Skip to main content

Reform Symbolism of a Thai Middle–Class Sect: The Growth and Appeal of the Thammakai Movement1

  • Edwin Zehner

The Thammakai movement in Thailand has won increasing attention over the past decade for its popularity, for the devotion of its supporters and the size of their contributions, and for its links with influential individuals in the Thai government, army, and business communities. This suburban monastery's ability to draw a congregation of 50,000 participants each year for its most publicized annual religious observance is perhaps unprecedented in Thai ecclesiastical history. Thammakai leaders see themselves heading a key Buddhist reform movement to improve the lives of their followers, to strengthen the religion, and to bring prosperity to the nation. But Thammakai's detractors criticize the meditation method around which the movement has been built, deplore the movement's expenditure rates and fund-raising techniques, charge that it uses hypnotic mind-control methods over its followers, and criticize its increasingly acquisitive tendencies. Thai observers of all persuasions have noted Thammakai's skilful use of positive national and religious symbols in its public relations, its abilities in organizing students and young urban professionals to work for organizational goals, and its skill at staging visually and emotionally appealing public displays.

Hide All

2 Zehner, Edwin, “Charisma, Culture, and Structure in Thai New Religious Movements”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies,Washington, D.C.,March 1989; Taylor, Jim, “New Buddhist Movements in Thailand: An ‘Individualistic Revolution’, Reform and Political Dissonance”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 21, no. 1 (03 1990): 135–54.

3 Keyes, Charles F., “Buddhist Politics and their Revolutionary Origins in Thailand”, International Political Science Review 10 (1989): 121–42.

4 Jackson, Peter A., Buddhism, Legitimation, and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989).

5 For the term “revitalization movement”, see Wallace, Anthony F.C., “Revitalization Movements”, American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264–81. For a treatment of the process of secularization, see Berger, Peter L., The Sacred Canopy (New York: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 105ff. The term “internal conversion” is from Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 170ff.

6 See Tambiah, S.J., World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 157ff.

7 Keyes, , “Buddhist Politics”.

8 Landon, Kenneth P., Siam in Transition [1968 Reprint] (New York: Greenwood Press, 1939), pp. 209210.

9 “Most Thai Monks Not Qualified to Teach Buddhism”, The Nation (Bangkok), 19 11 1987, p. 1.

10 “Monks Accuse Official of Insulting Them”, Bangkok Post, 6 03 1988, p. 3; “Monks plan rally to demand clarification”, The Nation (Bangkok), 5 03 1988, p. 3.

11 The Thai-language dictionary of the Royal Thai Academy defines patibattham as meaning either meditation or else “acting according to the Dharma”, with the latter definition potentially meaning “moral action”, or alternatively, explicitly religious practice or ritual of any kind (some Thammakai devotees use the term in much the same way as Christians talk of “going to church”, for example). Most popular usage of the term manages to involve a firmly ambiguous play among the word's potential meanings.

12 The Thammakai movement, as does this article, uses the term thammakai in several different senses. To help disambiguate the meanings for the reader, I write the word in a variety of styles, as follows:

(a) “thammakai” refers to the doctrinal concept of the dharma-body. It is also used when citing the Thai pronunciation of the word, or of the associated Pali or Sanskrit words or concepts.

(b) “Thammakai” refers to a particular goal of thammakai-style meditation. Thammakai leaders claim that this is an actual vision of the thammakai, or the inner dharma-body.

(c) “thammakai” refers to the style of meditation taught by the Thammakai movement. It is also used for broader references to thammakai meditation centres and teachers including, but not limited to, the ones centred on Wat Phra Thammakai.

(d) “Thammakai” refers to the specific movement centred on Wat Phra Thammakai and its associated institutions.

When meaning is ambiguous, the author arbitrarily chooses one of the four representations. In Thai, the four meanings are all written and pronounced exactly alike. To get a sense of the normal ambiguities of Thai-language discourse about things concerning the Thammakai movement, the reader has, of course, the option of ignoring the distinctions written into the text.

13 The term's meaning, as discussed here, is explicitly identified in the Royal Academy dictionary as being a “Mahayana belief”. Although a term dhammakaya appears in the Pali Text Society's Pali-English dictionary, it is defined differently from the Thammakai movement's usage.

14 The Pali and Sanskrit scriptures both contain words that are transliterated into Thai as thammakai. In popular discourse there is no way to distinguish between the two etymologies, as it is in English, because the word would be spelled and pronounced the same way in either case.

15 See carefully worded comments by Wasi, Prawet, Suan Mok, Thammakai, Santi Asok [Suan Mokh, Thammakai, Santi Asoke] (Bangkok: Folk Doctor Magazine Press, 1987), pp. 4648; also the more pungent critique in Wannapok, Sathianphong, Suan Thang Nipphan [Running Opposite from Nirvana] (Bangkok: Amarin Printing Group, 1987), pp. 1825.

16 Here I allude to the Pali spelling rather than the Sanskrit, because the authority of the Pali sources are the one that Sot wished to evoke. In the late 1980s Thammakai devotees reported that some of their monks were speaking openly of the alleged superiority of the Sanskrit meditation texts, but even then this kind of discussion was still being kept out of the movement's publications.

17 A lack of references in Thai-language dictionaries suggests that pathommamak may be a Thammakai neologism. Its compound roots literally mean “beginning of the path”, and as used by the movement, the term suggests, ever so ambiguously, that the one who has seen the pathommamak has entered the higher stages of the path to enlightenment — a claim that would be outrageously and obviously heterodox if stated in the traditional Theravada terms that the movement seems to be avoiding.

18 The most important centre other than Wat Phra Thammakai is the Sathaban Phutthaphawana Witcha Thammakai (Thammakai Buddhist Meditation Institute) at Damnoen Saduak, Ratburi Province, led by Phra Acan Soemchai Chaijamangkhalo (Mongkhonlabut). The Damnoen Saduak centre formed later than Wat Phra Thammakai, and so far is less well known. It has imitated many of Wat Phra Thammakai's organizational methods, except that it has maintained closer ties with Wat Paknam and at the moment appears to have a slightly more secure patronage base within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Insiders report that Mongkhonlabut and Wat Phra Thammakai Abbot Phra Thammachaijo are bitter rivals who regularly criticize each other's teachings and alleged attainments as meditators.

19 The date comes from Bhikkhu, TakkasaranoKaun ca koet mai nai phet samana [Before my rebirth in the monkhood] (Bangkok: Thammakai Foundation/Student Buddhist Clubs, 1985), p. 29.

20 In its choice of name, the movement leaders were already displaying their talent for terminology. The name could be translated as “Thammakai Buddhist Meditation Centre”, but the middle two terms have broader religious resonances such as to make a more precise translation both problematic and pointless.

21 Dates from Premsakun, Aun-anong, ed., Cak Chettawanaram su wat phrathammakai [From Chetawanaram Monastery to Wat Phra Thammakai] (Bangkok: Thammakai Foundation, 1988), p. 100.

22 Figures for 1983, 1984, and 1986 come from the following in-house publications, respectively: Sun Phutthacak Patibattham Phra Thammakai, Thammathajat, special cremation edition in honour of Thanphujing Praphasi Kamlang-ek (Bangkok: Student Buddhist Clubs, 1983); Thammakai, Wat Phra, Phutthabucha Wisakhapuranami [Wisakhabucha Day Memorial Volume] (Bangkok: Student Buddhist Clubs, 1984); Thammakai Foundation, Dhammadayada: A New Hope for the Thai Nation (Bangkok: Student Buddhist Clubs, 1986). Figures for 1987 come from various Thammakai posters, banners, and leaflets. In 1988 requests both at the Chulalongkorn University Club and at Wat Phra Thammakai itself for a current list of clubs failed to produce one, even though prior to 1987 the clubs were normally listed by name on the cover of movement publications.

23 See chart in Thammakai Foundation, Dhammadayada. The term thammathayat may well be a Thammakai movement neologism. Building on the roots dhamma (The Buddha's Teaching) and thayat (offspring, or heir), the term might be translated “heirs of the Buddha's teaching”. By the late 1980s the term had entered popular discourse in the sense of “disciples who are trained to carry on the teaching style and emphasis of a particular monk”.

24 The Royal Academy dictionary does not include a definition for the term kanlayanamit, but the term was already in use prior to its appropriation by the Thammakai movement. It seems to be popularly understood as having religious connotations, and educated Thai can understand from its roots that the meaning must have something to do with being a friend of exceptional value. The term also frequently appears as a term of address to potential religious donors in letters circulated when a temple committee seeks to raise money for a capital project.

25 Aun-anong, p. 92.

26 The Abbot of this monastery is a high-ranking member of the national Ecclesiastical Council of the Elders. The Marble Temple is one of the best known in Thailand, and therefore lends prestige to the movement. In imitation, the rival Sathaban Phutthaphawana Witcha Thammakai (Thammakai Buddhist Meditation Institute) uses for some of its training programmes the equally prestigious Wat Saket (Golden Mount Temple), whose Abbot is another high-ranking member of the Ecclesiastical Council.

27 Srisopha, Suwanee, interviewer and editor, “A Foreigner's Impression of Buddhism in Thailand: Visitors from the U.S.A.”, Kanlajanamit, 02 1988, p. 27. English in original. Incidentally, it is difficult to be certain to what extent the interview actually represents the interviewees' words. The article is printed in parallel English and Thai columns, with no indication as to which version is the original, nor as to how heavily the interview has been edited.

29 Bunjarattanachot, Somjing, Wan haeng khwam song cam [A Day to be Remembered] (Bangkok: Thammakai Foundation/Student Buddhist Clubs, 1986).

30 None of my informants could give a clear definition of Thatsananuttarija, and several informants living in the author's neighbourhood seemed never to have heard of the word before. Informants did better with silacarawat; although their proposed definitions were a bit inconsistent, they tended to revolve around the idea of the ideal style of behaviour and carriage expected of the calm, composed, self-mindful monk. As might be expected, the clearest definition of this word came from a monk.

31 Takkasarano, p. 24, my translation.

32 Weber, Max, Economy and Society, ed. Roth, Guenther and Wittich, Claus (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968), p. 215.

33 As noted in Prawet, pp. 56–58.

34 I structure the discourse to illustrate the Abbot's persistent stretching out of the rising tone of the word saaiiiiii. Assistant Abbot Phadet, whose meditation instruction is not quite as appealing or effective, prefers a verbal play on the thammakai concept of the “centre of the centre of the centre of one's being” thusly: klang khaung klang klang khaung klang klang khaung klang klang, etc. Others develop their own distinctive foci.

35 Thammakai Foundation, Luang Phau Wat Paknam [in Thai] (Bangkok: Ban Nu Kaew; 1988 [1971]), pp. 1921.

36 Aun-anong, p. 36.

37 Prawet, p. 47.

38 Quotedin ibid., p. 53.

39 Boowa, Phra Maha, The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun, tr. Buddhasak, Siri (Udornthani, Thailand: Wat Pa Ban Tard, 1982 [1976]), pp. 46.

40 Sathianphong, pp. 22–25.

41 Quoted in Prawet, p. 57.

42 At the time, Phra Thammachaijo had already ordained as the movement's nominal leader, but Khun Jai Can was still leading its meditation sessions, as noted in Takkasarano, p. 28.

43 See the collections of personal accounts in the Thammathayat series of books, published by Sun Phutthacak Patibattham Phra Thammakai/Thammakai Foundation/Student Buddhist Clubs (varying names, but essentially the same organization) from the late 1970s onwards.

44 The nak tham examinations are the beginning levels of the national ecclesiastical examination system. The monk or novice normally proceeds through three nak tham exams before proceeding to the nine levels of Pali studies that constitute the core of a monk's scholarly training. Thammakai informants seem uncertain, incidentally, as to whether their leaders have passed through any of these stages, since the movement has essentially set up its own training system, and bases its prestige on its own successes. Some Thammakai informants said bluntly that their leaders had never taken the government-sponsored exams; for the most part, they seemed to consider the exams unnecessary, at best.

45 Phadet, Phra, “Luang Phau Taup Panha (Luang Pho Phadet Answers Your Questions)”, Kanlajanamit, 02 1988, p. 38.

46 See Aun-anong, p. 45.

47 See Prawet, pp. 102–103.

48 A fuller account of this conversation may give some idea of the style of Thammakai proselytization technique. Taking this man's “Protestant Reformation” analogy literally, I wondered aloud whether his movement might prove as schismatic for Thai Buddhism as the Protestant movement had been for European Christianity. He denied the possibility, claiming that the schism in Christianity had been due to nationalistic splits rather than doctrinal differences. He moved on to urge me to meditate on the Thammakai, claiming that thammakai meditation had been the secret to every religious leader's successes; Jesus had meditated on the Thammakai in the desert at the start of his ministry, just as Muhummad did on the mountain before revealing his message (he made no effort to reconcile this assertion with the movement's claim that thammakai meditation had been “lost” during this period — a point that I did not yet know enough to raise). If I meditated on the Thammakai then I, too, would experience santisuk (the Thai Protestant equivalent of khwam sa-ngop), and only then would I understand why he and all other Thammakai participants worked so hard for the movement with no pay. My questions about organizational matters were not important. Only if I meditate would I then be able to understand….

49 Thais and foreigners alike have noted that the bot's architectural style reminds them more of a Christian church than a Buddhist temple. Thammakai counters that it is merely a functional adaptation of the traditional Thai style, and that there is ample precedent in Thai Buddhism for such architectural innovation (see Aun-anong, pp. 95–101). Some Thammakai leaders have gone so far as to admit that Thammakai planners combined the best features of both Buddhist temples and the high-ceilinged Christian churches in the bot, in order to create a structure whose atmosphere would be the most conducive to practising meditation, but this does not indicate any Christian influences on the movement's teaching or practice.

50 The ban on fund-raising does not extend, of course, to the temple's own collection of donations. Even so, donation opportunities on the grounds themselves, though made amply available, do not seem to be actively solicited at major religious observances. Solicitation of donations is an activity more likely to be pursued off the grounds; part of the movement's proselytization activities focuses on encouraging friends and neighbours to come to the temple to “make merit” in a variety of activities, and the “invitation to make merit” (bauk bun) often becomes an opportunity as well to urge meditation practice and teach movement distinctives.

51 See Bunnag, Jane, Buddhist Monk, Buddhist Layman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 107.

52 For descriptions of more traditional kathin observances, see Tambiah, , World Conqueror, pp. 456–57; also Sombatbauribun, Wicit, Ryang kathinthan [Concerning kathin offerings] (Bangkok: Bangkok Bank, 1974), p. 29.

53 Traditional merit-making through donations is included in the Thammakai ritual system, but it is valued for its effects in speeding spiritual achievement by other means (such as meditation and observance of the precepts) rather than an end in itself. Consistent with this, merit-making offerings have been shorn of many of their traditional social prestige aspects through the avoidance of money trees, by receiving of individual donations in separate pavilions rather than as part of the ceremonial ritual itself, and through the use of specially appointed “lay representatives” for the public presentation of ritual group donations on major occasions. Traditional merit-making through ostentatious charity is thus demoted in the overall hierarchy of religious activities, while the specifically religious motivation for contributions is increased by teaching that religious donations enhance personal progress in meditation and thus towards Nirvana. The result is an unusually generous fund-raising base. Thammakai's Assistant Abbot once allegedly claimed a cash flow need of 15 million baht per month (almost US$600,000, or more than the combined monthly starting salaries of some 5,000 Bangkok elementary school teachers or of the same number of X-Ray technicians), and most participants seem to believe the Temple's income to be near that figure, although the organization's actual financial position has never been disclosed.

54 This objection is not being made by any of the movement's more educated opponents in the media, but rumours of communist connections are widespread enough that the movement is still taking active steps to counter them.

55 Somjing, pp. 2ff. Incidentally, this publication is dated just two weeks after her first, and possibly only, visit to the monastery. It is couched so thoroughly in Thammakai patterns of discourse, that it was almost certainly ghost-written by temple personnel. This is a common practice in the Thammakai publications cited in this article, although in each case the putative author is reportedly allowed some control over the contents.

56 I understand this to be the standard romanized Pali spelling of the day, although sources available in Thailand seem inconsistent on this point.

57 “Their Majesties Mark Maka Puja”, Bangkok Post, 3 03 1988, p. 1.

58 The three characterizations are, respectively, from Phothirak, Phra, Khan auk ma cak sin [Extracted from the Precepts] (Bangkok: Chaw asok — Thammasanti Foundation, 1984), p. 8; Hau, Pau, Khatitham cak thammapatimok [Ethical Maxims from the Patimokh), Chen Nan Eng, compiler (Bangkok: Sukkhaphap cai, 1987); Phadet, Phra, Owat Patimok [The Buddha's Patimokkha Sermon] (Bangkok: Thammakai Foundation, 1987), intro.

59 Khanthipalo, Phra, Buddhism Explained, 4th ed. (Bangkok: Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya Press, 1973), p. 185; Phadet, Phra, Owat Patimok, p. 37.

60 The other two major observances are Thaut Kathin (the annual offering of monastic robes at the end of the rains retreat) and Wisakhabucha (the anniversary of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha). The term Phuttabucha Makhaprathip consists of the components (a) phutta (the Buddha; Buddhist) + bucha (worship; religious ceremony) and (b) makha (third lunar month) + prathip (flame — a reference to the hundreds of candles and torches used in the ceremony). Although the spelling and pronunciation (particularly the tone of the first syllable) are slightly different, there is an outside possibility that some participants might misunderstand makhaprathip to literally mean “many candles” (mak = many + prathip = candles), which would be a fitting title for the kind of ceremony that Thammakai stages. The author does not know whether the pun is intentional.

61 As of October 1986 the Temple was still paying for the land (Somjing, 1986). The grounds were first used for a Makhabucha observance in February 1987. The projected full-scale development of over a square mile of land that had previously been used mostly for tenant farming has been protested repeatedly by neighbouring villagers. In April 1988 the protests included dramatic suicide threats in downtown Bangkok, threats to torch the temple, and quite possibly included the well-publicized defacing of the large Buddha image gracing the thudongkhasathan.

62 Since the Thammathajat training session begins about a month after Makhabucha, most of the 1,250 monks and novices on this day must have been invited from other monasteries, or else ordained specially for the occasion.

63 See Phadet, Phra, Owat Patimok, p. 55.

64 As such, it is a formalized expression of an attitude similar to one seen developing among the younger generation of ‘internally converting’ Balinese; Geertz, p. 184.

65 Thepwethi, Phra (Prayut Payuto), Tham jang-rai cyng ca hai chya ryang kam [What must we do to get people to believe in karma?] (Bangkok: Sati Printers, 1988), pp. 2337; Phadet, Phra, Sin: Khunnakha khaung khwam pen manut [The Precepts: The value of our Humanity] (Bangkok: Thammakai Foundation, 1987), pp. 2024.

66 The word baurisut, here translated as “pure”, can refer to cleanliness, spotlessness, perfection from impurities, and moral uprightness. It is not clear what the Abbot meant by making the mind pure, since the rituals of inner cleansing, such as they are, had already been performed. Perhaps he meant that one should clear the mind of all distracting thoughts and emotions, in themselves held to be impure thoughts. Or perhaps this was Thammakai jargon for the state of complete collectedness and concentration on the task of meditation, implying thereby that one is to feel and visualize that the mind is as empty and clear as the crystal on which it is to focus.

67 “Approach the Triple Gem” (khaw thyng phrarattanatrai) is an ambiguous phrase. It refers simultaneously to the traditional act of Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem of Buddha, Sangha, and Dhamma; to placing oneself in a state of pious faith; and to one's progress in meditation towards the vision of the Thammakai, which is said to be the very fullness of the Triple Gem. The statement's very ambiguity adds to its evocative power.

68 This is an unusual level of effective crowd discipline for an unrehearsed public ceremony of this type, particularly for ceremonies I had observed in Thailand.

69 As far as I have seen, the image of the unemployed housewife is for the most part inconsistent with actual middle-class lifestyles in Thailand, but it is a frequently-mentioned element of middle-class ideals. Most families apparently consider themselves exceptions to the ideal.

70 As Phadet, Phra does explicitly in Khwam ru taung khu khunnatham [Knowledge Must be Joined to Virtue] (Bangkok: Thammakai Foundation/Ban Nu Kaew, 1987), pp. 7ff; see also Thammakai Foundation, Dhammadayada: A New Hope for the Thai Nation (Bangkok: Student Buddhist Clubs, 1986).

71 To make the point even more obvious, all of the Buddha images that I have seen the movement display are cast in the meditation (or enlightenment) pose.

1 Acknowledgements. Thanks to Charles F. Keyes, A. Thomas Kirsch, Mike Montesano, Grant Olson, and an anonymous reviewer for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article. Thanks also to Erik Cohen for his comments and encouragement in an early stage of this investigation.

Note on transliteration. Except for those names that are already widely known to English readers by a single and consistently used spelling, all Thai words and names cited in this article are transliterated according to their Standard Thai pronunciation. The transliteration system used in this article is Library of Congress system less tone marks and vowel length distinction, with the exception of the following symbols borrowed from Mary Haas, together with a couple of my own devising:

Also, since the difference between diphthong-final “o” and “u” is context-specific, I represent both with “w”. Where this might create confusion, I use a macron (“–”) to separate syllables.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed