"May the fruits of my austerities and meditation alleviate the sufferings of all sentient creatures.""

Frustration fueled Connie Pham's tears.

She 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.

Konchog "Kusho" Osel - who used to be Donald Pham of Laguna Niguel - answered with silence.

Connie 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?

She was the oldest. In a way, the protector. But she didn't know what to do.

Kusho waited 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.

This, in a way, was a relief. Connie had something to work with.

She spoke 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.

Perhaps 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.

There was another option.

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 Chinese rule.

The Institute 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 lab.

After two 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 the stomach.

About 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.

After 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.

Then 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.

All 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.

The 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 energy.

Kusho 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.

Up 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 own.


The number 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.

Kusho 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 sleep.

Philosophy 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.

Dinner 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 until 9:30.

He 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.

"There's a lot more freedom here than down south," Kusho says.

One 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.

Kusho 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.

The 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.

One 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.

Finally, 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.

Kusho 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 mornings.


Kusho runs 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.

When 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.

Kusho 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.

It 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.

"I 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 real life."

As 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.

"The 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."

Kusho 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 beneath it.

This 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."

It was no accident - of that he's sure.

The 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.

"I 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."

Kusho 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.

There is no better way to spend a life than in the monkhood, he learned.

His 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.

Principal 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."

The 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."

The 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 life."

Which 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 changed.

When 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.

He's a better person today than he was five years ago - at least, a little bit better, he laughs.

"In 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 everyday life."

He 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.

It 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."

Even though he's just 16, and the youngest student at the institute, Kusho has become masterful in taming his ego, others say.

It's 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."

Kusho 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 says.

"Going 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 do that.

"He 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."

Kusho 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."

Handling 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.

It's 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.

Later, 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.

This 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.

"The 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.

"If 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."

The 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.

The great hope for Kusho is that, in a small way, he can help change that.


It 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 love?

"There are times when I'm not happy and when I wish I was back home," Kusho says. "I do kind of miss my family."

When 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 father."

It's 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.

"He 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.

Then 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.

"Once 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."

Through 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.

"Begin 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."

Its wisdom comforts him, calms him, makes him feel sure he's on the right path.

"There's 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."

Kusho 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.

Kusho 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.

"I 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.

"I came here for a reason. I'm going to try to achieve my goal."


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