Some time ago (2008), I penned a brief article for ‘The Advisor’ (1st edition) on Preah Maha Ghosananda.

This respected figure is not familiar to all Cambodians, but is a fascinating example of a Khmer interpretation of non-violence.

In an age of growing demonstrations, it’s a history worth revisiting. Let’s stay safe and be smart, folks.


The Great Joyful Proclaimer

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times, Maha Ghosananda is widely respected for the courage he displayed while leading peace walks during some of Cambodia’s most difficult moments.

In 1978 a saffron-robed figure appeared in the Thai border camps, distributing passages of scripture. Many were stunned and awed; they hadn’t seen a monk in years. The refugees needed food, water and shelter, but most of all, they needed hope.

Two pages can barely summarize the remarkable life of Maha Ghosananda. But a brief glimpse can point to the path he walked.

Born in 1929 to a poor farming family in Takeo, he discovered an aptitude and interest in Buddhism as a pagoda boy and enrolled as a novice, later fully ordained by famed Buddhist leader Chuon Nath. As he studied Buddhist texts, conflict was always near by: Cambodia experienced foreign colonization, World War II, occupation, civil conflict and the 1940s-50s independence movement. In 1953 he traveled to India for his doctorate, where he learned from followers of Mahatma Gandhi.

After graduation, study in southern Thailand followed, where he practiced ‘Thudong’, a form of walking meditation. At this time he heard news of the growing revolution, the deaths of his family and the slaughter of thousands of monks and nuns. Strongly affected, he strived through meditation for a deeper understanding.

Putting his ideals into action at the border camps was perhaps too successful. Setting up makeshift temples angered various factions; allowing refugees sanctuary from conscription infuriated them. He was asked to leave the camps, but continued to work with all factions, becoming known for his characteristic wisdom, humor and compassion.

In April 1992 the first Dhammayietra (peace walk) began. At the beginning of Khmer New Year over 100 people crossed from Thailand into Cambodia. Braving the dangers of bandits, landmines, stifling heat, and water shortages, they were enthusiastically embraced by the communities they passed through. A month later they arrived in Phnom Penh numbering over a thousand, just in time for the observance of Visak Buchea (Buddha’s Birthday).

Prior to the 1993 UNTAC election, a second walk traversed disputed provinces where even the United Nations forces feared to tread. Despite the injury of several walkers and attempts at obstruction, the march returned again to Phnom Penh, this time three thousand strong.

The third march traveled through Khmer Rouge territory and at one point a monk and nun were killed in a crossfire. This led to increased caution and nonviolence training, but the now-yearly walks continued. Further marches addressed issues of landmines, deforestation, reconciliation, and the environment. By 1998, the aging monk’s health prohibited him from full participation, but what he termed a ‘peace army’ of followers continues the effort to this day. Constantly working to strengthen Buddhism and peace efforts in Cambodia and overseas, he worked with a wide array of organizations and was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times. In spite of all the formal accolades, he was perhaps most revered for his humor and enthusiasm for life. Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda (‘The Great Joyful Proclaimer’ in Pali) passed away in 2007, near to one of the many overseas temples he had founded.

Sources: Kathryn Poethig (in History, Buddhism and New Religious Movements in Cambodia, Eds. Marston & Guthrie), ‘The Buddha of the Battlefields’, Ven. Santi. (, Wikipedia, Thanks to Margaret Bywater, Beth Goldring, Mary Dunbar, and the ‘Buddhist Email Brigade’. Further Reading: Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion, Maha Ghosananda.


Postscript: Original story published in print version of ‘The Advisor’, article archived online here.

Illustration by yours truly. (I don’t manage the site; Y Lida’s orignal color artwork (which originally accompanied the article)  has vanished from it; if I can dig it up, I’ll add it.)

Postscript: “Reasons Why Cambodian Protestors Must Remain Nonviolent” (Catherine Morris, The Cambodia Daily, December 31 2013)

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