Inside the world’s biggest Buddhist temple

With millions of followers and meditation centers spanning the globe, Bangkok’s Dhammakaya Buddhist movement has grand aims. Lately, it has set its sights on hosting some of the world’s largest, most visually arresting ceremonies, sometimes drawing 100,000 or more orange-robed monks to a dazzling gold-topped temple called Wat Phra Dhammakaya that even some members concede looks like a giant flying saucer.

Yet, despite such pageantry—not to mention coverage on Dhammakaya’s own 24-hour satellite TV network—the inner workings of this fast-growing movement remain as little known to the general public in Thailand, and elsewhere, as its teachings loom large in the lives of legions of devotees. It began in 1970 as a tiny movement aiming to restore Thai Buddhism to its traditional roots. Other than unwelcome coverage of financial scandals in the late 1990s, the temple has largely avoided the media.

From an initial site of 32 hectares, the World Dhammakaya Center near Bangkok’s old Don Mueang International Airport now sprawls over 400 hectares. The kitchen can cook a ton of rice at a time, which comes in handy when meals are served to hundreds of thousands attending mass initiations or on the Buddhist holy day of Makha Bucha. Serving the spiritual hunger of Thais has been a four-decade-long quest for a group of young Buddhists who founded Dhammakaya upon the teachings of Phra Mongkolthepmuni, who died in 1959. Some 40 years earlier, during a lengthy period of meditation, the sage monk is said to have reached a heightened state of enlightenment, providing a road map for the distinctive Dhammakaya meditation method, now taught in 30 centers in 18 countries. Dhammakaya is an old Pali word meaning “the body of Dharma, or enlightenment.” The temple recently opened its doors to Weekend Journal Asia for this rare pictorial.

[Ron Gluckman, Wall Street Journal]

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