Thamkrabok, Sajja-Dhamma & the Hay

a brief history

Origins

The place now called Wat Thamkrabok unofficially began sometime in the late-1950s to be used by a small group of wandering forest monks led by two brothers, Luang Por Chamroon, and Luang Por Charoen, Parnjand. The name refers to a cave, now in the heart of a large monastery but then in thick jungle, which the monks had been fond of using as a stopping place on their travels.

The Parnjand brothers had been motivated to set up a new monastery by the teachings of their aunt, the nun Mae Chee Mien, later referred to as Luang Por Yai, and they wished to establish a base for practicing in this way. This was a return to what she saw as the basic key elements of Buddhism; emphasizing ethical action, and a simple, self-reliant lifestyle which stripped away much of the ceremonial role of the monkhood.

Luang Por Charoen, Luang Por Yai, Luang Por Chamroon

Having no wealthy patrons, the monks started building around the cave from materials at hand, and the monastery began to grow slowly and organically, with local people starting to lend their support. Mae Chee Mien joined them as a teacher, and by 1958 the community had grown to around thirty, with Luang Por Chamroon as the Abbot. The “official history” of Thamkrabok begins at this point.

The community continued to grow throughout the 1960s and more adjoining land was donated. Luang Por Charoen mostly continued his roaming lifestyle, using Thamkrabok as a retreat for the rain seasons, while Luang Por Yai and Luang Por Chamroon remained to develop and solidify her ideas into a teaching, which came to be called “Sajjatam” (truth Dhamma).

Luang Por Yai died in 1970, and Luang Por Chamroon in 1999, at which point Luang Por Charoen took over as the second abbot until his death in 2008.

Sajja Dhamma

Before taking his vows in the ordination ceremony, a new monk is instructed to “Live on alms food, to dress in burial shrouds, to live at the base of a tree, to take medicines pickled in fermented urine”, and these “Four Dependencies” together with four prohibitions (on harming, sexual relations, taking what is not given, and boasting of spiritual attainments), are sometimes cited as the most concise summary of the essence of what being a monk actually is. However, many these days seem to regard them as quaint historical irrelevancies. 

Stories tell of the Buddha also accepting new robes, and staying in buildings when these were offered, so these do not have to be taken as absolute commandments to self-denial, but rather to greet both abundance and scarcity with equanimity. To be undemanding and self-reliant, to use what is at hand, to re-use and recycle unencumbered by pride or squeamishness, to be satisfied with whatever is given, to be close to nature and to treasure solitude and simplicity. These values underpinned the founding of Thamkrabok.

Even now that Thamkrabok has grown into a community of around 160 long-term monks, 40 nuns, and a large semi-transient population of laypeople, there is a strong culture of DIY, recycling and upcycling, fixing and mending, of brewing medicines (mostly from herbs, rather than urine, happily), and experimentation to find ways to live on what is there, rather than what must be brought or bought in – extracting pigments for paints and dyes from plants and minerals, for example, and creating efficient low-tech cultivating and composting systems.

Renewable energy systems are planned to be introduced over the next few years to reduce the monastery’s electricity bills and carbon-footprint, and the Vice-Abbot is trying out ways to process waste plastics back into various usable fuels. By keeping the support-costs of the monks low in these and many other ways, Thamkrabok is able to reduce the burden on its supporters.

Ritual was reduced to a bare minimum. Thamkrabok does not give blessing ceremonies, or perform any chanting outside the monastery – no births, weddings, openings of new businesses, etc. – and it performs funerals only for community members and long-term supporters. This is in stark and deliberate contrast to another trend in modern mainstream Thai Buddhism, which makes such activities their central role in society, using these to collect revenues.

Every year in April, the entire community leaves the monastery, wandering and carrying their bowl, a portable shelter, and any other belongings they think they need, for anywhere between two weeks and two months, in order to maintain the connection to nature, to remind the monks and nuns of their Forest Tradition roots, and to remind them that every possession is (quite literally) a burden.

The Hay

Thamkrabok’s drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre, known as “The Hay” has existed since the early 1960s, although it would be hard to say precisely when it came into existence, owing to the unusual and unplanned circumstances which brought it into being.

Prior to taking the robe, Luang Por Chamroon had worked as a policeman in Bangkok, which gave him a wide circle of acquaintance with a wide variety of characters. One day an unnamed man came to find him at Thamkrabok and asked to stay while he sweated out his opium habit. After some hesitation, Luang Por agreed, gave him a place to sleep, and got on with his activities, while periodically checking on the withdrawing addict, and pondering whether there was anything more he could do to help, but not really coming up with anything he found satisfactory. 

Nevertheless, after twelve days, the former addict announced that he was well enough to return home, and left with copious thanks. Back in Bangkok, he told two friends of his, who duly turned up at Thamkrabok, and Luang Por again accommodated them. For context: at this time Thailand was ruled by a military junta that announced a crackdown on opium smoking, with draconian punishments for users as well as dealers, but providing no assistance to addicts who wished to quit, and soon extra-judicial killings began to be carried out by the authorities. By word-of-mouth, the trickle of desperate addicts quickly became a constant stream, and then a flood.

The monks constructed a dedicated area to house the addicts, and began to consider and research other kinds of help that they might be able to provide.

Luang Por Yai had extensive knowledge of natural medicine, owing to the Forest Tradition’s need to be able to treat their own ailments on tudong, and she worked to produce treatments that would support detoxification. After several years of refining and modifying the recipes, three formulae were standardised:

  • A herbal tea that stimulates the elimination of toxins through perspiration. To heighten its effect, the monks built a steam bath, which the patients are taken to once per day. At other times, the steam bath has become a popular facility that the local community also enjoys. The steam also helps with respiratory problems, which many drug-users have, and various herbs are added to the boiling tank to enhance this benefit.
  • A solid black pill, given towards the end of the day, which aids physical relaxation and sleep, the monks having observed that persistent insomnia is one of the most hard-to-bear factors in opiate withdrawal.
  • A highly concentrated dark liquid medicine, taken in a shot-glass, which encourages toxins to be expelled via the digestive system. For the first five days of treatment the patients take this every day, and then drink large quantities of water before regurgitating it. This is a dramatic and rather daunting treatment, but it makes detoxification more thorough, and a little quicker. It also has a powerful psychological component, making the addict feel that they are actively chasing poisons out of their bodies, rather than passively waiting for the misery to stop. 

Besides giving the medicines, the monks began to evolve a program for the patients, consisting of group meditation, sweeping and maintaining the area, and an opportunity to discuss difficulties every evening in a mixed group of patients and monks. This has remained more-or-less unchanged until the present day. It’s a fairly light schedule, allowing time for reflection, and for spontaneous interactions among the patients and with the monks. After the acute phase of detox, patients are allowed out of the Hay for periods to join in the general life of the monastery, and to attend evening chanting if they wish to. 

The detox crew have always encouraged a view that addiction – while presenting specific challenges – is just one rather acute version of the suffering, clinging and delusion that all humans are trying to navigate; as opposed to a bizarre and stigmatizing affliction, to be shamefully dealt with and never spoken of again when one is ready to return amongst the “normal” people. 

In this light, detoxification can be seen as the beginning of a joyous lifelong process of liberation, rather than just the end of a dark and regrettable episode. So as a patient’s time in the Hay draws to an end, lines will be blurred between “fixing my problem in a detox”, and “hanging out with monks to get my head together” which would be quite a normal, respectable thing to do in Thai culture, and upholds the informal spirit of the origin of the Hay.

While aspects of the help offered are certainly rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, there is no demand that any patient should adopt these, and so followers of any, or no, religion are all equally welcome.

These methods, and this setting, are certainly not for everyone. There are some who thrive on it, and others who might do better elsewhere with a different approach. There are many ways to effectively support those who wish to attempt the difficult struggle out of the trap of substance addiction, and we would certainly never make a claim for the supremacy of ours. 

However, I believe it is true to say that the Hay is the only residential detox in the world that offers immediate help to anyone, from anywhere, free of charge. The Hay has never turned away a patient for lack of capacity – when demand is high, space will be found. There is no waiting list – everyone is admitted on the same day that they present, which is crucial, since an addict may ask for help in a “moment of clarity” which may not last until the next moment. Prior arrangement is of course preferred, but not essential.

It is for this reason, over and above any other, that the Hay is a precious, unique resource for the entire world.

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