In October of 1980, the Vipassana meditation teacher Jack Kornfield called me at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, where I was a resident staff member, to ask if I could lend a hand with something. The well-known Cambodian Buddhist monk, or bhikkhu, the Venerable Maha Ghosananda, would be arriving the next day on a flight from Bangkok, and Jack asked if I would meet him at the airport and keep him company during what would be a long wait for his connecting flight to New York. I said I would be happy to do it.
Actually, I felt privileged. From previous conversations with Jack, I knew of Bhikkhu Ghosananda and the extraordinary humanitarian work he had done among the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees stranded in squalid “holding camps” near the border, in Thailand. Starting in 1975, they had fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge; they had fled the civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime; and they had fled the starvation that was the legacy of a decade of bloodshed catalyzed by the U.S. bombing raids in 1970. By 1979, the situation had reached a crisis point, as tens of thousands faced imminent death from starvation and disease, and relief agencies from around the world responded with what turned out to be amazing effectiveness.
The immediate crisis was largely averted, but the sheer misery of the camps was unrelenting. The physical conditions were oppressive, as were the psychological conditions. Most refugees had been in the camps for years, thoroughly uprooted, living in constant fear and uncertainty, knowing that their fates depended on political forces beyond their control or even understanding. And there was danger. Khmer Rouge soldiers, having fled the new regime, maintained an intimidating presence as they used the camps to reorganize for a counterinsurgency.
Of Cambodia’s 60,000 Buddhist monks, about twothirds were killed under the Khmer Rouge, and almost all the rest were forced to defrock. Maha Ghosananda, who had spent most of his monastic career in Thailand and India, was out of the country when the slaughter began, and he was now one of the very few senior Cambodian bhikkhus. In 1978, he cashed in a plane ticket to France he had been given; he used the money to print 40,000 leaflets of the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the power of lovingkindness, and distributed them throughout the camps. He helped establish temples and schools. He brought together representatives of the different groups; victims, members, and even leaders of the Khmer Rouge came together in common cause. As many as 10,000 attended his dharma talks.
But then the Khmer Rouge, with the cooperation of the Thai military, began to coerce refugees into preparations for “repatriation.” In response, Maha Ghosananda circulated a leaflet telling the frightened refugees they were not required to return, and he offered his temple as a sanctuary to anyone who asked. To many Thai officials, he had gone too far, and he was banned from the camps. So now he was coming to the U.S., his first time in the West, to represent the refugees and to continue the work of cultural and religious reawakening.
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