by ANH DO and TERI SFORZA
Photos by CINDY YAMANAKA
love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and
dull clanging of a bell awakens him at 6 a.m. It's dark. He
climbs from his thick blue sleeping bag into the chill of the
Himalayan air and pads across bare concrete to the bathroom
- a cold-water tap and a ceramic hole in the floor.
himself in a cloud of crimson robes, descends a pocked and stained
staircase, and joins the other monks streaming silently to morning
prayers. Barefoot before the golden Buddha, he bows and folds
his legs lotus-style beneath him. The guttural chant rolls from
his lips like a gentle song, his slight body hunched, his shaved
head bent: "Namo dharmaya, namo sanghaya."
few years ago, his name was Donald Pham, and he lived in his
family's airy Laguna Niguel home with soaring ceilings, thick
carpet and vistas of rolling hills. He was a gifted student
who owned a body-board and played clarinet and Nintendo. He
had his own bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling,
loved science fiction and toyed with the idea of becoming a
writer or doctor.
he is Konchog "Kusho" Osel - youngest student at the
Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, run by the Tibetan Government
in Exile at the behest of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
the age most boys are going to parties, courting girls and playing
football, he has taken a vow of chastity, promised to relieve
the suffering "of all sentient beings" and learned
to play cricket. He has pledged to tame all passions, rigorously
discipline body, speech and mind and never intentionally kill
another living thing, not even a mosquito. He has accepted the
emptiness and impermanence of all things - including himself
- and is struggling to forsake attachment, not just to objects,
but to the people he loves.
is suffering. Letting go is freedom.
Kusho's goal - the goal of all Tibetan Buddhists - is enlightenment
itself. A state of perfect wisdom. A state, the Dalai Lama has
written, that can be infused with mystery and border on magic:
monks lost in meditation who raise their body temperatures 18
degrees, even while sitting on beds of snow; lamas whose bodies
die but remain fresh for weeks; lamas who are rumored to fly.
The boy who used to be called Don is on an arduous road, one
that can take far more than a lifetime to complete. His grandfather
adamantly opposed the idea. Relatives denounced it as madness.
He has fallen ill from alien food and water, wept with homesickness
and wondered exactly why he was there. There are so many challenges,
but breaking the bonds of attachment to his family is proving
to be one of the hardest tasks of all.
a corner of his robe, Kusho swings it over his shoulder in a
billowing cloud of crimson, then buries his face in it, almost
as if to find shelter. "Namo gurubay, namo Buddhaya."
("I take refuge in my gurus. I take refuge in the Buddha.")
boy is 16. He is a monk. The first foreigner ever accepted into
his monastery. How did he come to this? Whose decision was it?
Will he be able to keep his vows for life?
romance between Don's mother and father began with a disastrous
root canal half a world away.
"Lee" Nguyen rushed to Saigon's government-run dental
school in 1971 with a throbbing jaw and bloated face, intending
to see the senior instructor immediately. But a young dental
student named Hy Pham spotted her first and decided to treat
the cute girl in the miniskirt himself.
was his first root canal. "He didn't make me better,"
she says. "I felt worse."
complained, and Hy felt terrible. He gave her medicine and presented
himself that night at her house with a box of candy and an apology.
He asked if he could keep visiting. She said yes.
were engaged within a year, and the wedding was planned for
after Hy finished Army duty. But Saigon fell to the communists
first, forcing Hy to flee in 1975. Three times Lee tried to
join him, paying for passage with bars of gold. The first time,
she was too ill to sail. The second time, communist patrols
captured her boat, and she spent two months in jail. The third
time, she fled through the jungles, praying to Buddha as she
dodged snakes, wild cats and booby traps. When she finally reached
a refugee camp in Thailand, fellow refugees credited their success
to her prayers.
joined Hy in Los Angeles in 1980 when he was working on another
dental degree. Her entire family eventually followed. They married
in 1981, opened a clinic in Long Beach and considered themselves
blessed when Connie, their oldest daughter, was born a year
BOOK OF DEATH
had long been a devout Buddhist. She understood karma as the
law of cause and effect that determined everyone's station in
life. She believed wholly in reincarnation. But after her mother
died a difficult death in 1984, questions nagged at her.
a person control his death? Where does he go in the interim?
What will the next rebirth be?
she became pregnant again in 1985 with Don, her questions intensified.
What sort of life was inside her? What part of a person goes
on after death? How, exactly, does reincarnation work? She probed
the mysteries with Hy and asked at a local Vietnamese Buddhist
temple, but she couldn't find a satisfactory answer.
Lee, two months' pregnant, found the book that would change
the course of her family's life.
came from Tibetan Buddhism, a very different tradition from
the Vietnamese Buddhism she grew up with. Called "Death,
Intermediate State and Rebirth," it was written by a spiritual
assistant to the Dalai Lama named Lati Rinpoche - a teacher
who would have enormous power over her unborn child's future.
grabbed that book and I read - oh, my goodness, amazing book,"
she says. "Lati Rinpoche was able to answer everything
from his experience. He is the reincarnation of an important
tulku (a highly realized being) and has lived many lifetimes.''
book says that the time between death and rebirth is, at most,
49 days, or seven cycles of seven - the number of days that
the Buddha was lost in bliss when he achieved enlightenment.
Those still enslaved by desire and attachment pass into a middle
state. If their actions in the past life were good, they enjoy
a favorable rebirth in the human realm. If their actions were
bad, however, they have an unfavorable rebirth in the animal
read the book nearly every night as her belly grew round. Her
son, Donald, was born March, 18, 1986, in a labor she recalls
as remarkably easy. "I think he brought me to Tibetan Buddhism,"
was a gentle baby who seemed different from the very beginning.
"He was very, very serious," Lee says. "He was
like an old man."
was content to sit for hours and watch his older sister, Connie,
lord over the toy collection. The two couldn't have been more
different: Connie, 4, was bold, passionate and demandingly inquisitive,
while her brother seemed intent on absorbing the entire world
through his eyes by watching it very, very, carefully.
months later, their little sister, Christine, was born. She
and Don were soon dubbed "the twins." They shared
the same calm demeanor and the same gummy smile. They were both
painfully shy, and they were virtually inseparable, arms entangled
as they learned to talk and toddle. Connie, feeling left out,
often wrought big-sister havoc upon them.
and three children kept Lee too busy to think much more about
the mysteries of death until 1990, when her mother-in-law offhandedly
gave her a newspaper for the waiting room of the dental office.
Lee was thumbing through it when a small item leapt out at her:
A Tibetan monk was visiting a temple in Los Angeles. A monk
named Lati Rinpoche.
lost her breath. "The name was tiny, just a dot on the
page," Lee says. "But to me it looked like the whole
world. I can see that only."
Rinpoche was the monk who wrote the book about death.
next day, Lee went to the temple to meet him. "I saw Lati
Rinpoche for the first time in my life, but I had a feeling
that I saw him, sometime, somewhere before," Lee says.
tales of the Himalayas seemed strangely familiar, too. "I
feel, oh, I've been there before," she says.
returned the next day to hear his teachings with her three children
in tow. As soon as Lati Rinpoche entered the temple, Don, then
4, pitched over on his bench and smashed his head. He didn't
cry, but a bruise quickly rose. Lee fetched ice to soothe it,
and Don and the other children sat without complaint through
two hours of teachings on the nature of consciousness. That
night, Lee said, Don's swelling mysteriously disappeared.
Rinpoche gave teachings in California for two weeks, and Lee
took the children to hear him almost every day. She was entranced,
on fire, with what she recognized as the truth. The Phams stayed
on as members of the Los Angeles temple, faithfully appearing
each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday to hear the wisdom of its
spiritual leader, Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, affectionately known
dedication wasn't easy. It required a 50-mile drive through
rush-hour traffic - each way - and Lee wasn't keen on subjecting
the little ones to it three times a week. She encouraged Don
and Christine to stay with their cousins instead, but they insisted
on going with her. The children became fixtures in the temple's
last row, quietly drawing or coloring as Geshe-la taught the
graduated path to enlightenment by meditation and mindfulness
of body, speech and mind. He spoke of the difficulties of meditation,
how the untrained mind springs from idea to idea without focus
like a monkey in a tree, how difficult it is to calm and still.
Lee gently admonished her son for not paying attention, but
Don insisted he was listening. "I say, 'OK, what did Geshe-la
teach today?'." Lee says. "And right away, he replied,
'Geshe-la said, 'Consciousness is like a monkey.'."
was surprised. It seemed an advanced idea for a kindergartner
showed a level of selflessness that was startling in such a
young child, says Tenzin Dorjee, a family friend and former
monk. When he took the children out for ice cream, Don would
refuse to order, afraid of wasting money and preferring that
his sisters be indulged instead.
worries a lot. Too much. I say, 'You are just a child,'."
Dorjee said. "He already shows a sense of responsibility
at too young an age. If he happened to kill an insect, he felt
bad for the whole day."
depth of Don's feeling became eerily apparent one afternoon
while the Phams dined in their sunny kitchen. Christine accidentally
broke a plate and burst into tears. Her brother's words of comfort
to her made his parents' eyes widen: "Don't worry, it's
just a thing. If you're attached to a little thing like that,
how you can give up your body when you die?"
never forgot the moment when he said that," Lee says. "He
thought this was an auspicious sign and shared the news with
Geshe-la at temple. Geshe-la was pleased but instructed Lee
to say nothing more about it; they would watch Don to see how
his spirit grew. All three of the Pham children, Geshe-la thought,
were uncharacteristically devoted to the teachings at very early
ages. "How they understood we don't know," Geshe-la
says. "They build up from the small, all the time listening,
listening, listening, listening. ... All the time collecting
in their consciousness."
though their hearts had turned to Tibetan Buddhism, the Phams
still visited the Vietnamese temple for big holidays and celebrations.
These galas were marked by merriment, prayers and offerings
but not by lengthy lectures on sacred texts. This did not escape
asked Lee, using the Vietnamese word for "mother":
"Me, why is there no teaching at the Vietnamese temple?
If you don't get the teaching, how can you know what is wrong
answered his challenge with a challenge of her own. "I
said, 'OK, now that you see that, you can become a good Vietnamese
monk so you can give them the teaching,'." she says. "He
said he will. He did not hesitate. So I said to him, 'Mom hopes
that in your future you can give a different flower to their
doubts Lee may have had evaporated in the car on the way to
temple when Don was 8. Lee had tuned in to Vietnamese radio,
where a speaker extolled the talent in the immigrant community,
from lawyers to doctors to engineers.
piped up from the back seat: Why are there are so many doctors
and lawyers in the Vietnamese community, but no geshe? he asked.
I will be the first Vietnamese geshe.
geshe is the most learned of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Lee decided
it was time to seriously consult with Geshe-la about the boy's
face is barely creased by his 79 years.
in eastern Tibet, he entered the ancient Gaden Shartse monastery
near Lhasa when he was 8 years old, and it was his home for
nearly 30 years.
ended abruptly after evening prayers on March 14, 1959, as the
Chinese army was closing in on the capital. The Chinese were
intent on "liberating" Tibet from its "backward"
religion and economic stagnation. Geshe-la knew that the Dalai
Lama already had fled through the snowy Himalayas to India,
but was told he must flee as well.
was nearly midnight. Geshe-la grabbed a few holy books and some
food, turned his back on his home and walked toward India, wearing
only his robes.
paths through the Himalayas were choked with snow. Many Tibetans
died there, victims of Chinese soldiers or exposure; others
lost feet, hands, fingers and toes to frostbite. Geshe-la was
lucky. Thirty-five days after fleeing, he arrived, stunned and
exhausted, at an Indian refugee camp. Gaden, he would learn,
had been destroyed by Chinese forces. Many monks had been imprisoned,
tortured, even killed.
Dalai Lama urged the refugees to pick up exactly where they
had left off. So Geshe-la dove back into his studies, earning
the Lharampa Geshe degree, the highest awarded by the monastic
university system. Much like a doctorate of divinity, it took
23 years to complete.
1963, the Dalai Lama sent him abroad to spread Buddha's teachings
in England and the United States. China may have seized Tibet,
killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, destroyed countless
monasteries and phased out the Tibetan language - but Tibetan
traditions were marching forward, nonetheless.
had helped them take root in California, and Geshe-la listened
carefully as Lee spoke of Don. In Geshe-la's Tibet, it was common
for families to offer sons to the monastery. But Laguna Niguel
was many worlds away from Tibet.
appreciated that Lee and Hy wanted their son to be a monk. He
agreed that Don was sweet, smart and seemed to have the right
temperament for monastic life. But he knew that the bond between
mother and son was strong. Did the parents really understand
what it meant to offer a child to the monastery? Did they have
any idea what it was like to live within its walls? The exhausting
hours monks must keep, the worldly things they must forsake,
the strict vows they must obey? Could they comprehend what life
is like in India, which has been called a highly developed nation
in an advanced state of decay?
was not enough to just imagine a land of staggering riches and
abysmal poverty, of brutal heat and lashing monsoons, of dusty
villages and wandering ascetics. Geshe-la insisted that Lee
and Hy go to India, stay with the monks and see for themselves.
was told that a monastery is like an ocean. "A lot of treasure,
but a lot of sharks, too," Lee says. "You cannot find
anywhere that is perfect."
was 9 years old when his parents boarded a plane for the daylong
flight to Bombay in 1995. After two more grueling days of travel,
they arrived in the southern state of Karnataka, where they
finally climbed on a bus that would take them to the monastery.
snaked along streets choked with cows, dogs, rickshaws, ox carts,
scooters and people - so many people - dodging overloaded trucks
speeding toward disaster and finally arrived at the Tibetan
settlement of Mundgod. The re-established Gaden Shartse monastery
squatted on a low hill, isolated, prayer flags flapping languidly
in the heat.
new Gaden had come a long way since the refugees camped in tents
and built the first common hall from mud, thatch and bamboo.
It had grown into a rambling campus capped with a cavernous
prayer hall, Tibetan flourishes of red and gold flashing from
the rooftops. The next generation of Tibetan leaders - some
1,500 students - studied there. And one of Gaden's most exalted
teachers was Lati Rinpoche, spiritual assistant to the Dalai
Lama and the monk who wrote the book on death that brought the
Phams to Tibetan Buddhism in the first place.
at Gaden, Lee and Hy learned, was rigidly structured.
gong awoke them at 5 a.m. A silent parade of scarlet robes filled
the temple for prayer. Breakfast was at 7, a sober affair of
chewy Tibetan bread and exotic tea blended with butter, milk
and salt. Then the monks attended classes in language, debate
and logic until 12:30 p.m., when they broke for lunch.
were crowded with private teachings from gurus and tutors; a
light dinner of rice and soup was served at 6; then the monks
assembled again for Buddhist teaching and debate classes that
stretched, sometimes, until midnight.
and Hy stayed for six weeks. Gaden, they decided, was a profoundly
sacred, spiritual place. They were deeply touched by its harmony,
by the purity of its discipline, by the compassion they felt
emanating from its monks. The monks were almost constantly engaged
in learning, with more hours devoted to study than even the
best American private schools offered. And there were no distractions
- no televisions, no DVD players, no computer games.
were also no comforts of home. No fast food, no washing machines,
no hot water, no privacy. Not even any Westerners to talk to.
Just a closed universe of refugees, speaking a language they
would be a foreigner in a completely foreign land. Is this what
they wanted for their only son?
question eventually would be decided by ancient ritual.
divination, a holy man appeals directly to a deity, seeking
the answer to a vexing question. The ritual can employ fire,
mirrors, prayer beads, bones. It would be performed in India
by Lati Rinpoche himself.
question went beyond whether Don should enter the monastery;
it was also whether his little sister should enter the nunnery.
Christine wanted to dedicate herself to Buddha's teachings -
and be near her brother.
signs were clear, Lati Rinpoche said. Don should enter the monastery.
Christine must wait.
and Hy were thrilled that their hunches about Don had been correct.
"He is a special boy. A very good boy," his father
says. "I believe that this is the right path for him to
follow, and he believes that, too."
Phams knew it would be difficult news to break to the extended
family. They were pondering how to do it when Don, in his excitement,
told his cousin. The news raced through Lee's family - Don was
going to India to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
father, Nam Van Nguyen, was outraged.
had fathered four sons and eight daughters, and saw one of them
die. He had been a bicycle merchant, a presidential adviser,
a lieutenant in the French army and a newspaperman. He fled
his homeland after it fell to communists, built a new life in
the United States and watched proudly as his sons and daughters
became professionals - doctors, dentists, pharmacists - and
sent their own children to college. America was the land of
opportunity, the land of plenty, the land people from all over
the world longed to reach. How could his daughter even think
about sending Don away from all this for the privations of India?
ordered a family meeting of his 11 children. Together, they
would persuade Lee not to do something foolish.
fumed in the family room of a daughter's house. His children,
their husbands and wives crowded around him.
did not have a favorable view of monks. When he was jailed for
planning protests against the government as a newspaper writer
in Vietnam, monks were among his fellow inmates. He said their
followers came day after day, bearing apples, grapes, oranges,
was forbidden to enter a room where a high monk was staying
but flung the doors open anyway and saw the monk enjoying a
fine meal as two attendants fanned him and two others fed him.
Nguyen was outraged. This wasn't the life he wanted for his
he said, is a sweet boy, an obedient boy. His desire to help
people is real and noble. But he could help countless people
by getting the best education possible and becoming a doctor
or a dentist like his father. He could cut prices to help the
needy and give money to the poor. He does not need to be a monk.
leveled his charge. Don's wish to enter the monastery is not
his own wish. It is his parents' wish, Nguyen said. Don agrees
to make them happy.
aunts and uncles jumped into the fray. Don is just a child.
How can you send him to live in India by himself? How can you
separate him from his family? How can you take a gifted student
out of school? How can you do this?
Nguyen said, is a boy of no choice.
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