How to Be Bigger Than Your Suffering: Lessons from a Buddhist Monk
This is a story about an amazing man from Cambodia who has a lot to teach us about suffering, and liberation from suffering.
Maha Ghosananda (1929 – 2007) has been called the “Gandhi of Cambodia” and the “Buddha of the Battlefields.” He was born into a poor peasant family in the southern part of Cambodia. Even then, in 1929, there was great suffering in Cambodia. In the wake of the Depression and World War II, Khmer nationalism began to stir, bringing with it social upheaval, riots, and terrorism.
At a young age, Maha Ghosanada became a novice Buddhist monk and studied at monastic universities in Phnom Pen and Battambang.
In 1969, the U.S. began bombing Cambodia and that country became engulfed in civil war and social disintegration. Once the Khmer Rouge took power, Buddhist monks were denounced as part of the feudalistic power structures of the past.
Maha Ghosananda, who was in a Thai forest hermitage during this time, was one of the few monks to survive the brutal torture and murders that followed–nearly 2 million Cambodians, or almost one-quarter of the entire population, were killed between 1975 and 1979.
Maha Ghosananda’s entire family and many friends were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. In 1978, he left his forest hermitage to minister to Cambodian refugees who came across the Thai-Cambodia border.
In spite of — or maybe because of — this unimaginable tragedy, Maha Ghosanda continued his ministry for peace on an even larger scale. He led a 125-mile Dhammayeitra (pilgrimage of truth) across Cambodia in 1992 to begin restoring the hope and spirit of the Cambodian people. The Dhammayeitra continues to this day.
I was lucky enough to meet Maha Ghosananda once, in 2004 at a conference not far from one of his communities in Western Massachusetts. The moment he entered the room, the more than 150 people in attendance suddenly fell silent. Though he never said a word, he was an incredibly powerful presence. As he bowed to all of us, a palpable wave of joy spread throughout the room.
For many years now, I’ve had this quote hanging over my desk and never fail to be moved by it:
The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes Great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A Peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Family.
A Peaceful Family makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
A Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.
As you consider the suffering in your own life, try asking yourself how it connects you in an intimate way to other beings. You are not alone in your pain. See if you can look beyond your own situation to see that others – perhaps in your family, your neighborhood, your community – suffer as well. Rather than getting drowned by your anguish, see if you can find a way to transform it into beneficial action to others.
Now please realize I’m not asking you to be a Nobel Peace Prize nominee here. This can be a pretty simple thing. Try going outside yourself just a little bit. Here are three ideas:
- Volunteer in the community soup kitchen one afternoon
- Send a letter to someone in your family whom everyone else forgets (yes, I’m talking a real letter, not an email!)
- Learn about someone who is struggling to survive and then send a small donation to help. Here’s one example: this story of a woman in Haiti who was trapped by falling rubble during the 2010 earthquake and has suffered with severe neck pain and been unable to walk.
In each case, you’ll have contact with someone who is also suffering, and you’ll be reminded that we’re all in this together. Perhaps, like Maha Ghosananda, you’ll find your way out the other side of suffering where it transforms into compassion. And you’ll have also done something to help lighten a fellow human being’s load just a little bit.
I’d love to stay in touch with you! When you sign up for my mailing list, you’ll receive my monthly e-letter with reflections on life and liberation, as well as “9 Keys to a Liberated Life.”