Today marks the end of my first week here in Bangkok, so to celebrate we ride a non-air-conditioned bus for 90 minutes to watch a bunch of cultists kneel silently in an airplane hangar.
We'd heard about Dhammakaya, a slightly bizarre Buddhist sect, from a pair of likable Harvard undergrads. These two were in Thailand on summer research grants to study Buddhist culture. (Apparently, much Buddhist culture exists underwater, for when I met them they'd just returned from a week of snorkeling off Ko Samui.) They told us the Dhammakaya group worships in a giant spaceship building—tens of thousands of Thais dressed all in white, chanting and meditating together beneath a 40-foot-high portrait of their cultish monk leader.
Badass, right? So, this morning we wake up early, put on white clothing, and follow the Harvard kids' hand-scrawled directions to pick up the free Dhammakaya bus from downtown Bangkok. It takes a little finding among the dozens of buses at this intersection, but eventually we spot one containing only people dressed in white. This could easily be the bus to the dental hygienists convention, but we take our chances and board. At 8 a.m., it departs for the mother ship.
Cue 90 minutes of synchronized chanting in Thai—eyes closed, heads lowered, hands clasped in prayer. We are the only farang (whiteys) on board, apparently the only English speakers, and definitely the only ones not chanting, so we just gaze uncomfortably out the window, deep in prayer that this will soon end.
At last, it does (by the way, 90 minutes north of Bangkok is still pretty much Bangkok; there's no sprawl like Bangkok sprawl), as at 9:30 we are deposited in front of an expansive, open-air pavilion the size and appearance of 25 airplane hangars all pushed together. We take a quick look around: thousands of white-clad chanters? Check. Massive monk portrait? Check. OK, we're almost sure now that these are not dental hygienists.
Pretty much everyone is kneeling, chanting along with the guy on stage hundreds of yards away, at the far end of the building, who must be some sort of Buddhist Billy Graham. There are countless televisions mounted around the hall so everyone can see him (the closed-circuit show fades and wipes between this head guy and a series of long, slow pans over the crowd; someone in the basement must be directing; someone with cable-access experience).
In the corner is a line for food (rice and fish) being handed out by volunteers. Feeling peckish from our journey, we queue up. But just as it's getting to be our turn, it occurs to me: What if today is ritual mass suicide day? Like the Jonestown thing. I mean, we don't speak any Thai. For all we know, everyone's chanting, "Let's eat this poisoned rice and fish so we can all kill ourselves." That sign above the food line could say "Poisoned Rice and Fish Here." But we take some anyway. We're really hungry.
On one side of the pavilion is a bunch of pictures. One is a portrait of a monk pointing to a diagram of a torso, with arrows representing something entering the nose and heading down to the heart. I don't know what the something is, or what it is doing. I'm certain the caption to this picture would clearly and concisely explain the meaning of life, but again, I don't read Thai.
At the rear of the building are about 200 little machines that look like hand presses, used to stamp an insignia into metal or something. They are all lined up in rows and look very well maintained. No one is using them right now. I have no further explanation on this.
Behind the pavilion, about 500 yards beyond it, is the famous giant spaceship. We are blocked from reaching it by a fence and a security guard. I don't know why they aren't using it today, or, frankly, what it is used for at all. I do know that the spaceship is the logo of Dhammakaya. Next to the info booth, you can even buy a Dhammakaya golf shirt with a spaceship logo on the breast pocket.
I try to go to this info booth to ask a few questions, mostly about the spaceship, but as I'm approaching, the whole building suddenly goes dead silent and enters deep meditation mode. Even the woman in the booth has her eyes closed and head lowered. I decide this is not the time to rap my knuckles on the glass and say, "You—speak any English? What's up with the spaceship?"
So, I walk around some more and start taking pictures. This draws the interest of the security guards, who lift their walkie-talkies to their ears, stare purposefully at me, and begin moving in my direction. It's all getting a bit too Temple-of-Doomish for my tastes, as I picture my still-beating heart held aloft for the monks' delectation. Luckily, these are Buddhist security guards, so they remain highly non-aggressive. All life is suffering, they are thinking, so I guess I won't hassle that farang.
Nevertheless, we have probably worn out our welcome. We walk briskly out of the compound and catch a taxi back to the entirely different madness of Bangkok. At the hotel, a bit of online research discovers Dhammakaya is even scarier than it seemed—a money-grubbing, lying, fascistic, Buddhism-warping, police-investigated, disgraced cult of personality.