Unorthodox temple unsettles Thai Buddhist harmony

The Aug. 25 arrest of a controversial monk highlights 'new' Buddhist

In contrast with the low profile of most of Thailand's traditional Buddhist temples, the activity at Dhamma-kaya is more reminiscent of Christian television evangelism.

Closed circuit monitors relay the image and voice of the temple's leader, Phra Dhammachayo. At the edges of the prayer hall, volunteers wait patiently behind cash registers at designated donation points. And in the normally harmonious world of Thai Buddhism, this unorthodox movement with several hundred thousand followers here and around the world is causing something of an uproar.

Last week, after months of investigations and intense media speculation, Thai authorities arrested Abbot Phra Dhammachayo, along with his secular aide, on charges of abusing his authority and embezzling temple funds. The soft-spoken, media-shy monk was later released on bail of $54,000.

Guilty or not, Phra Dhammachayo and his movement are shaking the religious foundations of this nation, where traditional Theravada Buddhism is the nominal faith of 90 percent of the population of 60 million.

Located on the outskirts of Bangkok, the Dhammakaya World Meditation Centre, established 29 years ago by Phra Dhammachayo and a small group of followers, is the epicenter of an unusual Buddhist renaissance.

"Dhammakaya is a challenge to traditional Buddhism. Most temples these days forget their main objective, which is to create good people. We're stealing their market share," says devotee Manit Rattanasuwan.

At its sprawling complex, spread over some 783 acres, workers are putting the finishing touches on a vast flying saucer-shaped Chedi, a monument built, says the temple, to last 1,000 years. Dhammakaya hopes the Chedi, its dome studded with thousands of Buddha images, will become a focus of worship for Buddhists around the globe.

On Sunday mornings, during weekly prayer and meditation sessions, tens of thousands of followers of all ages and all walks of life come to hear Phra Dhammachayo.

Dressed in white to symbolize purity, Dhammakaya's followers sit cross-legged in silent contemplation. Their huge, open-sided hangar-like hall can provide shelter for up to 200,000 devotees.

Advocates say Dhammakaya could be the face of Theravada Buddhism for the new millennium. Wearing traditional saffron robes, the temple's monks, at least half of whom are university graduates, routinely carry mobile phones and use personal computers. Dhammakaya has its own Web site and has put ancient Buddhist texts on CD-ROM.

Full-page advertisements in national newspapers and on billboards were used to promote a recent "miracle," when followers were said to have seen a crystal ball appear in place of the sun. Temple brochures exhort followers to donate up to $270 to purchase a personalized Buddha image that will be placed on or in the new Chedi.

Critics say the temple's marketing techniques and the wealth it has achieved through donations are at odds with Buddhism, which teaches people to steer away from material attachment.

To followers like Mr. Manit, Dhammakaya's success and popularity are also the root of its woes. "The real problem is envy. No one else has been as successful as we have. We have created a new culture, not a cult," he says.

"Buddhism isn't about being poor. It's about learning to detach yourself from material things."

Dhammakaya's "new" Buddhist culture breaches a gap between Thailand's modernized middle class and more traditional Buddhist temples, many of which are out of step with a nation that has undergone rapid social change, following a decade-long boom that imploded with the devaluation of Thailand's currency in July 1997.

Dhammakaya "has grown out of the religious needs of Thais in modern urban communities," says Thai academic Apinya Feungfusakul, who has written a report on the temple.

But Dhammakaya's critics see something more sinister than a modern unorthodox theology.

Prominent Buddhist scholar and Dhammakaya opponent Santikaro Bhikku slams Dhammakaya's teachings as heresy. "Dhammakaya offers itself as legitimate Theravada Buddhism, yet undermines a central teaching of the Theravada canon," rails Mr. Santikaro, pointing to Phra Dhammachayo's belief that nirvana is a permanent state that can be attained through meditation.

"Many people look at us as if we've been brainwashed but we are constitutionally free to believe in what we like," says Chuleeporn Chungrangsee, who gave up her job two years ago to join the temple as a full-time follower. "We're just using new technology and new thinking to spread the same Buddhist teachings."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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