Photo essay on Wat Phra Thammakai

Foreign Policy has just published a photo essay on the Wat Phra Thammakai (Dhammakaya) movement in Thailand. The photos, taken by Luke Duggleby, are spectacular and document well the incredibly regimented and orderly nature of the movement’s mass rituals. The article also refers to the movement’s controversial status within Thailand itself, as well as its global ambitions.

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.

Monks sitting in front of the UFO-like Cetiya (stupa) of Wat Phra Thammakai. Source: Foreign Policy

The likening of Thammakai’s mass rituals to Nazi rallies has caused quite a bit of controversy in  article’s comments section. However, the comparison, and the reactions to it, actually reflect the sort of controversy the movement enjoys within Thailand itself. Certainly the aesthetics of the movement and its global claims are very unusual in the Thai context, where rituals events and festivals tend to be noisy, semi-anarchic occasions, and Buddhism itself is seen more as a symbol of ethnic and national identity rather than a universal doctrine of salvation.

The global aspirations of the movement are very interesting, This sort of universal vision is unusual in the Theravada Buddhist world, in large degree to the sorts of parochial linking of ethno-national identity and Buddhism mentioned above. (Respected scholar of Buddhism Richard Gombrich recently gave a very strongly-worded keynote address on this very subject when addressing the question of Theravada Buddhism’s limited success in disseminating itself globally. I’ll try to add some thoughts about this speech in an upcoming post).

Regarding the rituals, I can’t help but be struck by the similarity of the aesthetics to those that authoritarian states attempt to generate through creating a perfectly coordinated, de-individuated mass, which is designed, ideally, to be viewed from afar. The uniformity of the monastic robes, or white clothing of lay devotees, the geometric precision of the placement of bodies, are suggestive of both factory production and a rational, scientific orderliness. It is a remote viewpoint that is encouraged, and in which the camera participates, in which de-individuated human bodies become standardised, mere points along geometrical vector. It is the same sort of remoteness which means people are surprised to realise that the golden dome of the UFO-like Cetiya is in fact made up of thousands upon thousands of identical Buddha statues. It would seem to me that people involved in these rituals are not merely involved in a religious event; they are also in a sense performing, or participating in, “a state”.

I’m reminded of James Scott’s discussion of the aesthetics of state projects in his Seeing Like a State.

Seeing like a state. Source: Foreign Policy

One of Scott’s key points is that such supposedly rational, modernists projects, designed to improve the human condition, are usually blind — even antagonistic to — the everyday experiences, relationships and strategies that are a vital element of social life. This is a necessary consequence of the sorts of schematic simplifications that are required to produce such an orderly vision. However, not only do they fail to grasp these informal elements, they are parasitic upon them. That is, the informal “cunning” of everyday life is both a necessary component of state visions but which by definition can never be part of that vision precisely because they “pollute” the sense of orderliness it is trying to achieve. It would be interesting to know more about what sorts of informal processes underpin and hidden in the incredible regimentation of Thammakai rituals.

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About Jovan Maud

I'm a lecturer in the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Georg-August University, Göttingen, Germany. Interests include: transnational religious networks, popular religion in Thailand, religious tourism and commodification, and digital anthropology.
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