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

Monday, February 5, 2007

Police Chaplain 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 Kusala Bhikshu.

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 says.

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 to die.

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 him.

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 Bhikshu.

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 a choice.

"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 a choice."

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 says.

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 anger."

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