Preah Maha Ghosananda
Where he walked was often remote, but it was neither safe nor quiet. He would tread, a little bird-like man with hands folded and head bowed, along narrow paths that threaded through the jungle-forests of central Cambodia. Care was necessary, for the ground had been sown with landmines up to the edge of the trails. Humidity would mist his glasses and slick his bald head with sweat. His orange monk's robes, hitched up to show stout boots and socks, would tangle in the bushes. Behind him, chanting to the beat of a drum, would stream 200-300 laymen, monks and nuns, walking across Cambodia for peace.
Though Ghosananda led these Dhammayietra, or “Pilgrimages of Truth” in the early 1990s, well after the signing of peace accords to end a civil war between the remnants of the murderous Khmers Rouges and the new, Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government, he often found war still raging. Shells screamed over the walkers, and firefights broke out round them. Some were killed. The more timid ran home, but Ghosananda had chosen his routes deliberately to pass through areas of conflict. Sometimes the walkers found themselves caught up in long lines of refugees, footsore like them, trudging alongside ox-carts and bicycles piled high with mattresses and pans and live chickens. “We must find the courage to leave our temples”, Ghosananda insisted, “and enter the suffering-filled temples of human experience.”
Many of the villagers they met had not seen a Buddhist monk for years. In the old Cambodia, before the Khmers Rouges in April 1975 had proclaimed a new Utopian era, “forest-monks” had been a part of rural life, wandering through with staves and bowls, exchanging a handful of rice for a blessing. Now, though the Khmers Rouges had outlawed nostalgia, had razed the monasteries and thrown the mutilated Buddha-statues into the rivers, old habits stirred. As they caught Ghosanada's chant, “Hate can never be appeased by hate; hate can only be appeased by love”, soldiers laid down their arms and knelt by the side of the road. Villagers brought water to be blessed, and plunged glowing incense sticks into it to signal the end of war.
Ghosananda himself had missed the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. His family, ordinary peasant folk from the Mekong delta, had been wiped out; monks like him, “social parasites” as they were now branded, were defrocked, forced to labour in the fields, or murdered. Out of 60,000 only 3,000 were left alive, and those had fled. But Ghosananda had gone to Thailand to learn meditation in 1965, staying for years in a hermitage in the forest where only the buzz of insects disturbed him. Not until 1978, when he went to minister to Cambodian refugees in the camps on the Thai border, did he learn that Buddhism had been destroyed in Cambodia, although almost all the people had adhered to it. He decided then that his duty was to restore his country's sacred foundation.
Step by step
He did not believe this could be done through grand temples or enclosed institutions. Certainly he could have gone that way. Like many others he had been a dek wat, a “temple kid”, washing the monks' dishes and carrying their alms-bowls. Unlike others, he became a monk and remained one, getting all his education in temples and eventually gaining a doctorate in Pali, the scriptural language of Theravada Buddhism. He was a polymath and an intellectual. Yet he could not stay out of the world. Rather than devoting himself to monastic scholarship, he built hut-temples in the refugee camps and handed out dog-eared photocopies of the Buddha's Metta Sutta, or Words of Love:
With a boundless heart
On his walks his message remained the same. It needed no complication. The work, he knew, would be slow: “step by step”, as he liked to say. It would continue as long as Cambodians felt divided from each other and brutalised by their past.
After 1980 he was made much of. He represented the Cambodian government-in-exile at the United Nations, and was influential in the peace talks; in 1988, he was made Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. Several times he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. He founded more than 50 temples across the world. Some he spoke at; but his first priority lay elsewhere. It was to appear, birdlike, out of the Cambodian forest, to surprise a man digging or a woman washing; to remind them that the power of love was stronger than the forces of history; and then to move on.
For the pure-hearted one
The Venerable Maha Ghosananda, a learned Cambodian monk, died in early March 2007 near the temple where he was living in Leverett, Massachusetts. Maha Ghosananda, who had a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from India, was a key person in the revival of the Buddhist Sangha in Cambodia after the Pol Pot years (1975-1979). In 1992, Maha Ghosananda revived the tradition of the Dhammayietra — a country-wide pilgrimage as a symbol of peace and reconciliation among a still-divided population.
In 1989, I had been asked to organize in Geneva, Switzerland a week-long seminar of training in social development skills for Cambodian monks. One of the purposes of the seminar — not highlighted at the time— was to allow Maha Ghosananda and other monks in exile in the USA and France to meet with the Venerable Tep Vong, the leader of the Buddhist order in Cambodia, largely put into place by the Vietnamese. Switzerland, being a neutral country, was one of the few places where such a training seminar could be held. Many states did not recognize the Vietnamese-installed government of Cambodia and would not give visas to its citizens. Maha Ghosananda was the most learned of the group of monks and had a modest but real power of leadership.
In 1991, just after the Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia, I went to Cambodia to help set up child-welfare programs in schools, both state-run and Buddhist schools, and so I saw some of the rebuilding challenges facing the Buddhist order.
Pol Pot, largely influenced by the French Revolution from the years he had spent as a worker in France, with revolutionary goals also colored by the Russian and Chinese revolutions, wanted to create a new society and a "new person" by destroying the foundations of the old. There were three sources to the contemporary Cambodian culture that Pol Pot wanted to destroy. First, was the Western, largely French-influenced modern culture. Anyone speaking French or English was thought to be part of the modern elite which had to be destroyed. The second source of culture was the Buddhist monks who controlled the religious ceremonies but also a large segment of the education system. The third source was the folk culture, mostly passed on by the elderly — a folk culture filled with interaction with the spirit world as well as the history of each village. The people who were the carriers of the three cultural sources died, were killed, or went into exile.
When the Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge from power, the Vietnamese were faced with a totally disorganized society with few persons able to pass on the former culture. Since the Vietnamese had their own rebuilding to do, they had few people available other than soldiers to revive Cambodia. The Vietnamese contribution was to provide relative security, the Khmer Rouge troops having withdrawn to forest and hill areas. The Medical School with French aid started to revive modern culture. There was a small number of Buddhist monks who had survived the Pol Pot years within Cambodia by putting on civilian clothes. This handful of monks the Vietnamese put into positions of leadership. Monks in exile in Thailand, Europe or the USA were not trusted by the Vietnamese. The monks in exile only started to return in 1992-93 when the United Nations basically took over the administration of the country — United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia – UNTAC 1991 -1993.
When Maha Ghosananda returned to Cambodia from Thailand in 1992, he created the Dhammayietra. This is a walk based on the practice of the Buddha who divided a year into segments of retreats (usually during the rainy season during which he would teach his assembled followers) and other periods of the year when the monks would walk from village to village teaching and caring for the sick. The practice is made clear in words attributed to the Buddha "Go forth, and walk for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the profit, for the welfare, for the happiness of gods and mankind. Expound the Dhamma (teachings). Live it in its spirit and its letter."
Maha Ghosananda had spent the years 1965 to 1978 in a forest monastery in southern Thailand. Such monasteries, totally isolated from village life where a monk could devote his time to meditation in silence, did not exist in Cambodia where monasteries are in the middle of the village and where there is a great deal of daily interaction with villagers. In Cambodia, villagers come to give food to the monks, sit around to talk, come and go – not an atmosphere for sustained meditation. In Thailand, after the Second World War, there arose around a few monks forest retreats. These were monasteries far from villages where a small number of monks would live together to study and meditate.
In 1978, Maha Ghosananda was told about the large number of Cambodian refugees who were fleeing Cambodia for Thailand as the Vietnamese troops were ending the Pol Pot government. He left his forest monastery to go to help the Cambodian refugees in the camps on the Thai-Cambodian frontier. From 1978 to 1992, he worked with refugees on the frontier, helping meet their physical, moral and spiritual needs.
In 1992 he returned to Cambodia with a small number of monks who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand. In Cambodia, he confronted three major problems : 1) a country still very divided along political lines with the Khmer Rouge active in hill and forest settings; 2) a country disorganized economically and socially where those who could wanted to make money to "make up for lost time;" 3) a Buddhist order where many young men were becoming monks, in part because they were sure to be fed each day and to receive education, but where there were few educated elder monks to teach them.
He organized the walks of monks and lay people – usually a yearly 45-day walk of some 650 kilometers – to areas still violently divided and in areas where landmines were still common. During these walks, there was teaching, ritual expression of compassion and reconciliation. There was also active listening to the experiences and fears of the people. As he would say "Each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a bridge." The walks would be efforts to build links between people divided by the years of conflict. As Maha Ghosananda said "We must find the courage to leave out temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos and the battlefields will then become our temples."
There are still important challenges facing Cambodia — poverty, corruption, a narrow political base concerned with making money rather than providing service. Yet thanks to people of compassion such as Maha Ghosananda, as he would say, "Listen carefully, peace is growing in Cambodia, slowly, step by step."
Rene Wadlow is the editor of www.transnational-perspectives.org. and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva. A book of meditations and observations by Maha Ghosananda 'Step by Step' is available from Parallax Press, PO Box 7355, Berkeley CA 94707.
The doorbell rang, and I assumed it was a delivery or a worker - someone the housekeeper could handle (I was late) - so I opened the door quickly, expecting to dash right by, only to find myself face to face with an odd entourage. I recognized our new Buddhist advisor, who said brightly, "Oh, we're so glad you're home. We've brought you Maha Ghosananda, the Dali Lama of Cambodia. He wanted to meet you."
This was one of those cosmic (and comic) moments that draws you up short. Here I was with half a bagel in each hand, dashing out the door, a bundle of preoccupation and nerves. I had stopped home for just a minute (which I almost never do), was late for my next appointment, and was now confronted with this unexpected delegation of serene mindfulness, assuming that of course I was at home to receive them.
I babbled a few things, feeling very silly to be so frantic and rushed, handed the better half my bagel to the sweetly-smiling monk, and dashed off. For the rest of the day I chided myself for the opportunity I had missed. I should have bagged the next appointment, invited the group in, and basked in their aura of peace and calm. I felt even worse that night when I got to the World Wide Web and discovered what an extraordinary spiritual leader Ghosananda is. But then I went on about my business and forgot the incident.
Two days later, on Sunday morning, we had a multi-faith service for Family Weekend. Afterward, the dean of religious and spiritual life and I walked back to the president's house, again something we seldom do. We settled on the terrace, with some orange juice, and got to talking about Maha Ghosananda's visit the previous Friday. Suddenly we felt a presence and looked up to see the monk standing on the edge of the terrace. It was an awesome moment.
We ate fruit and bread together, drank orange juice and talked for about 45 minutes. He carried himself with a quiet simplicity and an utter lack of pretense or guile. He was playful, whimsical, warm, and sweet; his smile and laugh were radiant and the easy silences we shared were suffused with spirit. His presence felt like a gift to Victor and me, a generous gift that inspired gratitude and a an impulse to reach out and support his journey in whatever ways we could.
The impact of his teaching came as much from his presence as from the short lessons and parables he offered in a quirky and unstructured way, as if responding to the whim of the moment. He showed us the many pockets in his down vest, and their curious contents: a U.S. passport wrapped in an old warranty notice, the German translation of his book, folded in a scrap of bubble wrap. He laughed at himself for failing to adhere to the Buddhist injunction to travel light.
When he said good-bye, he walked down a long series of stone steps from the terrace to the president's lawn, toward a rose garden and to a path by the lake, without once looking back. We sensed that his short visit had given us something we had no way of absorbing fully right away, but something that would stay with us forever.
Note: Few current news above have been updated in this page in order to inscribe the remembrance the day of our loss the Extraordinary Master, Maha Ghosananda, Gandhi of Cambodia. His whole life has dedicated for peace, compassion, non-violence and step by step practice for peace development of human beings.