Among Buddhist teachers well known in the West, the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh holds a special prominence. Living in France as an exile from his native Vietnam, he is the author of many books and a regular visitor to the United States, where he lectures and holds retreats.
His central mission is to encourage people to work toward ''mindfulness'' -- that is, a process of personal and social transformation through the development of self-understanding and compassion. As he teaches it, mindfulness calls for acute awareness of the present moment.
But this week, Thich Nhat Hanh's particular focus has been how the principles he teaches can be applied to the fight against AIDS. He was among more than 75 religious leaders, many from Africa and Asia, invited to a discussion sponsored by the White House (which coincided with World AIDS Day today) that focused on how religious communities could work against the disease, as advocates and care-givers for those who have it.
In an interview in his hotel on Thursday, Thich Nhat Hanh, who is 74, discussed aspects of the AIDS epidemic -- its prevention, public education about it and the care of those who have the disease -- in ways that could be appreciated through both Buddhist and interfaith perspectives.
The starting point, he said, was that community is necessary to educate people about the disease and to provide support for those who have it.
''Every church should set up a group of people to discuss the danger, the suffering caused by AIDS,'' he said, ''and to encourage people to learn about the suffering.''
Recognition of suffering and the understanding of its origin are the first two of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, which derive from the earliest teachings of the Buddha himself.
Ever since Thich Nhat Hanh left the former South Vietnam in 1966 on a personal peace mission to the United States, he has lived in exile. His return home was prevented by the former government of South Vietnam, and then by the Communists who seized power in 1975. He has said that his books are still banned in Vietnam.
One project he has undertaken since the Vietnam War -- to which he referred while describing ways to educate the public about AIDS -- has been talking with American veterans who served in Vietnam. He has encouraged those who felt wounded, physically or psychologically, by the conflict to become agents of reconciliation.
He has told those veterans, he said, that they can aspire to become bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who practice virtue by helping others toward enlightenment. Those who have been ''touched by the fire of war'' have a public role to play in creating awareness of war's awful cruelty, Thich Nhat Hanh said.
The monk said he envisioned a somewhat similar role for people with H.I.V./AIDS, who can serve the public, if they choose, as teachers of what the disease is and advocates of compassion for those who have it.
''They can be nourished by the bodhisattva ideal,'' he said.
He held this out as vital for anyone who would aspire to it. To recognize the possibility of such meaning in one's own life is to experience transformation, he said.
In teaching mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh lays out five principles: reverence for life, generosity, sexual responsibility, ''deep listening and loving speech'' and careful awareness of what one consumes, whether as food, drink or culture.
And in mindfulness, he said, lies a basis for relations with others that rejects the sort of sexual behavior that can lead to transmission of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.
''We believe that true love should have mindfulness in it,'' he said. ''The awareness of what is going on, the action that is being taken. To love means to protect -- to protect oneself, one's family, one's society.''
About Thich Nhat
Causes Thich Nhat Hanh Supports
Peace, Mindful Living