Supreme Patriarch appointment: Dhammakaya or not?

Through modern-marketing techniques the Dhammakaya sect has grown so powerful that it may select the next Supreme Patriarch & gain total control of Buddhism in Thailand.


Supreme Patriarch appointment: Dhammakaya or not?

Sanitsuda Ekachai

...The current infighting in monastic circles over the appointment of the new supreme patriarch actually mirrors Thailand's fierce colour-coded politics: red, yellow, etc....

On one side are the supporters of the wealthy Dhammakaya temple, known to be close to the Shinawatras.

On the other side is not only the anti-Shinawatra camp but also those who see Dhammakaya as a cult that has distorted the Buddha's teachings to increase its wealth.

Its systematic infiltration into the Sangha Council since its conception is viewed as a calculated move to increase its power...


Dhammakaya, meanwhile, teaches that the amount of merit points you get in life depends on the amount of money you donate to Dhammakaya. Nirvana is also regarded as a heavenly place. The level of luxury and comfort you will get depends on your donations. In short, you get what you pay for.

Purists may not like it, but it is not much different than folk-Thai Buddhism, is it? With modern marketing and an incentive system, however, Dhammakaya is much more effective in raising funds, which makes its the richest temple in the country.

The more followers you recruit and the more donations you raise, the better your chances of sitting in rows closer to the abbot at its grandiose ceremonies. According to Dhammakaya cosmology told by insiders and defectors, Dhammakaya's abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, is not just a monk; he is a saint and a saviour who will rescue the world when Doomsday comes.

While traditional temples are often dirty and noisy, Dhammakaya focuses on orderliness, cleanliness, and grandeur. This strikes a chord with the middle class and the new rich who believe in supernatural powers but want a temple with a modern look and style to suit their worldly status. The fund-raising groups also give followers a sense of community in a big city, not to mention the business connections that come with it. In short, Dhammakaya answers the needs which the irrelevant clergy fails to do.


The temple's close connections with the elders explain why the Sangha Council did not follow through with the late supreme patriarch's ruling against Phra Dhammachayo, on claims of divisive teaching and theft, which could have led to his defrockment.

Its close connections with political and business elites also explain why so many lawsuits against Dhammachaya on public fraud never stick. It is no secret that the key candidate, Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, the abbot of Wat Paknam, is close to Dhammakaya. But so are several other members of the Sangha Council.

The wealthy Dhammakaya has no problem pampering the elders who also view Dhammakaya's expansion overseas as a global expansion of Thai Theravada Buddhism without the Sangha having to lift a finger. Dhammakaya scholarships to monks over the years have also expanded the movement's support base nationwide.

If the next supreme patriarch is a Dhammakaya supporter, it is feared the controversial sect will take over the whole Sangha. Distorted Buddhist teaching will be institutionalised and the allocation of the much sought-after clerical ranks will be also decided by Dhammakaya, giving it total control over the clergy.


...there would actually be no need to fear Dhammakaya if the clerical structure was decentralised; if the system to award monks with feudal ranks and power were no more; and if temple finances were transparent. Better still, temples should no longer receive state subsidies, which would force them to shape up to win back public trust.

If we want clerical reform, we need to tackle this centralised, autocratic structure. If not, the conflicts over the supreme patriarch's nomination are mere power games between political rival camps.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Jon Fernquest
Position: Online Writer