The best biographies of Western Buddhist women

Who am I?

I write novels that enthrall, enrich, and enliven you. I've been student of Buddhism for more than thirty years and spend long periods of time with the most generous Tibetan Buddhist nuns in their monasteries in the remote Himalayas, relishing the solitude and contemplative life. Their tales of resilience are an enormous inspiration to me. The biographies of Western Buddhist women I’ve selected are everything I look for in ‘great writing’. The stories are engaging and entertaining, but also make us pause and reflect to appreciate the astonishing opportunities of the privileged times we live in, and challenge us once again to be and do better—every moment of this precious life.

I wrote...

A Pilgrim's Heart

By Elles Lohuis,

Book cover of A Pilgrim's Heart

What is my book about?

We follow Nordun on her crusade across the rooftop of the world, to Lhasa, the lands of Gods, through the turbulent times of thirteenth-century Tibet, where she’s determined to stand by her Buddhist beliefs and prevent the killing ordered by her family. Together with Karma, her lover and kindred spirit—but also a merciless warrior who believes compassion hold no place in a family’s blood feud—she crosses raging rivers, traverses vast grasslands, and conquers the mighty mountain ranges of the Cho-La.

But when faced with the inevitable, will Nordun risk losing her love, and her life, to save the man who murdered her mother? A Pilgrim’s Heart is a heartfelt heroine's journey, sprinkled with nuggets of timeless Buddhist wisdom for all to enjoy.

The books I picked & why

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Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint

By Maura O'Halloran, Beth O'Halloran (illustrator),

Book cover of Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint

Why this book?

I read this book when it first came out in 1995 and have kept a copy of it for all those years, re-reading it again and again. This book is the journal and letters of Maura O'Halloran, a young Irish-American who went to Japan and joined a Zen Buddhist temple for monks at a time (the early 1980s) when few western women were admitted to such extremely arduous training. It tells of her three years in the temple in a heart-warming, honest way, with an abundance of humor. This book gives a brilliant look into life in a Zen temple, and Maura’s detailed observations and humble descriptions of her breakthroughs are a heartfelt reminder that no matter where we are on our spiritual path, we're human and there’s always hope.

Cave in the Snow

By Vicki MacKenzie,

Book cover of Cave in the Snow

Why this book?

This book is a true treasure. It tells the incredible story of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, now a world-renowned dharma teacher in the Tibetan tradition. Born as Diane Perry in London, she decided at the age of 18 that she was a Buddhist, saved up her money, and sailed to India in 1964 to pursue her spiritual path. There she battled the prejudice against women in Tibetan Buddhism, did a 12-year solitary retreat in a remote cave in the high Himalayas, and emerged from the cave with the stead-fast determination to build a monastery for nuns in India. Vicki Mackenzie recounts the practicality, sheer determination, and fearless intelligence of Tenzin Palmo in detail, so we really get to experience her amazing inner and outer journey. Furthermore, the writer weaves the history, beliefs, and practices of Tibetan Buddhism in a way that gives us a clear insight into this often complex religion.

The Wild, White Goose: The Diary of a Female Zen Priest

By Roshi P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett,

Book cover of The Wild, White Goose: The Diary of a Female Zen Priest

Why this book?

This is a diary of an English woman who moved to Japan in the 1950s to study Zen at one of the most prestigious temples at the time and become the first female to be sanctioned by the Soto School of Japan to teach in the West. The diary takes us through her years of arduous training in Japan, through the challenges that beset her, and gives a truly moving account of her brilliant mindset throughout her grueling ordeal to become a Zen priest. 

I Give You My Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun

By Ayya Khema,

Book cover of I Give You My Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun

Why this book?

This is the life story of Ayya Khema (1923-1997), who was the first Western woman to be ordained a Theravadin Buddhist nun. In this book, she recounts her rich and adventurous life. Born in Germany to Jewish parents before WWII, she joined a children's transport group going to England after the Kristal Nacht. After a year she met up with her parents in Shanghai, where the Japanese invasion forced them to give up their lives and live in a ghetto. From there on, her life takes many turns. She marries, has children, travels all over, and eventually steps onto the spiritual path in later life. She ordains as a Buddhist nun, initiates Nun's Island, a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, and eventually comes back to Germany to create Buddha Haus. Ven. Ayya Khema writes more ‘from a distance,' and although we do not always get a glimpse into her inner journey, the story of her life is a model and inspiration for all seekers, enduring us that it’s never too late to enter the path.

Women of Wisdom

By Tsultrim Allione,

Book cover of Women of Wisdom

Why this book?

This book is a wonderful collection of the lives of six Tibetan female mystics, brought together by the American Lama Tsultrim Allione, the emanation of the renowned 11th-century Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdrön, and one of the few women Lamas in the world today. The book includes an extensive autobiographical preface and introduction in which Lama Tultrum Allione shares her own story and experience of the difficulties and triumphs of women in Tibetan Buddhism, and of women pursuing a spiritual life in the West with candid honesty. The stories of these remarkable women's pasts and brought together in this book offer a wealth of insight and encouragement for both women and men who aspire to a spiritual life in the face of adversity.

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