Wat Dhammakaya, just north of Bangkok, is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Built in 1970, it is the epicenter of Dhammakaya Buddhism, a large, rapidly growing, and at times controversial sect. Architecturally, Wat Dhammakaya is a palace for the age of mass media.
The UFO-like Chedi (inner memorial hall)
Worshippers at Wat Dhammakaya, Patumthani, Thailand, prior to a meditation session. April, 2010. 1:15.
Dhammakaya is a very new movement within Buddhism, and breaks from many of its classical precepts. As a philosophy, it has roots in the early 20th century, with a revered monk named Luang Phor Sodh who purportedly rediscovered a long-lost method of attaining enlightenment. In fact, the current sect is a posthumous interpretation of Luang Phor’s teachings that wasn’t founded until the 1970s, and its leaders are at least as successful as entrepreneurs as they are as philosophers. Their brand of Buddhism could be justly compared to any number of religious movements around the world that seek to make worship relevant to the moods and mores of modern life.
This includes, for example, an overt and intimate connection between material wealth and spirituality. Pictured below is a bag, distributed by the temple for carrying shoes while indoors, adorned with Dhammakaya’s official slogan: “Quickly Rich/Powerfully Rich/Thoroughly Rich”
Relevance also means heaps of technology. And size. The central building of the wat looks a lot like an airplane hangar (note the people at the bottom of the photo for scale), complete with a logo that evokes a disc-shaped aircraft set to launch.
From the inside, see the tall ceilings, open spacing, and minimal design. The woman blurred at the front is on her cell phone.
There didn’t seem to be a single point in the entire complex where one was out of view of a television, or out of earshot of a mounted Bose speaker. Between the morning and afternoon meditation sessions, a panel of young men and women chatted and laughed at a long table, talk show-style, their faces and voices amplifying throughout the vast terminal. Though there must have been hundreds of small televisions, the two largest screens, standing some fifteen feet tall, flanked the main stage, on which a group of novice monks sat in a geometrical array on top of a dais shaped exactly like the other building, the aircraft/Chedi. During the talk show, the presenters appeared on the screens as gigantic talking heads; when formal meditation began, they were replaced by blue orb graphics and fiery orange Buddhas. Whoever orchestrated the program most certainly understood color theory.
My companion described all of this as a great example of the Thai concept of Riyap Raawy, or perfect orderliness. Every element of the space, from load-bearing poles to floor mats to the seating arrangement of worshippers, was made absolutely uniform. And thanks to the even distribution of media, every person in the wat could see and hear clearly from anywhere – this is critical, since the space is touted as being able to accommodate a stunning one million devotees at a time.
There are certainly examples from throughout history of religious structures that, like Wat Dhammakaya, were built to be huge and awesome (in the biblical sense), and to thus give everyone the sense that they were encountering transcendence. This experience is often audible. For example, in the whispering gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the acoustics allow you to hear another person with perfect clarity, even if they’re fifty feet away and whispering. The inner dome of the Taj Mahal has a similar effect. In both cases, the echoes suggest a sublime unity between the speaker, the space, and the cosmos – even the slightest utterance resonates everywhere. Upon speaking, you get the feeling that all things are connected.
However, the technological space of Wat Dhammakaya, although relentlessly amplified, works differently.
Around thirty seconds into the recording, we start to hear two speakers go out of phase, just a few milliseconds off from each other. The slight delay makes the voices (these are the talk show hosts again) sound warbly. Here, we become aware that this isn’t actually a space of unity, but of total atomization. For each area in the temple, there is a separate set of speakers – in accord with the mandate of mass media, each person is addressed in his own world. Although everyone hears the same thing, they never actually hear together, from the same source. In certain moments, such as when the speakers go out of phase, we overhear that others are also hearing, but the possibilities for joining them are limited. The only way to get the message is through your own private equipment. For a sect so focused on personal development, becoming thoroughly rich, and so on, this seems poetic.