Buddhism Inc.

Prangtip Daorueng & Pathum Thani. Far Eastern Economic Review. Volume 162, Issue 6. Februari, 1999.

Two years ago, Chuleeporn Chungrangsee gave up her corporate job and vowed to serve the Dhammakaya temple for life. She now dresses in white and blue, lives in the temple compound and meditates twice a day. “I have had enough,” says the 30-year-old, who has an MBA from a private university. “I don’t want anything but peace in life.”

Chuleeporn is one of the tens of thousands of devotees who claim to have witnessed two identical miracles last September and October at Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, about 50 kilometres north of Bangkok. “We saw a round crystal appear in the middle of the sun. The colour was so soft and clear that we could look straight at the sun,” recalls Chuleeporn, who now serves as a publicrelations official for the temple. “Suddenly, an image of Luang Por Wat Paknam [a Dhammakaya monk] appeared in the middle of the sun. It became bigger and bigger until the sun was a small crystal in his stomach.”

Miracles such as these aren’t uncommon in a society like Thailand’s, where superstitious belief has always merged and mixed with Buddhism. For example, former Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, like many other politicians, often had a monk knock his head with a wooden club for good luck. Thai society “doesn’t see any contradiction in things that might be unacceptable in other societies,” says Suwanna Satha-Anand, associate professor of Buddhist philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The miracles of the wildly popular Dhammakaya temple, however, coupled with its unorthodox fund-raising tactics, are now under fierce attack from all quarters. In November, the Education Ministry ordered an investigation into the temple by the Supreme Sangha Council, the highest religious body in Thailand. The group, which oversees the country’s 30,000 Buddhist temples, will focus on whether Dhammakaya’s fundraising techniques—and its use of mass miracles violate the council’s religious rules. As part of the inquiry, government and tax officials are delving into the temple’s property ownership, taxes and finances. Other groups that have been investigated by the council have incurred penalties as severe as having their leader disrobed.

The questions stem primarily from the temple’s ambitious plan to raise 13 billion baht ($360 million) in donations to build the massive Maha Dhammakaya Jedi Pagoda, which, with the surrounding area, will total one square kilometre. The reward for a 30,000 Baht donation is a buddha placed inside the pagoda; and for 10,000 baht, a buddha just outside. With the new structure, the temple hopes to become a centre for world Buddhism, akin to the Vatican for Catholics or Mecca for Muslims.

On a broader level, the debate over the Dhammakaya temple’s practices raises issues about the role of religion in modern Thai society. As the country emerges from a dramatic boom and bust, religious movements are struggling to reinvent themselves. The success of Dhammakaya-which counts notable business and political figures, and celebrities such as Miss Thailand World 1997, Tanya Suesantisuk, among its followers-illustrates one way in which staid and tradition-bound religious groups are struggling to maintain their relevance in an increasingly consumer-driven world.

Sceptics, on the other hand, charge that Dhammakaya’s use of miracles and in your-face fund-raising methods violates traditional Buddhist ideas and smacks of commercialism. “This act definitely goes against the essence of the Buddhist ideal, which doesn’t recognize worldly materials as a way to enlightenment,” social critic and Magsaysay award winner Sulak Sivaraska told the Thai-language newspaper Siam Thurakij in December.

Chayaboon Sythipol, a former engineering student, founded Dhammakaya temple in 1969, and its unique meditation technique differentiates it from other types of Thai Buddhism. “They believe that through meditation, you can temporarily achieve nirvana. You can visit heaven and see the Lord Buddha and come back,” explains Jeffrey Bowers, author of Dhammakaya Meditation in Thai Society. Traditionally, meditation helps the individual understand nirvana-absolute detachment from the material world-but isn’t itself a state of nirvana.

In the late 1980s, Dhammakaya temple prospered as donations poured in during the height of Thailand’s economic boom. The temple complex ballooned from its original 78.4 acres to 783.5 acres. It was at this time that Dhammakaya aspired to become a world Buddhist centre.

Billboards advertise last year’s miracles (although many have been taken down since the controversy arose), while Dhammakaya T-shirts are on sale at the temple. The temple also publishes a handbook setting out the direct relationship between various monetary donations and the reward they will bring. A woman who donated 10 million baht, the handbook says, will have “good assets, a good career, a good education and good background.”

“Dhammakaya concretizes Buddhist ideals to respond to the consumer culture which dominates Thai society. It gives people a `You can see what you pay for’ kind of feeling,” Suwanna says.

At least sometimes. Reports of unhappy people who have lost money to the temple’s fund-raising schemes have flooded the media. Story after story tells the same tale: Husbands and wives learn that their spouses, obsessed with Dhammakaya, have turned over their life savings.

While critics say the temple’s emphasis on worldly goods and money is antithetical to Buddhism, Dhammakaya monk Venerable Somchai Thanavuddh disagrees: “Buddhism is like water that any kind of soil can absorb. Buddhism can exist, not only in a capitalist society, but in all kinds of society.”

This, it seems, is what many Thais want to hear. The temple’s policy to reconcile wealth with Buddhism, says Suwanna, makes it popular with its generally young, educated and wealthy followers. “It seems that the ambitious size of Dhammakaya projects is a Buddhist way of justifying and glorifying wealth,” she says.

To Bowers, the secret of the movement’s popularity lies in its “modern” image. The temple is clean and quiet; monks study Buddhist scriptures on computers. “There are no traditional country-style events like boxing or gambling, no stray dogs or lazy monks,” or other things “modern Bangkokians might find distasteful,” he writes.

The temple has wholeheartedly adopted worldly ways in management and personnel, too. The lay-run, monk-controlled Dhammakaya Foundation manages the temple’s 1,000 monks and 700 full-time lay staff, and has established strict recruitment guidelines. All staff, for example, must have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Other temples don’t use such techniques, but experts say the development isn’t surprising. Apinya Feungfusakul conducted a 1995-97 study of the Dhammakaya temple for Chulalongkorn University that highlights how the pressures of urban life have made interaction between monks and ordinary citizens difficult; Bangkok’s snarled traffic makes any casual visit to one of the city’s dwindling number of temples a real trek. Dhammakaya, she concludes, had to develop new strategies to reach the public.

But this alone doesn’t account for its success and wealth. Perhaps what distinguishes it more-and raises eyebrows-is how it has taken active control over its finances and introduced a systematic approach to fund-raising. Followers use tactics such as face-to-face solicitations, letters and phone calls to friends and relatives; they sometimes even go door-to-door to strangers’ homes.

A Bangkok woman says that a friend who became a Dhammakaya monk called her office for months, seeking donations. “When we said we didn’t have enough money, he said we could give him what we had and he would add his own money,” she recalls. “I found it very disturbing.” For its efforts, the foundation received the Business Management Association of Thailand’s award for best market-planning strategy last year.

The controversy over Dhammakaya’s practices does appear to be having some impact on the public’s perception: A dismal 15,000 people visited the temple on the first Sunday of the new year, compared with more than 100,000 in 1998. But followers have continued to express support, most notably in letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers.

Amid all the questions about its practices, the Dhammakaya temple has made clear it isn’t trying to challenge fundamental Buddhist ideas or the Sangha Council’s authority. “We look at ourselves as an institution with a conservative ideology that has a progressive working approach,” explains Ven. Somchai. “We always respect existing institutions in Thai society and never question nor try to change the rules.”

In the end, many believe the Dhammakaya-for all its unusual ways-hasn’t stepped over the line drawn by the Sangha Council. “While the idea of a ‘miracle’ is still debatable among Buddhist scholars,” says Bowers, the author, “there is no rule on donations as long as people are willing to give their money.”

“If we are not hypocrites, we have to admit that many other temples in the country do the same thing with miracles and money,” agrees Sombat Chanthornvongse, a political scientist at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “If there is to be a conflict between Dhammakaya temple and other temples, it would be only over one subject: Why do you get that much money but we don’t?”