Karma Tensum was born in Tibet and escaped to India with his family at a very young age, fleeing the violent Chinese Occupation of Tibet in 1959. Thanks to the educational sponsorship program setup by The Dalai Lama, and the kindness of individuals who participated in this program, Karma was able to attend Wynberg-Allen School, Mussoorie—one of the top schools in India—which set him on a track to pursue higher education and teaching.
In 1994, he won a Fulbright Scholarship and got his Master’s from Harvard Graduate School with a concentration in International Education. As a leading Tibetan educationalist, Karma was a member of the first Tibetan National Education Policy Committee that helped to draft the inaugural policy document for Tibetan education in exile.
Karma has dedicated his life to Tibetan children in various capacities—as a teacher, administrator, planner and fundraiser in both Dharamsala and Clement Town, India. It was here that he met India Supera, founder of the Feathered Pipe Ranch, and developed a lifelong friendship that led to many good works, including the founding of the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation.
For 18 years, Karma has lived in Montana and worked as the executive director of TCEF, a nonprofit that runs scholarships programs similar to the one that put him through school and funds projects to preserve Tibetan culture and arts.
This is a nostalgic conversation filled with the miracles of his life. He reflects on how he’s been able to stay grounded in his Tibetan spirituality and heritage despite having lived outside of his native country for all but the first three years of his life.
We explore the meaning of the word home; discuss the ways that indigenous wisdom and ancient traditions like Buddhism can teach us about healing, the arts, and the importance of strengthening the muscle of the heart; and how it’s possible to hold pain and gratitude in the palm of the same hand–the heartache of being forced out of his homeland yet staying open to receive the blessings that have touched his life.
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Andy Vantrease 00:17
Welcome to The Dandelion Effect podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never-ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feather Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community and empowerment.
Andy Vantrease 01:01
Welcome friends, to another episode of The Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease. And before we get into today’s guest, I want to take a moment to say thank you. This is the seventh episode we’ve produced, and we’ve had an increasing amount of positive feedback and support as we move this project forward. I love hearing how these conversations have sparked inspiration, courage and joy within you all, and how the topics we cover plant seeds that will later blossom into something completely new and unique. One of the easiest ways you can tell us how this podcast is benefiting your life is to leave a review on Apple podcasts. And as a tiny token of gratitude for taking this time out of your day, I’m gonna start sharing some sentiments from our community, most recently from Emma. She says, “These episodes have the ability to help listeners ground down, root in and deeply reflect, rather than consume more information we’ll soon forget. This is not just a podcast. This is an immersive experience.” Thank you, Emma, so much for your kind words, and to everyone out there, a deep bow of gratitude for tuning in and rooting down with me every month.
Andy Vantrease 02:06
So today I’m speaking with one of the most resilient and spiritually sound men I know–Karma Tensum. Karma was born in Tibet and escaped to India with his family at a very young age, fleeing the violent Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. Thanks to the educational sponsorship program set up by Dalai Lama and the kindness of individuals who participated in this program, Karma was able to attend Wynberg-Allen School, one of the top schools in India, which set him on a track to pursue higher education and teaching. In 1994, he won a Fulbright Scholarship and got his Master’s from Harvard grad school with a concentration in international education. Karma has dedicated his life to providing educational opportunities to Tibetan children in various capacities. As a teacher, administrator, planner and fundraiser in both Dharamsala and Clement Town India. And it was here in Clement Town that he met India Supera, founder of the Feather Pipe Ranch, and developed a lifelong friendship that led to many good works, including the founding of the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation. For the last 18 years, Karma has lived in Butte, Montana and worked as the executive director of TCEF, a nonprofit that runs scholarship programs similar to the one that put him through school, and also funds projects to preserve Tibetan culture and art.
Andy Vantrease 03:24
This is a very nostalgic conversation filled with the miracles of his life. He reflects on how he’s been able to stay grounded in his Tibetan spirituality and heritage despite having lived outside of his native country for all but the first three years of his life. We explore the meaning of the word “home,” discuss the ways that indigenous wisdom and ancient traditions like Buddhism can teach us about the healing, the art, and the importance of strengthening the muscle of the heart. And we also talk about how it’s possible to hold pain and gratitude in the palm of the same hand. I asked him about the heartache of being forced out of his homeland, yet how he stays open to receiving the blessings that have touched his life. Without further ado, please help me welcome my friend, Karma Tensum.
Andy Vantrease 04:08
Karma, your life story is unlike any that I’ve ever heard, so inspiring, so courageous, it truly represents the depth of human resilience, and the lengths that the human spirit can go to to persevere and to carry on with all the complexities that that come with a life well lived. And I would really love to start this conversation with that beginning journey for you, having to flee Tibet and how that has shaped the rest of your life.
Karma Tensum 04:45
I feel like my whole life and he has been really a succession of miracles. I really feel so because my family we are originally from Kham. That is Eastern Tibet. If we were in Kham, the chances of me and my family making it to India are really slim. But a few years before 1959, when the Chinese occupation took place, my whole nomadic clan, we were on a massive pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, which is right on the western border of Tibet. And so when the Chinese occupation took place, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama, fled into exile, my family, we were right there on the border. And so that made it so much more possible for us to cross the Himalayan passes. And then, you know, traveled to India. And so this miracle happened really early in my life. But I really can’t take much credit for crossing the Himalayas, because I was, Andy, only two or three years old. And so, if you know the Tibetan woman’s dress, they were these long gowns called a chuba. And you tie a sash at the waist, which means that, you know, you make a massive pocket right on top. And so, this may sound funny, but I was literally carried across the Himalayan passes in the deep pockets of my mother. And that miracle happened when I was two or three years old. And then, of course, we heard news that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, had found his new headquarters in Dharamsala in northern India. So all the Tibetan families that had managed to escape, we sort of slowly made our way towards Dharamsala. And at that time, of course, we were not equipped for a new life in India. We certainly didn’t speak the language. So all the new Tibetan refugees in India knew just this one word, “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama,” and you know, so we were headed in the general direction of where his holiness was. And somehow my family, we all made it to Dharamsala. And it seems like a journey took a few years, because I know that when we ended up in Dharamsala, I was closer to five years old.
Andy Vantrease 07:32
Wow. A few years of a journey, like you said, to get your bearings, to I’m sure learn the language, to understand what it is you do next, to figure out where you find food and shelter and, and refuge. It sounds like the education happened soon after that, just from what I know about your story. So can you tell me a little bit about what that transition was like or what the program was like that you entered into, once you got settled in Dharamsala in that Tibetan refugee community?
Karma Tensum 08:09
Right, Andy, and this is really interesting. But over all these 50-60 years, starting from the time, like in the early 60s, when I’m talking about this model, you know, the model where we find an individual sponsor, to sponsor the education of a Tibetan refugee. The Tibetans in exile, we have now been using them for over all these years. And this is a model that was used in my case also. So it’s like a one-to-one pairing, finding a heart here in the West who wants to help in the East. And so that’s what happen, so there definitely was a program set up by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and the early Tibetan leadership. So anyway, because of this sponsorship, Andy, I got this really great education at a school called Wynberg-Allen School. It’s at a place called Mussoorie in India. And were it not for sponsorship, I would have never ever gotten to this school. This was a really good school, a private school, where actually some of the best families in India studied there. So I got this opportunity due to the circumstances that I described. And then, after I finished my school, I always wanted to become a teacher, Andy, so I went for Teachers Training College, graduated from Mount Hermon College of Education in Darjeeling. And I started my teaching career at a school called TCV School in Dharamsala. It’s north India, the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama has his headquarters.
Karma Tensum 10:02
And so although I started my teaching career in Dharamsala, I later shifted down to another Tibetan settlement called Clement Town. Clement Town, I think is about 300 miles south of Dharamsala. It’s closer to New Delhi, the capital. And we have a thriving Tibetan community there. And I was a teacher in this school, when something wonderful happens in my life, another miracle. And that was meeting up with India Supera. India by that time, so I’m talking and in 1981, India already has the fabulous Feather Pipe Ranch. She was doing these wonderful tours. And then, you know, I met up with India. She just wanted someone to translate for her. I did that part and then subsequently started traveling with her, meeting other people from Montana, meeting other people from the West. The, ultimately it was India’s supreme kindness, in inviting me in 1986, to visit America that sort of gave me another jump in my life. If you’re a Tibetan refugee, you are struggling to live not dreaming about coming to America. But that’s exactly the miracle that happened in my life. You will see that that ultimately paved for my life’s walk with TCEF also.
Andy Vantrease 11:33
What does that word miracle mean to you? Because you’ve used that quite a few times already in just a few minutes. And I agree. I do not doubt that your life already thus far has been filled with a number of miracles. But I’m curious of, from a spiritual standpoint, what does that word miracle mean? And how do you stay open to receiving such things?
Karma Tensum 11:57
In order to sort of answer this, let me tell you about one part of my life, which for me has always been intriguing. So I remember one of my most memorable lessons. I got a Fulbright Scholarship, and I remember, we used to have these study groups. And one of these study groups focused on the sociology of education, where if a person gets educated to a certain extent, in the Western culture and Western science, how one would lose the indigenous culture. And they wanted to speak about why this really sort of didn’t happen to me, how my Tibetan-ness and how my Tibetan sense of spirituality and culture stayed with me. And it’s really like, for me, it’s always been a fascinating part of my life, because during this period that I talked about, I almost, Andy, lived two different lives. In the summer, I went to this fabulous school, played tennis, had a swimming pool, indoor gymnasium. I slept between clean sheets. That happened for nine months in a year. And then for three months, in a year, I would come down to a place called Rajpur, very close by at the foothills of where the school was. And there I would spend three quality months with my poor Tibetan refugee family. And when I say poor, and we were just dirt poor. The whole family, my mom, my dad, my siblings, myself, we just lived in this one dilapidated room. We had no electricity, no running water. In one corner of the room, we had like a kitchen with almost like a stove made out of three blocks of rock. In one corner, we had a special place where my dad would say his scriptures, and we would put our scriptures. But the whole family, we ate together, we slept together. Around about eight o’clock at night, when Mom blew off the kerosene lamp, the whole family slept early. I was the second youngest in the family. And because I went to that school and had only a limited time at home, I got the privilege of sleeping next to my mom. And even now, you know, I can almost sense the fragrance of her body smell, her sweat, our toil. And all this really intimate and close up time with my Tibetan family, somehow ingrained in me, it made me more of a Tibetan. In the mornings, I would wake up to the sound of my dad saying his morning prayers by the light of a single window. And throughout the day, I would just play with my siblings or spend time with my mom and dad. And so this is also something special in my life, that although I was privileged to have all this education and ultimately find my way to a Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard, my Tibetan-ness stayed with me. And so today, when I look back on my life, everything wonderful that happened to me, to me, it truly seems like a miracle. It seems like a blessing. And I think this is one of the privileges of being one in the Tibetan families, you have this sense of gratitude ingrained in you. Because of all the experiences of life that I had, everything wonderful that happened to me, I attached a sense of gratitude. Nothing ever will make me take things for granted. As you can sense from my talk, my Tibetan-ness, for me, is one of the miracles of my, miracles and blessings of my life.
Andy Vantrease 16:01
Yeah, one of my friends always says that the most radical thing you can do is live your unique life and your unique path, staying grounded, in who it is that you believe that you are, and just preserve that essence of yourself. And so as I hear you tell your story, I’m just so struck by the grounded-ness in your culture, because obviously, the entire goal of anybody occupying another country is to do away with that culture, to do away with the traditions of those people, and to take over, and to colonize. And so just hearing you, and the fact that you’ve remained so true to your Tibetan-ness as you say, that, to me, is a very radical act and an act of rebellion, you know, against a system that has tried to silence you. That carries over into your work with Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation, and really preserving Tibetan culture and art and language and education. When you think of the idea of preserving culture, what does that mean to you?
Karma Tensum 17:16
Yes, yes, Andy, thank you for that question. See, as far as my own grounding in the culture, the root without doubt is my own family, my mom and dad. My dad was a deeply religious person. My mom was the epitome of a Tibetan refugee woman. My dad succumbed to tuberculosis, as did a lot of Tibetans. They just could not adjust to the heat and humidity of India, coming from the pristine plateau of Tibet. So she helped me survive. So as far as my Tibetan-ness, my culture is concerned, my mom and dad, they were my first teachers of my culture. And then we have been so privileged and in this generation, to have someone as wonderful as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, be our teacher, be our guide. His teachings, his wisdom has been a source of inspiration for me throughout my whole life. In fact, if we can try to find out some blessings from the tragedy of Tibet, it is that the Tibetan spiritual heritage, which was, you know, kept in wraps, in mystery in Tibet, found its way to the rest of the world. So, you know, I’m so grateful that we have all these spiritual masters. And then strange as it may sound, Andy, after I came to Montana, and I started working for the Tibetan Children’s Foundation, I started as part of an effort to raise awareness of Tibetan art and culture here in the West. I started traveling with some amazing Tibetan cultural ambassadors. So I’ve traveled with Tibetan sand mandala creators, butter sculpture, Tangka painters, monks, nuns, opera singers. And because I was coordinating and organizing these events, I got to take really close peeps at them. The Venerable Nyawang Chojor who was the sand mandala creator, he just love to talk to me about Tibet and about the culture and the spirituality. And so these long travels with all these masters, further strengthened the sense that there is something really worthwhile, about the Tibetan spiritual heritage. And then it, it sort of inspired me to learn, to read. And the sum total of my learnings is that at this point of time, Andy, I’m really convinced that Tibetan spiritual heritage is beautiful. It’s wonderful. It’s based on altruism and compassion. It’s got something to offer to the whole world. There was this inspirational piece I read where someone actually compared the spiritual heritage of Tibet, to the Amazon forests. You know, sort of making the point that just as the Amazon forests are vital for the whole world, for the oxygen component, maybe Tibetan spiritual culture can be that catalyst that the world needs and deserves, at this point of time. My beliefs in the value of the Tibetan culture, drive my passion in sharing them here in the West.
Andy Vantrease 20:56
I love that comparison of a spiritual system or wisdom tradition to the Amazon, the oxygen that the Amazon can emit for the world. Yeah, just a beautiful metaphor. Although I think that it can certainly be taken a lot more seriously than just a metaphor. And if it is, I’m wondering what your insight is into the values that can be the oxygen for the world. And when you are thinking about how Tibetan Buddhism or some of these other traditions that are rooted in indigenous wisdom, how can they be medicine for the times that we find ourselves in, for perhaps the challenges that modern life and other advancements and technologies have created? What do you see there as far as what we need to bring back into the fabric of our society?
Karma Tensum 22:03
I believe that, as a global community, whatever we are, we have slowly built on all the traditional wisdoms. So I, for example, living here in Montana, I’ve come across Native American communities, I’ve been fortunate to visit the reservations, explore similarities of our thoughts, and our spiritual beliefs. And at the core, it is striking to see that there are so many similarities. So, Andy, I truly believe that modern science, and you know, please don’t get me wrong, I am a massive fan of technology, anything that alleviate human suffering, anything that, you know, gets rid of disease and hunger is positive. So I have nothing against science, technology. Somehow, because of who I am, and all my own life experiences, prompt me to say that if we can balance, modern science and technology, with traditional wisdom, of all different peoples of the world, we have the potential to create a more harmonious world. Another way of saying it is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often taught us. And that is, that while we are training the mind, you know, educating ourselves in science and technology, and making these progresses that propelled the Industrial Revolution, at the same time, I think it is possible for us to educate our heart, and teach the children, these universal values of love, compassion, respect for all the traditions. I truly believe that if we do that, we are at a better place.
Karma Tensum 24:10
Another thing that I’m really proud of, is that the Tibetans in exile, they have created about 90 Tibetan schools in exile. And these schools, they provide a wonderful modern education. But at the same time, our Tibetan schools, we are sort of using them to transmit our Tibetan culture to them. So we have Tibetan art, Tibetan history. But now there is sort of a new push to try and imbibe to the children at a really young age, when they are really, when the brains are really fertile, to sort of inculcate in them the best of our spiritual values. So I know that one of the prayers that we teach our children at a really young age is a prayer called the Immeasurable Prayer where, basically, if I translate loosely for you, Andy, “We pray that, may everyone be happy, and have the sources to be happy. May everyone be free from suffering, and have the resources to be free from suffering. May everyone abide in a sense of equanimity without thinking of self and others.” So, from a really young age, I know that we are trying to teach our children values, which we think will, you know, add to their happiness, values of getting values of loving values of thinking for others. So I don’t know whether the school systems in, for example, here in the United States, it’s possible to run a program, because so much of our programs here are secular. But, you know, as a Tibetan in our schools, we do this, and we think that it will help our children to grow up to be more balanced and happy.
Andy Vantrease 26:10
Yeah, I think so too. And I actually am hopeful. I mean, I think it is really hard to implement here in the United States, because there are so many different religion and, and ways of thinking, but I am seeing an increased number of organizations and programs who are specializing in more of these communication-based learnings. So things like emotional intelligence are being really taken into account, and relational development, how to build healthy relationships, how to communicate effectively with loved ones, how to make good decisions. I mean, and a lot of that comes from self awareness, and then also being able to extend that awareness out to compassion for other people. So it’s really beautiful to hear you say that it’s a big component of what you’re teaching in Tibetan communities. I am seeing more and more of that. But yeah, like you said, I don’t know if it’s ever going to come through the school system here. That will be interesting. But Karma, I want to switch gears a bit, I want to talk to you about this idea of home. Because it’s something that has been on my mind as I hear your story, all of the places that you’ve lived, and all of the different cultures that have woven their way into who you are as a person. What do you think of when you think of the word home?
Karma Tensum 27:41
Right, Andy. You asked a really interesting question. So deep down inside, even in my dreams, I’m always Tibetan. And it’s interesting, because I’ve spent only like two or three years in Tibet itself. But I think it was all that closeness to my mom and dad, you know, hearing the stories of Tibet. My daddy was born steadied storyteller. He could use this plethora of adjectives to just describe the traditions and customs of Tibet. So in my heart, in my deepest sense at the cellular level, Andy, I think I’ve always been a Tibetan. Having said that, growing up in India, that country had a massive impact on me. I have, there were just so many things about India that I just love. I love the diversity. I love the tradition. I love the culture. In some weird way. I’ve identified myself with India also. Especially, let’s say, I’ve always loved sports. It came from my days in Wynberg-Allen School, playing tennis, swimming. I love to watch the Olympics and different sports. And say, like, in the Summer Olympics, all the nations of the world will come together, wave their colorful flags. And of course, you know, this pang of regret because you never see the flag of Tibet. So then the flag and the nation that I identified [with] the most was India. You know, I would watch Indian games playing cricket. I would love them, the few moments that they excelled. I would even follow Indian golfers and see how they fared in the international scene. So there was a part of me that just loved India. And I still do. I remember, when we have that orientation session when we first came and joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there was this orientation where people were encouraged to talk about the places where they came from, and I talked about Tibet. And then shortly afterwards, I switched on to say how much I loved India also. And my fellow students were a little bit taken aback that I had all these really strong emotions for India. And then, you know, my own Tibetan families will tell me that, as far as Karma is concerned, I’ve, I have this weird connection to the United States also. And I believe that, because we are just so many Tibetans, why would an India Supera connect with me? You know, like, why is it that I’m so comfortable with things and places here in the United States? Why do I find so much comfort in just being around people here in Montana. So I know you’re not going to ask me to choose one of the three countries, which is not possible. But I wanted to say that I became a US citizen, after being a stateless person for over 60 years. Andy, I finally belong. I became a US citizen in 2017. Now, when I travel, I do so on a US passport. So for me, this concept of a global citizen, you know, I, and I know, it’s never going to happen. But I have this dream of how wonderful it would be if people were able to travel freely, see different parts of the world. I truly believe it would open up their minds, open up the hearts. There would be less intolerance. There would be less racial problems. All my life experiences makes me a person who celebrates diversity.
Andy Vantrease 31:38
I absolutely agree. Absolutely agree. And of course, I was never going to ask you to choose, because if somebody asked me to choose where I considered to be home, I would have a very similar answer. You know, Delaware is where I was born and raised. And that, of course, feels like home every time I go back. But there are certain parts of a lot of different places in the world that feel like home in a, in a certain way to me. And that used to really kind of freak me out. But now I’ve, I’ve settled into the richness of that idea that I, pieces of me are all over the globe in a certain way, whether I’ve traveled there or lived there temporarily. And now for the last few years, Montana has felt like, like a home as well. And that feeling is growing deeper. So I can definitely appreciate your answer. And certainly have similar sentiments about my life and the ways that I have woven myself kind of all over the place. And I actually get this experience too. And I wanted to see if you have ever felt this, but there’s some similarities between the mountains in Montana and the mountains, say in the Himalayas, I had the chance to travel to Nepal, a couple years ago in 2018, and I was doing some trekking in the Annapurna region. And when we got up to the Annapurna base camp, somewhere around 13 or 14,000 feet, I had this almost flashback of being in Montana, and it’s this visceral feeling that happens to my body when I’m in and surrounded by mountains that are that huge. And I’ve heard India say the same thing and VJ say the same thing that there are similarities in the topography, or even in the energy, between Montana and, and either Nepal or Tibet, or certain parts of India, just that Himalayan range. So have you ever had that experience?
Karma Tensum 33:49
You know, and it’s so interesting. As you know, I left Tibet when I was really young, but that hasn’t stopped me from looking at images and stuff like that from Tibet, especially Eastern Tibet, where there’s more green pastures and rolling hills. My family, my relatives, when I showed them images of Montana, they are taken aback. They say, “Gee, just take away the Interstate, take away your electric poles, and this could be any part of Eastern Tibet.” So it’s really interesting. They are striking similarities. Once, Andy, I was in not even western Montana. I was in eastern Montana, I think, Culbertson and Miles City, that part. I was traveling in a Jeep, or doing one of these TCEF tours, and I was traveling with two Tibetan monks one of them and one of them ???. And the landscape in eastern Montana is a little bit different from here, it’s more of, like the top… the total topography is a little bit different. But as we were driving by one of the senior monks, he actually became emotional to the point where he became, you know, his eyes were wet. And I asked the venerable monk, what happened? And he said, you know, it’s just the sheer topography of the place, you know, mile after mile when we were driving. He said, “Oh my God, this reminds me of Tibet so much.” So he had all these flashbacks. And so today when we are talking about similarities between Montana and Tibet, you know, that memory just came flooding back.
Andy Vantrease 35:34
Oh, that’s so cool that you’ve had people come here and visit and they have that same, that similar feeling that, wow, Montana really reminds me of, of home. And here I am thinking the same thing when I go over there. And I’m thinking about, “Wow, this reminds me of Montana.” Okay, so it’s not just me, it’s not just us. It sounds like there are real connections between these two places. And India has always said that Montana is a power spot, the way that the pyramids are power spots, the way that things like Machu Picchu, and Stonehenge. I mean, she, I have, had heard her say many times that the land at the Feathered Pipe Ranch and Montana in general, is one of those places that just houses sacred energy. So I’m kind of getting a confirmation of that here now. Speaking of things that evoke emotions, and how we have these connections, I want to talk about the way that you connect with people through your work with TCEF. And what I’m curious about is what you are tapping into when you are sharing your passion for preserving Tibetan culture and arts and history. The, the writings that I have read that you’ve done online, and just some of the other times that we’ve talked, it, I get this feeling that people really show up for this organization, with funds and contributions. They show up with their time and energy when it comes to volunteering and helping spread the word. They, you know, travel halfway across the world to go on service trips, and put their skills to use in building schools and other educational facilities. And I want to know, from your words, what, what it is that you’re tapping into within people? Are you aware of some connection that’s happening, perhaps on an emotional level, a soul level, when you are, you know, really trying to reach into the hearts of people and, and have them understand the importance of the work that you’re doing?
Karma Tensum 37:50
Right. Andy, let me try to answer it, this way. Being a Tibetan, is both a privilege and the pain. The pain is obvious. As a refugee community, you struggle with food and everything. So there is that part also. But honestly, especially here in the United States, Andy, sometimes I felt special, for no other reason at all, except that I’m a Tibetan. So to answer your question, you know, like, when I do these talks, when I do these presentations, I feel so fortunate. I feel like I’m tapping into the best version of people. I always believe that within everybody, there is this goodness. My culture teaches it. I think a spiritual teacher even called it innate primordial wisdom. You know, we truly believe that there is inherent goodness in everybody. And my privilege, in working for the foundation is that often, I’m able to touch, and empathy, and bring out that goodness. So when I do this work for the foundation, and people give $45 or $35, I feel so grateful. And sometimes, my worry is that in return for all these kindness, which people give, what am I giving? What is the Tibetans giving? And one of the small consolation that I have is that perhaps I’m helping to bring out some part of their generosity. I’m helping to bring out some part of that good version in every person. So from that point of view, instead of facing bias, instead of facing any sort of racial problems in my life here in America, it’s in a way the opposite. In my line of work, I’ve been so privileged that I’m tapping into their best selves. And in a weird way, that is what I feel my work is giving back to them also, is, I’m empowering their generosity, I’m empowering their goodness to come out and flower.
Andy Vantrease 39:17
Hmm…Yeah, you bring up a really good point. And I think a lesson that I have been practicing for the last few years, and definitely this past year of holding these seemingly opposing emotions in the same hand and accepting that they’re both true at the same time, holding privilege with pain. Or, you know, for me this last year, just this grief with moments of joy and happiness. And kind of like anxiety with a sense of calm. I mean, all of these things kind of happening at one time, and all part of the human experience. So how do you hold this privilege and this pain so gracefully, together?
Karma Tensum 41:15
Yes. Andy, you, you make a really good point. And as I, as you may have, you know, gathered from our conversation so far, our own Tibetan lives, in a way, make us or help us to appreciate all the blessings that come our way, living as we do in what we as Tibetans consider to be one of our darkest periods of our history. There is no doubt about it. You know, sometimes, when I look upon the whole of Tibet itself, and there is no doubt, we are going through one of our darkest periods. It’s now over 60 years that we have been in exile. In Tibet itself, I’m reading all these books, where Tibetans in Tibet have suffered so much, endured so much. And even today, whether consciously or unconsciously, there is some kind of cultural genocide going on in Tibet. For those of us who have been able, are fortunate enough to escape, come into exile, and then even you know, come into America, because of who we are, because of all that has happened in our life, it makes us more mindful of blessings, even small blessings that come our way, that sometimes people in other situations…may not be possible. Let me give you an example. Let’s talk about citizenship. You know, I’ve been a stateless person for 60 years. And there were many times in my life, when I wished, when I pined for, when I really missed having a country to call my own. I missed it at a cellular level. And it’s hard to even explain it. I guess, in some way, it’s like, it’s like the air we breathe, like the oxygen. When you have it, you’re not even aware of it. You know, we’re just breathing it. It’s only when you don’t have it, that you realize how desperately you need it. So I know, Andy, that people don’t wake up thinking, “Gee, oh, I’m so grateful to be a citizen of the United States.” Leave alone, other people, I don’t do that every day myself. But when you have been a stateless person, having this sense of a country to belong to, a passport, that, you know, you can travel comfortably, securely, even those things, they have that added value, and therefore this added sense of gratitude. From that view, Andy, I may have digressed from your original question, but the point which I want to make is this, the sum total of my experiences as a refugee, having gone through life, with so many ups and downs, have really helped me to be more mindful of all the blessings that I do have.
Andy Vantrease 44:32
Yeah, that is a really beautiful reminder. It seems like your gratitude practice and always remembering what you’ve been through and where you came from is really the foundation of how you’re able to experience everything as a blessing, not just picking and choosing the seemingly positive experiences. The last question I have for you, Karma is where are you drawing hope from? And what is the driving force behind getting up every day and doing the work that you do? Where’s that life force coming from? Where is that fire of passion? What is the root of that for you?
Karma Tensum 45:17
Well, me in my line of work with the foundation, we work with education, we work with Tibetan culture, and now we even work with being of service to Tibetan elders. But education definitely is key, Andy. And I am, like, really passionate about education, because I believe, because it happened in my own life, I know that education is the key to overcoming disadvantages in life. And I just don’t mean it only for Tibetans. Let me take a walk back to India. It’s this fascinating country, 1.4 billion people. But it’s also comes with the baggage of the caste system, all the social injustices that are prevalent in that country today. And some years ago, I think it might have been in the 70s, or 80s, we had one prime minister called VP Singh. He tried to do something about it through a reservation system, where he was going to reserve college seats, education seat to people coming from this historically scheduled caste, scheduled tribes. [In] that way, he was trying to usher in social justice in all of India. It didn’t work, there were just too many people who opposed him. People started self immolating. And that program fell through. But it did not change in my head, the thought that if we want to change society, if we want to change the lives of people, education is always key. Whether it’s poverty, elevation, whether it’s social injustice, whether it’s overcoming barriers, like the caste system, I always believe education is key. And for the Tibetan refugees, that I work for in India. Andy, I know that life as a Tibetan refugee sucks. But, if you are an illiterate refugee, your challenges become so much more. So I know that through education, we are throwing a lifeline. And that’s where I draw my inspiration. That’s where I draw my hope.
Karma Tensum 47:35
And then about the culture I already talked about. I’m really passionate about it. I truly believe in the goodness of Tibetan culture. So every time there’s an opportunity to share it, I do it. We have this visiting Tibetan artists, Tsering Lodoe. Tsering Lodoe, has had his own shares of ups and downs. He’s a really colorful character. But you know, the talent he has as a Tibetan artist, I appreciate that. And I always try to support it. So my culture and this belief in education, Andy, above everything, drive my passion nowadays.
Karma Tensum 48:12
My last concluding words, is I wanted to convey this deep sense of gratitude that I feel for the TCEF family. It’s a growing family. It started out slowly now we have about 200 people supporting the work of Tibetan Children Foundation, and at every opportunity, including this podcast, I just want to throw that out there. Thank you everyone for the support. And not only to me, but the people of Tibet. So that sense of gratitude I wanted to convey. And I would love to hear from anyone who loves Tibet or wants to know more about Tibet. So thank you again, Andy, for this opportunity.
Andy Vantrease 49:08
Karma Tensum. Now, if that conversation doesn’t leave you feeling grateful for existence alone, I honestly don’t know what will. With everything going on in the United States and the world right now, Karma’s story really brings me great perspective on my life and how much I have to be thankful for. Just thinking about his comment about citizenship as the air we breathe, not even noticing it until we don’t have it, that is something that will stick with me following this conversation for sure. I so appreciate Karma’s enthusiasm and his unbridled passion for sharing his beliefs and traditions. In my time connected with the Feather Pipe Ranch, I’ve learned so much about the foundation of Buddhism and have found it really helpful for navigating everyday life and relationships. As a wanderer myself I also loved the chance to ask him how he interprets the word “home.” And that part of our conversation reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote that I later looked up, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place you belong every place, no place at all.” Maybe let that one sit for a little while and see how that simmers. If you’re interested visit Tibetchild.org where you can sign up to sponsor a Tibetan child’s education or support an elder and the community. Plus, it’s there that you can read more about Karma’s life story and the role that the Feather Pipe Ranch played in the inception of TCEF.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.