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Home > Maha Ghosananda (1929-2007)

Peace Councilor Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda, Cambodia's "Gandhi" dies at 78

Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda, born in Takeo Province, Cambodia in 1929, was the supreme leader of the Cambodian Buddhist sangha, and he was almost single-handedly responsible for the restoration of Buddhism and Buddhist teaching in Cambodia after the devastation of the Pol Pot years. He survived the slaughters of that time only because he had been on retreat in Thailand when the Khmer Rouge took control of his country.

He was the co-founder of Inter-Religious Mission for Peace in Cambodia. His book of dharma talks, Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion (Parallax Press) is a jewel. Sadly it is now out of print. His quiet bravery as the leader of "dharma-walks" through heavily-mined combat zones in Cambodia brought hope to millions and he was one of the most vigorous spiritual leaders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Maha Ghosananda was the first person to accept the invitation to become a Peace Councilor, early in 1994, and he was a very faithful attendee at the Peace Council meetings. He only missed two, both on account of illness -- Belfast and New York. His presence was always a blessing. He radiated a kind of joy that was unmistakable.

On learning of the monk's death, Peace Councilor Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte Verduzco, O.P. wrote, "I am saddened by the news. Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda inspired in me the conviction that God is present in the different religions, and I understood that it would be absurd to try to convert such a saintly and committed man. He attained Peace. We can only continue to follow his path."

Obituaries were published by the New York Times on 15 March 2007, and by The Economist on 24 March:

The Venerable Maha Ghosananda, a Buddhist monk who led the rebuilding of his religion in Cambodia, calling for peace and reconciliation after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, died Monday in Northampton, Mass. He was in his late 70s and lived in Providence, R.I., and Leverett, Mass.

The death was confirmed by Christina Trinchero, a spokeswoman for Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

Cambodian monks elected Maha Ghosananda (his monastic name) as a supreme Buddhist patriarch in 1988. By then, his efforts to bring solace to a nation in which more than 1.5 million people were starved, worked to death or executed under the Communist dictatorship of Pol Pot had inspired many to call him "the Cambodian Gandhi."

In his 2002 book "The Future of Peace: On the Front Lines With the World's Great Peacemakers," Scott A. Hunt, a professor of Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that Maha Ghosananda's ability to forgive those "responsible for the murder of his entire family is incomprehensible," until one heard his explanation of Buddhism.

Maha Ghosananda said he "does not question that loving one's oppressors -- Cambodians loving the Khmer Rouge -- may be the most difficult attitude to achieve," then added, "But it is the law of the universe that retaliation, hatred and revenge only continue the cycle."

Reconciliation, he continued, "means that we see ourselves as the opponent; for what is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things."

Somdet Phra Maha Ghosananda was born in Takeo, Cambodia, in 1929. He was initiated into the Cambodian Buddhist Order in 1943. In 1969, he received a doctorate from Nalanda University in Bihar State, India.

He was living in a monastery in southern Thailand when a five-year civil war ended in Cambodia in 1976, with Pol Pot establishing what he called Democratic Kampuchea. Within days, almost the entire population of Phnom Penh, the capital, had been marched into the countryside to do forced labor. The Khmer Rouge closed about 3,600 Buddhist temples throughout the country. By the time Vietnamese forces overthrew the regime 44 months later, only about 3,000 of Cambodia's 60,000 Buddhist priests were still alive.

By then, Maha Ghosananda had already trekked from one refugee camp to another along the border with Thailand, establishing Buddhist temples and training new monks. He continued that work throughout the country after the ouster of Pol Pot.

Maha Ghosananda moved to Massachusetts in the late 1980s at the invitation of a Buddhist order in Leverett. But in 1991 he returned to Cambodia to lead a 16-day pilgrimage across the country -- gathering followers from village after village -- in the first of what became known as the Dhammayietra Walks for Peace and Reconciliation.

In 1998, the Niwano Peace Foundation of Japan awarded Maha Ghosananda its peace prize, saying in its citation that "through these walks, Maha Ghosananda became a bridge of peace -- bringing together people who had been separated by war -- and wiped away their fears with his call for peace."

Pointing out that Maha Ghosananda had promoted nonviolence as a remedy for other causes, including deforestation and the use of land mines, the foundation also said, "In both spirit and deed, he has shown the way to a fundamental resolution of regional and ethnic strife around the world."

(By Dennis Hevesi, New York Times, 15 March 2007; photo credit: Carol Lolis/Daily Hampshire Gazette, via Associated Press)

And from The Economist, 24 March 2007:

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.

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Page Published: 03/17/2007 - Page Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2007
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