August 13, 1999

Most Serene of Sects Creates Uproar in Buddhism


PATHUM THANI, Thailand -- The sheer psychic power of 30,000 people meditating together can make miracles happen, say the monks here at the headquarters of Thailand's biggest, richest and -- to the established priesthood -- most dangerous new Buddhist sect. Last Oct. 5, for example.

In the harsh heat of the afternoon, worshipers say, the sun seemed to soften above them into a cool crystal ball. Then the vivid image of the sect's founder materialized within the ball, deep in meditation along with his followers. "Tens of thousands of people saw it," said Chuleeporn Chungrangsee, a witness. "Some saw only a halo effect. Some saw the sun spinning in rainbow colors."

The spectacle was reported widely in Thai newspapers, along with pictures of the sect's newly constructed temple, a vast, low-slung building that sits in the dry fields, 30 miles north of Bangkok, looking like a slightly menacing flying saucer. People suddenly became aware that a huge and unsettling religious movement had been growing in their midst and had put up by far the largest temple in the land.

The movement calls itself Dhammakaya (pronounced tah-mah-guy), and the circular shape of its main temple is meant to represent the universe, a fitting symbol: Its leaders intend it to become the central landmark of world Buddhism, a sort of Vatican or Mecca for their faith, whether the established hierarchy likes it or not. Already the movement claims to have more than 100,000 followers who gather in temples around Thailand and 10 foreign countries, including the United States.

Religious scholars and commentators say this is a movement for its time -- a sign of the failure of the established priesthood in Thailand to minister to a changing, modernizing nation. Dhammakaya, they say, offers solace to Thailand's newly affluent middle class -- with its newly acquired middle-class angst -- left reeling and rootless by two decades of heady economic growth followed two years ago by a sudden and dislocating crash. "We forgot where we were going," said Manit Rattanasuwan, an advertising executive who worships in Pathum Thani. "Our youngsters want to be like Westerners, with their music and clothes and outgoing style, not so serious about life. And the old traditions cannot deal with that."

Another worshiper, Penchara Asavasopon, managing director of an executive-search company, offered a familiar middle-class complaint. "These days we hardly find time for the children, for the family," she said. "We have all these problems with teen-agers, with drugs, so many things. So we are looking for some activities that the whole family can do together, like meditation."

And then there is making money. Over the last two decades, many here say, it has become a national pursuit, as much a part of today's Thai culture as its Buddhist traditions. That's fine with Dhammakaya. "The audience is the globalizing middle class, and Dhammakaya is telling people they can have it both ways," said Suwanna Satha-Anand, a professor of philosophy at Chulalongkorn University. "It is trying to transform Buddhism to make it comfortable with both capitalism and consumer culture." For example, she said: "One teaching is, you make money Monday to Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday you come to the temple and meditate and your mind will be more supple and clear so that on Monday you can make more money."

All of this has thrown Thai Buddhism into an uproar. The sect's leader, Phra Dhammachayo, 55, has been accused of fraud and embezzlement as well as religious heresy. Newspapers are filled with demands that he be tried or defrocked or both. The top body of Thai Buddhism, the Sangha, has demanded the abbot's removal and has summoned him for questioning -- all of which he has ignored, only deepening the public's sense that the traditional religious structure has become weak and irrelevant.

The controversy strikes at the cultural heart of Thailand, where Buddhism is a state religion in all but name and most of the country's 60 million people follow the established religion. There are 40,000 temples in Thailand and 300,000 full-time monks, whose numbers are augmented each year by tens of thousands of young men who enter the monkhood for a short stay.

But respect for the monkhood has been shaken in recent years by scandals involving corruption and criminality. Monks frequently attract followers and make money by telling fortunes and suggesting lucky lottery numbers. "To put it in a nutshell, traditional Buddhism does not cater for modern Thai people, only for those who go to temples for superstitions or astrologers or fortune telling," said Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist scholar and social critic. "Otherwise people only care about the temples for funeral services and car parking." Many temples make extra money by letting out their grounds for parking.

Or in other words, said Kavi Chongkitavarn, a columnist for the Nation, an English-language daily: "It is Jurassic Park."

Ms. Suwanna offered a telling detail. "Over 95 percent of all the textbooks the monks read today were either written, revised or supervised by one monk, and that monk lived almost one century ago," she said. By contrast, Wat Dhammakaya, the main temple, is modern: clean, efficient, quiet, with a huge underground garage and ample bathroom facilities. Almost all its monks have college degrees, while most other monks have only minimal education.

Unlike most temples, this one is a place where people come to spend the day, eating and meditating together. Dressed mostly in white -- a sign of purity -- they sit cross-legged in a huge open-sided hangar, with the distant abbot cloned conveniently on hundreds of television monitors. Insulated from the traffic, the pollution and the abandoned, half-built office buildings of Bangkok, the giant temple offers its adherents a vague, one-world utopianism that has as much in common with New Age optimism as with Buddhism. "World peace through inner peace," proclaims the temple's literature.

"Maybe the new religion is peacefulness," Manit said. "Maybe we can share that. Share the similarities, avoid the differences; that is what we always say." He added: "We are at the forefront. Maybe that is why we are being attacked."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company