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
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
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
"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.