IN RECENT YEARS, we've been treated to Little Buddhas, Kunduns and the bad Austrian accents of certain male screen icons. The action superstar Steven Seagal has been celebrated as the reincarnation of a 15th-century Tibetan lama. The Dalai Lama has graced the cover of New York magazine. Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan kind, is so chic these days that Richard Gere's decade-old affiliation with it seems positively authentic. Which all begs two questions: 1) Do we really need another book (movie, magazine cover, self-help manual) extolling the virtues of the great exotic religion?; and 2) In the great PR deluge which aims to bring Enlightenment into Western living rooms, why is the word "woman" as anomalous as the words "Western Samoa?"
As Tibetan Buddhism grows in turn commercialized, demystified, and Californicated, a book like Cave in the Snow provides an interesting detour along the way. Written by British journalist Vicki Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow is the life story of Tenzin Palmo (born Diane Perry), one of the first Western nuns of Tibetan Buddhism, and perhaps the only one to openly claim that her goal in life was "to attain Enlightenment in the female form."
Born in London's East End to shopkeeper parents, Perry grew inexplicably drawn to the East at an early age. After reading Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet and a book titled The Mind Unshaken, she donned robes and announced to her mother that she was a Buddhist. The year was 1961, and Perry was 18 years old. For the next three years, she worked as a librarian, and saved up for a one-way boat ticket to India, where she stayed for the next 24 years.
The most fascinating period of Tenzin Palmo's life began in 1977, when the nun undertook a feat as astonishing as it was rare. With only a handful of belongings, she took up quarters in a minuscule cave at 13,000 feet in the Himalayas, and remained there for the next 12 years in absolute isolation from the world. Palmo, who emerges early on in the book as an incredibly affable and endearing creature, describes her cave years with such simple humility that it's impossible not to admire her: "Sometimes I would stand at the edge of my patio and look out across the mountains and think 'If you could be any place in the whole world, where would you want to be?' And there was nowhere else." Indeed, Tenzin Palmo's experience was so pleasant that she didn't even leave voluntarily. Toward the end of her final, three-year retreat (a period during which the practitioner must not see or be seen by another human being), the Indian police paid her a visit on account of an expired visa. They threatened to arrest her if she didn't leave the country within the next 10 days. And so Tenzin Palmo was off again, back to the continent she had left two-and-a-half decades earlier.
Despite Mackenzie's painfully overwrought prose ("She kept looking, looking for something. She wasn't sure what,") Cave in the Snow is an engrossing read, weaving Tenzin Palmo's eccentric life story through the fabric of women's roles in Tibetan Buddhism. In the end, the book itself has a vaguely Buddhist effect: Our compassion for Tenzin Palmo is so generous that we find ourselves cheering for her to attain Enlightenment.