Dhammakaya That I Know (Varavuthi Bulakul, Ph.D.)
Hearing the word- Dhammakaya, it immediately brought to my mind the image of the Dhammakaya Cetiya- the enormous hemispherical dome, situating at Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani Province. It was the Dhammakaya temple or as Thai people called Wat Dhammakaya that, to me, had shadowed over the meaning of the word Dhammakaya itself. I am not a follower of the temple, nor a practitioner of Dhammakaya Meditation technique, but being a Thai Buddhist living in Thailand, it is impossible not to have heard of Wat Dhammakaya.
Undeniably, Wat Dhammakaya is one of the most talked about Buddhist Theravada Temples in Thailand, but unfortunately, many topics that people are talking about are controversies surrounding the temple. For me, as an outsider, I do admit that negative information from the controversies had actually developed my personal negative bias toward the temple, and because of that bias, I had always been interpreting Wat Dhammakaya’s gestures, activities, and teachings with tints of unfair negativity.
In the year 2016, I had my first actual encounter with Dhammakaya. I enrolled in the Doctorate Program in Peace Study at Mahachulalongrajavidyalayakorn University (Ayutthaya, Thailand) and became a very good friend with one of Wat Dhammkaya’s devoted followers. Through 5 years of working together, sharing ideas and academic views, I had lots of respect for her, which eventually led up to my opening up to her personal Buddhist beliefs, principles, and practice, which eventually led to the questioning of my own negative bias toward Wat Dhammakaya.
I realized that my perception of Wat Dhammakaya stemmed from my unfair bias, and because of how positive my friend was, I was willing to open up and do further research to find out more about the temple and its teaching. Scraping through the dirt from controversies, I, indeed, found beautiful things. With its aim of adapting traditional Buddhist values to modern society and achieving world peace through inner peace, I found Wat Dhammakaya to be a highly effective organization that could be viewed as perfect engine for selfdevelopment with byproduct of inner peace which in turns, would bring outer peace and eventually World Peace as it had set its aim for.
As for another form of Dhammakaya that I know – the concept of Dhammakaya, I believe that the Dharma of Dhammakaya is also pạtchattang- Dhamma that is uniquely experienced by individual who reaches that state through practice Dharma according to Buddha’s teaching, which means that it cannot be fully explain to others with words. Therefore, I find it pointless to argue about the true definition of Dhammakaya and rather focus on practicing Buddha’s teaching, here and now, with the goal of experiencing Dhammakaya myself.
KeyWords: Dhammakaya,Wat Dhammakaya, Buddhist Theravada Temple Wat Dhammakaya and the wall of negativity
Established in the year 1970 as a place for meditation, it had grown to accommodate over 3 million followers around the world in 2021. The sheer size of the organization is certainly overwhelming which makes one quite certain that there must be something good there to attract so many people. However, in Thailand, controversies surrounding Wat Dhammakaya had been flooding both online and offline for many years, one controversy after another. From the criticizing on its teachings, the questioning on its fundraising methods to the accusing of Luang Por Dhammajayo for money laundering and the receiving of stolen money, there were certainly dark clouds of negativity surrounding the name Wat Dhammakaya.
In time, these dark clouds of negativity became a wall that separated the outsiders like me from the temple’s followers. As an outsider, I was fed with negative information to the point that I automatically rejected both Wat Dhammakaya and the concept of Dhammakaya altogether. I shut the door and refused to have anything to do with Dhammakaya. I was happy outside the wall with only one question remained – “How could the temple’s followers still keep their faith in the temple and its teaching among all the controversies?”
Breaking the wall
The fact was that there were always two sides to every coin. In the year 2016, I enrolled into the Doctorate Program in Peace Study at Mahachulalongrajavidyalayakorn University (Ayutthaya, Thailand). Although most of my classmates had common interest in Peace Study and common religion of Buddhism, we were from all walks of life with wide range of personal religious beliefs. Under one umbrella of Buddhism, it was quite shocking how many variations of understanding came out from singular teaching of Buddha. However, despite the differences in religious background and beliefs, we all became friend under common goal of Peace, and among friends, I also found my good friend (kalyanamitra) who had accompanied me throughout the program- being there, cheering, and supporting for my entire five years. We shared many ideas and worked on many projects together, and through that, I came to respect her both as a person and as a scholar. She was a Wat Dhammakaya’s devoted follower.
Being a devoted follower of Wat Dhammakaya, my good friend (kalyanamitra) cracked my shut door open and aroused my curiosity about the temple. The question- “How could the temple’s followers still keep their faith in the temple and its teaching among all the controversies?”, came back to my mind. Knowing and respecting my good friend, I figured that if she had chosen to be a devoted follower, then she must had good logical reasons to back up her devotion. Learning about Wat Dhammakaya through her had woken me up from my bias perception, and the wall of negativities surrounding the temple came tumbling down.
Once the wall was down, it was not hard to bring myself back to my mindful listening mode with empathy and without being judgmental. I was ready to open-mindedly take a closer look at Wat Dhammakaya and the concept of Dhammakaya that had won my good friend’s devotion.
Why and how did Wat Dhammakaya become so successful?
Through discussion with my good friend- Wat Dhammakaya’s devotee, and my own researching, I was very impress with what I had found. Despite all the controversies, the temple was having approximately 3 million followers around the world. The temple must be doing something right.
Beginning with its aims. The temple’s aims of adapting traditional Buddhist values to modern society and achieving world peace through inner peace. The part about achieving world peace through inner peace was what my doctorate program in Peace Study was all about. We believed in the concept and performed research to proof that inner peace achieved by incorporating Dhamma to modern living would lead to outer peace from diminishing social conflicts and eventually allowing world peace to become reality. Therefore, the temple’s aims were actually paralleling with mine and shared by many others. So, what did Wat Dhammakaya do that was different?
Even though, the word “management” may sound out of place when referring to religion or temple, the truth is that both religion and temple need to be managed. Wat Dhammakaya simply had better management, and that was the difference. For majority of people, the term “management” is equated to business management which has common objective of monetary profit, and as we know, money and profit are both controversial when relating to religion. However, the true meaning of “management” is simply to direct and control a group of people or an organization to reach a goal. So, if the goal is to adapt traditional Buddhist values to modern society and achieving world peace through inner peace, then there is certainly no evil in that, and success cannot be measured in monetary terms but rather how much impact toward world peace in modern society can the temple achieve. It is true that there is still a long way to go in achieving world peace, but the growing 3 million plus followers and the continuously increasing positive impacts to surrounding society had definitely benchmarked Wat Dhammakaya at the forefront of the world peace movement.
Viewing Wat Dhammakaya as an organization with clear goal, its success can easily be analyzed by looking at its performance in each major area of operation- Marketing & Communication, Physical Structures & Operating System, Human Resource Management, Products & Services, Organizational Culture and Financial.
Marketing & Communication
Marketing begins with target audience. Of course, the whole world is the final target, but the starting point should be much more specific. For Wat Dhammakaya, the target audience is urban middleclass layman. By interpreting Buddhist doctrines in the way that applicable to the target audience while deploying modern technology and marketing methods, the temple was able to effectively capture their attention. The temple emphasized values of prosperity, modernity and personal development which are in tune with the needs of the target audience. Although some interpretations and methods chosen were topics of controversies, such as marketing merit as some kind of commodity which could be exchange for money and describing Nirvana as being the state of extreme happiness, rather than anatta as in traditional Theravada’s description, it was a clearly a very effective marketing strategy. Most of other temples that I had been involved with were also using similar methods-marketing merit as some kind of commodity which could be exchange for money and doing their own interpretation of Dharma as to attract their followers but only with less effectiveness and efficiency. Therefore, with clear aim and clear target audience, the rest was about how to design all the supporting factors in attracting the target audience. Without the target audience coming into contact, all the temple has to offer will be worthless. Some people may enter the temple with greed of wanting more and some may join with wrong intention, but as long as they come to the temple, they will have the chance to practice Dharma and find the right path to end their suffering.
Physical Structures & Operating System
Modern designed buildings and well thought out master plan, such as Dhammakaya Cetiya- the enormous hemispherical dome, situating at Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani Province and other functional buildings, serve both as operating functions and symbolic expression of the temple’s mission and character.
Synergizing with the hardware- the structures, the operating system for keeping the temple running, well maintained, clean and orderly, as well as handling the flow of massive followers plus all the administrative transactions, seems like miracle, which of course not. It is mere ingenuity of the temple’s management and its leader, and this is what make Wat Dhammakaya different and successful.
Human Resource Management
In organization not relating to religion, human resource management is about managing employees. However, in the context of a temple, there are more dimensions of human resource to be managed including monks, nuns, and laymen. Some are employees, some are volunteers, some are devotees, and some are just temple goers. Rules, regulations, and benefit system to accommodate all of them are intricate and have no room for amateur management team.
Other aspects of human resource management are the recruitment and development system which are closely tied to the temple’s culture. There are cultural standards, such as university graduate level as average education level for monks, same color tone for monks’ rope, white color clothing for layman practitioners, cleanliness and orderliness around the temple, no smoking in the temple area, and well-mannered towards one another. With human resource system working hand in hand with temple’s culture, the culture becomes even stronger, and as the population of the temple grows larger, the stronger culture will attract more followers who share similar cultural values. As already happened, the present culture with pronounced values of cleanliness and orderliness had attracted many urban middleclass practitioners who share the same values.
Human resource development can be seen through scholarships for higher education both for monks and laymen as well as all the Dharma classes including well-structured Dammakaya Meditation technique that had been developed for the need of modern society. So, once you enter into the temple circle, whether you are working for the temple or a follower, your entire experience with the temple can be perceived as process of personal development.
Products and Services
People come to the temple in hope for better life. While some people are searching for Dharma to end all suffering as selfdevelopment, others may just want to exchange good merit for better success or better fortune in this material life or the next. In the area of self-development, Wat Dhammakaya is offering Dhammakaya meditation technique.
Dhammakaya meditation technique follows the same method with Luangpor Wat Paknam (Luangphu Sodh Candasaro). The Dhammakaya meditation technique was revived in Thailand almost 100 years ago by the Great Master Phramongkolthepmuni, famously known as Luangpor Wat Paknam, (Komchadluek,2021) It is one of meditation techniques practiced by Buddhists and non-Buddhists around the world. The technique is simple, easy, and effective. With easy 7 steps, anyone can practice achieving inner peace and happiness in a way that one may never would have known existed (Dhammakaya foundation,2021)
In the light of merit making, it is one of the core practices that the temple emphasizes. Through the teaching that merit is the cause for better future through the law of karma, the temple suggests that the practice of giving and merit making are practices of self-training and self-sacrifice. So, with hope for better future either in this life or future reincarnated life, temple’s followers are keen to merit making. Along with merit making, the concept of giving as an act of shaping personal character is also embedded into the temple’s culture with the word “Cittam mae”, which means “I am victorious” as to announce one’s victory over inner defilements (kilesa).
Answering to the increasing demand of merit making, the temple also develop product items and merit making activities as to provide more opportunities for temple’s followers to make merit. With a thin line between commercializing merit for fund raising and creating opportunities for merit making, the issue is a natural controversy. It is the leader’s and management team’s true intention that will tip the scale of right and wrong. However, it seems like we can never really know others’ true intentions. The closest would only be to believe in what they said. Fortunately, merit comes from our own intentions and not others’. So, as long as our own intention is on the right path, we are all good.
Organizational Culture: Spiritual Friendship (Kalyanamitta)
The temple emphasizes network of like-minded friends. Organizing activities to create groups of common interests certainly helped to create bonds between like-minded followers. There are always opportunities for socializing at every temple’s activities. The temple also encourages spiritual friendship of good friend (kalyanamitta) as to support and motivate each other both in merit making and meditation practice.
With all the facilities, people, and projects around the world to manage, there must certainly be tremendous amount of operating expenses. Enable for the temple to keep on operating, there must be at least matching amount of income, and what are the channels of income? The donation and merit giving are the main source of income for every temple including Wat Dhammakaya. A small temple with only few monks and projects running might be able to operate with unsteady stream of donation and merit making. Wat Dhammakaya, on the other hand, with its sheer size, the temple cannot depend on unsteady stream of donation and merit making alone. Therefore, it makes logical sense that the temple must find ways to raise addition funds through merit making activities and partly commercializing merit including merit related products. Although fund raising method by commercializing merit also became another controversy for the temple, I believe that it is common practice in most temple. The problem with Dhammakaya is probably due to its size and its large amount of fund involved.
With background in teaching a Principle of Cultural Management in a Master program, I always taught my students who were running non-profit organizations to aim for profit. Most nonprofit students naturally started off feeling uncomfortable with the concept of making profit. Not until I explained to them that if they aim for zero profit, they would be most likely ending up with a loss from operation due to our common tendency to over forecast on revenue and under forecast on expenses. So, it is much better and make much more sense to aim for profit. With profit in the bank, the organization can easily put that profit to good use according to the organizational objectives or keep some as safety for operation. My view of Wat Dhammakaya is the same. I have no concern about the temple receiving too much. My only concern would be on how the surplus money from operation would be put to use toward achieving its aim.
The temple teaches that a temple must be “suitable”(sappaya). Sappaya means environment that are suitable and supportive of Dharma practice with 7 suitable areas – 1) suitable place, 2) suitable for travel to and from, 3) suitable conversation with appropriate topics as well as beneficial, 4) socialize and hangout with suitable people who are knowledgeable and means well to you- good friend (kalayanamitta), 5) suitable food, 6) suitable air and climate, 7) suitable for body positions and movements while practicing. Wat Dhammakaya certainly provide the 7 sappaya and continuously improving and adjusting as to accommodate better. Enable for the temple to maintain and improve the 7 sappaya, the increase in operating expense is inevitable.
In conclusion for Dhammakaya that I know Dhammakaya as Wat Dhammakaya
With controversies aside and my wall of bias torn down, I see a very effective Buddhist Temple that is successful at striving to achieve its aims of adapting traditional Buddhist values to modern society and achieving world peace through inner peace. The management strategy and system that are in operation should be the model for others to learn from and improve upon. The integration of Dharma, Thai culture, modern technology and modern management is truly an innovation that has great benefit for Buddhism, Buddhists, and mankind as a whole. It is not a perfect engine but certainly the closest one.
Dhammakaya as Definition
In Buddhist Dhamma Tipitaka: Maha Julalongkorn version found at Tipitaka Volume 33, Page 404, Subject 131, “Dhammaka” word in this paragraph interpretation to the Body of Buddha, and in Buddhist Dhamma Tipitaka Royal version found at Tipitaka Volume 11 Sutta Pitaka Volume 3, Pages 71-88, Subject 55, explained about “Dhammaka” as one of names of Buddha. As for me, I believe that the Dharma of Dhammakaya is pạtchattang which means that it is Dharma that is uniquely experienced by individual who reaches certain state through practicing Buddha’s teaching and cannot be fully explained with words. Therefore, I find it pointless to argue about the true definition of Dhammakaya and rather focus on practicing Buddha’s teaching, here and now, with the goal of experiencing Dhammakaya myself.
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