It’s the third Thursday of the month in Hua Rin, northern Thailand, a day when villagers bring offerings of candles, incense, and lotus blooms to the local temple. But in the temple’s community hall, something unusual is unfolding. In one corner, a nurse takes villagers’ blood pressure and gives advice on medication. Nearby, a group sits in half-lotus around a monk who gives dharma instruction and counseling. A chatty group sprawls in front of the altar, carving sandalwood into flowers to adorn coffins of the dead.

Weaving is one of many activities that Wat Hua Rin supports to manage the economic impact of HIV on the community. © Kristin Barendsen.
Weaving is one of many activities that Wat Hua Rin supports to manage the economic impact of HIV on the community. © Kristin Barendsen.

It’s the meeting of an HIV support group that has been gathering monthly at the temple, Wat Hua Rin, for nine years. Its over forty-five members come for free health checks and treatment advice, and especially for spiritual counseling from the orange-robed man who helped make this all possible: Abbot Luang Pi Daeng.

In the early nineties the AIDS crisis devastated Thailand, especially villages, like Hua Rin, that border the red-light district of the northern metropolis Chiang Mai. Almost 6 percent of Hua Rin residents were infected with HIV. Healthy villagers shunned their sick neighbors, terrified of infection.

Luang Pi Daeng saw what was happening and took action. He walked door-to-door to hundreds of homes, beginning with the families of the HIV-positive villagers. “I told them you can’t get AIDS through casual contact,” he says. Knowing his example was meaningful, the abbot accepted alms of food prepared by people with AIDS, and was not afraid to spend time counseling in their homes. “I suggested how the healthy people could help the sick spiritually, mentally, and physically, so we could all live together.”

Soon he met Somya, a villager who, like many Thai women with AIDS, had contracted HIV from her husband. [Somya and Saisunee, another Thai woman quoted below, asked not to have their last names revealed.] She was trying to start a support group for HIV-positive women, but couldn’t find a friendly venue. Luang Pi Daeng invited Somya’s group to meet at the temple. “First, though, I had to get the acceptance of the community,” he says. “I showed them that if we don’t help those with AIDS, all of us suffer.” Today the group also includes men.

The abbot recounts his story in the small meditation room attached to his quarters. Forty years old, he is a humble, serious monk, laughing only when he does a burlesque imitation of Chinese-style prostration. Today, he says, the situation in Hua Rin is much improved. “The villagers are helping with sincere, pure hearts.”

The temple also provides employment for HIV-positive villagers. In an adjacent building, a dozen women work at sewing machines, making kimonos for a Japanese company that pays their wages. Seamstress Saisunee, thin even by Thai standards, says she has been living seven years with HIV. “I like my job because it’s not difficult, and I can work as my health allows,” she says. She never misses a support-group meeting. “I feel better when I can talk seriously to others, explain my problems.”

Translating for me, with an excellent command of the Thai language, is Laurie Maund, founder of the UNICEF-funded Sangha Metta Project, which trains Buddhist monks and nuns to press for similar programs in their home temples. “We’re trying to scale down the epidemic from the national to the local level,” says Maund, in his native Australian accent. They do so by taking the local example of Wat Hua Rin and using it as a model to create similar projects all over Southeast Asia. To date, Sangha Metta’s training seminars have educated more than four thousand monastics in seven countries about AIDS prevention and treatment.

Seminars begin by teaching the Four Noble Truths, replacing dukkha (suffering) with “AIDS.” Instructors use the Five Precepts to illustrate that morality is key to prevention, emphasizing the third precept of sexual responsibility. Monks learn how to teach the “ABC approach”—Abstinence, Being faithful, and Choosing condoms. They are trained to teach laypeople how to use condoms and are cautioned not to share razor blades when shaving their heads.

After attending these seminars, the monks are prepared to teach other monastics and laypeople about AIDS prevention and treatment. Using Wat Hua Rin as a model, they establish support groups, employ HIV-positive people in making handicrafts and clothes, and offer spiritual counseling and health care advice. Some even donate a portion of their alms to AIDS patients.

Through the efforts of Sangha Metta, other NGOs, and government campaigns, the annual rate of new HIV infections in Thailand has dropped significantly, from 140,000 a decade ago to fewer than 30,000 in 2003. Today, the infection rate in Hua Rin’s village cluster is down from 6 percent to 1 percent.

When asked why he focuses on AIDS above other social problems, Luang Pi Daeng says, “I’m afraid for the children whose parents have died. My greatest wish is to make their lives better.”

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