Reflections on a Mountain Lake

Teachings on Practical Buddhism

By Ani Tenzin Palmo

Snow Lion Publications
605 West State Street
PO Box 6483
Ithaca, NY 14851
607 - 273 - 8519

Trade Paper, 262 Pages.

Imagine, if you will, a beautiful lake nestled within the valley of a mountain range. Its waters are immaculate and still, so the surface forms a kind of mirror. In this mirror we can see the perfect reflection of the snow-capped mountain tops, the endless blue sky, and the fluffy white clouds passing lazily overhead. As long as the waters remain still, an illusion is created of two worlds- one extending upwards from the lake, and an exact copy of that world extending downward. The lake hardly seems to exist at all. While motionless and calm, the waters faithfully reflect the greater universe above them. If there are clear or cloudy skies, or birds playing among the breezes, or even nuclear missiles streaking across the zenith, none of these things disturbs the lake. The waters reflect the world without judgment or attachment.

Now, however, imagine that something has gotten into this lake. We may not know what it is, but it certainly lives in the deepest depths and is agitating the waters. It has churned up the mud and sediment from the bottom, and caused the surface to ripple and splash chaotically. The perfect illusion is therefore shattered, and the lake can no longer faithfully reflect the world around it. All that can be seen upon the surface are broken and distorted images. Even if the world is calm and clear, this will not be mirrored in the waters’ surface.

The “mountain lake” is a Buddhist metaphor for the human mind. In its natural state, it is like the calm waters reflecting the events of the greater world faithfully and without attachment. (As above, then so below.) Meanwhile, the thing (or things) stirring the waters in the depths of the lake represents our own psychological shortcomings- fear, anger, jealousy, attachment, and all things that disturb our mental serenity. The practice of Buddhism, of course, is the practice of returning the agitated lake to its original state of calm. Even in the face of storm clouds or missiles in the sky, the lake should remain unaffected.

I don’t think this metaphor was meant to be central to Ms. Palmo’s book, but I can certainly understand why it was chosen to provide the title. All of the practical teachings- especially in the first half of the text- can be illustrated wonderfully by this lake, its reflected sky, and the hidden monsters beneath. The teachings themselves are largely familiar to us, if you’ve been following these reviews and the books they cover. The nature of “awareness” is discussed, and various Buddhist training methods and ethics are outlined. Two chapters are dedicated to the two main branches of meditation: Calm Abiding (or stilling the lake) and Insight meditation (whereby we take a detached look at what is living in that lake). She even discusses the “Six Realms” of Buddhist philosophy. I found this latter especially fascinating, as she describes the various hells, heavens, and physical realms that make up the Buddhist cosmology and the grand map of reincarnation.

All of this is wonderful, but it still does not form the book’s central theme. Instead, this book, like the others I have reviewed thus far, is intended to make the Eastern practices and philosophies accessible to the Western mind. In fact, Reflections... is actually a compilation of lectures (followed by Q and A sessions) that Ms. Palmo gave in the United States and Australia in the late 1990s- mostly to lay people with an interest in Dharma practice. Tenzin Palmo herself was born and raised in London, so she knows a thing or two about the problems Westerners face when approaching Buddhist practice.

More than any of this, however, Ms. Palmo is a woman traversing a path that has been male-dominated for many generations. In 1964, she was ordained as one of the world’s first Western-born Buddhist nuns. By 1999, she was central to the founding of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery- dedicated to the training and education of women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions. The lectures that form the text of Reflections... are the result of her travels to publicize and gain support for the Nunnery. She even dedicates an entire chapter to “Women and the Path”- outlining the female influences upon the early stages of some Buddhism (such as Tantra) and addressing many questions and concerns faced by modern women who choose the Buddhist philosophy.

Toward the end of the book, Ms. Palmo enters a subject I think Hermetic-minded folks would find most fascinating- Vajrayana Buddhism. I’ve run across this in previous books without mentioning it in the reviews because it hasn’t previously been covered in much detail. In Reflections..., however, Ms. Palmo dedicates no less than two chapters to the subject. As far as I can tell, she included this information because it fit well with the overall passive/feminine tone of her book. Vajrayana is unique among Buddhist practices because it does not view human passion as something to be avoided, and it does not begin with the assumption that the aspirant is “impure.” Instead, Vajrayana practice embraces the passions- intending to use them to propel one toward enlightenment. Because of this, the passions and all manifestations within the mind are viewed as inherently pure- if in need of proper direction. In other words, the mountain lake is not polluted just because something disturbs it. It is merely disturbed, and can always return to its state of calm abiding.

What should make Vajrayana most interesting to Hermetists is its stark similarity to post-Golden Dawn teachings on the “Assumption of Godforms.” Magickal (or talismanic) images of all the Buddhist Gods form the heart of the practice- each one a symbolic glyph intended to represent a state of mind or passion. The technique (simplified) is to visualize these images during meditation, while chanting a related mantra and seeing the sacred letters of the mantra in the heart. Eventually, the aspirant should envision himself as the Deity in question. By mentally assuming both the form and personality of the Deity, the aspirant invokes a specific set of qualities into his reality.

Personally, even as a male, I adored reading this Buddhist text written by a woman. While Buddhism speaks much about lovingkindness and passive receptivity, the path remains heavily influenced by the warrior mentality. This is a good thing in its own right, but I just couldn’t help falling in love with this incredible lady as she related her tribulations and triumphs during her long journey. There is a depth of feeling to Ms. Palmo’s teachings that I have not encountered elsewhere.