by ANH DO and TERI SFORZA
Photos by CINDY YAMANAKA
return anger with anger ... Don't return criticism with criticism
...If struck, don't strike back."
monks are mumbling. To themselves. Each one trying to memorize
a different line of sacred text by repeating it aloud, over
and over and over, until the temple rumbles like a thundercloud.
It's 2 p.m. Self-study time at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics.
Konchog "Kusho" Osel - the monk who used to be Donald
Pham of Laguna Niguel - sits against a far wall, legs folded
in the lotus position, on one of the hard mattresses lining
the floor like low-slung church pews.
At 16, he is the youngest student in the school, his upper lip
just beginning to sprout peach fuzz, his cheeks as smooth as
a child's. Like the others, Kusho murmurs to no one but himself.
Like the others, he rocks rhythmically to and fro. And like
the others, he scours the book before him, struggling to commit
every word to memory. This is absolutely essential; later he
must conjure these passages, verbatim, as he spars with his
fellow monks in an ancient debating ritual that has been performed,
as elaborately as ballet, for centuries in the Land of Snows.
Kusho was raised speaking English and Vietnamese, but the words
he now utters are in neither language. The pages he scrutinizes
so earnestly are a mass of graceful loops and lines that, just
a few years ago, were completely incomprehensible to him. "There
are two types of reasoning, one which implies the agent directly
and one which implies the agent indirectly. ..."
It has been more than three years since his family gave him
to Tibetan Buddhism. Since India replaced Orange County as his
home. Since he said goodbye to his parents - on his 13th birthday
- and entered the confines of the monastery, a rigid and utterly
monks - his new family - polished off the birthday cake and
stood beside him waving goodbye to the bus trundling away with
his old family. His mother, father, sisters and aunt had stayed
for more than a month at Gaden Shartse monastery, trying to
make the transition easier, but it was disorienting, almost
dizzying, when they actually went back to California without
him. A flood of exhilaration and terror rose as the bus faded
into the distance.
Alone. He was alone.
Aside from a trip to Canada, Kusho had never left the United
States. He had slept each night beside his father. Had every
care attended to by his mother. Was best friends with his two
sisters. Now he was among strangers in a remote corner of southern
India, a solitary American adrift in a sea of 1,500 Tibetan-speaking
monks. Many were refugees, and if he understood their language,
he would have heard harrowing tales of how they fled on foot
through the vengeful Himalayas to escape Chinese oppression.
But he could not speak Tibetan. He could not understand the
conversations that swirled around him in the dining rooms. He
could not understand the banter in the courtyards. He could
not understand the daily debates between learned monks or even
the casual conversations of his roommates. The few people who
spoke English were many years his senior. He had no one to relate
to as a peer, as a friend, to whom he could confess the aches
of his heart. It was lonely, isolating, disconcerting.
The comforts of home - of everything familiar - were gone.
His house with a view of the hills had been replaced by a four-story,
concrete-block building. The plush carpeting was replaced with
cold concrete. His bathroom, with an Indian-style hole in the
floor. His shower, with a cold-water tap. His bedroom, once
a private sanctuary, was now a small chamber in medicinal aqua-green
packed with three beds. His roommates were two men more than
twice his age. They knew nothing of Nintendo games or cable
TV or body-boarding or hip-hop, his favorite music.
After the schedule at Aliso Viejo Middle School, days at the
monastery were extraordinarily long and exceptionally rigid.
The clang of a bell woke him at 5 a.m. Prayers lasted for hours,
followed by breakfast and four hours of intense, one-on-one
classes. Lunch, at 12:30, provided strength for four more hours
of private teachings in the afternoon, and a light dinner fortified
for lectures on Buddhist philosophy or debate that lasted until
9 p.m. After that, he collapsed into bed, exhausted. Monday
was the only day off.
The food did not agree with him. The boy raised on tacos, pizza
and his mother's homemade rice noodles was now surviving on
vegetables, rice and thin soup. Breakfast was identical almost
every day. As was lunch. And dinner. The monotony was by design:
Food is a physical necessity whose sole purpose is to keep the
body strong enough to enable the mind to "realize the Way"
- follow the path to enlightenment. Pungent spices were to be
avoided: garlic, if eaten cooked, was said to increase sexual
desire; if eaten raw, to increase anger. Meat was a rarity;
in addition to being expensive, the Buddhists did not want to
cause any unnecessary pain to animals.
Water took its toll on him as well. India's unfamiliar microbes
ravaged his digestive system, leaving him ill and weak for months.
He felt lethargic and tired. The chubby boy who entered the
monastery was bony within a year.
And the weather was extremely uncomfortable. The heat of southern
India was as sweltering and soggy as a dragon's mouth. In May,
before the monsoon season, temperatures often soared past 105
degrees, and the humidity was stifling. It was exhausting even
to move. There were, of course, no air conditioners.
Some boys befriended him until they learned he was American.
Then they shunned him. By phone, his mother tried to comfort
him, saying it didn't matter, some people are like that, you
can't expect anyone to be perfect.
It felt like prison. The severity of monastic discipline stunned
him. He was under enormous pressure to do well and to behave
with a composure far beyond his 13 years. In addition to being
the first American ever admitted to the monastery, Kusho entered
the ranks of the rarefied when he was accepted as a pupil by
master Lati Rinpoche, spiritual assistant to His Holiness, the
14th Dalai Lama. It was an exceptional opportunity, like being
admitted into Harvard and getting to study with the most distinguished
professor. Lati Rinpoche specialized in teaching the reincarnations
of the most learned lamas, instantly setting expectations for
Kusho enormously high.
Such opportunity came at a price. Lati Rinpoche's pupils did
not have the freedom other monks had because everything they
did or said reflected on him. Rarely were they allowed to venture
outside. Childhood pastimes - running, yelling, playing - were
forbidden. Kusho was under constant supervision by older monks.
"You're under house arrest," other monks often said.
Punishment for rule-breakers was severe. Each monastery had
a disciplinarian called an "iron club" lama, who was
responsible for maintaining order. Monks who appeared to nod
off during prayers or classes were beaten with wooden prayer
beads or switches for what was said to be their own good. It
didn't matter if the offending monks were young or old; if they
broke the rules, they met the same fate. Kusho cringed as a
monk he knew was beaten in front of him for mischievousness;
the sights and sounds of it haunted him. He felt terrible for
the boy every time he saw him.
It was so hard to make friends. He worked hard to fit in and
avoid the whip. At home, he was never required to do chores
and was similarly excused from manual labor at Gaden. But he
loathed the idea of standing out any more than he already did.
He learned to sweep with a broom that looked like a horse's
tail. Learned to make butter tea and serve his teachers. Learned
to cook their food, even though he had never made a meal for
himself, and to clear away and wash their plates.
At night, in his small room, Kusho ached for his family. Memories
took on a dreamy patina: His big sister Connie's evening invasions
of his room were not annoying, but endearing. His family's dinnertime
recitations of events at the dentist's office or school were
not mundane, but riveting. He wished he could taste his mother's
homemade soups and longed to tell his sisters about all the
crazy things he had seen. He loved them and missed them terribly.
The spiritual goal of Buddhism is to eliminate this type of
intense attachment and thus relieve suffering. Kusho wished
he were that strong. But often that first year, he cried, straining
to be quiet so he wouldn't disturb his roommates.
He called his parents every other week but never let on. "Everything's
fine," he would tell his mother. "Don't worry about
And so began Kusho's pursuit of the elusive geshe degree in
an educational system founded before Galileo discovered that
the planets orbit the sun.
While his classmates back in the United States were measuring
the degrees in an angle, reading "The Pearl" and studying
cell functions, Kusho's curriculum looked like this: the Perfection
of Wisdom (Prajraparamita), seven years of study. The nature
of existence (Middle View, Madhyamika), three years of study.
Ethics (Discipline, Vinaya), one year of study. Phenomenology
(Knowledge, Abhidharmay), two years of study. Logical reasoning
(Pramana, Valid Cognition), throughout.
Introductory classes on basic logic, the mind and its functions,
and debate can take up to eight years all by themselves.
The geshe degree - much like a doctorate in divinity - is the
most advanced and distinguished degree awarded by the Buddhist
educational system. It can take more than 20 years to complete,
and many of those who seek it never attain it. There are only
200 in the entire world. But Kusho had declared his intention
to be Tibetan Buddhism's first Vietnamese geshe when he was
8 years old, and he didn't want to let loneliness or homesickness
His first task was to master Tibetan - a language in danger
of dying in its own country.
For hours every day, Kusho pored over the beautiful symbols
with a private tutor. The alphabet looked more like pictures
than words - as if an artist blended Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew
and Japanese together to create something entirely new. Some
symbols seemed to be crowned with arched eyebrows or flying
birds, others underscored with jaunty grins or perfect circles.
It was lovely. But indecipherable.
Tibetan, even the teachers admit, is an elusive, difficult language.
It tends to be monosyllabic and to lack inflection, which makes
word order extremely important. It has six tones that alter
meanings - short high, long high, short low, long low, high
falling and low falling. But perhaps most perplexing is its
use of honorific words: an entire vocabulary for formal use
and a completely different one for casual conversation. Kusho
used one word for "table" when talking with a fellow
monk and another word entirely when talking with his teachers.
There are honorific words for nearly everything, from food to
hair to tea to forehead.
At least, Kusho thought, Tibetan was written left to right.
But even that would be a struggle.
Kusho was left-handed - which has negative connotations in Eastern
cultures, where it attends to bodily functions and is never
used for eating or shaking hands. So Kusho had to learn to write
all over again. He took up the pen in his weaker right hand
and slowly, painstakingly, copied phrases his teacher wrote
in his notebook. The exercises could take hours.
He listened quietly to lectures on Buddhist philosophy, taking
comfort in them when he was feeling overwhelmed by everything
Nothing is lost in the universe. Matter turns to energy,
energy turns to matter. We are made of the same stuff as plants,
as trees, as flowers, as rain. There is no difference. If we
destroy something around us, we destroy ourselves.
Everything changes; nothing is permanent. Life is like
a river flowing; it looks static from a distance, but different
molecules of water are at any given spot at any given time.
So it is with people; we seem to exist as independent entities,
stable through time, but we are really changing from second
to second. Therefore, there really is no self.
Cause and effect are the laws of existence. There is
great cosmic justice called karma. Nothing ever happens to us
unless we deserve it. We reap in the future what we have sown
in the past. Every moment we create new karma with our thoughts,
words and actions. Those who do good will enjoy good results.
Those who do evil will suffer evil.
Emptiness is the ultimate reality. Everything in the
world is dependent on everything else. Nothing exists entirely
on its own. There is no individual, inherent self. The direct
perception of this emptiness is what is sought through meditation,
when sight, sound, senses, thoughts, hopes, feelings are recognized
- like clouds floating by - but not clung to. The result is
an enormous sense of relief, peace and clarity.
The most alien part of the Tibetan educational system is the
most vital: ritualized debate. It is the crucible in which understanding
is tested, an ancient formula for honing intelligence and developing
deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Using logic, the
monks try to separate reality from fantasy.
At first, Kusho could only watch.
Every day, the monks swarmed into the monastery's vast courtyard
and broke into groups. Some sat down - they were the answering
party. One monk stood before them, prayer beads in hand - he
was the questioner. Then bedlam erupted, with laughing and shouting
and stomping unlike anything Kusho had ever seen or heard.
The debaters began with a statement: Where there is smoke, there
is fire. Subject (smoke), predicate (exists) and reason (because
there is fire). Then the monks batted the statement back and
forth fiercely and playfully, like cats toying with a mouse,
flinging around definitions of fire, existence and impermanence
that they had memorized, word for word, from the sacred texts.
Certainly, smoke can exist without fire, an answerer on the
ground might shout. I can take a prism, focus sunlight on a
stack of dry leaves, and there will be smoke before there are
The questioner backs up several steps and shouts again: In the
sacred texts, "fire" is defined as extreme heat and
does not necessarily require flames to qualify. He advances
toward the sitting monks, raises one leg like a pitcher in a
wind-up, extends his right hand far above his head and then
smacks it loudly on his left hand with a shout of "Sa!"
to underscore his point.
It seemed impossible to Kusho that he could ever speak Tibetan
well enough to debate with these men or that he could ever summon
up the nerve and knowledge to stand before them and argue such
For the first year, he studied debate in private with a tutor.
Logic, he learned, is something people use in life all the time
- but they use it incorrectly. He learned the statement-predicate-reason
model with basics like, "I will be happy if I have a red
Mercedes." Subject: I. Predicate: Will be happy. Reason:
If I have a red Mercedes. But he learned that it was incorrect
logic, built on falsehoods, not truth. There is no guarantee
that, if one has a red Mercedes, one will be happy. He could
posit that there were many people with red Mercedeses who were
indeed unhappy. Therefore, it was not a valid reason.
He learned the ritualistic gestures: raising the right hand
to symbolize delivering beings from suffering, clapping it down
on the left hand to symbolize the reduction of negative elements;
using his hands and feet and posture to cross-examine and provoke.
After more than a year, Kusho's tutors decided that he had advanced
enough to participate in his first debate.
He was terrified.
His stomach turned as he entered the courtyard with the other
monks and took his place as the questioner. He prayed that he
would not bring shame on himself or anyone else as the shouting
and clapping and laughing erupted all around him. The topic:
cause and effect. The noise and commotion threatened to drive
all the arguments he knew out of his head. The monks spoke so
fast, and he strained to understand them. He felt himself lurching
for Tibetan words that eluded him and felt his face burning
as crimson as his robes.
"Try to be diligent," Lati Rinpoche reassured him.
"One day, you may spread the dharma and be of great benefit."
Almost two years passed. Kusho's Tibetan progressed so much
that strangers took it for his mother tongue. He choked back
his fear and shyness to become a solid - if not showy - force
on the debate floor. Even his gut had settled down.
But he still didn't feel at home at the monastery. And he still
hadn't managed to break the bonds of attachment to his family.
He was familiar by now with what Buddha said about this sort
of love and longing: It was destructive. More destructive than
even anger or hatred because it ties you to earthly life and
ensures that you won't escape the vicious cycle of birth and
death, condemning you to return again and again. "I have
killed all of you before," Buddha once said. "I was
chopped up by all of you in previous lives. We have all killed
each other as enemies. So why should we be attached to each
Buddha compared this sort of love to debt. If you pay the bank
every month for a loan, eventually you'll repay it. But with
desire, the debt is never repaid. It's like carrying water to
the sea - an endless, pointless task that is never completed.
Kusho understood the logic of this with his mind, but it was
harder to persuade his heart. He tried to temper the rush of
elation that swelled inside him when he got permission to return
home and see his family in the summer of 2001. He had been dreaming
of seeing them, excitedly plotting how he would be kind and
gentle and helpful. He would not get angry at his sisters. He
would cherish them.
His stomach almost hurt with excitement as he stepped off the
plane in California. His parents were stunned to see him. He
had grown so tall, so thin. His face wasn't round with baby
fat anymore; it was a perfect oval, with cheekbones they had
never really seen and a jaw line that was more defined than
they remembered. But his smile seemed even brighter than before,
as if it began deep within his heart.
His parents, Lee and Hy, rushed to hug him, hold him, marvel
at him. They were relieved. He was solid, strong. He seemed
to be doing well.
At home, the stuffed animals and glow-in-the-dark stars had
been removed from his room, and a picture of him with the Dalai
Lama was displayed prominently on the mantel in the living room.
The family poured into the kitchen and, almost shyly, exchanged
the latest news. Hy's dentistry practice was flourishing, and
he'd been able to expand treatment to more of Long Beach's poor.
Lee was still keeping the books, still waking up at 5 a.m. every
day to meditate in the ornate haven off the living room and
still running five miles to stay strong. Christine would soon
play for the tennis team at Aliso Niguel High. She was still
thinking about becoming a Buddhist nun or going into medicine
so she could help support her brother. Connie had registered
to vote as a member of the Green Party and was a political activist
at Long Beach State, organizing an anti-globalization conference
and working to free Tibet and bring China's record of human-rights
abuse to people's attention.
Much had remained the same without him: The family still attended
teachings at the Tibetan Buddhist temple in Long Beach. They
still remained close to Geshe-la, the spiritual teacher of Kusho's
childhood. But Kusho, who once had been waited on, was now waiting
on everyone else. He poured them drinks, cleaned up their plates,
asked how he could help. He devoured Lee's homemade delicacies
with a newfound relish, as though he had never tasted anything
so delicious in his entire life. It was so tempting to think
Kusho went to temple every day for Geshe-la's teachings so his
study wouldn't be interrupted. Some people treated him differently
there. They bowed to him as he bowed to his teachers. As if
he were a holy man. It made him feel strange. He told them it
wasn't necessary. He didn't want to be old before he had to
It soon became clear that he had much work to do to before becoming
the monk he wanted to be. He was sitting at the table one night
having dinner with his father when his little sister, Christine,
started teasing him, smacking him. She was playing a game, trying
to get a rise out of him. Hit me back, she said. He asked her
to stop. She kept smacking him. Hit me back, she said. He tried
to quell the anger rising inside him, as he had been counseled
to do in India. Then she landed a particularly sharp blow to
his shoulder and something snapped - Kusho leapt up and hit
her so hard she nearly fell down. His father was shocked. Hey!
Hy said. What are you doing?
Kusho tried to center himself. What am I doing? he asked himself.
He apologized. It seemed positively crazy, the way you can miss
people so much and vow to be so nice to them and then slip right
back into old patterns.
On this visit, his grandfather Nam Van Nguyen pulled him aside
for a heart-to-heart talk. Nguyen had adamantly opposed the
idea of sending Kusho to India and was anxious to know how the
boy was really doing.
"I asked him if he wanted to go back," Nguyen says,
"and he wouldn't answer me. I told him, 'You don't have
to do anything you don't want to do. Just tell your parents
you are staying here.' He nodded his head and said, 'Yes, Grandfather.
Kusho returned to India in September.
In December, Hy, Lee, Connie and Christine returned to Gaden
monastery to see for themselves how Kusho was adapting to his
new world. Connie, steeled for battle, would pick up where her
grandfather left off.
They brought fresh provisions: Chocolate bars. Powdered soup
mix. Dried fruit. Beef jerky. Hot cocoa. Soap. Chewing gum.
Vitamins. Batteries. Little luxuries that whispered of home.
They watched as he shared the booty with his fellow monks, speaking
in an effortless stream of Tibetan, as if he had always been
one of them.
The rooftop of the house he lived in was a popular escape. Four
stories in the air, it commanded a sweeping view of Gaden's
grounds, of the golden flourishes atop the buildings, of the
vast expanse of dusty scrub that threatened to swallow it. It
was a favorite place for monks to read and study, and it was
here that Connie joined her brother.
She wanted to know if he really wanted to be doing this, if
he really was happy. She had asked him the same question a thousand
times before he left for India; he always answered her with
silence. This time, she vowed, he wasn't going to get away with
it. This time, she would demand he give her a straight answer.
Brother and sister sat silently, surveying the prayer flags
fluttering against the blue-gray sky, how the desert seemed
to go on forever.
So, Connie said. Are you happy?
She waited. Kusho said nothing.
Are you happy here, being a monk at Gaden? she pressed.
Still Kusho said nothing.
No, she said. No, no, no. I asked you if you were happy here,
and I'm going to stay on this roof until you tell me. I don't
care. I'm not going anywhere. I want you to look me in the eye
and tell me you're happy.
Kusho's eyes searched the sky, scanned the floor, examined his
hands. He did not look at his sister. "I'm not leaving
unless you can, by yourself, with your own words, look me in
the eye and tell me that you're happy," Connie says.
Connie knew her brother had taken a solemn vow not to lie. She
knew he would remain silent forever rather than tell her something
that wasn't true. She knew how much he wanted to please their
parents and make them proud.
And she suspected, with a growing wave of sorrow, what his silence
meant. She began to cry. Frustration and helplessness burned
in her throat. Oh God, she thought. He can't say yes.
What am I supposed to do if he can't say yes?
You don't need to stay here, she told him. There are other places
you can go, other things you can do.
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