I stumbled across reports about the prayer marches of Maha Ghosananda while researching someone else for one of my books. Until that discovery, I knew of nothing hopeful that came from the Cambodian killing fields. Yet here was a monk who inspired a movement that faced down one of the worst horrors of humanity with prayer and a centered spirit. I was awed by this witness and knew it had to be brought from the jungles of Cambodia to global awareness.
Cambodian Buddhist Monk who led peace walks during violent political turmoil
We must remove the landmines in our hearts which prevent us from making peace. The landmines in the heart are greed, hatred and delusion. We can overcome greed with the weapon of generosity; we can overcome hatred with the weapon of loving kindness; we can overcome delusion with the weapon of wisdom. Peace-making starts with us.
The peace walks in Cambodia led by Maha Ghosananda were often accompanied by the sound of weapons firing and explosions. Instead of heading toward safety the walkers headed directly to the battlefields. Cambodia had suffered through more than 20 years of bombing, invasion, genocide and civil war. This Buddhist monk led a series of yearly walks throughout Cambodia that challenged the armed groups and ignited hope among a population who had despaired of peace being possible. The people were challenged directly by Maha Ghosananda whose motto was
Peace is possible!
Background & Lessons as a Monk
Born in rural Cambodia, he entered a Buddhist temple at 8 years old and began his education as a monk. His name became Maha Ghosananda, which means
great joyful proclaimer. When he completed his university education, he left for India. There he met the Japanese monk, Nichidatsu Fujii, who had studied under Gandhi. Nichidatsu introduced Ghosananda to the principles and practices of nonviolence through a Buddhist framework.
Horrors of the Khmer Rouge
While he was studying meditation in Thailand, the United States started bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War. In 1970 the U.S. invaded Cambodia and, through a coup, installed a military regime. The Khmer Rouge insurgency (Communists) grew in response and marched into the capital city, Phnom Penh, in 1975. They immediately drove the population out of the city in a genocidal program to remake Cambodia. Part of the policy of the Khmer Rouge was to eliminate Buddhist monks and temples. Every one of Maha Ghosananda’s family members and Buddhist colleagues were murdered. The only monks who survived the killing fields (death camps), were those in exile such as Ghosananda. Only 3,000 of the original 65,000 Cambodian monks remained when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
As reports of the horrors filtered into Thailand, Ghosananda was torn with anguish. His meditation master challenged him to foster peace in his own heart and wait for the right time to return home.
Don’t weep, his master told him,
Outreach to Refugees of Genocide & Nonviolence Adovacy
In a clash with Vietnam in 1978, the Khmer Rouge leadership was toppled from power and retreated into a rebel force that fought on for another decade. Ghosananda saw this as an opening through which he could move. He went into the growing refugee camps at the Thai border as the survivors of the genocide came streaming out with stories of horror beyond imagining. When they saw Ghosananda, the expatriates rejoiced and wept, falling on their knees at the sight of a Buddhist monk publicly ministering to people once again. The saffron-robed monk moved gently among them, bowing with respect and teaching about non-retaliation, reconciliation and love. He opened up his wat, (his temple), for refugees.
Throughout the 1980s, as the Vietnamese-supported government and the Khmer Rouge continued to fight, Maha Ghosananda traveled the world, teaching Buddhist peace principles in the Cambodian exile communities and meeting with various world religious leaders. He began talking about raising an
army of peace whose ammunition would be
bullets of loving kindness. He participated in the peace negotiations, often opening sessions with prayer and meditation. In 1991, the Paris Agreement was signed which closed the refugee camps and repatriated the refugees—even though fighting continued.
In 1992, Ghosananda began the first peace walk. It was called the Dhammayietra, a walking meditative
pilgrimage of truth in the tradition of the Buddha who often walked as part of his spiritual discipline. Ghosananda said that they needed to journey to the places of human suffering—from refugee camps to battlefields—and make them their temples. The walkers sought the transformation of the Cambodian people and society.
Wars of the heart always take longer to cool than the barrel of a gun … we must heal through love … and we must go slowly, step by step.
The walk began in the refugee camps, crossed the border, passed through some of the conflict zones, and ended up in Phnom Penh, a 125-mile route. Along the way, thousands of people would come out to encourage the walkers and receive traditional Buddhist blessings. In each village Ghosananda would teach about peace and reconciliation. Even soldiers from all factions would lay down their weapons to pray and be blessed.
A second Dhammayietra in 1993 was even more risky. It was held just before the first elections, and violence was being used to intimidate voters. Before the march had even begun, a battle raged outside the temple where marchers had gathered. Shots were fired at the temple and three marchers were wounded. A grenade was thrown into the group mere feet from Ghosananda, but it failed to explode. Ghosananda assured people,
Sometimes we are in fear but later the fear is no longer with us. We have to walk and spread our message with compassion, loving kindness and respect for the human rights of all who are victims of war.
They walked for days again, going through zones where the U.N. peacekeepers were afraid to patrol. Soldiers would plead,
Please bless us in a way that our bullets don’t hit anyone, and so that no one else’s bullets hurt us. Townspeople said,
We were told not to come, but they cannot stop us. This is our religion. We hunger for peace so much. The marchers were joined by thousands of others along the route, especially when they came into the capital. Their witness challenged the intimidation by the armed groups and gave courage to the Cambodian people. The populace responded, and there was a 90 percent turnout of voters at the election.
The third march went into western Cambodia where the fighting was still intense. Pre-walk training covered issues of nonviolence, landmine awareness and first aid. They appealed to both sides for negotiations without pre-conditions. As they neared the fighting, their way was blocked by troops. They joined the refugees fleeing the area and then searched for another way to get to their destination. They were passing near government troops when the Khmer Rouge attacked them. Three monks and a nun were killed in the crossfire. The surviving marchers were taken prisoner and taken to the Khmer Rouge camp. They noticed how frightened the young fighters were. The commander apologized to them, assured them he wanted peace, and urged them to remain non-partisan in their work for reconciliation. They were then released with the admonition,
We, too, are tired of fighting for 20 years.
Three more annual Dhammayietras were held. The 1995 walk focused on banning landmines. Cambodia had more than 10 million landmines—more mines than people. The marchers collected more than 20,000 signatures to ban landmines globally. The 1996 walk focused on deforestation, especially linked to militarism and illegal logging that thrived during the civil war. The walkers traveled through the most damaged regions in the country and planted 2,000 trees along the pilgrimage route. The final march in 1997 focused on reconciliation between the Khmer Rouge and government forces. They called for forgiveness. They walked the same route as the third march, meeting the commander of the unit who had killed the earlier marchers. They also met Ieng Sary who had been second in command of the Khmer Rouge after Pol Pot. Ieng Sary asked for forgiveness and pledged to work for peace, so Maha Ghosananda offered him a simple blessing. Ghosananda was criticized for this action, since Sary had been among the leadership carrying out the earlier campaign of mass murder. But the monk replied,
In Buddhism, when people know their crimes and they ask for pardon, then the Buddha pardons them. We do not know if [Ieng Sary] is lying or not, but the Dhamma forgives people who return to the light and give up fighting.
Through his bold, nonviolent work, especially through the peace walks, Maha Ghosananda helped Cambodia emerge from the grim years of war and genocide. He enabled ordinary people to begin to believe in the possibility of peace and to make public stands for peace. He connected people to what was best in their own besieged religious tradition. That faith became fuel for national renewal and reconciliation. The monk said,
Peacemaking is like breathing. We cannot stop. If we stop, there is fighting again, we die. If we continue, peace will prevail.