Sister Palmo


Sheila Fugard


As we were preparing this article for press, we received the sad news that Sister Palmo has left her physical body. We join with the prayers of many grateful students in wishing her soul a happy journey into the arms of the Supreme...


   My meeting with Sister Palmo was in 1972 in Cape Town, South Africa. She had come to us from India as the first Buddhist teacher to visit Africa. Her arrival was auspicious for a continent that now seems plunged into darkness.


   I was, at that meeting, someone whose life was in a way reduced, stale and perhaps  meaningless despite having spent some six years studying various forms of meditation. What Sister Palmo spoke to me about was all this, but rather through the  life of the Buddha than my own personality. I recognized samsara, the bodhisattva way, and that Refuge brought about a rebirth. The clarity of my experience was like seeing the sword of Manjusri held within the all encompassing compassion of Green Tara.


   Sister Palmo seemed in Africa to be possessed of a great truth that worked not simply as a palliative to suffering, but a valid form of life, with enlightenment at its source, always present in the constant play of Dharma.


   Chance brought me to England the following year. I again met Sister Palmo in the Autumn at Samye Ling, the Tibetan meditation centre in Scotland. The centre seemed remote. The winds and rains of the coming winter were setting in. Forces of nature that were conducive to meditation.


   Sister Palmo’s understanding of my ignorance was total. I lived through it. I  survived in a clean way like a knife that has been miraculously sharpened to some small measure of self knowledge.


   Sister Palmo invited me to join her on a journey through Scotland. Trains and their slow progress across a wintry landscape were relieved by gentle conversation.


   It was some time before I recognized the woman that was Sister Palmo. The many aspects that made up my teacher . . . The young woman at Oxford, influenced by visits of Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi . . . her marriage as a student to the son of the renowned Indian Bedi family, direct descendent of Guru Nanak.


   Arriving with her husband, Babajie, in India in the early thirties, the impact of that ancient world resulted in a book, which Sister Palmo wrote on Indian life.


   A period of political involvement in the Gandhi movement followed. Already the compassionate activity of the bodhisattva gave to her actions an honesty far beyond the demands of politics.


   A visit to Burma in 1953, as a member of a United Nations Mission, saw the great opening of the Dharma, through her Burmese gurus. This lightning flash of conversion was followed by Refuge and precepts. In 1959 with the invasion of Tibet, and the influx of Tibetan lamas into India, came her encounter with His Holiness Karmapa, an ultimate experience. Becoming the personal pupil of Karmapa, himself possessing the activity of a living Avalokitesvara, was a profound commitment to the beauty and life affirming path of Dharma that lead her to take the ordination of a Buddhist nun in 1966.


   In lay life, Sister Palmo’s design for the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism in the early sixties is a monument to the teachings propagated in the West today. She gave practical assistance through the founding of the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie, to lamas in exile.


   She took into her home, the young Trungpa Rinpoche. Sister Palmo must then have helped shape that vision and foreseen the dynamic role he would assume in transmitting Dharma to young America.


   Sister Palmo’s concern that Tibetan Buddhism be not lost at that perilous time after  the fall of Tibet is hard to appreciate in the late seventies when the teachings are so firmly rooted in the West.


   An occasion brought me to America in 1974. It was the time of the first visit of His Holiness Karmapa to the West. San Francisco basked in a heat wave. The Crown Ceremony at Fort Mason was all pageantry of a monarch bestowing a great blessing.  The power of His Holiness to awaken the slumbering Buddha in all, was great.


   My memory of those extraordinary days was of receiving the precepts from His Holiness, together with a small group of Americans. Dharma had led me from an  alien shore in Africa to this shrine room at the Nyingma Institute. The Shrine room itself was ablaze, Light from thangkas. Flowers spoke. Candies showered. His Holiness seemed not only to fill all space, but also my mind. Sister Palmo was very much part of this mandala, echoing the presence of His Holiness, as a still reflection.


   In May, 1976, I flew from London on another of the many journeys that have taken me to Sister Palmo. I needed to turn my back on Africa with it’s conflagrations of apartheid, the aftermath of the Angolan war, and the tensions prior to the Soweto riots.


   At Karma Tengay Ling, in San Mateo, I again found Sister Palmo. My vision was beyond the deceptions of the self, or the woman I had traveled with in Scotland. Rather, I was aware of the great wisdom. I saw the radiance of the mother energies, and the subtle power of the yogi.


   I was to see through her eyes The Dharma on the Enlightenment Day of the Buddha, when Sister Palmo gave the Seven Precepts to be kept for that day only. The Precepts were no longer rules but simply the natural way to be. The thought of enlightenment, as it arose for the Sakyamuni Buddha, was of itself the natural order of things. As sunlight, or the tide relentlessly coming in. In the evening, I meditated in the Shrine Room, where Zen students were chanting the mantra of the Buddha.


   Teacher, guru, kalyanamitra, are all words. The understanding between guru and pupil is wordless. Guru and pupil are in a way one. The consistency of the teacher endeavors to transform the pupil into the same vajra substance. Nothing exists that the teacher has not already experienced. For the pupil, as the horizon widens, the reference to experience is unitive with the teacher.


   Sister Palmo as a woman teacher, brings in elements of the Great Mothers which makes the journey into the diamond quality of Dharma, a unique blessing.