The Dhammakaya Code

The following is a guest post from Cris, a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This post originally appeared on Cris’ blog, Genealogy of Religion (which is well worth checking out, by the way).

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Until recently, I knew nothing about Dhammakaya Buddhism, which is considered to be part of the Theravada tradition. For over a decade, this Thai-based movement has been making waves for its alleged commercialization of Buddhism. Some observers attribute its considerable success to the dislocations brought on by Thai modernization. Whatever the attraction, Dhammakaya is fulfilling many peoples’ needs and is now a worldwide phenomenon.  The Foundation’s website is impressively international.

What could be wrong with a large-scale movement that emphasizes meditation, morality, and mingling? Apparently quite a lot, if a recent “Photo Essay” over at Foreign Policy is any indication. The essay’s title contains all kinds of code words calculated to set off alarm bells: Close Encounters of the Buddhist Kind: An Exclusive Look Inside a Booming Multibillion-Dollar, Evangelical, Global Thai Cult.

It obviously took a bit of hard work to insert all the allusions, because this has just about everything. Far out and crazy, akin to UFO beliefs and Heaven’s Gate or Scientology (“Close Encounters”)? Check. Secretive and shadowy, but we have the Enquiring scoop (“An Exclusive Look Inside”)? Check. A dubious spiritual profiteering scheme (“Booming Multi-billion Dollar”)? Check. Enthusiastic, zealous, and irrational (“Evangelical”)? Check. Expansive, dangerous, and conspiratorial (“Global”)? Check. And the inevitable kicker, bringing to mind Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Reverend Moon: it’s a “cult.”

As if these clumsy connotations were not enough, the caption “essayist” (Ron Gluckman) absurdly trots out the Nazi analogies, complete with “scare quotes”:

Picture this: millions of followers gathering around a central shrine that looks like a giant UFO in elaborately choreographed Nuremberg-style rallies; missionary outposts in 31 countries from Germany to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; an evangelist vision that seeks to promote a “world morality restoration project”; and a V-Star program that encourages hundreds of thousands of children to improve “positive moral behavior.” Although the Bangkok-based Dhammakaya movement dons saffron robes, not brown shirts, its flamboyant ceremonies have become increasingly bold displays of power for this cult-like Buddhist group that was founded in the 1970s, ironically, as a reform movement opposed to the excesses of organized religion in Thailand.

Take cover! These mass-meditating Buddhists are poised for world domination! If Dhammakaya practitioners were carrying Mausers instead of flowers and clamoring for more meditation Lebensraum, the connection would be complete. Or not.

The photos in this feature are arresting and beautiful (excellent work by photographer Luke Duggleby), but caption “essayist” Gluckman tells us virtually nothing about Dhammakaya. It amounts to a hatchet job, which may or may not be deserved. One thing is for certain: Gluckman has not provided us with any information by which to judge the issue. His non-stop train of pejorative cliches and negative connotations speaks to an agenda. Instead of providing us with analysis, we are given only Gluckman’s judgments.

Whatever else it might be, Dhammakaya appears to be a dream come true for cultural anthropologists looking for a field site or subject. If anyone is aware of ethnographic work that situates this movement in a meaningful or informative way, please let us know. In the meantime, we can all channel our inner Leni Riefenstahl while contemplating scenes from the main temple complex:

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