Buddhist monk Kusala Bhikshu stands by at a traffic
accident during a ride-along
with a Garden Grove police officer. / LEONARD
ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
is a Buddhist Monk
Riding motorcycles, playing the blues and accompanying police
to crime scenes
are on Kusala Bhikshu's spiritual journey. By
DEEPA BHARATH/ THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Sitting in a police squad car is not typical in the life of
For the 57-year-old Buddhist monk, practicing Zen meditation
and tending to koi fish is a normal day.
Yet, he sits next to Garden Grove Police Officer Michael Guadan,
perfectly at ease, chatting about towed cars, adult bookstores
and the war in Iraq.
His name is Kusala, which means "skilled." "Bhikshu" merely
means "monk" in Sanskrit, an ancient East Indian language.
"So, there's Cher, there's Madonna and then there's me – Kusala," he
He is not wearing his monk's robes this afternoon. Instead,
he's sporting a pair of black jeans, a T-shirt pulled over a
bullet-proof vest and a black jacket with the word "chaplain" embroidered
on the back.
He doesn't carry a gun, a baton or pepper spray like the officer
next to him. Instead he is armed with a pocket-sized picture
of Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, and his own
unflagging sense of humor.
Kusala is only the second Buddhist police chaplain in the nation,
according to Garden Grove police officials. Since 2000, when
the department started one of the most diverse chaplain programs
in the country, Kusala has been the Buddhist representative on
the team that includes a Catholic, a Mormon, a Jew and a Muslim.
In addition to counseling officers and victims during ride-alongs
with police, Kusala also had the opportunity recently to observe
an autopsy at the Orange County coroner's office.
The deceased woman, he was told, had died of a drug overdose
at a party.
"I couldn't help noticing her nails," Kusala said. "They
were painted. She hadn't planned on dying that day."
It was the fear of death that changed the direction of this
6-foot-tall man from the Midwest, baptized Lutheran and born
into a conservative, Christian family.
At age 28, Kusala says he was irrationally scared.
"I was going to turn 30 and I was going to die."
• • •
The name his parents gave him was Carl Kohlhoff.
"I was a pretty normal kid," says Kohlhoff, now Kusala. "I
have good memories of high school in Wisconsin and of Arizona
where my family later moved."
He graduated from high school and worked several retail jobs,
managing shoe and clothing stores. Although his parents remained
churchgoers, Kohlhoff, a child of the '60s, questioned all authority.
He became an agnostic.
But as a young man, he was faced with this strange obsession
with the idea that he was getting older but was just not ready
So at age 28, he quit his job and went on a 45-day road trip,
driving cross-country. He slept at rest stops, cheap motels and
campgrounds. It was a chance for him to see how other people
lived and think about where his own life was going.
In 1969, Kohlhoff moved to Los Angeles. He kicked his smoking
habit and got a gym membership. But somehow, that didn't give
him a sense of immunity from his inevitable destiny.
"I felt like I needed to take a spiritual path that would
prepare me for death," he says. "I needed a religion
where God was optional."
It was then that he read a chapter on Buddhism from "The
World's Religions" by Houston Smith. It made sense to
He sought guidance from the Zen masters at the International
Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles. Kohlhoff was hooked.
He took on the Buddhist name of Kusala. For nearly 20 years he
learned from the masters at the center and decided to become
a monk in 1993. He was formally ordained in 1995 and given the
formal name of Kusala Ratana Karuna, but still goes by Kusala
The life of a monk hardly seems constricting, he says.
"Yes, I had to take a vow of celibacy and refrain from
drinking alcohol," he says. "But in my opinion, these
rules don't shackle. They liberate."
Kusala says he finds that rules release him from having to make
"When I see a glass of beer, I know I can't have it," he
says. "It makes life so much simpler because I don't have
His ultimate goal is to achieve what the Buddha is said to have
accomplished – nirvana – or enlightenment, the
freedom from rebirth and suffering.
• • •
Kusala, true to his name, is a man of many skills.
He rides motorcycles and plays the blues harmonica and teaches
it to kids in juvenile halls. He teaches Buddhism at Loyola Marymount
University, records "podcasts" of his speeches, writes
occasional blogs, maintains his own Web site and when it comes
to computers, he's much like that "PC guy" you see
in those Mac commercials, he says.
Maybe some don't consider it dignified for a monk to ride a
motorcycle or play in a band. But Kusala is "an urban monk." Motorcycles
give him a different view of the world.
"When you're riding, you get a sense of the world coming
to you instead of you going through the world."
When he puts his harmonica to his lips and he sees the surprised
faces around him, Kusala feels like he has helped bring down
the level of suffering in the room just a notch.
He says Garden Grove is his Mayberry. He enjoys talking with
the officers – about their jobs, friends, families, motorcycles
and sometimes the blues.
And yes, he talks to them about what was once the fountainhead
of his worst fears and nightmares.
Death is no longer a monster.
"It's interesting that I talk about it all the time now," he
As a chaplain, he's been asked by police officers if it's all
right to kill. His answer: "Never kill out of hatred or
When he sits in the squad car, Kusala considers it a front-row
seat in the theater of strife and suffering. Every ride-along
is a religious awakening.
"Police officers take on a lot of this suffering and carry
it in their hearts," he says. "And after all this,
they get in their cars all alone. If I can be in there sitting
in that car, maybe I can help them make some sense of it all."
• • •
Kusala Bhikshu / Garden Grove, California / LEONARD ORTIZ, THE
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER