In 1989, I had been asked to organize in Geneva, Switzerland a week- long seminar of training in social development skills for Cambodian monks. One of the purposes of the seminar – not highlighted at the time- was to allow Maha Ghosananda and other monks in exile in the USA and France to meet with the Venerable Tep Vong, the leader of the Buddhist order in Cambodia, largely put into place by the Vietnamese. Switzerland, being a neutral country, was one of the few places where such a training seminar could be held. Many states did not recognize the Vietnamese-installed government of Cambodia and would not give visas to its citizens. Maha Ghosananda was the most learned of the group of monks and had a modest but real power of leadership.
In 1991, just after the Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia, I went to Cambodia to help set up child-welfare programs in schools, both state-run and Buddhist schools, and so I saw some of the rebuilding challenges facing the Buddhist order.
Pol Pot, largely influenced by the French Revolution from the years he had spent as a worker in France, with revolutionary goals also colored by the Russian and Chinese revolutions, wanted to create a new society and a "new person" by destroying the foundations of the old. There were three sources to the contemporary Cambodian culture that Pol Pot wanted to destroy. First, was the Western, largely French-influenced modern culture. Anyone speaking French or English was thought to be part of the modern elite which had to be destroyed. The second source of culture was the Buddhist monks who controlled the religious ceremonies but also a large segment of the education system. The third source was the folk culture, mostly passed on by the elderly – a folk culture filled with interaction with the spirit world as well as the history of each village. The people who were the carriers of the three cultural sources died, were killed, or went into exile.
When the Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge from power, the Vietnamese were faced with a totally disorganized society with few persons able to pass on the former culture. Since the Vietnamese had their own rebuilding to do, they had few people available other than soldiers to revive Cambodia. The Vietnamese contribution was to provide relative security, the Khmer Rouge troops having withdrawn to forest and hill areas. The Medical School with French aid started to revive modern culture. There was a small number of Buddhist monks who had survived the Pol Pot years within Cambodia by putting on civilian clothes. This handful of monks the Vietnamese put into positions of leadership. Monks in exile in Thailand, Europe or the USA were not trusted by the Vietnamese. The monks in exile only started to return in 1992-93 when the United Nations basically took over the administration of the country – United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia – UNTAC 1991 -1993.
When Maha Ghosananda returned to Cambodia from Thailand in 1992, he created the Dhammayietra. This is a walk based on the practice of the Buddha who divided a year into segments of retreats (usually during the rainy season during which he would teach his assembled followers) and other periods of the year when the monks would walk from village to village teaching and caring for the sick. The practice is made clear in words attributed to the Buddha "Go forth, and walk for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the profit, for the welfare, for the happiness of gods and mankind. Expound the Dhamma (teachings). Live it in its spirit and its letter."
Maha Ghosananda had spent the years 1965 to 1978 in a forest monastery in southern Thailand. Such monasteries, totally isolated from village life where a monk could devote his time to meditation in silence, did not exist in Cambodia where monasteries are in the middle of the village and where there is a great deal of daily interaction with villagers. In Cambodia, villagers come to give food to the monks, sit around to talk, come and go – not an atmosphere for sustained meditation. In Thailand, after the Second World War, there arose around a few monks forest retreats. These were monasteries far from villages where a small number of monks would live together to study and meditate.
In 1978, Maha Ghosananda was told about the large number of Cambodian refugees who were fleeing Cambodia for Thailand as the Vietnamese troops were ending the Pol Pot government. He left his forest monastery to go to help the Cambodian refugees in the camps on the Thai-Cambodian frontier. From 1978 to 1992, he worked with refugees on the frontier, helping meet their physical, moral and spiritual needs.
In 1992 he returned to Cambodia with a small number of monks who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand. In Cambodia, he confronted three major problems : 1) a country still very divided along political lines with the Khmer Rouge active in hill and forest settings; 2) a country disorganized economically and socially where those who could wanted to make money to "make up for lost time;" 3) a Buddhist order where many young men were becoming monks, in part because they were sure to be fed each day and to receive education, but where there were few educated elder monks to teach them.
He organized the walks of monks and lay people – usually a yearly 45-day walk of some 650 kilometers – to areas still violently divided and in areas where landmines were still common. During these walks, there was teaching, ritual expression of compassion and reconciliation. There was also active listening to the experiences and fears of the people. As he would say "Each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a bridge." The walks would be efforts to build links between people divided by the years of conflict. As Maha Ghosananda said "We must find the courage to leave out temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos and the battlefields will then become our temples."
There are still important challenges facing Cambodia – poverty, corruption, a narrow political base concerned with making money rather than providing service. Yet thanks to people of compassion such as Maha Ghosananda, as he would say, "Listen carefully, peace is growing in Cambodia, slowly, step by step."
Rene Wadlow is the editor of www.transnational-perspectives.org. and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.
A book of meditations and observations by Maha Ghosananda ‘Step by Step’ is available from Parallax Press, PO Box 7355, Berkeley CA 94707.