Luang Por Dhammajayo was born in Sing Buri Province with the lay name Chaiyabun Sutthiphon on 22 April 1944, to Janyong Sutthiphon (his father) and Juri Sutthiphon (his mother). His parents were Lao Song and Thai-Chinese, and separated when he was young. Chaiyabun was raised by his father, who was an engineer working for a government agency. Due to a sensitivity for sunlight, Chaiyabun had to wear sunglasses from a young age.
In Wat Phra Dhammakaya's publications, Chaiyabun is described as a courageous child, who would often play dangerous games with fellow friends. It is also described he sometimes had predictive visions. Whilst studying at Suankularb Wittayalai, the owner of the school would bring Chaiyabun regularly to the Sra Prathum Palace, where he would meet with monks. This sparked his interest in Buddhism from a young age. He set up a Buddhist Youth Society together with his fellow students. Chaiyabun developed a strong interest in reading, especially in books on Buddhist practice and biographies of leading people in the world, both religious and political. He came across a book with teachings from Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro and a magazine about the Maechi (nun) Chandra Khonnokyoong.
In 1963, while he enrolled in the Faculty of Economics of Kasetsart University, he started visiting Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen. It was here that he first met Maechi Chandra, student of abbot Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro, who had by then passed away. Maechi Chandra was able to answer Chaiyabun's profound questions, which made him curious to find out more, through the practice of meditation. Under Maechi Chandra's supervision, Chaiyabun attained a deeper understanding of Buddhism.
Chaiyabun got to know many fellow students both in Kasetsart University and in other universities who were interested in practicing meditation, and encouraged them to join him in learning meditation with Maechi Chandra. One of these early acquaintances later became a Buddhist monk and Luang Por Dhammajayos's assistant in the endeavor to establish a meditation center: Phadet Phongsawat, since ordaining known as Luang Por Dattajivo, the vice-abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. At the time when Chaiyabun met Phadet, Phadet was involved in practice of black magic (Thai: ไสยศาสตร์), and would often hold public demonstrations for his fellow students. In Wat Phra Dhammakaya's biographies it is told that every time Chaiyabun joined to watch one of Phadet's demonstrations, the magic would not work. Phadet therefore become curious about Chaiyabun. When Phadet persuaded Chaiyabun to drink alcohol on a student's party, Chaiyabun refused, citing his adherence to the five Buddhist precepts. To test Chaiyabun, Phadet then decided to bring him to his black magic teacher. However, even the teacher could not use his powers in Chaiyabun's presence, which convinced Phadet to learn more about Dhammakaya meditation from Chaiyabun. This was a turning point, and from that moment on he has always been Chaiyabun's student and assistant.
During his university years, Chaiyabun wanted to stop his studies to ordain as a monk instead. Maechi Chandra and Chaiyabun's father persuaded him to finish his degree though, arguing that Chaiyabun could do more benefit to society if he was both knowledgeable in mundane matters and spiritual matters. During his university years, he took a vow of lifelong celibacy as a birthday gift for Maechi Chandra. This was an inspiration for many other of Maechi Chandra's students, many of which took vows in the following years. After his graduation from Kasetsart University with a bachelor's degree in economics, he was ordained at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen on 27 August 1969, and received the monastic name "Dhammajayo", meaning 'The victor through Dhamma'. In 1969, a university degree in Thailand was a guarantee someone would get a good position in society, which made Chaiyabun's decision to ordain instead stand out.
Once ordained, he started teaching Dhammakaya meditation together with Maechi Chandra. In the beginning, the meditation courses were carried in a small house called 'Ban Thammaprasit' in the Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen compound. Because of the popularity of both teachers, the number of participants increased and they considered it more appropriate to start a new temple by themselves. Although initially they intended to buy a plot of land in Patum Thani, the landowner Khunying Prayat Suntharawet gave a plot four times the requested size to celebrate her birthday. Thus, on 20 February 1970, Maechi Chandra, Phra Dhammajayo, Phra Dattajivo and their students moved to the 196 rai (313,600 m2) plot of land to found a meditation center. A book about the initiative was compiled, to inspire people to join in and help. They transformed the site into a wooded parkland with a system of canals. The site was later named Wat Phra Dhammakaya.
Luang Por Dhammajayo is mostly known for his teachings with regard to Dhammakaya meditation. In his approach of propagating Buddhism he has emphasized a return to a purer Buddhism, as it had been in the past. He has also opposed protective magic and prognostication as signs that Buddhism is deteriorating. LP Dhammajayo is known for his modern style of temple management and iconography. Many followers in the temple believe that his projects are a product of his visions in meditation.
In the beginning period, Maechi Chandra still had an important role in fundraising and decision-making. During the years to follow, this would gradually become less, as she grow older and withdrew more to the background of the temple's organization and Luang Por Dhammajayo received a greater role. The temple gained great popularity during the 1980s (during the Asian economic boom), especially among the growing well-educated and entrepreneurial middle class, mostly small-business owners and technocrats of Sino-Thai origin. Royalty and high-standing civil servants also started to visit the temple. In 1995, Wat Phra Dhammakaya caught the nation's attention when a Magha Puja celebration was broadcast live on television, with the then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn as chairman of the ceremony.
Wat Phra Dhammakaya became known for its emphasis on meditation, especially samatha meditation (meditation aiming at tranquility of mind). Every Sunday morning, meditation has been taught to the public. Also, special retreats were led by Luang Por Dhammajayo himself in Doi Suthep. One of the core activities of the temple, since its inception, has been the ceremony of 'honoring the Buddhas by food' (Thai: บูชาข้าวพระ), held every first Sunday of the month. This ceremony has been that important, that people from all over the country traveled by bus to join it, from urban and rural areas. It was usually led by Luang Por Dhammajayo himself, and up until her death, by Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong too. According to the temple's practitioners, in this ceremony food is offered to the Buddhas in meditation. The ceremony has been an important aspect of the temple's attractiveness for the public.
Through Luang Por Dhammajayo's teachings, Wat Phra Dhammakaya started to develop a more international approach to its teachings, teaching meditation in non-Buddhist countries as a religiously neutral technique suitable for those of all faiths, or none.
In November 1998, after a ceremony held at the Cetiya of the temple, the temple reported in brochures and national newspapers that a miracle (Thai: อัศจรรย์ตะวันแก้ว) had occurred at the Cetiya, which was witnessed by thousands of people. The miracle involved seeing an image of a Buddha or of Luang Pu Sodh imposed on the sun. Shortly afterwards, the Thai media responded very critical, leading to a nationwide, very intense debate about the state of Thai Buddhism in general, and Wat Phra Dhammakaya in particular, that lasted for an unusually long ten months. Critics believed that Wat Phra Dhammakaya, and Thai Buddhism in general, had become too much of a commercial enterprise (Thai: พุทธพานิช) and had grown corrupt; practitioners and temple devotees argued tradition was being followed.
Media scrutiny worsened when in 1999 and again in 2002, Luang Por Dhammajayo was accused of charges of fraud and embezzlement by the Thai media and later some government agencies when donations of land were found in his name. Wat Phra Dhammakaya denied this, stating that it was the intention of the donors to give the land to the abbot and not the temple. Widespread negative media coverage at this time was symptomatic of the temple being made the scapegoat for commercial malpractice in the Thai Buddhist temple community in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Under pressure of public outcry and critics, January 1999 the Sangha Supreme Council started an investigation in the accusations, led by Luang Por Ñanavaro, Chief of the Greater Bangkok Region. The Sangha Council declared that Wat Phra Dhammakaya had not broken any serious offenses against monastic discipline (Vinaya) that were cause for defrocking (removal from monkhood), but four directives were given for the temple to improve itself: setting up an Abhidhamma school, more focus on vipassana meditation, and strict adherence to the rules of the Vinaya and regulations of the Sangha Council. Luang Por Ñanavaro asked the Religious Affairs Department to assist Luang Por Dhammajayo in returning the land to the temple. The abbot stated he was willing to transfer the land, but this required some time, because it required negotiation with the original donors. When by May the temple had not moved all the land yet, a number of things happened.
First of all, a letter was leaked to the press which was signed by the Supreme Patriarch (head of the Thai monastic community). This implied that Luang Por Dhammajayo had to disrobe because he had not transferred donated land back to the temple. A warning had preceded this letter, which government officials said had not yet been forwarded to the Sangha Council and Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The statement had a great impact. In response, the Religious Affairs Department pressed criminal charges of embezzlement against the abbot and a close aide. In June, the prosecutors started summoning Luang Por Dhammajayo, but he did not go to acknowledge the charges, citing bad health. Moreover, the temple underlined the legal rights of monks under the constitution, pointing out that possessing personal property is common and legal in the Thai Sangha. Spokespeople and proponents of the temple's innocence also questioned whether the letter of the Patriarch was not a fake, and described the response of the ministry and the media as "stirring up controversy" and politically motivated. In a statement that was featured in many newspapers, Luang por Dhammajayo declared that he would not disrobe under any circumstances, but "would die in the [monk's] saffron robes". When the Prime Minister himself pressured the abbot to acknowledge the charges, the temple asked for a guarantee that the abbot would not be imprisoned and consequently defrocked. No such guarantee was given, an arrest warrant followed, and a standoff began between a police force of hundreds, and thousands of the temple's practitioners, in which the latter barricaded the temple's entrances. After two days, Luang Por Dhammajayo agreed to let the police take him when the requested guarantee was given, and a Sangha Council member threatened to defrock the abbot if he did not go with the police. The abbot was interrogated for three hours, but not defrocked. Then he was released on a bail of two million baht, still on the same day. The news made headlines worldwide. From November onward, Luang Por Dhammajayo started to go to court.
Meanwhile, Luang Por Dhammajayo was suspended as abbot, as the trials continued and Luang Por Dhammajayo's deputies continued to manage the temple. Luang Por Dhammajayo had fallen ill and was hospitalized with throat and lung infections. The trials proceeded slowly, as the hearings were postponed because of evidence that was not ready, and because of the abbot's illness. In an interview held in 1999, LP Dhammajayo said he understood the government's anxiety about Buddhist movements with large gatherings, but still felt perplexed about the controversies.
In the 2000s, Luang Por Dhammajayo began to focus more on promoting an ethical lifestyle, using the five and eight precepts as a foundation. Nationwide people were encouraged to quit drinking and smoking through a campaign called The Lao Phao Buri (Thai: เทเหล้าเผาบุหรี่, literally: 'throw away alcohol and burn cigarettes'), cooperating with other religious traditions. This project led the World Health Organization (WHO) to present a World No Tobacco Day award to Luang por Dhammajayo on 31 May 2004. The The Lao Phao Buri ceremonies for quitting drinking and smoking later were to become a model of practice in schools and government institutions. The temple's campaign was carried to new heights when in 2005 the beverage company Thai Beverage announced to publicly list in the Stock Exchange of Thailand, which would be the biggest listing in Thai history. Despite attempts by the National Office of Buddhism (a government agency) to prohibit monks from protesting, two thousand monks of the temple organized a chanting of Buddhist texts in front of the Stock Exchange to pressurize them to decline Thai Beverage's initial public offering. In an unprecedented cooperative effort, the temple was soon followed suit by former Black May revolt leader Chamlong Srimuang and the Santi Asoke movement, holding their protest as well. Subsequently, another 122 religious and social organizations joined, belonging to several religions. The organizations officially asked Prime Minister Thaksin's cooperation to stop the company, in what some of the protest leaders described as "a grave threat to the health and culture" of Thai society. While the Stock Exchange pointed out the economical benefits of this first local listing, opponents referred to rising alcohol abuse in Thai society, ranking fifth in alcohol consumption. Ultimately, the protests led to an indefinite postponement of the listing by the Stock Exchange, as Thai Beverage chose to list in Singapore instead, and the Stock Exchange chief resigned because of the loss of profit.
In 2006, the running lawsuits ended when the Attorney-General withdrew the charges against Luang Por Dhammajayo. He stated that Luang Por Dhammajayo had moved all the land to the name of the temple, that he had corrected his teachings according to the Tipitaka, that continuing the case might create division in society, and would not be conducive to public benefit. Furthermore, Luang Por Dhammajayo had assisted the Sangha, the government and the private sector significantly in organizing religious activities. Luang Por Dhammajayo's position as an abbot was subsequently restored. Critics questioned whether the charges were withdrawn because of the political influence of Prime Minister Thaksin.
After the coup d'état, the junta started a National Reform Council to bring stability to Thai society, which the junta stated was required before elections could be held. As part of the council, a panel was started to reform Thai religion. This panel was led by Paiboon Nititawan, a former senator who had played a crucial role in the coup. Backed by the bureaucracy, military and Royal Palace, Paiboon sought to deal with any shortcomings in the leading Thai Sangha through legislative means. He was joined by Phra Suwit Dhiradhammo (known under the activist name Phra Buddha Issara), a monk and former infantryman who led the protests that led to the coup as well Mano Laohavanich, a former monk of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, also a member of the reform council. In February 2015, Paiboon Nititawan tried to reopen the 1999 case of Luang Por Dhammajayo's alleged embezzlement of land. Somdet Chuang and the rest of the Sangha Council were also involved in this, as they were accused of being negligent in not defrocking Luang Por Dhammajayo. The Sangha Council reconsidered the embezzlement and fraud charges, but concluded that Luang Por Dhammajayo had not intended to commit fraud or embezzlement, and had already returned the land concerned. Meanwhile, several Thai intellectuals and news analysts pointed out that Paiboon, Phra Suwit and Mano were abusing the Vinaya (monastic discipline) for political ends, and did not really aim to "purify" Buddhism.
In a press conference on 29 October 2015, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), the Thai counterpart of the FBI, stated that its investigators had found that Supachai Srisuppa-aksorn, ex-chairman of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative (KCUC), had fraudulently authorised 878 cheques worth 11.37 billion baht to various individuals and organisations, in which a portion totaling more than a billion baht was traced to Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Luang Por Dhammajayo, and the Maharattana Ubasika Chan Khonnokyoong Foundation, among others. Luang Por Dhammajayo admitted to receiving the donations but stated he did not know where the money came from since they were received publicly. In 2015, in a written agreement with the credit union, supporters of the temple had raised 684 million baht linked to Wat Phra Dhammakaya to donate to the KCUC. However, apart from the problem of compensation to the credit union, the DSI suspected the temple of having conspired in the embezzlement of Supachai. The charges were laid by an affected client of the credit union, who felt the money the temple had returned had too many strings attached. Moreover, the DSI was pressurized by the reform council.
Luang Por Dhammajayo was summoned to acknowledge the charges of ill-gotten gains and conspiring to money-laundering at the offices of the DSI. According to spokespeople, to travel to the DSI would mean a risk for Luang Por Dhammajayo's life due to his deep vein thrombosis. The temple requested the DSI to let him acknowledge his charges at the temple, a request the DSI refused. As a result DSI seeked an arrest warrant for missing the summons. News analysts, lawyers, current and former government officials of the Thai justice system, such as Seripisut Temiyavet, came out to state that the DSI was not handling the investigation of the temple with proper legal procedure. It was questioned why the DSI would not let the abbot acknowledge the charges at the temple, which many considered legitimate under criminal law.
In June 2016, the DSI entered the temple to take Luang Por Dhammajayo in custody. After having searched for a while, a number of laypeople rose and barred the DSI from continuing their search. The DSI, avoiding a confrontation, withdrew. News analysts speculated that Thai law enforcement had not been able to arrest the abbot successfully, because of the complexity of the temple's terrains, the flexibility and amount of practitioners, and the imminent danger of a violent clash. Another reason brought up by news analysts was the Thai junta's concern for potential international backlash that may be generated from Wat Phra Dhammakaya's numerous international centers. In fact, international followers had already petitioned the White House and met with US Congressmen regarding the case, citing human rights concerns. Despite the standoff, temple officials stated that they were willing to cooperate with law enforcement, their only request being that the DSI give Luang Por Dhammajayo his charges at the temple due to his health.
To put pressure on the abbot, DSI laid several more charges on the temple. As of February 2017, the Thai junta has laid over three hundred different charges against the temple and the foundation, including alleged forest encroachment and allegedly building the Ubosot illegally in the 1970s. While law enforcement was under growing pressure to get the job done, criticism against the operation grew as well, news reporters comparing the temple with Falun Gong in China or the Gulen Movement from Turkey.
In February 2017, junta leader Prayuth announced a special decree following the controversial Section 44 of the interim constitution, dubbed by critics as the "dictator rule", to give law enforcement a wide range of powers to get Luang Por Dhammajayo into custody. The decree included declaring the temple a restricted zone which no-one could access or leave without the authorities' permission, and a 4000-man combined task force of the DSI, police and army to surround and search the temple. The temple showed little resistance and complied with the search. Despite having searched every room and building in the temple, the authorities did not withdraw, however, and ordered that the thousands of people who were not temple residents leave the temple. Temple spokespeople responded strongly, protesting that the temple had given its full cooperation, and stating that the lay practitioners were there as witnesses to any possible wrongdoing from authorities. Although the temple staff was unarmed, they managed to push through the task force and a deal was brokered to allow lay people to come in the temple.
On 10 March 2017, a deal was made allowing authorities to search the temple once again on the condition that representatives of the Human Rights Commission and news reporters were allowed to witness the search. Once again, authorities were not able to find the abbot, resulting in the junta ending the 3 week siege of the temple, however article 44 still remained in effect. The cost of the 23-day operation was estimated at about 100 million baht.
The lockdown resulted in a heated debate about article 44. The article was raised as an example of the junta's illegitimacy and unjust means, by the temple and many other critics. While proponents pointed out that all would be finished if Luang Por Dhammajayo only gave himself over to acknowledge the charges, critics pointed out that Luang Por Dhammajayo would be imprisoned and defrocked if brought into custody. Many reporters also questioned the practicality of using Article 44 and using so much resources to arrest one person for questioning in a non-violent crime, and pointed out the viability of trying him in absentia to determine guilt first. The junta government stated their intention was not only to look for Luang Por Dhammajayo, but also to replace the temple leadership and "reform" the temple.
Luang Por Dhammajayo often uses positive terms to describe Nirvana. Apart from the true self, Scott notes that Wat Phra Dhammakaya often describes Nirvana as being the supreme happiness, and argues that this may explain why the practice of Dhammakaya meditation is so popular. In its teachings on how meditation can help improve health and the quality of modern life, the temple can be compared with Goenka. The temple's emphasis on meditation is expressed in several ways. Meditation kits are for sale in stores around the temple, and every gathering that is organized by the temple will feature some time for meditation. The temple emphasizes the usefulness of meditating in a group, and public meditations have a powerful effect on the minds of the practitioners.
Luang Por Dhammajayo was heavily influenced by Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong in his teachings. He turned the Dhammakaya meditation method "into an entire guide of living" (McDaniel), emphasizing cleanliness, orderliness and quiet, as a morality by itself, and as a way to support meditation practice. In short, the temple's appearance is orderly, and can be described as "a contemporary aesthetic" (Scott), which appeals to practitioners, especially the modern Bangkok middle class. Practitioners are also encouraged to keep things tidy and clean, through organized cleaning activities. A strong work ethic is promoted through these activities, in which the most menial work is seen as the most valuable and fruitful.
Wat Phra Dhammakaya has a vision of a future ideal society. The temple emphasizes that the daily application of Buddhism will lead the practitioner and society to prosperity and happiness in this life and the next, and the temple expects a high commitment to that effect. Through meditation, fundraising activities and volunteer work, the temple emphasizes the making of merit, and explains how through the law of kamma merit yields its fruits, in this world and the next. The ideal of giving as a form of building character is expressed in the temple's culture with the words Cittam me, meaning 'I am victorious', referring to the overcoming of inner defilements (Pali: kilesa).
In 2012, the temple broadcast a talk of Luang Por Dhammajayo about what happened to Steve Jobs after his death. The talk came as a response to a software engineer of Apple who had sent a letter with questions to the abbot. Luang Por Dhammajayo described how Steve Jobs looked like in heaven. He said that Jobs had been reborn as a deva living close to his former offices, as a result of the karma of having given knowledge to people. He was a deva with a creative, but angry temperament. The talk was much criticized, and the abbot was accused of pretending to have attained an advanced meditative state and of attempting to outshine other temples. The temple answered the critics, saying that the talk was meant to illustrate the law of karma, not to defame Jobs, nor to fake an advanced state.
In 1994, LP Dhammajayo received an honorary degree of the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. In 2013, in commemoration of year 2550 of the Buddhist Era, the World Buddhist Sangha Youth (WBSY) presented the Universal Peace Award to LP Dhammajayo at their third WBSY meeting, in recognition of his work in disseminating Buddhism for more than thirty years. Other awards that have been given to LP Dhammajayo are the Phuttha-khunupakan award from the House of Representatives in recognition for having provided benefit to Buddhism (2009), and a World Buddhist Leader Award from the National Office of Buddhism (2014).
Phrathepyanmahamuni is the third ecclesiastical title bestowed on him by the Thai Royal Family in recognition of his contribution to the work of Buddhism in Thailand.
The list of the ecclesiastical titles given to him are as follows:
In March 2017, King Rama X approved a request by the junta leader to remove Luang Por Dhammajayo's title for not acknowledging the charges.Luang Por Dhammajayo (2007) Pearls of Inner Wisdom: Reflections on Buddhism, Peace, Life and Meditation (Singapore: Tawandhamma Foundation)] ISBN 978-981-05-8521-1Luang Por Dhammajayo (2007) Tomorrow the World Will Change: A Practice for all Humanity (Singapore: Tawandhamma Foundation) ISBN 978-981-05-7757-5Luang Por Dhammajayo (2008) Journey to Joy: The Simple Path Towards a Happy Life (Singapore: Tawandhamma Foundation) ISBN 978-981-05-9637-8Luang Por Dhammajayo (2008) Lovely Love (Singapore: Tawandhamma Foundation) ISBN 978-981-08-0044-4Monica Oien (2009) Buddha Knows: An Interview With Abbot Dhammajayo On Buddhism (Patumthani: Tawandhamma Foundation)Luang Por Dhammajayo (2011) At Last You Win (Patumthani: Dhammakaya Foundation) ISBN 978-616-7200-15-6Luang Por Dhammajayo (2014) Beyond Wisdom (Patumthani: Dhammakaya Foundation) ISBN 978-616-7200-53-8Tawandhamma Foundation (2007) The Sun of Peace (Bangkok: New Witek) ISBN 978-974-88547-9-3John Hoskin and Robert Sheridan (2010) World Peace Lies Within: One Man's Vision (Bangkok: Mark Standen Publishing) ISBN 978-616-7200-040