by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
In 1995 I participated in the International Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life, in commemoration of the end of World War II. The Pilgrimage started with a 10-day convocation in Oswiecim, Poland. We offered prayers and meditation at the Birkenau and Auschwitz death camps, we studied and engaged in deep dialog, and we blessed and broke bread together. On one of the days, a succession of highly esteemed speakers gave teachings about their work for peace, reconciliation, and healing. They were all amazing people, doing admirable and courageous work. That said, as the talks went on, it became, well… repetitive (to put it nicely). The organizers saved the keynote speaker, a Cambodian Buddhist Monk called Maha Ghosananda (z”l), to speak last. I had never heard of the guy.
The emcee, a beautiful long-haired and equally long-winded activist from California, took the stage and began his introduction: “I am honored to invite a great man, a man whose compassion is infinite. He has been nominated for a Nobel peace prize for his work organizing the Dhammayietra, his accomplishments in peace and reconciliation are an inspiration for so many of us….” The guy went on and on and on and on…
I looked over at Maha. It was December, in Poland. Maha was from Cambodia. He was swaddled in layers and layers of saffron colored cloth to stay warm. Like the Great Pumpkin with a beatific punim, he waited patiently while the panegyric introduction unspooled. Finally, we all heard, “…please offer a warm welcome to the most venerated and revered, the compassionate Buddhist spiritual master, Preah Maha Ghosananda.”
Maha stood up. He was no more than five feet tall. In his sweet and lilting accent he said, “I will speak from here.” He took a short pause as everyone turned to see him standing in the audience. When the auditorium was quiet, he spoke. He said, “Be peaceful.” And he sat back down.
That was it. He had schlepped halfway around the world to give us two— count ‘em, two words. It was absolutely dazzling. His whole family had been brutally murdered, he had to flee his homeland, he suffered and witnessed every kind of human ugliness imaginable and he gave us the deepest of all teachings—be peaceful—because that was what he practiced. That’s how he made it through. Despite everything, he was peaceful. So simple. So difficult.
I’ve been thinking about Maha’s Torah all week. Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Deut 16:18-21:9), includes its own pithy holy spiritual zinger, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” Justice, justice shall you pursue.
The word tzedek/justice should never be confused with retribution, revenge or punishment. Rather, from a Hebraic understanding, pursuing tzedek means to correct, to balance, to make right, to justify, to save. And how do we do that? Well, it’s a multi-layered process, and here I’ll turn to Maha once again. Regarding his own country’s political, spiritual, ethical and moral disintegration he famously taught:
Cambodia has suffered deeply.
From deep suffering comes deep compassion.
From deep compassion comes a peaceful heart.
From a peaceful heart comes a peaceful person.
From a peaceful person comes a peaceful family and community.
From peaceful communities come a peaceful nation.
From peaceful nations come a peaceful world.
When considering the sad ugliness rising in our nation—anti-semitism, racism, sexism, LGBTQIphobia, xenophobia and the unfettered destruction of our sweet, beautiful earth—let us remember Maha Ghosananda’s powerful and pointed wisdom. May we recognize that fear clothes itself in anger, shame expresses as hate, and ignorance only deals in caricature. Let us each pursue spiritual security, respect and wisdom that we may be righteous, just and peaceful.