McKenzie, V. Cave in the Snow

Cave in the Snow, Bloomsbury, London, 1998.

Reading and reviewing books about the future makes it clear that ‘the road ahead’ (to use a well-known metaphor) is primarily seen in terms of the development of economies and technical systems. Such a view is not limited to economists and writers. At a recent conference in Melbourne Kim Beazley declared that: ‘Australia’s economic development is now firmly locked into the slipstream of the global economy, driven along by the new technologies changing our lives, benefiting from ongoing trade liberalisation and being constantly reshaped by the competitive demands of international commerce’.[1]

This familiar-sounding statement contains a number of themes of great relevance to Australia. First, the sense of being carried along, willy-nilly, by a process beyond our control. Second, the primacy of economics and technology in driving the change process. Third, the powerful role of international commerce. All can, perhaps, be summed up by that increasingly ambiguous term: ‘globalisation’ which, clearly, means very different things to different people. Most observers appear to see it as an external phenomenon. But the growth of international financial speculation, of a ‘derivatives’ market far removed from any productive activity whatever and of continuing instability in the global economic system cannot be explained by external forces alone. Rather, they are consequences of ways of viewing the world. That is, of ideologies, values, assumptions, ways of knowing etc, all of which are embedded in institutions and practices of many kinds. Yet very little attention is paid to questioning these powerful ‘inner’ forces. This oversight is itself reinforced, perhaps, by the ingrained empiricism of the Western (late) industrial worldview which operates according to the familiar reductionist logic of ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’. While such a view is not universal, its continued dominance remains all too clear. But the full consequences remain obscure until people come along who can see through the fog, cut through surface phenomena, and look with clarity on the ‘inner’ domain I mentioned above. One recent example is Paul Hellyer’s book Stop Think. It is a masterly expose of the questionable underpinnings of the world financial system, the world economy and those institutions which support it.[2]

But sometimes it is helpful to have a view from elsewhere; a view that begins from a different place and seeks a different destination. Such is Cave in the Snow. It tells the story of Diane Perry, who later adopted the Tibetan name of Tenzin Palmo. She grew up in London but in 1961 discovered a book on Buddhism called The Mind Unshaken. When she was only half-way through it she declared: ‘I’m a Buddist.’ From then on her path led her away from her UK roots and through a number of teachers to a monastery in India where she spent six miserable years before finally graduating as the first Western woman to qualify as a Buddist nun. From there she went to a monastery in remote Nepal and, eventually, to the cave of the title over 13,000 feet above sea level where she stayed for 12 years.

On one level the book tells the story of a determined Western woman who embarked on a spiritual quest, the point of which was ‘to achieve enlightenment in a female form’. Her story is skilfully told by a writer who has clearly spent a lot of time in the presence of her subject and who has understood the latter ‘from the inside’, as it were. But the book is never adulatory; the tone is level, the author’s ‘eye’ sharp and clear. One gains a very clear view of who Diane Perry/Tenzin Palmo is and of what drives her. On a different level, what emerges is a different view of reality and one, I think, that has much to offer a world in stress and in danger of choking on its own material success. At one point she answers the question ‘why go into retreat?’ this way: ‘one goes into retreat to understand who one really is and what the situation truly is. When one begins to understand oneself then one can truly understand others because we are all interrelated’. (P. 144) She adds ‘once we realise that the nature of existence is beyond thought and emotions, that it is incredibly vast and interconnected with all other beings, then the sense of isolation, separation, fear and hopes fall away. It’s a tremendous relief!’ (P. 171) Later she suggests that in most places ‘people are hungry for some real meaning and depth to their lives’. She then adds,

when one has stopped satiating the senses one wants more. That’s why people are aggressive and depressed. They feel everything is so futile. You have everything you want, and then what? Society’s answer is to get more and more, but where does that get you? I see isolation everywhere and it has nothing to do with being alone. It’s about having an isolated psyche. (p. 176)

Then, in another passage, she explains how she sees the role of those who similarly go away on long retreats, peeling away the layers of the inner world to find enlightenment. She writes:

It’s a poverty of our time that so many people can’t see beyond the material… In this age of darkness with its greed, violence and ignorance it’s important there are some areas of light in the gloom, something to balance all the heaviness and darkness. To my mind the contemplatives and the solitary meditators are like lighthouses beaming out love and compassion on to the world. They become like generators – and they are extremely necessary. (P. 196)

What Palmo has expressed through Mackenzie is, of course, a contemporary re-statement of what Huxley called ‘The Perennial Philosophy’.[3] That is, the view that humanity shares a common heritage, both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ and that there are appropriate ways of addressing and reconciling both. What is significant about this in the present context is not the idea that large numbers of people could or should follow Palmo’s path in any literal sense and remove themselves to a remote place to meditate (though worse things are possible). Rather, it is to remind us that there are real and vibrant alternatives to the kind of diminished rationality that is currently driving the global system toward diminished and unsustainable futures.

Our challenge, perhaps, is not to convert en masse to Buddhism, but to open to the fact that there is, indeed, a rich inner world available to everyone. It is a world of incredible depth and richness that cannot possibly by fulfilled by science, technology, consumer products, the internet or any version whatever of what is currently meant by ‘progress’, even less by ‘economic rationalism’ in any shape or form. The Cave in the Snow stands as a welcome reminder that beyond the familiar ‘high-tech wonderland’ celebrated in the mass media lie other options. Tenzin Palmo and Vicki Mackenzie have together illuminated a path toward futures very different from those now in prospect.

Published in The ABN Report, 7, 4, 1999 pp. 15-16.


[1] Kim Beazley, The Australian May 8-9, 1999, p 4 of Australia Unlimited liftout.

[2] Paul Hellyer, Stop. Think. Chimo Media, Toronto, Canada, 1999.

[3] Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, London, Chatto & Windus, 1946.