Thai government’s muted efforts to control Buddhist movement point toward further unrest

The origins of the present struggle between the military-led administration and the popular, even populist, Buddhist Dhammakaya movement, which in the West may be described as being between ‘church’ and ‘state’, are relatively recent. This reflects the Dhammakaya movement’s meteoric success in attracting huge numbers of local supporters, which paralleled the rapid and often highly destabilising changes Thai society and economy have undergone within little more than a generation.

What is now referred to as the Dhammakaya movement has its origins in its founder Phra Dhammajayo’s decision to revive a form of meditation said to have been practised by Buddha and make this a central element in the faith’s spirituality. In early 1970, Phra Dhammajayo established a modest temple (wat) amid the rice paddy fields of Pathum Thai province, around 16km from Bangkok’s Don Muang airport to the north of the capital.

Emphasis on a structured approach to Buddhism helped swell the number of those seeking solace and solutions amid Bangkok’s increasingly chaotic and often ruthless commercial environment in the 1980s and 1990s

By 1977 Wat Dhammakaya was sufficiently well-known as a growing influence within Thailand’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population that the then crown prince and now King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn had visited the site, the latter laying the foundation stone for the main prayer hall on behalf of her father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Such endorsements unsurprisingly boosted the temple’s popularity and widened its congregation among Bangkok’s fast-growing urban population, notably among the burgeoning and increasingly wealthy middle class.

Phra Dhammajayo’s emphasis on a structured, even disciplined, approach to Buddhism further helped swell the number of those seeking solace and solutions amid Bangkok’s increasingly chaotic and often ruthless commercial environment in the 1980s and 1990s. The Asian economic crisis, which started in Thailand in early July 1997 before spreading throughout much of the region, also served to recruit those variously seeking to reconcile themselves to a fall from status and wealth or those looking for spiritual guidance and the strength to help them recover and recoup their personal and financial losses.

Dhammakaya’s emphasis on what its critics say explicitly links donations to the movement with temporal rewards further served to increase its wealth and assets, which in turn served to expand its congregational base into more than one million followers supporting 4,000 monks – invariably at the expense of less charismatic strands of Buddhism.

The movement’s size and success has led to growing animosity from the more conservative Buddhist strands of the faith

Whether connected or not, in the late 1990s Phra Dhammajayo was variously accused of a range of secular and temporal offences, including heresy and embezzlement – crimes he was subsequently found not guilty of committing. However, there was no doubt of the movement’s wealth, as the modest wat of the 1970s was transformed by the beginning of the new century into a manicured 400-hectare compound with a vast golden-domed prayer hall at its centre, able to accommodate many thousands of people. Further, Dhammakaya chapters have also opened across the world, with a presence in 31 countries from Austria to the Solomon Islands, Brunei to the U.S.

As noted, the movement’s size and success has led to growing animosity from the more conservative Buddhist strands of the faith. In particular, they are opposed to Dhammakaya’s highly orchestrated mass meditations, which more traditional clergy contend closely resemble directed worship or cult-like behaviour than Buddhism’s traditional emphasis on personal reflection guiding conduct and action.

Added to this already powerful opposition from within Buddhism is the charge that the movement has political connections, sympathies and possibly an agenda that run counter to the interests and ambitions of Thailand’s established elites based around the throne, the military and elements within commerce and the professions.

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