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A peek into Thailand's controversial temple Wat Dhammakaya

Like all Dhammakaya followers, journalists should wear white, we were told, when visiting the headquarters of the Dhammakaya Foundation on Magha Bucha day, a Buddhist national holiday on March 4.

That afternoon, thousands dressed modestly in white filled the sprawling complex, home to the Dhammakaya temple, reflecting the essentially conservative nature of the sect in a society which, while perhaps appearing licentious to outsiders, is at heart deeply conservative.

The premises of the Dhammakaya sect - the world's fastest growing group within Buddhism - stretches over more than three square kilometres with covered sheds the size of Dreamliner hangars. 

The evening ceremony was a spectacular one - mass meditation, two thousand monks chanting and thousands of followers lighting candles and circling  the huge golden stupa bathed in light and smoke from firecrackers.

It was an uncommon occasion in more ways than one.

The foundation's director of communications took the unusual step of holding a press conference before the ceremony. Suave and composed, Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso (''Phra'' is an honorific given to monks) began with a meditation session for a  group of mostly foreign media, saying we would not really know what goes on at the temple without experiencing its guided meditation.

“Look on it as giving your mind a vacation,’’ he said through the translator Phra Pasura, who is the Foundation’s director of international affairs.

After the few minutes of meditation – the standard technique of concentrating on the breath and releasing chaotic thoughts and stilling the mind - the monks skillfully deflected questions on the controversy swirling around the temple,  whose critics say merchandises heaven to its estimated 10 million supporters around the world. 

The Dhammakaya Foundation is under new pressure over its finances. On the eve of Magha Bucha day,  Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) had summoned the abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, and other monks for questioning. On Tuesday (March 10), the Bangkok Post reported that Phra Dhammachayo had requested a postponement of his appointment with the investigators. 

The temple stands accused of receiving more than 1 billion baht (S$42.2 million)  from suspects in a complex 12-billion-baht embezzlement scandal. 

Equally significantly though, old charges against the abbot dating to the late 1990s have also been dug up - including the suspicion that he may have been stripped  of his status as a monk because he owned land in his name. 

There is a political colour to some of the issues: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the bête noir of the Thai royalist establishment, is said to have stepped in when he was in power from 2001 to 2006 to deflect complaints against the abbot. Some in the royalist establishment believe Dhammakaya is part of Thaksin’s power base, analysts say – hence the focus on the sect now.  

Whether that is true is debatable. Regardless, the tentacles of the Dhammakaya sect are firmly entrenched in several layers of Thai society, from top to bottom. If the military regime wants to take on the sect, it may well be biting off far more than it can chew.

”Dhammakaya is a super-church, it is like nothing Thailand has ever seen,’’ says Mano Laohavanich, a professor of ethics at Thammasat University, who used to be a former senior member but left in disillusionment, and is now also a Committee Member of Thailand’s National Reform Council. ”’It is the fastest growing Buddhist sect in the world,’’ he says.

Phra Dhammachayo, who normally shuns the public limelight but leads the meditation and chanting sessions, has an obscure but somewhat colourful reputation. In 2012, he sparked debate on the Internet by claiming to know that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who had died of cancer, was reincarnated as an angel and living in a parallel universe not far from Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. 

On March 4, as tens of thousands streamed into the Dhammakaya grounds, there were periods of relative silence in mass meditation sessions, and periods of chanting led by saffron-robed Buddhist monks seated below a large statue of Luangpu Wat Paknam, the “Grand Master’’ who taught the late nun, Khun Yai Chan Konnokyoong, who founded the Dhammakaya temple around 45 years ago. 

The Dhammakaya Foundation assigned me a 20-year-old Thai ''volunteer''  Vachira Sukonthotok to assist me in moving around and filming.

Miss Vachira had been to international schools in Bangkok, and spoke perfect English. She was on a short break from University in Japan, where she is studying business administration.

She was a Dhammakaya follower because her parents were followers, she said. Like many thousands of people, she has had her name engraved on a small image of the Buddha and installed inside one of the stupas, in return for a donation.

“It’s not about the money, whether it’s 10 baht or 20 or 100...It makes me feel happy’’ she told me.

The message of the sect, which cuts across all layers of Thai society, was that bringing the mind to a standstill is the key to success; hence, the frequent mass meditation. 

At the press conference, Phra Sanitwong said: “We have never said you can buy merit. We teach the law of karma. We have been trying very hard to instill ethical values.’’ 

”We do have supporters who donate large amounts of money; the reason they donate large amounts is they see the benefit of the temples’ activists in engaged Buddhism,”  he said. 

He sidestepped questions on the political angle, saying only that the growth of the Dhammakaya sect may have created concern and resentment. 

”This is a new approach of the people to Buddhism’’ he conceded. “Those who criticise us, do not understand us.’’

Asked if that applied to the military’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which rules Thailand, he gave a half smile and said they had “absolutely no idea”.