It is an early summer morning. It is so quiet that only the singing of insects and birds can be heard at Ha Noi’s Sung Phuc Pagoda.
Bong . . . bong . . . bong! The ancient copper bell sounds its first summons of the day. A few minutes later, monks in their grey robes start filing into the sanctuary for chanting and meditation.
Among them are 11-year-old student Nguyen Thanh Thai and four other boys. Thai, who is wearing a robe far too big for him, is not a novice, but he takes up the meditation posture along with the others, legs crossed, hands on knees, head and back upright. His eyes gaze slightly downwards.
Sometimes, Thai gently stretches his legs and rubs his feet, his high forehead slightly furrowed. He must feel weary.
Thai, whose home is in northern Dien Bien Province, nearly 500km away, says: “I am not a Buddhist follower, but an online game addict. My parents let me spend my three-month summer in the pagoda in the hope I will overcome my addiction.”
Being an addict meant being glued for many hours of the day and night, his sleepless eyes fixated on the laptop screen for hours on end. He missed many classes and forget about outdoor activities. Around him was always a litter of fast food containers from the junk food he ate while playing games.
At first I thought this was odd but not unexpected, given the power of mindfulness practices to deal with technology-sparked distraction. But after a little digging I realized that this story has another piece of context: the growth of an entire “rehab tourism” industry in south Asia (mainly Thailand), catering to poor addicts and wealthy professionals alike. There are monasteries that specialize in treating drug addicts, (Irish-born Paul Garrigan wrote a book about recovering from alcoholism in a monastery), resorts for London financiers kicking their coke habits, and of course Thamkrabok, the famous “vomiting monastery“.
What a world.