Sci Fi Buddhism: Close Encounters of the PR kind

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The Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Thailand is one of a kind, with its flying-saucer shaped stupa made from thousands of golden Buddha statues. It sits at the heart of a religious complex the size of an airport, said to be home to 3,000 monks. Located in Bangkok’s industrial north suburbs, the gigantic complex is among the first things you see when you come in to land in Don Muang, one of the capital’s two airports.

UFObuddhismThe futuristic temple is also controversial in Thailand, its gargantuan scale often criticised in a country where many still live in poverty. . . . Major festivals can see 100,000 devotees packing the site, with one of the most impressive the Makha Bucha, which celebrates the Buddha’s ordination of 1,250 monks who went on to spread their master’s teachings around the world. … The processions at the Dhammakaya are simply spectacular, like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. …

Then suddenly it stops: no one utters another word, the hum of the power generator is cut short. The huge crowd is motionless, plunged into a deep silence. … Finally, at sundown, the worshippers walk clockwise around the illuminated dome, three times, with candles in their hands. Then they form a candlelit alley which the monks walk along, to mark the ceremony’s end. The mood is strange, like something out of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. With the monks in the role of aliens freshly landed on board their spaceship.

To photograph the monks’ final retreat, by far the evening’s most spectacular sight, I manage to climb to a vantage point up above the scene, on a scaffold set up for us by the organisers. All of the international media are there, along with several dozen photographers and cameramen employed by the Dhammakaya Movement, who have special equipment to capture the ceremony from every possible angle. Without a doubt: the cult has mastered the fine art of public relations.

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