The Ven. Maha Ghosananda, spiritual leader of Buddhism in Cambodia, and indirectly my teacher, passed away earlier this year. He was more than the peace activist monk that defined his public persona abroad. The Khmer people regarded him as a savior. For expatriates such as myself, each encounter with Maha was a transforming experience, less through his words, which were spare, than by his radiant spiritual presence and the infectious joy that he exuded. He was an arahant (bodhisattva) for whom conventional discourse as we know it seemed superfluous. Journalists interviewing him would often scratch their heads in seeking rational answers to their questions. For example, when once asked for his views on the future of Cambodia, he replied softly, in his epigrammatic way, “We take care of the present moment. The future will take care of itself.” When Father Dave at the Carmelite monastery in Crestone, Colorado, asked him about his thoughts on Buddhist-Christian dialogue, Maha, without hesitating, stood up, faced Father Dave—who spontaneously also rose to his feet—and embraced him.
Maha grew up as a temple kid in southwestern Cambodia, ordaining as a novice monk at fourteen in his local wat (temple). After finishing secondary monk education in Cambodia, he continued higher Pali studies at Nalanda University in Bihar, India. While there, he was deeply influenced by the Japanese Nichiren monk Nichidatsu Fujii, a devotee of non-violence who had lived with Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram. After some ten years, Maha was awarded both a doctorate degree and the title Maha Ghosananda, “great proclaimer of joy.” He went on to study contemplative social engagement with Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu in Thailand before repairing for the next decade to meditate (and acquire fluency in more than ten languages) at a forest monastery in southern Thailand.
A turning point in his life occurred in 1978, when he left his forest retreat and trekked—on foot, according to one account—to the Thai-Cambodian border. He heard that tens of thousands of famished refugees had amassed there to escape the Cambodian holocaust. When for the first time in years these refugees saw a saffron-clad Buddhist monk, their listless silence transmuted into wails of suffering and hope. Maha later learned that thirteen members of his immediate family had been killed. Over the next years he ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the refugees, founding simple hut-temples in all the border camps as well as home-based wats in Cambodian resettlement communities in North America, Europe and Australia. From this time until the signing of the UN-sponsored Paris Peace Treaty in late 1991, Maha took small contingents of monks to all of the peace negotiations between the warring Cambodian factions, leading the monks in silent vigils.
In 1992, as the camps were preparing to close with the planned repatriation of some 350,000 displaced Cambodians, Maha led a 450-kilometer Dharma walk (Dhammayatra, literally “pilgrimage of truth”) from the border camps to Phnom Penh. These walks for peace and reconciliation continued to crisscross the Cambodian countryside from year to year, providing the people not only much-needed cathartic relief, but also the impetus to renew and rebuild their faith. The third walk in 1994, which ventured to bring the message into Khmer Rouge–held areas in the northwest, met with tragedy when several walkers were killed in a crossfire with government troops.
For his unceasing efforts for peace, Maha was nominated four times in the 1990s for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1992, he received the Norwegian Rafto Prize for human rights, and in 1993, the king of Cambodia conferred on him the honorary title of patriarch of religion and peace. In 1998, Japan awarded him the Niwano Peace Prize, whose citation read, “In both spirit and deed, he has shown the way to a fundamental resolution of regional and ethnic strife around the world.”
After more than twenty years of engagement, traveling throughout the world, never remaining in one place for long, his age and some say the onset of Alzheimer’s disease began to slow Maha down. He looked haggard when I saw him last in 2003; he had come to talk to a Buddhist philosophy class of student trainees at Phnom Penh’s Buddhist Institute. But he perked up as he answered students’ questions and drilled them on the Dharma.
Maha’s reported age in obituaries ranged from 78 to 94. The mystery of his age reflects his almost waiflike inscrutability in life—at least in the nearly two decades that I knew him through my work with the Khmer-Buddhist Educational Assistance Project, of which he was the founding patron. A moving obituary of Maha that appeared in the Economist ends with an appropriate quote from the Metta Sutta:
For the pure-hearted one
Having clarity of vision
Being freed from all sense desires
Is not born again into this world.