The Dhammakaya movement has been attacked for its unconventional religious teachings, use of mysticism, aggressive fundraising and the cult of personality of its leader. Nevertheless, it continues to woo middle-class, urban Thais, and some might argue those in mainstream religion might learn a trick to two from the movement.
Its 30,000-million-baht religious monument looks like a spaceship. Its leader's urgent appeal for donations to complete the monument in order to save the world sounds like a doomsday cult's message. And scholars have attacked its teachings as a distortion and commercialisation of Buddhism. Nevertheless, the Dhammakaya movement has been hugely successful and well-supported by educated professionals.
Part of the answer lies in appearances. The Phra Dhammakaya Temple is set in serene, shady grounds. At the centre is a simple, elegant white ubosot set amid lush gardens, snaking streams, and refreshing fountains.
The peace is in stark contrast to many of Bangkok's temples, where the commotion of temple business and often-abhorrent structures, routinely assault the senses as soon as visitors enter the compounds.
Many in search of a spiritual refuge, might feel they have finally found the place they are looking for at Dhammakaya. The key to Dhammakaya's success is not just limited to looks, however.
While the public are weary of uneducated rogues who might take advantage of the mainstream Sangha's weak recruitment system, the Dhammakaya monks have university education, etiquette, and proof of religious dedication by having passed the temple's rigorous screening process.
"Whether you agree with its teachings or not, the Dhammakaya movement's birth and popularity has grown out of the religious needs of Thais in modern, urban communities," Dr Apinya Feungfusakul writes in her research on the movement.
Critics, she argues, tend to dismiss the movement as a capitalist scheme without trying to understand how it makes people tick.
"Understanding the movement, helps us understand the dynamics and complexity of our cultural changes," she states.
"It also makes us realise there is a serious need for religious reform if the mainstream Sangha want to be relevant to contemporary Thai society."
Dr Apinya's research entitled Religious Propensity of Urban Communities : A Case Study of Phra Dhammakaya Temple describes the temple as a religious reform movements which has grown out of the public's disillusionment with the "out-of-touch Sangha". Given the void of faith left by a feudalistic clergy, she says, more and more Thai Buddhists are searching for a belief system to confirm their identity against confusions wrought by rapid social change.
Such a void, adds the Chiang Mai University sociology lecturer, has led to different interpretations of Buddhist teachings to emerge.
The Suan Mokh School of the late reformist monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, for example, stresses mindfulness "here-and-now" and rationalism in core Buddhist teachings as opposed to animist believes often found in popular Buddhism.
The Forest Monks school, stresses a reclusive, meditative life. The cult-like Huppa Sawan focuses on mysticism. The fundamentalist Santi Asoke emphasises self-sufficiency and anti-consumerism.
Dhammakaya, on the other hand, incorporates consumer values with popular Buddhism.
The choice of path, she said, is not so much a choice of what is most "correct", but a reflection of a person's frame of mind and personal preferences -- and social environment.
Urban Thai society is ruled by consumer culture, and the Dhammakaya movement -- by integrating capitalism into its structure -- has become popular with contemporary urban Thais who equate efficiency, orderliness, cleanliness, elegance, grandeur, spectacle, competition, and material success with goodness.
Dhammakaya, then, could be viewed as a capitalist version of Buddhism aimed at urban Thais who are used to comfort, convenience, and the instant gratification found in consumer society.
The movement promotes a meditation technique called Vijja Dhammakaya, which uses breathing rhythms, mantra recitation and visualisation of a crystal ball as a focal point of concentration.
Dhammakaya claims this technique can lead followers straight to Nirvana, which they describe as a permanent blissful realm where Buddha and other enlightened ones reside after death -- an interpretation some scholars say is a serious distortion of the accepted wisdom based on Theravada teachings.
This technique was "discovered" and popularised by the late Luang Por Sod Chantasaro, also known as Phra Mongkoldhepmunee, who was abbot of Pak Nam Pasi Charoen Temple in Bangkok, who was the first to define Dhammakaya and teach it.
There Luang Por Sod began the Vijja Factory, an intensive, around-the-clock group meditation for an exclusive group of disciples. One of the movement's legends claims the supernatural energy produced by the Vijja Factory protected Bangkok from bombing during World War Two.
Though dismissed by intellectual Buddhists, a belief in the supernatural has always been part of popular Buddhism, says Dr Apinya.
After Luang Por Sod's death in 1959, his disciples split into competing camps. She says one faction, led by a group of monks from the Wat Pak Nam temple and Phra Phromkunaporn, abbot of Sraket Temple, set up a meditation centre called Vijja Dhammakaya Buddhist Meditation Institute in Ratchaburi province in 1982.
But it is nun Jan Khonnokyoong's meditation students, led by Kasetsart University student Chaiyabul Suthipol, now Phra Dhammachayo, who raised the Vijja Dhammakaya to new heights when they set up Phra Dhammakaya Temple in Pathum Thani in 1975.
Though both camps focus on Vijja Dhammakaya, the Pathum Thani faction has used modern management and marketing techniques to turn their religious group into a mass movement by successfully wooing the middle-classes. According to Dr Apinya, one of the Dhammakaya's keys to success is its clever combination of old and new to fill the gap left by the mainstream Sangha's inertia.
Its traditionalist messages -- the focus on heaven and hell and the leader's supernatural powers -- make it easy for the movement to communicate with many modern Thais who are fundamentally superstitious.
At the same time, Dhammakaya's corporate-like management and marketing techniques have maximised fundraising and heightened followers' sense of community and pride, leading to the movements' rapid expansion, she says.
This combination of traditionalism and modernity, she points out, is also visible in Dhammakaya's image-building of its leader Phra Dhammachayo. His followers believe him to be a messiah and a reincarnation of Buddha.
The biography of Phra Dhammachayo uses the traditional writing style of ancient seers to paint the picture of a sanctified leader.
During her pregnancy, his mother is said to have had a dream that she was given a Buddha image which, after being rubbed, shone so brightly it lit up the town.
It speaks of Phra Dhammachayo's heroic childhood and his displays of supernatural powers to win non-believers. One story tells of his duel of supernatural powers with Padet Pongsawat, an older Kasetsart University student. After losing, Mr Padet turned into Phra Dhammachayo's foremost supporter, and is now Phra Thattacheewo, deputy abbot of Phra Dhammakaya Temple.
Dr Apinya says one of the mechanisms used to boost the charisma of a leader is to maintain distance between him and his flock.
In addition to the biography, there are many tales portraying Phra Dhammachayo as a holy crusader and believers talk of light radiating from his body, his mind-reading powers and his visionary dreams.
The leader maintains a physical distance from his followers.
"The abbot won't eat with junior monks. He doesn't make frequent public appearances. He won't receive general visitors. The flock only see him some Sunday afternoons. And he doesn't teach meditation to the general public, only to the chosen few," she observes.
"Accessing him or being close to him is viewed as a privilege all his followers strive for," she adds.
Phra Dhammachayo chooses hard-working members to join his mountain meditation trip as a reward -- and an incentive for others to work harder.
His withdrawal is effectively punitive. One monk reportedly killed himself when he was no longer in the abbot's inner circle.
While the movement needs a holy figurehead to draw followers, it also needs an effective administrator for its day-to-day operations. According to Dr Apinya, it is the deputy abbot Phra Thattacheewo -- a straight-forward, down-to-earth character -- who takes on this human leadership role.
This dual image of the Dhammakaya leadership, states Dr Apinya, reflects the character of the movement; an easy co-existence between traditionalism and modern management which needs to be better organised as the movement grows larger.
As a critique of the mainstream Sangha's lax screening system, Dhammakaya's strict recruitment process is aimed at accepting monks and temple personnel with a university education.
An army of temple personnel, explains Dr Apinya, is the Dhammakaya way of being assertive in programmes, such as knocking on doors, which if done by monks might be viewed as inappropriate.
In the past, temples did not need to search for followers because they were already at the centre of communities, Dr Apinya explains, adding this is no longer the case in an impersonal, urban society.
In 1970, to tackle the issue of increasing its flock, the foundation set up a modern management system with full-time staff.
According to a temple report issued earlier this month, the movement currently has 881 monks and novices, 116 male and 369 female missionaries (identified by their white uniforms) and 615 manual workers.
It also has 5,000 regular volunteers and about 10,000 volunteers who help on days when there are mass rituals, such as a mass ordination for 100,000 people.
In its efforts to recruit educated youngsters Dhammakaya dominats most Buddhist clubs in universities. Students who want to join the temple's corps of lay missionaries, considered morally higher than lay Buddhists because they observe eight precepts, have to pass tough written exams and interviews.
Once new recruits are accepted they receive intensive training in religious teachings, foreign languages, and public speaking with a special emphasis on manners, etiquette, hierachical relationships and seniority. The latter, according to Dr Apinya, goes hand in hand with the strict seniority system of Kasetsart University, the alter mater of the Dhammakaya leadership.
New recruits go through intensive training to learn bok boon -- the offering of merit-making opportunities to the public -- and in a similar way to salespeople, they learn to be persistent through follow-up phone calls.
While outsiders might view this as a nuisance, the missionary corps view their bok boon mission as proof of their devotion and hard work. This comes from the temple slogan-cum-ideology of sasom baramee, which refers to merit accumulation for salvation.
The temple encourages staff to compete with each other for the greatest number of "sales". Consequently, disciples' sense of self-worth depends largely on how many clients they have successfully won over to the movement, says Dr Apinya.
Male missionaries are also viewed as potential monks; they must work to prove their dedication for years before they can be ordinated.
The organisation is organised in a hierarchical, pyramid structure with Phra Dhammachayo and his deputy at the top. Beneath are a handful of monks with lifetime ordination vows. They are part of the inner circle and are called Phra Nai, meaning inner monks.
Apart from occupying high administrative ranks, they also wear Swiss-imported saffron robes which, according to Dr Apinya, shine more brightly than the regular saffron robes donned by Phra Nok -- outside monks. These monks are so called because they have not made a lifelong commitment to the movement and can quit at any time.
Right at the base of the structure is the army of full-time staff and volunteers.
Even though the number of full-time staffers has doubled over the past decade, they can barely cope with the temple's expanding activities, observes Dr Apinya. That's where lay volunteers, called kalayanamit, come in. "The secret of Dhammakaya's recruitment success lies in its ability to build, maintain and expand networks among its lay members, through university Buddhist clubs and personal connections," she says.
Like Dhammakaya's lay evangelists -- who are looking for members -- the lay kalayanamit compete among themselves to solicit funds, believing they are giving opportunities for people to be "saved".
Deputy abbot Thattacheewo once described Buddhism as a high quality product. "But our marketing is not good enough," he quipped.
Dhammakaya pushes its product by incorporating "incentives" into the sales pitch. The incentives are not, however, of the cash bonus kind - but of a "spiritual" nature.
The more funds the kalayanamit get for the movement, the more merit they are said to make. And in current fundraising for the great chedi, for example, lay evangelists are rewarded with amulets imbued with different powers, according to the various sales targets they achieve. And there is always the chance if they do particularly well, they might win a rare audience with the leader.
Apart from creating an active "direct-sales" corps, another secret in Dhammakaya's huge popularity, states Dr Apinya, is using marketing techniques to turn the concept of merit into a concrete consumer product, by offering the faithful the opportunity to "buy" it.
Customers are given easy access to the "products", with the temple organising free transport for their shopping trips. An army of smiling receptionists greet and serve customers.
Among recent ideas is the Millionaire Forever merit-making. Donors who opt for this are promised wealth in every lifetime if they contribute 1,000 baht a month for the temple's food fund during this lifetime, throughout their life.
According to Dr Apinya, this is part of Dhammakaya's effort to materialise merit so followers, who operate under capitalism mentality, feel they are getting something for their money.
So what is the reason for the Dhammakya followers' fervour? Dr Apinya believes it is because Dhammakaya has become an important source of their identity.
The upasaka (the lay male disciples) and upasika (female lay devotees) view themselves as role models. Their living quarters are called ashrams and the white uniforms strengthen their sense of identity further.
As well as religious mystique, the kalayanamit followers are bound together by a sense of belonging, she says. Friendship, she adds, leads to ready assistance that is rare in urban jungles. And, she says, it leads to business deals of the best kind because the trust between people is genuine.
Being part of the network expands one's pool of clients. One member, for example, told Dr Apinya his bus business has grown leaps and bounds since he joined Dhammakaya, because other followers choose to use his services.
Consequently, his faith in Dhammakaya became stronger because there was a concrete reward for his merit-making and temple-going.
As its popularity rose, the temple managed the burgeoning mass of followers by dividing them into small, closely-knit units, engendering a strong team spirit. The different teams compete with one another to solicit the most funds to help the temple meet the huge expenses associated with its ultimate dream -- to complete its huge chedi and be the world centre of Dhammakaya Buddhism.
The temple provides its sales teams with intensive pep-up training. The team with the highest sales is praised for its hard work and devotion in a grand ceremony. While many attack the movement for the blatant commercialisation of Buddhism, Dr Apinya cautions against underestimating the power of Dhammakaya cosmology in answering its flocks' spiritual needs.
Buddhist scholars have hit out at the movement's claims that Vijja Dhammakaya is a short-cut to heaven, and say it is a form of concentration meditation with pre-programmed mental visions from teachers. However, they do not deny it can help practitioners get in touch with themselves.
It is well-accepted that the calm state of mind which can be attained during meditation can relieve stress and help sharpen concentration and memory and so increase one's efficiency.
The mass rituals, criticised for their grandeur which some consider at odds with Buddhism's emphasis on simplicity, appears to have a magical effect on people, causing them to feel reconnected and being at one with others.
The movement's opportunities of a direct path to Nirvana, a meeting with Buddha in heaven, or alms-giving to the Buddha through the abbot acting as a medium appears to strike a popularist chord, observes Dr Apinya.
But the central drive behind believers' devotion, she states, is the Dhammakaya genesis which describes Phra Dhammachayo as the reincarnation of Buddha sent to save the world from calamities wrought by Satan.
It is the abbot Phra Dhammachayo who has created this discourse, she adds. According to this genesis, there was nothing but empty space. Then emerged white and black energy. The white camp has retreated to planet Earth and created humankind, an ethereal body which is a source of knowledge to fight evil.
The White Dhammakaya, teaches Phra Dhammachayo, is behind civilisations and progress, while the Black Dhammakaya tries to destroy the world through natural disasters, disease and wars.
The belief that Phra Dhammachayo is a reincarnation of this Original Dhammakaya has made him an all-powerful leader who is both revered and feared.
Many followers, relates Dr Apinya, believe the Dhammakaya movement is their "last train to world salvation" which makes them all the more readily to sacrifice themselves to "conquer the Devil".
This, according to Dhammakaya teachings, can be done by persuading people to join the movement, accumulate merit and sharpen their meditation skills so they can be saved.
This ultimate dream to save the world is the reason behind Dhammakaya's think-big mentality which has translated itself into the construction of the 30 billion baht chedi, with durable materials, which it claims will last for thousands of years.
Though not clearly spelt out in public, many Dhammakaya followers believe that world calamity is approaching and their leader is be the new messiah when the world "has cooled down".
Dhammakaya's path to glory is not a bed of roses.
The hierarchical structure is not universally accepted and there are tensions among some of the rank and file who want to decentralise decision-making in the Dhammakaya Foundation, the temple's management and business arm, to increase efficiency.
A reformist effort by Phra Mettanando, its Oxford-educated disciple, was aborted and he was later ostracised for his attempts.
The rapid growth of the movement has also attracted the attention of the authorities. Following a temple inspection by national security officials a decade ago after an arms stockpile rumour, the Dhammakaya movement has made extra efforts to show it abides by the law.
According to Dr Apinya, it has done so by inviting royal figures to preside over its mass ceremonies and by soliciting support from influential monks in the Ecclesiastic Council. It also has building connections with powerful figures in business and political circles.
The Dhammakaya leaderships, states Dr Apinya, believe to effect a religious reform, monks must be able to get to the heart of society's power structures, with public support behind them.
"We must build up our baramee to create public acceptance. Then the politicians or anyone in power will automatically listen to us," Phra Thattacheewo was quoted as saying.
Dhammakaya's recent marketing blitz by advertising miracles in a bid to attract donations has drawn fierce attacks from Theravada Buddhist scholars and the media. Phra Dhammapidok, a revered monk and scholar, has dismissed Dhammakaya's teachings on Nirvana as fundamentally wrong, based on the teachings of Theravada Buddhism.
Sathirapong Wannapok, another respected Buddhist scholar, has condemned Dhammakaya as a profiteering cult.
Dissident monk Phra Mettanando, who after failing in his reform efforts left the Dhammakaya movement, subsequently exposed, from an insiders point of view, how the it had become a big business with worldly ambitions.
To legitimise its Buddhistness, Dhammakaya has tightened its ties with Mahayana Buddhist temples in Taiwan, since its teachings on the elementary state of purity as a source of all beings has a Mahayana flavour.
"In the long run, however, Dhammakaya must split into another sect," Dr Apinya quotes Phra Soponkanaporn. His view is generally considered to reflect mainstream Sangha view. "There is a slim possibility for it converge with orthodox Theravada Buddhism again."
Unlike the antagonistic Santi Asoke Buddhist sect, Dhammakaya, he adds, is drifting away from the Sangha order more subtly. "The changes it will bring, however, will be more dangerous given its massive base of followers," he is quoted as saying.
According to Banjob Bannaruji, Chulalongkorn University's lecturer on Buddhism, Dhammakaya's capitalistic interpretation of Theravada Buddhism might not have created a storm had the movement been based in Japan where a religious void amid industrial upheaval created hundreds of new religious organisations all competing in the business of faith.
"But the roots of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand are still very strong and it cannot expect to get away with its unorthodox interpretation easily, not to mention its dubious and aggressive fundraising techniques" he comments.
However, Dr Apinya says, hostility to Dhammakaya and demands for a crackdown on the movement, without the Sangha getting its own house in order, misses the point.
A strict recruitment policy and personnel development programmes, conservation of temple grounds, modern management, emphasis on meditation teaching and the need to build a sense of community are among the lessons the Sangha might learn from Dhammakaya if it is to make itself more relevant to modern Thai society, she says.
"Unless the ills in the system are fixed, there'll always be new waves of religious movements offering alternatives," Dr Apinya says. "It is not enough just to bombard Dhammakaya and overlook a serious need for Sangha's reform."