UNAIDS Viet Nam Address to Phap Van Pagoda Memorial Service World AIDS Day 2008

25 Nov 2008 – Good evening and thank you for honouring me with the invitation to speak tonight. If you remember, we were here together, just like this, exactly one year ago. We spoke then about urgency – the need to do more to support people living with and affected by HIV. To stop more people from becoming infected. We said we would honour the deceased by serving the living.

So, let us look around. What have we done? What path have we travelled? What are the truths that tonight’s incense will carry up to the ancestors? Good evening and thank you for honouring me with the invitation to speak tonight. If you remember, we were here together, just like this, exactly one year ago. We spoke then about urgency – the need to do more to support people living with and affected by HIV. To stop more people from becoming infected. We said we would honour the deceased by serving the living.

So, let us look around. What have we done? What path have we travelled? What are the truths that tonight’s incense will carry up to the ancestors? 

Since I addressed you exactly one year ago, we have seen improved access to HIV prevention services. Greater leadership at all levels of Government and society. Methadone clinics in Hai Phong and Ho Chi Minh City. And the number of people taking antiretroviral medicines has increased to more than 20,000.

I’m sorry to say we have also seen an increase in the number of people living with HIV. More orphans. More family members struggling to cope. AIDS has stolen twenty thousand lives from Viet Nam. 

The renowned Vietnamese thinker from the 18th century, Lê Hữu Trác once said that ‘Human efforts may be able to change the destiny of heaven’. I do believe that can be true for the HIV epidemic Viet Nam. I do think we must keep working to affect change.

However, I do know that we must also accept that some things are outside of our control. HIV is sometimes compared to an invading enemy. Just like an invader, it sneaks in when we are not paying attention and steals what is most precious to us, destroying our efforts to build a prosperous and equal society.  How amazing that such an incredibly tiny, tasteless, odourless particle could have such cunning! It gets in around our defences and changes the way we treat one another. It knocks lives off-course. It can make us feel out of control. It can make us feel emptied.

Buddhism teaches us to seek union in place of possession. The Buddha taught that though we can affect, we cannot fully control our lives – nor can we make our neighbours, our loved ones, even our own blood cells do exactly as we wish. 

When an invader has looted your home, the things that were taken are lost. 

The one thing we can try to control is our own reaction to challenges. We do have a choice. We can choose to remember and celebrate not the deaths of the people who passed away too soon, but the extraordinary lives that they shared with us. We can choose to live every day of our own lives in wonder, hope and love. We can choose to never, ever take for granted the limited but infinitely precious time we have together. 

Very importantly, we can choose to do as the Lotus Aroma, Bo De Pagoda, Lighthouse, Friendship, Dove, Green Belief and other self-help groups and clubs are doing – we can reach out to people living with or affected by HIV and make sure that they never feel alone. Whatever else we face in life, let us just ensure that we do not have to face it alone. 

I have always admired the Vietnamese people for their compassion and solidarity. Tonight I wish to thank Thich Thanh Huan and all the other monks of the Phap Van Pagoda, as well as the self-help groups represented here for their commitment to love and support one another.

May you all be blessed with happiness, health, friendship, strength and hope. Thank you and good night.

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