A New Investigative Report on Wat Phra Dhammakaya for The Bangkok Post

"The controversial Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani province has created much debate about the state of Buddhism in Thailand." Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin for Reuters.

“The controversial Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani province has created much debate about the state of Buddhism in Thailand.” Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin for Reuters.

Journalist Nattha Thepbamrung has a new investigative report on Thailand’s Wat Dhammakaya, the hugely successful but also controversial Buddhist organization, at the Spectrum section of the Bangkok Post this week.

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.

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.

Read the rest here.

  • nathan

    As someone who spent some time there myself, admittedly, I felt both sides of this story at different times. I definitely had some discomfort with the talk of money when it occurred … but overall, at least from what I saw, this article doesn’t at all give a balanced view of how that money is spent. Yes, there are the fancy golden things that I kind of rolled my eyes at (“Is this really necessary?”) But I also saw many great programs that provided so many social benefits. They turned a lot of money into food donations to poor and needy. They funded education efforts throughout the country, taught many people down to kids in school meditation, paid for retreats to introduce Thais and foreigners alike to deeper levels of practice. I may be biased because I was one of those foreigners benefiting from some of that money, enjoying a wonderful retreat experience in Thailand. But I am grateful for that gift and see how much good similar gifts have brought to the lives of so many people. I definitely did not see their main abbot as some Buddha-like figure, and don’t know if there is some financial chicanery going on in the background …. but, well, some amount of cultural note: Not all the world is like the financially developed West where bribery and financial documentation is kept to the T. Bribery is pretty common there and around the region. I don’t think that makes it right, and I don’t think normalcy is ever an excuse for lacking proper moral introspection. But with all the massive corporations that take so much from the poor and create so much suffering in the world, it does seem silly to heavily critique an organization that might have a little financial chicanery which it then uses to help 10s of thousands of people. I’m definitely not saying they’re perfect, but what large multi-national organization doesn’t have flawas? Honestly, I think Dhammakaya struggles in Thailand partly because it is essentially a vajrayana practice tradition within a strict Theravada country. If the Dalai Lama were there, I dare say him and the Geluk’pa would probably come under even heavier critique.

    • View Riddell

      Why do you roll your eyes at monuments made to worship Buddha? DO you disagree that Buddha should be worshiped? If it was used to make golden castles for monks to live in, that would be different. Monks there live frugally, and most of the money on fancy things are spent to properly show respect to the great teacher of the way of life. It is no different from buying flowers for your mother on mother’s day to show your love for her. Then again, perhaps you roll your eyes at people who love their mothers that much, seeing it as unessecary.