An extract of salient points from presentations given by Vince Cullen (as Chairman of the Trustees: East-West Detox) to “ANGULIMALA”, the United Kingdom Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation at The Forest Hermitage, Lower Fulbrook, Warwickshire 13th March 1999, and at a Public Lecture at Sharpham College, Totnes, Devon on 18th May 1999.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address you today.
I’m going to talk to you about Thamkrabok Monastery, which is a drug treatment centre in Thailand, it’s origins and how the organisation I represent hopes to work together with the Abbot (of Thamkrabok Monastery) to establish a permanent programme for the treatment of European addicts.
I must just mention a couple of things before I start.
The first is that I do not speak Thai, so to those of you that do, I apologise in advance for my appalling pronunciation (and spelling) of some Thai words and phrases.
Secondly, Thamkrabok Monastery has had a chequered history, some of which I will cover today. It originally had the status of Monastery but over time due to the number of Buddhist nuns residing on site it could no longer use this description. It was then simply called a Temple but again over time as the Temple started to permanently accommodate more & more none clerical persons, so this title has also been dropped. It is now commonly referred to as Thamkrabok Monastery Drug Treatment & Rehabilitation Centre. So today if I say Thamkrabok Monastery or Monastery or Temple or Treatment Centre then they are in actual fact all one and the same.
Lastly, this presentation was put together from a number of sources and there are a number of inconsistencies in the material. The inconsistencies are there and there is nothing we can do about them. But I hope you enjoy the presentation regardless.
Opium & Cannabis (which, as you know, are both naturally occurring addictive substances) have been extensively used and abused in Asia for centuries. The opium poppy has been cultivated and it’s resins extracted for use as a narcotic at least since the time of the early Greek empire.
Thailand is a primary export route for opium grown in the notorious “Golden Triangle” in the north where Thailand, Myanmar (that’s Burma as was) and Laos adjoin. Most of the harvest from this major world centre of opium production is processed clandestinely in Thailand, ten kilos of opium becoming one kilo of heroin. Opium smoking always was, and still is amongst some Hill Tribe peoples of the north, a condoned vice of middle-aged and older men, but derivatives, chiefly heroin is increasingly an addiction of the young and increasingly, the addicts are getting younger. Although right now (1999) , the biggest threat on the streets of Bangkok according to the Bangkok Post is the easy availability of amphetamine tablets, which are currently being seized by the Thai Drugs Squad by the million(s).
Over the years and centuries there have been a great number and variety of legal and enforcement interventions introduced to control the production, sale and consumption of these substances, particularly in relation to opium. For the purposes of this presentation I would just briefly like to go over the more recent Thai interventions and legislation that lead to drug dependence treatment being undertaken by Buddhist Monasteries in Thailand, and particularly by Thamkrabok Monastery.
In 1811, King Rama II issued a Royal Edict prohibiting the purchase, sale and consumption of opium. This edict described yawning, hot & cold flushes, weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and death as the results of acute opium withdrawal. I’m not sure how successful this law proved but some 8 years later, the King issued an emergency decree again prohibiting the smoking of opium, however for the first time, this decree actually contained a recommendation for the self-treatment of opium dependence by the gradual reduction of daily opium dose over a long period.
At that time, without any real highways or railways (let alone modern telecommunications) the enforcement (and therefore the effectiveness) of any drug prohibition regulations must have been extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain. Even in those days, illegal drug trafficking and dealing was a very profitable business and there was no shortage of corrupt officials willing to turn a blind eye for the right price. It is probably for these reasons that in 1851 King Rama IV (in his first year of his reign) decided to adopt a policy of franchising the production and sale of Opium. Perhaps foreseeably but nonetheless unfortunately, this policy lead to the eventual spread of opium smoking into practically every social class including Buddhist monks!
By 1908 opium smoking had become so widespread that it was perceived to be a threat to national security. This danger was recognised by King Rama V who made arrangements intended to stamp out opium smoking in Thailand altogether. These arrangements were no more effective than previous attempts but they did lead to the first treatment trial.
At this time there were a number of traditional drugs that claimed success in treating addiction to opium smoking. On examination, these traditional drugs were found to contain opium dross mixed with other ingredients. One such herbal medicine was extensively studied during a treatment trial of more than 400 volunteered opium addicts. The trial was observed by both foreign and Thai doctors, and the official report issued in 1910 concluded that the herbal medicine was most efficacious. In addition the report noted that the medicine also seemed to have a preventative effect against relapse. Unfortunately, nothing more seems to have been done following what seems to have been a highly successful trial.
In any case, the years rolled on and opium dependence continued to increase. Yet another law was passed in 1954 banning the use of opium but due to government corruption, primarily the involvement of senior government and police officials in the opium trade, these regulations were no more effective than earlier measures. In 1958...that’s only just over forty years ago.... the opium franchise was officially ended, and again the sale, purchase and use of opium was prohibited. This ban in itself actually lead to a heroin epidemic as opium addicts switched drugs. Also, until this time the majority of opium addicts had been in their thirties and older, but now the problem of adolescent heroin abuse was first noted.
When the new law came into effect on 1st January 1959 there were about 72,000 voluntarily registered addicts. During that year only one Drug Dependence Hospital (with 250 beds) was opened. Other general purpose hospitals could only give simple symptomatic treatment to a small number of cases. By 1961 there were 15 hospitals licensed for the treatment of drug dependence. The total capacity for treatment amounted to 600 beds. Clearly the provision of an official treatment service was falling a long way short of meeting the known demand.
Before I talk about the temple and it’s treatment programme I must introduce you to one of the temples founders.
Chamroon Parnchand was born on 1st April 1926 in the village of Bangli in Lop Burl Province (about 140 km north of Bangkok). His farther was a practitioner of traditional herbal medicine.
At the age of 7 he was sent to live with his uncle who kept a Herbal medicine shop in Bangkok. After graduating from High School in 1943, he became a civil servant in the water supply division of the Ministry of the Interior. He did not find this work satisfying so two years later he entered the Police Training School in Bangkok.
In 1948 he won the Police Dept’s Outstanding Record Award for apprehending criminals. For this achievement he received a citation, a cigarette case, and 150 baht (about £3) which was the equivalent of 2.5 months salary. Despite this success, he felt unsettled in his Police role. For example, at that time if the police could not find the guilty party, they would sometimes arrest an innocent man just to keep their superiors happy. Since Chamroon Parnchand refused to do this he found that his job and his conscience were often in conflict.
(While still a policeman he had a religious experience that convinced him that eventually he was destined to become a Buddhist monk.)
Despite his unease he continued to succeed in the police moving to the Special Branch which dealt with subversive activities and the drug trade. However, by 1953 he had had enough and he left the Police force to become a TUDONG monk, that is a monk who goes on pilgrimage during the dry season (November-March). During his first 5 years of his monkhood he walked all over west, north & north-eastern Thailand as well as some of Cambodia.
In 1957, in some caves near Saraburi, Phra (or Monk) Chamroon, his revered aunt Mian and his younger brother, Phra Charoen (who had also become a monk), established Thamkrabok Monastery. This “Temple of the Bamboo Cave” was primarily established as a shelter for tudong monks.
The story cannot go on without reference to the Parnchand’s revered aunt, whose name was Mian. Like her nephews, she shared the same links to traditional herbal medicine. She had inherited the knowledge of herbal medicine treatment for various diseases from her ancestor. She was a lay Buddhist nun and although there is no official Buddhist order of nuns, she had, by her wisdom, devotion, sanctity and by all accounts prophetic powers earned the deference and respect accorded to Buddhist monks and was called LUANG POH YAI or “Senior Father”. With her two nephews she established Thamkrabok Monastery.
Two years after establishing the temple an old man came to them asking for a cure for his opium addiction. Lacking any knowledge of a cure, the monks nonetheless improvised. The old man took SAJJA (a sacred vow) before the image of the Buddha, and Phra Chamroon handed him one bud from the cluster of lotus buds traditionally placed before the alter. He told him “The lotus is a sacred flower. Whenever you want to take opium, chew on a lotus bud instead.” The old man did as he was told and in time found complete release from his addiction. This then was the origin of the modern Thamkrabok treatment programme. The old man quickly told others about Thamkrabok Monastery and in just two years, between 1959 and 1961, over 10,000 addicts were treated primarily using the vow and the lotus bud. Many returned to give thanks for their “cure”.
Of course this is about the time that the Opium Franchise was terminated and the use of opium outlawed in Thailand. Luang Poh Yai told her nephews that Thailand was facing serious difficulties and they should each choose a problem to address. Phra Charoen chose literacy among the poor, and Phra Chamroon chose drug addiction.
The original treatment process devised by Phra Chamroon and his aunt was developed over the years into a highly effective systematic regime. The treatment is comprised of 5 identifiable elements that work on two complementary levels: the spiritual and the physical.
Location & Isolation: On arrival at Thamkrabok, each addict is asked if he came voluntarily and if he truly wants to stop using drugs. If the addict hesitates or answers no to either question, he is sent away and told to return when he is serious. Once accepted as a patient, the addict must hand over all his belongings and exchange his clothes for a uniform of white tee-shirt and loose red trousers.
Medicine: Developed over a number of years .... the recipe is known only to the Abbot and Herbalist. The concoction is emetic, producing “projectile vomiting”. This specific part of the treatment has many components ritual, symbolic, physical effect in purging toxins from the body and the resulting physical weakness.... make no mistake… this is a very real ... very rapid detox. The medicine is not all, one must not forget the part of the ‘Black Pills’ and Herbal Steam Sauna.
Meditation: Not necessarily in the traditional Buddhist sense, but just allowing time and space for the addict to think with a clear head. In addition, there are 12 meditations that the Abbot gives to focus the addict on his situation and the way forward
Vow: Sajja is a Pall word found in Buddhist texts which has the broad meaning of embracing the truth, loyalty, purity and honesty. This vow is considered by many to be the most important part of the treatment. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for taking a vow in the presence of a ‘master’ (or Senior Monk in this case) and / or in the presence of other living persons is that it brings a greater sense of commitment. It reinforces your own conscience and gives a sense of personal obligation.
The addicts ‘whole’ experience of Thamkrabok has been likened to the archetypal Hero or Initiatory Journey as described by Joseph Campbell; ‘The Initiatory Journey’ has three steps
Vichai Poshyachinda “A Review on the Buddhist Temple Drug Dependence Treatment in Thailand” (Paper prepared for the Meeting of WHO Substance Abuse Collaborating Centres, Geneva, Switzerland. 13-14 September 1993).
Citation: The 1975 Ramon Magsaysay award for public service.
Steven Biddulph's bestselling book “Manhood”.
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