"I can not imagine myself doing anything else. Sometimes people say, Oh, but isn't it boring? It's very interesting to look at what's inside your mind, how you react, and how you can possibly change it and to monitor the progress of your weakest point. It is very entertaining, I wouldn't call it boring at all!"
Ani Tenzin Palmo was living an ordinary life.
She had a loving family and went to university to be trained as a high school teacher. All the pieces seemingly fit together – on the surface, everything was good.
Needing a break before starting her career, Ani Tenzin Palmo decided to travel after graduation. After searching for the perfect location of her gap year, she got a one-year working visa and set off for New Zealand.
That's when everything changed.
In truth, Ani la wasn't looking for anything spiritual and was quite happy with her life. She just wanted to see another country and take the opportunity to gain new experiences before embarking on a new chapter as a teacher.
Her time working in New Zealand offered plenty of opportunities for backpacking around the breathtaking landscape of her temporary home. She was living the quintessential experience of exploration – the experience so many young adults have when looking for a break from the ordinary.
But after some time, she could feel herself being drawn to something more meaningful.
On one of her excursions, Ani la saw a flyer offering people food and lodging in exchange for a couple of hours of work each day. One of these places was a Buddhist center named Dorje Chang Institute.
"It sounded Chinese to me! I did not care too much about the name of Dorje Chang Buddhist center but I was very impressed by the picture of the stupa. I did not know what it was but somehow it grabbed my attention and my interest.”
Intrigued by the flyer, she wanted to see the place. But they told her they didn't need any volunteers upon her arrival. They sent her to their sister center, a Buddhist retreat located in the countryside of Coromandel Peninsula. The retreat center was very idyllic and serene so she decided to stay and work there.
At the time of Ani la’s arrival, two Buddhist nuns also lived at the retreat center. Ani la spent her first days watching Buddhist videos for beginners, and the nuns would explain the meanings as she probed them with questions. The lifelong learner had found a new passion that resonated deep within. Slowly they became friends; Ani la stayed at the center until her departure from New Zealand.
"I feel the more I learn about Buddhism, the more it makes sense to me. It teaches me to be completely in harmony with my own experience. I was especially impressed by the idea that all sentient beings want to be happy and don’t want suffering and we should care for all sentient beings but not just human beings.”
While Ani la was preparing to go home, the nuns told her, “if you really want to learn about Buddhism, you have to go to the Kopan Monastery November Course in Nepal.
A monastery in Nepal? Although it sounded incredible, she didn't have the money needed and her parents were waiting for her at home. So Ani la packed her bags and went back to the Czech Republic.
Back in Prague, Ani la met a friend who told her about an NGO that was looking for a volunteer teacher to teach English in India. It sounded like the perfect adventure, so she applied for the job and was sent to Ladakh. This teaching position put her in close proximity to Nepal and after 6 months of teaching Ani la finally made it to the November Course in Kopan Monastery.
“It was a very special thing, because you stay in a monastic environment so you need to follow their rules. Basically you need to behave like a monk or a nun.”
Her time at the monastery was the realization of a dream that had been sparked while learning from those two Buddhist nuns in New Zealand.
“When I was in New Zealand, the idea of being a nun already came to my mind. I was impressed with the kindness of the nuns I met. They seemed to be very stable and the ways in which they approach problems are different from other people. You know it was just a thought, I felt I didn’t know anything about being a nun, I was also concerned about how other people would think of me being a nun. But when I was at the November course, the wish of becoming a nun grew stronger in me.”
Although she didn't set out looking for a spiritual path, the beauty of the experience guided Ani la.
“I had never found anything that had me 100% convinced it was meaningful to do. I was not against having a family or having a good job, but it was not all that attractive to me. By the end of the November Course, I was determined to become a nun, but everyone told me, no, no, not so soon!”
Ani la went back to Europe and started working to save money for 2 years. But throughout that time, the idea of being a nun didn’t leave. Finally, in 2012, Ani la journeyed to Dharamshala in and was ordained by His Holiness Dalai Lama.
“His Holiness gave me the name Tenzin Palmo, for me, it was a simple and right decision, I have been very happy!”
Q: Have you ever practiced other religions or different Buddhist traditions?
Ani: No, not with other Buddhist traditions. My mother and my grandparents were Christians so I had some experience with Christianity – we went to church for Christmas and Easter.
Kathy: So when you told your family that you were becoming a Buddhist nun, it must have been a big surprise for them?
Ani: Oh yes. It was a big shock for both of my parents, they had no idea about Buddhism and monastic life. You can hardly see any monastics, monks or nuns in Prague – not even Christian monks or nuns. Especially the impression that monastic life was ancient, they could not imagine their daughter living an ancient monastic lifestyle. I remember when I felt I really should tell my family about my decision, I first told my sister whom I have been very close to and have a lot in common with. She was very surprised but she was also more open-minded. I asked her and her then boyfriend (now husband) to be present when I announce this to my parents and to help with the situation. So one day, my mother invited us for dinner and I thought this was the perfect timing. I went there and of course, my sister and her boyfriend were late so I had to do it myself.
Kathy: What were their reactions?!
Ani: At first, it was a long silence because they didn’t know what to think! Then the first question they asked was, “so we won’t be able to see you anymore?”
I said, “No no, we are still able to see each other. It was an important part of the pre-ordination preparation to ask the parent’s permission. I want to have your permission and blessing before I am ordained. They were somehow moved by my asking them for permission. They believed if this decision would make me happy and meaningful, they would support it.
Kathy: They love you so much! It was not too far for them when you still lived in Europe after you were ordained.
Ani: I stayed in Europe for three years then I went to Nepal. I lived in Kopan nunnery for seven years and that was another difficult moment for my parents when I told them that I was moving to Asia. They didn’t know anything about Asia, in their mind, they thought Asia was dangerous and had many diseases – people were poor and starving. My parents were very special, and even though it was difficult for them to conceive of what I was doing because it was so different from what they were, they never told me not to do it and were always very supportive. They both passed away now.
Kathy: Maybe they are Bodhisattvas in different forms!
Ani: Yeah, maybe! I think they collected good merits because they helped me so much and they were always there for me.
Q: How did you decide to live in a traditional Tibetan monastery
for 7 years?
Ani: After I finished 3 years of studies at Tzong Khapa Institute, I wanted to see the traditional monastic life to learn a better language and study in the traditional way. The tradition, at least in Kopan was, if you want to enter a monastery or a nunnery, you have to ask the abbot to accept you. So I went to the abbot to ask for acceptance.
Kathy: Did he accept you right away?
Ani: Well, I went to the abbot but he was not very impressed! At first, he said, “No, no, no, it would be too difficult for you, you won’t have your own room and you won’t have your own private teacher, it would be just too difficult for you.”
I didn’t know what to say, so after a while, he said without looking at me, “Well, if you really want to try, then ok, let’s try but don't ask for any exceptions, and don't try to change anything. I said: OK! So I had one year to try, let's say, a probation period!
Kathy: Was it really difficult like the abbot said?
Ani: Actually, it was a good time there and I was very happy for the first couple of years until Covid hit. I got a long Covid there and it became too much.
It was challenging for a westerner to live in the traditional Tibetan monastery even if you were healthy. I was the oldest in my class because the girls came when they were seven or eight. The older ones were maybe 20 and escaped from Tibet by their own decision. I was 35 at the time, so 10 to 15 years older than my other classmates. The number of things you could do when you were 20 and 30 was different. When I was healthy, I could manage but when I got Covid, I couldn’t memorize texts well because I had headaches all the time. We were not allowed to leave the nunnery because of the restrictions and I couldn’t buy extra food. All these factors made me decide to go back to Europe. In general, it was such a good experience, I am very grateful, the nuns and teachers were all very nice to me and I got to learn the Tibetan language.
Kathy: What do you find is the biggest difference between traditional Tibetan monastery life and western culture?
Ani: You just do what others do in the monastery. I was very determined and promised to do it so I did it. But I remember it was hard for other westerners staying at the monastery before me. It is difficult because they all have different personalities and they don’t like to do things that don’t make sense to them. Tibetans, they don’t question things too much, they just do what they are asked to do because it is a tradition and because this is how things are done.
It is also normal for laypeople who are capable of supporting the monasteries in the area. So once the abbot accepted me and I entered a monastery, I didn’t have to pay for anything, the food, the room, and the education was all covered.
For most of Tibetan nuns, they enter the nunneries when they are 15 or younger, they stay there for their whole life in the same place and the nunnery takes care of them. But in the West, it’s not like that, you never really know where you will end up living.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenge is for western
I actually think about it quite a lot because it's a huge change to come back from Nepal. Here, we have to pay for everything and I don't have any income, I don't have any pension or anything, I have a little bit of savings from a scholarship and that is it. Living in the monasteries in Europe, we have to pay for the room, food, laundry, sometimes also for the teachings.
I feel that day will come when I don’t have any money and I have to do something about it – but I don’t know exactly what. Despite the financial problems, I find in the West, we don’t even try to live the Way Buddha intended – to live on the donation of others, to live a simple life with few possessions and few desires which is very very beautiful to me.
We don’t have the culture or tradition for the laypeople to sponsor the monastic people so we can’t live on the donation of others. But from a different perspective, I am also aware of the fact that we don’t really inspire people to support us because there are monastic people who can afford nice cars and apartments so why would if I was a layperson, support people who seem to already have everything?
Q: What do you think can be most helpful for western nuns?
I think this is not them (the laypeople), it is what we as monastics have to do. I think what is lacking in the West are the senior monks and nuns who had gone through monastic training from a young age as happens in Asia. It's difficult to become a leader of the community if you don't have proper training.
From what I can see, we have monks and nuns with different backgrounds and different experiences. Most of us become ordained later in our life and it's much more difficult for us to change our habits or to accept authorities. The monasteries in Asia, you are part of the community before you have a voice and you have lived there for some time, 5 years, 10 years.
Then when you actually are in the position of responsibility, you have been in the same community system for quite some time. We, as Westerns, travel between centers. You take courses in this center and travel somewhere else to take other courses, we don’t really learn how to live together as a community. So it’s difficult for people to follow this type of lifestyle because they don’t see good examples.
Living as a community helps to change your mind and not follow your own desire; it also helps to be more mindful of others. If you have a roommate for example, you will have to do certain things together, then you learn things. You never learn if you are always on your own and in your own little room; only going to classes when you feel like it. It is not easy of course because I also felt that I didn’t want to do everything on the schedule with everyone else. But only that I really learned disciplines and that I didn’t need to have an opinion on everything.
Simple as the times to do a puja, it can be a huge discussion here because someone wants to do it in the morning, someone thinks it’s better to read in the evening like we need the democratic principles but everything becomes complicated. You have to express yourself but it’s not always necessary; whereas, in Kopan, the disciplinarian decides and all nuns just follow.
Maybe not everyone would agree with me but I would say finding a way to have a community, taking care of, and managing ourselves in a community would be more valuable and important than material support.
Q: What would you envision the western nun community
to look like?
Ani: I think we should live in a community because this is what Buddha intended. The vows we have are one part of our monastic training, another part as living in the community, respect your elders and to take care of your juniors. You can never learn that if you live on your own, in your little apartment and so on. It becomes difficult because we don't have enough experienced leaders who would have natural authority, and who would be vitally respected enough that we would follow them and we would follow the rules.
But I think we should at least try, we should at least aim for it because there are many things that you can do well only in the community, there are many things we are supposed to do and you cannot do them alone. So I think if we really want to preserve Dharma and make the Dharma flourish, we have to form monastic communities.
Kathy: Do you think maybe it would be easier to start with smaller communities?
Ani: Absolutely. It doesn't need to be huge. Kopan is the biggest nunnery in Nepal. We had about 350 nuns.
Kathy: Instead of 300 nuns, maybe we can start with 3 nuns!
Ani: Start with three is good.
Q: Can you share with us your daily monastic routine and your current projects?
Ani: In the West, it completely depends on individuals. And there is nothing we would be forced to do, or we would have to do and, and it basically depends on the advice your teacher gives you and on your commitments and things like that.
As for now, I am kind of on holiday. I'm going to do the FPMT Master Program, which only starts in February, so I have time. I do my practice in the morning when I wake up, I do my prayers and my meditations and then after breakfast, we have Protector Prayers together with those monastics who want to come. I also spent time on practices my teacher gave me to do.
In the afternoon, I teach some classes in a Buddhist community in the Czech Republic because I am probably the only Czech speaking nun in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I'm also a teaching assistant for a study program in Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London. I prepare those classes and I teach them. I am also translating a book from English to Czech.
I try to keep memorizing because this is something very essential for the Tibetans and I somehow started liking it. So I'm trying to memorize more prayers. In the morning, I try to dedicate myself to the practice and in the afternoon I prepare the classes and translate the book basically.
Note from editor: FPMT Master program in Buddhist Studies of Sutra and Tantra (MP), FPMT’s most advanced education program, is the unique design of Lama Thubten Yeshe. Developed by Geshe Jampa Gyatso at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa (ILTK), Italy, it is the actualization of Lama Yeshe’s vision for a comprehensive Dharma education inspired by and adapted from the traditional Geshe Studies at the Gelugpa monastic universities)
Kathy: Do you rest during the weekend?
Ani: Yeah. During the weekend sometimes we go for a walk or meet people.
Kathy: I heard the Tibetan nuns are not as rigid as Westerns so they take rest and relax during the weekends.
Ani: Haha, yes, they know how to relax. I kept this habit from the nunnery. When it was Saturday, It was a free day and there was no puja in the morning! No studies, more sleep, more food and more talking to friends!
Q: Which Buddhist teacher ( or non-Buddhist teacher) inspires you the most? Can you share with us your favorite Buddhist quote?
Ani: That's definitely His Holiness. His Holiness himself said that those teachers we should really respect are those who are with us every day and from who we learn, like the basic things. I have been very fortunate because both Geshes we have here in Tzong Khapa Institute – I have a very good connection with and I really like them. And also, the teachers I had Kopan are very kind and nice to me. I admire them very much.
Q: You have been a Buddhist nun for 10 years now, do you find joy in being a nun?
Ani: Absolutely yes. It was a good choice. I'm sure it was. Yeah, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. Sometimes people say, “Oh, but isn't it boring, you have to give up all the entertainment?'' It's not boring at all. It's very interesting to look at yourself, to look at what's up, what's inside, what's in your mind, then how you react and how you can possibly change it and, how if there is any progress or not and what's what's actually your weakest point? And it's very entertaining, I wouldn't call it boring, it all.
Maybe at the very beginning, I was quite uptight. I was very afraid of making mistakes. I worried that I never can be a good example and maybe I'm not such a good nun. But now, these feelings somehow subside and I feel very happy and very privileged to be a nun.