Oral Histories

Interview of Kusala Bhikshu

Buddhist monk in the Vietnamese Zen lineage. Teacher at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles and Southern California locations.
Series:
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Topic:
Buddhism
Asian American History
Interviewer:
Cline, Alex
Interviewee:
Kusala Bhikshu
Persons Present:
Kusala and Cline.
Place Conducted:
International Buddhist Meditation Center in Koreatown in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Kusala was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
Length:
8 hrs.
Language:
English
Copyright:
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Audio:
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American audience. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Stark contrast between father’s and mother’s family backgrounds—Parents divorce—Family relocates from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Phoenix, Arizona—Loathes school and struggles in it—Stutters as a child due to a speech therapy experiment father ran on him—Returns to Milwaukee for high school— Ineligible for draft due to injuries sustained from a fall—Describes himself as a greaser during the mid-1960s—Works odd jobs while living with father in Milwaukee—Joins mother and siblings in Malibu, California—Remains in Los Angeles area and works as a shoe salesman after mother moves—Mother dies in Minocqua at age eighty-four—A non-participant in the drug culture, prefers cigarettes and beer at the time—Relocates to San Diego for a job, where lives out hedonistic aspirations—Relocates again to work at a shoe store in Westwood Village—Becomes a Republican and a member of the National Rifle Association—A powerful insight leads to numerous substantive changes in Kusala’s life—Finds the International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC) via an ad in the phone book—First experience of a dharma talk by Shinzen Young at the IBMC changes Kusala’s life, and he begins regularly going to the IBMC—Finds a personal connection with the Theravada tradition and becomes a student of Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara—Considers Shinzen and Dr. Ratanasara, along with Rev. Karuna Dharma, to be his most influential early teachers—The IBMC’s vision of being a multi-sectarian Buddhist center comes from its founder, Dr. Thich Thien-An—The IBMC supports itself financially by renting residential space in its buildings.
Early experiences at the IBMC—Shinzen’s talks—The Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood—Priorities continue to change—Extraordinary experiences Kusala begins having during meditation in the early 1980s—Careful to avoid dangerous side effects of his inner experiences—Moves past attachment to blissful meditation experiences and begins “just sitting”—Begins to see the appeal of the monastic life—Exposes himself to a variety of expressions of the dharma—Continues studies with Dr. Ratanasara while also learning from the world’s great suffering—Becomes a monk, ordaining in the Mahayana tradition while continuing to study the Theravada—Rev. Karuna and Dr. Ratanasara conceive and convene a grand ordination at the IBMC for monastics and lay dharma teachers—Moves to the IBMC in 1993 and trains there as a postulant—Ordained at the grand ordination in 1994 and invited to work at the IBMC—Initial feelings about living the celibate life of a monk—Family’s and friends’ responses to decision to become a monk—Preparation for and experience of the 1994 grand ordination—Choosing from among various Buddhist names, Kusala becomes Kusala Bhikshu.
Contrast between old neighborhood in Palms and that of the IBMC, which is in what is now Koreatown—Lack of interaction with Korean neighbors—How ordainees were identified and contacted for the grand ordination at the IBMC in 1994 and how logistics for it were handled—The relationship between the IBMC and Chua Vietnam Buddhist Temple nearby—Sri Lankan Theravada temples in the area—Becomes residential manager of the IBMC in 1994—Teaches meditation for one year as a volunteer at the Los Angeles County Prison for Men in Lancaster, California—Volunteers for five years at the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall—His experience leads him to teach Buddhism in a more secular way—Involvement in Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue begins before ordination—Invited to become a ride-along police chaplain in the largely Vietnamese city of Garden Grove in 2000—Training, experience, and challenges in the ride-along program—Invited to become the Buddhist chaplain at the UCLA University Religious Conference in 1996, where founds a nondenominational Buddhist club—Invited to join the Spiritual Care Committee at UCLA Medical Center—Speaks at conferences on spirituality and medical care—Reactions to and advantages of being a Caucasian American Buddhist monk—Balancing the many demands on his time with his own meditation practice—Buddhist vs. Catholic monastics.
Ten years of service at UCLA—Secular vs. “religious” Buddhism—Practicing the Five Precepts—Travel to Sri Lanka—Travel to Australia in 1998 for the World Conference of Buddhists—Kusala receives his first computer in 1998 and establishes his website Urban Dharma in 2001—Posts the first podcast of one of his dharma talks in 2005—Urban Dharma reaches people all over the world but rarely leads more people to go to the IBMC—Conducts memorial services for all the people he used to be—Attends Buddhist-Catholic conferences “Benedict’s Dharma” in 2001 and 2003—Attends the Gethsemane 3 and Gethsemane 4 conferences of American Catholic and Buddhist monastics—The Monks in the West conference—Perspectives gained from the Buddhist-Catholic conference experiences—Relationship with Dr. Ratanasara and the impact of his death on Kusala—Counsels Vietnamese American youth in Orange County—Approach to teaching at venues outside his tradition—Combining the Theravada and Mahayana traditions—The present health status of Buddhism in L.A. and beyond.
Methods for staying focused on path while living in the city—Challenges of being non theistic when engaging in interfaith activities—Role as an American Buddhist monk in contemporary society—Power struggles and sex scandals in American Buddhism—American vs. Buddhist ideas about freedom—American monastics—Diversity of Buddhism in L.A.—The popularity of mindfulness practice and the selling of Buddhism as a commodity in the West—Limitations of secular Buddhism—The challenge of diversity for American Buddhists—Changes in the community at the IBMC over the years—The IBMC’s uniqueness—L.A. as a major center for Buddhism—The challenge of Americans’ ideas about enlightenment—Changes in self over the years—Evolution of Americans’ ideas about American monastics—Advice for Americans considering the monastic lifestyle—Feels that many of the divisions among Buddhist traditions should be maintained as Buddhism moves into the future—Personal relationship with the Buddha.