In April, 2009, the Dalai Lama was speaking at University of California at Santa Barbara and I drove down for the rare opportunity to be with him. At lunch I picked up a phone message. A Tibetan man who introduced himself as Karma Tensum called to ask if I would host an event where two Tibetan monks would make a sand mandala in San Jose to raise money for the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Montana, dedicated to educating the children of Tibetan exiles in northern India and in Sikhm. My first thought was that when someone named Karma calls and asks for a favor, the answer should be ‘yes.’
I had heard of Karma Tensum through India Supera, the founder of Feathered Pipe Ranch, the first yoga retreat center in the US. India Supera had been one of the leaders on my retreat to India six months before in October 2008. From my perspective, the country of India is beautiful and complicated, so much devotion and so much chaos. I asked her what was required to build a school for girls in India. She told me about Karma Tensum and the Tibetan Children’s’ Education Foundation that they began together many years ago and suggested I should first learn about TCEF’s very effective work.
As luck would have it, the curator of the San Jose Museum of Art, a yoga practitioner herself, was open to hosting the making of a sand mandala in their lobby. In September 2009 many people were able to see the making of a sand mandala, and after a weekend of events, we raised around $50,000 in sponsorships. I had no idea that there would be so much enthusiasm. Being with the monks that weekend left a deep impression. They were kind, focused, sincere, humble — and funny.
The following March 2010 I lead a “Path of the Buddha” retreat to India. The week before the retreat began I went to Kyitsel-Ling, the hostel that Karma had built and the school down the road where he was headmaster so I could what it was really like. I met the students, some of whom were now sponsored by friends at home. I taught yoga for about 100 students one afternoon. We recorded the stories of the elders that TCEF also sponsors, men and women who are at least seventy years old and have no other means of support other than from people like you who give thirty five dollars a month. They spoke about traveling over the Himalayas with the Dalia Lama during the exile in 1959, and the hardships they had experienced in their life. Each mentioned how grateful he or she was to have TCEF’s support.
We hadn’t realized that we had arrived in Clement Town that two thousand residents of that town were quietly chanting two billion “Om Mani Padme Hums,” a Buddhist chant that has universal implications, each syllable of the chant a reminder of the desire to become more patient and generous, to live ethically and to have perseverance, to strengthen concentration and achieve wisdom. Outside the monastery was an open field where many of the elders spent the day chanting, turning their prayer wheels and talking with each other because they were friends. In the mornings that began before dawn, people circumambulated the monasteries often walking together, talking and chanting simultaneously, which is itself an art-form.
On our final day in Clement Town all of the doors of the stupa were open and we were able to climb the inner staircases to the top balcony which looked out over the entire town. Below I saw a very old woman dressed entirely in dark red with two canes, walking one very slow step at a time around the stupa. She had been there every day, spending hours at a time circumambulating. I watched from above as our photographer, Justin, filmed as she came around each corner. I couldn’t help wonder what it was like to be this very old devoted woman. I left Clement Town feeling so grateful to have seen a whole town devoted to practicing compassion.
Since March 2010, I have been to Montana to talk with the board of directors of the Tibetan Childrens’ Education Fund and to record Karma’s story of how he was carried over the Himalayas in his mother’s pocket as a two year old in 1959, worked on the roads in India as a laborer, was sponsored by the American Red Cross to go to school, later went onto Harvard, and devoted his life to helping the children of his culture in the same way in which he had been helped.
In October I returned to Kyitsel-Ling in Clement Town India and visited Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. In January when Breathe Los Gatos opened, we hosted Karma and Lama Ngawang to make the sand mandala of compassion at the studio. We raised money to build a kitchen at the school and to refurbish the computers.
Recently the focus of my work is turning toward raising awareness and the funding to sponsor elder Tibetan refugees who are ex-political prisoners. Because they are have no means of government support, and are some of the most compassionate people I have ever met despite the horrors that have both witnessed and have been inflicted on them in their life time, I feel compelled to support what seems to be a rare species that is threatened toward extinction. The studio itself has sponsored the education of a child, and an elderly Tibetan nun. I continue to look for ways to give back to a culture that has given me so much, a culture that lies at the root of my own personal experience of my “yoga practice.”