Eleven years ago today, far from his homeland of Cambodia, Maha Ghosananda passed away at the age of 78 in Northampton, Massachusetts.
In his long life, Maha Ghosananda was responsible for replanting Buddhism in Cambodia, after 95% of his fellow Buddhist monks were killed or forced to give up their faith during the Khmer Rouge era. He served as the Patriarch (Sangharaja) of Cambodian Buddhism and instituted an annual peace march, called Dhammayietra — pilgramage of truth — which attracted thousands of Cambodians and helped heal his country of their decades-long civil war.
Buddhism has a long history in Cambodia, dating back to the fifth-century. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Theravāda Buddhism served as the official state religion.
In the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, rose to power. They solidified their hold on the country after the Cambodian Civil War ended in 1975. One of the worst genocides of the twentieth century took place during the next four years.
Famine, death from treatable diseases, xenophobic targeting of minority populations and other genocidal practices resulted in between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians killed, up to twenty-five percent of the countries’ population.
Pol Pot was an atheist and all religions were banned under his rule. As many as 75,000 Buddhist monks lived in Cambodia in 1965. By the end of the Khmer Rouge rule, only an estimated 3000 remained. Monasteries were destroyed, texts burned, and monks were forced to disrobe or be killed.
During the Khmer Rouge reign, Maha Ghosananda studied at the Nalanda University in Bihar, India. He pursued a doctorate in Pali, one of at least ten languages he was fluent in. He learned of the disintegration of the his homeland, learned of the U.S. bombing of Cambodia in its ongoing entanglement with Vietnam, and learned of the Civil War that engulfed the country.
The suffering reached Maha Ghosananda directly — his entire family, including sixteen siblings — were killed. Maha Ghosananda heard this news of his family during part of a five-year retreat which was the culmination of his studies. He heard this news and wanted to return home, but soon realized that the past had gone, and he needed to find peace himself if he was to help his country.
The rivers of Cambodia are full of blood,” he told his fellow monk. His meditation teacher advised him to stop crying. “You can’t stop the fighting. Instead fight your impulse toward sorrow and anger,” he advised.
Finally, Ghosananda listened to his teacher. “The weeping stopped. ‘There is no sorrow in the present moment,’ he explained. ‘How can there be? Sorrow and anger are about the past. Or they arise in fear of the future. But they are not in the present moment. They are not now.’