Reviewed by Jonathan Clewley
It is well known, at least in the Buddhist Community, that Vajrayana practice was introduced to the West in the 1960s and 70s by Tibetan lamas who had escaped from the destruction of Planet Tibet. What is less well known, however, is the role an Englishwoman, Freda Bedi née Houlston, played in this transmission. What is becoming increasing clear is that the successful practice and continuation of the Vajrayana in the West will require Western-born teachers with understanding and some degree of realisation of the Buddha Dharma. The extraordinary life of Freda Bedi shines light on how this might be achieved, providing both a model and inspiration.
Norma Levine has written an biography of Freda that takes her from her birth in Derby in 1911, into a respectable working class family, to her death in Delhi in 1977 which, according to accounts of some who were close, was accompanied by auspicious signs of high realisation. How this came to be is a fascinating story from her early interest in meditation in the Church of England to meeting her Guru, the Sixteenth Karmapa, when she was 50. She took ordination from him as a Nun in 1966, becoming Karma Khechok Palmo, but still affectionately called Mummy by Tibetans. Her attendant, Ani Pema Zangmo, recalled that the Karmapa said she was a bodhisattva, a White Tara emanation. With the Karmapa’s permission, she gave teachings and complete empowerments in India and the West.
Freda is perhaps best known for establishing the Tibet Friendship Group and The Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie, following the Tibetans’ exodus from their country. This school provided education for Chögyam Trungpa, Akong Rinpoche, Tulku Pema Tendzin, Geleg Rinpoche, Lama Zopa, Chime Rinpoche, Ato Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku and Ringu Tulku, among others. In an interview with the author, Chime Rinpoche said: “All the Dharma coming to the West is rooted in Sister Palmo. Me, you, all of us. She is amazing. The Dharma you have right now is due to her.” “All Tibetan Buddhism in the West was the result of her school.” She was instrumental in Trungpa obtaining a scholarship to Oxford University, where she had taken a degree herself in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Trungpa was accompanied by Akong Rinpoche, and they later founded Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhism Centre in the West, in Scotland, and now a very large Centre and tourist attraction. Trungpa went on to the USA, manifesting the Shambhala Organisation, Naropa University, and much more.
Freda’s initial encounter with Buddhism was in Burma in 1953 where she practised Vipassana under Sayadaw U Titthila, which led to a “flash of understanding that changed my whole life”, her first glimpse of enlightened mind. In 1972, in Hong Kong she took the highest ordination of bhikkhuni (gelongma) in the Savakayana tradition from the Venerables Ming Chi and Sek Sai Chang. She was thus able to fulfil the request of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa to bring this ordination, which had been broken in the eighth century, back to the Tibetan Tradition.
She came to Burma as part of a United Nation’s mission to re-organise the social services, a post that resulted from her involvement in the struggle for independence for India, and her friendship with Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Said Ringu Tulku: “Some people said she was a Marxist but she was actually a Gandhian.”
Freda’s husband, Baba Pyare Lal Singh Bedi (BPL), was, for a time, much more of a Marxist than she was. A direct descendant of the founder of Sikhs, Guru Nanak, he met Freda at Oxford where they recognised each other as soul mates, became lovers and married. This was scandalous behaviour in 1930s Oxford, antagonising friends and family. Leaving England, they travelled to India, eventually settling in Lahore where their circle of friends were the intelligentsia, socialists and nationalists in the Quit India movement. As part of the nationalist struggle, the Quit India movement became one of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the non-violent seekers after truth. Freda was chosen by Ghandi to be a member of the Satyagraha, the fifty-seventh, and the first British woman. BPL had been arrested in 1940 and put in a detention camp for about 16 months as a political dissident and a leader of the first all-India railway strike. In later years, in the 1970s he was a spiritual teacher in Italy.
Freda’s offering of Satyaghara caused her to be arrested and imprisoned for three months. So it was after the Second World War that Freda travelled to Burma and discovered her Buddhist path, eventually becoming a bhikkhuni and teacher. Above all, she was a disciple of the Sixteenth Karmapa. As well as providing a base, The Young Lamas Home School, for many of the most important Tibetan teachers who came to the West in the 60s and 70s, she played an important role in the Karmapa travelling to the USA in 1974. The rest, as they say, is history.
Naomi Levine has woven a seamless blend of the memories of family, friends and others who knew Freda, into a highly readable page-turner. For those practising the Vajrayana and devotion to a Guru, there is much to learn, and many insights into how Vajrayana might continue in the West. As well as that, for those with a more general interest, it will open their eyes to India, Kashmir, Burma and Sikkim in the 1930s onward. There are lots of interesting documents and photographs. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu has a walk on part…
The Spiritual Odyssey of Freda Bedi” by Norma Levine is published by Shang Shung Publications