Maha Ghosananda (1929 -2007) was known as the “Gandhi of Cambodia,” and sometimes as the “Buddha of the Battlefields.” He was born into a poor peasant family in the Takeo Province, located in the southern part of Cambodia.
There was great suffering in Cambodia even then. In the wake of the Depression and World War II, Khmer nationalism began to stir bringing with it social upheaval, riots, and terrorism.
Maha Ghosanada became a novice monk at a young age and went on to study in monastic universities in Phnom Pen and Battambang. Later he studied with Nichidatsu Fujii, the Cambodian Patriarch Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath, and Ajahn Dhammadaro of the Thai Forest Monk tradition.
In 1969, the U.S. began bombing Cambodia as part of their attempt to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and end the Vietnam War. Cambodia became engulfed in civil war and social disintegration. Once the Khmer Rouge took power, Pol Pot denounced Buddhist monks as part of the feudalistic power structures of the past. Maha Ghosananda, who was in a Thai forest hermitage during this time, was one of the few Cambodian monks to survive the brutal torture and murders that came after that. His entire family and many friends were killed by the Khmer Rouge. In 1978, he left his forest hermitage in Thailand, and began to minister to Cambodian refugees who came across the Thai-Cambodia border.
In his later years, Maha Ghosanda continued his ministry for peace on an even larger scale. He led a 125-mile Dhammayeitra (pilgrimage of truth) across Cambodia in 1992 to begin restoring the hope and spirit of the Cambodian people. The Dhammayeitra continues to this day.
I was lucky enough to meet Maha Ghosananda once, in 2004 at a Buddhist Peace Fellowship conference in Amherst, MA, not far from one of his communities in Leverett, MA. The moment he entered the room, the more than 150 people in attendance suddenly fell silent. Though he never said a word, he was an incredibly powerful presence and as he bowed to all of us, a palpable wave of joy spread throughout the room.
I’ve had this quote hanging over my desk for many years now and never fail to be moved by it:
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 Family.
A Peaceful Family makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
A Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.
~ From the book Step by Step by Maha Ghosananda (Parallax Press, 1991)