Lamas Against AIDS

By David South

UB Post (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), November 5, 1997

Manila, Philippines – Since HIV is contracted through sex, the disease has always been a difficult subject for the world’s religious leaders. When there is sex to be discussed, no religion can do it without bringing up morality.

This moral debate about bedroom behaviour has tainted discussion of AIDS in many countries. At the extreme end of the spectrum, some evangelical Christian leaders in the US have painted AIDS as an apocalyptic disinfectant for humanity.

Not surprisingly, this attitude has not helped in educating the faithful that AIDS can happen to anyone and its victims should be treated like any other ill person.

The Philippine conference heard that the standoff between the world’s leaders and public health authorities must stop. Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, pointed to the numerous delegates from the world’s religions and called on others to follow their example.

“In Myanmar, the Myanmar Council of Churches, the YWCA and other community-based organizations have joined hands with local authorities, health workers and Buddhist groups for community-based prevention, care and support programmes,” he told the assembly.

“This is the best practice in action.”

Mongolian delegate Dr Altanchimeg thinks a similar approach could work in this country.

“Now every Mongolian goes to see lamas. It’s a good channel to advocate for AIDS education. In Thailand, lamas are very experienced at this. People believe in lamas.”

Like their colleagues in Thailand and Myanmar, Cambodian lamas have been in the forefront of AIDS education.

Lamas there use festivals and ceremonies to raise the issue.

You Chan, a 30-year-old lama from Tol Sophea Khoun monestary in Phnom Penh, likes to raise the issue delicately, by referring to diseases in Buddha’s time.

“I feel it is difficult to speak about sexual methods with a large audience – I will not speak to sexual methods.

“At first, it was very difficult. People would ask why a monk would say such things. But I tried and tried and the people understood who is helping them.

“My message to Mongolia’s lamas is this: you have a moral responsibility to educate the people about AIDS, that it is happening all around the world and there is no medicine to cure it.

“You have to take care in the name of Buddhism to help people in this world.”

You Chan teaches lamas at 15 temples in Cambodia, who pass the message along to other lamas and congregations.