West Meets East

A History of Thamkrabok‘s Western Monastics

By the late 1960s, Thai government policy had changed, and the opium terror was over. The flow of patients dropped back to a trickle, although the Hay kept up a skeleton operation as long as there was still some need. Then in the mid 1970s demand shot up again as heroin from the Golden Triangle – peddled by warlords who had capitalised on the wars and subsequent chaos in South-East Asia to become hugely powerful – swept through Thailand. The Hay was suddenly up and running at full capacity again, and then a fresh challenge appeared – westerners.

The Hay had always been open to all, and a few westerners had made use of it. Thailand was not yet the mass tourism destination it is today, so these were usually expats – journalists, businessmen, or embassy staff – well orientated culturally and probably able to speak at least functional Thai, and so no need was seen to make any special provision for them.

Then, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the numbers began to increase, as former US servicemen, an astonishing proportion of whom had become addicted to opiates during their tours of duty, began to visit Thailand, due to nostalgia about R&R breaks in Patpong, and many of them got into trouble, and some of those ended up here. These were harder to know how to deal with, until an unexpected solution appeared.

Phra Gordon Piyathammo

Phra Gordon had been a US Marine Lieutenant who, deeply disturbed by his experience in Vietnam, declined to return home, and instead went missing in Bangkok. After drifting for a while, chance encounters with similar lost souls led to him meeting French mercenary commander Bob Denard, whose company he joined, having no better plan for his life. By his own description he had become a “combat junky”, sensing that; were he to step outside the structure and internal logic of a military unit, becoming once more a free-thinking individual, he would have to confront experiences that he did not wish to confront. In between engagements, he would mostly be blind-drunk in Bangkok, although he did also manage to become fluent in Thai during these years. 

Gordon arrived at Thamkrabok as the result of a flat tyre while driving up from Bangkok to the North. He had to remain in Phraputthabaht, our nearest town, for a few days waiting for a replacement, and he wandered into the monastery simply out of curiosity. He was directed to the Abbot, and after a long conversation, requested ordination.

Phra Gordon remained at Thamkrabok for the rest of his life, and took over running the steam bath, chatting to patients when they came for their daily treatment, with impish humour and warm compassion. He also became notorious for his bootcamp lectures to patients losing the will to continue, when he would transform back into Lieutenant Gordon, before collapsing into giggles as soon as they were out of sight. He never exactly bullied – he just became someone who you would certainly not wish to disappoint. It was remarkably skillful, and I have no doubt that many lives were saved by a timely Gordoning.

As the 1980s progressed, and ever-increasing numbers of western travellers wound up in the detox, via Pat Pong, Pattaya, or Khaosan Road, he became an invaluable fixture who sustained many patients through what might otherwise have been a bizarre and alienating experience. He also greatly nurtured the phenomenon of westerners ordaining at Thamkrabok; always ready to help with translation and orientation, or to provide encouragement and comradeship. 

Phra Gordon Pyathammo 1950 – 2011

Phra Hans Ulrich Kaempfer

More western monks followed Phra Gordon, but the next one to stay a long time and to make a lasting impact on the culture of Thamkrabok was Hans Ulrich Kaempfer, from Switzerland. Formerly an academic psychologist and particularly a devotee of Carl Jung, he was interested in many things, and had been a voracious world-traveler. He had seen a lot.

As is often the case, suffering was his route into the monkhood. Experiences with ayahuasca in South America had left him feeling that he was possessed, and afraid to sleep. On a visit to Thailand in 1997 a friend recommended that he consult Luang Por Charoen, the second abbot of Thamkrabok. Hans decided to stay at the monastery and to learn to control and understand his mental distress through meditation. After several months as a lay-practitioner, Hans decided that he was done with his old life and felt a calling to the monkhood. He ordained and remained at Wat Thamkrabok until his death in 2009.

Luang Por was quick to see that Phra Hans, speaking five European languages and possessing a very systematic mind, had the potential to do work of great benefit in the detox program, which by now had a fairly constant throughput of western patients. He took to this energetically, both on the frontline, inside the Hay, making daily visits to check on patient welfare, and also behind the lines. The world was turning digital, and Hans embraced the new technology of websites and email, thereby opening up the program to many more people worldwide than formerly would have found us, or been bold enough to fly into the unknown, without his encouragement and humourous de-mystification of what to expect at the other end. 

Not that he was all about softness – a good Jungian to the end, Phra Hans would often speak of daunting and epic-sounding challenges in the transformation that was needed – a “Hero’s journey”, a “descent into darkness” – making it clear, albeit with a softer-spoken style than Gordon, that no ordinary effort would suffice here. He was always trying to skillfully build bridges, and find common ground, between the Asian wisdom that westerners had come in search of, and more familiar metaphorical underpinnings and myths from their own cultures.

Phra Hans also became a popular meditation teacher. From his own experience, he was convinced that the ability to achieve some measure of stillness through concentration meditation, as a respite from the stress of our own mental afflictions, was an absolute pre-requisite for finding the vigour to address them; and that some measure of objectivity, via vipassana, was equally essential for addressing them fearlessly and effectively. Without these, no amount of clever theory, or sophisticated therapy would be at all effective. Having been the physician who could not heal himself, Phra Hans was passionate about this, and developed his own, very distinctive style of guided meditation for beginners.

He applied himself to the study of the Thai language and, while he never achieved Gordon’s easy fluency in real-time interpreting, he made great contributions in the latter part of his life to the more academic tasks of rendering the traditional chants into European phonetics, and translating the meanings of key prayers and rituals. Finding ways to make the practice of Dhamma accessible and inclusive, so that it might benefit as many people as possible, seemed to be his life’s mission.

Phra Hans Ulrich Kaempfer 1941 – 2009

Legacy

Phra Hans died in 2009, followed by Phra Gordon in 2011 – the two pioneers of Western practitioners in the forest tradition of Thamkrabok, who had dived in with no roadmap, no structure, but had found their own ways to understand and to practice Dhamma. Both of them, in contrasting ways, made enormous contributions both towards opening up the Hay to addicts around the world, and to paving the way for other westerners to follow them into the practice as monks and nuns.

When I first arrived at Thamkrabok in 2002, they both were very much in evidence, and at the height of their powers. I had only intended to stay for a month, lose some of my nasty habits, and rush back to my life in England, to hastily repair some damaged relationships, and get my career back on track. To “paper over the cracks” and carry on, much as before. By the time that month was up, largely as a result of getting to know these two venerables, I was convinced that much more than that might be possible.

It was my first time in Thailand, and only my second time in Asia. I knew little about Buddhism (and most of that wrong) but Phra Hans introduced and de-mystified Buddhist ideas and practices in ways that were immediately comprehensible to me. He skillfully took problems I already had, and ideas and images I was already familiar with, as the point from which to move towards solutions, rather than dumping a load of strange philosophy and exotic terminology on my head, and assuring me that figuring and fighting my way out through all this was the key to salvation.

Meanwhile, Phra Gordon showed me two things: firstly and crucially, the real transformative power of Dhamma, in that someone could come from such darkness and despair as he had and, far from being some kind of traumatised, shell-shocked refugee, to be as light, playful, and comfortable in his skin as he was. 

Secondly, his complete integration into the life of the monastery and the local community, and his fluency with the language and ease with the culture, left me with no excuses. This was not an esoteric foreign belief system that might work for exotic, serene and inscrutable foreign people, who had grown up with it “in their DNA”, or the air they breathed. This was universal human wisdom, and if he could be a part of it – with his distinctive appearance, looming head and shoulders above everyone else, and still with the unmistakable manner and tone (and volume) of a native New Yorker – well, then surely I could.

Of course, the wisdom and spirit of Thamkrabok resides with the Abbot, and the teachers, who are all Thai, as are the vast majority of the monks and nuns. We shouldn’t over-emphasize the importance of westerners, or give too little credit to the open, welcoming culture of the place, and the patience of the senior monks with newcomers. But language is a barrier – Thai is very differently structured from any European language, and is tonal, like Chinese. It takes time and commitment to learn to communicate even simple things understandably, and similarly, English is not generally spoken to a high standard in Thailand. 

But fear is a greater barrier. Addicts are coming from a fearful place. They have been pretty brave to make to a strange and distant land in order to slay the dragon (it’s a dragon – not a monkey – on their back, for goodness’ sake) but they may well be all played out now, and soon the last remaining traces of dutch courage will be gone from their systems. The presence of a more familiar face, voice, word in their own language, even some silly joke in a friendly tone may be just what is needed to help them hang around, hang in there, and try to find a little more. They’ll need a lot more, but they’ll need to find a little first.

Dhamma can be a need, not a luxury. As Buddhists we kind of believe that anyway, but especially at Thamkrabok it can be literally a lifeline. It was for me. Phra Gordon and Phra Hans opened a channel, and the current generation of western practitioners at the monastery now has the task of keeping it open.

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