Preah Maha Ghosananda

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His Holiness
Samdech Preah

Maha Ghosananda
Maha Ghosa Ananda.jpg
Born Maha Ghosananda
(1913-05-23)May 23, 1913[1]
Treang, Takéo, Cambodia
Died March 12, 2007(2007-03-12) (aged 93)
Northampton, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia (1988–2007)
Years active 1934–2007

Maha Ghosananda (full title Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda - សម្ដចព្រះមហាឃោសានន្ទ) (May 23, 1929 – March 12, 2007) was a highly revered Cambodian Buddhist monk[2] in the Theravada tradition, who served as the Patriarch (Sangharaja) of Cambodian Buddhism during the Khmer Rouge period and post-communist transition period of Cambodian history. His Pali monastic name, 'Mahā Ghosānanda', means "great joyful proclaimer".[3] He was well known in Cambodia for his annual peace marches.[2]

Early life

He was born in Takéo Province, Cambodia[4] in 1913 to a farming family in the Mekong Delta plains. From an early age he showed great interest in religion, and began to serve as a temple boy at age eight. He greatly impressed the monks with whom he served, and at age fourteen received novice ordination. He studied Pali scriptures in the local temple high school, then went on to complete his higher education at the monastic universities in Phnom Penh and Battambang,[4] before going to India to pursue a doctorate in Pali at Nalanda University in Bihar,[5] at that time an institute known under the name of Nava Nālandā Mahāvihāra.[6]


Maha Ghosananda trained under some of the most highly influential Buddhist masters of his time, including the Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii,[3] and the Cambodian Patriarch Samdech Preah Sangharaja Chuon Nath.

In 1965, Maha Ghosananda left India to study meditation under Ajahn Dhammadaro,[3] of Wat Chai Na forest temple near Nakorn Sri Dhammaraj in Southern Thailand, a famous meditation master of the Thai Forest Tradition.[3] Four years later, while he was still studying at Dhammadaro's forest monastery, the United States began bombing Cambodia as part of their attempt to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and end the Vietnam War.[3] Cambodia became engulfed in civil war and social disintegration.

Khmer Rouge era

As the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country, the prospects of Buddhism became increasingly doubtful. Pol Pot, who had once served in a Buddhist monastery, denounced Buddhist monks as useless pariah, and part of the feudalistic power structures of the past. Monks were viewed with suspicion and disdain as part of the intellectual class, and targeted for especially brutal treatment and "reeducation".

As part of the Khmer Rouge's horrific Year Zero campaign, monks were systematically turned out of monasteries and forced to disrobe and become farming peasants, or were tortured and murdered outright. Some monks were forced to violate their vows at gunpoint. By the time the Khmer Rouge reign of terror ended, there were no monks alive in Cambodia, and most temples were in rubble.

Meanwhile, refugees began to filter out of Cambodia and congregate in refugee camps along the Thai border, bringing with them tales of unbelievable, apocalyptic horrors.

In 1978, Maha Ghosananda left his forest hermitage in Thailand, and went down to the refugee camps near the Thai-Cambodian border to begin ministering to the first refugees who filtered across the border.[3]

Maha Ghosananda's appearance in the refugee camps raised a stir among the refugees who had not seen a monk for years. The Cambodian refugees openly wept as Maha Ghosananda chanted the ancient and familiar sutras that had been the bedrock of traditional Cambodian culture before Year Zero. He distributed photocopied Buddhist scriptures among the refugees, as protection and inspiration for the battered people.

His entire family, and countless friends and disciples, were massacred by the Khmer Rouge.


Maha Ghosananda served as a key figure in post-Communist Cambodia, helping to restore the nation state and to revive Cambodian Buddhism. In 1980, he served as a representative of the Cambodian nation-in-exile to the United Nations.[4][5]

When the Pol Pot regime collapsed in 1979, Maha Ghosananda was one of only 3,000 Cambodian Buddhist monks alive, out of more than 60,000 at the start of the reign of terror in 1976. Throughout 1979 Maha Ghosananda established wats in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, ordaining monks against the orders of the Thai military.[7]

In 1980 Maha Ghosananda and the Reverend Peter L. Pond formed the Inter-Religious Mission for Peace in Cambodia. Together they located hundreds of surviving monks and nuns in Cambodia so that they could renew their vows and take leadership roles in Cambodian temples around the world. In June 1980 the Thai Government decided to forcibly repatriate thousands of refugees. Pond and the Preah Maha Ghosananda organized a protest against the forced repatriation of refugees from Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp.[8]

In 1988, Maha Ghosananda was elected as sanghreach (sangharaja) by a small gathering of exiled monks in Paris.[9] He agreed to accept the position provisionally, until a complete, independent monastic hierarchy could be established in Cambodia.[9] At the time, Venerable Tep Vong was the titular head of a unified Cambodian sangha, having been appointed to the position in 1981 by the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea.[10]


In 1992, during the first year of the United Nations sponsored peace agreement, Maha Ghosananda led the first nationwide Dhammayietra,[5] a peace march or pilgrimage, across Cambodia in an effort to begin restoring the hope and spirit of the Cambodian people.[3]

The 16-day, 125-mile peace walk passed through territory still littered with landmines from the Khmer Rouge.[11] The Dhammayietra became an annual walk which Maha Ghosananda led a number of times,[3] despite the danger during the Khmer Rouge years. In 1995, the Dhammayietra consisted of almost 500 Cambodian Buddhist monks, nuns and precept-taking lay people. They were joined by The Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life. Together the two groups crossed Cambodia from the Thai border all the way to Vietnam, spending several days walking through Khmer Rouge-controlled territory along the way. For his teachings on non-violence and establishing Buddhist temples throughout the world that root his exiled people in their religion of peace, he was presented with the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.

He had been called "the Gandhi of Cambodia."[12] Maha Ghosananda was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Claiborne Pell.[4] He was again nominated in 1995, 1996, and 1997 for his work in bringing peace to Cambodia.[4] He also acted as an adviser to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and resided part-time in the Palelai Buddhist Temple and Monastery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.

He died in Northampton, Massachusetts on March 12, 2007.[4]

Awards and recognitions


  • Maha Ghosananda Step By Step

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Asiaweek August 31, 1999 at
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Somdech Preah Maha Ghosananda - The Buddha of the Battlefields
  4. ^ a b c d e f The Biography of Preah Samdech Maha Ghosananda (1913-2007) Archived 2007-06-26 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ a b c Somdet Phra Maha Ghosananda (1929-)
  6. ^
  7. ^ John Amos Marston, Elizabeth Guthrie, History, Buddhism, and new religious movements in Cambodia, University of Hawaii Press, (2004) ISBN 0-8248-2868-2, p. 201.
  8. ^ Brian Peter Harvey , An introduction to Buddhist ethics: foundations, values, and issues. Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-521-55640-6, p. 281.
  9. ^ a b Harris, Ian (August 2001), "Sangha Groupings in Cambodia", Buddhist Studies Review, UK Association for Buddhist Studies, 18 (I): 70 
  10. ^ Harris, Ian (August 2001), "Sangha Groupings in Cambodia", Buddhist Studies Review, UK Association for Buddhist Studies, 18 (I): 75 
  11. ^ Das, Surya (1998), Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, Broadway, p. 230, ISBN 0-7679-0157-6 
  12. ^ Preah Maha Ghosananda, “Gandhi of Cambodia”
  13. ^ The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Recipients List Archived 2009-02-07 at the Wayback Machine.

Further reading

External links

  • Site dedicated to preserving his memory and creating a mausoleum and temple in his honor.
  • Cambodia's Nobel Nominee on peace and suffering
  • The Serene Life - 20 minute interview with Maha Ghosananda
  • Maha Ghosananda's biography in English Language
  • Maha Ghosananda's biography in Khmer Language
  • Maha Ghosananda's biography in German Language
  • Maha Ghosananda's Facebook
  • Maha Ghosananda's Dharma Talks
Preceded by
Huot Tat
Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia Succeeded by
Venerable Tep Vong years–
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