Marketing Buddhism is main aim
THE commercial success of the Dhammakaya Temple stemmed from what its leaders described as their frustration over ''poor marketing of the world's greatest product''.
Buddhism, says deputy abbot Tattachivobhikku, has eternal value but its marketing has been somehow passive. That, he explained, was why Dhammakaya resolved to launch aggressive missions which involved not only monks but also thousands of lay persons.
Business marketing strategies have been applied, revolving around the ''direct sale'' method to build up strong relationship between the ''product'' and its ''targets''. ''Access'' to the product is boosted by a good transportation and coordination network.
On Sunday mornings or on days when the temple holds major ceremonies, Dhammakaya buses are available at key points in the city to transport its faithful to the temple. Once inside the sprawling compound, visitors can choose what kind of ''merits'' they want to make. They can donate to the monks' meals fund, or to the pilgrimage fund, or the publication fund, among other things.
There's a controversial donation project called ''Permanent Millionaire'', in which donors make a monthly Bt1,000 deposit to a food fund until they die. Those who make this kind of donations are promised prosperity in each of their next lives. ''Those who cultivate beans shall have beans to eat,'' Dhammakaya followers are told.
Dhammakaya boasts one of the largest following among top Thai organisations. Its fund-soliciting network resembles that of successful direct-sale operators such as Amways, only that in this case most commissions are abstract things called merit.
If the temple's structure is a pyramid, the bottom base is made of lay persons attracted to its sermons and meditation techniques. The temple has been intensively encouraging this group to make generous donations under the motto ''you'll get what you have given''.
Criticism against Dhammakaya results from the way the temple treats its large following which has been virtually taught that donations are the assured way to a happy life. Many of the followers have alienated their families and poured everything they have into the temple's numerous projects.
The upper layer of the pyramid is the ''Kalayanamitr'' (Good Friends) group. Members are those who have been upgraded from the ordinary lay followers after having helped solicit sufficient donations for the temple. Dhammakaya has given much attention to Kalayanamitr by creating a competitive atmosphere among them. The temple's periodic publications often run stories of devoted Kalayanamitr who have experienced miracles in their lives.
Above Kalayanamitr are so-called ''Yatidhamma'' (Dhamma relatives). They sort of supervise Kalayanamitr and are closer to the temple's top hierarchy. Again, donation-soliciting records determine which Kalayanamitr can be promoted to the Yatidhamma level.
The next level is Dhammakaya monks, who number around 800. Apart from their routine religious duties, the monks also supervise Yatidhamma at the approximate ratio of one monk to 10 Yatidhamma.
At the top of the pyramid is the temple's executive committee, which decides projects and conveys ''priorities'' to the monks who supervise Yatidhamma.
There are constant and intensive training sessions for the solicitors. Slide multivision as well as guest speakers have been part of routine training. After a project is completed, solicitors with the best donation records are presented with awards before large gathering of followers and invited to speak about their experiences.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of followers converged at the temple Sunday, one day after what was supposed to be a major congregation drawing 100,000 members on Saturday to mark HM the King's birthday fell flat.
Although only several hundred followers showed up on Saturday, Sunday's crowds of people in white Dhammakaya outfits were estimated to be up to 70,000. The temple used the occasion to defend its aims, which are being questioned by the media as well as religious critics.
Temple members from highly-regarded professional fields such as medicine and engineering took part in the rigorous self-defence. Anant Asavabhokin, president of Land & Houses Plc, told the followers to be patient and endure the criticism.
''We are in the right direction,'' he said.
BY POLITICAL DESK
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