|Inspiring compassion: Monk Thich Thanh Huan (third left) shares his knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention and protection with devotees visiting his pagoda. — Photo Phap Van Pagoda files
by Hong Thuy
When I arrived, Nguyen Van Kien (name changed) was lying on a bare, rickety bed made of thin wooden planks.
It was a cool March morning. There were five similar beds arranged in a narrow, basement room of the Phap Van Pagoda in Ha Noi's Thanh Tri District. The room was dimly lit, with half-open windows. I could hardly see anyone inside; just silhouettes on the beds divided by makeshift curtains.
Only when Kien moved to the empty bed, which was at an arm's length from me, did I see his face.
Clad in a blue jeans and T-shirt, Kien looked rather healthy for someone who had been diagnosed with the dreaded Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
"No one thought that I was alive, including the doctors at the Bach Mai Hospital," the 35 year-old-man recalled.
"My family and monk Thich Thanh Huan saved my life and made me feel that I was not abandoned," he said.
Kien was in anguish and desperate when he first contracted the HIV virus in 2006. He attempted to commit suicide on numerous occasions by injecting himself with lethal drug overdoses and not caring about living a healthy life to slow the progress of full-blown AIDS.
Yet, good quality of care, empathy, and encouragement from his family and the monk helped Kien lead a balanced and longer life.
"I realise that overthinking and depression can make me more vulnerable to the illness, so I prefer to be in the company of people facing a similar dilemma like me. In the pagoda I can meet and talk to my peers," he said.
Earlier, Kien had no place to go except the Ha Noi Lung Hospital, which he frequented for receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART).
He started visiting the pagoda four years ago after Monk Thich Thanh Huan's visit to his house. The monk had dropped in to inquire about his health, and invited him to participate in clubs for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Kien confessed to have been visibly moved by the good intentions of the monk who showed genuine interest in his well-being and was keen to help him overcome difficulties, though they had never met before.
Sharing similar feelings, Hoang Phuong Lam (not her real name) claimed that she would have died had she not met the monk who offered her shelter and informed her about the use of ART for the treatment and prevention of HIV infection.
"Mental factors can lead to life or death situations among people living with HIV/AIDS. The discrimination of the people in my homeland makes me feel like a fish out water. Even now, I do not dare to return home to visit my loved ones," Lam remarked.
Having married in 2003, Lam knew she had contracted the HIV virus from her life partner, a drug user, a year later.
Since then, no one wants to come to her tailoring shop to have their suits made. Many people did not even return to collect their finished garments after they heard about the fatal virus that Lam carried.
"People did not want to sit next to me for fear of being infected with the virus. Even my nephew's mother told him that he should not take any food that I gave him," Lam, 36, recalled.
Loneliness and isolation had jeopardised her health, though it was only three years since she contracted the virus. When Lam met the monk in 2007, she had already developed AIDS as a result of her HIV infection.
Sitting cross-legged in a lotus posture with one lap of his brown robe covered on it, monk Thich Thanh Huan was the epitome of warmth and kindness as he greeted me with a genuine smile.
"When people living with HIV/AIDS come to the pagoda to seek help, I understand that they feel alone, isolated, and frightened at times. Thus, they look forward to having peace in their life. They are in dire need of help. This motivated me to set up a counselling and care centre for people living with HIV/AIDS," said the monk.
Founded in 2003, the centre has attracted several thousand people who have benefited from spiritual counselling, information and food.
Many have been given assistance in the form of free screening and treatment for HIV infection. They have also been provided shelter when they were in a state of shock, and have been advised on how to live a healthy lifestyle.
"The pagoda can't offer material needs to anyone, but it offers inspiring words of encouragement, empathy and has a strong wish to share the difficulties of people living with HIV/AIDS," explained monk Thich Thanh Huan.
In keeping with the spirit of life engagement and pursuit of happiness among humans, which is the essence of Vietnamese Buddhism, the monk stated that he wants to give hope and faith to the victims of HIV/AIDS.
He has helped set up clubs for HIV-infected people to interact and share information about HIV/AIDS prevention and protection.
The monk considers every pagoda-goer equal. Not surprisingly, the Phap Van pagoda has become a place of refuge for several people living with HIV/AIDS.
In 63 cities and provinces across the country, pagodas have been offering counselling to HIV/AIDS victims and partaking in movements to stem out the associated stigma and discrimination, according to Standing Vice President of Buddhist Sangha of Viet Nam (BSV)'s Executive Council, Most Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu.
It is no wonder that their contributions play a vital role in helping Viet Nam control the outbreak of the HIV epidemic.
According to the Millennium Development Goals report released last year by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Viet Nam has successfully managed to reduce the number of new cases of HIV infection as well as HIV-related deaths in the recent years.
Over a 11-month-period in 2012, the number of reported HIV cases dropped by 22 per cent and the number of deaths decreased nearly threefold.
Overall, Viet Nam has successfully contained HIV prevalence to under 0.3 per cent, which is lower than the target set by the now superseded national 2004-2010 strategy.
The report revealed that there were 208,866 HIV-positive cases, 59,839 AIDS patients, and 62,184 AIDS-related deaths in Viet Nam in 2012.
In spite of these achievements, challenges prevail, the report added.
There is a high risk of an outbreak within some communities like HCM City and Ha Noi; poor coverage of HIV screening programmes in remote and economically disadvantaged areas; limited patient access to needles, syringes, and condoms; insufficient provision of ART to people living with HIV/AIDS; and funding constraints.
Confronting such challenges, Monk Thich Thanh Huan noted that Vietnamese Buddhism entering social life (life engagement) is a major concern among Vietnamese monks and nuns, who take responsibility to bring happiness to people and peace to the society.
"We do not have money to offer, but we are able to improve people's lives through implementing the Buddhist spirit of mercy, fraternity, and salvation," the monk explained.
Life engagement is also a linchpin to be highlighted at the imminent Vesak Day, which falls on May 7, an officially recognized United Nations holiday that celebrates the birth of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
Under the theme "Buddhist Perspective towards Achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals", the event will mark a milestone for Vietnamese Buddhism to showcase to the world that it will work in tandem with other countries to solve global issues, though being simultaneously involved in charity work to bring happiness to the lives of the people, which has been followed ever since Buddhism was introduced in Viet Nam more than 2,000 years ago.
"Buddhism, a religion of mercy, happiness, and salvation for all human beings, always applies its rules to serve the nation and mankind. Understanding this, the BSV has been focusing on improving the lives of the underprivileged, the elderly, women, children, and other marginalized people," remarked Most Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu.
For years, the Executive Boards of the BSV in cities and provinces have provided financial assistance to the impoverished in flooded, remote, and mountainous regions, showed gratitude to the families of war invalid soldiers and martyrs by building schools and houses for them, cared for children with disabilities in orphanages and care centres, built charity classes to educate children of impoverished parents, and provided care to the elderly, Agent Orange victims, leprosy, HIV-infected, and mentally ill patients, among others.
Last year saw the SBV spending more than VND1,200 billion (US$60 million) on Buddhist charity activities.
While Buddhism in its essence is humanism, the nature of charity work means bringing Buddhism to life. The famous declaration of Buddha in the prayer "Serve all living beings means to worship Buddha" is the basic principle of the socially engaged Buddhism.
Clearly, Buddha realised that the purpose of his life was not to serve himself, but he hoped that through his lectures humans will serve themselves and bring happiness and goodness to everyone. In other words, the very nature of Buddhism is oriented towards serving mankind.
This is also a message that Vietnamese Buddhism continues to commit to its volition and enthusiasm to bring equality and happiness to mankind in this year's Vesak Day.
The five-day event will be held in Bai Dinh pagoda in the northern province of Ninh Binh. — VNS