Tenzin Lama

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College: Cabrillo College
Semester Attended ACE: Spring 2009

There is a common saying among the nomadic people of Tibet, “Wherever you fit your mind, your body can fit,” said Tenzin Lama who grew up as yak herder, joined a Tibetan monastery in India and eventually made his way to the front steps of Cabrillo College. It is a sentiment he heard again this last year as a student in the Academy for College Excellence (ACE) when his cohort was studying body movement. There he learned, “There’s always space for you no matter how crowded.”

Tenzin, 50, the oldest of 10 children, grew up in Othok, a largely undeveloped eastern region of Tibet where there was no electricity, school, hospital or telephone.
“I became a yak herder when I was able to walk fast enough,” he said. “At about eight or nine years, I took responsibility.” 

His father, a former monk who recited voluminous prayers by heart, taught him to read and write. The family lived together in a yak hair tent until, at age 17, Tenzin snuck out of China on a quest to see the Dalai Lama and seek an education. After meeting the religious leader, Tenzin committed to a rigorous Buddhist education in a monastery in southern India and, in 1999, his service brought him to San Francisco where he served a leading monk at the Foundation of Preservation of Mayahana Tradition, an international Buddhist organization with more than 130 centers. Six years later he shifted to a secular life and began studying English in earnest.

“People say the first week in ACE is intense but the first weeks in the monastery are much more intense,” Tenzin said, noting that the initial Foundation Course introduced him to a new understanding of his learning style and the rich stories of the students around him. “The trust exercises were very challenging for many, but, for me, it was a pleasure.” It was not unlike his earlier spiritual teachings in which there are no strangers.

The Academy for College Excellence develops “not only compassion for others but also wisdom,” he said. “You must have two wings – wisdom and compassion – in order to fly away and for your goal to be well-developed.” The program also helps students understand that people see things differently, and how to work better with others. There were social justice papers, team management skills and mind-body movement classes. Communication skills training helped his personal relationships as well, he said. 

“My fiancé can tell the improvement I’ve made,” Tenzin said.

Tenzin is working on improving his English and taking general education classes, as well as learning how to play tennis and swim. 

“If you are about to have a huge feast and there are so many dishes, ACE is a way to test different samples so you know what you can get.”