave in the Snow:
Tenzin Palmo's Quest for
London; New York, Bloomsbury, 1998.
Paperback edition has subtitle: A Western Woman's
Quest for Enlightenment.
This book is comprised of three parts: 1) the life of Englishwoman Diane Perry up
to becoming an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, 2) her twelve years of
seclusion, beginning in 1976, in a Himalayan cave 13, 200 feet in
elevation, and 3) her life after returning to the West. The middle part is
of particular interest here because it illustrates an eremitic tradition in
Tibetan Buddhism exemplified by the famous Milarepa in the 800's C.E. and by
the contemporary Togdens, the latter an isolated community of ascetics
possessing paranormal powers.
Tenzin Palmo (Perry's adopted name) learned of the Togden's female counterparts, Togdenmas, but discovered them to be nearly extinct, and resolved to reestablish their lineage. After six years in an isolated Lahoul monastery, she undertook a retreat in a cave as preparation.
The cave was actually an overhang on a natural ledge of the mountain. Open on three sides, Tenzin's associates walled in the structure, adding a door and double-glazed window. Ten feet wide and six feet deep, the spot had a magnificent view of the mountains and Lahoul Valley below, a nearby source of spring water, and profound silence and isolation. Her possessions included an old wood-burning stove piped outside, a wooden box for a table, a second for meditation and sleeping, plus a wall depression for housing books and articles.
The barren mountaintop was devoid of food, so all provisions were brought in, including kerosene, tsampa (a Tibetan dry bread), rice, lentils, flour, dried vegetables, ghee, cooking-oil, salt, soap, milk powder, tea, sugar, apples, and cut wood. The cave ledge she transformed into a garden bed which, however, only yielded turnips and potatoes - and flowers; other greens being consumed by rodents, her chief visitors.
She ate once a day, at noon, in keeping with a monastic tradition, always the same meal of rice, dhal (lentils) and vegetables, prepared together in a pressure cooker. "This meagre fare she supplemented with sour-dough bread (which she baked) and tsampa. Her only drink was ordinary tea with powdered milk. For desert [sic] she had a small piece of fruit."
The unrelenting cold was often minus 35 degrees F. in winter, though the cave remained relatively warmer. Tenzin lit her stove for her midday meal, but otherwise there was no source of heat, and she surely experienced much cold. Water was scarce in winter, rationed because the snow was not easy to melt. She slept upright in her meditation box.
"I was never lonely, not for a minute. It was nice if someone visited, but I was completely happy not seeing anybody," she told the author. However, there were animal visitors besides the rodents: wolves, a stoat, martens, a snow leopard (which she did not see but the footprints were confirmed by others). One chapter, entitled "Facing Death," relates an avalanche that nearly asphyxiated her in her cave. She left the cave only reluctantly when Indian authorities pulled her visa status, because an associate who had been renewing for her annually forgot to do so.
The first and third parts of the book have their interest, of course, but this section is relevant to eremitism. However, Tenzin Palmo does not relate much detail, nor did she keep a diary or write notes of her life. The author seemed to be at pains to get her to relate something more interesting of this period, but her subject regularly demurred. The book only hints at her travels, and livens up after Tenzin returned to the West. We could have wished for more about the cave in the snow, but probably the author did, too.
NOTE: Tenzin Palmo's first book, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism, London: Allen & Unwin; Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2002, includes similar biographical information in chapter 1, but not much more.