LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This is a Buddhist temple unlike any other. It is the heart and soul of the fastest growing Buddhist movement in Thailand and probably the world. It’s called Dhammakaya. Both the temple and the movement are controversial.

RACHELLE SCOTT (Associate Professor and Associate Head, Department of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee): Critics question the intentions of the temple. They think that the primary intention is to raise money to be big, to be global.

Dhammakaya-Temple-post01bSEVERSON: Everything about Dhammakaya is big. The pagoda behind me is filled with 700,000 gold-plated Buddhas. The dome itself is covered with 300,000 gold-plated Buddhas. This stadium will hold one million meditators.

SCOTT: They want the Dhammakaya temple to be like Mecca is in Islam, a global center; they want to bring Buddhists from all over the world.

SEVERSON: Rachelle Scott is a scholar on the movement and assistant head of religious studies at the University of Tennessee. She says an unusually high percentage of Dhammakaya monks are college-educated and speak more than one language, which makes it easier for them to proselytize temple visitors. This is the assistant abbot, Phra Tanna.

PHRA TANNA: So basically once they look at the building and they see the shape, they say wow and they started to want to know more about the building, why it has that shape.

SEVERSON: One thing that draws them in is the flying-saucer shape of the building, and if they like what they see, the monks and their assistants will do what they can to bring them into the movement. That’s the part that doesn’t sit right with Sulak Sivaraksa, an esteemed Buddhist scholar in Bangkok.

Dhammakaya-Temple-post02SULAK SIVARAKSA: The Buddha never wanted the people to become Buddhist. The Buddha would like people to become enlightened. The Buddha would like people to understand the danger of greed, hate, and delusion.

SEVERSON: The converts they provided seem quite pleased with what they’ve found here.

WOMAN CONVERT: I’ve reached happiness. I found the truth in myself.

WOMAN CONVERT: And once I’ve been here I think I learn much more than my academy education, master’s degree or PhD. I learned the truth in life, learned how to be with myself and happiness within.

SEVERSON: Another thing that sets the movement apart is the Dhammakaya method of meditation. In traditional Buddhism, it’s the monks who are usually doing the meditating. Here it’s everyone.

SCOTT: They employ a visualization technique whereby which one envisions a crystal ball outside of one’s body, and then one watches that crystal ball enter through the nose into the head, down to the navel and then rests two finger widths above the navel. As one develops the ability to concentrate in that way can facilitate states of happiness, bliss. Dhammakaya-Temple-post01 SEVERSON: And they believe the more people who meditate together, the greater the power.

WOMAN CONVERT: When you take a look at number of people, thousands of people sitting together quietly and meditate, how do you feel? You feel something very wonderful. So once we gather together, the more the better. We can bring the good thing to the world.

SEVERSON: There is a legend here that mass meditation prevented Bangkok from being bombed by the Japanese during World War II. They see meditation as a powerful tool for society and for the individual.

SCOTT: There are stories of individuals being able to travel to the various realms of existence, to the heavens, to the hell realms while in a state of meditation. I have heard stories of individuals who are able to undergo operations while awake, and they feel no pain, individuals who are able to see things that are happening in different locations while they are in a state of meditation.

SEVERSON: The movement we know today began in the 1970s, although its roots stretch back to the beginning of the century and, some would argue, back to Buddha himself. But where other Buddhist movements have seen a decline in the number of young men Dhammakaya-Temple-post03willing to get their heads shaved to become monks, Dhammakaya continues to attract.

(to Buddhist monk): Some of them seem very young.

PHRA SANDR: Yeah, yeah. You can actually become a novice from 7 years old, but usually in our temple they’re about 10 or something like that.

SEVERSON: Buddhist scholars say one reason Dhammakaya has been so successful is that it fits the times. Thailand has developed into a modern country at a breakneck speed. Traditionally most young men would become monks for a few months at least. Now the temptation is to get a job and make money. In fact, it’s the growing middle class in particular that Dhammakaya appeals to.

SCOTT: It’s not shy about saying if you come to the temple and you offer money, you’ll get this worldly benefit.

SEVERSON: Professor Scott wrote a book about Dhammakaya called “Nirvana for Sale?

SCOTT: In temple publications it’s very clear that this worldly success, this worldly prosperity is one of the many rewards one gets as a result of giving money to the temple.

Dhammakaya-Temple-post04SEVERSON: Phra Sandr is from the Netherlands and has a master’s degree in organizational psychology.

PHRA SANDR: People often think that Dhammakaya only cares about donations, or cares about getting people to the temple, but that it is just an impression based on outer appearances. But that is not what Dhammakaya really is about. When people come here for a while they notice that there is also a very important inner core, where people are learning to practice character.

SCOTT: It takes an enormous amount of money to build the structures that they’re building, to foster all of the international networks that they have, the international centers that they have.

SEVERSON: Most of the money comes from donations, also known as “merit making.” It works like this: do a good deed or give money and you’ll be rewarded in this life and the next. Rachelle Scott maintains this is a longstanding Buddhist tradition and one Dhammakaya has refined to a fine art.

PHRA TANNA: If anyone would have this merit they will be safe in their transportation, for example. If a whole airplane that crashed, one people that could survive, that’s because he or she has the merit. This is what the Buddha taught, and we believe the same thing.

SCOTT: One of the programs was this idea of giving money on a regular basis would ensure wealth in this life and in future lives as well. So not just a millionaire today, but a millionaire in the future as well.

SULAK SIVARAKSA: What the Dhammakaya try to do, I feel, is a distortion of the message of the Buddha, because they want to be successful, and to be successful in this day and age you have to go along with capitalism and consumerism.

PHRA TANNA: Wealth is not a bad thing. It’s very useful if you know how to use it. It must be useful for yourself, for your family, for the society, and for the whole world.

SEVERSON: As Dhammakaya continues to grow, the criticism grows more muted. The movement now has centers in 30 countries with more planned and, we were told, almost 5 million followers on Facebook.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Thailand.

Dhammakaya Temple

The Wat Phra Dhammakaya, north of Bangkok, Thailand, is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and one of the fastest growing groups within Buddhism. As many as one million followers can participate in corporate meditation in the temple courtyard. But Dhammakaya also has its critics, who question the motives of its leaders and ask whether nirvana is for sale at this temple unlike any other. “People often think Dhammakaya only cares about donations or cares about getting people to the temple, but that is just an impression based on outer appearances,” says Phra Sandr, a Buddhist monk from the Netherlands. “When people come here for a while they notice that there is a very important core where people are learning to practice character.”

  • Joshua Jayintoh

    I love how people like Rachelle from Tennesse are considered “experts” on the Dhammakaya Temple. It’s the illusion that because you write a book about something – i.e. her book ‘Nirvana for Sale?’ – that you know about it. Many people don’t do research about the very people discussing the topic. They could say anything in a coherent and seemingly well-placed way and all of a sudden they are experts. It’s the watering down of wisdom traditions.

    Everyone has a skew to their lens that they view the world through.

    Rachelle, have you practiced for years using the Dhammakaya meditation technique? Have you seen and become one with the Dhammakaya-Arahanta body? Have you experienced any of the truth to 18 bodies? The existence, through profound personal experience, the existence of reincarnation, life after death, Nirvana, heaven and hell?

    Have you met with either the Abbot PhraThepyanmahamuni or Vice-Abbot PhraBhavanawiriyakhun in person and went through the ins-and-outs of the temple? Have you meditated and learned from them over years of study so that you can formulate a balanced and unbiased version of what the mission and purpose of the temple is? Have you visited the sites where Luang Pu Sodt, PhraMongkolthepmuni, walked the path of monasticism and where the Dhammakaya practice comes from, dating back to the time of Lord Gautama Buddha Himself?

    If you can’t answer yes to all these questions, then it is an injustice to be labeled, and back up the label of, ‘expert’ in the Dhammakaya tradition.

    I’m happy to continue the conversation in private. You can also check out where I’m coming from through this part of my website:

    Buddham saranam gacchami
    Dhammam saranam gacchami
    Sangham saranam gacchami

  • Anonymous

    Upon watching this video, I went to go speak to a very well respected monk at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. He gave this very potent response after watching the video. I am keeping it Anonymous because I believe this to be a case where the message is more important than the messenger. I feel called to share it with this world here. I believe it expresses the profundity of the motivations and depth of the true practitioners at the temple and the Dhammakaya Foundation:

    “I would like to thank those who made this video a part of our message, especially so that those who do not know about us would be able to hear it. The questions raised from the reporter and interviewees here is a good thing; that is part of Public Relations. Being, to draw people’s attention, raise up their questions so that we can answer, and give us an opportunity to speak. Working with large numbers is difficult, so reflections are needed for improvement. And I have a lot of appreciation for that.

    The core of Lord Buddha’s teaching is what our organization has been doing for the past 40 years. That is, to diligently train ourselves. This perhaps may not be enough in the world nowadays, as this was even the case in Lord Buddha’s time, because there are factors that are needed to make this happen successfully. We need a good environment. We need a society with universal values so that we all can live peacefully and in harmony. That is exactly why Lord Buddha taught what He knew.

    In order to train one’s self we need suitable space and time. As the time in our life is finite and thus limited, we need to reach a wide space within this shortened amount of time so we can do our duty to pass our message on to as many people as possible.

    The message we send can be seen through our activities, included within the information and publications we have made available. People can interpret the message here stated that, “we want to be like Mecca” in different ways. Actually, it is not a bad thing, and the interpretation is quite right. People can interpret the messages they receive in both negative and positive ways, depending on many factors, and their world view and life view. This is why we need to keep on doing what we do. We wish to help in guiding people to live a positive way of life, helping each other, assisting to create a peaceful ecology in society, and planing for the future including the life after this life. For us, we base this on Lord Buddha’s teaching. He wanted us to not just study but put His teachings, the BuddhaDharma, into practice.”

  • henry butterfield

    just another didactic, cultic inclination to rule the world. u might incorporate a bit more zen (humor) and taoism (humility, contentment) into your world view. but i like the buddha in a space suit gimmick.