Aside from some practical information in a couple of pre-trip guide books which focused on the historical ruins of Angkor Wat, my first exposure to anything more substantial than history and hotel locations in Cambodia came when I read Step by Step, a short book of Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda’s words. Frankly, they were only words to me at the time, standard Buddhist canon not at all unlike what I’d been reading on-and-off since the early 1960’s. Then came real life. In my three day “minute” actually in Cambodia, I learned. My teacher was this man known to us as Thai.
In a brief introductory letter Thai wrote to us visitors:
My name is Thai and I have the pleasure of serving as your Trip Leader…One of the best things about my country is the warm and friendly nature of the Khmer People (Cambodian people.)… May Buddha be near and protect you on your journey of discovery and spread luck along your path.
Thai not just showed us but truly demonstrated the quiet strength and depth and ultimate beauty of a people whose history has housed millenia of struggle with nature, with neighbors, and recently with the indigenous, naive and ruthless Khmer Rouge, creators of the Killing Fields,
with the Vietnamese who came allegedly to rescue the Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge and, sadly, with my own nation. For three days our little group traveled among this remarkable enclave of peace, gentleness and focus on a present, among as many as 6 million landmines in this nation of 14 million mostly rural people without even the slightest thought that one of us might step off the road to rest or piss behind a tree and have our legs blown away.
Maha Ghosananda led a series of dhammayietras, peace walks, through the Cambodian countryside and into cities and towns even while hostilities raged. On these walks to bring peace and to restore the Cambodian traditions of Buddhism and civility monks and nuns and lay folk were sometimes shot, sometimes killed. Still the people rallied to participate in or support the dhammayietras. Even soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, sworn to eradicate Buddhism, would put down their weapons and bow when a dhammayietra passed. When he asked why he would bring his message of love and forgiveness to the Khmer Rouge, he’d reply that no one needed to be brought back into the human fold more than those who had strayed so far from it.
Maha Ghosananda said to know suffering, to really know it, is to know nirvana. For me there was the overwhelming feeling that the folks we traveled among knew suffering. They knew nirvana as the present moment, this moment, right now, the only time without either regret or fear, the only time in which love, joy and accomplishment was possible.
Here are some of the faces that greeted us:
And here–I don’t know why–is the one I remember best: