Preah Maha Ghosananda: The Buddha of the Battlefields
More than 10 lakh kilometres walked. And more than 20,000 villagers touched by the message of peace. That is Preah Maha Ghosananda’s legacy.
Add to that the fact that Ghosananda’s entire family, including his 16 siblings, was wiped out during the Khmer Rouge regime, and his message of peace is even more meaningful.
Maha Ghosananda was a peace warrior beyond compare. He constantly exhorted his followers to think about the present, the now. His teachings on meditation and inner peace in refugee camps helped thousands of refugees deal with their feelings of anger, frustration and violence towards their perpetrators.
Maha Ghosananda was born in Takeo Province in Cambodia, in 1924. Early in life, he was interested in becoming a monk. He entered the monastery when he was 14, and was ordained as a novice monk at 19. He had hardly begun his studies when World War II affected Cambodia in innumerable ways. The Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombing of 1945 shaped Maha Ghoshananda’s dedication to peace, in spite of being surrounded by violence nearly throughout his life.
Always eager to learn more, Ghoshananda travelled to India and completed his doctoral degree from Nalanda University in Bihar, in 1969. During this time, he learned more about Gandhian thought from Nichidatsu Fuji, the founder of a Japanese Buddhist sect. His ideals of peace were revalidated here.
After receiving his PhD, he was awarded the title, “Maha Ghosananda.” He entered a forest hermitage to study meditation under Ajahn Dhammadaro at the temple in South Thailand in 1972, and would learn the art of mindful meditation for six years.
During this time, he heard some devastating news. His parents, and all his brothers and sisters, as well as some monks, had been murdered during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Saddened by this news, Ghosananda tried hard to keep his emotions under control. He wept and wept and could not stop his tears.
“The rivers of Cambodia are full of blood,” he told his fellow monk. His meditation teacher advised him to stop crying. “You can’t stop the fighting. Instead fight your impulse toward sorrow and anger,” he advised.
Ghosananda sat down and thought: The dead are dead. They were in the past. My entire family is done. I know nothing about the future either. So let me focus on the present.
“The present is the mother of the future,” Ghosananda said. “Let me take care of the mother and the children will be alright.” And he practised mindful breathing. The weeping stopped.
For nine more years, he went on with his practice of mindful breathing, where he gained the clarity and stability of mind.
Then, one day, ready, he stepped into the battlefield that was his country.
The Sakeo refugee camp was on the Thai-Cambodian border, and was helping Cambodian refugees. Men, women, and elders arrived at the camp, starved and emaciated, staggering and weeping.
Three days after the first wave of refugees arrived at the camp, Maha Ghosananda arrived on a rickety old bus, serene and calm. Passing through the checkpoint, he walked slowly toward the centre of the camp, creating a flutter among refugees. They crowded around him, as he retrieved from his shoulder bag a bunch of Metta Sutta (loving kindness) pamphlets, which talked about compassion and forgiveness for the oppressor.
The refugees, overcome with emotion, fell to their knees and prostrated before him, wailing loudly.
Thus the Buddha of the Battlefields began the healing process in war-torn regions. Throughout 1979 Maha Ghosananda established wats (Buddhist temples) in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, ordaining monks against the orders of the Thai military.
Maha Ghosananda did not discriminate when it came to talking about peace. When the Khmer Rouge were driven away from the capital, the former soldiers, who had killed thousands of people, arrived in refugee camps too. Maha Ghosananda spoke to them as well, about teachings of peace and compassion, without condemning them for their actions.
At the camps, he not just spoke about peace and non-violence, he also prevented violent outbursts. Once, when Khmer Rouge and non-Khmer Rouge refugees threatened to fight, he told them all, “Do as you wish. But please take the vow of the eight non-violent rules of the Buddha for today.”
Once they took the vow of non-violence, which includes not harming any being, not speaking a lie, and only eating during prescribed times, their violent feelings disappeared and a crisis was averted!
In 1980, he relocated to the United States, tirelessly working for world peace in general and his beloved Cambodia in particular, over the next fifteen years.
In 1992, he led the first Dhammayietra (walk of truth) through 125 miles of land still littered with landmines to restore peace and hope in the lives of the Cambodian people. The Dhammayietra became an annual pilgrimage, calling attention to different issues in subsequent years.
Deforestation, illegal mining, landmines, and reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge forces were some of the simple messages that Maha Ghosananda brought to the villagers through his walks.
Maha Ghosananda was known to be generous to a fault. He was also known for his lack of interest in political power or material possessions.
Legend has it that, as an eight-year-old, his father entrusted him with the family’s shop for caretaking, and on their return, they found that he had given away almost everything in the shop!
Later in life, he gave away even his most precious items without a moment’s thought. In fact, he gave away a precious Buddha statue that the Dalai Lama had presented to him. His robes and his passport were, in the true sense, his only possessions.
He was simple in his needs and did not hold any official post, in the temples he established or in his peace movement. He travelled just as a novice monk would, unaccompanied and unannounced.
In recognition of his work in promoting peace, he was presented with the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times.