Vince Cullen and Vomiting Your Way to Sobriety in Thailand

By Nathan A Thompson 04/21/15

Vince Cullen specializes in a unique and successful mode of recovery at Wat Thamkrabok in Thailand, using a tonic that induces bouts of savage vomiting.

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Wat Thamkrabok
Herbalist with medicine Nathan A. Thompson

This former sozzled drunk, who once stumbled through 12-hour shifts in computing, and bellowed through smoke and beer-fugged trade union meetings, has been sober 19 years all because of a holy vow. Today, Vince Cullen teaches mindfulness-based recovery and is one of the only teachers in the world who specializes in “sajja”—a holy Buddhist vow. He learned this unique style of recovery at Wat Thamkrabok in Thailand—a famous monastery that has been detoxing addicts for six decades using a foul-tasting herbal tonic that induces bouts of savage vomiting. The idea is to purge the body of impurities. Before people can enter the program (that lasts up to 28 days) addicts “take sajja” and vow never to touch drugs ever again. The Fix caught up with Vince at the herbal steam baths at Wat Thamkrabok in Thailand to find out more about this unique take on recovery. 

 

Luangpor Charoen with Phra Vince—(c) Wat Thamkrabok 2003

Hello Vince, how would you describe yourself?

A sajja practitioner and mindfulness-based recovery teacher.

Why do you do that?

Good karma. There’s a satisfaction in helping people that supports my own recovery.

Where?

I get invited to teach retreats at Buddhist centers. Mostly in England, Ireland and Thailand. I truly believe that Buddhist-oriented recovery has a part to play in the recovery scene.   

Tell us about your journey to recovery.

I remember being 17 and filling in one of those newspaper questionnaires about whether or not you’re an alcoholic. I ticked every box but chose to ignore the obvious conclusion. It took me another 22 years to hit rock bottom. 

What was that like?

I’d have several pints of beer for breakfast, break time, lunch and after work. I was a legend in my own lunch break because I could put away four or five pints in an hour. In the end, things got really bad, my marriage was crumbling and my career was hanging by a thread. I remember sitting in my kitchen and deciding to drink my last beer. Making that commitment was a leap into the dark. Now, 19 years later, I can see it was actually a leap into the light.

Herbalist with medicine. Nathan A. Thompson

How did you get involved with Wat Thamkrabok?

I was asked to be a trustee of a charity that helped English addicts journey to Thamkrabok and take their detox. It must be my trade union experience because I ended up becoming the chairman of that charity. Once I was the chairman, I thought I ought to investigate the temple for myself so I came here for the first time in 1998. Over the following years, I helped a number of addicts come and detox here. In 2003, I actually ordained as a monk for a month [in Thai Buddhism it’s normal to ordain for short periods]. 

How did you start teaching your own retreats?

I realized that none of the Buddhist teachers working in the recovery world had experience with the sajja vow. The monks at Thamkrabok are forbidden to travel so if this approach was going to be offered it was down to me to do it. So I asked a Buddhist center in the U.K. if they’d be open to me teaching a retreat and they said yes. So I taught a six-day recovery retreat. I teach people to use sajja and meditation to go from the hungry ghost realm to the human realm.

What is the hungry ghost realm?

In traditional Buddhist teaching you would expect rebirth in one of six realms, three heavenly and three hellish. These realms can also be considered as mind states. One of the hell realms is the realm of the hungry ghost—beings that have this unquenchable thirst that can never be satisfied. So the idea is to free the mind from the hungry ghost realm and move it to the human realm, which is full of possibility and free choice.

Phra Vince getting a haircut—(c) Vince Cullen 2003

How else do you help?

I started a peer-led recovery group based on the fifth precept of Buddhism which says “not to use substances that lead to heedlessness.” I set up the group, made a website and developed the resources. In the first year, people came and dropped out. A lot of the time I just sat on my own—it was a great lesson for the ego.

You include meditations in your meetings, how effective is that?

Part of the format is a 10-minute meditation to induce tranquillity and peace. People should get rid of the notion that you have to work hard at meditation; it’s just about sitting and watching the breath. We also meditate on developing loving kindness towards ourselves.  

What is sajja?

Traditionally, sajja means “truthfulness.” Traditionally, it is cultivated to move away from avoidable suffering.

What is the difference between a normal promise and a sajja?

The sajja vow is not about abstinence, it’s about complete abandonment. There is a world of difference—indeed, a whole heaven and hell realm of difference—between reluctant abstinence and a wholehearted abandonment. 

Is it something someone can choose to do or does the intention have to develop over time?

The penny might drop or it might not drop. You can see it in retreats when people come year-after-year and don’t get it but it only takes one occasion for it to make sense. You just have to allow that process to be.  

Where does the power of a sajja come from?

It comes from a personal inquiry that leads to discovering the truth of karma and consequences. Once you realize that, a moral approach to life develops and suffering reduces. 

What’s the difference between a vow that fails and one that sticks?

To succeed you need to be absolutely truthful. One definition of truth in Buddhism is “that which does not deceive;” as addicts we're very good at deceiving ourselves and others. So the truthfulness aspect of sajja allows us to see the dire consequences of not following the vow.

How successful is the Thamkrabok approach?

Well there have been various studies and claims made but, in general, I’m against such claims because you’re making guarantees to people that don’t exist. This is not a miracle cure. 

What about the vomiting?

This type of detox was designed for opium smokers in the 1950s. And over time it’s been proven to be effective, not just for them but for heroin users and other addicts, too. The vomiting is done in public and there is singing and drumming, which has a powerful symbolic effect on the mind as well.

The minimum stay at Thamkrabok is a week and they recommend 28 days; that’s short compared to the 90 days that tends to be prescribed in Western rehabs…

The minimum used to be 28 days but they’ve kept shortening it over the years to accommodate Westerners. In my view, a week is too short. However, 28 days can be enough because the living standards are very rough compared to comfy Western detoxes so addicts are forced to confront the discomfort they have been running from in a very immediate way. If you can sit with the heat, boredom and hard work you will learn a lot about living sober. The ideal situation would be for someone to come here for 28 days and then continue the recovery process somewhere like the New Life Foundation.

Vince Cullen teaching at New Life Foundation—(c) www.susanwangphotography.com 2014

How is your recovery today? 

I always think about the emptiness of recovery. It’s about being empty of guilt, shame and conflict; all those things that used to be in my life aren’t there anymore. Loving kindness meditation is a big thing for me. If you practice loving kindness meditation, animals will love you, people will love you and the angels and devas will look after you. Your face will become serene and you will die unconfused. I can’t think of any better reasons to practice recovery.

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Salon, the Christian Science Monitor and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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Nathan A. Thompson is the president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, where he has been based since 2013. He has reported for VICE News, the TelegraphGuardianSlateSalonand Christian Science Monitor both in Cambodia and across the region and currently works in editorial at ucanews.com. He writes travel articles, essays and released his first poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong Only Lightning in 2016. Follow Nathan on Twitter.

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