Karma Tensum is the Executive Director of Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the endangered Tibetan culture, establishing education centers and running a sponsorship program to give children the transformational experience of education. Karma’s life is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a potent example of the role that education—of the heart and mind—plays in our individual and collective liberation. Here, he shares passionately about his life experiences, spiritual beliefs and his hope for the future.
Your life of adversity began very young, when your family was forced to make the long and brutal journey from Tibet to India to escape the Chinese occupation. I’d like to start there, and ask how that early experience shaped your life?
Andy, when I look back on my life, I feel like it has really been a succession of miracles. My family is originally from eastern Tibet, but my whole nomadic clan made a massive pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, which is right on the western border of Tibet. When the Chinese occupation took place in 1959, His Holiness The Dalai Lama fled into exile and my family was right there on the border, making it much more possible for us to cross the Himalayan passes and travel to India. I can’t take much credit for crossing the Himalayas because I was only two years old, and my mother carried me by wrapping me in her traditional Tibetan dress, which ties at the waist and creates a large pocket on top. I was literally carried across the Himalayan passes in the deep pockets of my mother!
We weren’t prepared for life in India. We didn’t speak the language. The Tibetan refugees knew just this one name: Dalai Lama. We asked for him and moved around, eventually somehow making it to Dharamshala a few years later, where he had setup a Tibetan refugee community. Through the kindness of HH The Dalai Lama and five Danish aunties who sponsored my education, I attended a wonderful private school called Wynberg Allen School in Mussoorie. The Danish aunties passed the baton to a Swiss gentleman who sponsored me through high school, which then set me up for college and graduate school. So, the transformation in my life literally came because of the education that I received and the kindness of people who funded that education. I knew that when I finished school, I wanted to become a teacher to help children through the same process that had afforded me such opportunity.
The next miracle in my life was in 1981 when I met India Supera in Clement Town, a Tibetan refugee community closer to New Delhi. She was looking for a translator, and that day began a friendship that ultimately brought me to America, to Montana and to the work I do with the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF). When you are a Tibetan refugee, you are struggling to survive; not dreaming of coming to America. But again, my life has been one miracle after another.
How did your spiritual foundation in Buddhism influence the way you viewed and received these miracles?
To answer that, I must tell you a story. I remember one year being in a study group focused on the Sociology of Education, and they were talking about the situation when a person gets heavily educated in Western culture and science, he or she is at risk of losing their indigenous culture.
For me, this has never happened. I never closed off to my heritage—and I’ll tell you why: In the period of time when I growing up and attending private schools, it was almost like I lived two different lives. Nine months out of the year, I attended a fabulous school with tennis courts, a swimming pool, an indoor gymnasium. I slept between clean sheets. Then for three months, I would come down to Rajpur, where I would spend three quality months with my poor Tibetan refugee family. When I say we were poor, Andy, I mean we were dirt poor. The whole family—my mom, my dad, my siblings, myself—lived in one dilapidated room with no electricity, no running water, and a stove made out of three blocks of rock in the corner.
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 when I was there. Even now, I can almost smell the fragrance of her body and feel the texture of her clothes. In the mornings, I would wake up to the sound of my dad singing his morning prayers by the light of a single window. I had such intimate time with my family, which grounded me in our culture, and engrained in me what it meant to be Tibetan.
Being born Tibetan—that is the primary miracle. Having come from where I did, during one of the darkest periods of our history, I have gratitude for all of the wonderful things that have happened in my life, no matter how small or large. In fact, one lesson from the tragedy of Tibet is that our spiritual heritage has found its way to the rest of the world as we’ve moved across the globe.
It feels like there’s a palpable urgency to preserve these ancient wisdom systems and traditions. How do you view this conversation around preservation on a collective level?
I read an inspirational piece where someone actually compared the spiritual heritage of Tibet to the Amazon forest—making the point that just as the Amazon is oxygenating the planet, the pillars of Tibetan culture can be the medicine that breathes life, understanding and meaning into the world right now. HH The Dalai Lama has often taught us that while we are fanning the mind, educating ourselves in science and technology and making these progresses that propelled the industrial revolution, we must also educate our heart and teach the children the universal values of love, compassion and respect—which most ancient wisdom traditions do.
Living here in Montana for the last 18 years, I’ve come across Native American communities, and I’ve been fortunate to visit the reservations and explore the similarities of our thoughts and our spiritual beliefs. At the core, it is striking to see that there are so many similarities. All indigenous cultures place an emphasis on compassion and on balancing the mind with the heart. I believe that’s what we need to do to live in harmony in the world. Yes, I appreciate modern science and technology—anything that helps alleviate human suffering is positive—but because of my own life experiences and my background, I’m prompted to say that we need to elevate the traditional wisdom of all peoples of the world now more than ever. That’s where our potential lies.
What are some of the components of education that can elevate and strengthen the muscle of the heart?
Universal values and prayers are helpful for educating the heart. Another thing that I’m really proud of is that the Tibetans in exile have created about 90 schools, and they all balance wonderful modern education with arts, culture, spirituality and history. It’s important to us to imbibe children with values and spiritual tools when their brains are fertile. We teach young children the Immeasurable Prayer that translates loosely to “We pray that everyone be happy and have the causes to be happy. Everyone be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Everyone abides in a sense of equanimity and balance, free from all biases.”
I don’t know if it’s possible here in the United States to run a program with universal values like this because so much of the schooling in this country is secular. I do think it would help our children, though, and at the root of most ancient wisdom traditions and big religions are similar pillars, so perhaps we could find common ground.
You have such vast life experiences, Karma: Born in Tibet, raised in India, almost two decades in America with plenty of international travel in between. How do you feel and what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘home?’
This is a really interesting question. You know, deep down inside—even in my dreams—I’m always in Tibet. Even though I only spent two years there at the beginning of my life, my dad was a warm, steady storyteller who used a plethora of adjectives to describe the traditions and customs of our home country. He spoke in a way that allowed me to feel Tibet on a cellular level.
Having said that, India had a massive impact on me, and I love so many things about that country: the diversity, tradition, culture. For many years, I identified myself with India also, especially when it came to sports. I can remember watching the Olympics, when all the nations of the world come together, waving their colorful flags. Of course, there was a pang of regret because you never see the flag of Tibet, so I rooted for India. Then during our orientation for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I earned my Master’s Degree in 1995, we were encouraged to talk about where we came from. I talked about Tibet, switching to talk about India shortly afterwards. My fellow students were a bit surprised!
I’ve always felt comfortable in Montana too. Sometimes I even get this visceral response to the mountains here, as they have similarities to the Himalayas. I was leading a TCEF tour one year, driving through eastern Montana with several monks in my Jeep. As we were driving, one of the senior monks started tearing up, and I asked him what happened. He said, “It’s just the sheer topography of the place—mile after mile after mile. Oh my God, this reminds me of Tibet.”
So, the idea of ‘home’ is complex for me. I know you’re not asking me to choose, but I will say that in 2017, I became a U.S. citizen—after being a stateless person for over 60 years. During my life, there have been many moments when I missed having a country to call my own. I missed it on such a deep level, it’s hard to even explain it. I guess in some way, it’s like the air we breathe: When you have it, you’re not even aware of it—you’re just breathing. It’s only when you don’t have it that you realize how desperately you need it. I know that people don’t wake up thinking, “Wow, I’m so grateful to be a citizen of the United States.” I don’t do that every day myself. But when you have been a stateless person for almost your entire life, having this sense of place and a passport that enables you to travel comfortably, it really changes your perception of belonging.
I have a dream of how wonderful it would be if we could all be global citizens, able to travel freely, see different parts of the world. I truly believe it would open up our minds and our hearts. There would be so much less intolerance.
In your work, spreading awareness of Tibetan culture and pairing children with education sponsors, what are you seeking to tap into within the hearts and minds of the people you’re speaking with?
I’ve always believed that within every single person there is an inherent goodness. My privilege in working for TCEF is that I’m often able to touch that empathy and bring out that goodness in people. When someone gives $45 or $35, whatever it is, I feel so incredibly grateful. My worry is that, in return for all of these kindnesses that people give, what am I giving to them? What are the Tibetans giving in return?
What I’ve realized is that this work is actually a two-way exchange: I am helping to bring out the generosity that lives within them, empowering them to open their hearts and connect with their own goodness. From that point of view, instead of facing bias or any sort of racial problems in my life here in America, it’s been the opposite. In my line of work, I experience people at their best. We have over 200 people supporting the work of TCEF, and I am grateful for this growing family. This community gives me hope and motivation to keep going—because Tibet needs the support, and I think the greater world needs to see their inherent goodness.
*Special thanks to freelance writer Andy Vantrease for doing this interview!