Never heard of Freda Bedi? You’re not alone. Though she’s a heroine of sorts in India—known to generations of Tibetans as “Mummy-la,” to others as the tall, blue-eyed Englishwoman who fought for Indian independence and was jailed as a Gandhi satyagrahi—she is virtually unknown in the West. It’s not clear why. From the time Bedi arrived in India in 1934 as the wife of a Sikh radical, she was a force to be reckoned with. She played a key role in resettling the Tibetan Buddhists streaming into India after the 1959 Chinese takeover, determined to help them preserve their culture and religion. The first Westerner to ordain as a Tibetan Buddhist nun and the founder of the first Tibetan Buddhist nunnery outside Tibet, she paved the way for a generation of influential Western teachers, including Tenzin Palmo, Pema Chödrön, and Tsultrim Allione. And as the 16th Karmapa’s heart student and close advisor, she persuaded him to visit the West, the highest-ranking Tibetan Buddhist to do so at the time. No less than His Holiness the Dalai Lama has wondered why there’s been no biography of her. He need wonder no longer: British journalist Vicki Mackenzie has rectified the omission with The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi.
Mackenzie never addresses the question of why we in the West know so little about this remarkable woman’s life, but she goes a long way toward filling in the blanks. Mackenzie’s subtitle—British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun—is somewhat misleading, as the book tilts toward Bedi’s Buddhist experience. No surprise, since the author is a longtime practitioner whose books include a biography of Tenzin Palmo, Cave in the Snow.
Bedi didn’t start Buddhist practice until she was in her forties, but long before that her influence on Tibetan Buddhism in exile was wide. “Single-handedly, Freda had already set the scene for Buddhism to make the historic leap from East to West when she had the foresight to establish the Young Lamas Home School,” Mackenzie writes. With the support of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Bedi set up the school to help the tulkus and lamas, who had been sequestered in their monasteries back in Tibet, adjust to the realities of modern life. Her pupils included Lama Zopa, Tarthang Tulku, and Gelek Rimpoche. Gelek remembers Bedi as very strict but kind, insisting that the monks learn English in order to teach Westerners, who sorely needed the dharma. Two of the young rinpoches—Chögyam Trungpa and Akong—became like sons to Bedi. She arranged their admission to Oxford; later they founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West, Samye Ling in Scotland.
None of this explains how Freda Houlston, a penniless provincial English schoolgirl born in 1911, got herself into Oxford, bucked racial prejudice to marry a Sikh, then moved to India, donned a sari, learned Hindi, and emerged as an influential political and social activist, an intimate of Nehru and his daughter, Indira (later Prime Minister Gandhi), only to throw it all over to become a Buddhist nun.
Mackenzie isn’t much of a stylist, but Bedi’s story is so compelling that we’re swept along regardless. The narrative is considerably enlivened by quoted passages from Bedi, an articulate raconteur. Many of the quotes in the book are not sourced, but presumably Bedi’s material came from her family. Mackenzie interviewed her sons, Ranga and Kabir (a Bollywood star), and her daughter, Guli, who turned over their mother’s archive of writings and recordings. The siblings approached Mackenzie some years ago about writing their mother’s biography: Mackenzie “was honored, but demurred,” she tells us, since Bedi was no longer alive to interview. Tenzin Palmo, who assisted at the Young Lamas Home School, also urged her to write Bedi’s story. But it was only after Mackenzie learned of the Dalai Lama’s interest that she agreed to do it.
Mackenzie came to see Bedi’s life as “infinitely bigger and more exciting and complex than I had imagined,” yet The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi is anything but hagiography. Bedi’s shadows get full play alongside her achievements—indeed, at times Mac-kenzie almost seems to relish exposing them.
Describing Bedi’s efforts to secure government aid from Nehru for the Kashmiri rebels, Mackenzie writes, “Freda was never bashful about pulling the most powerful strings she could to achieve her goals—a trait that continued throughout the rest of her life.” Asides like this one seem a bit gratuitous. Bedi could be imperious, but she didn’t claim to be a saint. (Few high achievers are.) By conventional parenting standards, she could be neglectful: her second son died in infancy while she was off campaigning, and she left the family without a means of support when she abruptly quit her job and moved the lamas’ school to Dalhousie, a former hill station of the British Raj. But between their loving extended family and their own resourcefulness, the children survived, and as adults they recall their mother with admiration and fondness.
Bedi’s great awakening came at 42 in Burma, on a trip for UNESCO. Seeing the monks outside the Golden Temple, “suddenly it was déjà vu,” she recalled. “I knew. This is The Way, this is what I have been looking for.” She studied vipassana with Sayadaw U Pandita and had a profound realization walking down a street. “Her heart and her path now belonged to the Buddha,” Mackenzie writes.
Bedi’s conversion to Buddhism wasn’t entirely out of the blue. As a child she had spurned the Church of England in favor of Christian mysticism and direct experience of the divine, and her homegrown meditation had sustained her in prison. Years before she knew any Tibetans she had a prophetic dream in which a monk thrust a child at her, saying, “Take care of him.” The Tibetan refugees introduced her to Mahayana teachings on kindness and compassion, and on a visit to Sikkim, she met her teacher, His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa: “He manifested himself to me as the Buddha. From then on, he was in my heart as the special one.”
After her marriage to Baba Pyare Lal Bedi ended, Freda dedicated herself wholly to practice. She built a nunnery in Dalhousie for some Tibetan Buddhist nuns living there. It failed miserably, but undaunted, she tried again and succeeded. The second nunnery still stands, and the nuns regard “Mummy-la” as the embodiment of White Tara, the female Buddha of compassionate action.
Bedi was 55 when she was ordained by the Karmapa as Karma Tsultrim Kechog Palmo and became known thereafter as Sister Palmo. She was the only woman at Rumtek Monastery, and as a Tibetan Buddhist she could be only a novice nun. So in 1972 the Karmapa sent her to Hong Kong to be ordained as a Chan bhikshuni, equal in status to the monks. After that, Bedi traveled widely, even giving initiations with the Karmapa’s blessing. “It was unheard of for a Western woman to do so,” Mackenzie notes. “This was proof that the Karmapa held her in high spiritual regard.”
Wherever Bedi went, she inspired devotion. But her brilliant Buddhist career lasted only 15 years; she died of a heart attack in 1977 at 66. Ayang Rinpoche, who had taught her phowa—transfer of consciousness at death—wrote in a condolence note: “She was especially like a mother to the cause of Tibetan Buddhists in particular.”
Now, finally, it is Freda Bedi’s moment. Two more biographies are in the works. And with The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi, her largely unsung contribution to Tibetan Buddhism in the West will receive the recognition it so clearly deserves.
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