Controversial Thai Buddhist sect's annual procession draws thousands

Devotees praying to mark Makha Bucha Day at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple near Bangkok on Tuesday.
Devotees praying to mark Makha Bucha Day at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple near Bangkok on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • Thousands of devotees of a powerful Thai Buddhist sect, whose spiritual leader is on the run over a multimillion-dollar fraud, joined a stunning candle-lit procession at its 400ha Bangkok headquarters.

The Dhammakaya sect, a wealthy Buddhist order founded in 1970, was steered to riches by the septuagenarian monk Phra Dhammachayo.

He won the devotion of super-rich Thai politicians and businessmen and, with it, the distrust of Thailand's Buddhist establishment.

The former abbot was the subject of a massive police hunt of the Dhammakaya temple complex in 2017, where he was believed to have been holed up to evade arrest over allegations of money laundering and a massive embezzlement of US$33 million (S$45 million).

The monk, 72 at the time, vanished without trace after a search which lurched into farce and saw officers being led through hundreds of rooms - including a chamber where they pulled back a bed cover to find an arrangement of pillows instead of the elderly monk.

Police eventually concluded that the abbot may have slipped out of the temple in the early days of their weeks-long search.

The temple has since quietly rebounded and continues to hold several high-profile annual events.

On Tuesday evening, the 300,000 tiny Buddha statues which stud the space-age dome of the vast temple, were illuminated as worshippers paraded around the dome. Thousands of monks and white-clad temple members held candles in a stunning, perfectly choreographed expression of devotion, with giant flags bearing the Dhammakaya's symbol billowing overhead.

The annual event was held to mark Makha Bucha Day, one of the most important days of the Buddhist calendar.

The Dhammakaya was accused by the Buddhist authorities of spinning a pay-your-way to nirvana philosophy, spreading the sect's popularity through public relations events.

The temple refuted the allegations, saying it has been the target of politically motivated charges.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2019, with the headline 'Controversial Thai Buddhist sect's annual procession draws thousands'. Print Edition | Subscribe