Born Takeo Province, Cambodia, 1929
Died March 12, 2007, Pennsylvania, USA.
I noticed Venerable Maha Ghosananda when arrived at our Vipassana monastery, Wat Chai Na, situated at the edge of the rice paddies, in the village of Tambon Na, just outside Nakornsridhammaraj, 17 hours south on the train from Bangkok. He wore the yellow robes of the city Buddhist monk rather than the brown robes of the forest monk; he carried two small bags, one hanging from each shoulder. He walked gracefully, slowly and with remarkable serenity. He was a handsome man in his early 40s. It was 1972.
A few minutes later, Ajahn Dhammadaro, our abbot and Vipassana teacher sent a novice to interrupt my walking meditation to tell me to come to the Ajahn’s sala (room for meeting guests) to talk with the monk. The new arrival to the monastery was Venerable Maha Ghosananda from Cambodia. He had taken ordination at the age of 14 and 10 years later in 1954 travelled to Nalanda, the ancient Buddhist centre in Bihar, India where he lived for nearly 20 years before returning to Thailand.
The Ajahn gave Venerable Ghosananda the best kuti (hut), right next to the sala. Recently completed, it was the only brick kuti in the monastery, with attached toilet, mosquito netting on the windows and an electric fan. Five star accommodation. The newly arrived monk spoke to me in English with a smattering of Thai, French, plus a little Sanskrit and Pali. He smiled and laughed and held my hand as we spoke. He seemed to ooze the divine abiding of mudita, that is a profound depth of appreciative joy and happiness that goes in all the directions, inwardly and outwardly. After some minutes, the Ajahn told the novice to take Tahn Maha (Venerable Great One) to the brick hut.
I remember wondering to myself whether the new arrival, clearly a man of Buddhist scholarship and great humour, would last in the austere climate of this Vipassana monastery. Ajahn Dhammadaro forbade the reading of books. He quoted the Buddha who said that monks who study but don’t practice cannot be said to be followers of the Dharma. The Ajahn had no interest in Abhidhamma, learning Pali or chanting. Our Cambodian monk would not only witness the austerity of the monastery but would have to listen to the evening Dharma talks from the Ajahn, that showed little regard for Buddhist scholarship and monks with titles such as Maha that are conferred on those who qualify in Pali studies. I had seen some city monks and scholar monks come and go.
After Venerable Ghosananda’s arrival, he immediately retreated into his hut to live as a hermit. He never spoke, only appeared for the morning meal, and occasionally attended the evening dharma teachings. In a monastery of 80 – 100 monks and even more nuns, this Cambodian monk was the most reclusive. Ajahn Dhammadaro usually strongly discouraged such isolation, insisting on meditation in the sitting, walking, standing and reclining posture taking place outside beneath the trees, but he allowed Tahn Maha to be the exception. We never knew why.
One day, after several weeks, unexpectedly, Venerable Ghosananda invited me to his hut. I was curious about it, nobody had been inside it since his arrival, not even the windows shutters were open. Inside the hut, he had stuck on the wall small pieces of paper with verses and statements of the Buddha; mostly in English, but also in other languages. Again, he oozed a natural and infectious happiness. He rarely received any mail but knew out about the terrible fate of Cambodia following the decision of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger to engage in saturation bombing of Cambodia, as part of the American war on the population of neighbouring Vietnam.
Referring to the US bombing in 1973, he told me during one of our meetings every week or two in his hut with sadness in his eyes: “The rivers of Cambodia are full of blood,” From time to time, the Ajahn invited him to give a talk to the monks and nuns – he nearly always spoke on the theme of loving kindness, compassion and joy and the importance of Vipassana to see things clearly. There was no order to his talks but joy-filled sharing in a rather eccentric way. We all knew the terrible fate that befell Cambodia as we listened to Venerable Ghosananda. In 1972. we didn’t know that the fate of Cambodia would get far worse when the Khmer Rouge took over the country, then declared Year Zero in April 1975, and ordered everyone out of the cities and towns to be rural peasants.
The bombing precipitated the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge that launched the Cambodian holocaust of the death of a third of the population – through sickness, starvation, systematic torture and death. School classrooms in villages and towns throughout the country were used as torture centres for terror and murder that local people had to endure day and night.
The Khmer Rouge forced the disrobing of monks and nuns destroying 90% of the entire ordained Sangha of 60,000 monks in Cambodia and blowing up countless monasteries. As part of the infamous Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge murdered the entire intellectual class of Cambodia including all 17 close relatives of Ven. Ghosananda. From the Vipassana monastery of Wat Chai Na, he would send daily his brother, the First Secretary in the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok, a dharma postcard until his brother returned to Phnom Penh, the capital, to try to do something about the unfolding horror. Upon arrival on the plane in Cambodia, he was arrested, tortured and killed. Another brother of Venerable Maha Ghosananda a judge, suffered the same fate.
By 1978, thousands upon thousands of refugees were fleeing Cambodia to take refuge in the hills of neighbouring Thailand. There were also spies in the camps for the Khmer Rouge. After more than five years as a hermit in the Vipassana monastery, Venerable Ghosananda one day picked up his two shoulder bags, and with the blessing of Ajahn Dhammadaro, took the train to Bangkok and then another nine hour train journey to north east Thailand to visit the refugee camps. Cambodians wept to see a Buddhist monk in their midst. His solitude and his Vipassana practice had empowered him.
He told the Cambodian refugees:
The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.
From STEP BY STEP – Maha Ghosananda
Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion
He began teaching metta (loving kindness) meditations, offering Vipassana practices, and teaching the chanting of refuge in the Triple Gem. Most of all, he continued to exude happiness and joy. He had printed the classical Metta statement of the Buddha that states that hatred only ceases through non-hatred, not through hatred. The Khmer Rouge in the camps threatened to kill him if he continued his programme of peace and reconciliation. Fearing for his life, senior Cambodians and Western aid agencies bought him a one way air ticket to Paris to safeguard his life. They said he could support Cambodians living in France. Venerable Ghosananda took the train to Bangkok, cashed in the air ticket, had tens of thousands more Metta leaflets printed and returned with the leaflets to the refugee camps. He had an indefatigable spirit.
In 1992, during the first year of the United Nations sponsored peace agreement, Venerable Ghosananda lead the first nation-wide Dharma Yatra, a peace pilgrimage, across Cambodia in an effort to restore the spirit of the Cambodian people.
The 16-day, 200 kilometer peace walk passed through territory still controlled by the Khmer Rouge. Afterwards, he led numerous other peace walks across Cambodia, accompanied with as many as 200 people each year.
I recall in early September 1997 standing with Venerable Ghosananda on the steps of the Senate as part of the campaign of the United Nations to try to persuade the United States, China and Russia to join the rest of the world that had agreed to stop the production of landmines. It was just a week after the death of Princes Diane, a determined campaigner to stop the production of landmines (anti-personal) mines.
The monk and I were on the 12 member international advisory board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Venerable Ghosananda slowly walked up to the barrage of microphones and television cameras and said slowly and deliberately: “The anti-personal mines start here in our heart and then end up in the ground. We have to uproot the anti-personal mines within us as well as stopping the production of mines outside of ourselves.” The media went silent for a moment. He then sat down and, despite the subsequent efforts of the media, said nothing else. It was a profound moment.
By the early1990’s, he became the Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism and worked tirelessly for reconciliation. The late Pope John Paul met with him on several occasions. The Maha would give the Pope a huge bear hug and pick the Pope off his feet with the strength of his hug. “I lifted the Roman Catholic Church off the ground,” Tahn Maha once told me with great laughter. At an Inter-faith meeting in the Vatican some years ago, I spotted a large photograph on the wall of the Pope and Venerable Ghosananda in one of their big hugs. At home, I have a picture on the wall of my office of this beloved monk with our fingers intertwined and his other hand holding my other arm. His metta for all beings was unstoppable.
He has been deservedly called “the Gandhi of Cambodia.” Venerable Maha Ghosananda was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and again nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1995, 1996, and 1997. He received the Rafto Prize, the Niwano Peace Prize and the Courage of Conscience Award.
He resided part time in the Palalai Temple in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, as well as time in Cambodian temples on the East Coast. He was deeply loved by the Cambodian community in the West and the international insight meditation sangha. Venerable Maha Ghosananda died in the United States on March 12, 2007. The world is poorer for the loss of a saint.
MAY ALL BEINGS LIVE IN HAPPINESS AND PEACE