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Date: 12/4/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Headlines

Faith the explanation

Why are both sophisticated and grass-roots level followers of the Dhammakaya willing to make generous donations to the temple? The Political Desk looks for the answers.

FAITH is undoubtedly the foremost explanation for Dhammakaya followers to give up everything to support the temple's fund-raising activities. Many are impressed by the meditation techniques, some by the communal spirit the temple is trying to foster and others by the sermons. In addition, there are all these stories about miracles.

However, there are other factors, say observers who attribute temple's immense popularity to shrewd marketing techniques and a good understanding of the human psyche.

Followers are tempted to scoop up all kinds of ''religious'' products pumped out by the temple and old followers are taught to compete with each other to recruit new followers.

Meanwhile many followers, in the habit of keeping up with the Joneses, try to outdo each other with their collection of Dhammakya products and donations.

Owing to the meditation methods, many educated people prefer to join the temple in an effort to meditate their troubles away instead of just chanting mantras in Sanskrit. The Dhammakaya meditation technique features concentrating on one point at the centre of the body.

The temple has extensively trumpeted its success in selling this meditation technique. Newsletters and pamphlets depict a scenic and tranquil atmosphere in a sprawling compound with a large number of people peacefully meditating. For years, most Thai Buddhists have believed that Dhammakaya is the place to go to successfully meditate.

''It is not wrong to use technology while leading people to do good deeds because the tenets of Buddhist never prohibit that. Modern technology like multimedia demonstrations along with light and sound shows can make it credible and make it easier to talk people into doing good deeds,'' the temple foundation's public relations officer said.

Video tapes depicting stories about the temple and focusing on events that underline the tranquility of followers, are always provided to newcomers.

''When people see scenes like this, they are more likely to have faith because they can see that the temple would not have had so many followers if it did not have true religious substance,'' she said.

First-time visitors to the temple will be offered products like T-shirts with the logo of the new pagoda, several cassettes and the latest amulets. Visitors learn that to become a Dhammakaya member they need something to identify themselves with.

''I was quite embarrassed when I first came to the temple because many people had boasted about the number of cassettes they had in their collection. They would ask each other about the latest publications and talked about the temple's success stories,'' a follower, who did not want to be named, said.

He said in the beginning he preferred to buy books and cassettes from the foundation because they were good guides to practising Dhammakaya meditation. In addition, he said, they also explain the teachings of Lord Buddha better than any other publications.

''But now it's getting too much for me. There are so many things streaming out of the temple's production house,'' he said.

Moreover, when the temple started constructing the Maha Dhammakaya Jedi, it introduced three types of amulets as gifts for people who donate and persuade others to donate between Bt10,000 and Bt30,000 for personal Dhammakaya images to be put inside or around the pagoda.

Soon the gift amulets became a trend among followers and those who did not have the amulet pinned to their chest felt like children who did not have the latest toy.

''The amulets become a symbol of goodness, of sacrifice and of devotion,'' one follower said.

Some believers wear several amulets to demonstrate that they have donated more than others. Many Dhammkaya followers also believe the amulets will turn into pure gold if they do more good deeds.

''Have your amulets changed?'' is a common form of starting a conversation at the temple.

The follower interviewed by The Nation said the strategy had worked well.

''How can you join the meditation team without an amulet on your chest? You don't want stick out like a stranger, do you?''

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