What images come to mind when you hear the word Buddhism? For many, they are images popularized by Hollywood as a mystical world, quaint and rustic; a temple of photogenically peeling paint, romantically overgrown courtyard, and a picaresque Buddha image suitably ancient and ornate. If we add a saffron-robed monk with an inscrutable expression who speaks in riddles and proverbs, then the picture is nearly perfect. Lights, camera, action! Into this scene enters a protagonist who is obsessed with wealth or status but whose soul, despite himself, longs for something “more”; and by seeing the simplicity of the monk’s life, a life of no wealth, property, or even modern appliances, the protagonist learns about the important things in life. Does this all sound familiar and even cliché? That’s because it is.
This course of story-telling uses the literary trope of the “noble savage,” which has existed for hundreds of years. In the 14th through 19th century, as the Europeans were colonizing the Americas and Africa, the noble savage often took the form of Native Americans and Africans because writers, for various reasons, wanted to portray outsiders who were un-corrupted by modern European society. They often lived communally and shared their resources, unlike the selfish and competitive “modern” man. And they possessed a wisdom which transcended school-bound education. In contemporary books and movies, we can see the noble savage trope in works such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley to Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts. But as it became less fashionable to portray ethnic or racial groups in this way, the new figure in this trope is the Buddhist monk.
There is a lot of misconception about Buddhism and Buddhist monks, and Hollywood is certainly not helping. Although they may be presenting them in a positive way--as a guiding light away from selfishness and greed--these filmmakers are not out to present Buddhism as it exists. To them Buddhism is a convenient tool for story-telling, and as in all stories, there is embellishment, make-belief, and outright falsehoods for the sake of the plot. While the movies are amusing, the unfortunate consequence is that Hollywood Buddhism is taken to be the “real” Buddhism, and if one were to find something quite different when visiting a temple, then there is disappointment or even disdain.
For myself, I think Wat Phra Dhammakaya has suffered a lot of criticism because it does not adhere to the Hollywood-fabricated image. When you first enter Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the first thing you notice is the enormous size of the property; the second thing you notice is the unusual shape of the Memorial Hall of Phramongkolthepmuni (Luang Pu Wat Paknam) because it is domed rather than pointed; and the third thing you may notice is the modern look of the buildings. There are no gilded temples topped with golden naga figures, no peeling paint, no overgrown courtyard. Even the Buddha image is minimalistic, almost modern in look. And the main stupa! It’s also topped with a dome instead of a spire! This must be all wrong!
Perhaps the biggest criticism aimed at the temple is that it is too commercial. The temple receives millions in donations, allowing it to run many services and projects for society without any financial support from the government. From their own fund-raising with patrons and devotees from the richest to the poorest, the temple has been able to build from, at first, a small chapel, to a large covered pavilion big enough for tens of thousands to sit, to dorms and a dining hall which can serve thousands of monks and lay people at a time, and feeding and watering every devotee who enters to make merit at the temple. This takes a lot of money, and the temple seems to have no trouble raising funds. All Buddhists and monks are supposed to shun wealth! This must be all wrong!
It seems odd and even suspicious to many observers that Wat Phra Dhammakaya should be so active in raising funds. Why does a group which should shun wealth be so good at pursuing money? But ask yourself this - if you really had no money, how would you survive in a modern society. Although a temple is not a business or corporation aimed at making a profit, monks, laypeople, and worshippers must still eat food; the temple grounds, plumbing, electricity and buildings must be cleaned and maintained; and events for religious holy days must be organized. All this takes money; and the more money a temple has, the more it can do to serve the public. It is that simple.
When you visit a rundown temple which has few attendees, do you imagine that this is the ideal existence? If the plumbing breaks down, do you think the temple residents might want to fix it or even upgrade it to modern specs? If the temple roof starts to succumb to the monsoon rain, do you think the abbot might want a new roof to be installed? Visitors and tourists might want the temple to exist in some bubble, a place un-touched by modern life where money is shunned, but do you think that is realistic? We all live in the same era. Buddhists have the same requirements for modern life as non-Buddhists, and to live in the midst of a city and to serve the needs of modern devotees who attend in large numbers, money is a part of that equation.
We find money to be distasteful because it is closely associated with greed. Certainly, destructive greed for wealth is distasteful. When the stock markets crashed in 2008 due to unscrupulous hedge fund managers, people were rightfully angered by the wanton greed. But money can be used for good and for ill. Wat Phra Dhammakaya has used its funds in many projects to promote meditation, Buddhism, and Buddhist practice in Thailand and around the world. Perhaps these projects have not been well-publicized to the general public, but those who contributed money have always known what the funds would be used for. Here are some of the large-scale and long-term projects sponsored by the donations:
Projects by Wat Phra Dhammakaya
The V in V-Star is short for “virtuous” and every year since 1997, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has sponsored a program in conjunction with participating schools, to have school age children complete tasks such as helping with chores, practicing kind actions, and acting respectfully to parents and teachers. They receive “credit” for their actions and if they accumulate enough credit, at the year end, they join in a celebration at the temple where they participate in games and activities. Last year, over a hundred thousand school children participated.
In Buddhist culture it is tradition for a boy or man to ordain as a monk to create merit for himself and to honor his parents. It can cost 50 to 100 thousand baht per person to ordain, which can be prohibitive for some people, and the practice is now less and less common. Wat Phra Dhammakaya has organized ordinations for several thousand people free of charge every year since 1985. Spending time as monk and learning the virtues is an important part of personal growth and societal peace, and Wat Phra Dhammakaya has whole-heartedly sponsored ordination.
The rich history of Buddhism lies undiscovered. Since 1985 Wat Phra Dhammakaya has sponsored the education of several hundred of its monks and laypeople in Pali language studies at the temple so that ancient Buddhist texts, which normally lie ignored in museums and libraries around the world, can be studied and our knowledge of Buddhism can be deepened and enriched. Further research on these ancient scriptures have been performed and shared with education institutions around the world.
Wat Phra Dhammakaya has non-religious meditation centers around the world where those who have no background in Buddhism but wish to learn meditation can participate in classes free of charge. Most Venerable Dhammajayo, the Abbot, believes that a peaceful mind leads to a peaceful society and thus to a peaceful world. A world of harmony and compassion benefits all people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike.
Holy Day Celebrations
Wat Phra Dhammakaya is above all else a temple for the devoted to make merit, to meditate, and to learn about Buddhism. Every year, several hundred thousand worshippers attend the temple on holy days such as Vesak, Kathina, and Magha to honor the Buddha, not to mention the monthly offerings of sustenance to the Buddhas. When they are at the temple, food, water, and facilities are available to all free of charge.
These programs are all aimed at getting people to learn about virtues, karma, and meditation, in other words, the basic things a Buddhist ought to know and practice. It’s incredible to think that these projects which have been ongoing for several years, and other smaller scale projects, are all funded by donations. The temple is a source of pride for its members because they, with their own charity and determination, have built it and grown it.
In this day and age, wherever we look, the quiet agrarian world of thousands of years ago has given way to an urban landscape. But Buddhism will not fade away into the mist of time. Buddhism doesn’t cease to exist when the jungles are cut down.
Buddhism is universal. Nothing that it teaches conflicts with living a modern life. You don’t have to live like an ascetic to be a good Buddhist. You don’t have to be poor to be a good Buddhist. You can have a successful career and be a good Buddhist. You can enjoy modern comforts and be a good Buddhist. Reject laziness, not modern technology. Reject ignorance, not education and enlightenment. Reject greed and corruption, not earning an honest living.
We aspire to be good Buddhists by practicing meditation, by learning the virtues and practicing them in our everyday lives, and by learning the wrongful acts and avoiding committing them in our everyday lives. Each day, we strive to grow little by little in virtue until we attain nirvana. It is that simple. These are the things Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Most Ven. Dhammajayo have worked to do, and the message has given guidance to millions. To reach as large an audience as possible and to serve the needs of as many devotees as possible, the temple has asked for and received donations, large and small, from its members. Perhaps Wat Phra Dhammakaya doesn’t conform to Hollywood Buddhism, but it goes beyond the epiphany of a single protagonist. It is Buddhism for the world at large.