Khenpo Pema Wangdak was born in Purang, Western Tibet, in 1954. In 1959 he fled with his family to India, where they settled in a refugee camp in Mundgod. He became a monk at the age of seven and later attended the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Benares, receiving his Acharya degree from Sanskrit University in 1980.
In 1982 Lama Pema was sent by His Holiness Sakya Trizin to teach in New York City, becoming the first of the younger generation of Tibetan teachers from the Sakya School to settle in the United States. He founded the Vikramasila Foundation in 1989 to support educational initiatives both in the United States and abroad. The foundation now encompasses the Palden Sakya Centers for Tibetan Buddhist studies and mediation in New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, and Ohio; the Pema Ts’al School in Mundgod, India, for Tibetan lay children; Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute in Pokara, Nepal; and Pema Ts’al School in New York City, whose curriculum is modeled on that of Sakya College in India. In addition to these institutional projects, Khenpo Pema has a special interest in Tibetan language pedagogy and is the creator of a form of Tibetan Braille known as Bur Yig.
He received the title of Khenpo from His Holiness Sakya Trizin in 2007. In recognition of his humanitarian work around the world, Khenpo Pema was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2009. He is the first Tibetan to be so honored.