Foreign Policy magazine just did a photo-essay entitled “Close Encounters of the Buddhist Kind“, with the subtitle, “An exclusive look inside a booming multibillion-dollar, evangelical, global Thai cult.”
That’s not a fair way to introduce to their readers a “movement…little known to Thailand’s general public, and certainly to the rest of the world.” Buddhism has always had an evangelical element ever since the Buddha’s decision to teach and spread the dharma, with the same motivation powering Christianity (or any other religion’s) spread of its gospel, compassion. Dhammakaya is certainly global, but to say it is little known to Thailand’s general public is a misstatement, later corrected in the essay. And it’s okay if the rest of the world does not know about it, there’s a lot that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. Most religious groups do not have the global celebrity power of the Dalai Lama.
The most egregious assault by Foreign Policy is in the way the photo-essay labels Dhammakaya as a cult. With little explanation of the context within Thai culture, the photo-essay shows pictures of massive rallies with adherents all dressed white and standing in lines. What are most people to make of these pictures without the proper context? Afterall, Dhammakaya is “certainly” unknown to the rest of the world. Could it be that the massiveness of the rallies is fed by the Thai culture’s expectations that men be ordained at least once in their life? This is suggested by the fifth picture but there are no indications of this being a family or community event. Instead, we only see a sea of uniformity.
It would be easy to post up a group of pictures and include short commentary. The Internets does this all the time! In fact, we could invite our readers to do the same for the pictures below. Use your imaginations, sky’s the limit.
But in all seriousness, there is one troubling aspect shown by these pictures: lots of money and it’s use. Where does all the money for the Memorial Hall come from and how did they receive it? Was it necessary to enclose it with dome consisting of thousands of gold-plated Buddha statues? Why are we creating another idol? I will admit to having a suspicious bias against ostentatious displays, be it of wealth, compassion or most other things.
I am interested in hearing from Dhammakaya followers or anyone who knows more about these practitioners. What is the meditation practice like? Their website suggests imagining nimitas. Why’s that? How is the organization able to collect so much money? Since there is a local meditation center, I may just have to check them out.
A meditation teacher once said, “Dharma is free!” to encourage us to share and ask questions about our meditation experience and the dharma. I will admit that his exclamation worked and got our group to open up. Free, as in beer, usually encourages greater demand and fortunately for us, this situation was without the indulgence of the sacking of the commons. But even information and experience has costs, namely the costs associated with memory, transference and time. So dharma is not free as in beer, as appealing as that may sound. In fact, I don’t think it ever was.
The Buddha and his followers found their support from their society, as did many other mendicants such as the Jains. As Ajahn Geoff notes, the Buddha’s society supported their dropouts, those who felt their lives were meant for something other than making do or making money. In fact, he had a huge web of support. His daily alms came from the surplus food of his ordinary lay supporters. Political support and protection came from King Pasenadi. And so appealing was his message to the merchant Anathapindika, that an elaborate park was constructed and donated to the Buddha and his followers, a place that would become the center of his movement while he was still alive.
I still find such support systems here in the states, imported from other countries that have hundreds of years of this kind of history. Wat Metta has a money tree each Thai New Year and Kathina celebration. Ven. Cheng Yen and her penny-pinching house wife followers have a worldwide non-profit relief organization to provide aid to the tired, the poor, and others yearning to breathe free. These are nevertheless still young cultural imports which take root with immigrant populations.
In the same referenced essay, Ajahn Geoff also notes that American society has no ready support system for people with aspirations of samvega. According to the essay, such people who act on these feelings are likely to be relegated to the fringes of society along with other cast-offs who have no use for the economy. There are exceptions to the rule for unproductive members of society: alternative lifestyles such as early retirement extreme and van dwelling; authors who become popular enough to live off the royalties of their writings, and speakers who command exhorbitant fees. But there can only be so many authors before our bookshelves are full and so many speakers before our wallets run dry.
What we do with the surplus of our economy seems to be as important as what we do not do with it. Maintaining the centers and support of dharma is certainly not free, just as arunlikhati and Will Buckingham point out. But if we are working so hard to produce this surplus, what value do we want it to bring for us?