"By understanding all phenomena to be like illusions, I will be released from the bondage of attachment.""

A baby cobra slithers into the garden, injecting itself into a spectacle that has changed little in 400 years.

Monks with shaved heads and red robes shout and stomp and clap in the throes of fiery debate. It's an unwieldy dance: Bodies twist as if to throw fast balls; arms shoot into the air; hands slap together as feet pound and voices surge. "Sa!" resounds through the courtyard. "Sa!"

It's 9 a.m. at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the quietest monk in the din of debate class is Konchog "Kusho" Osel, the boy who was once Donald Pham of Laguna Niguel. Don - who loved science fiction, hip-hop music and Del Taco - is now an ascetic who speaks fluent Tibetan, clutches wooden prayer beads and argues his point to the two men at his feet: Not all sentient beings understand the impermanent nature of sound.

His voice is softer than the others. His claps are calmer. And his voice has no malice as he flings the ritual "Sa!" - "Shame!" - at his competitors. Rigorous, formal and highly stylized, debate is the tool Tibetans use to hone intelligence and deepen understanding of the fine points of Buddhist philosophy. It's a vital part of a geshe's 20-plus-year education, and Kusho's opponents are about to launch into the required counterattack when someone suddenly cries, "Cobra!"

Kusho and the others rush to the spot where the snake slides through the grass. It's a juvenile, but the boy who grew up with nary a housefly now understands that a baby cobra's venom is as deadly as an adult's. He stands back as its hood flares. Killing is an abomination in Buddhism because the snake could have been a loved one in a previous life. A monk approaches the intruder with a long stick, but instead of using it as a weapon, he sweeps the interloper, stroke by stroke, gently out of the garden.

Kusho is a long, long way from the manicured lawns of home.


Nam Van Nguyen, Don's grandfather, furiously opposed sending the boy to India to enter the monastery.

He called an urgent family meeting. Dozens of relatives squeezed into a family room in Huntington Beach. Don's mother nervously faced them.

The storm rose quickly. Don is only 12 years old, his aunts and uncles said. How can you send him halfway around the world by himself?

He would not be alone, Lee retorted. He would be in the care of one of the most illustrious holy men of his time - Lati Rinpoche, spiritual assistant to His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

How can you separate him from his family? He's a gifted student in the United States - where everyone wants to send their children for an education. How can you send him to India, one of the poorest nations on the planet?

Don is the first foreigner ever accepted at the esteemed Gaden Shartse monastery in its 600-year history, Lee said. Its educational program is more rigorous than any American school's.

Don, the grandfather said, is a good boy, an obedient boy. He has always wanted to help people, and that is admirable. But his wish to enter the monastery is not his own. It is his parents' wish. Don is a boy of no choice.

Lee turned to her father. She is not pushing her son, she said. He is pushing himself. Since Don was 8, he'd wanted to be a monk. Don, she was sure, had been a monk in his last life. Don, she was sure, had led her to Tibetan Buddhism while he was still growing in her womb.

This path, she said, was something he must try. If he didn't like it, he could come home. She knew a man who was a monk for 20 years - a translator for the Dalai Lama - who gave back his vows, earned his doctorate at the University of California and now teaches. Don, she said, is very bright. He is an American citizen. He could come home and get a Ph.D. any time he wanted.

To be born human is a precious gift, and human life must be lived wisely, Lee believed. Laypeople could accumulate much merit by doing good deeds; but a monk, by dedicating his life to Buddha's teachings, automatically accumulates a great deal more. That not only eases his suffering and the suffering of others but also helps ensure that he has a good rebirth in his next life. That was vitally important to Lee.

"I just want him to try," she told her family. "You will see. This is right for him to do."


For months, Don attended classes as usual at Aliso Viejo Middle School, trying to keep his mind on seventh grade. He went to temple as usual each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, trying to keep his mind on "wrong understandings that perpetuate the misery of mental darkness."

But nothing was usual anymore.

Aside from a trip to Canada, Don had never been out of the country. He had spent only a few nights away from his family. His sisters and cousins were his closest friends. His mother took care of his every need - from making his bed and cleaning his room to buying his clothes and preparing his meals. And since he was a small boy, he had slept each night beside his father.

Soon he would be 10,000 miles and 12 time zones away.

His bedroom was his sanctuary. There were stuffed animals and action figures on the shelves - Batman, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Wile E. Coyote - and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. A wetsuit for body-boarding hung in his closet. His bed was crisp and fragrant with clean sheets. The room had thick carpeting; a private bathroom where everything was spotless; and windows that, on clear days, framed the gleaming Pacific.

Almost every night, his big sister, Connie, would invade his room. Connie loved her little brother; he was the one person she could really talk to - she, the motormouth; he, the silent one. She usually ranted about the injustices of everything from globalization to high school politics. But since the decision had been made to send Don to India, her tone had changed markedly.

She worried for him. He had always been so eager to please, to make his parents happy and proud. Connie considered it her mission to make sure he understood all he was giving up: Home. Comfort. Family. School. America. Blue jeans. Mom's great cooking. "I never tried to encourage him; I never tried to talk him out of it," she says. "I just wanted to make sure he knew what he was doing."

Are you sure, really sure, you want to do this? Connie asked every night. And every night, his answer was the same. Silence.

"He would just stare at the ceiling and give me this look like, 'Are you crazy? Do you think I would do this if I didn't want to?' But he never gave me a straight answer. He never actually said 'yes,' which always bothered me, and still bothers me to this day."

Travel plans were set. The family would stay with Don in India for six weeks. Don, Connie, little sister Christine, mother Lee, an aunt, their spiritual leader from the temple, Geshe-la and some students, would leave in February 1999. Father Hy, unable to close his dental office for so long, would join them in March. The Phams would then return to the United States, without Don, on March 18, coincidentally his 13th birthday.

Don packed. He wouldn't need much. He tried to take just the essentials: books, shoes, CD player, hip-hop CDs - and Batman, Goofy and Wile E. Coyote. He had no idea what his new life would be like.


The plane landed in Bombay at twilight. It was winter, so the weather was still cool: 88 degrees, with humidity at 65 percent.

Bleary-eyed from the 24-hour flight, Don, Connie and Christine squeezed into a taxi and stared mutely out the windows.

Vast slums stretched along the airport road, like a mirror held up to a mirror so the image repeated into infinity. Thrown together from scraps of cardboard and tin, the huts leaned against each other like stumbling drunks fighting gravity. Children played in fields carpeted with trash.

The slums were swallowed by the grand Victorian decay of the city. Women in saris of gold, crimson and sapphire seemed to float past ornate gothic edifices erected by the British. Laundry in riotous colors dripped from balconies. Cows lounged on busy roads and rooted greedily through trash piles. Red double-decker buses snaked around a giant statue of Queen Victoria and plunged into the tumultuous, teeming city - home to more than 13 million people, half living without electricity or running water.

Carts groaned beneath heaps of exotic foods. Vendors hawked the mildly addictive betel nut, which men chew and spit out, leaving streaks of red on walls and sidewalks everywhere.

Don and Christine shrank as beggars pressed against the car. Lepers with open sores thrust fingerless hands toward them, nubs of bone poking from their stumps. Filthy girls, barely older than Connie, balanced skinny babies on their hips and shoved their hands at the children, imploring, "baksheesh, baksheesh" ("money, money"). Don wanted to give them something, but his pockets were empty.

"They were terrified beggars would eat them alive," Lee says.


After two more days of dusty travel by plane and bus, the family finally arrived at the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod in the steamy southern state of Karnataka. The Gaden Shartse monastery perched on a hill, isolated, a world unto itself.

It was 10 p.m. They were exhausted. Darkness kept Don from getting a good sense of his new home.

Monks rushed to greet the weary travelers. They were relieved that the family had arrived safely, if four hours late. They bowed in welcome and led everyone down a narrow lane to Lati Labrang, a three-story house surrounded by an iron fence and flowering garden. It was home to Don's new guru, Lati Rinpoche, the man who would become the most important person in Don's life.

They entered a small, simple room that was Lati Rinpoche's private chamber. At 77, he was frail, with a thin face, slender arms and curved shoulders; bald on top, with gray stubble sprouting on the sides of his head; and dark eyes that shone. Recognized as the reincarnation of a renowned Buddhist holy man, he was revered as a saint and a scholar, one of the few living lamas who studied at the ancient monasteries inside Tibet. He was also the author of the book that brought Lee to Tibetan Buddhism.

These days, he accepted as private students only the reincarnations of high lamas, putting Don in a rarefied class and setting huge expectations for his future.

Humbly, Don brought his hands together. He touched the crown of his head, his forehead, his throat and his heart. He dropped to the floor, pressed his forehead to the ground, rose quickly and repeated the prostration twice more. This was not simply to show respect to his new teacher but also to drive out pride and ego.

Lati Rinpoche received his first Vietnamese-American student with blessings and a warm smile. Tea was served as they chatted about the family's journey and the big event: Don's ordination. It was in a few days, and he anticipated it with the nervousness and excitement that others might feel before a wedding.

The family ate a late dinner with Lati Rinpoche's disciples, crowded around a long kitchen table. Then Don was shown to his room.

It was on the second floor and could not have been more different from his room at home. It was secured with a sliding latch and padlock. Inside, three beds lined up in a row on the bare concrete floor. The walls were a medicinal aqua-green. A wobbly fan hung from the ceiling. Storage shelves held textbooks, medicines and personal things - and onto his allotted shelves Don placed his stuffed animals and action figures. The windows were over-laced with decorative ironwork in the Tibetan "endless knot" pattern, symbolizing the interdependence of all things. Downstairs was the Eastern-style communal toilet he would share with the other monks. He had two roommates, each more than twice his age. They spoke little English. He spoke little Tibetan.

His family stayed in the guest quarters, near the only bathroom with a Western-style toilet. Connie urged Don to use it, but he didn't want any special privileges. He didn't want to stand out any more than he already did.

Jet lag made sleep erratic and elusive. The day began too soon, before the sun rose, with the clang of a bell. The sight of hundreds of red-robed men pouring into the temple for morning prayers was spectral in its beauty and their deep chanting hypnotic in its repetitions. Breakfast surprised: The tea was spiced with salt and butter, and the Tibetan bread was chewy as a brownie.


The transformation from American boy to Tibetan monk began with the hair.

Don hadn't cut it for months; it flopped in silky black strands over his eyes as the monks wrapped his neck in cloth and handed Geshe-la the razor. Geshe-la grabbed a lock and cut; half-moons spiraled to the floor. This symbolized his renunciation of physical beauty and new dedication to spiritual life. Carefully, Don's head was shaved from crown to nape until his scalp shone through, pasty beneath the black stubble. His mother scooped up some strands to save.

Don raised his hands to his skull and felt its naked shape, laughing nervously. "Dude, you look cool," Connie assured him.

The next day was Feb. 14, 1999. The start of Losar, the Tibetan new year. A very auspicious day. The day Don Pham would become Konchog Osel - "clear light" - in an ancient ceremony that would make him belong, body and soul, to the monastery.

He awoke at 3 a.m. and ate a light breakfast to keep himself from getting sick with nervousness. Lati Rinpoche presented him with his first set of sacred robes - brilliant crimson, soft cotton, transcendent in their elegance. He had seen these only on holy men, and the fact that he would now wear them seemed beyond belief.

They had more layers than an onion, fit loosely and were prone to slip - to force the wearer to be constantly mindful. The older monks helped him wrap the hallowed fabric, and he soon appeared in the hallway, where his mother waited.

The sight of him, transformed, nearly took Lee's breath away. He looked like an old monk, but in miniature. "He was totally changed," she says. "In that moment, I knew he did not belong to me anymore."

It was like New Year's and a wedding rolled into one. The monastery's 1,500 monks poured giddily into the temple.

Trumpets - usually reserved for the most holy monks - heralded Don's arrival. Bells rang. Cymbals clashed. Drums thundered. Incense burned. In a deep, hypnotic drone, the monks chanted prayers praising the Three Jewels - the Buddha, his teachings (the dharma) and his followers (the sangha). Don felt overwhelmed.

The high lamas sat on gold and red thrones at the altar. Don prostrated himself to them. He prayed for their long lives and offered each a blessing scarf. A special breakfast was served - oatmeal, raisin bread, jam, tea. It was a gift of the Pham family, as all the elaborate meals that day would be.

The Phams presented gifts to each of the 1,500 monks. Lee, dressed in a traditional Vietnamese temple gown, carried bricks of Indian money, and as the prayers echoed, she inched up and down the rows of monks, bending to press 30 rupees into each palm. Don followed her, giving his new brothers 10 rupees each; his sisters, Connie and Christine, followed, giving five rupees each.

That amounted to more than one U.S. dollar per monk - a small fortune. This offering gained the family merit and helped free it from obstacles - but by the time it was over, their backs ached from stooping.

Giant drums thundered. Was this young man eligible to enter the monastery? Was he beholden to spouse or king? Was he slave, demon, killer, robber or tyrant?

No. He was free. He repented, as all new monks do, the innumerable transgressions he committed in this and previous lifetimes. He admitted to faults of body, speech and mind generated by greed, hatred and ignorance.

In a ritual that barred his family and all outsiders, Don took the 36 sacred vows of monastic life, through which he could achieve enlightenment, escape the painful cycle of death and rebirth and help all sentient beings. He vowed never to kill. Never to take what is not given. Never to lie or take intoxicants. He would not sing or dance, would not adorn himself to beautify the body, would forsake sexual activity.

The lamas stressed that these vows were not be taken lightly or with the idea that they would be discarded if they proved too difficult. They were taken for life. To abandon them meant a loss of karma not just for himself but also for others.

The holy men consecrated Konchog Osel, touching his robes, reciting brief prayers and blowing blessings upon the sacred cloth.

Nearly five hours had passed. The sun had risen. Don Pham was no more.

His mother wept.

"I felt this huge relief. I didn't feel heavy anymore," she says. "All of the attachment and ordinary things in daily life disappeared. I felt totally joyful. I had fulfilled my duty to raise him and to bring him back to the monastery, where he belongs."


A euphoric entourage soon set off for Dharamsala, a small town in the sliver of Himalayan foothills separating China from Pakistan. They would attend three weeks of teaching with the Dalai Lama, and present to him Tibetan Buddhism's first Vietnamese-American monk.

The Phams had gone to some of the Dalai Lama's teachings in the United States, but the prospect of an audience with the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion - who chooses to return to Earth to relieve suffering - was an unimaginable privilege.

The taxi carrying their group labored up the steep roads to Dharamsala, dodging cows, dogs, groaning buses and craters. The road seemed insanely narrow, clinging to the earth like a worn ribbon slowly disintegrating. The steel faces of giant trucks greeted them coming out of hairpin turns, requiring the driver to slam on the brakes and jerk the wheel.

They finally arrived at the Tsuglagkhang Complex, a modest stand-in for the holy buildings in Lhasa, perched on a peak above the plains. They presented themselves at the locked gates of the Dalai Lama's private residence. Armed Indian guards admitted them through one locked gate, then another.

The mountain air was cool as they ascended the drive leading to the tiny home, perched at the hilltop amid pink bougainvillea. From here, the town of McLeod Ganj - "Little Lhasa" - appeared to cling stubbornly to the rugged mountains, much as the Tibetans clung to their traditions, even in exile.

They were led into a parlor in the simple cottage and waited. Connie peeked at the guest book, and saw that actor Richard Gere had just left. They were ushered into the garden where the Dalai Lama lovingly tends to the blue and purple blooms. Kusho's mouth went dry as the Dalai Lama emerged, clad not in the elaborate gold brocades of his predecessors, but in the same simple red robes as Kusho. The Dalai Lama squinted through his thick glasses, smiled warmly and welcomed his American guests.

Kusho, overwhelmed by an emotion he did not fully understand, began to cry. Tears streamed down his cheeks as Geshe-la dropped to the ground, prostrating on behalf of the entire family. Geshe-la introduced the trembling boy, saying he hoped that Kusho would someday use his gifts to benefit the Vietnamese community.

The Dalai Lama smiled with pleasure. The presence of both parents symbolized their full support for Kusho's chosen path. He spoke to Kusho in English, offering blessings and words of encouragement. "Study well," he says. "Be a good monk, a simple monk."

Kusho was unable to utter a single sound in return. He sniffled as an assistant rushed in, draping white blessing scarves around everyone's neck. Kusho's photo was taken beside the Dalai Lama, and within 10 minutes, the visit was over.

But Kusho felt changed. There was something overwhelming about the Dalai Lama's presence, something that affected him profoundly, deeply. The Dalai Lama was no ordinary person. He was an "ocean of wisdom," a living embodiment of kindness and compassion, of everything Kusho had dedicated his life to. And seeing the blessed man's face, Kusho felt certain he was doing the right thing.


The dawn of March 18, 1999, came bright and warm and much too quickly. It was Kusho's 13th birthday. The day his family would return to the United States without him.

There was a surprise celebration with two cakes - inscribed not to Don, but to Kusho - and a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday," which was a novelty to the dozen monks who crowded around, sharing the chocolate dessert. They lent a distracting air of festivity to the bittersweet celebration.

After six weeks in India, the Phams were leaving. The monks helped Christine, Connie, Hy and Lee haul suitcases outside. Kusho followed, urging them not to forget anything.

The bus pulled up. The luggage was loaded.

Hy turned to his son to say goodbye. This boy, so different from the one he tucked into bed. This boy, offered to Buddha, who was not his own anymore. Hy broke down. Christine dissolved as well. Kusho did his best to stay strong while Lee and Connie turned away, fussing over bags, struggling to choke back tears. Connie was afraid that if she started, she'd never stop.

Lati Rinpoche had comforted the parents. Don't worry, he said. I will be a father to Kusho. I will be the teacher of Kusho. I will be a friend to Kusho.

A dozen monks surrounded Kusho, waving goodbye as his family boarded the bus. "Don't worry," he whispered to his mother.

Connie boarded last, turning quickly to catch sight of her little brother one more time. But all she saw was a sea of men in red robes, indistinguishable from one another.

She frantically searched the faces as the bus pulled away. Finally, she found him, the little monk in the middle. He was smiling and waving. At that moment, she thought, of course, he should be here. It was in the way that he walked, the way that he wore his robes, the way that he rejected his blue Converse sneakers for Indian loafers so he wouldn't stick out. This is his family, Connie thought. This is where he belongs


At home in Laguna Niguel, the photo of Kusho with the Dalai Lama was prominently displayed on the mantel. The Dalai Lama was smiling; Kusho's face was swollen with tears.

Hy poured himself into work. Lee worried about Kusho's health. How was his stomach adjusting to the Indian food and water? Was he ill? Weak? Losing weight? Was his asthma acting up? She missed him. Of course, she missed him. But she kept reminding herself that mentally, spiritually, he was not hers anymore.

Without him, the house was eerily quiet. He was Christine's confidant, Connie's sounding board, and now they found themselves with little to say, and no one to say it to.

Connie would wander into his bedroom and stare at those silly stars on the ceiling, at the lone Mickey Mouse he left behind. Christine would compute what time it was in India, figuring that when she was waking up, he was going to sleep.

At dinner, while watching TV, in the middle of doing homework, one of them would say, "I wonder what Don's doing now." Was he lonely there? Did he have anyone to talk to? He was an American in a sea of Tibetans, unable to speak their language. Did he feel isolated? Frightened? Homesick?

Was he happy in the monastery half a world away? Would he tell them if he wasn't?


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