Dhammakāya Movement

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DHAMMAKĀYA MOVEMENT . At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Dhammakāya (Thai, Thammakāi ) movement was one of the most dynamic and controversial aspects of Thai Theravāda Buddhism. The Pali word dhammakāya corresponds to the Sanskrit term dharmakāya, which in Mahāyāna Buddhism has come to refer to one of the three aspects of the buddha-nature, specifically its unmanifest yet all-pervading essence. By the late twentieth century the term had also been applied to a specific meditation method and to the movements that taught it. By the early twenty-first century, the most prominent of these movements, based at Wat Phra Dhammakāya on the north edge of Bangkok, had attracted tens of thousands of followers in Thailand and established several branch centers abroad. Highly skilled at organization and proselytization, this movement was also plagued by public controversies and periodically threatened with suppression.

Origins and Growth

Dhammakāya meditation was developed in the early twentieth century by the Thai monk Luang Phǭ Sot Jandasarō (Thai: Čhanthasarō). Supporting his teaching with references to the Pali texts of Theravāda Buddhism, Sot claimed his new method of meditation was taught by the Buddha and resulted in an actual vision of the Buddha's essence. Though these teachings eventually proved controversial, they drew little note in Sot's day. He was eventually appointed abbot of Wat Paknam in what is now western Bangkok, which he made a center of dhammakāya teaching and practice, a role continued into the late twentieth century.

Following Sot's death in 1959, several disciples continued teaching his method. By the late 1960s one of them, a white-robed nun named Chandra Khonnokyoong (Thai, Čhan Khonnokyūng), had attracted a group of university students into her circle. In 1969 one of them, a recent graduate of Kasetsart University, took ordination as Phra Dhammachaiyo (Pali, Dhammajayō; Thai, Thammachaiyō) and served from then on as titular head of this new branch of the movement. By 1970 Chandra's core of devotees had attracted the funds to establish a new meditation center just north of Bangkok, and the movement's activities rapidly expanded. By the early 1980s the movement had attracted thousands of devotees, and its meditation center was now registered as a monastery under the name Wat Phra Dhammakāya.

The founders of Wat Phra Dhammakāya had a talent for organization. The movement's core of university and technical-school students quickly took control of the student Buddhist clubs at several of the most prestigious campuses in Bangkok. In the 1980s on-campus activities expanded rapidly, and by the late 1980s the movement controlled clubs on more than fifty campuses around the country. The group also organized annual meditation and indoctrination retreats that gradually increased in length and numbers. In Thai Buddhism, young men have long been expected to undertake temporary ordination before assuming adult responsibilities, but for many urban men this tradition had become increasingly abbreviated, and the movement was seeking to reverse this trend. By the late 1980s the Dhammakāya movement's program of meditation retreats, which it dubbed dhammadāyāda (Thai, thammathāyāt, meaning "heir of the dhamma"), was enrolling more than a thousand participants a year in a program that entailed a two-month commitment and culminated in a highly publicized mass ordination.

In the 1980s a competing center opened in Ratchaburi province, a little west of Bangkok. This center, led by Phra Sermchai Chaiyamanggalo, became registered as the monastery Wat Luang Pho Sodh Dhammakāyaram, which takes great pains to distance itself from Wat Phra Dhammakāya. A third center, Wat Paknam, reportedly also functions as a center of dhammakāya teachings. However, as of late 2003, the largest, best known, and most controversial of the movements continued to be the one based at Wat Phra Dhammakāya.

By the late 1980s Wat Phra Dhammakāya was drawing a congregation of more than 1,000 on Sundays (more than 5,000 at the beginning of the month), and claimed to draw more than 50,000 on major Buddhist observances. Its followers also organized branch meditation groups and centers throughout the country, and by the 1990s several overseas branches had also been organized. By the late 1990s the crowds had gotten even larger, and the organization had acquired a full square mile of land and was nearing completion of a massive stupa faced by a pavilion said to accommodate 100,000 people. Meditation retreats continued to multiply (including dhammadāyada retreats for young women), and the movement had required additional land for temples and meditation sites throughout the country.


The Wat Phra Dhammakāya movement has been plagued by controversy throughout its existence. Criticisms have focused variously on its style of meditation, its interpretation of the terms dhammakāya and nirvāa, the alleged self-aggrandizement of its leaders, and the potential threat to competing streams of Thai Theravāda Buddhism entailed by its size, its financial power, and its political connections.

The exact nature of the controversies changed over time. In the 1970s, the movement was thought to be communist because of its successes among university students, who at the time tended to be leftist. By the late 1980s the movement was more likely to be considered right-wing due to its connections with the government and military officials; criticism shifted to the movement's size, ambitions, and organizational methods, though few in this period raised questions about doctrinal issues. In addition, visible and sometimes violent rifts arose between the movement's educated urban followers and the farmers, who tended to be less well-connected and outside the movement and who sometimes lost their livelihoods as the movement expanded its land holdings. These conflicts came to a head in the late 1980s as the movement was expanding its main center near Bangkok.

By the late 1990s, leading critics had amplified their attacks to include allegations of doctrinal heresy. During this period several of the movement's leading monks were also charged with financial improprieties. In the midst of this, the most serious crisis in the movement's history, leading governmental officials seriously proposed replacing the monastery's entire leadership with non-dhammakāya monks. In 1999 Wat Phra Dhammakāya's abbot was briefly suspended, but the monastery and movement remained in the hands of his deputies, and in late 2003 neither abbot nor movement seemed to have suffered lasting damage.


Wat Phra Dhammakāya is known for its emphasis on meditation and on a strict lay morality. It is dhammakāya meditation that has drawn the greatest attention.

The meditation

Participants in dhammakāya meditation are urged to relax, focus on a meditative object such as a clear crystal ball, and recite the mantra sammā āraha (Thai, sammā ārahang, literally, "fullness of spiritual attainment"). When devotees meditate in groups, as they often do, the voice of the session leader becomes an additional (unacknowledged) meditative object.

Leaders teach that when meditators have become sufficiently skilled, or their store of merit sufficiently full, they will see a glowing sphere called the pahommamagga (Thai, pathommamak, or "beginning of the path"). As they continue to gaze upon the sphere, it should pass through a series of self-representations (or "sheaths") of increasing clarity, resulting in a vision of the dhammakāya. Visual representations of these successive sheaths show a glowing circle containing a man sitting in meditation; in the later spheres he is wearing a yellow robe, and in the final, "dhammakāya," sheath he looks like a glowing saint, or Buddha.

The dhammakāya seen in meditation is a self-representation both of the Buddha's eternal essence and of the buddhahood within. Thus the meditator does not attain something he or she does not have, but rather sees what was already there. This clarity is founded on the merit accumulated in past lives, but is enhanced by the practice of meditation, especially dhammakāya meditation. Not only can meditation on the dhammakāya speed attainment of nirvāa, owing to the tremendous amount of merit it generates, but advanced practitioners can also use meditation to explore past lives and to visit the heavens and hells of traditional Thai Buddhist cosmology.

Points of orthodoxy

In many ways the Dhammakāya movement operates entirely within the norms of Thai Theravāda Buddhism. Its emphasis on meditation is paired with an emphasis on lay morality and the promotion of Buddhist identity and Buddhist missions. The movement justifies its teachings with references to the Pali texts of the Theravāda traditions, and the majority of its practices (other than the meditation itself) are grounded in Thai Buddhist convention. The cosmology is also fairly conventional, asserting the reality of past and future lives, as well as the existence of multiple heavens and hells, all of which can be visited (and experientially verified) through meditation.

Heterodox teachings

The movement also promotes several heterodox teachings, two of which deserve special note. The first has to do with the notion of the dhammakāya. The Dhammakāya movement says that this notion, which is found in the Pali texts, refers to the Buddha's eternal essence, or to the buddhahood within, which can be viewed directly through meditation. Opponents say that the Pali references to dhammakāya refer solely to the inwardly comprehended truth of the Buddha's teachings.

The second of these teachings has to do with the nature of nirvāa. Although most Theravāda teachers hold that nirvāa refers to a "snuffing out," or the end of the cycle of existence and suffering, the Dhammakāya movement asserts, again with references to the Pali scriptures, that nirvāa is a place where past buddhas can be visited through meditation.

It appears that these teachings were developed by Luang Pho Sot, and versions of them are propagated by all of the movement's competing branches. As noted above, until the 1990s these teachings drew little public comment, but late in the decade they were the subject of much controversy, as opponents branded them heretical.


In terms of the educated, relatively urban Thai culture from whom the movement draws most of its followers, Wat Phra Dhammakāya takes a middle of the road position, appealing to the mind while avoiding intellectualism, and appealing to popular fascination with the miraculous while rejecting traditional magical rituals. The movement's leaders lecture in classroom style, its followers read religious literature voraciously, and the organization sponsors Pali quiz contests, yet its commitment to building its own organization, and the relatively simple nature of its teachings, separate it from more intellectual Thai Buddhist leaders such as Buddhadāsa and Prayut Payutto. On the practice side, the movement believes strongly in the action of karma and the beneficial power of merit (especially merit accumulated through meditation); many devotees expect that the practice of dhammakāya meditation will not only help to calm the mind, but can also have miraculous effects on external circumstances. Yet the movement also discourages allegedly "non-Buddhist" or "magical" practices such as traditional divination, possession, and healing rituals.

Wat Phra Dhammakāya is an extension of the nineteenth-century reforms of Prince Mongkut (later King Rama IV) and Prince-Patriarch Vajirañāa (Thai, Wachirayan), who fully accepted Western science for investigating and mastering the material world, while asserting traditional Thai Buddhist cosmology as the means of understanding one's place in the world and strict textualism as a means of understanding Buddhism. To this reformist stance the Wat Phra Dhammakāya movement added late-twentieth-century organizational and public-relations techniques, along with a pragmatism, emphasis on lay practice, and advertisement of success that appeals to many educated city dwellers. Unlike most earlier Buddhist movements, Wat Phra Dhammakāya organizes lay practice much like a school would organize its students or a corporation its workers, while continuing to proclaim the superiority of the monastic path. The organization views its role as calling people, especially secularly educated people, back to a whole-hearted devotion to Buddhism, while hoping to make Wat Phra Dhammakāya the primary center through which meditation's meritorious power will be channeled for the benefit of the world.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Buddhist Meditation, article on Theravāda Buddhist Meditation.


Despite the movement's size and notoriety, there are few examples of English-language scholarship based on fieldwork with the movement's devotees. The best examples of fieldwork-based writings include Apinya Fuengfusakul, "Empire of Crystal and Utopian Commune: Two Types of Contemporary Theravāda Reform in Thailand," Sojourn: Social Issues in Southeast Asia 8, no. 1 (February 1993): 153183, which includes a description of the movement's organizational structure; Edwin Zehner, "Reform Symbolism of a Thai Middle-Class Sect: The Growth and Appeal of the Thammakai Movement," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 21, no. 2 (September 1990): 402426, which includes discussion of the controversies of the 1980s and a description of a major religious observance at Wat Phra Dhammakāya; and Jeffrey Bowers, Dhammakaya Meditation in Thai Society (Bangkok, 1996), a published master's thesis that includes an extended description of dhammakāya meditation from the perspective of the rival center at Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dham-makāyaram. Of these, Apinya has conducted the most sustained fieldwork with the Wat Phra Dhammakāya movement. Unfortunately, most of her fieldwork results are available only in the Thai-language research report titled Sātsanathat khǭng chumchon mang samai mai: sưksā karanī wat phra thammakāi [Religious perspectives of contemporary urban society: A case study of Wat Phra Dhammakāya] (Bangkok, [undated, but appearing sometime between 1996 and 1998]).

For information on the controversies of the 1980s, see Zehner (1990, cited above) and Peter A. Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism (Singapore, 1989). The best set of English-language materials on the controversies of the late 1990s is the archive of articles maintained by the Bangkok Post at http://www.bangkokpost.com. Wat Phra Dhammakāya (under the guise of its Dhammakāya Foundation) maintains its own website at http://www.dhammakaya.or.th/, and the rival Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakāyaram maintains a website at http://www.concentration.org/. Both websites include information about teachings and recent events.

For scholarly interpretations of the Wat Phra Dhammakāya movement, see Donald K. Swearer, "Fundamentalistic Movements in Theravāda Buddhism," in Fundamentalisms Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 628690 (Chicago, 1991), which analyzes the movement as a kind of Buddhist fundamentalism; also Charles F. Keyes, "Buddhist Politics and Their Revolutionary Origins in Thailand," International Political Science Review 10, no. 2 (1989): 121142, which cites the movement as an example of the recently increased emphasis in Thai Buddhism on seeking a better future through ethically impelled practical action. Several authors, including Zehner, Jackson, and Keyes (all cited above), have explored aspects of the movement's appeal to its primarily urban, middle-class following. Additional information on the social and economic contexts of the movement is provided in Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker's respected survey Thailand: Economy and Politics (Kuala Lumpur, 1995).

Edwin Zehner (2005)