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Date: 12/1/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Headlines

When money guarantees nirvana

A MONASTERY'S drive to ''detach'' its followers from worldly possessions is common enough. But when money is all that matters as a result of a temple doing so, critics grow weary and authorities have to take notice. The Political Desk reports in the first of a series.

CALL it a phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of worshippers, the majority of them educated, sophisticated, young and urbane, have flocked to Wat Phra Dhammakaya in search of a blissful enlightening experience.

Call it an irony. In less than three decades, the temple -- thriving on its sermon of simplicity, peace of mind and detachment from worldly assets -- has been developed from scratch into the most popular meditation centre, boasting bigger and better religious edifices and accumulating wealth at a pace that even makes the most successful conglomerate turn green.

Today, Dhammakaya remains immensely attractive to Thais of all generations seeking a spiritual haven but a growing number of sceptics have started poking holes in the temple's techniques in soliciting donations which involve a systematic and well-organised promotion of proclaimed ''miracles'', and what critics describe as arm-twisting tactics to squeeze virtually every baht they can from donors -- rich and poor alike.

The temple preaches that the more you donate, the more ''merits'' you receive, but critics note that what's missing is the essence of true Buddhism which does not recognise worldly materials as a channel to eventual enlightenment. Dhammakaya's heavy commercialism in ''individuals' amulets'' and other kinds of at-all-cost donations have allegedly overshadowed the temple's purported duty of upholding Buddha's tenets which focus on the ''middle path'' and do not encourage an attachment to religious objects.

Facing tough government scrutiny marked by the high-profile visit last Friday by Deputy Education Minister Arkom Engchuan the temple has defended itself vehemently while retreating a little. Some billboards advertising miracles have been removed and a recent Dhammakaya book justifies the donation-for-merit philosophy and commercialisation of amulets. Some people are spiritually strong, the book says, and do good turns without expecting anything in return, yet most humans still need incentives.

''Not everyone is strong. People need something have faith in for morale and support -- something which reminds them of the good deeds they've done. Patients don't like swallowing bitter pills even though they know the medicine is healing. But pills coated with sugar are easier to swallow,'' the book said.

Some people complain that the ''sweetened pills'' are breaking their families apart. Those whose loved ones have donated everything to the temple have complained to newspapers and television stations. Dhammakaya's periodical publications carry reports of disgruntled family members, but all the tales end with sceptics finally being convinced that donation will make their lives happier.

This gives critics new ammunition. Dhammakaya books seem to assure donors of worldly happiness and cite numerous examples of extremely generous donors who were handsomely rewarded. A woman who earns a living cleaning dogs' droppings wants to empty her husband's meagre bank account to make donations. Later, the story says, the woman makes a personal vow to donate Bt10 million and she was rewarded. Business will pick up, donors are told. You'll get promoted. Money will accumulate.

''She will have assets, a good career, good education and a good background. She will have both worldly and spiritual happiness,'' a recent book said of the poor woman who made the Bt10-million pledge.

The temple has evolved from being the determined vision of a monk, who aspired to build what he termed the ''best Buddhist temple in the world'', and a lay woman, who is a respected meditation teacher and a disciple of the late revered monk Luang Phor Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen who created the Dhammakaya meditation method.

The growth of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, in terms of popularity and religious facilities, has been in leaps and bounds throughout its history.

Founded in 1969 as Phuthachak Patibattham Centre (Buddhist Meditation Centre), the temple was built in Pathum Thani on a 196-rai plot, previously donated by Khunying Prayad Paetayapongsasuthathibodi.

Following the construction in 1970, meditation grounds started to take shape as a full-fledged monastery five years later when abbot Luang Phor Dhammachayo and his devotees moved in permanently.

The monastery was granted the status of an officially-sanctioned Buddhist temple by the Education Ministry in July, 1977, while HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and HRH Princess Chulabhorn Valayalaksana presided over the temple's foundation-laying ceremony later that year.

In terms of structure, it took less than a decade to built world-class facilities in the Wat Phra Dhammakaya, blending Thai-style architecture with futuristic design and doing away with the glittering ornamentation of traditional monastery buildings.

As followers and donations kept pouring in, the temple started to expand through a series of bigger and larger projects. Apart from aiming to attract a rising number of worshippers, in 1989 it launched one of the then biggest solicitation drives to procure 2,000-rai land plots adjacent to the original grounds to be developed into a pilgrimage area for Buddhists.

Amid soaring prices at the height of speculative property development, the temple managed to solicit billions of baht to fulfil its plan to become the country's largest Buddhist kingdom.

Buddhist pundits noted that in addition to the temple's innovative method of attracting meditation enthusiasts, the drive for donations was a success owing to, what is known in the business world, a pyramid scheme.

Through the exponential growth of a donor's base through the word-of-mouth laced with tales of religious miracles, the temple, even though its mission is to attract worshippers with its meditation methods, has turned into a best-run, cash-generating source, pundits said.

When Wat Phra Dhammakaya successfully raised its first billion in funds, the economy was booming. Paradoxically it has this year launched another ''large'' donation drive, aiming to solicit tens of billions of baht to build the largest Buddhist edifice, Maha Dhammakaya Jedi, to glorify the inner light of the Buddha or Dhammakaya awaiting discovery from each Buddhist devotee through meditation.

Based on the Dhammakaya meditation method, enlightenment, its accompanying blissful feeling and miracles can be attained through meditation, an unorthodox teaching for the Theravada school of Buddhism which puts emphasis on Dhamma contemplation.

Doctrines aside, the temple has firmly set its sights on the completion of a most ambitious edifice to date.

The fund-raising drive, started since the middle of this year, is focusing on the solicitation of Bt30,000 from each of the hundreds of thousands of devotees in exchange for a ''personal'' Dhammakaya enclosed within the Maha Dhammakaya Jedi.

Based on the stream of donations, the drive is near completion and the next phase of solicitation will concentrate on a smaller contribution of Bt10,000 from each worshipper to also install personal Dhammakaya at the pagoda's base.

Thai Buddhists, who strive for the attainment of ''nirvana'' or an absolute end to suffering, now have to ponder if it is appropriate to erect the ambitious and costly edifice for the Buddha who is left with no monuments apart for his teachings discovered more than 2541 years ago.

'Ultimate donations'

The temple's latest ambitious fund-raising drive, started since the middle of this year, is focusing on the solicitation of Bt30,000 from each among the hundreds of thousands of devotees in exchange for having a ''personal'' Dhammakaya enclosed within the Maha Dhammakaya Jedi Pagoda.

Based on the stream of donations, the drive is near completion and the next phase of solicitation will concentrate on the smaller contribution of Bt10,000 from each worshipper to also install personal Dhammakaya at the pagoda base.

Criticism has focused on little access for poor people to seek religious guidance from the temple. People who do not enough money are encouraged to go look for more so that their personal Dhammakaya can be completed.

The Sept 6 miracle

THE miracle, said to have been witnessed by tens of thousands of worshippers during a mass meditation gathering, when, according a publication of the temple, suddenly ''the sun seemed to be sucked out of the sky and we felt we saw 'the other sky'. Then a crystal replaced the sun, leaving its edge illuminating like a halo. We saw all this with naked eyes.

''... As soon as we were content and made our pledge to build Maha Dhammakaya Jedi, the image of Luang Phor Wat Paknam appeared in the sky. Some saw him in the form of a golden sculpture and some in the form of a pure, giant crystal.''

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