In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

In our internal arms race there is no end to fear. More weapons and more lethal weapons are an escalating response. It’s important to remember that there are other forms of power than killing power. The life and mission of a great Rhode Islander demonstrate another way.

Thirty years ago, Providence was home to a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Called Cambodia’s Ghandhi, the Venerable Maha Ghosananda lived and taught in a triple-decker on Hanover Street, near the Cranston Street Armory.

Displaced by the Southeast Asian War, Maha Ghosananda lived for a year in the Sakeo refugee camp on the Thai border. He ministered to Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge, and later to Khmer Rouge soldiers fleeing the Vietnamese. It was said that he was given an airplane ticket to safety, but he cashed it in and used it to print tracts on Lovingkindness, which he distributed to all in the camp, regardless of which side they were on. After leaving Sakeo, Maha Ghosananda traveled the world as one of the last surviving Cambodian Buddhist monks, arriving in Providence in 1980. Here he founded a temple that became the Khmer Buddhist Society, a center and heart of the community.

In 1992, Maha Ghosananda established the Dhammayietra Walk for Peace– an annual walk across Cambodia to minister to the suffering and bereaved survivors of the war. This was truly a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Peace was not securely established. Gun violence, for politics or robbery was a threat. Maha Ghosananda was a politically challenging figure and his teacher had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge. He was a target for assassination. In addition, the countryside was strewn with land mines. War still smoldered– one year two of the marchers, a monk and a nun, were killed in crossfire between government and Khmer Rouge forces.

But the Dhammayietra brought healing to people who had suffered the dismantling of their society, and seen the near-eradication of their religion.

Nonviolence is not for the faint of heart. When he lived in Providence, Maha Ghosananda was a close friend of the minister of First Unitarian Church, Tom Ahlburn. It was just before the first, or maybe the second Dhammayietra that Tom held a gathering I can only describe as an Irish wake. Tom told Maha Ghosananda stories and we sent our thoughts and hope to those marchers traversing a mined disaster zone in an uneasy peace.

Maha Ghosananda, in fact, outlived Tom Ahlburn. Maha Ghosananda led several walks across Cambodia. He spent his last days in Lowell, Massachusetts, and passed from this world in 2007.

I was blessed to meet him. He was a saint.

He taught me three words, Truthfulness, Forbearance and Gratitude. His message was Metta–Lovingkindness.

Today our country is feeling the shadow of death in the senseless violation of a school and the murder of children. Nonviolence is not an absence, but a radical response to violence. Pacifism is not passivity. Maha Ghosananda lived a life of activism and great courage. It comforts me to think of him in these times.

[Santidhammo Bhikkhu's book, 'Maha Ghosananda the Buddha of the Battlefields' was used as a resource and aid to aging memory in writing this post.]

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8 responses

  1. You keep referring to “lovingkindness”like it was some commodity.What is it in your definition?I ask because you seem pretty bitter and derisive towards people who don’t fall into one of your special classes or whose ideas disturb you.

    1. SHE seems “pretty bitter and derisive”? Your comments on this site are all too frequently rife with dismissal and scorn. Who are you to call someone out for promoting nonviolence and celebrating the adherents of such a way of life? What can you possibly object to? I can only surmise that you, like far too many who hold to the strictest interpretation of the 2nd amendment, are feeling defensive and finding it ever more difficult to justify a point of view that places a higher value on gun ownership than human life. Your commentary not only reflects a paucity of “loving-kindness” but reveals the depths of your own pettiness and insecurity. What you pass off as “ideas” are nothing more than pallid rationalizations. And what is disturbing about them is not that they may vary from the writer’s but that they are stained with the blood of children.

      1. I’d take you more seriously if you used your real name-but I guess you are content to call names from the shadows.If you had any integrity you wouldn’t do this.As far as your last line,please stick it where the sun don’t shine.

      2. I’m heartbroken too.

  2. Joe, have you ever used a ‘handle’ on the internet?

  3. Actually yes,when I thought you were “supposed”to,on national sites,for instance. There was no personal invective involved on such sites.I used “observer”here for awhile but it was no more mystery than “ninjanurse” is.I have run into “lovingkindness”as one word before and it wasn’t here.I was serious about what that is supposed to mean.It just seems to me like the gun control crowd was waiting for something like this and they have all let go at once like a lanced carbuncle-and it won’t solve the problem of random violence.

    1. That’s pretty rough. I haven’t got myself worked up to claim that anyone was ‘waiting’ for the murder of first grade children. Do your really mean that?

      1. Well,it just seemed that there was a “sudden”well structured attack from all the usual suspects on firearms as the cause of our problems with violence and no-I don’t think anyone but a really evil person wanted something like this,but I am saying they don’t mind using it for their purposes.If every AR15 and AK 47 were disposed of tomorrow,we’d still have mass killings.I also don’t much care for cowardly anonymous commenters telling me I have children’s blood on me.I never hurt a child in my life.I raised a few and “Heartbroken”is no more sickened than I am by what happened.The same day a man in China stabbed 22 children in a school there.No “assault rifle”was used.Obama has had gun owners in his sights(sorry for the pun)for a good ling time now preceding his first election.I despise the man for many reasons,this being just one of them.
        I don’t when if ever you and some others here will realize it’s evil that drives these killers and some madness also-not “assault rifles”.the Virginia Tech killer didn’t have a rifle of any kind.

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