Pat O’Hara Dharma Talk: AIDS Response


Buddhist Tradition of Compassion and Our Response to AIDS

by Pat Enkyo O’Hara

An American Buddhist monk visited New York City. Seeing a woman selling hot dogs, he asked for “One with everything.” The vendor gave him a hot dog, and the Buddhist paid with a $20 bill. When she didn’t give change he complained, but the hot dog vendor said, “Change must come from within.”

This exchange exemplifies two core teachings in the Buddhist tradition, each of which renders a double-edged principle in relation to our tradition of compassion. The two teachings which are said to have been realized on the great morning of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment are that we are all one body (“one with everything”), and, that the perception of this can only come from our individual insight (“change must come from within”).

From the perspective of the one body, the body that sees one absolute reality which connects all beings, compassion for anyone or anything is automatic. In fact, it can hardly be called compassion: when the left hand is burning, the right hand comes to its aid, naturally, without thought. Seen in this way, compassion for a person with HIV/AIDS presents no special problem. Seeing our selves as the one body, we can say, “we all have AIDS.” And therefore we will take responsibility for caring for those with HIV/AIDS. The catch, of course, is, how do we see the world as one body?

Changing the Way We See Things

While there are many varied “skillful means” and forms of teaching and expression in the Buddhist world, a core teaching that runs through all is the understanding that responsibility ultimately is placed on the individual to ‘change': to cease from an ego-centered, separated perception of the self, to see the basic interconnection of all beings, to be the one body.

It is said that the historical Buddha once spoke of what it takes for people to recognize the true nature of the human condition. He said that a few, very awake and sensitive people, have only to hear of the death of someone in a distant village to recognize the impermanence, vulnerability to suffering, and the interconnection of our lives. Others recognize it when someone in their own village becomes ill or dies. Many people recognize it when someone in their own family becomes ill and dies, and for some people, it is only when they themselves become ill, that they realize it. In a way, we could say the same about the reaction to AIDS within the American Buddhist community.

When I am Dying

In the early 1980’s American Buddhists were among those whose bodies were infected by HIV/AIDS. And it was their response to the virus which in many cases, led to profound new trends in coping with the disease. Buddhist influenced meditation and approaches to living with disease and dying became more accessible, popularized by Stephen Levine, Ram Das and others. And each Buddhist who was infected had the opportunity to experience our tradition of compassion. This was at a time when the highest rate of infection occurred among gay men. One of the men was a dharma brother of mine, Robert Genjin Savage, who, like so many others, grew in spiritual depth and wisdom as he coped with the disease.

As I witnessed Robert struggle with being tested, with the positive result, trying to remain healthy and slowly becoming ill and finally dying with AIDS, I saw also the maturing of a Buddhist who took the teachings directly into his last years. Like most of us, Robert was no saint, but through his experience of AIDS, he became a focal point for many people: for those suffering from AIDS and for those who simply suffer from life’s workings. He began teaching meditation at GMHC and he continued that even when he was very ill. Once, during instruction, he found himself having to retch into a basin, then he simply turned and continued meditation instruction. He came to see that AIDS was not separate from him, and that fear was not an enemy. From his diary:

I don’t want to die! Every fiber of me takes issue with the prognosis. A knot clinches all day in my solar plexus – a steady monotone: no, no, no, no. . But now, instead, I do it the Zen way and embrace my fear, own it, make it utterly mine, as if I were making love to it. In that intimate embrace the humming energy hasn’t yet emerged as “fear”, hasn’t yet been shaped into an external adversary, a threat : IT”S ME – me before there’s a problem.

And it was this ability to be present in this moment, this non-separation from AIDS, from fear, from anger, from blame, that gave him those last 18 months of wisdom and compassion and strength. He became a model for all of us: we are not separate from our fear, from disease, from death or from each other. The fundamental Buddhist teaching, that we are one with all experience and all beings, that there is nothing that is left out, became a skillful means for Robert and for other Buddhists to work with their illness and their dying. The many people who visited Robert during his last days found themselves the beneficiaries of his Buddhist practice. They would go up to comfort him only to find the roles being skillfully reversed: he would be comforting them. He was able finally, to experience himself as larger than his small self; to exemplify the wisdom of Buddhism: we are not separate from all that is; nothing is born and nothing dies. We, and all creations are impermanent, constantly changing form and consciousness.

When My Family Member is Dying

And Robert’s Sangha, his Buddhist community, like so many others in this country responded as if by a death in our family. Our experience with our loved ones, like the Buddha’s parable, opened us, and made us more aware and compassionate, so that as the need arose, North American Buddhists began to create hospices, treatment centers, and housing for those living with HIV/AIDS.

When Someone in My Village is Dying

But what about the AIDS that is present in what the Buddha called our village, and what we might construe to mean our country? How much does the pain and suffering in our inner cities, in the prisons, in the IV drug population, and in the sexual partners of that population, how much does that affect us? How willing are we to be taught the lessons of interdependence by that experience? Perhaps we see a dying child’s picture in the newspaper, or discover that our prisons are holding-bins for people with HIV and sites of new infection. Or we read a story about teen aged girls infected by the virus, but how affected are we? How responsible are we? Many American Buddhists do see the connection and are active in prisons, in drug abuse programs, and in treatment centers. Yet too many American Buddhists, as in the parable, do not see it because it is too far away.

When Someone in a Distant Village is Dying

And what about the distant village? We can construe that to be the rest of the world. What sense of responsibility do we have? How much are American Buddhists even aware of the devastation and suffering in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and South America? Too little, it seems. And in comparison with other American faith communities, I would argue we can be found lacking. Why would that be? Our tradition, as it is practiced by American Buddhists, is fortunately free from moralistic judgementalism and doctrinal or social barriers to working with stigmatized populations. When it is in our face, in our family or community, we take appropriate action. And yet, on a broader national and international scale, there is this absence of compassionate work! Why?

The Problem with Change Must Come Within

Remember the hot dog vendor? “Change must come from within.” A common misperception by American Buddhist practitioners is the confusion of the process of becoming compassionate with the reality of interdependence. We fall into the misunderstanding that we are following a path that leads to wisdom and compassion: we are “not ready yet” to tend to the world’s problems. Certainly, we can point to much work done in the name of compassion which is in fact selfish, ego-driven impulses which perpetuate the cycle of suffering. We see that taking a stance of “right” or “wrong” too often merely creates another war, another victim and perpetrator. And yet, the teachings are very clear: as Dogen said in the 13th century, “practice is enlightenment.” One is not a path to the other; they coexist at the same time. To wait for your natural compassion to arrive misses the point entirely: natural compassion is constantly arising. How is it even possible to concentrate solely on one’s own enlightenment? After all, we are “one with everything!”

The Danger of Being One with Everything: Passivity

Over and over again in the traditions which have come to this country there is the admonition to not get stuck in a romantic idea of oneness, in the view that since we are not separate from anything, then things are fine just as they are. American Buddhists who work with certified Teachers and mature Sanghas are soon nudged out of this view, but those who lack teachings and an opportunity to practice with experienced practitioners can lapse into a negligent view of the world. This solipsistic tendency can often be transformed by tempering the elegant quiet of a mediation center with a visit to a local homeless shelter or prison or crisis center. To take that same quality of openness and readiness, to plunge into the lives of other beings, can awaken an even deeper compassion.

The responsibility rests on the teachers and mature students to maintain a middle path, between the deep personal desire for enlightenment and the equally deep drive to serve others. Of course, when this is in balance, there is just the actualization of one’s insight and serving is a natural act. Out of balance, however, we have the specter of self- involved, narcissistic pursuit of enlightenment on the one hand, and ambitious and righteous or self serving attempts to “help” others which often backfire.

How to Walk Straight on a Road with 99 Curves

A widely appreciated image of Buddhist compassion is the androgynous figure, with a thousand arms, a thousand hands, and in each hand, an eye. The hands and eyes function to see the suffering of all beings and to soothe them, to heal them, to use skillful means to help them. She/he is variously called Avalokitesvara, Chenrezig, Kwanyin, or Kannon. American Buddhists tend to appreciate this figure as an archetype, or embodiment of compassionate consciousness. Once a Zen monk asked his teacher, “What does Kwanyin do with all those hands and eyes?” And the teacher replied, “It’s like reaching back in the middle of the night to adjust your pillow.” Just that simple, just that natural, our compassion manifests naturally, from the state of our consciousness which is present, aware of our one-body-nature.

As simple as reaching back and adjusting your pillow? And yet it is not a simplistic gesture. If American Buddhism has something to offer to the discourse on faith-based social action, it is the notion that we begin from the experience of being one with the circumstances, leaving aside our fixed ideas and opinions. The condition of a mind before thought, before knowing, is the gift of attention to all aspects of the situation. This open field, generated from the perspective of the one body, frees us to act in a more nuanced and skillful manner. Reaching back, we just naturally act appropriately.

Hearing the Cries of the World

In order for any of us to embody the great image of compassion, whose name is also “perceiver of the cries of the world,” we need to know what is needed; we need to hear the cries of the world. The leadership of American Buddhism, along with the Buddhist press, has a responsibility to raise consciousness of the AIDS crisis. It is time for a dialogue which recognizes the complexities of AIDS, and perceives its relationship with poverty, with the drug industry, the medical establishment, and world politics. In sanghas and in journals, we need to question immigration policies which deprive HIV + non-nationals from entry in to this country, policies prohibiting needle exchange, the implications of partner notification, and the plight of prisoners with HIV/AIDS.

Let us also provide coverage of models of compassionate action such as Maitri House in San Francisco, the Buddhist AIDS Project in San Francisco, Greyston Foundation’s Issan House in Yonkers, the Buddhist AIDS Network and countless individual Buddhists working within the HIV/AIDS community. We can encourage Buddhist sanghas to start a “ministry” for AIDS in their communities. Whether it be with homeless people, with babies or teenagers or women or prisoners, day to day contact is the greatest teacher. We can follow the example of Dai Bosatsu Monastery in New York, who use the annual anniversary of Obon, the traditional ceremony for the dead, to focus on HIV/AIDS, stimulating awareness. And Buddhist teachers and lay people can bring this issue to the sanghas in Dharma teachings and workshops.

If Buddhists teachers, press and sanghas work to raise awareness of the need for social action in the world of HIV/AIDS, we will be providing an opportunity for the awakening of great compassion for these North American Buddhists who, when they look at their great body, will see not only the great sky and deep ocean, but also the suffering of poverty, of disease, of loss.

The Gift of AIDS

A teacher once said, “Medicine and sickness cure each other. Who is your self?” We could conclude that if we are the medicine that cures HIV/AIDS, then HIV/AIDS is the sickness which cures us. Who else are we but the one body?