At 5:30 on the morning of July 19, the Venerable Maha Ghosananda took the first step
on a 78km peace walk from Wat Prey Lavia in his home province of Takeo to the Royal
Palace in Phnom Penh.
Behind the 76-year-old Buddhist patriarch, in rows of two, marched 26 monks, 30 laymen
and 80 nuns. Bringing up the rear was a contingent of 20 "non-Khmer walkers"
- Quakers, Mennonites, NGO workers, academics, backpackers.
Banners flying, drums beating, the marchers filed out along a dike between freshly
planted rice paddies. After an hour on the road, the party paused before a narrow
causeway spanning a small lake. Maha Ghosananda (pictured in top photo) and senior
monks took a water break at a lakeside pavilion.
Ghosananda offered a water bottle to a sweating reporter who asked, "Why are
you doing this march?"
"For peace," he replied, smiling.
"I understand you've just arrived from France?"
"And Boston," he answered. "We have many temples there. This is our
eighth peace walk, for the elections. The King supports us. He sent a message of
support. On July 24, we will be at the Royal Palace for a prayer service. All the
parties will be there."
"Prince Ranariddh? Sam Rainsy?"
"Yes, most important. We will see him. We are getting stronger every day."
"Do you feel hope for peace in Cambodia?"
Ghosananda laughed. "The Dharma is very practical, realistic. There is a balance
between hopefulness and hopelessness. We have to go step by step. When you step up,
you step up. When you step down, you step down. Once, in Switzerland, I did not watch
my step and I broke my leg."
The thought of the 1998 election's three main rivals gathered together at an event
founded on peace may well dangle somewhere between hopefulness and hopelessness.
Whether or not it will become a reality would have to wait until July 24.
The marchers then moved across the bridge and into rolling countryside. Villagers
became more numerous, kneeling along the roadside as the monks approached Wat Priem
Mongkul Borei Chulasa.
After a short prayer service in the temple the party broke for a breakfast of fried
beans, watermelon and sweet corn topped with sugar.
The marchers formed up again and headed north for Kandal. Farmsteads strung along
a small river were green with corn, sugar cane and bamboo. Families rushed out to
set up tables laden with candles, incense and water bowls. They smiled and gave sompeahs
of gratitude as the monks sprinkled water on them.
As the route wound into higher country, the line of marchers straggled away in
The sun was high now, the track dusty. People paused to rest in rare patches of shade.
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is an American veteran of Ghosananda's first peace walk in
1992. "We left Aranyapathet [Thailand] with 110 refugees and 7 international
walkers," he recalled.
"By the time we reached Sisophon we were picking up 20 and 30 new walkers a
day. In Battambang, that rose to 40, 50. We were 1,000 marchers when we reached Phnom
Penh, after 30 days.
"The UN wanted us to stop outside the city. One Singaporean police chief said,
'Just think of how many guns they could be hiding under their robes.' But eventually
we entered Phnom Penh to hold prayer services at four different sites.
"People told us later that our presence gave them confidence. They were hoarding
food in those days, as they are now."
On July 23, Maha Ghosananda was to preside over a prayer service with National Election
Committee Chairman Chheng Phon at the election head's Center for Culture and Vipasana
The last leg of the peace walk was to reach Phnom Penh on Friday, July 24. Marchers
will pause at Wat Than and Wat Phnom before a final prayer service in front of the
Royal Palace, lasting from 2:30pm till 4:00pm.
"Step by Step" is the title of a collection of Maha Ghosananda's sermons.
Dith Pran, the Cambodian reporter whose life was made famous by the Oscar-winning
movie "The Killing Fields", wrote the book's foreward, recalling the dark
days immediately after the fall of the Khmer Rouge:
"Our country was in ruins famine was everywhere, families were scattered, loved
ones lost, and homes and villages destroyed. We were ill and tired, and, all too
often, despair and depression overcame us.
"It was Maha Ghosananda who traveled to Cambodia, to the refugee camps in Thailand,
and to Cambodian communities around the world reminding us that Buddhism was alive
in us, and that we could call upon the sweetness and depth of the tradition.
"Ghosananda's quest has been the journey of a hero. He has reminded us by his
own example to take each step slowly, carefully, and in mindfulness, and to always