I first met Maha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, on a hot afternoon in Phnom Penh. As I peered round the door of his residence he emerged from the bathroom, water dripping from his hands. I was unannounced, a stranger. He bowed, smiled and invited me in.
Until the UN-organised elections last year his country had known little but war and destruction for some 23 years. During that time thousands of Maha Ghosananda's fellow monks had died or fled. His efforts to bring healing to such a damaged nation have earned him a nomination for the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
In Cambodia they say that Maha Ghosananda is a true monk. "He will give his daily meal to someone who needs it more." He walks around with a latent smile in his eyes which bursts, at times, into infectious chuckles and downright hilarity. He seems to have his interior life so sorted out that he can give the whole of his mind to compassion for the person in front of him.
A few days later I was sitting on the tiled floor opposite the beaming patriarch whose name means "great joyful proclaimer". I asked what had led him to become a monk. "It is the custom in Cambodia," he said, as if leading the celibate, penniless life was the most obvious option in the world. He went on to explain that bhikkhu (the word for monk) can be translated as 'beggar'.
"Do you see yourself as a beggar?" I interjected.
He laughed. "Yes!" he said, laughing more, "Special beggar!"
Recalling it now I'm coming up in goose pimples and confusion. From where does he get that serenity? Cambodia, after all, has not been conducive to peace of mind. It has more unexploded land mines than people, more amputees per person than any other country. An estimated three million Cambodians have been executed, killed in war or died of malnutrition and overwork during the last quarter century.
Had his family suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot?
"Yes," he said.
I probed further.
"All of them are dead."
It didn't quite impinge. "Your parents?"
"Your brothers and sisters?"
Maha Ghosananda was studying meditation in a forest in Thailand when the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh, 17 April, 1975. Every day he listened to news from Cambodia on the radio, and was beset by anguish. His meditation master advised him to concentrate on his spiritual practice - to foster peace within his own heart - and to wait for the right time to return to his people.
The Khmer Rouge set about creating a classless, agrarian society purified of all traces of 'feudal institutions' and Western influence. Officials of the previous government, ethnic minorities, monks and nuns, classical dancers, artists and anyone who had received a formal education were singled out for execution. The Buddhist monasteries were not only closed but desecrated. Statues of the Buddha were smashed, beheaded and used for target practice. Ancient scriptures were burned or used as cigarette paper. What, I asked, was Maha Ghosananda's attitude to those who had tried to destroy his religion. He looked down and spoke quietly: "We have great compassion for them, because they do not know the truth. They destroy Buddhism-they destroy themselves." He was absolutely free of bitterness. It was an extraordinary moment.
I later heard that Maha Ghosananda had been asked by another foreign journalist how a message of peace and compassion could ever be brought to Pol Pot. Foreign journalists were always asking about Pol Pot, Maha Ghosananda had replied. He suggested that the journalist could start by increasing the peace and compassion in his own heart.
By 1978 the time had come for Maha Ghosananda to help his people. The 'walking skeletons,' as they were called at the time, who had survived the killing fields were streaming across the border into refugee camps in Thailand. Maha Ghosananda went to set up Buddhist temples in the camps. And as he walked among the refugees he would offer each one, with a bow of his head, a piece of paper with the teaching of the Buddha:
Hatred is not overcome by hatred; hatred is overcome by love. This is a law eternal.
In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge and their families were themselves forced to set up refugee camps on the Thai border. Maha Ghosananda went there too, spreading the Buddha's teaching of love and forgiveness. Thousands wept. Recalling the plight of the refugees, he told me, "They suffer so much; they burn themselves. They want peace; they want happiness, and Buddhism gives them peace and happiness."
The fact that Maha Ghosananda had taken Christ's teaching, 'Love thine enemy', further than any Christian I had ever heard of, put me in awe. I found my own inner conflicts and fears dissolving. I ventured to continue by asking how ordinary people like me could become a peace-maker.
"Just take care of yourself," he said. "Just love yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. Then you are a peace-maker. Peace begins with you."
I was taken aback. He sat there blinking peacefully. "If I love myself I may want to take something from somebody else," I said. "If you love yourself in the truth," he replied, "you do not take things from other people. Stealing makes you unhappy and it makes other people unhappy."
He went on to list the five moral precepts of Buddhism - refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants. He seemed to see these as guidelines for both the love of oneself and the love of others. As a Christian, I couldn't help making comparisons with my own faith - the moral principles were remarkably similar; the theology very different. I asked if he saw religious differences as a source of conflict. He replied, "If they know the truth there is no conflict," and looked towards his Jesuit friend, Bob Maat, who was sitting on the floor in the far corner of the room. "Like our friend with Christ here - there is no conflict!" The patriarch then pointed to the bookshelf and said, "All these belong to him. We have many books about Christ now."
What was Maat's perspective? The blond American referred to Gandhi's advice that when you study someone else's religion you learn more about your own. "That has been a lived experience for me," he said. "I have learned so much about what it means to be Christian, Catholic and Jesuit from Buddhist friends. Maha Ghosananda said, 'If you want to work for peace in my country, come follow me.' He didn't tell me what to do, how to do it, what to be, how to act as a Catholic. He just said, 'Come walk with me.'"
Maat, like hundreds of Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people, has followed Maha Ghosananda on peace marches throughout the Cambodian countryside during the last two years. "People would sit along the road," he recalled, "with a bucket of water and an incense stick - this would be at three or four in the morning when we would begin the walks. And everyone would bless each person with water, would wish them peace in their own heart, peace in the country. And people would just weep, especially old people. It really showed me you can destroy all the temples, you can take every sign and symbol of a religion away from a people, but you can't take it out of the human heart."
Maat recalled an incident when some of the peace marchers were caught in crossfire between Khmer Rouge guerillas and government soldiers, while they were resting in a village monastery. Everyone lay flat on the floor except Maha Ghosananda, who sat in meditation. A grenade came through the window, landed in front of the statue of the Buddha and failed to explode. Maha Ghosananda said, "The Buddha saved us!"
Earlier this year, King Sihanouk appointed Maha Ghosananda as his special representative for protection of the environment, and the importance of tree-planting and forest conservation is one of the more worldly subjects on which Maha Ghosananda is ready to expound. At the press conference following his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, someone asked whether advocating tree-planting was compatible with the other-worldly calling of a Buddhist monk. Maha Ghosananda replied that the Buddha was born under a tree, found enlightenment under a tree and passed away under a tree.
One afternoon I accompanied Maha Ghosananda on a visit to a village on the banks of the Bassac river, about 40 miles south of Phnom Penh. After eating a large lunch and drinking several coconuts, everyone retired for a siesta. When I woke, I stumbled, bleary-eyed, down the narrow passage towards the toilet. Suddenly the door of Maha Ghosananda's room opened, but before I could even think of making way, he said, "You go first." In Buddhist thought, enlightenment arises as the ego dissolves. Self-centered motivation is replaced by four qualities: loving-kindness, compassion, delight in the well-being of others and serenity. Maha Ghosananda provides a living example that peace and goodness can be born out of conflict and suffering. Whether or not he is awarded the Nobel Prize, nothing will deflect him from recalling his fellow Cambodians to their spiritual heritage. On how far he succeeds may depend on Cambodia's hopes for a peaceful future.