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What Is Liberation for Women Today?

An interview with Tenzin Palmo
by Jessica Roemischer

What Is Enlightenment: What is liberation for women today?

Tenzin Palmo: It’s actually a fantastic time to be a woman. In much of the world today, women are freer than we have ever been in the history of the human race. We are becoming educated. We are as free as men to study, to think about and practice whatever we wish, and to travel around the world. We are able to think for ourselves outside the usual paradigms. And from a spiritual point of view, this means we can choose our own path, and we have the freedom to follow it. So we’re living in a very interesting age when women are beginning to have their own autonomy. But what we do with that is up to us. We can imprison ourselves to as great an extent as we were imprisoned in previous times, except in different roles. We can become more bound up in samsara. Or we can use this autonomy to become free in an ultimate sense. So we should use this human lifetime to the best of our abilities, because we now have everything.

WIE: How can we make the most of this unprecedented moment in history?

Tenzin Palmo: If women are going to truly make use of our female birth, we have to recognize that as human beings—male or female—we all have the same innate potential to realize our true nature and become liberated. But we have to see that ego is there, and it is always going to get in the way. And the ego likes nothing more than to think of itself as being a spiritual ego—a bigger, more realized, wonderful me. We have to rid ourselves of our poisons, our self-cherishing, our greed, anger, aversion, jealousies, and envies.

Through developing and cultivating ourselves in this way, women can grow up and become mature and stop being childlike. We have to become strong instead of always exerting this needy sense of wanting. And in order to do that we need to develop the side of ourselves that we normally consider to be male. Not the aggressive side, but the confident side, the side that conceives that if we wish to do something, it is possible for us to do it.

WIE: Are there other challenges that women particularly face in fulfilling the potential we now have?

Tenzin Palmo: One of the most significant problems is that women don’t support other women. This is a very ironical situation, and it has kept women weak throughout time. We support each other in little ways, but when it comes down to it, we will always hand it over to the guys.

WIE: One of the great early feminists in America, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, observed that women will often undermine other women, particularly those who take the lead and stand out.

Tenzin Palmo: Exactly! And if we are really going to be a power and a voice in this world, we have to stand solidly behind each other and not get caught up in factionalism and jealousy. Until we’re aware of that, it won’t change. There was an eighth-century Buddhist philosopher called Shanti Deva who put forth a universal prayer in which he said, “May the order of nuns live in harmony.” He doesn’t mention the monks living in harmony. So he obviously thought the nuns weren’t living in harmony, which indicates that this has always been a problem. I mean, we don’t respect each other. We don’t trust each other. We don’t love each other. We don’t value each other. And until we value each other, why should anyone else value us? If women really held hands together, we would be a terrific power.

WIE: You’re implying that we could create a very different kind of society and world.

Tenzin Palmo: Society has to change, doesn’t it? By rights, we should be a tremendous power for good, because look at where we’re headed. But whether or not we will be that force of goodness depends solely on us. Unless we have a radical change in our consciousness, in our understanding of what is genuinely important, and in our way of relating to each other and to ourselves, the whole world is heading for disaster. Women, after all, are half the human race, but when we put each other down snidely, which we so often do, it keeps us weak and disempowered. And we have to deal with it because, unless we all stand together, our fragmentation denies us a real platform to stand on. We aren’t half the human race then. We’re just little groups scattered here and there. For the first time in millennia, women could have a very strong voice. And presumably, it would be a different voice.

WIE: What do you think that voice should say?

Tenzin Palmo: I think it should say that this lifetime is very, very precious and we shouldn’t waste it. Women have this great opportunity, and if we are conscious of it, then we will fulfill that potential. And if we’re not, then we will mess things up, just as men have done throughout history. We have to stand up and take a deep breath and look in our own hearts and ask ourselves what we really think is important and what we really want to do with this lifetime and then do it. The thing is that we can go astray if we’re not very careful, because you never know with women. We have to realize our strengths and our weaknesses and this lack of mutual support.

So we will see what happens in the next fifty or one hundred years as women begin to wake up and start to flex their muscles. And hopefully, we’ll begin to see that, just as our imprisonment in samsara is caused by our own self-delusion, the problems for women are caused by women. Therefore the solution is in our hands. We don’t have to wait for men to change their attitudes. It’s up to us to change our attitudes, and that’s hopeful because, as with everything, the problem is never out there. It’s always in here.

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This article is from
Our Future of Women's Liberation Issue


July–September 2007