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.
Yet, despite the pageantry, the inner workings of this fast-growing movement are little known to Thailand's general public, and certainly to the rest of the world, though its teachings loom large among the legions of devotees. The veil of secrecy parted briefly in late 1999, when two top Dhammakaya leaders were charged with embezzlement in what many considered a political ploy to suppress the temple's growing power. The charges were dismissed in 2006 after the former abbot and a colleague returned some land and nearly 1 billion baht ($32 million) to temple control.
This obscurity is because -- despite its 24-hour satellite TV station -- Dhammakaya has diligently worked to avoid the limelight. Until now. Over the past year, photographer Luke Duggleby and reporter Ron Gluckman have been granted unrivaled access to the facilities and ceremonies of Dhammakaya, and they provide an exclusive look at this mesmerizing movement.
Even before the sun starts to rise, thousands of monks are awake and murmuring Buddhist chants as they circle the sprawling plaza at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a massive temple complex about an hour outside Bangkok. These mass gatherings, which often mark Buddhist holidays and are used for religious training, are held several times each year and involve months of planning.
Dressed in white, family members join the celebration at Wat Phra Dhammakaya and prepare for the presentation of saffron robes to some 30,000 men who will soon become monks in a mass ordination on Feb. 6, 2010. The temple, or wat in Thai, began modestly as a reform movement on 80 acres of acidic rice paddy land in 1970, but has boomed in the last 20 years.
The Mothership: The gold-topped Cetiya temple is the center of the Dhammakaya's expanding global meditation movement and the focal point of ceremonies. The dome is actually composed of 300,000 identical titanium- and gold-coated bronze statues of Buddha -- another 700,000 are nestled inside a temple that even devotees will admit looks like a UFO. Some call it "The Mothership." Estimates have placed the value of the temple complex at around $1 billion.
Emotions reach a powerful high as teachers, tuk-tuk drivers, businessmen, police, and even former prisoners gather at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. A majority of Thai men spend some time in a monastery, often returning repeatedly throughout their lives.
Carrying the simple garb of a monk, more than 30,000 men spread out across the plaza in front of Dhammakaya's Cetiya temple, as a lengthy ordination ceremony approaches its climax. The men will soon take their vows and then don the saffron robe that signifies their acceptance into the monkhood. Afterward, they will be assigned roles in temples across Thailand, where they will follow the sacred Buddhist precepts.
The men sit in rapt attention as the revered monks of Wat Phra Dhammakaya explain the path ahead to personal understanding and advancement. Proponents praise the meditation method, which offers a standard, easy-to-follow road map to the practice. The temple has become a powerful force in Thailand, reaching all the way to members of the royal family and some government ministers. Despite an official stance against political involvement, the temple was widely reported to be an influential backer of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire businessman whose 2006 ouster set off a series of protests that last year left dozens dead, the economy shattered, and the country bitterly divided.
One by one, men of all ages and occupations approach the senior monks to receive blessing and ordination. The men had previously attended Buddhist and meditative training sessions in centers all over Thailand, preparing to take the vows of monkhood. Traditional Thai Buddhist temples generally welcome Dhammakaya monks, who are placed in temples all over the country. But others envy Dhammakaya's success. Phramaha Somchai Thanavuddho, assistant abbot at Dhammakaya temple and director of Dhammakaya Institute, says: "When you grow so rapidly and have such success, you naturally attract suspicion. This isn't hate, but envy."
Newly dressed in the monks' robes, these men are following customs that date back 25 centuries. The first followers of Buddha set aside all worldly possessions and lived simply, wearing only one robe. Legend has it that the robes were patched together of various scraps of cloth and washed so often in the spice-laden waters of southern Asia that they took on the colors of cumin or curry.
Now monks, the men begin their new path to self-awareness and enlightenment by praying. This will be a major part of their lives for as long as they choose to remain monks. Life in the monastery begins before dawn with morning prayers and continues long after dark, with study and work service.
Bowing in unison, the monks' ordination is a precisely choreographed ceremony. The Buddhist center stages increasingly large events that are beamed by its own satellite network to Dhammakaya temples around the globe.
Looking across the sprawling plaza at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a sea of monks wash against a shore of cranes and construction. Over $1 billion reportedly was invested in lavish facilities at Thailand's largest temple, which garners funds through donations from its members. Dhammakaya evokes emotional responses everywhere in Bangkok. Members bubble about its power and peaceful gifts; others denounce it as a dangerous cult.
A monk walks past an image of the founder of the Dhammakaya temple, Buddhist nun Khun Yay Ubasika Chandra Khonnokyoong. Although the movement follows ancient teachings and the work of revered monk Phramongkolthepmuni, it was his disciple Khun Yay who founded the temple in 1970, 11 years after his death.
While Dhammakaya is now four decades old, only in recent years has it scaled up to such spectacles -- a two-week nationwide retreat culminated on Dec. 25, 2010, in what some likened to a Buddhist Woodstock, with a target of 1 million women participating in a mass meditation, the Upasika Kaew. In August 2009, as seen here, an ordination was held for a more modest gathering of 12,000 monks.
Buddhist monks surround the Cetiya temple -- the epicenter of the Dhammakaya movement. The gold-domed temple is off-limits to visitors.
In what was promoted as the largest gathering of its kind in history, the Upasika Kaew culminated with a mass meditation with a claimed attendance of 1 million women. An estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 actually attended, but thousands more watched on the Dhammakaya's satellite network and joined in on the meditation at over 100 centers around the globe.
The head monks of Dhammakaya prepare to address the Upasika Kaew. The temple mobilized over 50,000 volunteers and thousands of buses to coordinate the movement of hundreds of thousands of women from around the country, who converged at the temple at the end of a two-week retreat and training session.
Giant floodlights illuminate the Cetiya temple plaza. The daylong ceremonies are carefully planned for maximum emotional effect. Feeding the spiritual hunger of Thais has become a four-decade-long quest for Dhammakaya. Feeding the human hunger is a daily challenge: The kitchen facilities sprawl across a football field, capable of preparing a ton of rice at a time and five meals a day for up to 500,000 people.
Bathed in candlelight, throngs of women from every corner of Thailand begin a mass meditation at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Unlike men at other Dhammakaya mass ordinations, who proceed to a period of monkhood, most women will soon return to their normal life of families and work.
Despite outlandish ceremonies and its own television coverage of these events, Dhammakaya has remained mainly under the world's radar. Yet, in Thailand, opinion is loud and extreme -- people either adore Dhammakaya or are caustically critical of what is widely feared to be a cult. Mano Mettanando Laohavanich, a renowned Buddhist scholar who was once among the top Dhammakaya leaders, heading its entire American operations, has become a rabid critic since leaving the temple. He called Dhammakaya's rapid growth and mass ceremonies "power trips" inspired by the head abbot's fascination with the Muslim hajj gatherings and Nazi parades.
Fireworks provide a Disney-esque touch to the culmination of the massive Buddhist gathering on Dec. 25, 2010.
The annual celebration of Makha Bucha Day was attended by over 40,000 people last February at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Held on the full-moon day of the third lunar month each year, the festival is meant as a veneration of Buddha and his teachings; it's a national holiday in Thailand, as well as in Laos and Cambodia.
Each attendee chants in the glow of a single candle as thousands of Dhammakaya monks celebrate Makha Bucha Day. One of the most important Buddhist holy days, it's a time for restraint and reflection. When the ceremonies conclude, thousands of devotees return to the complex's dorms or file onto buses for the long journey home.