Tenzin Sangpo ’18 with a Tibetan lute he brought with him from India. The stringed instrument is known as a dramyin, which means “pleasant sounding” in Tibetan.
Tenzin Sangpo ’18 with a Tibetan lute he brought with him from India. The stringed instrument is known as a dramyin, which means “pleasant sounding” in Tibetan.

The Dharma of Tenzin Sangpo

Tibetan asylee finds his home at Reed.

By Randall S. Barton | March 1, 2015

“Even if today is your last day on earth,” advises an old Tibetan proverb, “it is best spent learning.”

It’s a fitting motto for Tenzin Sangpo ’18, a Tibetan who fled the chaos of Nepal and has now found refuge in the halls and classrooms of Reed. As a freshman majoring in physics he has only “touched” the field, but fathoms it partly through the lens of Buddhism.

“The core message of Buddhism is that ignorance is the cause of suffering,” Tenzin says. “You suffer because of ignorance about how things are, how the universe is, and how your actions impact your future wellbeing. So if you want to liberate yourself, you have to learn, to know what there is to know.”

In the 12th grade, he wrote essays correlating science with Buddhist dharma, and realized that both advocated experimentation and debate rather than blind faith.

“The Buddha never said, ‘Everything I’m saying is true, everything I’m saying is perfect,’” Tenzin says. “The Buddha said, ‘This is the road I took. Don’t accept my teachings just because you respect me—investigate them.’”

One reason he chose Reed was to gain insight into the Western mind and understand how it influenced science and philosophy of the 20th century.

Tenzin’s life has been a study in contrasts. His grandparents fled Tibet when China invaded in 1959, settling in Nepal. Thirty-two years later their grandson was born in Kathmandu.

“Nepal was a very pleasant place,” Tenzin says. “The weather was nice and the people were decent. Then, unfortunately, the Nepalese king was assassinated.”

In 2001, nine members of the Nepalese royal family—including the king—were mowed down by gunfire at the palace. The official story was that the crown prince massacred his family in a fit of pique over objections to his proposed bride, and then turned the gun on himself. But conspiracy theories abound that his uncle, who inherited the throne, arranged the murder of all competitors. A Maoist insurgency further destabilized the country, making it increasingly difficult for Tibetan Buddhists to live in Nepal.

“We were not allowed to celebrate His Holiness’ birthday in Nepal,” Tenzin says. “Public gatherings of Tibetans were not allowed. If the police saw you with a Tibetan flag, they would confiscate it. If you protested, they’d beat you and throw you into prison.”

In return for investments they made in Nepal, Chinese authorities asked that the country detain and return any Tibetans escaping to India through Nepal.

Tenzin’s family moved to Dharamshala, India, where his father became president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an organization that advocates for the independence of Tibet.

Tenzin boarded at the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school for Tibetan children in exile, with multiple branches and nearly 17,000 children under its care. In the eighth-grade exam, he earned the highest science scores in all of the TCV schools, was second in English, and was in the top 10 in math.

“I sort of became a small celebrity within the school,” he says. “They saw me go up to the stage three times to receive the awards.”

He was elected student prefect, and the following year, became school president. His scores on the 12th-grade board examinations indicated that Tenzin should pursue a career in science, and his uncle encouraged him to apply to elite American colleges.

“The process is such an enlightening experience,” his uncle said. “You will ask yourself questions, write personal essays.”

“In India everything is about your grade, your score,” Tenzin explains. “But in the United States, colleges want to know who you are.”

Using filters like “rigor” and “intellectual,” his internet searches of American colleges kept turning up Reed College, which was also mentioned in Bill Clinton’s autobiography and in the biography of Steve Jobs. Tenzin became beguiled with the college that operated on the Honor Principle and prized the intellect.

Last year he and his father were granted political asylum and the family moved to Portland. Tenzin began attending classes at Mt. Hood Community College and then was accepted at Reed. When he arrived for his first Hum conference, it was love at first sight.

“My eyebrows were raised,” he says. “Everything is so nice, so worthy of highest praise. The professors are top class.”

Tenzin has become a master at recalibration. The cedar-covered hillsides of Dharmasala have given way to the food carts of Portland, but he still endeavors to reconcile the teachings of the Buddha with the tenets of quantum mechanics. And while the rigors of Hum 110 were humbling, he  thrives on the challenge. It is exciting, he says, to see how the world has been influenced by the writings of Ancient Greece and how this plays out in television, cinema, and drama.

“As a Tibetan I have a fair understanding about Eastern civilization, about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam,” he says. “I do prayers and meditation, wishing for the welfare of all sentient beings. That’s already built into me. But I was always fascinated with Rome and Shakespeare. I wanted something of the West.”

One aspect of his Reed experience for which he has great affection is the Honor Principle. 

“It’s not someone at the top saying, ‘You should do this,’” he says. “The individual himself makes the decision, and not only about learning in the classroom, but also how you behave, your own conduct. Everyone is responsible for their own actions; that echoes what Buddhism has always been saying.”

“The Buddha was a teacher, but of course at one point he was a student with many teachers,” Tenzin says. “The Buddha is like the sun and his teachings are like the rays of the sun. But you can’t light a fire of knowledge without a magnifying glass that brings all the light together. That magnifying glass is the teacher.”

When he was born, Tenzin’s mother asked the Dalai Lama to name him. His Holiness bestowed his own name, the one he’d been born with. In the name Tenzin, “Ten” refers to the teaching or dharma, and “Zin” means one who has grasped it—a prescient beginning for this Reedie who embraces learning.

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