Making money over merit

Suspicion has followed the secretive Dhammakaya temple on the outskirts of Bangkok throughout its history, but followers say it is a genuine organisation providing revelation

Since it came out with its esoteric teachings on Buddhism in 1970, the secretive Dhammakaya temple and its adherents have been rumoured to be involved in illegal actions which are at odds with the traditional monkhood.

DIVISIVE: The controversial Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani province has created much debate about the state of Buddhism in Thailand. PHOTOS: REUTERS AND PAWAT LAOPAISARNTAKSIN

Its critics say it is little more than a commercial venture, preying on the vulnerable who are fooled into believing they can literally buy a better place in their next life.

The temple's one and only master, Phra Chaiboon Dhammachayo, has made millions of baht from his faithful followers both in Thailand and overseas. Dhammakaya temple's global reach extends to 40 branches across the world with two satellite television stations that broadcast in four different languages.

The temple itself stands on the fringes of the metropolis north of Don Mueang airport, the UFO-shaped memorial hall cutting a striking figure on Khlong Luang Road in Pathum Thani. The hall and its symmetrical ponds and carefully arranged gardens give way to a much larger structure, called the great assembly hall. This leads to the temple proper, and an even larger spaceship-style chedi that stands in stark contrast to the tall, golden spires that have come to represent Thai Buddhism.

But the design is not all that has attracted criticism. The headquarters of the Dhammakaya movement has been the scene of controversy on a number of occasions in its 44-year history, particularly concerning the emphasis on making merit through donating money. It still has a reputation for being supported by powerful politicians and billionaires.

The dome is said to have been designed to last 1,000 years and house a million Buddha images, of which 300,000 are on display, that are akin to a place in heaven. These were for sale, and those who purchased a Buddha image were given amulets in return. There were three kinds available, for different prices, that each promised an increase in wealth or accumulation of property.

The faithful speak of miracles, while the disillusioned call it a cult. Spectrum spoke to both in an attempt to understand Dhammakaya's place in Thai Buddhism today. Dhammakaya temple declined to comment for this story, saying they had received too much negative media coverage in the past.

THE FAITHFUL MEMBER

Jeerasit Tosawat has been a Dhammakaya follower for seven years, but he was sceptical about the movement at first. It was when Mr Jeerasit was in his second year at Thammasat university that a friend returned from the holiday break like a changed person and spoke of his ordination as if it were a revelation.

"He told me about karma, heaven and hell and I thought he was brainwashed," Mr Jeerasit recalled. "But I'm an open-minded person. He invited me to a Dhammakaya camp where we volunteered to renovate an old temple in rural northern Thailand, and that is where I discovered many good things about them."

He found the kindness of Dhammakaya members and monks particularly impressive. While his friend had tried to persuade him to become a monk many times, Mr Jeerasit initially resisted ordination.

Returning to university after the camp, he immediately sought out books and information about Dhammakaya. After hearing negative comments, he was especially curious to read anti-Dhammakaya literature.

"Then I thought I should find out for myself, because my first experience was not like what people said in the books."

The turning point for him happened very quickly and affected him strongly. It came as he was making merit under a Dhammakaya project to offer food to 10,000 monks.

"Normally, when Dhammakaya holds this ceremony, they turn on music describing their monks, temple and teachings. I was there, sitting and waiting for monks to arrive. The atmosphere was calm and a monk walked past. That moment when the golden robes fluttered in front of my face, I felt so grateful inside and I told my friend immediately that I would be ordained with him the following summer."

After making the decision to become a Dhammakaya monk, which he undertook during a university break, Mr Jeerasit felt he had found his destiny. "I always liked to go to the temple and make merit when I was young but Dhammakaya is different. I feel like I found the right place.

"During the time I was a monk, I had to strictly keep to the eight precepts and woke up at four in the morning to meditate. It taught me a lot. Dhammakaya focuses on a unique kind of meditation called vijja Dhammakaya [Dhammakaya knowledge]."

He said that he found a miracle after learning the Dhammakaya way of meditation.

"I closed my eyes, and focused on the crystal ball from the inside. Soon, I saw a bright light from my stomach, even with my eyes closed, and the floor I was sitting on felt like it had a big hole that could absorb me inside it. I was so excited then I was distracted. However, it was a truly amazing experience. You may not believe me. You have to try it."

He said comparing his experience at the temple to that of other monks only reinforced his belief he had become ordained at the right place.

"Meditation is very important for us and we practise it every day," he said. "I went to a temple in a southern province to help them with renovations and I found that monks there could not meditate. They focused on undertaking Buddhist events and rituals where they had been invited and could come back with envelopes with money inside. They liked to compare among themselves to see how much they got and who got the most. Once I also saw them eating at night while listening and dancing to music. It was very wrong."

Once Mr Jeerasit had become a permanent member of the Dhammakaya temple, he became close to several monks. While he came to appreciate that the teachings differ from other sects in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, he says the rumours the temple worships money first are misguided.

"People often say that Dhammakaya is materialism, that all we teach is how to get rich. Actually, we have a lot more than that in our teachings, and a monk answered me on this when I asked. He asked me, 'If I am poor do I have the right mood to make merit? I may have to do bad things for a living, like killing animals or even stealing money,' " he said.

"We [adherents] learn that what we get is what we give. There is a legend in Buddhist teaching about Rattanachart Rain. During the era of Lord Buddha, there was a beggar he walked past. The beggar recognised him and offered a pack of rice, which was the only thing he had to give. The beggar went back to his shack and found Rattanachart Rain had fallen, which is rain that drops jewellery and gold."

He explained that followers of Dhammakaya have never been forced to donate money. They do so because they know the benefits of giving and making merit. On the first Sunday of every month, the temple is packed with faithful followers who are drawn to take part in a merit-making ceremony they believe can one day provide a direct connection to Buddha.

"It is believed that you can earn increasing merit if you participate in this ceremony for long enough. The master practises enough to reach the Buddha and make it happen."

In Mr Jeerasit's view, Dhammakaya not only has excellent teachings and rituals but a bold vision for the future.

"Dhammakaya is not a scary cult. We have good intentions to help people practise Buddhism in the right way," he said.

"We have big plans. You can see that Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca, so Buddhists will have Dhammakaya. We have a very good management and organisation preparing for it."

Speaking as someone who had been inside the temple for years, he dismissed the persistent rumours and criticisms as ill-informed and unfounded. He said those who spoke ill of the temple had failed to provide evidence to back up their words, while there were always reasonable explanations for its activities and fund-raising.

"People said Dhammakaya is materialistic and spends a lot of money on temple construction. If you see how many people gather to make merit at the temple, especially on important days, you will see why it is important to build big buildings and why we need such a big space."

In explaining the billion-baht, one tonne gold statue of Phra Mongkolthepmuni, a respected monk known as Luang Pu Sod who was hailed as the one who rediscovered the Dhammakaya way, Mr Jeerasit said it will make current and future generations curious about him. They will wonder why so many people gave up such precious property as gold for the statue and be moved to study the monk and his teachings, he said. Too often, he said, people judged the Dhammakaya temple from what they had heard without seeing it for themselves. "If someone wants to really know about us, they should come to see us and talk with us face to face at the temple. I am sure they will understand the temple and teachings, just like it was with me."

THE DEFECTOR

A former high-ranking Dhammakaya monk, who does not want to be named, told Spectrum that leaving the temple was akin to escaping a cult.

ON THE RED CARPET: Monks and novices from Wat Phra Dhammakaya took part in a weeklong ‘thudong’, or pilgrimage through central Bangkok in 2012 to raise awareness of the temple.

At one point he was the temple's deputy abbot and accountant under Phra Dhammachayo, but he left when he could no longer stand the behaviour of the temple's leadership.

"He [Phra Dhammachayo] has a female adherent working closely with him. She and her colleagues worked in a well-known bank and helped him forge financial documents," he alleged. "The financial status of the temple, according to its documents, was very poor while actually the temple made a billion baht from its followers. I was the deputy abbot and accountant but all I could do was put stamps on the papers. They told me the temple had no money and I argued with them because the temple made a lot of money and never spent any of it."

He described the temple's followers as having a belief or infatuation with Phra Dhammachayo, thinking him to be the highest person in the world and "even Buddha has to respect him". "Therefore they do not have to respect anybody else, not even people who are nationally respected," the former monk said. "They do not feel guilty or suspicious when they do something for him, like fake financial documents, because they believe that he is the highest person. They were taught and trust that he can do anything, even change wrong to right, so working for him is a precious duty."

Those closer to the temple's inner circle garner more respect and admiration, but he describes these people as having been used.

"It is a mix of belief, faith and fear. They have a phrase that they believe in and are scared of, that goes, 'Keep in the safe box.' They explain it among themselves as the destruction of the human soul. It is worse than killing the body. They believe that the monks who practise a lot have this special ability," he laughed.

IT IS NOT BUDDHISM

Giving money to monks is a contentious matter in Buddhism. Some movements forbid monks from accepting money. For others it's a grey area as money is donated to temples and projects, sometimes ending up in the hands or alms bowls of monks themselves. At Dhammakaya temple, the idea is implicit in the mantra: "The more you give, the more you get."

Another who saw the organisation's inner workings firsthand was Mano Laohawanit, a scholar and doctor who has qualifications from Chulalongkorn and Oxford universities and Harvard Divinity School in medicine, medical ethics, Sanskrit and Pali languages, and Indian Buddhist literature.

Dr Mano has some praise for Dhammakaya's organisation and the way it reaches out and connects with laypeople, saying its database and the level of personal detail collected about its followers is unmatched by other Thai temples. However, he decided to leave the temple and a position as a senior monk, Mettanando Bhikkhu, after coming to the conclusion the main focus was money rather than merit.

"Dhammakaya is unique. It is very well organised and its system is centralised by the master, Phra Chaiboon Dhammachayo, whose words are taken as commandments," Dr Mano said.

"Dhammakaya works like an army. It has a chain of command from different layers of members. They have sophisticated myths and anecdotes that are told and retold by the members to newcomers, and this significantly helps bring them together to work for the temple."

From Dr Mano's observations, most followers begin by being attracted to the strong sense of discipline, the well-organised ceremonies, and the esoteric vijja Dhammakaya teachings. They are also attracted to the story of Phra Mongkolthepmuni, who established a Dhammakaya meditation school in 1914, and cultivated a large following before his death in 1959.

Though the temple stands out in the public consciousness for raising an unknown fortune, Dr Mano said the teachings are closely aligned with conventional Thai Buddhism.

"They teach the precepts and practise charity, morality and meditation which lead to the attainment of Nirvana. The temple also endorses the idea that everything in life comes through the law of karma. However, the temple is the ultimate field for merit-making."

Dr Mano also downplays another of Dhammakaya's apparent points of difference. He said the form of meditation that impresses many in their early visits, the one the devout Mr Jeerasit described as a miracle, simply combines a breathing technique with the visualisation of a crystal ball or Buddha image near the navel and the use of the universal mantra Samma-arahang.

There was nothing miraculous about the technique, an idea supported by the former deputy abbot. "The rumours about supernatural powers, miracles and meditation make people pleased to donate as much as they can to the temple," the former insider said. "They cleverly create a culture of faith and respectability as well as fear. This is not the Buddhist way. It is a massive business where no one can detect the flow of money."

OFFICIAL RESPONSE

The former supreme patriarch issued an ordinance under which Phra Dhammachayo was judged as having committed a grave transgression by "distorting Buddha's teachings, making contrasting beliefs of Buddhism and causing conflict among the monkhood".

The patriarchal ruling in 1999 also ordered Phra Dhammachayo to return all the property and money that he earned during his time as a monk to the temple. He was also suspended as an abbot.

A criminal case against Phra Dhammachayo was withdrawn in 2006.

Some Dhammakaya followers Spectrum spoke to dismiss the patriarchal ruling as a lie. "It has already been proved that it is a fake epistle, but the media do not report that," one temple source said.

The National Office of Buddhism, as the organisation responsible for temple management, said it had an ongoing investigation into the temple. National Office of Buddhism director Nopparat Benjawattananan said many complaints had been made about Dhammakaya.

"But they are not much use, as the complainants did not want to reveal their names and the information they provided was weak. There was more commentary than evidence," Mr Nopparat said.

He confirmed the former supreme patriarch's epistle was genuine, and said his office was monitoring the situation.

"I was not working here at that time [when it was issued], so I am not sure about the details concerning Dhammakaya teachings being in conflict with Buddha's, but I am sure that the letter mentioned his guilt on money and property management matters, which removed Phra Chaiboon Dhammachayo from his position."

However, he said, Phra Dhammachayo can still preach to his followers as it is considered part of a monk's normal duties. "But if he breaks the order and takes control as the temple's abbot again, we will take it to the Ecclesiastical Council for their consideration."

Mr Nopparat said the intention of making Dhammakaya the centre of Buddhism internationally was not of any great concern as temples and movements usually strove to be vigorous. What put Dhammakaya in the spotlight was its rapid growth.

SOMETHING ROTTEN

Part of the reason Dhammakaya has been able to flourish, according to Dr Mano, is the relative weakness of conventional Buddhism in Thailand. The system as it exists today was never mentioned in Buddha's teachings, he said.

"The system needs to be cleared out and cleaned up," Dr Mano said. "There was an attempt by Thanu Sawangsak, when he was director of the Department of Religious Affairs, to ensure the handling of temple funds was transparent and accountable, but this was immediately ruled out by those in charge of conventional Buddhism."

Another problem he sees is the standard of education in the monkhood, saying it is lower than that of neighbouring countries where Buddhism is strong. The courses also eschew Buddha's original teachings in favour of a commentary written 1,500 years after his death.

"Monks lack knowledge of dhamma and can rarely communicate to people in the modern world appropriately to pass on their teachings," Dr Mano said. "The management of many temples is still poor and cannot attract people in the same way as Dhammakaya.

"I support the idea that monks should not touch money. For example in Myanmar, the monkhood has created a cooperative system to manage money. The council is selected from monks with knowledge and qualifications, not by rank, and they don't stay in power for too long. Temple management is more transparent because they elect laypeople to be on a temple's board, and the accountant is not appointed by the abbot."

With more than enough controversy to go around, the UFO-like structure of Wat Phra Dhammakaya will continue to act as a lightning rod for criticism. But it has stood for 44 years, and with the first Sunday of every month attracting a multitude of followers and banknotes, it seems certain to stand for many more.

Golden attraction: The Buddha images that adorn the dome of Wat Phra Dhammakaya under the full moon of Makha Bucha Day.

Raising suspicions: Monks walk past the chedi at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, where questions have been raised about financial impropriety.

Faithful attendees: Devotees practice meditation during a 'kathin' (robe offerings for monks) ceremony held at Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

About the author

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Writer: Nattha Thepbamrung
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