A Late (But Essential) Dharma Talk for World AIDS Day
World AIDS Day happens on December 1st every year, and since I work in academia, I almost never have the opportunity to give a dharma talk on the subject or blog about it: it’s a terribly busy time of year for a professor, what with finals and other end-of-the-semester business. I won’t be making up for my own lack of attention this past year here today, but rather letting one of my students do it.
Noel Alumit, a student in my graduate course on “Buddhist Homiletics” (the art and craft of giving dharma talks), gave an absolutely beautiful final talk on the occasion that demands to be heard by as many people as possible.
In addition to his studies in our Buddhist Chaplaincy program at University of the West, Noel is a novelist, actor, and activist, who has received the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award (for his debut novel Letters from Montgomery Clift), and nominations for the PEN Center USA West Literary Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Asian American Literary Award. In addition, Noel has been involved in the AIDS field for over twenty years, most of them with the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team.
Given his literary gifts and breadth and depth of service, Noel spoke to World AIDS Day in a manner that was prophetic, personal, and profound. Fortunately, one of Noel’s colleagues, Alan Cossitt, was there with a camera, and the talk can be shared with you, the Turning Wheel audience…
—Rev. Danny Fisher
Transcript below the fold.
World AIDS Day—a Meditation on Impermanence, Groundlessness and Reincarnation
I want to acknowledge Sunday, December 1, as World AIDS Day, a time to remember those who passed from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. I’d been involved in AIDS work for more than twenty years. World AIDS Day started in 1987. In the last 25 years, I’d been involved in some kind of World AIDS Day event for at least 15 of those years.
Even though it is designated for one day it is not uncommon to have events throughout the month of December. In the past, I’ve participated in World AIDS Day events by hosting shows, performing, handing out awards, or going on marches. This year, I’d like to honor the occasion with this presentation. I’d like to add this this talk World AIDS Day—a Mediation on Impermanence, Groundlessness and Reincarnation to World AIDS Day events happening all over the globe.
I was 12 years old when I first heard of the disease. A local reporter named Connie Chung said something was killing gay men. It was initially known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome or GRID. It was also known as the “Gay Cancer.” When it was discovered that this new disease was in the blood, that anyone regardless of sexual orientation could get it, it was renamed: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS.
It was interesting growing up in the 1980’s with this in the periphery of my burgeoning gay life. I was coming out yet didn’t want to come out entirely because I feared somehow this AIDS thing would get me. I knew enough that AIDS could only be passed doing certain behavior—unprotected sex, using unclean needles—and if I stayed away from those behaviors I wouldn’t get it.
In my mind I couldn’t stop equating gay life with AIDS. Indeed, that was probably the stereotype for most people at the time. It was a message that had been perpetuated for years to come. I was dining with a friend of mine who went through reparative therapy in the 1990’s. Reparative therapy is a technique some believe can actually repair the internal defect of homosexuality. My friend told me that one of the ways they reinforced heterosexual behavior was by saying that gay people die of AIDS.
This is true. Gay people do die of AIDS. So do straight people. So do old people, and young people. Children. Parents. Whole families died of AIDS. I think about the karmic repercussions of this. When it was GRID, with only a few thousand gay men dead, the government, the world did not respond well. Theories were abound about how HIV was a government plot to rid the world of certain undesirable minorities—homosexuals, drug users. President Reagan finally asked his Surgeon General, C. Everette Coop, to write a report on AIDS in 1986—five years into the epidemic.
In other words, there was no compassion, and a world without compassion, leads to the death of gay, straight, men, women, old, young. I must say many faith institutions failed in this regard. Institutions who failed in meeting the needs of the sick, the infirmed, the hungry, the helpless.
There were beacons. Reverend Carl Bean, Mother Theresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu. They were people of faith who instilled faith. However, their voices seemed to be drowned out by religious or political leaders believing AIDS was God’s wrath on sinners.
“From the highest heavens to the very depths of hell, there is not a single being who can escape death,” wrote Patrul Rinpoche in The Words of My Perfect Teacher.
There are 9.9 million people in Los Angeles County. Can you imagine everyone in Los Angeles dead? Then multiply that by three. That’s how many people have died of AIDS. Since the first recorded cases in 1981, over 30 million people have died. Then imagine two people affected by an AIDS Death—a mother and father or a brother and sister or a best friend and a spouse.
For every AIDS death, at least Sixty million people were affected by this. In some parts of Africa where whole families perished of HIV when babies got it from breast milk, another form of transmission. Millions experienced impermanence, the idea that life, things, places are fleeting.
Nothing is static. This is a brilliant idea. No one talks about how tragic and hard and sad this can be.
I started doing volunteer work at the Chris Brownlee Hospice for People with AIDS in 1990. There was a mother sitting by her son’s bedside. I knew he didn’t have long. In a way, I hoped he’d die soon, because he seemed to be in so much pain. The day came when he passed, and I saw his mother fall apart. She cried and stomped her feet. She wailed and shook her head.
This was impermanence. This is the ugliness of change. Impermanence is not for the weak.
There was nothing more earth shattering than a death. Then to experience them again and again and again and again is not only earth shattering—the whole universe is obliterated. There is no ground. In 1993, I got a job at the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team.
Groundlessness was part of the work. We prevented HIV by handing out Safer Sex Kits. They were small bags which contained condoms and lubricant. We gave away thousands of safer sex kits a year. My co-workers and I would sit there for hours sometimes making these kits. It came to the point that our boss suggested we get volunteers to make them because we should be doing other more important duties related to our jobs.
Unable to find volunteer, or perhaps unwilling to find volunteers, we returned to making the safer sex kits. Again, our boss suggested we find volunteers to take over. We experienced staff and clients dying of AIDS, but we continued to make safer sex kits. Open bag, fill them with condoms and lube, seal with a sticker. Open Bag, fill them with condoms and lube, seal with a sticker.
A grief counselor came in to help us with the high turnover of deaths. She explained that during these times, repetition was good for staff. It gave us something stable to do in an unstable world. We made the connection that making the safer sex kits was way of coping with grief. It was repetitious behavior that gave a sense of certainty. It gave us Ground. Our boss never bothered us again. I didn’t know it then, but I would come to experience Reincarnation.
Let me be clear, when I talk about reincarnation, I’m not talking about a physical death leading to another physical or celestial incarnation. I’m talking about finding a new life in this life. Like this blank piece of paper, which turned into a page for my dharma talk, then an airplane. In a matter of less than 12 hours, it had three lives already. I’m talking about finding new meaning in an old one.
In The Art of Living , His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said, “Personally, I have lost my country and, worse still, in my country there has been a lot of destruction, suffering and unhappiness. I have spent not only the majority of my life but also the best part of my life outside of Tibet. If you think of this from that angle alone, there is hardly anything that is positive. But from another angle, you can see that because of these unfortunate things I have had another type of freedom, such as the opportunity of meeting different people from different traditions, and also of meeting scientists from different fields. From those experiences my life has been enriched and I have learned many valuable things. So my tragic experiences have also had some valuable aspects.”
I wish AIDS never happened, but it did. For me, I don’t want the death of 30 million people to be in vain. I want it to have meaning. On a grander scale, we can see how these deaths came about due to ignorance and stigma. We learned: Knowledge is power, Silence equals death. Personally, I learned love is power, and that power can free someone else.
When I was doing AIDS work, my mother, a nurse was also doing AIDS work. She worked at an AIDS ward in a hospital. There came a point when I wanted to come out to her. I was in my mid-twenties and felt it was time. When I told her, she wasn’t surprised. As a matter of fact, she seemed pleased.
She told me about the gay men, the gay dying men, she met at her job. “They really stay with each other,” she said, referring to a man who kept vigil over his dying partner. “I don’t even see that with heterosexuals sometimes.”
For those gay men, they were doing something natural, something that was part of any loving relationship. For my mother, this affection humanized gay people, allowing a gay son to get closer to his mother.
Back then, the average age of a person who died of AIDS was 44. A gay man in his twenties was middle-aged. I was that gay man. Like a person going through a mid-life crisis I wondered if there was something else to what I was doing, experiencing, feeling. I learned other things, perhaps took chances I wouldn’t have normally taken. I risked being an artist, risked being a writer, risked falling in love.
Pema Chodron spoke of this in her essay When Things Fall Apart :
“I have a friend dying of AIDS. Before I was leaving for a trip, we were talking. He said, ‘I didn’t want this, and I hated this, and I was terrified of this. But it turns out that this illness has been my greatest gift.’ He said, ‘Now, every moment is so precious to me. All the people in my life are so precious to me. My whole life means so much to me’. Something had really changed, and he felt ready for his death. Something that was horrifying and scary had turned into a gift. “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
Last month, I remembered that time in the early 1990’s, a time when more people had died of AIDS than at any other time of this history of HIV. I went to two memorials and Typhoon Haiyan devastated The Philippines, the country where my family is from.
I was reminded of the helplessness and loss. I felt groundless again—things “fell apart.” I also knew that things would come together again.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, the story of Rick, a man with AIDS offered this: “The first thing I realized was that you must take personal responsibility for yourself. The reason I am dying is that I have AIDS. That is my responsibility; no one else is to blame. In fact there is no one to blame, not even myself. But I take responsibility for that.
“I made a vow to myself and to whatever gods there may be before I came into Buddhism, that I just wanted to be happy. When…I made that decision, I stuck to it. And this is very important in doing any kind of training of the mind. You must make the decision that you really want to change. If you don’t want to change, no one is going to do the work for you.”
Things have, indeed, changed from those deadly days. AIDS is no longer seen as a fatal disease. It’s considered manageable, at least for those in North America and parts of Europe.
For World AIDS Day we must not forget the rest of the world. Let’s remember: love is power, and that power can free someone else.