"Don't return anger with anger ... Don't return criticism with criticism ...If struck, don't strike back."

The 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 alien world.


The 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 me."


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 stop him.

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 else:

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 flames.

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 fine points.

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 other?"

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 about staying.

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 be.

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. 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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