Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1993

Gnosis and Non-Dualism, Ajahn Sucitto
Servant of the Buddha, Buddhadasa Bhikku
The Long Path to Peace - Cambodia
Turning the Wheel in the West; Ven. Sobhano interviews Aj. Amaro
Gone on Tudong; Monastic experiences
The Road and the Path; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


The Long Path to Peace

For the past twenty-four years, Cambodia and its people have known untold tragedy and sorrow. Carpet bombed by the United States (1963-73), bled white by a vicious Civil War (1970-75), the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-78) and a thirteen year international blockade (1979-91) which followed the December 1978 Vietnamese invasion, Cambodia is only now beginning the long process of self-healing and national reconciliation. But many underlying problems remain and Cambodia is still a long way from lasting peace. In this fragile situation, the newly revived Cambodian Sangha is a rare beacon of hope. The following two articles present encouraging reflections on the return of Buddhism and the critical role played by the monastic community in rebuilding Cambodia's shattered society and economy.

A Moment of Peace - A Glimmer of Hope; a report by Bob Maat SJ and Liz Bernstein.
Dhamma Revival in Cambodia; Dr. Peter Carey

A Moment of Peace - A Glimmer of Hope
An extract from a report by Bob Maat SJ and Liz Bernstein of the Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation, who took part in the Second Peace Walk in May this year.

'Our journey for peace begins today, and everyday, slowly, slowly, step by step. Each step is a prayer. Each step will build a bridge.' (Ajahn Maha Ghosananda). It was in this spirit a group of over four hundred people took their first steps on a 350 kilometre cross country journey through the war-torn provinces of Siem Reap, Konpong Thorn, and Kompong Cham down to the capital city of Phnom Penh. It was the beginning of a walk for peace in areas of Cambodia which have known nothing but war, before and since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in October 1991.
    Dhamrna Yietra (literally pilgrimage of truth), the second Buddhist walk for peace and reconciliation in Cambodia, almost ended before it began. In the early hours of May 3rd, as walkers gathered for morning meditation, the pagoda in the city of Siem Reap in which we were staying became a battle ground. Soldiers from both the Khmer Rouge (KR), and Phnom Penh (SOC) government engaged in combat, and in the ensuing four-hour firefight, three walkers were wounded. A grenade was thrown into the meditation hall in which most of the walkers had taken cover, including the Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the leader of the Dhamma Yietra. The grenade did not explode. When the shooting finally subsided, the participants gathered around Maha Ghosananda who smiled and said, 'Buddha saved us'. (Two days later, the Venerable monk told the Catholic monk among us, 'Christ saved us!' with an ecumenical smile.)
    The walkers usually began their daily treks at four or five in the morning, depending on the amount of fighting in the area they were about to enter. Even as early as 4 am, in town or countryside, families would wait outside their homes with a bucket of water, candles and incense sticks. As the monks and nuns filed past two by two, they would bless the people with water and words of peace. 'May peace be in your heart, your family, your village, our country.' In return, many walkers had her/his feet blessed or washed by those waiting alongside the road, wishing us well on our journey. 'May your journey be as cool as this water'. The incense sticks were extinguished in the water as a symbol of dousing out the flames of war, as prayers for well-being were exchanged. Minefields on either side of the road, temperatures over 400C, and rainstorms did little to dampen the spirit of the walkers, or those patiently waiting by the side of the road to greet us.

We were told not to come, but they cannot stop us. This is our religion. We hunger for peace so much.

The Dhamma Yietra walked through areas where UN peace-keeping forces do not travel further than 500 metres from their compounds for the sake of their own security; through areas where people's prayers were hauntingly simple: 'May we sleep above the ground again, instead of gathering our children for another night in the bunker.' 'May the shelling stop.' 'We just don't know where to run to anymore,' pleaded a mother of five, 'May we just stop fearing the night.' As the walk passed through this war-torn country, many soldiers started to lay down their weapons, and ask for a blessing, as the monks, who walked in front, filed past. At one stop, several armed soldiers came into the temple in which we were staying and asked to see a monk leading the walk. They then laid their weapons on the floor. They bowed in front of Ven. Kim Teng and requested a blessing of protection. 'We don't want anyone to be killed or hurt,' one said. 'Even though I am a soldier, I have no ill-will in my heart,' he continued. 'So please bless us in a way that our bullets don't hit anyone, and so that no one else's bullets hurt us.
    In some towns, government officials tried to discourage the people from welcoming the walkers, believing the peacewalk was a threat to their political interests. One of the Dhamma Yietra's warmest welcomes was in a town where the people had been clearly told not to come. Old men and women would whisper to the walkers, 'We were told not to come, but they cannot stop us. This is our religion.' 'We hunger for peace so much,' they said while they made an offering of food to the monks, nuns and lay walkers.
    In another village, which was also instructed not to receive the walk, a young man related how the village had recently experienced a massacre of 30 people at the temple. 'This is the first time we have dared to gather together again in a large group," he said. "We just couldn't stay away. Everyone is here. The market closed, and people have left their jobs to come to receive you. We are so grateful that you have come to help us find peace again. The UN has sent people from all over the world to keep peace, but it has not worked. All we have left is Buddhism. If you will help us, it should not be so difficult to make peace. The monks and nuns must lead us out of this mess of killing one another. If we just think of killing and revenge, it will never end. Buddhism must guide us."
    Before the walk reached Phnom Penh, the city was tense with the expectation of violence. As the walk approached the outskirts of the capital, the number of walkers increased to over three thousand, as many people spontaneously joined the walk. A coalition of women's groups, student associations and human rights groups coordinated the walk through the streets of Phnom Penh, as it swelled with people from all walks of life. 'I saw the walk in front of my office, and I just had to join,' explained a Khmer worker for an international organisation. '1 just couldn't keep inside. I walked off my job. All Cambodians, and foreigners too, should stop work and walk for peace today. When I saw the monks, I was speechless.' Another added, 'People were so afraid of elections. Here in Phnom Penh they had started to stockpile rice. The walk has relieved us of our fear, and given us new hope.'
    On the final morning of the event, walkers gathered in front of the royal palace to meditate in silence and pray that all beings be free from suffering, fear and sorrow. Prince Sihanouk greeted the walk with words of deep gratitude for the Dhamma Yietra. He made a solemn plea to all of his compatriots to 'put an end to violence and hatred, and take out the spirit of vengeance from this day forward.'
A Moment of Peace - A Glimmer of Hope; a report by Bob Maat SJ and Liz Bernstein.

Dhamma Revival in CambodiaDr. Peter Carey traces the disintegration and subsequent revival of the Sangha in Cambodia.

The monarchy and Sangha are amongst the most cherished institutions in Cambodia. The Buddhist wat (monastery-temple), has long been a pivot of the local community, providing both a focus of devotion and a source of practical support. Traditionally, most of the primary education in both towns and villages was provided by the Sangha, and at present, wats are donating land to the homeless and participating in a multitude of rural development projects.
    Unfortunately, the Cambodian Sangha has still not recovered from its near total destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Before 1975, it is estimated that there were some 62,000 monks (at a time when Cambodia's total population was some 7.2 million), a figure artificially inflated by large numbers of Cambodian males who entered the monkhood in order to escape being drafted into Lon Nol's army. By 1979, there were fewer than 2,000, mostly in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, or in the more liberal eastern zones bordering on Vietnam.
    After the pattern of the Chinese 'Cultural Revolution' of the 1960's, the Khmer Rouge had singled out organised religion as a particular target of attack. It was regarded as one of the 'Four Olds' (old thoughts, old culture, old customs, old habits) which the Khmer Rouge wished to destroy in order to build their new communist Utopia. The once cherished Buddhist wats were closed or turned into pig-pens; statues and icons were destroyed, and monks forced to marry, take up secular work, or join the Khmer Rouge militia. The new collective farms established by the Khmer Rouge had no religious edifices of any kind, and the practice of religion was proscribed.
    Today, with the re-establishment of a formal Cambodian Sangha (by Theravada monks from Southern Vietnam) following the Vietnamese invasion of December 1978, there are perhaps as many as 14,000 monks, but the standard of their training and knowledge of the Vinaya is generally poor. There is thus a great need for the old contacts between the Thai and Cambodian Sangha to be re-established so that novice monks from Cambodia can study once again at the great Thai teaching monasteries, and breathe new life into their monastic communities.

Angkor Wat

Despite their comparatively small numbers and lack of training, the Cambodian Sangha has played a key role in the revival of Cambodian society since the holocaust of the late 1970's. Once the Khmer Rouge were ousted and basic food supplies restored in the 1979-81 period, the Cambodian people began to look to the re-establishment of their cultural and religious heritage. Almost the first thing which they did in this period was to take out of hiding the old dancing masks which depict the heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata (which had been brought to Cambodia by visiting Indian Brahmins), and to start rebuilding the wats. In some cases, the presence of Buddhist monks has been essential in preventing new outbreaks of violence and inter-communal strife. One recalls here, how the Venerable Maha Ghosananda prevented a Khmer Rouge-controlled refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border erupting into violence during the early 1980's by placing all its adult members on the Eight Precepts for a day. In other cases, such as the second Dhamma Yietra walk from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh last May, the courageous example set by the Sangha has inspired others to turn away from the path of violence.
     There is no doubt that if the Khmer Rouge ever got back into power, the renascent Cambodian Sangha would suffer the same fate as the much larger monastic community of the 1960's. There is still no place in Khmer Rouge ideology for religion. But it is likely that in the future in Cambodia, no regime - however violent - will ever succeed in eradicating the Cambodians' deep Buddhist faith, for it resides in essence not in buildings or religious forms but in the hearts of the people. Painstakingly, at the cost of enormous sacrifice (some estimates put current contributions to the rebuilding of Buddhist wats and the support of the Sangha at between a quarter and a third of the disposable income of peasant households), the vehicle of the Buddha-Sasana is being rebuilt. It will take more than the Khmer Rouge to eradicate it from Cambodia's rich soil.