Two Northwest women are playing a key role in the global empowerment of Buddhist women, by leading the organization that is supporting one of the world’s best-known female Tibetan Buddhist monastics, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.
Dongyu Gatsal Ling Initiatives, Inc., is a U.S. 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization registered in New York, comprised of a volunteer board of directors. Two of these directors are Northwesterners, Heather White and Caterina, who live in Portland and Seattle, respectively.
The organization supports Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s work in India and beyond. Heather has served as a director since 2015, and vice president since 2017. Caterina has been president since 2017.
The two women met each other while journeying out of the Northwest region for teachings from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Jetsunma has taught in the Northwest a few times, the last in 2008.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was ordained in 1964, as one of the first Western-born Tibetan Buddhist nuns. In 2008 she was given the title Jetsunma (meaning venerable master) by the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa Kagyu, a school of Tibetan Buddhism. This was in recognition of her spiritual achievements as a nun, and her efforts to promote the status of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism.
In 1999 Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo established Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in India, to fulfill the wishes of her guru Khamtrul Rinpoche.
One of her goals was to develop the academic and spiritual potential of girls and young women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions of India, Bhutan and Nepal. Nuns in Tibetan tradition historically have had limited access to Buddhist teachings and trainings, compared to their male counterparts.
The nunnery is located several miles from Tashi Jong, a hamlet in the foothills of the Himalayas near Dharamsala, India. The Tibetan government in exile is headquartered in Dharamsala.
Dongyu Gatsal Ling Initiatives Inc. is dedicated to improving the education standards and living conditions of Tibetan women and female monastic communities. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is the organization’s spiritual advisor.
Caterina first visited Tashi Jong in 1994, while on pilgrimage with a friend. Caterina, a native Australian then living in Germany, recalls she immediately felt a spiritual connection with the Tashi Jong community, especially Khampagar Monastery there.
She decided to return frequently, and in 1999 she spent a long period in Tashi Jong. During that visit she immersed herself in practice and received teachings from her teacher Togden Atin, one of the highly accomplished senior yogis living there at the time.
At that time the senior Tashi Jong lamas encouraged Caterina to help Tenzin Palmo’s work creating the nunnery.
“I was the first English language teacher to teach the nuns at the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery,” Caterina said.
By 2008 committed helpers in New York City had established Friends of Dongyu Gatsal Ling, later to be renamed and restructured as Dongyu Gatsal Ling Initiatives Inc., with the intention of supporting the nunnery. The founders sought to establish an endowment fund, to guarantee the future of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery.
“The future of the nuns needs to be considered,” said Caterina.
In 2010 Caterina traveled to New York to catch up with Jetsunma, and met the founding directors. She had no idea that later they would invite her to be on the board.
The organization is mostly run by volunteers, all women who have been inspired by Jetsunma and who want to help.
“We are virtual. We don’t have a brick-and-mortar office. Everything is done online,” Caterina said. “Our web consultant is in Edmonds, our bookkeeper lives in Seattle, and our vice president of advancement services lives in Portland.”
Much of the work is to increase awareness of the organization, and to raise funds for its present and future stability. The organization needs people who are technologically competent, and who also understand Jetsunma’s mission.
“There’s more work to do,” Caterina said. “We need volunteers with good project management and online experience, who are willing to do the work and run with it.”
It’s hard to do all this and still leave time for current directors to also pursue their own Buddhist practices and retreat, on top of working for their own livelihoods.
“There is a lot of work to do and we can’t keep up, and getting quality help is a real challenge,” Caterina said. “Finding Heather (White) from Portland was an answer to my prayers.”
Caterina jokes that Tara (a female meditational deity of active compassion) brought Heather, with her skills in virtual administration and website management.
As vice president Heather oversees the organization’s website and donation portals, a huge responsibility given that the nonprofit is all virtual. She is a librarian.
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Heather had been living in Portland and reading Jetsunma’s books for years. “Her delivery of the dharma got to me more than any other teacher,” she said.
When Heather heard Jetsunma was going to be in New York City in January, 2015, to give teachings on the great Indian Buddhist master Atisha, she decided to hop on a plane to go see her.
“I never thought that I would be lucky enough to meet her,” Heather said, “Let alone work for her.”
Empowered by the teachings over the weekend, Heather found out that Caterina lived in Seattle, relatively close to her own Portland home, so she went and introduced herself, and asked how she could help.
Partly due to the efforts of Caterina and Heather, the work of the organization has grown.
Raising awareness for Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s mission has become increasingly important, as she’s gained traction as a leading female Buddhist teacher during an era when women are rising to power politically and otherwise around the world.
“A lot of people are inspired by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s work and connections globally,” Caterina said. “They want to give to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, but they don’t know how, or who to give to.”
People can sponsor a nun through DGLI for $360 annually, or donate to any of several other funds including endowment, health care, temple, and general. People also can make a prayer request.
Heather also hopes people visiting the website will be inspired to volunteer.
The DGLI mission now is expanding. While Jetsunma’s main teacher, the previous Khamtrul Rinpoche, had originally requested her to create Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery in India, the current 9th Khamtrul Rinpoche has also asked her to support a nunnery in Eastern Tibet.
So since 2006 Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo has been helping that nunnery by raising funds to build simple dwellings for the nuns. They previously lived in cotton tents, while continuing their Buddhist practice despite the harsh Tibetan winters at high altitudes and below-freezing temperatures.
Jetsunma also has broadened Dongyu Gatsal Ling Initiatives, Inc.’s work to support nuns in other ways including one of the newest efforts, the Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns. This is an international, non-sectarian organization, committed to supporting women ordained as Tibetan Buddhist nuns from outside traditional Buddhist regions.
Jamyang Dorjee is a Tibetan Buddhist living in Bothell, Washington, with his wife and two children. He is a former president and a board member of the Tibetan Association of Washington. He writes regularly for Northwest Dharma News.