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How SALT and Religion can explain each other?

Last month (Nov09), we had a good chance to welcome people from 2 countries to experience “ SALT ” through our SALT Visit Programmes in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand (2days programme). The first group of participants came from Myanmar with 10 people from "Burnet Institute, Myanmar" and "CARE International, Myanmar" plus another 2 people from the organisation who works in the border area between Thailand and Myanmar, "SMRU (Shoklo Malaria Research Unit) - PMTCT Programme” (Maela Refugee Camp in Mae Sod, Tak Province, Thailand). The second group came from Indonesia with 6 women from “Layak Foundation”. These 2 programmes were very exciting for me, I've learned a lot from both groups and of course, we've learned a lot from the communities we visited.

In the programmes, we visited the communities where they are applying SALT as their way of thinking/working and also linking it to their religion’s beliefs. For me, I found it is very interesting to listen to other people explaining about our beliefs in the different ways, especially from a region’s aspect.

The 1st programme was organized on 9-10 November 2009 for 12 people from the Burmese Organisations. We went to Jedi Maekrua Temple in San Sai District, Chiang Mai Province to meet with the representatives from the Committee of the HIV/AIDS Working Group in Jedi Maekrua Community (religion leaders, community leaders and volunteer workers that included PLHA). The HIV/AIDS Working Group in this community was initiated by the Buddhist Monk, Phra Kru Samuhhavichern Khunnadhammo, by turning a Buddhist Temple, Jedi Maekrua Temple, as a center for the working group. Their strategy to promote and expand the network was to start working and coordinating with community leaders and involve in the group and let them play the role of influencing more and more people in community including PLHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS) to see the benefits of having this working group in the community and start to join the activities.

This temple has been developed for being used as a "Community Faith-Based Center" with the supports from the Buddhist Religion Network in Chiang Mai Province who is part of the Interfaith Network on AIDS in Thailand (INAT) under their Global Fund Project.

During the visit, we first listened to Phra Kru Samuhhavichern, a Buddhist’s monk from Jedi Maekrua Temple who is a leader of this center, for a short briefing about the center before we split into 2 small groups; one group discussed with the religion leader and some community leaders and another group discussed with the volunteer group, including PLHA. I was with the first group, discussing with all the leaders. In the discussion, we’re all exciting and asking so many questions. Our friends from Myanmar were very impressed by the role of the Buddhist monks at this center and how the Buddhist’s principles/teachings helped community people to understand better about HIV/AIDS.

“In Myanmar, we never see a monk working on HIV/AIDS issue and it will be a surprise if we see a monk working with many women like this”, one participant from Myanmar shared during the discussion.

“Is there any people criticize or think that this should not be a role of a Buddhist monk?”, another participant from Myanmar asked.

Phra Kru Samuhhavichern smiled and answered gently “I think differently and look at it in the opposite way. I think it is a monk’s defect if there is some issue emerging in our community or some problem attacking our community people. As a monk, I believe that I have a responsibility to ensure that people in my community will behave good, think good, do good and if there are some people slip or got lost in a bad path such as addicting to drugs, enchanting in risk behaviors, getting HIV/AIDS and I still don’t care and don’t feel that I should do something, I will take this as my defect.” This is the inspiration for him to start acting and doing something to face with community’s issues together with his people in the community.

He also shared one of his beliefs which I found it is very interesting and relevant to what we believe in the Constellation. He mentioned that “We are all having a limited opportunity, we are all a victim of life crisis and we are all still far from the Nirvana, the way to ending our sufferings/problems, including me. What and how different we practice and spend our life will put us in the different level of the distance towards to Nirvana. This make us realize that we still need to develop and improve ourselves to be able to deal with our own problems or our own life crisis.” For me, this is the same as what we believe; there is no expert!!, but he just explained it in a different way.

“What we do to help our people is not just giving materials, objects or money to them but it is about helping them to develop, to improve and to be better by using a process that can build their own intellectuals. Giving Dhamma will encourage their self-learning which they can adapt what they have learned to manage their own issues/problems by following the religion’s teachings and principles. Once they gone through this process and manage to find their own way to solve their problems, we will be there to appreciate what they have done which will stimulate and encourage them to do better. Their learning can also be shared to their friends, their family, and others so that other people can also learn from them and we will still there to support the development which will be continued in our community.” , Phra Kru Samuhhavichern summarized at the end of the discussion.

Even I’m Buddhism and I have heard about Dhamma, Buddhist’s Principles and Buddha’s Teachings since I was born but this is the first time I saw them in practical and were explained clearly by a monk who is in my perception is the person who always talks about something which is impossible to understand and impossible to see in our human's life. This visit totally changed my perceptions about Religion, Buddhism and Buddhist’s Monk. I am now really interesting and exciting to explore more about the teachings and the principles in each religion to see how we can adapt them to explain our human’s life. My dream is not about reaching the Nirvana or getting out of human’s problems as mentioned as a highest goal in Buddhism but it is just about trying to become a better person and I believe that this is something we can do to contribute to our religion and to improve our qualities of life.

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Comment by Joe Ngamkhuchung on December 8, 2009 at 6:59am
Lawan you have made a beautiful discovery. I might call it serendipity! I am happy for you. what made me happy with your discovery of a Monk in AIDS work was that AIDSCOMPETENCE just begins where he is at just now human being with humans! At times religious position makes one think and behave "above" the ordinary. His thoughts have translated into behavior. Great!
Secondly religion has to distill into spirituality. Spirituality is quality of religion. a person being in any religion does not make him/her a spiritual being. A spiritual person is a 'good person". A good finder! A friend.Human.
Our Phra Kru Samuhhavichern has reached a spiritual stage from just being a man of religion.
SALT is just that "finding good" in people and in communities. appreciating goodness everywhere. Changing the way of thinking and the way of working, in a way turning religion into spirituality. A great link indeed between Religion and SALT.
I belive SALT visits can be great spiritual exercises.
I do not want to be preachy but our christian religion says" God became man" . We begin SALT from our own humanity.Great experience Lawan! Your experience is enriching us.
best wishes
Joe Ngamkhuchung
Comment by papa on December 7, 2009 at 5:19am
Hi Lawan

Its me, Pa Pa and I am proud with the news of our study tour visit together with your SALT team.
Its really appreciated that you and your team's warmness for all of us and I will always remember.
I am happy to be keep in touch with all of u and share our experience.
One thing is I am a little bit lazy with writing. ( ha ha)
Wish u all a happy new year and merry X mas.

Best Wishes
Pa Pa
Comment by Avnish Jolly on December 4, 2009 at 12:56pm
Dear Lawan Vejapikul,

We believe PLHIV are the best advocates for improving the lives of PLHIV and we need to share knowledge, understanding and experience from our various resources to overcome silence, stigma, discrimination, denial, and fear regarding HIV/AIDS. It does, however, lead to a confident attitude toward God.

We organized sensitization workshops with FBOs its photographs are posted by me on Aids Competence. I gather from these interactions that Faith motivates our minds to the assurance of God's power and will to act in our lives. Faith becomes more than a mental conviction as it grows into a commitment, not only to trust God to involve Himself in our lives, but to do His will.

Best Wishes and Regards,
Comment by Ian Campbell on December 3, 2009 at 4:48pm
Hi Lawan

You have made a beautiful comment.

The faiths meet around love in action. I was at a meeting in Senegal once when I was asked to share with a group of imams and bishops. There had been some nervous tension over issues like counselling and choice making and testing -the imams consulting the Koran at lunchtime for guidance and the Christians keeping their distance. I shared stories and images of local family and neighbourhood capacity for care, community, belonging, change, and hope. The Christian leading bishop of Senegal said ' What you have said reminds me that God's grace exists in the relationships of the village and home -we need to go and find Him there'. The leading imam for Senegal said 'You have spoken of people making better relationship happen in the family -that is what we say should be happening -and we also say that when it happens, we have a better relationship with God -so this approach will work for us'. The government health spokesperson said 'We are looking now to do primary health care -so this idea of linking care in homes with change in communities works for us'.

The common factor in the minds and hearts was authentic concern for the people, and the hope of a future. Relational health was the foundation. Reconciliation was in the air. Relaxation came as the wind of the Spirit was felt and as trust grew. HIV outcomes and family and spiritual health were all mixed together in the understanding, which is what it can be for neighbourhood communities worldwide.

SALT is a disposition and a behavior that opens up the realisation that we have to be with people rather than stand apart. Our shift to an approach of relational respect usually means that our practice matches our belief that people matter. Listening stimulates response and invitation. We relate. We are appreciated because we appreciate. Love in action, suffused by personal faith, surrounds suffering and despair. Grace is understood as God in the middle of it all, which to an extent explains why together we sense a better and realistic future. We do not think about ourselves as project people any more, or interveners, and we adjust services to match the community 'drive', based in their relational capacity for response. We become enlivened by the living reality of the character of God in the lives of ordinary people, and the the privilege of being participants.

Whilst each faith tradition has doctrinal underpinnings and sacred narratives that are precious, it should be no surprise to people of all faith traditions that SALT reveals personal dynamic faith more than the structural representation of faith , or 'religion'. The 'living faith' informs the structures and helps them honour God better . Love in action becomes the way which opens up more..and no wonder it is necessary to do SALT for the rest of our lives, and why we can say SALT is the DNA of community life competence .

Happy reflection and applications

Comment by Laurence Gilliot on December 2, 2009 at 4:42am

Thank you for sharing your insights with us. I totally related to what you said here: My dream is not about reaching the Nirvana but it is just about trying to become a better person
I also believe that spirituality, if lived by people and not seen as an abstract, far away thing, can help us to become that better person. SALT is one way of putting our spiritual values into practice.

During one of the community visits in a temple near Chiang Mai, I asked a monk: "Do you talk about condoms with people in the community." He said that yes, he talks about it. For him there were two kind of condoms: "One condom is a spiritual protection. If you follow the Buddhist precepts, they will protect you against suffering like HIV. But if you are weak and you cannot follow them, then use the plastic condom."

Thank you, my dear friend and office neighbour.


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