Hospice chaplain Tenzin Kiyosaki helps patients appreciate their lives
while finding satisfaction in her own.
Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photo by Vincent Rios
She started her days at 3:30 a.m., taking advantage of the quiet before
the others arose by 5 a.m. She ate simple meals—mostly rice and
vegetables. Living in a cement building in the Himalayan foothills, she
shivered throughout the winter.
Tenzin Kiyosaki couldn’t have been happier. She was in Dharamsala,
India, training to be a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. The only
American in her nunnery at that time, Kiyosaki’s days were filled
with prayers, meditation, classes and study. In 1985, she was ordained
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Today, Kiyosaki serves as a hospice chaplain at Torrance Memorial Medical
Center. She is part of the team that provides physical, emotional and
spiritual comfort to patients and their families when the patient’s
life expectancy is less than six months.
While offering nondenominational care to patients of various religions
or no religion, Kiyosaki draws upon her background in approaching her
work. Her studies taught her “everything is impermanent, everything
changes,” she explains. “Our actions have effects. We have
the possibility to purify our misconceptions, delusions and mistakes and
have the potential to cultivate excellent qualities.”
Kiyosaki was drawn to spirituality and a desire to be of service from an
early age. Growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii, she sang in a church
choir with her mother. She learned about the impermanence of life, thanks
to the damage caused by periodic volcanos and a tsunami. “We lived
with nature,” she says. “We’d see molten rock consuming
buildings, and a tsunami destroyed our town.”
Her mother, a staff nurse at the Peace Corps training center, cared for
trainees bound for Southeast Asia. “Interacting with them inspired
my desire to help others as well as my love of travel,” says Kiyosaki.
“My family became friends with the families of the instructors,
who came from around the United States and Southeast Asia. I was exposed
to people from all traditions and faiths. In Hawaii, all the cultures
mixed together. It was so rich and wonderful.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Antioch University
and her master’s degree in Buddhist studies at Naropa University
in Boulder. While in Colorado, Kiyosaki studied with a teacher from Tibet
and decided she wanted to study in a more traditional Tibetan Buddhist
setting. She decided to travel to India, where the Dalai Lama, other Tibetan
monk/scholars and the Tibetan community live in exile. It took her nine
months to save up for her journey.
Kiyosaki made it to Dharamsala in 1975. She would spend months at a time
in India, then go back to the U.S. to earn enough money to return. In
Southern California, she also worked at the Thubten Dhargye Ling Buddhist
center, now in Long Beach. She served on the organizing teams for the
Dalai Lama when he visited Los Angeles, arranging events and handling
When he ordained her, the Dalai Lama gave Kiyosaki (whose given name is
Barbara) the name Tenzin Kacho. Tenzin, which means “holding the
teachings,” is also the Dalai Lama’s first name and the one
he gives to all those whom he names. Kacho, means “enjoyer of space”
which Kiyosaki says refers to the nature of reality.
When she first met the Dalai Lama early in her spiritual seeking, he told
her, “You create conditions, so you can continually improve yourself;
you have that potential. We all have that potential for enlightenment.”
Then he continued with a chuckle, “Take myself, for example; when
I become enlightened, I’ll be a very good person!”
For six years, Kiyosaki worked with cadets at the United States Air Force
Academy in Colorado. Wearing her robes and cropped hair, “I would
tell them we have a lot of similarities. We both wear uniforms. We have
the same hairdo, and we follow a code of ethics,” she says.
Kiyosaki started as a
Torrance Memorial Hospice chaplain in 2008 and completed her clinical chaplain certification. She
resonated with the idea expressed by a social worker colleague, who told
her that patients in hospice are transitioning from the physical to the
spiritual realm. “I try to normalize the experience,” she
says. “Death is something we all face.”
“The goal of hospice is to promote a peaceful passing,” she
continues. “We help patients and their families feel prepared, informed
and ready. It doesn’t always happen.”
She encourages her patients to engage in a life review, inviting them to
share their stories and values. The process can provide a sense of peace
and gratitude for the patient and serve as a legacy for family members
even as they struggle with grief and loss. Kiyosaki tries to direct patients
to “find some contentment in their life experiences rather than
dwelling on what they didn’t do or won’t get to do.”
Kiyosaki served as hospice chaplain for the parents of Heather Baker in
2017. “My parents loved her,” Baker says via email. “All
three shared a love of the ocean and often spoke of the places they had
seen or swam when they were younger. Tenzin remembered minute details
about what mattered to them and would bring them up in discussion and
life review. She would request Dad to offer a prayer each visit, which
he loved. When my mother passed away, Tenzin encouraged my father to write
something about Mom he could read at her memorial service. She cared about
them, and they loved her.”
Kiyosaki noticed that her appearance—clad in brick-red robes, her
head shaved—could disconcert patients. That, along with a desire
for more flexibility in her life, led Kiyosaki to return her vows in 2013.
She still retains her Buddhist faith and returns to India for several
weeks most years.
Kiyosaki just completed a book, The Three Regrets, tentatively scheduled
for publication in March. She imparts insights she’s gained from
working with hospice patients, focusing on three areas in which they have
expressed regrets. The first deals with missed opportunities and making
peace with the road not taken. The second refers to love and the ability
to express it to others. The third involves forgiveness and the ability
to release grievances with others or themselves.
“At the end of life, there are a lot of things going on in our hearts,”
says Kiyosaki. “Along with our medical condition, we still have
to contend with our emotions.” She hopes the book will serve as
motivation “to work on our healthy emotional life throughout our
lives, not just at the end.”
In her book, The Three Regrets, Torrance Memorial hospice chaplain Tenzin
Kiyosaki writes about the disappointments patients often express at the
end of life. She offers suggestions for living life in a way that may
lessen or avoid these feelings.
“When you experience regret, look at it as a tap on the shoulder
reminding you to take care of the issue rather than ignoring it,”
she says. “For example, maybe you need to apologize to someone.
Do it while you can. We don’t know how much time we or others have.”
Regarding missed opportunities, she recommends being both realistic and
creative. That means honestly assessing our limitations while still looking
for ways to fulfill the need or desire represented by the missed chance.
“We have opportunities to recreate ourselves in amazing ways,” she says.