Peace is possible: Remembering the Cambodian Gandhi


    We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of the human experience,
    the temples that are filled with suffering.
    If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, we can do nothing less.
    The refugee camps, the prisons. the ghettos, and the battlefields then become our temples.
    We have so much work to do.

    Maha Ghosananda, “The Human Family”

    The recent revelation of top Democratic support for President Richard Nixon’s decision to send U.S. and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia, provide arms to the Cambodian government and continue its “secret bombing” raids had me re-reading Santidhammo Bhikkhu’s “Maha Ghosananda: The Buddha of the Battlefield” last night. I suppose I was looking for someone who found a nonviolent way through the madness of war and of its horrific violence.

    The June 24th edition of the Washington Post reports that when Nixon telephoned Senator John Stennis (D-Mississippi), then chair of the Armed Services Committee, on April 24th, 1970 to let him know of his plans for Cambodia, Stennis responded: “I will be with you … I commend you for what you are doing.” Part of what Stennis “commended,” had already been well underway, as is noted in the the March 18th, 2009 edition of The Cambodian Daily: “Between March 18, 1969 and August 15, 1973, U.S. warplanes carpet-bombed, sometimes indiscriminately, ‘neutral’ Cambodia, killing civilians, pulverizing the countryside and pulling the nation deeper into conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Causality estimates range from as few as 5,000 to more than half a million.”

    The Daily points out that the March 18th bombings were not the first to have pummeled the land and its people; they had been going on since 1965. The 1969 “Operation Menu,” with its “Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Supper, Dinner and Dessert” campaigns, was simply an escalation of what had already begun in 1965. All told, the Daily reports, “the long-range B-52 bombers flew more than 230,000 sorties over Cambodia and dropped more than 2.75 million tons of ordnance on more than 113,000 Cambodian sites … and more than the total tonnage of bombs dropped by Allied Forces during World War II, counting the two atomic bombs used on Japan.”

    Mann Phal, who was a young girl during the time of Operation Menu, puts human flesh on the payload statistics of the Cambodian Daily’s account: “My father said, ‘Child, run into the bunker, the plane is coming. Come to the bunker.’ Before she could reach it, the bunker took a direct hit. The explosion tore her family to pieces and hurled a chunk of her father’s leg on to a treetop. The bodies of her mother and siblings were eviscerated. That bomb also sent searing hot shrapnel into Phal’s head, legs and arms … Phal survived [her brother carried his unconscious sister to safety] but her arm was left dangling by bits of flesh and bone, and was later amputated. [Her] grandmother returned to the blast site … to collect the body parts [Phal’s parents and four siblings were killed] strewn about and buried them together in a single grave. ”

    The Daily ends its article with a final quote from Phal: “If you bring [the American pilot who dropped the bombs] here today, I would beat him. And I would cut off his arm to put it on my own body.”

    In the monastery we learned to meditate this way.
    All day long, we moved the hand up and down, up and down,
    with mindfulness, following the breath carefully.
    Every day, we did only this – nothing more.

    Maha Ghosananda

    During Operation Breakfast, Maha Ghosananda was studying meditation in a southern Thai forest hermitage. Like Phal, his parents and siblings had also been killed in the bombings and in the ensuing violence that engulfed Cambodia. Upon hearing about the great suffering endured by the Cambodian people, Ghosananda’s first impulse was to rush back to Cambodia, where “the rivers are full of blood,” and assist in any way that he could. His Buddhist teacher, the Venerable Ajahn Dhammadaro, insisted, however, that he remain in the monastery and learn how to meditate. Peace, according to Dhammadaro, begins within one’s own heart. Further, and before rushing into a situation, know when the time is ripe to act. When Ghosananda learned that his entire family had been killed, he could not stop weeping. Even during this time, the teaching of the Master remained the same: “Don’t weep. Be mindful. Having mindfulness is like knowing when to open and when to close your windows and doors … You can’t stop the fighting. Instead, fight your impulses toward sorrow and anger. Be mindful. Stop weeping and be mindful.”

    When Buddhist teachers speak of “mindfulness,” they are not speaking of intellectual knowledge. By the time Ghosananda, who was born in 1929, came to study with Dhammadaro, he had already been ordained as a monk, graduated from Buddhist University in Phnom Penh, completed advanced studies at a Buddhist university in Battambang, and attained a Ph.D. from India’s Nalanda University. Ghosananda, who had been born into a Mekong Delta peasant family, was also fluent in numerous languages. When he received his doctorate, Samdech Preah Ghosananda, received the honorific title “Maha,” which means, according to Santidhammo, “‘great’ and refers to a monk who is a Pali expert and a monastic scholar.”

    Ghosananda gives a hint as to the nature of mindfulness in a joke that he had about own scholastic achievements: “Ph.D. means Person Has Dukkha.” When the Buddha said, in the First Noble Teaching, “All of life is suffering,” he was pointing to dukkha. One way of re-stating the First Noble Truth might be to say that “all of life appears to be that of suffering.” Even in the best of circumstances, there is no one who can escape the “pervasive unsatisfactoriness of life.” This particular Buddhist teaching does not mean, for example, that we minimize the horrific suffering experienced by Phal and Ghosananda’s families; it simply asks that we take a deeper look into the nature of our being and into the nature of suffering.

    The courage to even look at dukkha, or the truth of our lives honestly, much less “understand” what the Buddhists are talking about, is why Ghosananda, with all of his academic achievements, studied in a Thai forest for nine years during the worst of the bombing. Despite the terrible news about his family, his teacher had asked him “not to weep and to be mindful.” Ghosananda took this as a starting point for his practice of mindfulness: “All his family, all his friends were gone [They were in the past]. He thought about the future, and saw that it was totally unknown. He decided to do the one thing he could do, which was to take care of the present just as well as he could.” Like the Buddhist understanding of dukkha, the “present moment” is another term that runs the risk of being reduced to a cliché or completely misunderstood. Hence the Buddhist imperative to practice and not simply talk about the practice. Without such practice, it is almost impossible, as American Zen teacher Blanche Hartman discovered, to understand what Ghosananda was talking about when he said, “When you know suffering, you know Nirvana.”

    Upon leaving the Thai forest monastery, Ghosananda walked straight into the battlefield Cambodia had become post-American intervention and during the rise and reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. From 1975 until early 1979, Pot’s genocidal practices wiped out nearly two million Cambodians by means of execution, forced labor and starvation. Joining the Cambodian people in their suffering and death were close to 62,000 of its 65,000 Buddhists monks as well as the “official” practice of Buddhism itself. Ghosananda, who entered a Cambodian refugee camp located on the Thai border in 1978, must have seemed, at first, a saffron-robed apparition to the camp’s sickly and starving people. Soon enough, however, they flocked toward him and received from him a verse of the Metta Sutra which read: “Hatred can never overcome hatred; only love can overcome hatred.”

    Ghosananda, who had known suffering so deeply, walked through the sewage-filled camp with great serenity. It was often said of him that joyfulness and happiness seemed to radiate from his very being, or, as Benedictine monk James Wiseman recalls: “Looking at the Venerable Ghosananda, one has the impression that not only his smile, but his whole body is radiant. It seems as if his skin has been washed so clean that it shines.” Ghosananda, in other words, was the living incarnation of the sutra he was handing out to the people of the camp. By first handing out the sutra, he was not ignoring the physical needs of the refugees, but was, in actuality, giving them a means of well-being for a lifetime.

    From his initial entry into the Sakeo camp, Ghosananda launched into fifteen years of endless effort on behalf of the Cambodian people. His many works, which are are well documented in Santidhammo’s short book, found him doing everything from building temples and resettlement camps to serving on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Ghosananda, who was often referred to as the “Cambodian Gandhi” also assembled a peace army whose only ammunition were “bullets of loving kindness.” His army, assembled for the purpose of six “Dhammayietra (a pilgrimage of truth or a peace walk) for Peace and Reconciliation” would make peace one step at a time: “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 hardest step was that of loving one’s enemy, yet if we desire peace, we must take that step. Relying upon his Buddhist practice, Ghosananda understood that when we see the “enemy,” we see “ourselves.” Seeing deeply into this realization, I would not fight another since that is, in actuality, fighting myself. It is fortunate that Ghosananda had such a good teacher, and that he did indeed learn how to meditate in the Thai forest monastery.

    Ghosananda’s devotion to peacemaking was early in the making. While at Narlanda University, he had the opportunity to meet, study and work with the Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii, who had studied intensley with Gandhi at his Wardha Ashram and eventually went on to found the Nipponzan Myohojii Buddhist order. In 1954, Fujii built the first peace pagoda and held his first peace walk in Japan. According to Fujii, for whom nonviolence was the center of his peacemaking efforts, “civilization is neither to have electric lights, nor airplanes, nor produce nuclear bombs. Civilization is not to kill people, not destroy living beings, not make war. Civilization is to hold out all respect and affection for one another.” Today, his adherents, including those in the United States, continue to walk for peace and for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

    During the many Dhammayietra walks that he led in Cambodia, Ghosananda took literally and seriously Fujji’s dictum of “respect and affection for one another;” somehow, he was even able to bring members of the Khmer Rouge within his tent of reconciliation, forgiveness and nonviolence. But the effort was not without cost. During most of the walks, Ghosananda and his multitudinous Dhammayietra disciples were shelled or caught in the midst of crossfire. On a few of the walks, a few of the monks and nuns who had joined him were killed. Still, Ghosandana and his peace army of thousands did not stop walking. Just as the Buddha had done in his own time, the walkers of the Dhammayietra went directly into the heart of the matter. When relatives of the Buddha began to fight over the use of water between two communities, the Buddha – sensing that an armed struggle was soon to break out – walked directly onto the battlefield and asked: “Which is more precious, water or human blood?” When the people responded that human blood was more precious, the Buddha asked: “So, for the sake of water you will make rivers of blood flow? Is what you are doing correct?”

    On April 12th, 1992 when the first Dhammayietra began, the hope was to walk in solidarity with those Cambodian refugees returning home from Thailand for the first time in close to twenty years. Opposition to the walk was voiced by United Nation’s officials, the Khmer Rouge, and Thai government officials, among others. The biggest obstacle, however, was the buried land mines that had been in the ground since the 1970’s. Any obstacle the walkers faced, however, was tempered by the gratitude of the Cambodian people—even members of the Khmer Rouge—that the walkers passed along their route. Americans Elizabeth Bernstein and Bob Maat, who were on the walk and whose reflections were documented by Santidhammo, had this to say:

    Even as early as 4 am, in town or countryside, families would wait outside their homes with a bucket of water, candles and incense sticks. As monks and nuns filed past two by two, they would bless the people and water with words of peace. “May peace be in your heart, your family, your village, our country.” In return, many walkers had his or her feet washed by those waiting alongside the road, wishing us well on our journey. “May your feet be as cool as this water.”

    As the walkers passed by, Khmer Rouge soldiers and government forces lay down their weapons beside the road and asked for blessings from Maha Ghosananda, expressing their dread of war and earnest desire for peace … “We don’t want anyone to be killed or hurt”, one soldier said. “Even though I am a soldier, I have no ill-will in my heart.”

    In one village where a massacre of 30 people had recently occurred, the village folk welcomed the walk and one man said, “This is the first time we have dared to gather together again in a large group. We just couldn’t stay away. Everyone is here. The market is closed, the people have left their jobs to come receive you. We are so grateful that you have come to help us find peace again … The monks and nuns must lead us out of this mess of killing one another. If we just think of killing and revenge, it will never end. Buddhism must guide us.”

    In his “Army of Peace” statement, which can be found in Ghosananda’s 1992 publication, “Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion” (Parallex Press), he begins by saying: “History is being made. Four armies are putting down their guns. Four factions are joining to govern. We are all walking together.” Unfortunately, the history made by Ghosananda and Cambodian peacemakers is often not recorded by the likes of the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc. What we are often left to read are those stories crafted from those heavily invested in armed struggle and political domination. The temptation, in light of this reality, is to lapse into despair or to wish that Ghosananda, who died in 2007, was still among us. To which, I am imagine Ghosananda would say something like this, as he often did: “Peace is possible, just take it step by step!”

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