by ANH DO and TERI SFORZA
Photos by CINDY YAMANAKA
the fruits of my austerities and meditation alleviate the sufferings
of all sentient creatures.""
fueled Connie Pham's tears.
sat on the rooftop, four stories in the air, with her maddeningly
silent little brother. She had demanded to know if he was truly
happy here, living a life as a 15-year-old monk at the Gaden
Shartse monastery in the thorny wilds of southern India.
"Kusho" Osel - who used to be Donald Pham of Laguna
Niguel - answered with silence.
knew her brother's vows forbade him from lying. She suspected
what his stubborn reticence meant. Oh God, she thought. He can't
say yes. What am I supposed to do if he can't say yes?
the oldest. In a way, the protector. But she didn't know what
for her to calm down, but Connie couldn't stop crying. He hated
seeing her so distraught. He searched for words to express his
feelings without being negative - another promise he made when
accepting his vows.
I know I
wanna be a monk, he finally said. I'm just not so happy being
a monk here.
a way, was a relief. Connie had something to work with.
to her parents. Her parents spoke to Kusho's teachers. They
were not surprised; they knew he was having a difficult time
and had already started exploring options for him.
Gaden was not the ideal environment for a young American boy.
The south Indian heat was insufferable. Life at the monastery
was unswervingly rigid. Many of the monks were old men. Kusho
was under virtual house arrest, not allowed to venture beyond
the monastery's grounds when he was finally allowed to go outside.
Kusho was expected to behave like an adult when he was really
just a boy.
In the Himalayan
foothills of northern India is the little town of Dharamsala,
seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. "Little Lhasa,"
it is called. It lies in the Outer Himalayas, commanding majestic
views of the craggy peaks above and the fertile Kangra Valley
below. The Dalai Lama lives there. It is home to several monasteries
and nunneries. And it has a Tibetan college created at the behest
of the Dalai Lama himself, dedicated to educating young Tibetans
so someday they can return home to run a new Tibet, free from
of Buddhist Dialectics, it is called. Many young monks study
advanced Buddhist philosophy there, but laypeople are students
as well. It offers courses on Western philosophy, political
science, Tibetan literature and poetry. It even has a computer
years in the confines of the monastery, Kusho will be sent to
the institute for a while. Perhaps he will be happier there.
The road to
the institute clings to a steep twisting ridge, slicing through
tangles of green that spill down the mountainsides. After the
steaming, sandy south, the air has a crisp, divine mountain chill.
Breathing seems easier here. Kusho feels a sense of relief mixed
with nervous anticipation. Starting all over. Again. It upsets
10 miles south of Little Lhasa, the driver jerks the wheel hard
to the left and lurches up a steep path, bouncing over sharp
rocks that threaten to shred the tires. The path doesn't seem
to go anywhere at all.
the bus bumps around a hairpin turn, the institute emerges.
A yellow main building decorated with endless-knot ironwork,
surrounded by tall white dormitories. A basketball court, a
volleyball court, a large open garden. Students stroll the grounds,
some in the red robes of monks, others in street clothes. They
don't seem much older than he is. He will not be outnumbered
by old men.
he sees the women. Young women. Some dressed in the colorful
Indian salwar kameez, long scarves billowing behind them as
they walk; some in the traditional Tibetan chupa, cinched at
the waist and draping elegantly to the ground. Still others
wear jeans and jackets of the West. They attend classes alongside
the men - something that seems revolutionary after the all-male-monk
world of Gaden.
of Kusho's belongings now fit inside a few suitcases. They are
heavy with books. The stuffed animals and action figures from
home have been passed along to younger boys at the monastery.
Kusho hauls his suitcases from the car and is greeted by Pema
Dorjee, the small, jolly monk who is the institute's principal,
a member of the Tibetan Government in Exile who works with the
Dalai Lama. The principal says he has heard very good things
about Kusho, that he is very pleased to have him, and not to
hesitate to bring questions or concerns directly to him. Kusho's
struggles down south are well-known to Pema Dorjee.
principal knows all about struggle. Pema Dorjee fled Tibet on
foot as a young boy and single-handedly supported his family
once they arrived in India, when everyone except him fell ill.
He dedicated himself to the education of Tibetan orphans and
then poured his heart into building the institute. He sleeps
only a few hours a night but strikes Kusho as a bundle of infectious
is led to his new home in the men's dormitory. The stench of
the downstairs bathroom is overpowering as he enters the building,
but it recedes as he climbs up a stairwell streaked with red
spittle. The lower floors are home to workers, some of whom
chew the betel nut, a mild narcotic that stains the teeth, gums,
saliva and walls onto which it is spit - a crimson that rivals
the red of monk's robes.
four flights of uneven stairs, at the end of the hallway, is
Kusho's new room. Instead of sharing it with two roommates -
each twice his age, as he had at the monastery - this room is
his alone. Finally, privacy, a sanctuary, a place to call his
26 is painted by hand above the door. He slips off the padlock,
slides back the latch and throws it open. It is spartan, with
an unfinished concrete floor and a single bare bulb sprouting
from the wall. The bed has a thin foam mattress. But it has its
own bathroom - a ceramic hole in the floor and a cold-water tap
- as well as a small balcony and windows facing green, rolling
hills. It isn't as large or well-decorated as his room at the
monastery, but it seems splendid.
quickly falls into the rhythm of the place. The schedule here
is far more relaxed than at the monastery. The morning bell
rings at 6 - a full hour later, allowing him to indulge in more
class is a group undertaking, rather than an intense one-on-one
session. After lunch comes an hour of free time, when he and
many students indulge in the luxury of a nap. After afternoon
study, there's another 90 minutes of free time, which some monks
fill with pickup basketball games on the court outside the dorm.
is an informal affair involving two tremendous vats steaming
beneath trees beside the volleyball court - one with rice, one
with vegetables or lentils, which are ladled out to the monks
and students, who crowd hungrily around them. Kusho doesn't
eat in the dining hall or on the lawn with the others; he takes
his food back to his room and keeps to himself. His time is
his own until evening prayers at 7, followed by night debate
has to be in his room by 10, but once inside he can stay up
as late as he wants. His is often one of the last lights burning;
every night, for at least an hour, he bends over his notebook
and practices writing Tibetan, laboriously copying words in
the foreign alphabet over and over again with his slower, weaker
right hand. Kusho is left-handed, but the left hand has negative
connotations in Asia.
a lot more freedom here than down south," Kusho says.
of the institute's biggest indulgences is something that's been
missing from his life for more than two years: television. On
weekends, the monks and students love to crowd into the TV room
and watch sports on the color set - an unimaginable extravagance
after the seriousness of the monastery. ESPN is the big favorite
here. Kusho never had much interest in sports in the United
States, but the wild enthusiasm of his classmates helps him
appreciate the rivalries of World Cup soccer and understand
the intricacies of cricket.
never considered himself much of an athlete and doesn't join
the monks who spend afternoons zipping around the basketball
and volleyball courts, robes flying as they dribble and drive.
But, one afternoon he's invited to join a game of cricket in
a nearby clearing. He accepts.
boys leave campus - another new freedom - and meander down the
winding main road. They take a steep shortcut through the brush
and emerge in a bowl-shaped clearing that doubles as a cricket
field. Kusho learns about wickets, stumps and bails, bats with
a bulge and overhand pitching. The tape holding their bat together
is starting to fray; the stumps and bails behind the batter
are assembled from rocks, and the ball is meant for tennis,
not cricket. But none of that matters. The monks fan out through
the clearing and become the boys they are, swatting the ball
as hard as they can, chasing it into thick tangles of brush
and sprinting from base to base.
of the players is Ngawang Khentse, dubbed "the small monk
with the big brain" by some. The son of Tibetan refugees,
he was raised in Nepal and sent to the monastery when he was
10. Khentse likes the shy, unassuming manner of the American.
He teaches Kusho all he knows about cricket, about the school,
about the teachers. The two begin eating meals together, debating
together, sharing stories of their very different childhoods.
Eventually, they decide to share Kusho's room. Khentse, 19,
is like family - the big brother Kusho never had.
Kusho has friends. There are three other foreign monks at the
institute, all considerably older than Kusho but drawn together
by their fish-out-of-water experiences. Jangchup Puntsok, the
Israeli monk, was a health-care worker backpacking in Nepal
when he discovered Buddhism and its concept of emptiness. Lobsang
Dawa was an art student in Mexico City when he journeyed to
India with his mother and brother to hear the Dalai Lama teach
about compassion. Thoupten "Jacky" Jinpa was an engineer
in New York supporting his family back in Haiti when friends
dragged him to hear a lama speak. It was like falling in love,
Jacky says; everything, suddenly and completely, changed.
is the youngest of the 300 students at the school. But he gains
a reputation as the resident medicine man: Remedies for sour
bellies, headaches, sore throats and the flu are always in plentiful
supply, thanks to care packages from his mother. He also becomes
known as the keeper of goodies: His mother also keeps him well-stocked
with chocolates, candy, powdered soup, beef jerky and hot chocolate
- a treat especially popular after prayers on chilly winter
cold water into a pink bucket, submerges his dirty robes in the
suds and scrubs away the dust of India. A CD mix of "melodic
trance" music from ATB, Sasha and Paul van Dyk that sister
Christine sent from home plays on a pair of tinny speakers attached
to his personal CD player. Kusho painstakingly wrings out the
fabric; Khentse teases him for scrubbing too long and too well.
he's finally satisfied that the robe is clean, Kusho hauls the
bucket of dirty water onto the balcony, hoists it up to the
railing and tosses the torrent of pink to a muddy splash in
the thicket four stories below. Then he starts all over, filling
the bucket and scrubbing the next piece of his robe just as
thoroughly and carefully. Finally, he hangs the dripping robes
to dry on a balcony overlooking the stunning Kangra Valley.
never had to wash his own clothes before. He never cleaned his
room or bathroom either, but now he sweeps the grit off the
concrete floor with a hand broom that looks like a horse's tail
each day and scours his bathroom once a week.
is home. The two bare mattresses are strewn with blankets and
sleeping bags. Suitcases line the walls and serve as makeshift
closets. A lone desk is piled high with his books: Mark Twain's
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Masuji Ibuse's
"Black Rain." Homer's "The Iliad." The Dalai
Lama's "Transforming the Mind." Framed in a place
of honor is a photo of the Dalai Lama, serene before a golden
statue of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.
used to love fiction, but now that I think about it, it's, like,
what's the use?" Kusho says, sitting atop his bed. "It's
not going to really help you much. I mean, when it comes to
a boy, Kusho toyed with the idea of being a writer. He loved
science fiction, which now seems a little silly. Then he got
into classics, finishing "Catcher in the Rye" last
year. "I'm not saying that fiction doesn't have any use,"
he says, flipping through the Dalai Lama's book. "But,
I mean, it's a lot more beneficial for me personally to read
this kind of stuff.
thing I find special about these kinds of books is they're talking
about the truth, you know?" he said. "They're talking
about what really goes on in life, what really goes on with
you, like, physically and mentally. When I'm not feeling happy
or something, I just pick it up, and it kind of changes everything
for me, at least for the moment. It takes my mind off stuff."
covers his mouth when he speaks. His voice is so soft he's often
hard to hear. He takes painstaking care before answering questions,
careful not to engage in "wrong speech," and his pauses
can be long and pointed as he searches for just the right words.
He's uncomfortable being the center of attention. It's as if
a weight presses heavily on his shoulders, and he bends a bit
journey, he knows, has been extraordinary. That was part of
its allure. "I was the only young kid in my temple who
had a chance to do this," he said. "It's something
that nobody else would really do."
was no accident - of that he's sure.
mathematically precise way events lined up to deliver him here
cannot be a matter of simple coincidence, he believes: His mother
developed an intense interest in Tibetan Buddhism when she was
two months' pregnant with him. He was raised on the teachings
of a Tibetan geshe who noted his even temperament and helped
arrange for his study in India. He was the first American ever
accepted into the Gaden Shartse monastery and became a disciple
of the very lama who wrote the book that drew his mother to
Tibetan Buddhism in the first place.
once did this astrology thing around here, where they read your
palms, and they told me that in my past life I was also a monk,"
Kusho said. "So I must have done something really good
back then to be able to do this now, to have this perfect, like,
circumstance, conditions to do this."
can barely remember a time when he didn't know he was going
to be a monk. Since he was a baby, Kusho was taught that being
born human is a precious gift that should not be squandered.
He was taught that serious study of the Buddha's teachings is
the highest use of a human life and that the merit created by
a monk's virtuous living will help free all beings from suffering
and help ensure that his next rebirth is in human form, not
as some lower animal.
is no better way to spend a life than in the monkhood, he learned.
parents and spiritual teacher decided when he was small that
he could be a monk, and hopes for his future are boundless:
He is on track to be the first Vietnamese-American geshe. He
is supposed to bring the gift of Tibetan Buddhism's teachings
to the Vietnamese, both in America and in Vietnam. Someday he
might even be a translator for the Dalai Lama.
Pema Dorjee believes Kusho was destined for India. "It
has something to do with his previous karma," he says.
"I think he has very good karma, which forced him to India
to become a Buddhist monk, plus study Buddhist philosophy in
a deep sense. He was very young, he has very good family, and
he has so many relatives, but he really wanted to study Buddhist
philosophy. Yes, he really wanted to. He decided."
decision, indeed, was his, Kusho says. As a young boy, it sounded
like a great adventure and a fine idea; now, it seems like a
sacred mission. He is committed to pursuing enlightenment. He
has not yet had a profoundly moving spiritual experience - no
sense of doors opening or puzzle pieces melting into place -
"but I'm expecting one in the near future," he says.
Training in meditation - a crucial step on the path - begins
next year. "By becoming a monk," he says, "I
think I'm getting that much closer."
prospect of never being a husband or father doesn't faze him.
"Even if I wasn't a monk, I don't think I'd get married,"
he says. "To me, it just looks like a big hassle for this
is not to say that beautiful girls don't occasionally catch
his eye. "Half the school is girls here," he says.
"Yeah, I mean, it's natural to turn your head once in a
while - but I try not to pay attention. Since I'm a monk and
everything, I just try to not pay attention to them."
Kusho has been
he first came to India he was still a boy - shy, frightened,
far from home. He protected himself by keeping others at bay.
But over the past three years, as his body has grown taller,
leaner and stronger, he's worked to become more self-confident,
more open, more friendly.
a better person today than he was five years ago - at least,
a little bit better, he laughs.
terms of practicing what I'm studying, and Buddhist philosophy,
I think I've changed in some ways," he says. "Now
I try to balance things out a little bit more, I guess - what
would be the best for everyone else and not just for me. I just
try to think of it from all sides, the pros and cons of every
situation. Cause and effect. You should be using logic in your
is more humble. The boy who was once waited on, now waits on
others. The boy who was meticulously taken care of now takes
care of himself. He handles his own finances, food, cleaning,
laundry. And he is beginning to take control of his mind.
is a tricky beast. But he can already step back and notice,
for example, when he's becoming angry - when someone is mean
during debate, when beggars yank mercilessly at his robes, when
his sister provokes him into a fight. He knows it will be years
before he can beat back that ego, but he's beginning to make
progress. "It's one thing to get angry," he says,
"and then it's another to, like, show it. I try to at least
stop myself from showing it."
though he's just 16, and the youngest student at the institute,
Kusho has become masterful in taming his ego, others say.
most evident on the debate floor. There, some monks try to outshine
and outargue their opponents. "But he's one of the few
monks who's helping you to understand the material; he's not
crushing you down," says Jacky. "It's a quality that's
very difficult to find, and for him to have this quality so
young is really great."
is also one of the few who's really working to internalize what
he's studying, who seems to really know why he's doing it, Jacky
to class, listening to what the teacher says, you can do two
things with it: You can just repeat what he says, or you can
debate with me, take it a step further," he says. "He
can do that. Sometimes when the debate becomes really serious,
we just sit down and say what did you mean by that? That's when
it becomes more than debate. It's taking it to the level of
spiritual conversation. He can do that. Some of them, they can't
is a teenager, but he does behave like a grown-up monk. He has
a lot of qualities that the other monks really don't have."
surprises people on many fronts. "As an American, we always
expect people to be very frank and very forward, but he is very
reserved and very quiet, very soft-spoken," Principal Pema
Dorjee says. "But he is a very good person. ... And then
he is very intelligent also. Once he finish study, I think he
will do very good contribution for his countrymen."
There is unprecedented
freedom here. On Saturday afternoons and Sundays monks can leave
the school grounds, unescorted, and do what they please. Kusho
knows which lumbering Indian bus goes into town, how to use the
public phone centers to call home, and which Internet cafes have
the best rates (30 rupees an hour - about 57 cents). His e-mail
address had changed from "thuginred" to "ricefolife."
his own money is an emancipation for him. Money matters were
always taken care of by his parents or by his caretakers at
the monastery. But now his school-allotted allowance of 200
rupees a month (about $4) is his responsibility, and he is careful
not to squander it.
Sunday, their day off. Kusho and Khentse walk through the crumbling
streets of town, pausing to feed a mangy pack of street dogs
with rice left over from lunch. An insistent and hungry cow
lumbers onto the scene, scattering the dogs and gobbling up
the meal. Kusho and Khentse continue on, stopping again before
a vegetable walla and the colorful produce he displays on the
street. They haggle over the price of tomatoes and cabbage that
they'll cook for dinner when the cow intrudes again, gobbling
heads of lettuce directly from the pile. The merchant angrily
shoos it away.
Kusho and Khentse squat on the bare concrete floor of their
dorm room and chop the vegetables with dull knives, seeking
a flavorful break from the school's monotonous fare. They toss
the vegetables and Indian spices into sizzling oil in a borrowed
electric pot that's propped atop the pink bucket used for laundry.
Vietnamese-American boy - laughing as he speaks Tibetan to his
Nepali roommate in remote India - stands at a unique place in
history. He is where East and West meet. He is living a new
American dream, one that moves beyond the United States, beyond
comfort, beyond the material world.
suffering you see here is more physical," Kusho says, conjuring
the lepers and beggars who are a part of everyday life. "But
in the West, it's more mental. Even though you have everything
you could want materially, you're not happy inside. And here,
even though you don't have all the necessities that you need
materially, you are happy mentally.
you want to go deeper, you could say that things over there
are a lot more complicated, and the more things you have to
worry about, the more responsibility it is and the more hardships
there are to take care of."
Dalai Lama feels there's much to admire about the West - its
energy, creativity, hunger for knowledge. But he has many concerns:
An intense competitiveness that breeds fear and insecurity.
People living in great physical comfort but isolated spiritually
and emotionally. A tendency to think in absolute terms - black/white,
either/or - which he feels ignores the many shades of gray and
the interdependence and relativity of all things.
great hope for Kusho is that, in a small way, he can help change
is an arduous task. Inside, the monks wrestle with doubt. Are
they good enough, strong enough, disciplined enough, to do all
that is asked of them? Can they really work past their egos,
control their minds, let go of attachment to the people they
are times when I'm not happy and when I wish I was back home,"
Kusho says. "I do kind of miss my family."
homesickness strikes so hard that their bodies ache - and it
does - they wonder. "Being a monk means you have to be
tough, you have to (renounce), you don't attach to anything,
to family, to anything," Jacky says. "It seems when
you talk about homesickness it's some kind of weakness. So,
I'm always weak. I miss my home. I miss my parents. I miss my
worst around the holidays, birthdays. Jacky needs to cry, to
talk to someone who understands - but the topic is taboo with
all of his fellow monks. Except Kusho.
is different," Jacky says. "He came to me and told
me, 'You know something? I miss my family.'." Kusho quietly
admits to missing burgers and pizzas and mild weather. He misses
the way of living back in the United States, the ease of coming
and going, speaking Vietnamese with his parents. He relishes
the care packages full of chocolates and goodies that he gets
from home, the e-mails from his sisters, the phone call he makes
to Laguna Niguel every other week. Kusho and Jacky dream together
about jetting back to the United States for quick vacations,
and just talking eases the pain.
they come back to earth. They remind one another that they're
here on a very important mission: To make the world a better
place through love and compassion, to find peace and perfection
in the teachings of Buddha.
in awhile he'll just talk about what his future could be, how
difficult it could be, and I talk about my difficulties,"
Jacky says. "He's mentioning it all the time, questioning
it and then analyzing it with me. To me, if someone's talking
about it, that means you are responsible for what you're doing,
you have an idea why you're here. I think he's one of the few
who really knows why he's doing it."
the sting of a lonely heart, Kusho manages to keep his focus.
He turns, at times like these, to a book for comfort: "The
Lam Rim." It is "the lamp on the path to enlightenment,"
a step-by-step guide written in verse 1,000 years ago by the
scholar who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
with an attitude of love for all living creatures," it
counsels. "To help free these beings from suffering, resolve
to attain enlightenment. Take your vows from a well-qualified
spiritual teacher. Do not harbor harmful thoughts, anger, avarice
or envy. Cultivate pure conduct, give up wrongdoing and desire.
Through meditation, develop higher perception for the good of
living beings. Understand the emptiness of inherent existence;
nothing is produced, nothing exists on its own. The merit gained
in a single day by those who possess higher perception cannot
be gained even in 100 lifetimes by those who do not."
wisdom comforts him, calms him, makes him feel sure he's on
the right path.
something that His Holiness always says - if you can't help
others, then at least don't harm them," Kusho says. "I
think that's a really good point to think about, even if you're
not Buddhist. If you do that, it could really not only, like,
benefit others, but you also help yourself. If you think in
that way, the world changes for you."
is happy at the institute, but he knows that he cannot enjoy
its freedoms forever. Someday he must go back to south India,
to Mundgod, to the rigidity and rigors of the monastery where
he took his vows. He belongs to it now, just as a new child
belongs to its family. It was overwhelming for him as a boy,
but by the time he returns, he will be older, stronger, wiser.
He knows that 20 more years of intense study loom before him
- maybe more - before he earns the geshe degree he has wanted
since he was 8. So much can happen in 20 years. So much can
change. But Kusho says he will not be deterred. "I'm totally
certain about what I want to do," the 16-year-old says.
Quitting is simply not an option.
aspires to a different kind of upward mobility, a different
kind of American dream. In the next life, he says, he would
like to return as the Buddha of Compassion himself.
do sometimes ask myself, what am I doing here?" Kusho says.
"Out of all the people my age from the West, why am I the
one that's doing this? But then, you kind of think about it,
you kind of try to remember what it was you came here for in
the first place. And when you think about that, you kind of
reconnect everything else, and then it starts to make sense
again. You kind of get yourself back together.
came here for a reason. I'm going to try to achieve my goal."
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