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Buddhist Recovery Network - Inaugural Conference
2009 Inaugural Conference
“Recovery from Addiction in a Buddhist Context”
The best place to start is at the beginning...
Vince Cullen and the Thamkrabok Monastery
The full 2009 Inaugural Conference brochure is now available for download . You may also wish to read the various parts of the brochure on line below.
Vince Cullen and the Thamkrabok Monastery
Vince Cullen contacted us in June with a short email saying that he had been associated with the Thamkrabok Monastery of Thailand for over 10 years, and the Abbot had granted permission for him to present at the Conference, on the ‘Thamkrabok approach to detox and recovery’. “Thamkrabok monks take a number of extra vows following ordination including one not to use any form of transportation. This is part of the Sajja practice of setting and holding boundaries. Therefore, no one currently in robes can realistically travel beyond Thailand that is why I have been asked to represent Thamkrabok at the inaugural Conference.”
Unfortunately by June we had already closed our Conference program, and there weren’t any available places in the agenda. But we were fascinated about his experiences and invited him to pen a few words for this publication. Since then he has become a Charter Member of the Network, and is flying in for the Conference, and so you should be able to meet him. He has asked us to emphasise that Thamkrabok gives its services for free. Addicts must pay for their own food (approx. US$6 per day) but otherwise there are no charges or fees. The monastery welcomes donations but these are entirely optional. Here are a few excerpts from his communications with us:
On the components of their treatment program
“The original treatment process was devised by the 1st Abbot, Luangpor Chamroon and his aunt Mian (reverently known as Luangpor Yaai). The program developed over many years since the first addict was treated in 1959 into a highly effective systematic regime. There are perhaps five main identifiable elements of the program that work on two complementary levels: the spiritual and the physical. These elements are, in no particular order-
Firstly, the location and relative isolation of the monastery, in conjunction with the isolation of the addict from their usual environment. Once accepted for treatment, addicts must hand over all of their belongings and exchange their clothes for a uniform of red T-shirt and loose trousers. Thamkrabok allows only one chance at detox and many addicts perceive this as being their last chance. Treatment at Thamkrabok Monastery is not only a unique experience, it’s also an unrepeatable one. As Phra Hans once said “no second chances at detox are possible. Thamkrabok is not a clinic with a revolving door.”
Secondly, the vow and the mantra. Sajja is a Pali word found in Buddhist texts which has the broad meaning of embracing truth, loyalty, purity and honesty. As well as Sajja in this broader sense, the Thamkrabok community use individual Sajjas or vows, not only as a key component of the detox treatment but also in their day-to-day approach to Buddhist practice. It does not matter whether you take a Sajja not to use drugs for life, or a Sajja not to be angry for 7 hours. What is important is to see this commitment through to the end.
The Sajja that is taken not to use drugs is considered to be the most important part of the detox and recovery process. Luangpor Boonsong Thanacharo, the 3rd Abbot, suggests that this Sajja is 80 percent of the treatment. The ritual drug and alcohol Sajjas are presided over by senior monks who recite the words of the vow and the addict repeats the words, line by line, as best they can. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for taking this vow in the presence of a ‘master’, or senior monk in this case, is that it brings a greater sense of commitment. It should reinforce your own conscience and give a sense of personal obligation.
After 5 days of treatment, addicts may request a personal Sajja to help with their recovery. This may be as simple as “I will honour my parents” and even be time-limited. At the same time as taking this personal Sajja, the addict is given a unique mantra known only to themselves to use as an object of meditation, as a blessing for food and most importantly to use in times of high stress or temptation.
At one time, the monastery treated as many as 500 addicts at a time. Nowadays, it is more likely to be a couple of dozen Thai addicts and up to 10 or 12 foreign addicts at any one time. Even so, there is usually a lot of support from addicts who have already been through the detox. Everyone is treated the same regardless of their social status outside of Thamkrabok. When the British pop-singer Pete Doherty attended Thamkrabok the Monastery issued a statement: “Here all the patients wear red; each patient is a star in his struggle, and each star is just a patient... Some of them make it, some of them don’t.” So the third critical success factor is peer support.
The fourth factor of success is meditation: not necessarily in the traditional Buddhist sense, but in just allowing time and space for the addict to think with a clear head. Addicts in treatment sweep up leaves from around the monastery twice a day, and some, but not all, see and appreciate this as a type of work meditation. There is a loose program of sitting and walking meditation for the addicts but it is currently suffering due to a lack of English speaking monks following the recent death of the multilingual Phra Hans. Nonetheless, a lot of addicts are still leaving Thamkrabok with the rudimentary beginnings of meditation practice.
The 1st Abbot, Luangpor Chamroon developed his own 12 meditations that he thought would give focus to the addict on his personal situation and his way forward.
Lastly, that infamous aspect of the Thamkrabok program that most people know about; you know what they say, that monastery in Thailand -the one where they make you vomit. Well, that may be so but there is a lot more to this purging than just emptying the stomach. The herbal ‘medicine’ was developed over a number of years. It is said that the recipe of 109 natural ingredients is known only to the current Abbot and the Herbalist monk. The concoction is emetic, often producing “projectile vomiting.” This specific part of the treatment has many important components; for example the ritual dispensing of the dark-brown liquid, the real and symbolic cleansing, the physical effect in purging toxins from the body and the resulting physical weakness. In addition to the emetic detox mixture, the addicts are dispensed purgative herbal pills and encouraged to drink a herbal tea, particularly before and during the daily visits to one of the herbal steam saunas. Make no mistake; this is a very real and very rapid detox.
I can’t stress enough the importance of being straight and honest with potential detoxees... Thamkrabok is not a miracle cure. It is better likened to cold-turkey in a hot-climate; it’s uncomfortable and it’s tough. It is certainly not “Junkies in Sunglasses and Deckchairs.”
On treatment at Thamkrabok being sometimes described as a hero’s journey
This comparison was first made by Tomas Schreiber at the end of the nineties, who wrote his degree thesis on the drug treatment program at Thamkrabok. Tomas took his research seriously to the point of ordaining as a Thamkrabok monk. In his thesis, Tomas likens the addicts ‘whole’ experience of Thamkrabok to the archetypal Hero or Initiatory Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. The Journey of the Hero commonly has three steps:
(1) A Separation from home and family, and all that is familiar.
(2) A sometimes frightening, difficult, but exhilarating journey, helped along by unexpected hospitality from strangers and help from mystical allies. So you face your vulnerability and break out of many youthful fears and neuroses.
(3) Finally, a return home: the traveller apparently the same person, but forever changed.
Phra Hans once commented “Don’t forget one thing: the hero is not made in those proud hours after victory, but in those long, desperate and hellish hours while he passes through darkness without giving up!”
On establishing retreats outside Thailand
“Looking to the future, if time and money were no problem, I would like to establish a Buddhist Rehabilitation Centre somewhere in Europe. Effectively a safe house based on the structured framework of The Barn Rural Buddhist Retreat in Devon, England, but with aspects and influences of Thamkrabok included. Combining working on the land (primarily growing food), meditation, Thamkrabok Sajja and the Five Precepts as the basis for a happy and healthy drug and alcohol free community.
On another front, I have often thought of how the critical success factors of the Thamkrabok treatment programme might be applied to drug and alcohol treatment programs on Native Indian Reservations in the United States. This might not be as crazy as it sounds as there are a lot of similarities between the Thamkrabok regime and Native American cultures; location and isolation (Sacred Places), ritual, herbal medicines, sweat lodges and chanting. I would like to explore this possibility if there were enough interest within the Native communities.”.....
“This year, being mindful of the lack of support at home for recovering addicts, I arranged a week long retreat at The Barn in Devon, exclusively for ex-Thamkrabokers. The 3rd Abbot of Thamkrabok Monastery, Luangpor Boonsong, gave permission for me to distribute and use the Thamkrabok Laypeople’s Chanting Book during the retreat and one of the Thamkrabok nuns, Mae Chee Rambahi, kindly recorded the chants which I transferred to CD. Martine Batchelor, author of Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits joined the retreat from Tuesday until Friday. Although, Martine has a very busy teaching schedule she very generously travelled from her home in France to help with talks, group discussions, personal interviews and guided meditation. Disappointingly, not enough ex-Thamkrabokers signed up for the retreat to make it viable so it was opened up to the general public and was oversubscribed in a very short time. This has not put me off arranging future retreats for ex-Thamkrabokers so I’ll see what I can set up for next year.
I try to visit Thamkrabok at least once every year. I look forward to the steam baths, the evening chanting, maybe a Dhamma lesson and some formal meditation practice; even a dose or two of the herbal medicine to ‘renew’ my Sajja in one of the most exclusive health spa’s in the world. Not everyone gets the chance to go to Thamkrabok you know... and those of us that do, I’m sure, consider ourselves very fortunate.