by ANH DO and TERI SFORZA
Photos by CINDY YAMANAKA
understanding all phenomena to be like illusions, I will be
released from the bondage of attachment.""
baby cobra slithers into the garden, injecting itself into a
spectacle that has changed little in 400 years.
with shaved heads and red robes shout and stomp and clap in
the throes of fiery debate. It's an unwieldy dance: Bodies twist
as if to throw fast balls; arms shoot into the air; hands slap
together as feet pound and voices surge. "Sa!" resounds
through the courtyard. "Sa!"
a.m. at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the quietest
monk in the din of debate class is Konchog "Kusho"
Osel, the boy who was once Donald Pham of Laguna Niguel. Don
- who loved science fiction, hip-hop music and Del Taco - is
now an ascetic who speaks fluent Tibetan, clutches wooden prayer
beads and argues his point to the two men at his feet: Not all
sentient beings understand the impermanent nature of sound.
is softer than the others. His claps are calmer. And his voice
has no malice as he flings the ritual "Sa!" - "Shame!"
- at his competitors. Rigorous, formal and highly stylized,
debate is the tool Tibetans use to hone intelligence and deepen
understanding of the fine points of Buddhist philosophy. It's
a vital part of a geshe's 20-plus-year education, and Kusho's
opponents are about to launch into the required counterattack
when someone suddenly cries, "Cobra!"
the others rush to the spot where the snake slides through the
grass. It's a juvenile, but the boy who grew up with nary a
housefly now understands that a baby cobra's venom is as deadly
as an adult's. He stands back as its hood flares. Killing is
an abomination in Buddhism because the snake could have been
a loved one in a previous life. A monk approaches the intruder
with a long stick, but instead of using it as a weapon, he sweeps
the interloper, stroke by stroke, gently out of the garden.
Kusho is a long, long way from the manicured lawns of home.
Van Nguyen, Don's grandfather, furiously opposed sending the
boy to India to enter the monastery.
He called an urgent family meeting. Dozens of relatives squeezed
into a family room in Huntington Beach. Don's mother nervously
The storm rose quickly. Don is only 12 years old, his aunts
and uncles said. How can you send him halfway around the world
He would not be alone, Lee retorted. He would be in the care
of one of the most illustrious holy men of his time - Lati Rinpoche,
spiritual assistant to His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
How can you separate him from his family? He's a gifted student
in the United States - where everyone wants to send their children
for an education. How can you send him to India, one of the
poorest nations on the planet?
Don is the first foreigner ever accepted at the esteemed Gaden
Shartse monastery in its 600-year history, Lee said. Its educational
program is more rigorous than any American school's.
Don, the grandfather said, is a good boy, an obedient boy. He
has always wanted to help people, and that is admirable. But
his wish to enter the monastery is not his own. It is his parents'
wish. Don is a boy of no choice.
Lee turned to her father. She is not pushing her son, she said.
He is pushing himself. Since Don was 8, he'd wanted to be a
monk. Don, she was sure, had been a monk in his last life. Don,
she was sure, had led her to Tibetan Buddhism while he was still
growing in her womb.
This path, she said, was something he must try. If he didn't
like it, he could come home. She knew a man who was a monk for
20 years - a translator for the Dalai Lama - who gave back his
vows, earned his doctorate at the University of California and
now teaches. Don, she said, is very bright. He is an American
citizen. He could come home and get a Ph.D. any time he wanted.
To be born human is a precious gift, and human life must be
lived wisely, Lee believed. Laypeople could accumulate much
merit by doing good deeds; but a monk, by dedicating his life
to Buddha's teachings, automatically accumulates a great deal
more. That not only eases his suffering and the suffering of
others but also helps ensure that he has a good rebirth in his
next life. That was vitally important to Lee.
just want him to try," she told her family. "You will
see. This is right for him to do."
DAYS AT HOME
months, Don attended classes as usual at Aliso Viejo Middle
School, trying to keep his mind on seventh grade. He went to
temple as usual each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, trying to
keep his mind on "wrong understandings that perpetuate
the misery of mental darkness."
nothing was usual anymore.
from a trip to Canada, Don had never been out of the country.
He had spent only a few nights away from his family. His sisters
and cousins were his closest friends. His mother took care of
his every need - from making his bed and cleaning his room to
buying his clothes and preparing his meals. And since he was
a small boy, he had slept each night beside his father.
he would be 10,000 miles and 12 time zones away.
bedroom was his sanctuary. There were stuffed animals and action
figures on the shelves - Batman, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Wile E.
Coyote - and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. A wetsuit
for body-boarding hung in his closet. His bed was crisp and
fragrant with clean sheets. The room had thick carpeting; a
private bathroom where everything was spotless; and windows
that, on clear days, framed the gleaming Pacific.
every night, his big sister, Connie, would invade his room.
Connie loved her little brother; he was the one person she could
really talk to - she, the motormouth; he, the silent one. She
usually ranted about the injustices of everything from globalization
to high school politics. But since the decision had been made
to send Don to India, her tone had changed markedly.
worried for him. He had always been so eager to please, to make
his parents happy and proud. Connie considered it her mission
to make sure he understood all he was giving up: Home. Comfort.
Family. School. America. Blue jeans. Mom's great cooking. "I
never tried to encourage him; I never tried to talk him out
of it," she says. "I just wanted to make sure he knew
what he was doing."
you sure, really sure, you want to do this? Connie asked every
night. And every night, his answer was the same. Silence.
would just stare at the ceiling and give me this look like,
'Are you crazy? Do you think I would do this if I didn't want
to?' But he never gave me a straight answer. He never actually
said 'yes,' which always bothered me, and still bothers me to
plans were set. The family would stay with Don in India for
six weeks. Don, Connie, little sister Christine, mother Lee,
an aunt, their spiritual leader from the temple, Geshe-la and
some students, would leave in February 1999. Father Hy, unable
to close his dental office for so long, would join them in March.
The Phams would then return to the United States, without Don,
on March 18, coincidentally his 13th birthday.
Don packed. He wouldn't need much. He tried to take just the
essentials: books, shoes, CD player, hip-hop CDs - and Batman,
Goofy and Wile E. Coyote. He had no idea what his new life would
plane landed in Bombay at twilight. It was winter, so the weather
was still cool: 88 degrees, with humidity at 65 percent.
from the 24-hour flight, Don, Connie and Christine squeezed
into a taxi and stared mutely out the windows.
slums stretched along the airport road, like a mirror held up
to a mirror so the image repeated into infinity. Thrown together
from scraps of cardboard and tin, the huts leaned against each
other like stumbling drunks fighting gravity. Children played
in fields carpeted with trash.
slums were swallowed by the grand Victorian decay of the city.
Women in saris of gold, crimson and sapphire seemed to float
past ornate gothic edifices erected by the British. Laundry
in riotous colors dripped from balconies. Cows lounged on busy
roads and rooted greedily through trash piles. Red double-decker
buses snaked around a giant statue of Queen Victoria and plunged
into the tumultuous, teeming city - home to more than 13 million
people, half living without electricity or running water.
groaned beneath heaps of exotic foods. Vendors hawked the mildly
addictive betel nut, which men chew and spit out, leaving streaks
of red on walls and sidewalks everywhere.
and Christine shrank as beggars pressed against the car. Lepers
with open sores thrust fingerless hands toward them, nubs of
bone poking from their stumps. Filthy girls, barely older than
Connie, balanced skinny babies on their hips and shoved their
hands at the children, imploring, "baksheesh, baksheesh"
("money, money"). Don wanted to give them something,
but his pockets were empty.
were terrified beggars would eat them alive," Lee says.
two more days of dusty travel by plane and bus, the family finally
arrived at the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod in the steamy southern
state of Karnataka. The Gaden Shartse monastery perched on a
hill, isolated, a world unto itself.
was 10 p.m. They were exhausted. Darkness kept Don from getting
a good sense of his new home.
rushed to greet the weary travelers. They were relieved that
the family had arrived safely, if four hours late. They bowed
in welcome and led everyone down a narrow lane to Lati Labrang,
a three-story house surrounded by an iron fence and flowering
garden. It was home to Don's new guru, Lati Rinpoche, the man
who would become the most important person in Don's life.
entered a small, simple room that was Lati Rinpoche's private
chamber. At 77, he was frail, with a thin face, slender arms
and curved shoulders; bald on top, with gray stubble sprouting
on the sides of his head; and dark eyes that shone. Recognized
as the reincarnation of a renowned Buddhist holy man, he was
revered as a saint and a scholar, one of the few living lamas
who studied at the ancient monasteries inside Tibet. He was
also the author of the book that brought Lee to Tibetan Buddhism.
days, he accepted as private students only the reincarnations
of high lamas, putting Don in a rarefied class and setting huge
expectations for his future.
Don brought his hands together. He touched the crown of his
head, his forehead, his throat and his heart. He dropped to
the floor, pressed his forehead to the ground, rose quickly
and repeated the prostration twice more. This was not simply
to show respect to his new teacher but also to drive out pride
Rinpoche received his first Vietnamese-American student with
blessings and a warm smile. Tea was served as they chatted about
the family's journey and the big event: Don's ordination. It
was in a few days, and he anticipated it with the nervousness
and excitement that others might feel before a wedding.
family ate a late dinner with Lati Rinpoche's disciples, crowded
around a long kitchen table. Then Don was shown to his room.
was on the second floor and could not have been more different
from his room at home. It was secured with a sliding latch and
padlock. Inside, three beds lined up in a row on the bare concrete
floor. The walls were a medicinal aqua-green. A wobbly fan hung
from the ceiling. Storage shelves held textbooks, medicines
and personal things - and onto his allotted shelves Don placed
his stuffed animals and action figures. The windows were over-laced
with decorative ironwork in the Tibetan "endless knot"
pattern, symbolizing the interdependence of all things. Downstairs
was the Eastern-style communal toilet he would share with the
other monks. He had two roommates, each more than twice his
age. They spoke little English. He spoke little Tibetan.
family stayed in the guest quarters, near the only bathroom
with a Western-style toilet. Connie urged Don to use it, but
he didn't want any special privileges. He didn't want to stand
out any more than he already did.
lag made sleep erratic and elusive. The day began too soon,
before the sun rose, with the clang of a bell. The sight of
hundreds of red-robed men pouring into the temple for morning
prayers was spectral in its beauty and their deep chanting hypnotic
in its repetitions. Breakfast surprised: The tea was spiced
with salt and butter, and the Tibetan bread was chewy as a brownie.
transformation from American boy to Tibetan monk began with
hadn't cut it for months; it flopped in silky black strands
over his eyes as the monks wrapped his neck in cloth and handed
Geshe-la the razor. Geshe-la grabbed a lock and cut; half-moons
spiraled to the floor. This symbolized his renunciation of physical
beauty and new dedication to spiritual life. Carefully, Don's
head was shaved from crown to nape until his scalp shone through,
pasty beneath the black stubble. His mother scooped up some
strands to save.
raised his hands to his skull and felt its naked shape, laughing
nervously. "Dude, you look cool," Connie assured him.
next day was Feb. 14, 1999. The start of Losar, the Tibetan
new year. A very auspicious day. The day Don Pham would become
Konchog Osel - "clear light" - in an ancient ceremony
that would make him belong, body and soul, to the monastery.
awoke at 3 a.m. and ate a light breakfast to keep himself from
getting sick with nervousness. Lati Rinpoche presented him with
his first set of sacred robes - brilliant crimson, soft cotton,
transcendent in their elegance. He had seen these only on holy
men, and the fact that he would now wear them seemed beyond
had more layers than an onion, fit loosely and were prone to
slip - to force the wearer to be constantly mindful. The older
monks helped him wrap the hallowed fabric, and he soon appeared
in the hallway, where his mother waited.
sight of him, transformed, nearly took Lee's breath away. He
looked like an old monk, but in miniature. "He was totally
changed," she says. "In that moment, I knew he did
not belong to me anymore."
was like New Year's and a wedding rolled into one. The monastery's
1,500 monks poured giddily into the temple.
- usually reserved for the most holy monks - heralded Don's
arrival. Bells rang. Cymbals clashed. Drums thundered. Incense
burned. In a deep, hypnotic drone, the monks chanted prayers
praising the Three Jewels - the Buddha, his teachings (the dharma)
and his followers (the sangha). Don felt overwhelmed.
high lamas sat on gold and red thrones at the altar. Don prostrated
himself to them. He prayed for their long lives and offered
each a blessing scarf. A special breakfast was served - oatmeal,
raisin bread, jam, tea. It was a gift of the Pham family, as
all the elaborate meals that day would be.
Phams presented gifts to each of the 1,500 monks. Lee, dressed
in a traditional Vietnamese temple gown, carried bricks of Indian
money, and as the prayers echoed, she inched up and down the
rows of monks, bending to press 30 rupees into each palm. Don
followed her, giving his new brothers 10 rupees each; his sisters,
Connie and Christine, followed, giving five rupees each.
amounted to more than one U.S. dollar per monk - a small fortune.
This offering gained the family merit and helped free it from
obstacles - but by the time it was over, their backs ached from
drums thundered. Was this young man eligible to enter the monastery?
Was he beholden to spouse or king? Was he slave, demon, killer,
robber or tyrant?
He was free. He repented, as all new monks do, the innumerable
transgressions he committed in this and previous lifetimes.
He admitted to faults of body, speech and mind generated by
greed, hatred and ignorance.
a ritual that barred his family and all outsiders, Don took
the 36 sacred vows of monastic life, through which he could
achieve enlightenment, escape the painful cycle of death and
rebirth and help all sentient beings. He vowed never to kill.
Never to take what is not given. Never to lie or take intoxicants.
He would not sing or dance, would not adorn himself to beautify
the body, would forsake sexual activity.
lamas stressed that these vows were not be taken lightly or
with the idea that they would be discarded if they proved too
difficult. They were taken for life. To abandon them meant a
loss of karma not just for himself but also for others.
holy men consecrated Konchog Osel, touching his robes, reciting
brief prayers and blowing blessings upon the sacred cloth.
five hours had passed. The sun had risen. Don Pham was no more.
felt this huge relief. I didn't feel heavy anymore," she
says. "All of the attachment and ordinary things in daily
life disappeared. I felt totally joyful. I had fulfilled my
duty to raise him and to bring him back to the monastery, where
entourage soon set off for Dharamsala, a small town in the sliver
of Himalayan foothills separating China from Pakistan. They
would attend three weeks of teaching with the Dalai Lama, and
present to him Tibetan Buddhism's first Vietnamese-American
Phams had gone to some of the Dalai Lama's teachings in the
United States, but the prospect of an audience with the reincarnation
of the Buddha of Compassion - who chooses to return to Earth
to relieve suffering - was an unimaginable privilege.
taxi carrying their group labored up the steep roads to Dharamsala,
dodging cows, dogs, groaning buses and craters. The road seemed
insanely narrow, clinging to the earth like a worn ribbon slowly
disintegrating. The steel faces of giant trucks greeted them
coming out of hairpin turns, requiring the driver to slam on
the brakes and jerk the wheel.
finally arrived at the Tsuglagkhang Complex, a modest stand-in
for the holy buildings in Lhasa, perched on a peak above the
plains. They presented themselves at the locked gates of the
Dalai Lama's private residence. Armed Indian guards admitted
them through one locked gate, then another.
mountain air was cool as they ascended the drive leading to
the tiny home, perched at the hilltop amid pink bougainvillea.
From here, the town of McLeod Ganj - "Little Lhasa"
- appeared to cling stubbornly to the rugged mountains, much
as the Tibetans clung to their traditions, even in exile.
were led into a parlor in the simple cottage and waited. Connie
peeked at the guest book, and saw that actor Richard Gere had
just left. They were ushered into the garden where the Dalai
Lama lovingly tends to the blue and purple blooms. Kusho's mouth
went dry as the Dalai Lama emerged, clad not in the elaborate
gold brocades of his predecessors, but in the same simple red
robes as Kusho. The Dalai Lama squinted through his thick glasses,
smiled warmly and welcomed his American guests.
overwhelmed by an emotion he did not fully understand, began
to cry. Tears streamed down his cheeks as Geshe-la dropped to
the ground, prostrating on behalf of the entire family. Geshe-la
introduced the trembling boy, saying he hoped that Kusho would
someday use his gifts to benefit the Vietnamese community.
Dalai Lama smiled with pleasure. The presence of both parents
symbolized their full support for Kusho's chosen path. He spoke
to Kusho in English, offering blessings and words of encouragement.
"Study well," he says. "Be a good monk, a simple
was unable to utter a single sound in return. He sniffled as
an assistant rushed in, draping white blessing scarves around
everyone's neck. Kusho's photo was taken beside the Dalai Lama,
and within 10 minutes, the visit was over.
But Kusho felt changed. There was something overwhelming about
the Dalai Lama's presence, something that affected him profoundly,
deeply. The Dalai Lama was no ordinary person. He was an "ocean
of wisdom," a living embodiment of kindness and compassion,
of everything Kusho had dedicated his life to. And seeing the
blessed man's face, Kusho felt certain he was doing the right
dawn of March 18, 1999, came bright and warm and much too quickly.
It was Kusho's 13th birthday. The day his family would return
to the United States without him.
was a surprise celebration with two cakes - inscribed not to
Don, but to Kusho - and a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday,"
which was a novelty to the dozen monks who crowded around, sharing
the chocolate dessert. They lent a distracting air of festivity
to the bittersweet celebration.
six weeks in India, the Phams were leaving. The monks helped
Christine, Connie, Hy and Lee haul suitcases outside. Kusho
followed, urging them not to forget anything.
bus pulled up. The luggage was loaded.
turned to his son to say goodbye. This boy, so different from
the one he tucked into bed. This boy, offered to Buddha, who
was not his own anymore. Hy broke down. Christine dissolved
as well. Kusho did his best to stay strong while Lee and Connie
turned away, fussing over bags, struggling to choke back tears.
Connie was afraid that if she started, she'd never stop.
Rinpoche had comforted the parents. Don't worry, he said. I
will be a father to Kusho. I will be the teacher of Kusho. I
will be a friend to Kusho.
dozen monks surrounded Kusho, waving goodbye as his family boarded
the bus. "Don't worry," he whispered to his mother.
boarded last, turning quickly to catch sight of her little brother
one more time. But all she saw was a sea of men in red robes,
indistinguishable from one another.
She frantically searched the faces as the bus pulled away. Finally,
she found him, the little monk in the middle. He was smiling
and waving. At that moment, she thought, of course, he should
be here. It was in the way that he walked, the way that
he wore his robes, the way that he rejected his blue Converse
sneakers for Indian loafers so he wouldn't stick out. This
is his family, Connie thought. This is where he belongs
home in Laguna Niguel, the photo of Kusho with the Dalai Lama
was prominently displayed on the mantel. The Dalai Lama was
smiling; Kusho's face was swollen with tears.
poured himself into work. Lee worried about Kusho's health.
How was his stomach adjusting to the Indian food and water?
Was he ill? Weak? Losing weight? Was his asthma acting up? She
missed him. Of course, she missed him. But she kept reminding
herself that mentally, spiritually, he was not hers anymore.
him, the house was eerily quiet. He was Christine's confidant,
Connie's sounding board, and now they found themselves with
little to say, and no one to say it to.
would wander into his bedroom and stare at those silly stars
on the ceiling, at the lone Mickey Mouse he left behind. Christine
would compute what time it was in India, figuring that when
she was waking up, he was going to sleep.
dinner, while watching TV, in the middle of doing homework,
one of them would say, "I wonder what Don's doing now."
Was he lonely there? Did he have anyone to talk to? He was an
American in a sea of Tibetans, unable to speak their language.
Did he feel isolated? Frightened? Homesick?
Was he happy in the monastery half a world away? Would he tell
them if he wasn't?
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