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With space for more than 100,000 people to meditate, the temple complex of the Dhammakaya sect is larger than life and encourages its followers to do the same.
Critics accuse the Dhammakaya movement of exploiting its followers and Buddhism to make money.
The headquarters of Wat Dhammakaya, with its UFO-shaped temple dome and donation rooms equipped with ATMs, occupies an area nearly 10 times larger than the Vatican.
The movement, which also operates television stations and websites, has established some 90 branches in 35 countries since 1970.
“People who go to the temple come from different backgrounds. Some are poor, some are rich, so when everyone wears a uniform, everyone is equal,” said Joom, one of the sect’s supporters.
Its founder, Abbot Dhammajayo, has been in hiding since he escaped arrest in 2017 over allegations that the sect laundered $45 million in stolen money.
He denies the charges and his supporters say the sect is an international force for good that is updating Buddhism for the modern world.
In the world of mega-donors
Joom was born into a poor family and arrived in Bangkok aged 14 with nothing, but says her fortunes changed when she started donating to the cult.
Unlike other Buddhist movements, the Dhammakaya teaches that generous giving will bring wealth in this life as well as in a future life.
“I even donated my husband,” Joom said, explaining that the couple separated so he could become a resident monk to bring “spiritual benefits” to them both.
Joom now has his own clothing company – and estimates his total donations to the cult at almost $2 million.
“The abbot says people who are born poor have ‘stingy karma’ from a past life,” Joom said.
“If in this life you are miserly and don’t donate, then in the next life you will be even poorer.”
The Dhammakaya movement also claims to have revived a meditation technique lost since the time of the Buddha, much of its appeal to stressed professionals.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that good deeds like this will improve their next life until they escape the endless cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana.
Sect leavers say Abbot ‘loves’ Hitler
However, criticism of the group has been vocal and even Thailand’s ruling military junta has said it is targeting the temple for one simple reason: fraud.
Dr. Mano was a leading member of the sect and one of the Abbot’s closest disciples before leaving after 20 years.
“He tried to reveal to me that he is God with a capital G,” he said.
Although he is adamant that the followers “are good, moral-minded people”, he insists they don’t know how the sect spent their money.
“They never declare [their accounts],” he said.
“They keep secrets all the time from the beginning until now.”
He claims that not all the money was invested in the immaculate buildings of the compound and says that the abbot was fascinated by Hitler.
“Well, he told me Hitler was a good guy,” he said
“The abbot was very fond of Adolf Hilter, you see. It’s his icon. Hitler started with zero.
Father Dhammachayo and the sect deny all of Doctor Mano’s allegations.