|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1992|
Washing Away the Blood
An old woman cries in relief and gratitude and a child squeals in delight as I throw a pan of murky water over a family crouched on the side of the road. 'Songkriem jop howie' I say as I cast the water: 'The war is over.'
This family is one of thousands who have lined the road to see the largest group of people to traverse Cambodia on foot since the forced exodus of people during the Khmer Rouge time. Yet this group is travelling by its own choice. The walkers were refugees from camps just over the border in Thailand and people from villages inside Cambodia who united to walk together through the country for peace and reconciliation.
Dhamma Yietra, as this walk was known, took thirty days to travel from the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet to the Cambodian capital city Phnom Penh, and numbered hundreds of Cambodians and a handful of international supporters. A key figure in the walk was Maha Ghosananda, a Cambodia Buddhist monk well-known for his teachings on meditation practice and peace. He has made great efforts to reconcile people in Cambodia and abroad. In his recent book 'Step by Step' (1992 Parallax Press) his words capture the tone of the walk. He says: 'I do not question that loving one's oppressors - Cambodians loving the Khmer Rouge - may be the most difficult attitude to achieve. But it is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love ... Wisdom and compassion must walk together. Having one without the other is like walking with one foot. You may hop a few times, but eventually you will fall. Balancing wisdom with compassion, you will walk very well - slowly and elegantly, step by step.'
Walking as an act of reconciliation is desperately needed in this small war-torn country. For the past dozen years Cambodia has served as a battleground where the United States, China and the former USSR played ugly diplomacy. During the war, after the Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia to statedly force out the Khmer Rouge, the populations held hostage in refugee camps along the Thai border were indoctrinated with racist ideas of being the only true Khmer left, and inside the country the propaganda maintained that the border camps were only Khmer Rouge.
Seeing all these people walking for peace and the re-birth of Buddhism in our country overwhelms me with happiness.
|Deep reconciliation and reconnection of the walkers on the personal level became such a regular occurrence that many walkers began calling the walk 'Dhamma Teak Tong', or 'Dhamma Contact'. Almost every walker from the border refugee camps was re-united with family members from whom they had been separated for thirteen, fifteen, twenty years. Walkers would disappear into a house off the side of the road, or set out once we arrived in town, only to reappear hours later, beaming. An older woman grabbed my arm one morning and exclaimed amid tears, 'I found my daughter! After twenty years. Now SHE has a daughter. And she told me my other daughter is alive. She lives near Phnom Penh, and I can see her too, when we get there.' The following day another walker ran up and excitedly said, 'I just went to visit my uncle who lives in this village and there in his house was my father! I haven't seem him in twelve years. What luck!' On another evening while we were sitting under a bodhi tree chatting with some locals, a man brought two young boys over. 'Please meet my sons. They are twins. Thirteen years old! I last saw them when they were only twenty days old. Babies. They're grown up now, and study in boarding school. They don't know me.' Another man, who has paid dearly for the war with his leg and who rode a cycle along with the Dhamma Yietra, related, 'In Battambang I met my sister! She didn't recognize me at first, she didn't know I was still alive. She didn't know I'd survived the Khmer Rouge. She didn't know I'd lost my leg. She didn't know I'd married and had children. She just cried and cried.'|
Cambodia is another state where the interest of Cold War patrons to provide arms and pay for a war has declined. So the conflict has moved to a different arena. In October of 1991 the four factions agreed to a United Nations overseen transitional government, reunification of the population, and disarmament for political struggle in elections set for 1993.
Although disarmament of combatants and transporting of refugees back into Cambodia are important, none of the UN program directly addresses the emotional needs of the population that has been traumatized by so many years of war and violence. Without reconciliation efforts aimed at addressing the fear, anxiety, pain and suspicion between the Cambodian people living under the control of the different factions, war could easily begin again. This parched emotional ground Dhamma Yietra hoped to water.
|The spirit of the walk was spread by the Tuk Mon water blessing. In describing the symbolic significance of Tuk Mon, Maha Ghosananda says, 'Mine are a simple people. To them water means cleansing.' So we washed away the pain of war of the people in many ways. After receiving water over her one elderly woman who couldn't join the walk offered me a stick of incense. 'I can't make it. But take this, it will be my spirit walking with you.'|
Walking was not easy during the height of the hot season, and we usually began walking at 2 or 3 am to take advantage of cooler morning temperatures. One pre-dawn morning I noticed a woman holding tightly onto her husband's wrist. As we approached a bridge and someone shined a flashlight on a gaping hole in it, I heard her say, 'Careful, stay to the right, take small steps.' Her husband was blind. They were both in their sixties. I asked her where they lived. 'Far away,' she said (which turned out to be twenty kilometres from this road). 'We heard about the Dhamma Yietra yesterday morning and walked here in the evening. I've never seen anything like this in my life. We had to come. It's our one chance.'
Before the walk had begun many people said that this event could never happen, that there were too many land mines literally and figuratively. We were told that we could never get the agreement or cooperation of the factions. Then there was the UN. Permission was also needed from the Thais who were involved in their own political turmoil and governmental change. It was also known that many former soldiers had turned to banditry and were prowling the countryside. By the time we felt we could proceed politically, it was the height of the hot season when temperatures average 45°C and water shortages plague the country.
The walk was, however, an idea whose time had come. Many ways that seemed crooked were made straight, or at least passable, over temporary bridges. Aid unsought came at the most needed times. Permissions always came at the eleventh hour: even two days before over one hundred refugees crossed the border from Thailand into Cambodia to set the walk in motion, neither Thailand nor Cambodia had issued border crossing permission. Walkers learned to live in the moment through such situations.
|But the miracle of the walk was not that it happened but what happened on it and what happened between people along the walk route. As we walked out of Battambang in the early hours of the morning, one woman confided a dream to me: 'Last night I dreamt of my mother. I haven't seen her in a dream since she died during the Khmer Rouge period. She was making offerings to many monks. She looked happy. Then this morning I came upon the Dhamma Yietra and saw all of the monks walking. What an incredibly good sign. I knew I must join you, all the way to Phnom Penh. Immediately I ran home to get some clothes to take. I feel so relieved that my mother's spirit is now in peace.'|
Others also spontaneously joined the Walk. Some joined for a day, accompanying us from their village on to the next, often carrying offerings of rice or mangoes. Indeed it was the offerings of these local, poor communities which sustained the walk, feeding and housing us along the way in temples - many only partially rebuilt from destruction during the wars - even when our numbers reached into the hundreds.
The effect the walk had on people in the communities we passed was often profound. One old man told me, 'All of my children have died. I'm all alone. Now there's only religion which can help. Now seeing all these people walking for peace and the re-birth of Buddhism in our country overwhelms me with happiness. We forgot our religion and wandered so far, killing one another, waging war, spilling blood ... We just have to go back to our religion.' Another woman added, 'We Khmer haven't seen peace for so long. We've never known it. Now seeing the monks and all these people walking makes me think they've come to teach us to love one another, to unite. When I see them I feel speechless. Maybe we will have true peace after all.'
On May 13th, Dhamma Yietra arrived in Phnom Penh for the celebration of Wesak, Buddhism's highest holy day, with over one thousand people walking. It was an awe-inspiring sight to see a hundred monks followed by hundreds of lay people in white walking in quiet dignity down the main boulevard of the capital in a line that stretched for one-and-a-half kilometres. After the walk ended in the capital the feelings of many of us were expressed by one old grandmother sitting rubbing her feet when she said, 'My feet are sore, but my spirit is at rest.'