Venerable Preah Maha Ghosananda
Venerable Preah Maha Ghosananda, frequently called the "Gandhi of Cambodia", is our honorary founding patron and his teachings and life example continue to inspire us, as they first did over thirty-five years ago. Through the peace and reconcilation walks that he led, perhaps no single individual was more responsible for ending the civil war that continued to plague Cambodia from the end of the Khmer Rouge era until the late 1990s. Maha Ghosananda was also a strong voice for interfaith dialogue and respect, traveling to every part of the world to lend his voice - often only a few cogent words! - to the cause of world peace.
Maha Ghosananda was born in 1929 into a poor farming family in a small village in Takeo Province, Cambodia. At the age of eight, he began serving as temple boy in his village wat. When he was fourteen, Ghosananda received his parents permission to become a monk.
Maha Ghosananda graduated from the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh and took up advanced studied at the Buddhist University branch in Battambang. He then left the country in 1953 to complete his doctoral degree at Nalanda University in Bihar, India, where he passed his Pali exams and received the title "Maha" before reaching the age of thirty. His name, Maha Ghosananda, means "Great Joyful Proclaimer."
To compliment his university training, Maha Ghosananda visited Buddhist centers throughout Asia. On these and future travels, Maha Ghosananda would astonishingly gain degrees of fluency in over thirteen languages, including Japanese, Bengali, French, German and Burmese.
During his travels in India, Maha Ghosananda met the Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and founder of the Nipponzan Myohoji, a Buddhist order devoted to world peace. Fujii, like Ghosananda, was born into a peasant family. As an adult Fujii felt a calling to travel in India where he eventually met Gandhi, and then traveled back to Japan were he preached pacifism during WWII, an act for which he easily could have been imprisoned.
Shocked by the horrors of the atomic weapons destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fujii eventually came to see that only collective efforts to foster peace could be of help to humankind, "Religion becomes isolated from the happenings of the world because it tends to be occupied in seeking solutions to one's own spiritual matters. If we fall to prevent a nuclear holocaust one's desire for security is nothing but a dream. All must be awakened."
Fujii, like Gandhi before him and Ghosananda after him, lead many walks for peace, which became the cornerstone of the way of practice he founded. In the intertwined lives of Gandhi, Fujii and Ghosananda we can see how the lineage of awakened-mind is non-sectarian and is both inherited and passed on through the work of individuals. We also note the precise workings of "auspicious coincidence," the uncanny connections that may unfold when we take courageous steps to follow our calling. Our fate can be so greatly influenced by those we meet and admire.
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Maha Ghosananda met and studied with Fujii several times during his stay in India. The tenants of the walks he would later become famous for were transmitted to him through Fujii, which included the mindfulness inherent in walking, as well as walking being a form of emulating the Buddha's path to enlightenment. And not least of all, that "the true monk does not stay in one place," and that in moving about one should have a face-to-face encounter with ordinary people every day.
Maha Ghosananda eventually left India and, in 1969, arrived at the forest hermitage of Thai meditation master Venerable Dhammaraj in southern Thailand. For the next nine years, Ghosananda followed the proscribed routines of the hermitage and his own calling to live in deep seclusion. He practiced mediation every day, including a particular type of meditation developed by Dhammaraj, which was simply to raise and lower ones hand and be attentive to its movement. Ghosananda once described it this way: "All day long we moved the hand up and down, up and down, with mindfulness, following each breath carefully. Every day we did only this - nothing more."
It was during sessions like this that Maha Ghosananda received increasingly troubling and eventually horrific news from his homeland. He learned of the spread of the Vietnam war into Cambodia and American's fourteen-month secret bombing campaign in which as many as 500,000 Cambodians lost their lives. Ghosananda was in anguish for his country, but Dhammaraj counseled him to concentrate on his spiritual practice, to foster peace within his own heart, to wait for the right time to return to his people. A few years later, once the Khmer Rouge had taken over his country, Ghosananda received the crushing news that his parents, all his bothers and sisters, and many of his fellow monks had been murdered. As reported in one account, "He wept every day and could not stop weeping."
Eventually Ghosananda achieved a stunning victory simply though raising and lowering his arm, simply through applying the Buddha's teachings on loving kindness to his own situation, to his own grief. The victory he achieved was his eventual ability to realize the sameness of all human beings, to seeing that evil comes out of ignorance and the only way to achieve lasting peace is to find it within one's heart. From his suffering Ghosananda developed a real connection to compassion, and he later coined a teaching that encapsulated the process he himself went through:
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Maha Ghosananda returned to Cambodia just after the Vietnamese invaded and drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh and much of the country. Refugee camps sprung up on the Thai border and in 1978, Ghosananda made his way, alone, to one of them. An account of his arrival was later given by two human rights advocates who had been working in the camps.
When Ghosananda reached the camp crowds immediately gathered around him. He passed out pamphlets and gave blessings. The refugees were by all accounts overwhelmed to witness this glowing figure - they had not seen a robed monk in nearly five years.
During the following year, Ghosananda administered to the people, ordained monks and built temples in the refugee camps. He began to teach then what he continued to teach for the remainder of his life: " It is the law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in our negotiations. Our wisdom and compassion must walk together."
When asked about how he felt about the Khmer Rouge, Ghosananda replied, "We have great compassion for them, because they do not know the truth. They destroy Buddhism, they destroy themselves." 2
That next year Ghosananda led the first dhammayietra, as they were called, a walk for peace and reconciliation. In order proclaim and further the possibility of the refugees returning to their home, Ghosananda led over one-hundred refugees in a walk from the Thai camps to Phnom Penh. The walk seemingly took place against all odds: "Before the walk had begun many people said that this event could not happen, that there were too many land mines." As well, there was official resistance from all quarters, including the United Nations and the Thai government.
But the walk began and as they continued many more joined in. When the group reached Phnom Penh they were over a thousand strong, once in the city another 2000 joined in. Everywhere along the way word spread of the march and people come to the roadside, greatly moved and often in tears, to witness the march and receive the traditional blessing of sprinkled water.
Between 1993 and 1997, Maha Ghosananda led five more dhammayietra, each devoted to a theme: the second was to encourage people to overcome their fear of political violence and intimidation and exercise their right to vote; the third again under the rubric of peace and reconciliation; the forth to draw attention to the more than ten-million land mines planted in Cambodia (and to encourage the world-body to outlaw landmines); the fifth to draw attention to illegal logging and environmental degradation; and the sixth - the last one Ghosananda was able to attend due to declining health - was again dedicated to reconciliation and forgiveness.
Each walk was dangerous as well as spellbinding and cathartic for those witnessing it along the roadside. As one witness described it, "People would sit along the road with a bucket of water and incense sticks... and people would just weep as we blessed them, especially the old. It really showed me you can destroy all the temples, you can take every sign and symbol of a religion away from people, but you can't take it out of the human heart." 3
During the third dhammayietra the march got caught in the crossfire between Khmer Rouge and government soldiers and several people were not only wounded, but three monks and a nun were caught in the crossfire. Some the marchers were temporarily taken hostage and were surprised to find that many of their captors were little more than children-soldiers, boys fifteen years of age who were regretful for what they'd done and who hadn't seen their mothers in years.
Dhammayietra V was dedicated to drawing attention to illegal logging and along the way Maha Ghosananda taught on the significance of trees, reminding people that Buddhist monks have lived under the trees and wandered in the forests for 2,500 years, that the forest is the environment which fostered great teachers. Obviously, Maha Ghosananda knew the spiritual truths of the forest firsthand.
During the 1990s, Maha Ghosananda had taken up residence in the United States, tending to the large Cambodian refugee community there. He also traveled the world constantly, participating in peace conferences, United Nations forums and meeting countless people and spiritual figures, including the Dhalai Lama and Pope John Paul II.
Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda passed away on March 12, 2007 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was a product of the very system of enlightenment he helped to restore in Cambodia. James Wiseman, a Benedictine monk, described Maha Ghosananda as he remembered him from an encounter late in Ghosananda's life: " Looking the the Venerable Ghosananda, one has the impression that not only his smile, but his whole body is radient. It seems that his skin has been washed so clean that it shines. One can only wonder what this man has seen, what he has experienced of the terrible killing fields in his home country. One thing however is obvious: whatever his experience has been, it has brought forth extraordinary growth in the spiritual life." 4
1. Maha Ghosananda: The Buddha of the Battlefield, by Santidhammo Bhikkhu. Pg. 37
2. Ibid., pg. 47
3. Ibid., pg. 53.
4. Ibid., pg. 78.
See the twenty-minute film on
Maha Ghosananda, The Serene Life
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Grandfather Basket Weaving,
1995, Svay Ken
On the morning of April 17, 1975, Cambodians welcomed the victorious Khmer Rouge troops with flowers, bowls or rice, and cheers. But the next day, as the soldiers brutally forced us out of our homes and onto a long march into the countryside, our hearts filled with terror, and I watched my homeland plunge into darkness.
In the painful years to come we witnessed the dismantling of our society and the desecration of most all that we cherished. Rigid collectivization, forced labor, and harsh rules controlled every part of our lives; we lost our freedoms, our possessions, our family lives, and our centuries-old Buddhist tradition. The Killing Fields - acres of mass graves and exposed bodies outside nearly every village - were gruesome reminders that our lives depended upon the ability to please our captors. During those dark years, I witnessed some of the most ignoble horrors and unfathomable brutalities ever known to humankind.
Wondrously, out of this devastation came of leader of great calm and compassion, the Venerable Maha Ghosananda. Where revolution had produced division, this serene monk saw the chance for reconciliation; where there had been violence, Ghosananda saw the potential for kindness. He called this the law of opposites.
Maha Ghosananda is the dreamkeeper of Cambodia. He has dedicated his life to the celebration and nurturance of the best in our culture and in all of human culture. Although his entire family was lost in the holocaust, he shows no bitterness. He is a symbol of Cambodian Buddhism, personifying the gentleness, forbearance, compassion, and peacefulness of the Buddha - qualities that Cambodians have always honored.
See Maha Ghosananda interviewed
by Ram Dass (a terrific exchange).
From Maha Ghosananda's Teachings
No religion is higher than truth. Our goal as humans is to realize our universal brotherhood and sisterhood. I pray that this realization will be spread throughout our troubled world. I pray that we can learn to support each other in our quest for peace.
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