As a dozen foreigners gathered around the Venerable Maha Ghosananda on Monday as part of their training for the seventh Pilgrimage of Peace, the 68-year-old spiritual leader passed on some wisdom for their journey, which begins Friday.
“Skillful action is good,” he said at Wat Samphoeu Meas. “Unskillful action is not good and brings unhappiness. Unskillful action is killing. Unskillful action is anger.”
Speaking in English, he wore the infectious smile for which he has become famous.
After a year of many unskillful actions in Cambodia, Ghosananda and more than 1,000 others will start the Dhammayietra VII march Friday in Kompong Cham province and continue through Kratie and Stung Treng provinces until they reach Banlung, the capital of Ratanakkiri province, on April 5.
Ghosananda and the organization he heads, the Dhammayietra Center for Peace and Non-Violence, have been undertaking a “One Million Kilometers for Peace” march annually for the past six years.
The path of this year’s march was chosen for two reasons, Ghosananda said. One is because the march has never been in eastern Cambodia. Another is because of the widely reported illegal logging in Stung Treng, Kratie and Ratanakkiri provinces.
“We say every tree is a Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree is the tree of enlightenment where the Buddha found enlightenment,” he said.
The tree is an important symbol in Buddhism, he told the group of foreigners, who were taking part in a two-day training course for the 15-day march. At every stop, the marchers will plant trees, he said.
Kim Leng, a spokesperson for the walk, said the marchers will encounter many examples of deforestation during the trip.
“There will be a lot of sawmills and fields without trees along the way,” she said. “We are walking this year because of the destruction of the forest and the illegal logging along the Cambodia-Vietnam border.”
This is a busy week for the 68-year-old monk. On Wednesday, a ceremony celebrated the Niwano Peace Prize, which Ghosananda will receive for his efforts to bring peace to Cambodia and to bridge the differences between world religions. He will travel to Tokyo to receive the award and its prize of $160,000 on May 11. He also has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the last six years.
Today, Ghosananda and the marchers will gather in Kompong Cham town and prepare for the march, which begins with a procession through the city.
Saturday, the march begins in earnest as the approximately 1,000 participants begin their 550 km journey through the countryside. This year, however, motorized transportation will be used because of the distance and time constraints on the march, Kim Leng said. “We will be in rural areas with no people living there to bring food and water for the marchers,” she added.
Among the marchers will be at least a dozen foreigners, some of whom spent Monday and Tuesday training for the journey. They held workshops on subjects ranging from land-mine awareness to foot care.
In 1994, a monk and a nun were killed and four other walkers wounded when the march was caught in crossfire between Khmer Rouge guerrillas and government soldiers about 20 km from Battambang. In addition, the guerrillas detained six foreigners for several hours.
Jason Middleweek, a 29-year-old Australian tourist training for the march, said he was a little nervous about security but predicted “an amazing experience.”
Middleweek, a veteran of peace protests in Australia, was visiting a wat near Siem Reap when the monks there encouraged him to take part in the march.
“It’s good to have some foreigners on the walk,” he said. “We can learn a lot from the Cambodians, and maybe they can learn something from us.”
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara)