Reflections of Death Buddhist Hospices & HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS Prevention & Care

A Buddhist Response To The HIV/Aids Crisis
Lawrence Maund Sangha - Metta Project

At the time of his birth, it was predicted that Prince Siddattha, the Buddha to be, would become a Universal Monarch or a Buddha. To prevent him leaving the palace and to ensure his royal inheritance, Prince Siddhattha’s father, King Suddhodana, provided his son with all the worldly comforts and luxuries he could possibly need. Thus, Prince Siddattha grew up in the confines of the palace, ignorant of worldly suffering.

At the age of 29, the young prince, desirous of seeing life outside the palace walls, left the his luxurious surroundings and went into the city gardens where he saw a sick man, an old man and a corpse.

Although suffering had always been present, it was only then that he became aware of its existence.

On a second visit outside the palace walls, Prince Siddattha beheld a holy man, calm and peaceful, and realized that there must be a way out of suffering. Determined to find the path, he left his life of luxury to become a seeker of truth.

After years of practice and seeking, he eventually penetrated the truth and became enlightened to the realities of life.

His enlightenment brought with it the realization of the Four Noble Truths – suffering (Dukkha), the cause of suffering (Samudaya), the cessation of suffering (Nirodha) and the path leading to the cessation of suffering (Magga).

Just as Prince Siddattha was unaware of the existence of suffering prior to his visit outside the palace walls, most people are unaware of the suffering brought about by the HIV/AIDS crisis. They see AIDS as a health problem affecting only the person who has been infected with the virus and lead their lives blinded by worldly comforts and pleasures.

By putting HIV/AIDS into the framework the Four Noble Truths, Buddhist monks and nuns all throughout Southeast Asia have come to understand the suffering of AIDS. They have seen that there is a cause for the suffering of AIDS and that there is a cessation to that suffering. They have also seen that there is a path that leads to the cessation of the suffering brought about by AIDS.

In every Buddhist country in Southeast Asia, the temple is the center of the community and serves as center for all community functions and activities. Community life revolves around the temple and Buddhist monks are looked upon as the spiritual leaders and moral support of the community. People put their trust in monks and turn to them for support and advice in times of crisis.

For centuries, Buddhist monks and nuns have fulfilled their obligations to ensuring the health, happiness and well being of the community by supporting community development. Although this has been done mainly through education, a large number of monks and nuns have also assisted with the economic prosperity and growth of the community by establishing social welfare funds, rice banks, buffalo banks and income generation activities.

Though modernization and socio-economic development have brought many changes to the community, the role of monks has not changed. In this modern age, monks continue to be one of the community’s main pillars of support.

With the arrival of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, monks thought about how they could help in managing the AIDS problem and reducing its impacts on the communities.

After studying the Buddha’s teachings on the responsibility of monks towards the community, they concluded that a monk’s duty is three-fold:

1. Kanda dhura, vipassana dhura – to develop his knowledge through study and meditation;

2. Jarata bhikkhave jaritham phahuchanhitaya phahuchansukhaya lokanukampaya attaya hitaya sukha tevamanussanam – to wander from place to place teaching for the well-being and happiness of gods and men;

3. Sangham saranam gaccami – to serve as a refuge in times of suffering.

Having identified their community role, monks considered how they could apply it in managing the HIV/AIDS crisis.

After some thought, they concluded that AIDS is not merely a health issue concerning the person infected with HIV, but also a serious socio-economic issue with potential devastating impacts on future development. They also concluded that all problems related to the AIDS crisis are rooted in ignorance. If those problems are to be solved or avoided, then that ignorance has to be uprooted.

By learning about HIV/AIDS and all the related problems, the monk would be fulfilling his first responsibility to the community. By taking that knowledge and disseminating it for the benefit of the community, he would be fulfilling his second responsibility. He would then be a good refuge for the community during its time of suffering from AIDS, thus fulfilling his third responsibility.

Using this Buddhist approach the Sangha Metta Project, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand was established to promote and support the work of Buddhist monks and nuns in HIV/AIDS prevention and care. Through the Sangha Metta Project, thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns all throughout Southeast Asia have been educated and trained in HIV/AIDS prevention and care and are now working in their communities to alleviate the suffering brought about by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Many others are following their example.

Using their temple as a base and the community as their target group, they work together to raise community awareness and develop the community’s potential in managing the HIV/AIDS crisis and its impacts on the community.

To prevent the spread of AIDS in their community, particularly amongst the young, monks and nuns conduct HIV/AIDS awareness raising camps. During these camps, which are generally held in the temple, they educate young people and the community on all aspects of HIV/AIDS and the socio-economic impacts. Using the life skills development and participatory learning approach, they equip the young with the skills they need to protect themselves from the dangers that come with modernization and consumerism, from temptation and from being lured into risk behavior. The monks and nuns do not work alone, but collaborate with other community leaders, the local health station and schools. In this way, activities conducted by monks and nuns become a community affair with all sectors of the community becoming involved.

As more and more infected people progress from stage one to stages two and three, become symptomatic and ill, the need for care becomes greater.

Monks and nuns assist by providing both physical and emotional support. Many have studied how to use traditional medicines to treat opportunistic diseases, which they do through their temples, while at the same time providing dharma based counseling and training in meditation.

The impact that AIDS is having on children is also increasing. With their parents unable to work and earn an income, children find themselves having to drop out of school with the burden of either caring for their sick parents and siblings, or having to find employment to supplement the family’s income. Because they are uneducated and unqualified, the work they can do is limited providing insufficient income to meet the family’s needs. Stressed by the load that they are forced to carry at such a young age, these children become easy targets of drug traffickers and pimps.

Monks and nuns have responded to this new need by diversifying the work they are doing. Many temples have established education funds to ensure that these young children can stay in school and complete their studies. Some temples conduct traditional fund raising activities on special days such as World Aids Day and Children’s Day, or at New Year. Donations are also received and distributed. Funds are generally distributed at the start of the academic year or the new semester. To meet the children’s material needs temples receive and distribute donations of textbooks, pens, erasers, and notebooks etc. as needed. Uniforms and clothing are also provided. And to ensure that children are receiving the nourishment they need, some monks and temples have set up milk banks, or collect consumer goods received as alms offerings, which they donate on home visits to families, affected by HIV/AIDS. For example, the chief monk of Doi Saket District, Chiang Mai, Thailand has established a temple cooperative to which all monks under his jurisdiction contribute from alms offerings. These contributions are donated to children in the area who are affected by AIDS, as well as other needy children.

For children who are unable to complete their education, temples arrange vocational skills training. Examples of this can be seen at Wat Sri Suphan in Muang District, Chiang Mai, Thailand where children and youth are able to receive free training as silversmiths, and Wat Hua Rin in San Pa Tong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand where training in tailoring is offered free of charge. As a result of these programmes, many youth are now able to earn extra money to support the family in its time of need.

As death approaches, monks and nuns visit the terminally ill at home or in hospitals where they provide pre-death counseling and support for the family.

In the event that one or both parents die, leaving the child orphaned, temples respond by taking in young boys as temple boys or for ordination as novices. Nuns assist by caring for orphaned girls. In this way, the children are assured of a place to live, food to eat and an opportunity for education. Buddhist nun, Mae Chi Arun, who runs the Dhammajarini Foundation in Pa Sang District, Lamphun Province, Thailand is caring for a growing number of socially and economically deprived girls. Through her Foundation, young girls are able to complete their studies through the non-formal education programme, as well as receive vocational training. Without her assistance, and the help of other nuns at the Foundation, many of these young girls would be at risk of exploitation or end up in the commercial sex industry.

Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam have also opened their doors to orphaned children. A fine example can be seen at Ky Quang II Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City where Venerable Thich Thien Chieu, with the support of monks, nuns and lay Buddhists, supports almost 200 hundred orphaned children including children orphaned by AIDS, as well as physically and mentally handicapped orphans.

Similar activities can also be found in other Southeast Asian countries as well. Many temples in Cambodia, such as Wat Noreay in Battambang Province, for example, are supporting AIDS orphans, as well as children of mine victims. Monks and nuns in Vientiane, Suwannaket, Luang Pabang and Bo Kaeo Provinces, Laos have also responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis and are caring for infected and affected children in a variety of ways, as well as HIV positive people. The same can be seen in temples Kyang Tung, Shan State, Burma and Xeshuan Panna, China.

Through the help of these monks and nuns, many people who once faced a bleak and uncertain future are now guaranteed a good life in their community, and a future free from anxiety and the risk of exploitation and abuse. And as they grow and mature, it is the community and the nation as a whole who will be the ones who benefit.

What these monks and nuns are doing is simply fulfilling the responsibility that they, as religious leaders, have in ensuring the health, happiness and well-being of their congregation.

Like the Buddha before them, they serve as an example for others to follow.