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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Journey through gunfire for peace

Journey through gunfire for peace

More than 400 Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people left Angkor Wat, Cambodia's

national shrine, on the afternoon of May 4 on a journey of peace. Eighteen days later

they arrived in Phnom Penh having traveled through some of the most dangerous areas

in the country to deliver a powerful message of reconciliation on the eve of elections.

"There is little we can do for peace in the world without the skill of listening,

without knowing peace within ourselves. By walking by ourselves, walking in such

a way, that says we are the only one and that we know the only way," the Venerable

Maha Ghosananda, head of the Inter-Religious Mission for Peace in Cambodia and one

of the leaders of the walk, told a welcoming crowd of thousands at the Independence

Monument in Phnom Penh on Saturday May 29.

The Dhamma Yietra, the official name of the Buddhist walk, almost ended before it

began. In the early morning hours of May 3, as the participants were gathering for

morning meditation, the pagoda in the city of Siem Reap in which they were staying

became a battleground. In the ensuing four-hour gunbattle, three participants were

wounded in cross fire. A hand grenade was thrown into the room where 200 participants

were gathered but it did not explode. When the shooting finally subsided, the participants

gathered around Maha Ghosananda, who said," Buddha saved us."

The immediate question after this violent episode was whether the walk should proceed

at all. "Indeed, this is why we must walk," Maha Ghosananda convinced the

group. Echoing his commitment to continue, the most seriously wounded walker also

sent word from his hospital bed: "Please keep walking ...so that we may have

peace soon." Some of the organizers suggested riding through the 'rough spots'.

Yet as the walkers prepared to walk to Ankor Wat the next morning, on the eve of

Vesak, the highest Holy Day of Buddhism, a busload of 100 fellow walkers from various

provinces arrived. It was soon followed by another bus of Thai participants, both

having been delayed, but not dissuaded, by the fighting. Upon seeing the first bus

pull into the temple compound, one of the organizers affirmed, "We can forget

about riding. We're walking!"

Maha Ghosananda began the journey by telling the walkers, "Our journey for peace

vegins today and everyday.... Slowly, slowly, step by step, each step is a prayer.

Each step will build a bridge." The concept of Dhamma Yietra is as old as Buddhism

itself. In the Buddha's day (over 2500 years ago) he would lead his monks and nuns

in long processions to areas of conflict preaching the word of peace and path to

relieve suffering.

Following in that tradition Maha Ghosananda organized his second walk of peace and

reconciliation in his home country, deliberately choosing this route through war-torn

area. "We must walk where the troubles are," he told the participants.

The Venerable Kim Teng, one of the principle organizers of the walk, talked to the

150 monks who gathered for the start of the Dhamma Yietra.

"We must walk where the suffering is the greatest, to share the sorrows of our

people, to dry their tears... With each step we will build a bridge, a bridge from

war and suffering to peace and tranquillity. We are not peacekeepers like the U.N,

but peacemakers, so we must walk where there is no peace yet to keep."

He later told an audience in Phnom Penh, "The road from Siem Reap to Kompong

Thom Is not far from here. But it is like another continent. There, people sleep

in bunkers, fearing rocket attacks nightly. Their eyes are laden with suffering.

They came to share their suffering with us, bearing their souls before we even asked

how they were. Yet seeing us walk was healing, like medicine... It was like visiting

a sick person. Even if you don't bring any medicine, the person feels better afterwards,

just because of the visit."

As Maha Ghosananda has often said, "The suffering of Cambodia has been deep....Years

of violence have brought great tragedy. More violence can only bring more harm. Now

is the time for peace.

Reflecting on Maha Ghosananda's teaching, Kim Teng commented, "People were very

happy to hear the teaching that peace begins in the human heart, and can begin with

themselves. Until now, people had told them that peace comes through guns. They told

us they are happy because they realize that there is something they can do in their

own lives now, something they can control. I told them how sincerely I do believe

that if they have peaceful hearts, it will spread outwards, and soon their families,

their villages, our country will be peaceful. And through their offerings to us,

we could see that people felt peace in their own hearts upon witnessing the walk.

This in turn gave us the strength and energy to carry on."

The walkers would usually begin their daily treks at four or five in the morning,

depending on the security situation in the area they were about to enter. Even at

four a.m., in town or countryside, families would wait outside their huts 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..." Then many of the

walkers had their feet washed and blessed by those waiting along the road, who wished

them well on their journey: "May your journey be as cool as this water."

The incense sticks would then be extinguished in the water as a symbol of dousing

out the flames of war.

"May the war end now. May we join hands and never know one another as enemies,

from this day forward," exclaimed a grandmother as she held her grandchild out

to receive a water blessing from a walker.

Minefields on either side of the road, temperatures above 40 degrees Centigrade and

rainstorms did little to dampen the spirit of the walkers, or those patiently waiting

by the side of the road to greet them. One day the walkers were caught in a cold

rainstorm. As most of the participants ducked into houses to wait out the rain, 50

monks continued walking during the downpour. When they arrived at the temple, villagers

were kneeling in mud, waiting for their water blessing.

In many parts of Siem Reap and Kompong Thom the walkers literally traversed a war

zone. A day didn't go by that the sound of thumping artillery or land mines exploding

was not heard. People along the route told the walkers repeatedly, "We have

suffered so much," people who had lost arms, legs and eyes during the long civil

war, people who lived underneath blue plastic caves because they had had to flee

their villages. "May we have peace so that we may return to our homes soon,"

pleaded one father, crouching in front of his blue plastic tent.

The Dhama Yietra passed through areas where the U.N peacekeeping forces are not allowed

to travel further than 500 meters from their home base because of the security risk.

The people who lived in these areas had simple prayers. "May we just stop fearing

the night," she pleaded.

Even soldiers would lay down their weapons as the monks filed past and ask to be

blessed. At one stop several soldiers came into the temple where the marchers were

staying and put their weapons on the floor. They bowed in front of the monks, asking

for a blessing of protection. "We don't want anyone to be killed or hurt,"

one said. "I have no ill will in my heart. Please bless us so that our bullets

don't hurt anyone, and so that no one else's bullets hurt us," he continued.

One of the Dhamma Yietra's explicit purposes was to encourage a peaceful environment

during and after the Cambodian elections. As one monk said, "By walking we seek

to spread loving kindness and compassion. For reconciliation after 20 years of conflict

we must be able to trust one another again ... so that true peace may prevail in

Cambodia."

In some towns local government officials tried to discourage the local people from

welcoming the walkers. But their actions had the opposite effect. Old men and women

would whisper to the walkers, "We were told not to come, but they cannot stop

us. This is our religion. And we hunger for peace so much," as they made offerings

of food to the monks and nuns.

A young man in another village explained why the people turned out to welcome the

marchers despite being warned not to. "The market is closed, people left their

jobs, their children, to come receive you," he said. "We are so grateful

that you have come to help us find peace... the U.N has sent people from all over

the world to keep peace, but it hasn't worked. All we have left is the monks and

Buddhism...They must lead us out of this mess of killing one another. If we just

think of killing and revenge, it will never end. The monks must guide us."

By the time Dhamma Yietra reached the city of Phnom Penh, a city tense with the fear

of violence, it had swelled to more than 3,000 as many spontaneously joined the walk.

A coalition of women's groups, student associations and human rights groups coordinated

the walk through the streets of the capital, as people from all walks of life spontaneously

joined in.

"I saw the walk in front of my office, and I just had to join. I couldn't stay

inside. I walked off my job.... All Cambodians, and foreigners too, should stop work

an walk for peace today," said one Cambodian worker from an international organization.

Another spectator added, "People were so afraid of the elections. Here in Phnom

Penh they had started to stockpile rice. But the walk has relieved us all, inspired

us with hope."

For two days the walkers marched through the streets of the city, holding silent

meditations for peace at various key points. Rain or scorching heat, thousands joined

each walk. After 15 minutes of silence at what is usually a busy traffic intersection,

a boy leaned over and asked, "Do you have peace?" An elderly man who had

chanted one prayer in Pali, the ancient language of Buddhism, all the way from Siem

Reap, overhead and repeated again, "Nanti Santi barang sok kang," meaning,

"There is no greater happiness than a peaceful heart."

On the morning of May 24 Prince Sihanouk greeted the walkers with words of deep gratitude

for the Dhamma Yietra. In front of the Royal Palace the walkers once again meditated

in silence, praying that all being be free from suffering, fear and sorrow. Then

the Prince made a solemn plea to all of his compatriots for peace and called on all

parties to "put an end to violence and hatred, and take out the spirit of vengeance

...from this day forwards."

Days earlier, on a lonely stretch of road that has no known peace for the past twenty-five

years, a farmer cradling his young son said, "If the Dhamma Yietra brings us

even a moment of peace, my deepest gratitude, for then we can hope."

- Bob Maat and Liz Bernstein, of the coalition for Peace and Reconciliation, and

Yeshua Moser of Nonviolence International participated in Dhamma Yietra. Ker Munthit

contributed to this article.

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