Vince Cullen

A virtual interview

Vince Cullen is an ex-alcoholic who has been associated with the Wat Thamkrabok monastery in Thailand and Buddhist-oriented drug and alcohol recovery since 1998. Vince facilitates the Fifth Precept Sangha meditation-for-recovery group in West Berkshire (UK) and is a charter member of the Buddhist Recovery Network.  In 2012, Vince completed the Committed Dhamma Practitioners Programme (CDPP) run by Gaia House in Devon, England.  In 2013, Vince was appointed as the Buddhist Prison Chaplain at HMP Coldingley, Surrey (UK) through the auspices of Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.

 Vince Cullen

The following ‘virtual interview’ was originally prepared for the Buddhist Recovery Networkinaugural conference held in Los Angeles in October 2009.  A shorter version was published inInquiring Mind journal in Spring 2010.

How did you get involved with Tham Krabok Monastery (TKBM)? 

In October 1996, as I drank my last glass of beer in the kitchen of my home in England, I made a vow to myself never to touch alcohol again. About a year later I saw a poster for an organisation called East-West Detox (EWD).   EWD apparently took addicts from the UK to a temple in Thailand to undergo a herbal treatment for addictions.  I remember wishing that had I have been aware of the monastery in Thailand before I stopped drinking then maybe my own detox would have been easier. But then of course, like many addicts I didn’t have the money to pay for the service that EWD were providing anyway. 

By a strange coincidence or maybe a quirk of fate, in the middle of 1998 my wife Jo, who was at that time studying to become a counsellor, was asked to become a trustee of EWD.  Due to her study commitments she declined but suggested that I might be interested.  EWD was a relatively new charity; I quickly became engrossed in the organisation and was soon elected as Chairman.  

Vince Cullen - Hungry Ghost Retreats - Sharpham Programme Spring-Summer 1999

Sharpham Programme Spring-Summer 1999

I arranged my first visit to Thailand in November 1998 and was very fortunate to be able to engage with one of Thamkrabok’s founding figures, the first abbot, Luangpor Chamroon Parnchand, before his untimely death in May the following year at the age of 73.  This initial visit was my introduction to the monastery’s treatment regime, in particular the use of Sajja, a sacred vow never to use narcotics and/or alcohol ever again.  The similarity between my own home-made vow that I had taken while sitting in my kitchen some 2-years earlier and the sacred vow of Thamkrabok Sajja did not go unnoticed.  The similarity of these vows, not in terms of words or form, but in their absolute commitment to abstinence was striking.

During that first visit to Thamkrabok monastery, Luangpor Chamroon offered to ‘cure’ me of my nicotine habit if I just took a Sajja vow and one 25ml dose of the famous – or even infamous – Thamkrabok herbal ‘medicine’.   At that time in 1998, I wasn’t quite ready to quit smoking but in June 2000, while escorting a crack addict from the UK to Thailand for treatment, I decided to take that Sajja vow and the medicine; I haven’t smoked since!

In June 2002 I escorted another addict to Thamkrabok (see Scoured to the Soul) on behalf of East-West Detox; but later that year I decided to leave EWD to pursue a more personal relationship with Thamkrabok and with Buddhism in general.   In February 2003, I ordained for 29 days as a novice Thamkrabok monk and spent much of that time working with drug addicts and alcoholics in ‘The Hey’, the Monastery’s treatment compound.  

Hungry Ghost : Haircut (and eyebrows!) on Full Moon Day

Vince Cullen : Haircut (and eyebrows!) on Full Moon Day


It is a great experience to take robes; even for just a short period of time as is possible in Thailand.   The Thamkrabok Monastery is totally unique and being a Thamkrabok monk is very different from ordaining at any other more orthodox monastery.  My personal objective, which isn’t necessarily shared by all of the Thamkrabok monks, was to experience a simple life in robes:  breakfast (the one meal of the day), work, sauna, meditation and chanting.  No TV, radio, English newspapers; but the occasional dose of the Thamkrabok herbal medicine just to cleanse the system!
 

I have many memories of my times as a monk, not all of them happy or funny, but nevertheless all part of the Thamkrabok experience.  

On the first day I ordained I was given a very quick lesson by the late Monk Hans Piyathammo Ulrich Kämpfer (or Phra Hans for short) on the art of putting on full-robes.  These are required for all formal occasions such as breakfast, meditation and chanting.  I’m not always that quick on the uptake, especially where there is a degree of dexterity involved, so I practised getting dressed until quite late into the night but I still could not get it right.  Unperturbed, I resolved to get up early the next day and ask Phra Hans for some help.  Very early the next morning, I shaved and showered then waited, partly dressed, on the ground floor of Phra Han’s ‘house’.  I waited and waited but there was no sign of Phra Hans.  When the bell for breakfast finally rang out, Phra Hans flew down the stairs putting on his own robes but without stopping.  As he disappeared out of the front door he called out over his shoulder “Phra Vince, what are you waiting for – you’ll be late for breakfast!” and was gone before I could reply.     

Breakfast is the one and only meal of  the day so I couldn’t afford to hang around.  I draped my robes in best Roman toga fashion and set off for my first meal as a monk.   I was just a little taken aback when I entered the Breakfast Hall.  Where were the tables and chairs?  Why is everyone sitting on the floor eating?  Well, as I was already wearing a make-shift toga, I thought “when in Rome…”, so I took my designated place at ground level.    

I spent most of that first breakfast in a great deal of pain, trying to keep my robes out of the food and the food out of my robes.  I like to believe that I’ve always had a Buddhist heart but unfortunately I was brought up with Catholic knees, so sitting cross-legged on the floor was not the easiest thing in the world to do.  It was a question of having crippled legs or starving; my stomach won and my knees lost.   

Although my goal was to keep things simple I didn’t totally succeed.  When you ordain, you are given 2 sets of robes.  Things are straight forward; everyday you wear one set and the other is spare (either clean or dirty).  After a week or so, one of the Thai nuns was good enough to make me a new work-top with a zip pocket, so I now had three of these garments.  I can’t tell you how just much time I wasted each morning trying to decide which of the 3 nearly identical brown coloured work-tops I should wear that day… vanity or what!  

It was at this time, that the 2nd Abbot, Luangpor Charoen Parnchand (the brother of the late Luangpor Chamroon) suggested that I should“use computers to help prepare addicts for treatment at Thamkrabok”. To this end I set up the ‘Thamkrabok Monastery Independent Information Network’ website to inform, prepare and help those people truly seeking an end to their addictions for their journey to Thailand.  The website contains directions to the monastery and a lot of other Thamkrabok related stuff as well. 

Since then I have helped, directly and indirectly, with arrangements for many addicts and visitors to make their own way to Thamkrabok. But sometimes it is not possible or indeed desirable for individuals to travel alone and unprepared to Thailand.   So I established the TARA Detox Organisation as a low-cost service to help drug addicts and alcoholics access the unique detoxification treatment provided by the monks at Thamkrabok. Effectively, this is an organisation of one, just me!  I trained in the NADA protocol ACUDETOX which consists of the insertion of five, small, fine, sterile stainless steel needles under the surface of the skin on specific sites in the outer ear.  Although, Thamkrabok would not let me use the protocol on any detoxee during treatment, Luangpor Charoen did let me demonstrate the use of magnetic seeds on the acudetox sites on his own ears.   It later transpired that he was frightened of needles! 

Over the years, I have escorted three drug addicts from the UK to Thailand on four separate occasions –  I took one heroin addict for treatment and then we travelled back together a year later so that he could renew his 1-year Sajja for alcohol.  All three of these ex-addicts are now working in the community providing valuable services for other addicts and young people at risk  

In March 2006, I again ordained as a Thamkrabok monk for 32 days to join the Thamkrabok Sangha on annual Tudong or walking pilgrimage.  On this occasion, I arrived at Thamkrabok on Saturday, ordained on Sunday and set off walking with the rest of the Sangha on Monday.  Even though I had taken robes once before, I was so excited about Tudong that I forgot the possible effects of the Sun on my freshly shaved head and bare shoulders.  Needless to say, that without protection, I became very badly burned on that first day, my head and face swelled up to the point that I could hardly see out of my eyes. Fortunately, we stayed at our first campsite for about a week so I had a little bit of time to recover before we were on the road again.  Even to this day I am often remembered at Thamkrabok as Phra Alien.

Vince Cullen - Hungry Ghost at Wat Thamkrabok

Luangpor Charoen Parnchand (Abbot of Wat Thamkrabok) and Phra Vince in February 2003

In what capacity are you currently involved with TKBM? 

If I can use the term very loosely, I  am the ‘webmaster’ of the official Thamkrabok website at www.thamkrabok-monastery.org    I console myself with the fact that the important thing is that addicts do get the information that they need in order to get to Thamkrabok, not a website full of  interesting pictures (although that would be nice as well).  I’m a long way behind updating the website since the 2ndAbbot passed away last year.  I did format and upload some pages in Russian a little while ago and it was most pleasing when I found out that a non-English speaking addict arrived from Russia after reading the new website pages. 

TARA Detox Organisation is still ready and willing to escort addicts to Thamkrabok but I think that largely due to the easy availability of all of the online information, TARA Detox hasn’t had a client since 2005!  Of course, I do still answer the telephone and reply to many emails from addicts, and those who love them, from all over the world.   My goal is to help them to decide if Thamkrabok is the right choice for them and I try to steer them in the right direction as appropriate. 

I have been aware for a number of years of the lack of support for recovering addicts – ex-Thamkrabokers as it were – after they had completed treatment and left the monastery.  So, in August 2003, I created the first very basic online forum that was later to become theFriends of Thamkrabok Monastery online support group.  This has been very successful in both supporting recovering addicts and providing ‘real’ information to prospective detoxees.  I still manage and contribute to this forum. 

In February 2009, being mindful of the low level of support at home for recovering addicts, I arranged a week long retreat at The Barn Rural Buddhist Retreat in Devon, England 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, however it was opened up to the general public and was oversubscribed in a very short time. 

I try to visit TKBM 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.

Vince Cullen - Hungry Ghost Retreats

Drinking Thamkrabok’s herbal emetic medicine during a demonstration for Thai High School students in August 2003.

It’s not unusual during one of my visits to Wat Thamkrabok to find myself ‘volunteered’ to put on the pink uniform of an addict, take the herbal medicine and purge the contents of my stomach in public in order to demonstrate the monastery’s treatment program for bus loads of Thai school children.  Well, if it stops just one kid taking drugs then it’s worth it. 

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 was asked to represent Thamkrabok at the inaugural Buddhist Recovery Network conference in Los Angeles during October 2009. 

Vince Cullen - Hungry Ghost Mindful Recovery Retreats

Buddhist Recovery Network Inaugural Conference – Los Angeles – October 2009


Do you have any future plans related to TKBM?
 

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 in Devon 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. 

What are the most effective components of the 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, the removal of the addict from their usual environment; a separation from home, ‘family’ and all that is familiar.   Once accepted for treatment, the addict must hand over all of his/her belongings including their passport and exchange their clothes for a uniform of a white tee-shirt and loose red trousers. After 5-days, the white tee-shirt is exchanged for a red one indicating that the addict has completed the crucial vomiting treatment.  Voluntarily giving up one’s cloths and possessions is an act of surrender, perhaps the first essential act of letting go.  The uniform and lack of possessions doesn’t seem to stop some addicts from running away but it does deter most of them! 

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 in The Four Noble Sajjas. 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.  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.   One of the most important reasons for taking this vow in the presence of a ‘High’ monk is that it gives a greater sense of personal obligation.   Bowing before a ‘mystical’ ally can also be considered an act of trust and surrender.   

After 5-days of treatment, an addict may request a personal Sajja to help with his recovery.  This may be as simple as “I will honour my parents” and may even be time-limited.   At the time of taking this personal Sajja, the addict is given a piece of paper on which is written a unique mantra, called a Kahtah, known only to them.  The Kahtah can be used as an object of meditation or as a blessing for food, but most importantly it is to use in times of high stress or temptation.  After 7-days the paper is swallowed by the recovering addict.  Now the addict really does embody his  Sajja and Kahtah! 

The third critical success factor is peer support.  Thamkrabok gives it’s accommodation and services for free; addicts only pay a small amount for food and sundries. All addicts wear the same uniform and everyone is treated the same regardless of social status outside of Thamkrabok.   Addicts in their first days of treatment are helped, supported and encouraged by those addicts who have already completed the critical 5-days vomiting treatment. 

In the past, there was little or no support for addicts after leaving Thamkrabok but in 2003 I sowed the seeds of an online community that is now hosted by Google Groups and is called ‘Friends of Thamkrabok Monastery’.  The group provides ongoing mutual support and a no-holds barred answering service to questions from addicts considering treatment at Thamkrabok.  As previously mentioned, in 2009 I arranged an exclusive retreat for ‘Thamkrabokers’ facilitated by Martine Batchelor at The Barn Buddhist Retreat Centre in Devon, UK.  In May this year (2010) there will be another retreat at The Barn with Kevin Griffin author of ‘One Breath at a Time : Buddhism and the Twelve Steps’ and ‘Burning Desire: Dharma, God and the path of recovery’ as our guest teacher.  Also this year (2010) will see the opening of a new 60-bed residential after-care facility for ex-Thamkrabok addicts in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.  The Chiwit Him (New Life) Foundation project is being built and funded by a grateful ex-addict from Belgium. 

The fourth factor of success is meditation and Dhamma (or Dharma) talks. Thamkrabok practices a unique approach to Buddhism and for most addicts the monastery is their first introduction to Buddhism in any form.  There are weekly Dhamma talks given by one of the ‘High’ monks and opportunities to learn Thamkrabok style, and traditional style sitting and walking meditation techniques. 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.  A lot of addicts do leave Tham Krabok with the rudimentary beginnings of meditation practice.   It may be anecdotal on my part but I see the addicts that accept sweeping leaves – without complaint – as the one’s who find long-lasting recovery.  To further aid recovery in a small way, I have recently started a Fifth Precept meditation group in my own home town.  The group is open to anyone in recovery from alcohol or other drug addictions, being Buddhist or otherwise, regardless of meditation experience.

The 1st Abbot, the late Luangpor Chamroon being made aware of western 12-Step programs developed his own 12 meditations that he thought would give focus to the addict on his personal situation and his way forward:- 

  1. Trust :  Meditation in silence – no communication.
  2. Equality :  Meditation on Equality.  Everyone is equal – nobody is better than anyone else.
  3. Anger :  Meditation on anger. Seeing anger for what it is and directing it in a positive way.
  4. Self-Help :  Meditation on self-help. Not to believe that others will help you and solve your perceived problems.
  5. Good Work :  Daily Meditation.   Good work will bring change and positive feelings of happiness, respect, peace of mind and love.
  6. Emotions :  Daily Meditation.  Do not let anything affect your emotions.  Learn to let go of any discursive thoughts or ideas you may have, see them for what they are and let them go.
  7. Good Deeds :  Daily Meditation.  By carrying out good deeds we will bring about good. Bad deeds only bring bad.
  8. Good Example :  Daily Meditation.  By being a good example we will affect the future in a positive way.
  9. Truth :  Daily Meditation.   By seeking the truth in everything we will achieve the ultimate goal  “Peace of Mind”.
  10. Effect :  Daily  Meditation.  Do not believe others can affect you in any way.
  11. Individuality :  Daily Meditation.  Everyone is an individual and entitled to make his or her own decisions.
  12. Belief System :  Daily Meditation.
    • To believe in a power greater than ourselves.
    • Not to believe that others can be either good or bad towards you.
    • No matter whether good or bad is presented to me it will not affect me in any way.
    • My past life has an effect on the way I am.
    • The truth will rid us of desires.
    • Belief in good and bad comes from ourselves.
    • Not to believe others can make you feel sad.
    • Do not look up to other people and believe they can relieve your sufferings.
    • Do not let other people affect you by what they say or the statements they may make.  KEEP CALM ALWAYS.

The 12 meditations weren’t ever fully embraced by the monks or addicts at Thamkrabok so it is difficult today to understand how Luangpor Chamroon intended these to be used.  However, they may still have a use in an after-treatment meditation support group or similar. 

Lastly, the infamous aspect of the Thamkrabok program: “It’s that monastery in Thailand 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 part of the treatment has many important components; including the ritual dispensing of the thick brown liquid, the real and symbolic cleansing, the physical effect of purging toxins from the body and the resulting physical weakness.  This public display of vomiting is another act of letting go but on a physical level   In addition to the emetic detox mixture, the addicts are dispensed purgative herbal pills and encouraged to drink a special herbal tea, particularly before and during the daily visits to one of the three herbal steam saunas.  Make no mistake; this is a very real and very rapid detox.  

How does TKBM help people recover from addictions?   

Thamkrabok gets them physically clean with a very real, very rapid herbal detox. 

Thamkrabok gives them a simple rule for staying clean – the Sajja

Thamkrabok gives them a simple tool for relapse prevention – the Kahtah.

The rest is up to the addict. 

Thamkrabok is a one-chance option… if someone is not ready they should not be encouraged to waste that one-chance.  In my opinion the right people get to Thamkrabok at the right time… and then they always succeed. 

Because the importance of personal commitment to abstinence that is so central to the Thamkrabok process, addicts who are coerced to go to the monastery, or who are misled into seeking a wonder cure, are the ones that most often don’t have the mindset or inner strength to maintain their Sajja.  Many of them relapse… some of them die. 

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”.   

If an individual is willing to change their habits and their outlook, then there is a good chance that Sajja will work for them.  It would be unwise and unfair to fill up an aeroplane with addicts and take them to Thamkrabok… it just would not work. 

When we stop taking our drug(s) of choice we most often find that we are lacking in ethics, or morally bankrupt. We are without any real or ‘whole’ sense of integrity or goodness.  In most instances we cannot even see this, just as we couldn’t see our original addiction(s).  We have spent too many years lying, cheating, stealing, abusing and even prostituting ourselves; so when we get clean we simply do not know how to behave properly.  The Thamkrabok Sajja is not simply a vow to stop taking intoxicating substances; it is a commitment to starting a new life, embracing truth and honesty.  Effectively, we must radically change our view of the world, and our view of ourselves in that world.  

It is difficult and perhaps unwise to quote ‘Success Rates’ not only because these are so hard to define but also because these set up an expectation in advance of treatment.  Thamkrabok does not publish any figures for so called ‘success rates’ and anything heard on the monastery must be treated as purely anecdotal.  Any person or organisation claiming 60, 70 or even 80 percent success rates are effectively selling a wonder cure.  I deliberately say selling because there is normally a fee involved.  Thamkrabok works for the people it works for… 

Treatment at Thamkrabok is sometimes described as a hero’s journey, why?

This comparison was first made by Thomas Schreiber at the end of the nineties, who wrote his degree  thesis on the drug treatment program at Thamkrabok.  Thomas took his research seriously to the point of ordaining as a Thamkrabok monk for 3-months.  In his thesis, Thomas 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!” 

Do you regularly observe Buddhist practices/principles?  If so, what Buddhist practices/principles do you observe, and how long have you been doing so?  Which of these do you feel have been most helpful in your own recovery?

I, of course, observe my own vow never to touch alcohol for the rest of my life.  This has been reinforced by formal vows or Sajjas taken at Thamkrabok; one Sajja for narcotics, one Sajja for alcohol and one Sajja for nicotine.  I didn’t actually need to take a Sajja for narcotics but I was very aware of the temptation to switch addictions!!! 

It is difficult to fully practice the Sajja approach to Buddhism and recovery outside of Thamkrabok Monastery, so I complement my Sajjas with a commitment to the Five Precepts; in particular but by no means exclusively, the Fifth Precept. 

If I can hold fast on the Fifth Precept then I am less likely to transgress the other Precepts, but that is not a guarantee. Personally, I have certainly experienced less suffering and dissatisfaction in my daily life since adopting all the Precepts as a life model. 

Just for ease of reference let me list the “Five Precepts” (commitments or endeavours) that all Buddhists, addicts or otherwise, try to live by: 

(1) To undertake the training rule to refrain from taking, or harming life (including our own).

(2) To undertake the training rule to refrain from stealing (taking that which is not given).

(3) To undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct (respectful relationships).

(4) To undertake the training rule to refrain from telling lies (being mindful in our speech).

(5) To undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicating liquors & drugs that lead to carelessness. 

The more I look at the Precepts, the more they make sense. I can look at each precept individually or at all five together. They are at once separate ‘rules’ and at the same time inextricably linked in a framework that supports each ‘rule’. 

For example; I cannot abuse substances without ‘breaking’ the Fifth Precept but I am at the same time also ‘breaking’ the First Precept by hurting myself and therefore those that I love or who love me. If I’m abusing drugs or alcohol then I may also be stealing, lying and sexually irresponsible.  I’m sure you get the picture. 

As an addict I’ve broken every one of these precepts.  In recovery, the Fifth Precept is my greatest challenge as breaking it will inevitably lead to breaking some or even all of the other commitments, leading to misery and suffering in my life. 

If I indulge in drugs or alcohol I will invariably hurt those whom I love or who love me. I may cause them harm in many ways including emotionally, financially and possibly even physically. If I continue to abuse drugs or alcohol the downward spiral into negative consequences accelerates my journey to my own personal hell, the realm of the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ in Buddhist psychology.  I am not only damaging those around me, I am putting my very existence, my very own life, at increasing risk. 

Anything that I do that is contrary to these principles is just going to bring me suffering… including ‘dabbling’ in anything that is opposed to these commitments.  The ‘Hell Realms’ don’t just exist in the next lifetime, they are here and now, ready to welcome the unsuspecting, unmindful addict with open arms.  As I know from my own experience, once you are in the ‘Hell Realms’ it is nearly impossible to get out! 

Whether I look at the Precepts on the surface or whether I put them to greater scrutiny, I find great strength and guidance in these five simple instructions. 

For today my Sajja is strong and my commitment to the Precepts unwavering; the cravings for alcohol and tobacco loosen their grip with each day that passes; but I know that I must never be complacent.  I will always be an addict. 

Do you meditate? 

I do meditate but not as regularly as I know I should, at least not alone at home.  I generally blame this on the unsocial and haphazard nature of the shift work of my full-time job but I know that this is just an excuse.  I am aware of and often experience the beneficial effects of regular sitting practice; not just when I have a crisis or I can’t get to sleep!   

Regardless of my struggles when sitting at home, I do try to get away on retreat at least once a year.   I have been particularly helped by the 10-day silent Anapanasati retreat held every month at Wat Suan Mokkh in Southern Thailand.  Despite the concrete beds and wooden pillows, I have completed 3 of these retreats.   The Suan Mokkh environment is very supportive for those new to meditation as well as for those individuals with some experience.  It’s a personal thing, but I think the Dhamma lessons here are wonderfully presented and very informative.


In addition to my various retreats, there are also my private and working visits to Thamkrabok Monastery.  During one particular detox trip with a heroin addict in 2005 it transpired that there were no English speaking monks available to facilitate meditation sessions.  As an ex-Thamkrabok monk, albeit a novice, I was given permission to hold meditation classes in the treatment compound for any addicts that wanted to sit.  To ease the possible discomfort of sitting cross-legged and to encourage those addicts new to sitting  practice I arranged with the Monastery’s carpentry workshop to make some kneeling stools which were very well received and much used.

Vince Cullen - Hungry Ghost Mindful Recovery Retreats

Teaching meditation at Wat Thamkrabok in June 2005    (Photograph © Agnès Dherbeys 2005) 

Fifth Precept Meditation Group

I am not a great scholar or a great meditator but for a number of years now, I have been considering the idea of a meditation for recovery and abstinence group. The arrival of the Buddhist Recovery Network acted as a welcome catalyst and provided some much needed guidelines to finally get this off the ground. Since November 2009, I have been facilitating a meditation group in my home town of Newbury, Berkshire (see www.5th-precept.org ).

My own meditation practice, albeit haphazard, supports my continued abstinence in recovery. I wanted to establish a ‘Sajja’ or ‘Fifth Precept’ group in West Berkshire, ideally Newbury or Reading.

  • Sajja (or Sacca in Pali) is ‘truth’. Sajja as practised by the Thamkrabok Monastery in Thailand is a promise made before a senior monk never to consume, promote or handle drugs and/or alcohol ever again.  Sajja is also a commitment to a new life embracing truth and honesty.
  • The Fifth Precept is an endeavour to refrain from intoxicants in all of the Buddhist traditions. It is usually presented something along the lines of: “I undertake to refrain from intoxicating liquors and drugs that lead to carelessness”.

From an addicts point of view, there is a subtle but significant difference between an endeavour to abstinence and a total commitment to abstinence, so the aim of this group is to promote and support a combination of Sajja and all Five Precepts; that is to say – a total commitment to total abstinence; a commitment to a new way of being. 

As all things are temporary, transient and impermanent, I’m sure that the function, form and membership of the group will evolve over time, once we experience what works and what doesn’t.  In the meantime it is important to note that:

* You do not have to be a Buddhist to take refuge in the Fifth Precept.
* You do not have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness meditation.

There is now scientific, as well as anecdotal, evidence of the benefits of meditation for recovery but knowing this is not enough… it is the time spent on the cushion that counts. 

Does the TKBM program help Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike?   Why?

Thamkrabok does not make any distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist.  The practice of Sajja can work for anyone.  You should remember that Sajja is a commitment to Truth, Honesty and a new life.  The drug and alcohol vows are very important and when combined with the Kahtah and meditation practice for relapse prevention, are very effective.  But the drug and alcohol Sajjas are only the tip of the iceberg; you have to look below the surface to get the full effect! 

Empirically speaking, taking Sajja is a very black or white decision.  On the black side, if you break your Sajja bad things will continue to happen in your life.  The longer you use/abuse, the more negative consequences of your addiction will manifest.  You will continue to harm your self and those around you that you love. Of course, it may be possible to stabilise the continued use of drugs, if this is the way you want to live, but this will never bring true happiness or freedom from craving. 

On the white side, if you keep your Sajja, good things will start to happen in your life and you will be better prepared to deal with any bad things.  If you adopt the Five Precepts (Sila), then you can further reduce the stress and suffering of your past, present and future.  The longer you keep your Sajja, the better your life will become.  There is life after drugs and alcohol, and it can be a very good life. 

Thai addicts are particularly superstitious and consider it very bad luck to break their Sajja.   Much is made of the “accidents” that happen to addicts who don’t stay clean.  But this is not purely superstition or Thai Buddhist spiritualism, just simple logic or common sense.   Staying clean will allow you get on with your new life, things will only get better.  If you break the vow and go back to a life of drugs or alcohol you will be on the fast track back into misery and suffering. 

How do you feel the approach and effectiveness of the TKBM program compares with traditional 12-step programs?

I found the classic AA ’12 step path’ very helpful during my first 18 months of recovery but this approach did not sit entirely right with me, and since that time I have developed a deep interest and respect for Buddhism.

I have found that the principles and precepts of Buddhism fully support my recovery and they have greatly reduced the amount of suffering in my daily life.  Thamkrabok’s unique approach to Dhamma using the practice of Sajja is very effective.

RESOURCES:

Vince Cullen can be contacted  at vince.cullen@tara-detox.org
Fifth Precept Sangha –
www.5th-precept.org
Buddhist Recovery Network –
www.buddhistrecovery.org
Buddhist Recovery Network UK –
www.buddhistrecovery.org.uk
Wat Thamkrabok Monastery website –
www.wat-thamkrabok.org
Thamkrabok Independent Information –
www.thamkrabok.net
FOTM online Sangha –
http://groups.google.com/group/friends-of-thamkrabok-monastery
The Cheewit Mai (New Life) Foundation –
www.newlifethaifoundation.com

 

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