A tribute to Ghosananda

By Karen Lee Ziner, The Providence Journal, March 15, 2009

PROVIDENCE, RI (USA) -- Nearly 30 years ago, one of the fraction of Buddhist monks to survive the Cambodian genocide quietly settled in a tenement on the city’s west side. Few outsiders knew that the humble man in their midst — the Venerable Maha Ghosananda — was already considered a worldwide Cambodian spiritual leader.

<< The late Ven. Maha Ghosananda

At his home at 178 Hanover St., Ghosananda and supporters established the first Cambodian Buddhist temple — Wat Thormikaram — in the United States. It served as spiritual and communal anchor for thousands of Cambodian refugees who resettled in Rhode Island in the 1980s, as well as elsewhere in the country.

But the building burned in 1997, and the communal hall was moved to an adjacent converted garage. Two years ago, Ghosananda died in Massachusetts at age 85. By then the “Gandhi of Cambodia” had been nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including by the late Sen. Claiborne Pell.

Now local Cambodians are building a new “Preah Maha Ghosananda” worship hall in the late monk’s honor at the original Hanover Street location, in the neighborhood where Cambodian refugees first settled.

The hall had been conceived as a surprise gift to Ghosananda while he was alive, but the project was delayed for years before last summer’s groundbreaking, said John Chea, vice president of the Cambodian Society of Rhode Island and project manager. The structure has been framed, and interior work is proceeding bit by bit, Chea said.

“We were hoping to get it done by next August but it’s not going to happen,” said Chea. “The economy — it’s so tough to raise money.” He said more than $150,000 has been raised, “but we are short approximately $200,000.” Fundraising is continuing.

When the project is completed, the temple will add decorative presence to a blighted area.

Chea said the temple architecture “is a resemblance of the temple at home [in Cambodia].”

The building reflects traditional design, with steeply pitched, tiered roofs, a door facing east toward the sunrise, and symbolic serpents that angle upwards from each corner of the roof. Inside, there will be a traditional altar, six-foot bronze and granite statues of the Buddha, and a life-like statue of Ghosananda that now sits inside the monks’ residence across the street where daily prayers are held. Community members are also considering bringing an artist from Cambodia to paint murals on the walls.

A pre-existing ornate gateway representing the 12-year cycle of the zodiac features small animal statues for each of the 12 years. A miniature temple arching over the gateway represents the temple at Angkor Wat, a national symbol of Cambodia.

Those who knew Ghosananda –– who became the “Supreme Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism” –– say the new worship hall will be a fitting tribute.

“We are very excited to have this as a permanent location for worship. ... It is in Maha Ghosananda’s honor, and we want to keep his memory alive,” said the Venerable Ros Mey, who is the Cambodian community’s senior monk.

“He was a very compassionate, joyful, unhurried, selfless human being who lived in the present moment and had no possessions,” said Philip Edmonds, a Providence peace activist who was a secretary at Wat Thormikaram. “He gave away everything he was given.”

The architects are Suarez & Suarez Design Group of Providence; the Hanover Group is the main contractor.

THE LATE Dith Pran, the Cambodian genocide survivor whose story inspired the film The Killing Fields, called Ghosananda “the dream keeper of Cambodia.”

An estimated 2 million people died from torture, starvation or disease under the Khmer Rouge regime, including all but about 6,000 of Cambodia’s 80,000 monks who were targeted in the communists’ attempt to eradicate Buddhism. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed or desecrated most of the country’s Buddhist temples.

During the first years of the campaign, Ghosananda was on a forest retreat in Thailand. But he left in 1978 to help survivors who were pouring into refugee camps just inside Thailand’s border with Cambodia. His attempts to re-establish Buddhism included conducting a famous prayer ceremony in a Khmer Rouge controlled refugee camp that was attended by 20,000 people; he also established temples — in shacks — in all of the border camps.

As Chea explained, Ghosananda “became noted for his works of reconciliation in the refugee camps. Even faced with violence, he was able to get tens of thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers to defect … some even became monks.” Chea added that Ghosananda “was prepared to stop violence, even in the battlefield.”

Ghosananda arrived in Providence in 1980 or 1981, as the first of thousands of Cambodian refugees resettled in Rhode Island.

He and others formed the Khmer Buddhist Society of Rhode Island, and founded Wat Thormikaram in the three-decker house on Hanover Street. The temple was a source of solace for traumatized Cambodians struggling to survive in a new country, and part of a worldwide effort to restore Buddhism to the Cambodian people.

In sandals and saffron robes, Ghosananda led children on meditation walks around the temple.

“We walked for peace. [Ghosananda] would say, ‘Come children, walk behind me,’ ” said Makna Men, chairman of the mayor’s Southeast Asian Advisory Council in Providence, who is involved in the worship hall project. “That’s my memory. It was very comforting.”

Beginning in the 1990s, Ghosananda divided his time between Providence and other Cambodian communities in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. He traveled frequently to his homeland, and in 1991 led a 16-day pilgrimage across the country to restore the hopes and spirit of Cambodian people. It was the first of what became known as the “Dhammayietra Walks for Peace and Reconciliation.”

When the Prheah Maha Ghosananda temple is complete, monks will consecrate the worship hall with a traditional Buddhist ceremony. Chea said, “Worshipers will offer their special, sacred items; the monks will bless them and dig a hole around the building, and place them properly.”

For more information contact John Chea at (401) 699-1222. Donations to the temple project can be made by check to Wat Thormikaram, 177 Hanover St., Providence, RI 02907.

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