Preah Maha Ghosananda
Mar 22nd 2007, The Economist:
"Preah Maha Ghosananda, “the Gandhi of Cambodia”, died on March 12th, aged 78.
"ASIA'S great spiritual leaders tend to build shrines round themselves. There they sit, disciples at their feet, handing down instructions for achieving the perfect life. When Preah Maha Ghosananda, in later years, became associated with Buddhist temples in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, his admirers would expect to find him there. He seldom was. He would be far away, walking.
"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
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating love over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths...
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
Having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world."