Thamkrabok monastery is disappointingly easy to get to for a questing hobbit. It lies a mere 60 miles from Bangkok, just off the main highway North. Back then, international flights still came into Don Muang airport, which is right on that same highway, and has a bus-stop, train-station, and taxi-rank right outside.
Still, there had been challenges – the main one in practical terms being that I couldn’t find my passport. With barely enough time remaining before my flight to rush through an express application, this involved considerable expense and paperwork, persistent pushy phone calls, and early starts to wait in long queues. That felt a bit heroic.
But this illuminated the main challenge in more fundamental terms: whether I really had the will to go through with this. The addict mind is always alert to any possible claim that an immediate obstacle is too great – always looking for a way to remain in that seductive limbo where we really are going to quit, just not quite yet.
Well, I did slay the dragons of bureaucracy, and then slash my way through orcish hordes of excuses, onto the plane. And then the airline mislaid my suitcase somewhere in the Middle-East. So I eventually crawled (alright – walked a bit slowly) into Thamkrabok with little more than what I was wearing. That felt more appropriately epic, combined with jetlag and feeling the flu-like first symptoms of cold turkey, having taken my last (ever) wallop at Heathrow airport some 18 hours previously. It was the early evening after a long GMT+7 day, and my mind was almost entirely focussed on getting some sleep while I still could, since full-on opiate withdrawal brings total insomnia for about a week.
And the truth shall set you free??? – John 8:32
The monastery seemed deserted when I arrived. There was a reception office which was closed, and I could see nobody to ask where I should go. After a bit of random wandering, I followed faint signs of life to a gated area, which turned out to be the detox. There, I found a young Thai monk apparently waiting for me. We couldn’t communicate much, but he went to find Phra Hans who, after minimal pleasantries, told me that now we would have to go and find yet another senior monk to administer a sacred oath which he called a “Sajja.”
I trailed listlessly after him as he explained that this was considered terribly important. Without it I would not be permitted to begin treatment tomorrow. We fetched up in the main hall of the monastery, waiting and listening while around 100 monks finished their evening chanting (this having been the reason why the monastery had seemed empty on my arrival).
Even in my dull and unreceptive state, I began to get a distinct inkling that I had perhaps come into an environment profoundly unlike anything I had previously known. And not only in terms of cultural trappings, but one in which I suspected that people might be running on a very different kind of operating system to that which I had presumed common to all humanity. At the very least, I felt – well, at least inkled – like this might be a fertile environment for many kinds of transformation to take place.
If that seems like a romanticised response to the now-familiar sound of monks chanting, which I can be quite blasé about these days, well – things are to a large extent what you make of them, and it sets the next scene nicely: with the reverberation of the final syllables still dying away as Phra Hans herded me over to where the chanting leader was seated. This was Ajahn Vichien Kittiwanno, who is now the Abbot of Thamkrabok, and is blessed with a face that appears monumentally unimpressed with anything you have to say before you have thought it, let alone said it.
I was instructed to light three incense sticks, drop three kneeling bows to a large black iron Buddha at one end of the hall, and then repeat the formal words fed to me line-by-line. Being, as I am now, a keen student and connoisseur of the melodious Thai language, I don’t doubt that the sounds I uttered then were butchery of the most gruesome kind. Still, they seemed solemn and weighty enough to my undiscerning ear, and I suppose I felt that something had definitely happened. But now, I could finally go to bed, so I thought no more about this until the next day when Phra Hans re-appeared and briefed me a bit more about what to expect.
The vow I had just taken declared that I would abstain from addictive substances for the rest of my life, and although there were of course many other things to explore, he kept returning to this insistence that sajja itself was the key to my liberation (and to many other things besides). I will admit to not being massively impressed at this stage. I had probably been expecting him to reveal cool Jedi stuff that would somehow make doing difficult things not be difficult, while this just sounded like: “the secret to quitting drugs… is to say that you’re quitting drugs! Congratulations – you just quit drugs.” Well, wowzers. I had said that many times – every addict has – and now apparently, I had come halfway around the world to say it again.
Dark Night of Our-Souls – apologies to St. John of the Cross
But I didn’t have a better plan. Over the course of an insomniac week, I had no shortage of opportunity to consider this matter more deeply by night, and to discuss it with my patient mentor by day. At some point around days four or five – which are peak awfulness for opiate withdrawal – I decided I could roll with the idea that maybe it kind of is that simple. Kind of. Thusly my reasoning:
Why had it seemed to me obviously absurd to think that words could really change anything? Well, that could only mean that I thought my word meant nothing. Was that a problem, or was I okay with that? To kill time while not-quite-facing-up-to that question, I tried excusing myself from full personal responsibility for my own shiftiness on the grounds that this seemed to be something of a societal norm.
Even just the words, “vow”, “oath,” sound comically old-fashioned. We take vows when getting married, I suppose, but with the knowledge that a decent lawyer can get us out of them, so they’re not really vows. We maybe just keep calling them that for sentimental reasons – the concept itself is quite passé. And the only place you are likely to encounter an “oath” these days is in court, which again isn’t really an oath at all, is it? That might be more accurately described as: “a legal formality preceding something that (we hope) passes for truth, extracted under threat of punishment.” Didn’t that seem rather sad? That we assume ourselves to be carefree liars unless sufficiently intimidated? That swearing something, and that meaning that you’re actually going to do it has been reduced to a quaint nostalgic pantomime – like Morris dancing, or having a Queen? Maybe I could aspire to do better? Yes, but “could” still doesn’t get us to “should”. Should I?
I should, said Phra Hans. We delved a bit deeper into Sajja, which literally means “truth” in Pali [the language Buddha spoke], so that’s rather more than just making promises. Perhaps “integrity” would be the best word for it in English, since it is one of ten qualities called “Parami,” which could be viewed as kind of a checklist for good character [others include generosity, compassion.. all the good stuff]. Sajja is a quality that is particularly emphasized in the teaching of Thamkrabok’s founders, and Phra Hans encouraged me to view it as the essential quality that unlocks the remaining nine. That made sense, since without integrity, any other qualities you might claim to have are unreliable at best, hypocritical at worst.
Well okay, that might work as motivation – assuming that we are buying into this Buddhism thing, and these Parami (which I had never heard of before) as something we desire to have. But that’s quite the assumption at this stage. I wasn’t completely sold on this yet. Let’s try coming at it another way:
Somebody had done better, or how had all of civilisation come about? I mused. Humans have built all these complex structures, both physical and virtual, inside which we live our distinctly human lives. Everything from houses and nations, to ideas like fairness, the rule of law, and trusting that the money you pay me for working can be exchanged with him for food, later. Without them, we die pretty quickly, or revert to surviving like chimps, and these all depend on words – that characteristically human invention – having meaning.
Not only to convey information, but perhaps even more innovatively, this gives us the ability to make complex agreements, which can actually create the future in the here and now. If we take these words to be as real as things, well – look at all the things we can make! Look how quickly they crumble without trust or trustworthiness. Literally, in the case of houses built by dodgy builders. There’s an architectural metaphor for you – cheats do not create anything substantial or enduring. I toyed with that as a noble ideal: Sajja as the defining human quality. Civilised human, anyway – was I one of those? Did I aspire to be?
After all, let’s be honest – the apparent advantages of allowing ourselves some dishonesty when it suits us are so plain that they really don’t need stating here. Bullshit is probably the one product that needs no marketing team. What does merit acknowledging though, is that there really is something to be given up here, and for many of us it may be quite a sacrifice. Our cloak of invisibility, our wiggle-room. There was a lot going on in my wiggle room – it was where I went to party, and not just with drugs.
And in immediate practical terms, for someone aspiring to just stop being a hopeless junky, was it of any use? Easy to dismiss all of that (as you may well have just done) as pompous irrelevant musings on grand themes, which do nothing to address a simple personal problem. And I can tell you it is very easy indeed to do so if you are coming from a junky’s cynical outsider perspective. I tried this for size:
Of course, simply having made a vow couldn’t rescue me from my addiction. It is a firm determination to become a person of integrity – the kind of person whose word might mean something – that could retrospectively build strength and substance into that vow. As well as just being just quite a cool thing in itself, obviously. Okaaaay, I was giving Hans the benefit of the doubt since I wanted to feel noble and inspired. By day, anyway. By night, of course, junky Gollum came out to argue with good Sméagol.
Alright, I’ve got a thing about LOTR, but again this really is a most appropriate image for what was happening, since at this stage my internal debate was up there on the broad-strokes mythical themes level – Dark vs. Light, Self-Pity vs. Heroism, and most specifically in this instance: Cynicism vs. Ideals. Gollum always makes a compelling case, since it’s far easier to undermine than to build, and there is little in this world that is so perfectly constructed that it doesn’t give him a crack he can sidle into. Sméagol was winning for now, but mainly on gung-ho, momentum, and a kind of forced shaky optimism. That wouldn’t hold up for long. We needs more detailses, preciouss – more substance (not more substances!) and more concrete proof that there was something here that couldn’t just be sneered away in the long dark nights.
“A ‘why?’ is great, but a ‘what?’ is bloody useful” – not Nietzsche
One distinguishing feature of Buddhism is that it provides its adherents with lots of things to do. Buddha seems to have been a very practically-minded fellow. So rather than just telling people to try to be a certain way, he created a smörgåsbord of practices – things to do with your body and mind that are designed to re-engineer your habits, perceptions, and mental processes. These might be most easily understood by a modern person as being more akin to psychology than religion, at least as the r-word is generally used. This was great news – I was doing altogether too much thinking, and needed some activities to get my teeth into.
Phra Hans suggested that I start incorporating small sajja vows into my days, using them to train my intention and resolve with immediate measurable goals. When he led us in meditation, he would start by repeating that same formal vow I had taken on the first day. Only, this time I was undertaking to sit for the appointed time, no matter what (a bigger deal than you might think when you’re dealing with the twitchy body and scattered mind of a junky in withdrawal). He also encouraged the use of a less formal, self-administered version to use with mundane tasks, particularly the ones I didn’t much want to do.
I could see obvious utility in that, alright. But I also discovered something I really hadn’t expected – my mind actually quite liked discipline and order. There was undeniable tranquillity that came with having made a decision – even an unpleasant one – and knowing that I was going to go through with it until it was done. Because of my integrity!
Well, that was a medium-sized epiphany about a small thing, and good as far as it went. However, I still didn’t know how well it would translate to something larger, such as whether I really could swear off drugs for the rest of my life. What else do we have? Buddhism also has a wide range of purely mental practices, which structure thinking and perceptions along certain lines. Try this one:
There is a phrase used several times in the sajja vow, and indeed recurring frequently throughout the Dhamma: “Together with body, word, and heart”: mind, word, and action, precise translations might differ slightly, but it’s some variation on intending it, saying it, and going through with it. Sajja requires these to be unified, but first, our attention is deliberately drawn to them being three different things. Why? Well, we’re often very fuzzy about distinguishing them, and that creates all kinds of problems. If we open our mouths too soon and too often – as most of us do – then speech can actually get smeared over into the thinking process.
Then because we’ve said something we can identify with it, and start getting fond and protective over it – especially in the light of other people’s reactions – we may want to defend it if they disagree, or enlarge on it should they seem impressed. It takes on a life of its own as “my opinion,” and before we know it, we have somehow flowed into acting on it, or planning to in ways that can be hard to back out of.
So one, and the most obvious, result of that can be a lot of seemingly random and undirected actions. That can certainly happen. Although – speaking for myself here – I found that: looked at in terms of the bigger picture, and particularly over time, I could perceive such a process resulting more in endless cycles of, essentially – the same old shit.
Indeed, even when I might have thought I was at my most free-spirited and impulsive, familiar patterns and perceptions had a knack of hijacking thought, as I tried to ride the cascading domino-chain of causes and effects, reactively racking up decision after decision, none of which I could say that I actually fully made. I could certainly see how something like that could play a large role in sustaining something like a destructive addiction. In any case though, it can be very useful to become more mindful of where those boundaries are between mind, word, and action.
The “word”, that connects the other two elements, isn’t just the things we say out loud. It’s useful to call it that because that’s where we naturally see it most clearly as distinct from the other two, and can monitor it, but it still exists when you are alone or silent. It can be the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.
Every time you talk yourself out of doing something you know you should do, or into something you know you shouldn’t. Every time you make a lame excuse, or make a tragic hero of yourself, lamenting “why does this always happen to me?” when you actually have a pretty good idea as to why, on some level that you are refusing to acknowledge, and so maybe it doesn’t have to happen the same way tomorrow – that’s where you might benefit from training your sajja.
Here is a very straightforward way to cultivate sajja – on a regular basis, ask yourself two questions: “What am I telling myself now that isn’t true?” and, “What am I not telling myself that is true?” These will start to move the heart and word into closer alignment, and will naturally flow on to another question: “What am I telling myself now, that is true, that I am not acting on?” Boom! Three ducks in a row. It doesn’t all have to be rocket science..
The formal sajja vow, then, can be seen as an attempt to take control of these stories that we concoct with ourselves as the protagonist. And also a way to crystallise these moments of clarity that we all have from time-to-time, even without a structured process for trying to induce them, such as I have just described. Crystallise them into a real, tangible change, or turning point – however great or small.
Back there, back then, all this intergity stuff sounded like a wonderful thing to pay lip-service to, and I was feeling some tentative inspiration for sure, but still something in my gut was fighting against it. I was all about freedom and self-expression, wasn’t I? Living in the moment, maaannn – was that my excuse for always keeping an open back door that I could slip out of anytime I didn’t feel like living up to what I called my principles, my decisions, my agreements and promises? My aspirations, “beliefs”? I needed to talk this over with an old friend.
Sméagol always helps!
“Nasssty monkses!! What does they know about REAL people’s problemsses? Hiding from life on pink fluffy cloudses in silly monassteriesses? Making silly little listsess of Paramisessesss – SILLIES!!!”
Alright, I don’t think I can keep this up. What I think Gollum meant to say was actually a very well thought-out, bullet-pointed argument that goes like this:
1) It’s all very lovely piddling about sweeping leaves and congratulating ourselves for doing the bloody laundry, far from stress, tedium, and temptation, but you have to go much further and deeper and more radical with this “Buddhism can change you” schtick, or it won’t hold up.
2) It’s all very lovely pontificating about grand narratives and ideas and becoming a true and comelie knight on a white steed, but this has to get a lot more specific and immediately applicable, and somehow visceral. I mean, really – in the flesh – or it’s just a load of pompous steedshit serving no purpose except to make you feel good and clever right now. And it will all crumble as soon as you get a whiff of smack.
3) I’m scared. I’m scared of failing because I don’t think I have it in me to do this again, which is why I’m being so cynical – part of me thinks it’s almost better not to try (a rare moment of honesty from Gollum). And I’m scared of succeeding because I fear that everything I’ve just said is going to involve losing a lot of stuff that I’m very attached to (preciousss) to gamble on gaining something unknown.
4) Let’s get some smack – I hear it’s really good in Thailand.
As I said, Gollum always makes a good case. Point 4, particularly, is a humdinger. This clearly demanded a robust response. Clearly, we concocted one – since I’m now telling you all this stuff, instead of re-enacting the opening scene from Apocalypse Now on endless loop, or indeed dead. It went something like this.
1) [housework, piddling] Absolutely – let’s get stuck straight into some significantly heavier practices that will produce immediate, visible results. We need to whip up some evidence-based faith here. Let’s go!
2) [fancy ideas] Yep – you need to understand something about philosophy: it’s real. It isn’t an outmoded parlour game played by French intellectuals and stoned people. It isn’t enjoying talking about clever ideas – it’s the set of basic assumptions you make about how life works, which you actually live by. You have a philosophy now, you just (probably) don’t call it that. It isn’t a good one. We’re looking to replace that with something that works better, not to bolt something on.
3) [sacrifice] Yes, it will. There is no meaningful transformation that does not involve sacrifice, I’m afraid Buddha is quite clear on that. I could quote you chapter and verse, but this is the quick answer. Anyway, it isn’t just Buddha, or some wacky “eastern” idea – consult the mythological underpinnings of your entire “western” culture, from the Old Testament, to Jung, to Harry Potter.. Uh-huh. This is known, Khaleesi. So we’ll start with your rubbish philosophy, and move on to your pharmaceutical security-blanket. And as for the first fear, well – good. Hold on to that.
4) [smack] Er.. yeah, it is. Really, really good, akshly. Let’s just put that thought on hold for now. But there is no way to sugar-coat this pill – you are giving something up. Something that you like. Did I mention sacrifice?
So there we end up with the starkest, simplest meaning of Sajja – facing up to things as they actually are, not as we would like them to be. That’s always going to hurt a bit, because it’s nice in Storyland. Of course it is, otherwise after a hard day reading books and watching movies, we’d treat ourselves with an hour or two of real life – perhaps washing the dishes, or doing the accounts – just to chillax and unwind. But the problem with Storyland is that the time just flies in there, and real life continues apace whether you are paying attention to it or not. Decades can zoom by while you are still telling yourself the same comforting stories.
So – time, your life. That’s the cost of dishonesty. The cost of honesty is having to leave familiar, maybe cherished things behind as soon as you realise that they are just stories. You have to be fearless and sometimes even brutal about not tolerating even a whiff of horseshit, because you can so easily get sucked into the story and just act out the old cliché-ridden script. But the longer you leave it, the harder it gets, Preciousss.
In fond memory of Serge John, who so nearly made it