Buddhist approach to solving drugs and AIDS
related issues in Thailand.
The interview was conducted on August 26, 2001 at Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, Damnoen Saduak, Rajburi, Thailand. The questions were posed to the Venerable Abbot, Phra Bhavana Visutthikhun (left), by Irish citizen Mr. Tony Kenny, BA.MA (Religious Studies).
Buddhism teaches that our current situation is due to our previous actions. If this is indeed the case, has a person who has contracted AIDS been evil in a previous existence?
Not entirely evil. That person might also have done some good deeds, but the crucial deed has been an unwholesome one, which has produced a bad effect in this lifetime, in this case contracting the HIV virus.
What about unborn babies who contract the HIV virus when they are still in the womb?
I would call it an indirect result of karma. Here is an example:
'A' decides to make merit by performing a good and wholesome action. His merit-making will consequently produce good fruit, in keeping with the law of karma.
B is aware of A’s good action and shows his appreciation by rejoicing in it. By doing so, he will also receive the wholesome fruit of karma. As an example, B might in his next life be offered a good job as a manager in A’s company, or he might even be reborn as A’s son in some future life.
When committing a sin, it works the same way. If, for instance, you see someone doing something wrong and you just go along with it, maybe even cheer and encourage it, you will receive some future bad result or demerit for doing so. Although not as serious as the person who is personally committing the sin, there will surely be some bad result. As an example, you might be born as his/her son in a future life, and maybe even be infected by the HIV virus while still in the womb.
That’s what I mean by indirect karma results.
Intravenous drug abuse and homosexuality have played a large part in the spread of HIV/AIDS, as has heterosexual sex, especially on account of promiscuity, prostitution, and extra-marital affairs. Is the rise of HIV/AIDS simply a symptom of modern 21st century existence, wherein moral standards have declined and sensuality is the guiding force in people’s lives?
I would like to use the word ‘evidence’ rather than ‘symptom’, because at the moment it’s AIDS, and later it might be something else.
Please understand that sensuality is the guiding force only for those who are still in the dark (and admittedly they are the vast majority). When you understand that ignorance is the root cause of suffering, it is plain to see that those individuals who continually strive for sensual enjoyments not yet obtained, and indulge in those already obtained, will constantly meet with dissatisfaction.
On the other hand, those who study and, most important of all, practise Dhamma, will eventually realise the dangers of being misguided by sensuality. Please understand that Buddhism is not just a philosophy. It is a practice, meaning that, in addition to studying the scriptures, you must also accept precepts as well as practising meditation in order to develop Right Wisdom.
What would your advice be for homosexuals, both gay and lesbian?
I would advise them to accept the basic 5 precepts, and, if they were really determined to make changes within this life and aim for rebirth as a ‘straight’ person in the next life, I would recommend that they keep 8 precepts on a daily basis. Apart from that they should make the practice of meditation part of their daily routine. If, on the other hand, no changes are made, their present and future lives would just stay the same, or even become worse.
Can they harmonise their sexuality with their spiritual lives, or are homosexuality and Buddhism simply incompatible? Is their sexual mode of behaviour detrimental to spiritual progress?
Any extreme indulgence in sexual activities is an obstacle to obtaining a higher spiritual level. It makes no difference if it is homosexual or heterosexual activities. The bottom line is not to be attached to sexual enjoyment. A person who is careful and not promiscuous in his sexual activities will, by using the Right Effort, be able to reach higher levels of spiritual development and even become a Noble person. And that is regardless of his sexual orientation.
As I understand, homosexuality is the last stage of the bad outcome of committing adultery in some former lives. Firstly adultery will cause a person to be reborn either in Hell, as a hungry ghost, or as a dog. After hundreds of lifetimes in the planes of Suffering, he will eventually be reborn in the human world, in most cases as a woman, but a woman with a deep instinct leading her to become a prostitute.
As her mind gradually becomes more developed, she will eventually be reborn as a transvestite, then as a homosexual, and later as a regular woman. Subsequently she will be born as a male. However, if during any period that person becomes attached to his/her current lifestyle, the development will be much slower. In fact it might even get worse. Moreover, extremely unwholesome acts might even cause the cycle to be disrupted and consequently cause him/her to be reborn in Hell once more.
Phra Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and close attendant, committed adultery in a distant previous life. When he died he went to Hell and spent a rather long period of time there. Later, when he was reborn in the human world, he spent 7 lifetimes as a sterile woman. But, as his mind became more and more developed, he was reborn as a fertile woman and later as a man. The natural law of cause and effect is something nobody can protect himself/herself against.
What advice would you offer to intravenous drug USERS, both to those who are HIV free, and to those who have contracted the virus?
Right now the government has a strong policy in order to deal with this problem, and we are all doing our best to help. The first thing the government did was ‘declare war’ on HIV, by educating people of the dangers and how to protect themselves against it. But frankly speaking it is not very effective, because they don’t teach the root cause of all this, and moreover they don’t teach that by eliminating the cause you will once and for all eradicate the effect.
This is the Buddha’s teaching of Cause and Effect. In brief it can be explained like this: Ignorance leads to Karma-Formations. Karma-Formations lead to Consciousness. And the chain continues progressively through Name-and-Form, the Six Senses, Contact, Feeling, Desire, Attachment, Becoming, and Birth. Birth then leads to Aging, Decay, and Death (Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief, and Despair...... in short Suffering).
So I would like to emphasise that the people of the world ought to study and practise Buddhism. It would be of great benefit. If the world would accept 5 precepts, there would be no AIDS and no wars, just peace and happiness. If only people would practise meditation and Right Wisdom by visualisation, then they would clearly see the natural law of cause and effect, and see it for themselves, not merely relying on other people’s explanation in books. This would in turn lead them to be mindful before making choices, thereby avoiding getting into dangerous situations in the first place.
For those who have already contracted the virus, we should have proper social centres and hospitals to take care of them. The patients should be divided into categories, according to the advancement of the disease, that is, according to the degree of symptoms, and then they should be helped accordingly. They should not be abandoned, but be guided to live as peacefully as possible. Those who are still in the beginning stages could have their family around them, thereby creating a feeling of warmth and unity.
Looking after them physically should be the duty of lay people, while the mental help and Dhamma guidance should be carried out by monks. It is important that the duties are shared. If monks do both jobs, they would be too far away from their primary duties, away from being mindful and having concentration of mind, all of which are part of the fundamental practice of a Buddhist monk.
So you see, a monk’s job is to teach the patients at all levels, so that they will have peaceful minds at the moment of dying. If the last thought of a person is happy and peaceful, that person will be reborn in a happy world. Throughout a person’s life all of his/her good and bad deeds are ‘recorded’. The moment before dying, those ‘recordings’ are replayed, and the deed which has the deepest impact on the last thought will determine where that person will be reborn. So you can see why a happy and peaceful last thought is what one should aim at.
Here at our temple I am monthly teaching around 3 groups of students at all levels. They come in groups of 400-500 and stay for 2-3 days. During that time they study meditation and listen to Dhamma talks, and I also explain to them the dangers lurking in modern society today. Moreover I point out the root cause of contracting HIV and drug addiction, namely ignorance, carelessness, and neglect of the fundamental 5 precepts. Additionally I make radio and TV programs on the subject as part of our regular Dhamma programs.
On account of Buddhism’s unique metaphysical view of the world (anatta; maya; sunyata) Christian theologians have often regarded Buddhists as being socially apathetic and unconcerned with this world. Is this accusation unfounded?
Yes. In fact, Buddhist organisations do a lot to help others. Loving Kindness and Compassion are both important qualities in Buddhism. But when a Buddhist temple or organisation does something good to help others it is mostly not promoted. As an example, our temple has lately been helping flood victims with food and rice, but since it didn’t hit the headlines few people know.
However, as monks we mostly give long term help to people by teaching them how to help themselves.
What are Buddhists – both the ordained and the lay Sangha – doing to help AIDS victims, their families, and the bereaved?
Again Dhamma practice (Generosity, Morality, Concentration of Mind, and Wisdom) is the key word. People have to accept precepts in order to pacify their daily routine, and to meditate in order to develop Right Wisdom whereby they will understand why they contracted HIV in this lifetime. Furthermore they will thereby understand that the only person who can help them out of this unfortunate result of their past misconduct is in fact themselves. Nobody else has the power to help, other than give guidance. We all have our personal karma, and will receive the fruit accordingly. No one can flee from bad (or good) fruit of previous deeds.
We all have to join forces. The government has to do its part, and the Sangha will in turn perform its duties. It’s important to educate people and teach them not only about the problems, but also about the causes. Next the patients should be given some warmth and understanding, thereby helping them to make their minds and behaviour peaceful. As stated earlier, dying with a peaceful mind will help that person to be reborn in a happy world.
Can the Sangha help the laity to become more compassionate regarding their views of AIDS patients? It must be conceded that presently in Thailand people look with disdain upon not only HIV/AIDS victims, but their families too.
People in general need more education about AIDS, especially learning about the risk of contracting it. That’s why families abandon a member who has contracted the virus. They still think that simply touching the patient is dangerous. So education is crucial, but that is mostly a lay person’s job. On the spiritual level, monks can teach Dhamma (Generosity, Morality, Concentration of mind, and Wisdom) to both the victims and their families, and also encourage them to keep the basic 5 precepts on a daily basis. And those who understand the law of Cause and Effect will clearly see the benefits of keeping precepts. Soon they realise that the key solutions to solving all current problematic issues in our society today can all be found in the profound teaching of our great teacher, the Buddha.
© Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, Thailand