"Chen Fen," a 43-year-old woman who has been fighting HIV for 16 years, projects an image of energy and vitality, despite being weakened by her affliction. The source of her strength isn't a new pill or medication, but an ancient religious belief.
"I simply practice what the Buddhist monks suggest: to keep a peaceful mentality and never make futile efforts to worry about the future," she says.
Chen lives in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture in southwest China's Yunnan province. The province registered 83,925 HIV carriers and AIDS patients as of the end of last year, the most of any Chinese province or region.
In Xishuangbanna, more than 300,000 residents, most of whom belong to the Dai and Blang ethnic groups, believe in Theravada, a prevalent school of Buddhism. The prefecture has a total of 1,784 HIV/AIDS patients, and the number is expected to rise in coming years.
Chen and other HIV/AIDS patients in the region have benefited from a local program in which Buddhist monks have been mobilized to provide care for patients and promote knowledge of the disease in order to curb new infections.
The "Home of Buddha Glory" program was launched in 2003 with funding from the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund and the assistance of the prefecture's Buddhist association.
Through the program, hundreds of HIV/AIDS patients, including both Buddhist believers and non-believers, regularly gather to listen to the preaching of monks and chat with each other at Zongfo Monastery, located in Xishuangbanna.
"The place really feels like a home," Chen says, adding that although she is not a believer, she has learned how to live a positive life from the monks.
Guidance for sufferers
Du Hanting, the deputy abbot of Zongfo Monastery and a senior participant in the program, first heard about AIDS when he was studying in Thailand 20 years ago.
At that time, he noticed that his counterparts in Thailand often volunteered to provide funeral services to a group of "special" deceased.
"I was shocked when I was told they all died of an incurable disease called AIDS. Because of it, many elders had to watch their children die," he said.
Later, he learned that the epidemic can cause societal burdens, leaving many families impoverished and robbing children of their parents' care. Du joined Home of Buddha Glory in 2003 after returning to Xishuangbanna.
"Monks serve as people's spiritual leaders and should guide them through hardship," Du said in response to doubts over monks' involvement in secular affairs.
A key part of the monks' job is to reduce stress and anxiety for HIV/AIDS patients. People with the disease often deal with significant amounts of stress and mental anguish. In extreme cases, some patients even intend to seek revenge by passing on the virus to others or harming those who transmitted the disease, according to Du.
"I told them that if you do harm to others, you have no way of escaping the consequences," he said.
The monks also help families to treat their HIV-positive members with an open mind and reduce their fear of being infected. A lack of HIV/AIDS knowledge has led to some patients being chastised by their families or even driven out of their homes.
"We often talk and have dinner with patients in front of their family members to show that the virus won't be transmitted through daily behavior," he says.
To reduce the families' economic burden, program employees have been trying to link patients up with existing social welfare programs and offer them job opportunities.