"The first 35 years of my life, I practiced the abuse of life. Since then, to tell you frankly, I have been practicing and learning the use of life.“
— Bhante Dharmawara
The Venerable Dharmawara Mahathera, the renowned 110-year-old Cambodian Bhikshu, passed away at his temple in Stockton on June 25, 1999, and was cremated on July 9. Bhikshus Heng Sure, Heng Syan, Heng Lyu and Heng Chuan represented the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association at his memorial service and funeral.
Known as "Bhante" to his followers, Venerable Dharmawara was born to an upper-class family in Cambodia. He was educated in the French school system and sent to the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Because of his sensitivity at seeing human suffering, his educational track shifted from medicine to law and politics. Upon returning home, he became a distinguished magistrate and advisor to the Court of the King of Cambodia. He served seven years as a judge and provincial governor, got married, and had a daughter. Despite a life of indulging in rich foods, smoking, and drinking, he was unhappy, and in fact became deathly ill. By his mid-thirties, Bhante was suffering from ankylosing spondylitis (causing the structure of the body to disintegrate), multiple sclerosis (a disease in which the nervous system attacks itself), and ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory disease of the intestines). Following the custom of his culture, Bhante decided to enter a Buddhist monastery for a period of reflection and repose before what he thought would be his imminent death. In the solitude of the monastery, he found both the intellectual stimulation and the equanimity of mind that gave renewed meaning to his life. He "discovered the answer about life— that 'I, myself was the real problem." At that point, he decided to leave his home and become a forest monk.
Walking into the forests of Thailand, he studied for seven years under renowned Buddhist teachers. He lived in huts and subsisted on simple offerings from the peasant farmers, eating just one meal a day. He and his disciples often encountered tigers, elephants, wild boars, and snakes in the forests, yet these animals did not bother them, as they could somehow sense the monks' peaceful, loving thoughts.
After seven years in the forests, Bhante Dharmawara reentered the world and went to India where he studied healing and languages, eventually mastering at least a dozen languages. In New Delhi, Bhante founded the Asoka Mission Vihara, which grew to include a monastery, meditation center, healthcare home, and youth hostel. Very early on, Christmas was celebrated there as well, due to Bhante's belief that all spiritual traditions share a common thread. Bhante was elected to the presidency of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, and the Asoka Mission became the Indian Center of that organization. For several years, he taught in the department of Asian languages at the Hindu University in Benares. During his time in India, Bhante was close friends with Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru, and even served as Nehru's personal physician. Bhante was active in promoting peace globally by participating in religious and political conferences throughout the world, and did much to reestablish' Buddhism in modern India during his 45 years there.
Once, Bhante was very sick for about six months. Many times he developed a high fever. When he became semiconscious, he reported seeing the Buddha lying on his bed, and that sight gave him great hope and inspiration that he would not die. He persevered in the face of his pain. He ate simply, and eventually, in spite of severe jaundice and what was probably malaria, he did recover. He was so weak that he had to learn to stand and walk on his own again.
Through his simple lifestyle and vegetarian diet consisting mostly of raw fruits and vegetables, rice and tea, Bhante cured himself of various life-threatening diseases and later healed many others. He would often remind everyone that "You are what you think. You are what you eat and drink." He discovered that the sun, pure water, and concentrated thought were the most powerful healing tools. He would tell his patients that he would "use only my hands to heal— no medicines, no knives— if my hands do not help you, at least I have not harmed you." When asked why he would not charge for his healing services but would only take donations, Bhante replied, "The poor people would not be able to afford it, and I must treat the rich in an equal manner to the poor!"
In the 1950's, Bhante was invited with 2000 other educators from around the world to Washington, D.C., for conferences regarding education. Later, he spent time in England teaching. In the early 1970's, Bhante, nearly 90 years old, moved to the United States to teach at Georgetown University. He later established his home temple in Stockton, California, where there is a large Cambodian population. During these last years Bhante continued to travel extensively around the world doing meditation courses, healing work, and ceremonies. In the past few decades Bhante Dharmawara developed a close relationship with the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. [See article in next issue.] A portion of Bhante's ashes will be given to Cambodian President Norodom Sihanouk (former King of Cambodia), who has commissioned a shrine for them, and the rest will be taken to India to the Asoka Mission Vihara. Sihanouk made Bhante Dharmawara the "King of all Cambodian monks." Bhante Dharmawara will be remembered around the world as a generous and compassionate monk who lived simply, and selflessly devoted himself to the well-being of humanity.