The Sajja Vow of Thamkrabok – Escaping Addition in Thailand

Wat Thamkrabok

An important part of the addiction treatment at Thamkrabok is the sajja vow. The promise I made not to drink again for the rest of my life. The monks believe that if you keep this vow good things will come into your life, but that breaking it will be disastrous. Unlike a lot of the vows that addicts are famous for making this one can’t be made more than once – if you break this promise there is no saying sorry and repeating it.

The Sajja Vow and Kamma (Karma)

In this post I’ve used the words kamma and karma interchangeably; they both mean the same thing. Kamma is the Pali word while karma is the Sanskrit word. Thai Buddhism is Therevada (the teaching of the elders) and uses the Pali language

An important idea in Buddhism is kamma; the belief that all actions will have consequences and that our intended actions will have consequences for us. The word ‘kamma’ refers to the action and not the result. The sajja vow is related to this law of the universe.

I find the idea of kamma easy to accept; it makes sense to me. More importantly I’ve seen it work in my life on countless occasions. I don’t think there is anything magical about it. I also don’t think that you need to be a Buddhist in order to accept it. Most people believe in kamma without realising it.

A lot of folk wrongly view kamma as being about punishment; I don’t see it that way. For me it is just one of nature’s laws and so it’s value free. Put very simply, when I do good things then good things will come my way, and when I do negative things then negative come my way. I am not being punished for doing wrong, but instead I am just getting back from the system what I put into it. Not everything that happens to me will be due to my kamma, but it’s an important factor and it’s something that I have control over. My satja vow was a positive action on my part and has had many positive consequences.

Instant Karma

A simple example of how kamma works would be how when I help somebody else it makes me feel good about myself; an instant good result from my actions. It may also mean that in the future the person I helped might help me. If I help a lot of people at a later time (when I’m feeling pissed off with things) I might look back at my life and say, ‘hey, I’m not that bad a person’. All these are positive outcomes from my actions.

A very positive action which I took was quitting alcohol. It continues to provide positive results even today, and I’m convinced that it will continue to do so into the future. This is what the sajja vow is all about. I made a positive change in my life and consequently put my life on course for a bright future. Of course bad things will still happen occasionally but unlike my previous life as a drunk it won’t be one disaster after another.

The most fantastic thing that the satja vow provides is that it allows me to lighten up on things. When I put my trust in the promise of the vow I have much less in life to worry about. Things may seem bleak at times, but so long as I don’t return to addiction then they will get better. I can’t imagine ever ending up in the gutter sober. If I continue to sow good seeds then there will be good results at some time in the future. Even though I was once a selfish addict I can now do good because it just feels good to do it – no need for future rewards.

An important thing to remember is that while the sajja vow predicts that positive things will enter my life, it doesn’t promise that things will always go my way. I don’t know anyone who has it good all the time, but overall so long as the positives outweigh the negatives life is good. Sometimes I need to be patient, but when I look back I can see that life has taken me to where I need to be. Sometimes the shit will hit the fan, but the vow supports me through life.

No Need to Buddhist

I’ve spoken to many ex-patients of Wat Thamkrabok; some of these individuals have been sober for a long time. Many would probably not consider themselves to be Buddhist, and I don’t think you need to study Buddhism in order to take the sajja seriously. Thamkrabok is a spiritual community though; I think that this is what makes it magical.

I tend to agree with the AA claim that recovery needs to be a spiritual path for some of us – although maybe not for everyone. Many addicts are acting up because they have no other means of coping. They are missing a spiritual aspect of their lives; the famous ‘hole in the soul’. They may have religion, but this might be just for decoration. A lot of addicts have spiritual yearnings and if these are not met life will have little meaning. There are some who would view this spiritual yearning as a sign of weakness, but for me the opposite is true. A spiritual path brings benefits to my life now; I’m not worried about what comes after life.

The sajja vow works; good things are always coming into my life these days. My faith in the sajja continues to grow as the years pass. This has also been the experience of all who I have spoken to who have kept their vow. Keeping the sajja gives us the breathing space to find the right path in life; the way of living that means we will never again feel the need to numb our brains. Sincere effort gets rewarded – this seems to be the way of kamma and my experience as well.

Do you believe in Karma?
Does the sajja vow make sense to you?

More Information about Thamkrabok Temple

The Thai Temple Where You Go to Vomit
Irish Independent Article – Extreme Detox

Latest posts by Paul Garrigan (see all)

14 thoughts on “The Sajja Vow of Thamkrabok – Escaping Addition in Thailand

  1. A very controversial subject Paul, and me being an Atheist accepting Buddhism not as a religion but a way of life or philosophy only, I guess that I don’t really qualify to have an opinion here. Just so much, I thought, that karma is about collecting or loosing “points” for a better or worse life after death?

    Obviously, if you do good, good things may happen to you. But I am not convinced, that karma affects current life. How many times, I see people doing good the day before lottery? Like buying your way to luck? Deeds, I guess, have to come from the heart and mind, in order to count. Just doing “good”, like giving alms, because of karma, but not really because it comes from inside you, may not count much.

    How many times, I heard about destiny? Well, I don’t believe in destiny either. Destiny can be, what you make out of it. I know, some may say, that what you make out of it is because it was your destiny, or “God’s” will. Not sure here. Just one example, a bit far fetched though.

    In our village here, there is this kid, today about 14 years old, that for the last, at least 4 or 5 years, hasn’t been to school. You just see him racing up and down the village on motorbikes, fishing or hanging around with his friends. Some time back, I asked my wife, why this kid was not going to school. Her answer to me was, that apparently he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and didn’t want to go to school!

    Well, not sure this knife will get any sharper not going to school. For sure he will be an uneducated man with very limited chances in life. Karma? Destiny? Or maybe idiocy from part of his educators? Could this kid’s destiny have been changed, if the educators would have insisted, that this kids goes to school and finish at least basic school?

    As I said, very controversial but interesting blog. Wouldn’t surprise me, if it would become a quite busy one.

    Something more just came to my mind, quite personal. Both my mother and father in law were great people for what I have been and am being told. They have done so much good in their lives, where very generous, honest, decent, humble, you name it, people. Well both died to young of cancer. On the other hand, we have some uncles and aunts in the family, who saying that they are complete useless rubbish, would sound like talking good about them. Well, the rubbish folks seem to survive the good ones. So much about instant karma?

    1. Hi Paco, within Buddhism kamma is viewed as just one of the many influences that affect out lives – there is also other people’s karma and things beyond our control. Our own karma (intended actions) is important becasue we can control it; we can’t control other people or natural events . There are different types of kamma including Utuniyama (nature), and Bijaniyama (similar to genetics) . A lot of Buddhists do believe that the results of their actions may continue after their death (often by rebirth), but as nobody has ever proved this I don’t worry about it too much – I do like the idea that our actions never die. I have seen kamma work in my life though, and this is why I believe in it. Bad things happen all the time to good people, but this is not evidence against kamma -in my opinion. Our own actions are only a tiny part of the overall equation, but it can make a huge difference to our lives if we work to plant postitive kamma for the future. Just because people do the right thing doesn’t guarantee that nothing bad is ever going to happen to them – but this should not mean we dismiss karma; that would be like refusing to wear a seat belt in a car because sometimes people still die even though they were wearing one.

  2. Paul the sajja vow makes a lot of sense to me in its way of thinking but I’m not too sure if I believe in karma. Too many good people have lost their lives at a very young age and that makes me think life is more about rolling a dice than putting your heart and soul into religious beliefs.

    Then again if karma works for people then maybe they’re loading life’s psychological dice in their favour.

    1. Hi Martyn, all I can say is that taking kamma as a reality works well for me; too many things have happened for me to believe that it could be pure rolling of the dice. If it is all just chance then why should anyone bother to improve their life? If being a drunk is just as likely to lead to a good life as anything else why change? I take it as given that positive actions produced positive results and that negative actions produce negative results. Of course there can be a lot of things that will prevent the positive seeds from ripening, but I do believe that all these actions will have results eventually – even if it is only as a nice memory that cheers us up when we need it.

      The ideas of kamma are quite complex, and I feel that they do provide a good explanation of the human state of affairs. There are many types of kamma but the only one we control is our actions. People will die young and bad things will happen to good people, because of many different factors. A very simple explanation would be my own situation. If it is true that there is some type of genetic component to addiction then that this type of karma (called Bijaniyama by Buddhists) would have predisposed me to becoming addicted. The fact that I grew up in a country that is cold and dark for most of the year means that there is a big drinking culture (this result of natural karma is referred to as Utuniyama). So we could say that my genetic predisposition and the fact that I lived in a country of big drinkers were karmic forces that led to my addiction – I had no control over them. What I did control was my own karmic actions. When I was younger I was interested in meditation. This did not stop me from falling into addiction, but a seed was planted. Later when my life was a mess I remembered how good my mind had once felt because of mediation and trying to live a good life – I wanted that back. In other words my actions as a teenager had positive results much later in my life – kamma in action.

      Some people might view karma as a religious idea – I’m not so sure about that. For me it is a philosophical way to deal with the world. Of course there is the possibility that it could be ultimately wrong, but so could anything else. The main thing is that as a way of dealing with the world it works for me.

  3. Karma is best understood as an advanced notion of cause and effect. Our intentions matter heavily. If we intend to help someone in difficulty, it matters little what the outcome. Our action based on that intention is going to have consequences that will ripple onward and return eventually. The opposite is also true. If I help somebody in difficulty because I think there may be profit in it or I just need to manipulate other people or have a neurotic need to be needed then the consequences are vastly different. Unless someone manifests the awareness that flows from mediation to appreciate the vastness that is our consciousness then the chances of truly understanding karma are little. The delusional mind is resistant to acknowledging that we are all one and therefore responsible for everything.

    1. Hi Doug, it does seem to be intention that is key. Good actions for the wrong reasons tend to blow up in our faces. It is my belief that we are fully responsible for what we do, and there will always be repercussions – even if it isn’t obvious to other people. It may look like wrongdoers prosper, but how do I know what is going on in their heads. I know from experience that the worst type of suffering is mental. I agree that it is only through meditation that we can get to appreciate the ramifications of kamma. I don’t see it as having anything to do with good or evil; just a natural law of the universe like gravity.

  4. It is a load of rubbish that we either believe this or not, Paul. A physicist cannot prove the laws of thermodynamics in my coffee cup either. That great universe of matter and life that came together to produce this very body is unknowable and indifferent to our purpose and will. I sailed for many years and watching the ocean and all its attitudes was instructive. We could have disappeared in our little boat without a trace and the ocean would be unmoved. At the same time every breath we take that is aware and alert is an impulse that spreads throughout the universe just the same.

  5. Value of a vow – Paul, you clearly took and took seriously the Sajja vow. Have you found any other situations where that was useful to you? I have used it of course, the 4 vows of daily Buddhist practice and other situations. I have had mixed results. I admire your effort to make that vow a part of your life permanently. Any thoughts?

    From the Zen Center where I trained for some years, the beginning of the day and end were marked by this chant – often lustily chanted at the end of the day especially by those about to head for the sack. The retreats there involved 10 regular hours a day of sitting + often more voluntarily.

    “All beings, without number, I vow to liberate.
    Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.
    Dharma Gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate.
    The great way of Buddha I vow to attain.”

    This still resonates for me, but I have a hard time translating my vow to do more exercise daily into practice 🙂

    1. Hi Doug, I’m always finding situations where the vow helps me. Anytime I’m feeling nervous about doing something, or worried about the future, I think about the vow. I have faith in it; the promise that so long as I keep the sajja my life will take me on a worthwhile path. When things go bad I just see it as part of my journey and not as evidence that the vow isn’t working. I’ve had ample evidence that the sajja vow works and never doubt it.

      1. I was not clear. My question relates more to pragmatic or other dimensions of life. For example, a vow to eliminate caffeine – lasted for 3 months and then today I slipped. Other items on my list seem to work better – often I make a vow for today and those seem to be very seldom broken. Do you find that this type of practice works for you?

        1. Hi Doug, I see what you mean. I haven’t made any other sajja vows since leaving the temple. Some people do go back to Thamkrabok and make vows for other things as well, but I haven’t done this. I think the seriousness of the sajja means that it would have to be something that I’m certain of never breaking. If I broke one sajja vow then what is to stop me breaking them all? If I developed another addiction, and it was damaging my life as much as alcohol once did, then I would consider another vow.

  6. One of the things Buddhism teaches is that life is not all about me. It’s a much bigger container than I imagine (what someone might call God, or Ultimate Reality). It’s not as simple as “I am good, therefore I will be guaranteed no suffering”. Life is suffering for all. I get past the suffering by learning the four noble truths, and following the eightfold path. We do the work and let it go. Pema Chodron says that pain is not a punishment, and pleasure is not a reward. That is counter to what we desire to believe, but it’s a lot closer to the way it is. I do good because I am called upon to have compassion and loving-kindness for all, because we are all interconnected. What I do to anyone, I do to myself and everyone. People don’t want to give up their addiction until they get some guarantee their life will totally transform for the better. You just have to trust that giving up the addiction is right; you make the vow and go with it. Amazing that so often lives are indeed totally transformed for the better.
    I read about a woman who sobered up, then shortly after got a terminal diagnosis. Instead of being discouraged, she continued to work a recovery program to her death. What was that about?

    1. Hi Zentient, I agree that the most important thing that Buddhism teaches is a move away from the obsession with self – it is also the hardest lesson to learn in my experience 🙂 I also agree that we can’t stop the shit from flying but we can learn to duck a bit better. I have noticed during meditation that the distinction between pain and pleasurable sensations is not as clear cut as I’d once thought – in fact it can seem odd that one of these sensations is more appealing to us than the other.

      I’ve met people who found out they were going to die soon after getting sober. I actually feared that this was going to be the case with me because I suspected my liver was severely damaged. I remember one man (who had been diagnosed with cancer shortly after getting sober) telling me that one day off the booze was worth a thousand on it – that was why he wanted to be sober for his few remaining days.

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