Offering Spiritual Compassion, a Tibetan Refugee Finds the Favor Returned

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Through his Laguna Beach shop, immigrant Tenpa Dorjee has made new friends helping him fulfill a pledge to sustain a refugee camp in India where Tibetans still flee. Photo by Marilynn Young

The dying leader of an Indian monastery with ties to a Tibetan refugee camp extracted a heavy promise from Tenpa Dorjee, proprietor of the Tibetan Handicrafts shop in Laguna Beach.

He asked him to look after his monastery and monks after he was gone.

Gurchung Rinpoche named Dorjee, who was born in the refugee camp. The Tibetan teacher served as his family’s spiritual guide.

Though Dorjee already sends financial support to the impoverished settlement and its monastery, he pledged to redouble his efforts.

He now will have help from an unexpected source: his new-found community in Laguna Beach, which has embraced him and his mission. Last month, members and friends of the Neighborhood Congregational Church, led by Reverend B.J. Beu, pledged over $600 and their ongoing support to the settlement and monastery.

Dorjee’s special relationship with the Laguna community sprouted from his shop, opened in September 2010. Though Dorjee does sell Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese decorations, clothing and accessories, his intent was more spiritual than commercial. He dreamed of providing a venue where people would meet, share experiences and learn from each other. That dream took root in a flash.

Michele McCormick, a psychologist and student of comparative religion, had just returned from a trip to India and happened on Dorjee’s just-opened shop. “I immediately felt a lot of warmth and compassion with him,” she said. “I just wanted to help him.”

India-made garments from Tibetan Handicrafts assume a beach vibe. Photo by Marilynn Young

That connection resulted in the church hosting Tibetan monks, who twice in two years have created a sand mandala in the sanctuary and sparked a new spiritual enthusiasm in the pews.

“Ever since then it has just been a fantastic relationship,” said Beu, who will open the church doors to another group of monks again this fall. As a community of faith that “is open to spiritual truths from many different paths” he said, they appreciate the path opened by Dorjee. The mandala brought people to the church who might not otherwise have come and who had holy experiences as a result. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.

Thanks to Beu, music director Pam Wicks and others at the church, Dorjee also realized his dream of organizing a spiritual journey to India. This spring, Laguna residents Wicks, Susan Brown Madorsky, Julien Kheymour and Everett Hoffman of Cleveland travelled with him to several spiritually significant sites. At the last minute, Dorjee managed to add one more stop, a visit to the out-of-the-way Bhandara refugee camp.

“They changed my life,” said Madorsky, referring to the “beautiful, giving” people she met at the Bhandara settlement and monastery, which lacked many amenities.

The travelers who returned and described their journey last month made an impression.

Beu, unaware of Dorjee’s history, was moved by his account of his continuing loyalty to the refugee camp and monastery. When he described the responsibility he feels to ensure that the Rinpoche’s reincarnation receives the proper spiritual education and guidance, Beu became decisive. “It just seemed like, wow, we will do this,” he said. That very night they filled two sheets with names of pledged supporters, and they are planning an event in the near future to solidify their commitment.

“My philosophy is that there are a million projects you could give to,” said Beu. But, “when we have somebody in the community that is actively working in part of an effort, that makes all the difference in the world. It’s that personal connection that brings the world closer.”

Though she previously had no particular association with NCC, Madorsky feels compelled to support a church that shows compassion and openness to other spiritual practices.

McCormick agrees. People of all faiths and of no faith found inspiration in the experience of observing the monks’ practices, she said. “It feels like there is something happening in town where folks want get together and express themselves spiritually in some way,” she said.

For his part, Dorjee feels extremely fortunate to see his goals shared by others. “I’m meeting the right people all the time,” he said.

Spiritual cards for sale in the shop. Photo by Marilynn Young

As a gesture of his gratitude, Dorjee presented the church with a prayer wheel. Lovingly painted by Yeshi Dorjee, a respected thangka (spiritual painting) artist visiting from Dharamsala, India, the wheel will be dedicated during the Sunday service at 10 a.m. on June 10.

The exterior of the wheel reads “May Peace Prevail,” and contained inside the wheel are 10,000 prayers for peace written in Sanskrit. When one spins the wheel, practitioners believe prayers for peace are released into the world. The new wheel will be placed in the church’s portico, available to all who seek peace within and without.

Dorjee’s parents died at the Bhandara settlement by the time he was four. His resourceful older sister, who still lives there, managed to secured him a place in a new orphanage for Tibetan children in far off Pondicherry, hoping to provide him a better future. During his 12 years there Dorjee got to know his sponsor, a Belgian woman named Nelly Fayt through correspondence and periodic visits.

Even after he left the orphanage and went on to university, thanks to a scholarship from the Tibetan government in exile, Dorjee stayed in touch with Fayt, his “godmother.” And for the last 15 years, until she passed away this spring, he made an annual pilgrimage to Belgium to spend time with her and called her weekly.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in business Dorjee first worked for a Tibetan exporter in India before following his sister’s advice and going to work for the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamasala to repay them for his scholarship. On a visit to Belgium, he connected with the director of a traveling exhibit on Tibetan culture called “Tin Tin in Tibet” and assisted with the exhibit in Belgium, then France and then Switzerland, returning to India between exhibits.

After a long distance courtship with his fiancee, a Tibetan refugee who had won an immigration lottery for a U.S. visa and was living here, the couple married in 1995, though it would be three more years before the paperwork for his visa could be completed. He joined his wife in Anaheim in 1998.

When initial work as a travel agent petered out with the advent of online booking sites, Dorjee managed to land a job with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. It provides the bread and butter, though his heart remains with Tibetan Handicrafts and the growing spiritual community he has helped to foster.


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