Wat Thamkrabok : The last stop on Earth

By Remo Notarianni

Kyoto Journal (#65 January 2007)

Some 140 km north of Bangkok, limestone peaks adorn the skyline above the tranquil Ayutthayan province of Saraburi. As the taxi eases left into a beaten pathway, the dust clears and giant Buddha heads, mirage-like and serene, appear. There’s nothing discreet about the entrance to Thamkrabok — Thailand’s unique take on drug rehabilitation. The effigies await weary travellers whose salvation depends on resisting the temptation of continuing their drug-addled state in a Bangkok hotel room. Since 1958, around 100,000 addicts with anything from nicotine to heroin addiction have chosen the austerity of this sanctuary, turning a quiet retreat into a beacon of hope.

In Wat Thamkrabok, Buddhism combats addiction, not in clinical hospital wards but on a spiritual battlefield that addresses the problem on every level — physical, spiritual and existential. Unlike rehabilitation centres that have become swanky rockstar haunts, where money ensures a return along with room service and valium-assisted recovery, addicts are given one chance in the form of cold withdrawal, a modest existence and a sacred vow.

The miracle of Thamkrabok doesn’t work for everyone but its effectiveness is achieved with practically no medical facilities and a profound lack of resources. It has dispelled the myth that an expensive habit needs an expensive cure. Treatment, which is offered only once, is free; the monastery runs predominantly on donations. Addicts pay with nothing but appreciation.

“In the drug world outside, Thamkrabok is known as the ‘Last Stop on Earth,’” one monk told me. As imposing as the Buddhas around him, Phra Gordon, a six-foot tall African-American former mercenary who was ordained as a monk when he stumbled upon the sanctuary in 1981, breaks the monastic silence: “You choose the right to live, or you’re just gonna die,” he says.

Often likened to actor Samuel L. Jackson, Phra Gordon’s Harlem roar, kept gravelly by the Krongthep cigarettes he’s permitted, transforms the idyllic Thai setting into a Hollywood set. With his brown robes and bald head, Jackson’s part as Mace Windu in Star Wars Episode I could easily have been inspired by this convert to peace, who rose above violence when he came under the aegis of Abbot Charoen Parnchand, who taught him about dedication and the enduring value of saving lives.

He is one of many that Thamkrabok has indiscriminately embraced since it was founded in 1958, when an opium addict pleaded for help from legendary founder Luang Poh Yai, shortly after she sanctified a remote cave; naming it Thamkrabok or “Cave of the Teaching.” Luang prescribed an unorthodox cure that allegedly came to her in a vision. With this fateful meeting, the first success story was told — and soon heard by thousands who flocked in pursuit of salvation.

Wat Thamkrabok began to take shape amidst the craggy caves and rising peaks of a quiet jungle valley. Thailand’s President Sarit Thanarat is reported to have donated 400,000 Thai Baht (US$20,000) in 1961 to develop the compound on hearing that it had saved an air marshall’s opium-addicted brother. Phra Chamrooen, who left the police force as well as his wife and children to be ordained, became Thamkrabok’s first abbot when his aunt, Luang Poh Yai, died in 1970. Eleven years later, his brother returned from a decade-long tudong* to find the sacred site complete with a working infrastructure that supported accommodation, a water supply, rice and corn fields as well as a drug detoxification program that had won the 1975 Magsaysay Award for Public Service. Phra Chaoren took over when the first abbot died in 1999 to lead the sanctuary into an age in which alarming proliferation of drug addiction has sparked a clamouring for alternative treatments. Imbued with a creativity that cultivates spiritual growth, Abbot Charoen’s paintings and sculptures decorate the monastery like effigies. Sculptures forged from lava and rock, and watercolor paintings readily exhibit transformation and transcendence. As with Luang Poh Yai’s herbal cure, the imagery springs from personal visions which the abbot says manifest on a spiritual bridge between the self and the natural world, an interaction which he claims is sublime enough to offer a glimpse into transcendental reality. The sound of this mystical union can be heard in the Abbot’s explorations into Earth Music. The shapes formed by cracks in rocks are traced onto paper and interpreted as musical notes that are then played and recorded. Through Abbot Charoen’s creative sense, works of art take on the role of sacred messengers, persuasive enough to instruct a life hollowed out by self-destruction to start building again on its own ground zero.

Thamkrabok remains a place to offer guidance through the Dharma of Buddha but the success of the drug treatment proves just how great a role it can play in the global fight against drug addiction.

According to Phra Hans, a Swiss monk — whose spiritual tutelage included Amazon rainforest shamans before the abbot trained him — Thamkrabok has filled a vacuum in drug treatment. “It is a monastery. It therefore includes the spiritual dimension of life, rather than limiting itself to the illusion of symptom removal.”

Phra Hans stresses that the addict needs to unearth the psychological pain that has mushroomed into the problem and which can only be dealt with by the inner self — the unseen collaborator of destiny. Without that consultation, the real job of doing what one is meant to do in life is lost behind a suffocating mask of addictive fantasy.

The illusion is thinking the symptom is the problem. “Drugs are a secondary problem that then behaves as if it was the real problem and that is fatal. And the “real problem” is not a “problem” but a challenge: the challenge of life, of self-discovery, inner growth, self-realisation; doing one’s inner and outer homework during that so very short and precious time one is on Earth.

“And one is fully responsible for it. Reaching enlightenment or going to hell, it is we who are doing it, every moment.”

The treatment is based on Buddhist doctrine, but it can be addressed to any faith and isn’t delivered with missionary zeal. The Buddhist element is not considered essential; neither is any particular dogma. There’s no obligation to convert. “The spiritual dimension is not limited to or dominated by any religion,” Phra Hans explains. “This life-enhancing dimension is largely missing nowadays, mentally and physically, in the West and in the globalised world.”

In “The Hay,” a compound set aside for withdrawal, red and salmon-coloured pyjamas single out sunken-eyed addicts from healthy monks. The only thing remotely resembling medication is a dark brown syrup that they need to take every day at 5pm. It is consumed in concert with a ritual that ceremoniously hauls them towards recovery: a line of addicts vomit into a gutter, releasing the illness in torrents of puke, as part of them disappears into a trough as dark and narrow as the life they are battling to discard.

Held in place by helpers and surrounded by former addicts, who take part in a mysterious dance of resurrection in time with the beating of a drum, it is more like an initiation ceremony than cold turkey. The 108 ingredients of the emetic, lifted like the Holy Grail to the lips of the gravely ill, are a well-guarded secret.

Addicts are given additional cleansing in the form of herbal steam baths and massages as well as twelve sessions of meditation. This prepares them for new challenges: steering clear of pitfalls on the path to recovery.

As Phra Hans explains, staying physically clean requires more than the resolve to fight temptation. “The addict must start with a spiritual practice, like anyone else on the path which is called ‘the Middle Way’ avoiding the extremes of total submission to the ephemeral world.” Having removed the veil that drugs place over them, addicts begin a new stage of mental and emotional detective work.

“One must be ready and determined. Once one has handed the steering wheel of one’s life over to the drugs, reclaiming it is a very difficult process .” he said. If successful at piecing together the fragments that make up one’s real self, one can look in the mirror with the understanding that the addiction is a symptom, a messenger delivering a note that something is wrong.

“The message is generally that one is not doing in life what one is supposed to do, for whatever reason. That one is not on the right track or the right train. Stuck in the train station without any idea what train to take with a thousand excuses and explanations; seeking comfort and distraction.”

The journey needs to be taken alone but Thamkrabok equips addicts with a sacred survival kit, which acts as a spiritual compass. The Sajja — a vow in the form of a “solemn declaration of what one can do to put into practice” and the Kahtah, a Sanskrit word that one can recite secretly to fight off encroaching darkness.

The Sajja is a measurement of one’s commitment and the Kahtah, a beacon that addicts can flip on at any time. For those who leave the monastery, both are invaluable if used appropriately: “Cause and effect — if you do what is best for you, the best will come to you.”

The monastery’s remoteness has almost become part of the regimen, measuring the sincerity of addicts around the world whose fate could lie in a single journey. Nick, a 26-year-old former national wakeboarding champion from Australia, said that the journey he made from Perth to Thamkrabok involved wrenching himself away a home life that had been plunged into darkness.“Going to Thamkrabok was an awesome task. It was a logistical nightmare for someone like me to organise such things as contacting Thamkrabok, getting a passport or plane ticket.” The effort needed to get to Thamkrabok measures seriousness about kicking the habit.

“Thamkrabok gave me a perspective of another culture, a look at different ways of life and people as well as reminding me that there is a bigger world out there than the one I occupy here in Perth. Drugs can isolate you in a world of addiction and crime. I found out that I could survive travelling to a different country and make friends while I was there.”

Nick’s Icarus-style descent is typical. An academically gifted athlete, he plunged sharply at the height of his sporting career when he began to inject heroin and morphine and use “copious amounts of weed and acid” to cover “a feeling of internal despair” that he’d had since he was at school. “This went on for years and my life became an absolute mess — strangers would have seen me as gutter trash whereas only a few years before I was well educated, with a bright and enthusiastic circle of friends. The world, it seems, had been my oyster. Now I was just another skinny, unhealthy desperate addict looking for my next hit.”

Thamkrabok wasn’t the first place that Nick sought help. He claims that the other places didn’t have any lasting effect. “They were lacking in spirituality or were trying to push Christianity and the Bible too hard. I’m not against Christ; just some of the over zealous, self-righteous fuckheads who try to cram it down your throat. The others concentrated on expressing your feelings, group work, counselling, or the twelve steps. They were all very structured and kind of took away your self-reliance.”

He sees relative merits in treatments with a Buddhist approach. “Buddhism has definitely helped because of its insistence on quieting the mind to become more attuned to nature or the divine god. For a long time I used drugs to quieten the constant stream of thoughts in my head. I think it has done the best job in helping me beat addiction. It has also helped me build up my willpower.”

For those who become ordained as monks or help out as lay workers beyond “The Hay,” Thamkrabok remains a sanctuary. Laetitia, from East Anglia in England, stayed on at the monastery after kicking her addiction to “heroin, dope and anything” she could get her hands on. She is one of many who find getting up at 4 am every day to mix cement for the monastery’s construction to be as beneficial as meditation or physical cleansing.

Structures like the 24 Witnesses, an encircling array of Buddhas wrought from limestone and lava, leave onlookers with the feeling of being in an-ever expanding Shambhala. Such figures are testimony to personal hardship reshapedinto images of strength, solidity and spirituality.

But what happens to those who slip back into chaos? With the monastery’s growing reputation comes headline-grabbing failures such as Peter Doherty, the lead singer of The Libertines, who booked out after just three days of treatment.

Phra Hans points out that Docherty was talked into it by his band. “It is about one’s own life and what comes after; doing it for one’s family, kids or partner just isn’t enough.” That explains why the free treatment is provided only once.

“We don’t want to become a cheap rehab where one quickly detoxes and then goes on drugging. That’s not the kind of person and energy we want here.” As with the single passage of a precious life, Thamkrabok offers just one chance.

*Thai forest monks often engage in this practice, wandering on foot through the countryside either on pilgrimage or in search of solitary natural retreats. During a tudong, monks sleep anywhere available and eat only what laypeople offer them.


This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author Remo Notarianni and Kyoto Journal founding editor and art director, John Einarsen.