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The Buddhist Self and Symbolic Consumption: the

Consumption Experience of the Teenage


Dhammakaya Buddhists in Thailand
Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, Oxford University
Richard Elliott, Oxford University
ABSTRACT - This study explores how a group of religious Buddhist teenagers in Thailand negotiate their
Buddhist beliefs and endeavour to create a sense of identity in their everyday consumption. Although
Buddhism advocates the concept of 'no-self, these teenagers still aspire to create the self. Instead of
trying to detach themselves from selfness, these teenagers paradoxically fall into attachment to particular
symbolic consumption in an attempt to become what they believe a good Buddhist should be. An
interpretive approach via ethnographic fieldwork is employed to achieve an in-depth understanding of the
relationship between the Buddhist self and consumption practices.
[ to cite ]:

Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan and Richard Elliott (1999) ,"The Buddhist Self and Symbolic Consumption: the
Consumption Experience of the Teenage Dhammakaya Buddhists in Thailand", in NA - Advances in
Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for
Consumer Research, Pages: 150-155.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999

Pages 150-155

THE BUDDHIST SELF AND SYMBOLIC CONSUMPTION: THE CONSUMPTION EXPERIENCE OF THE
TEENAGE DHAMMAKAYA BUDDHISTS IN THAILAND
Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, Oxford University
Richard Elliott, Oxford University
ABSTRACT This study explores how a group of religious Buddhist teenagers in Thailand negotiate their Buddhist
beliefs and endeavour to create a sense of identity in their everyday consumption. Although Buddhism
advocates the concept of 'no-self, these teenagers still aspire to create the self. Instead of trying to detach
themselves from selfness, these teenagers paradoxically fall into attachment to particular symbolic
consumption in an attempt to become what they believe a good Buddhist should be. An interpretive
approach via ethnographic fieldwork is employed to achieve an in-depth understanding of the relationship
between the Buddhist self and consumption practices.
In postmodernity, where society has become more global but fragmented and dispersed, we are "forced to
negotiate lifestyle choices among a diversity of options" (Giddens 1991). The concept of identity seems to
be the "Rome to which all discussions of modern Western consumption lead since the consumer is
thirsting for identity and using commodities to quench this thirst" (Gabriel and Lang 1995). Endeavours to
create our self identity often involve our consumption of products, services, and media. Dittmar (1992, p. 3)
comments that "material possessions have a profound symbolic significant for their owners, as well as for
other people and the symbolic meanings of our belongings are an integral feature of expressing our own
identity and perceiving the identity of others." Obviously our possessions are parts of our extended selves
(Belk 1988).
However critics of consumer culture suggest that constantly consuming products to sustain the self is not
the answer to true human happiness (Kilbourne 1989), rather it is just a temporary consolation. In Buddhist
philosophy, the ultimate ideal of human happiness is to reach NirvanaBsalvation through the extinction of
desire. Thus, acquiring material objects to extend the self is to chain ourselves to the vicious circle of
illusive consumption.

What if a person views her/himself as a committed Buddhist? While Buddhism advocates 'anatta or the
concept of 'no-self, [The concept 'no self', the term is translated from 'anatta', does not mean that there is
no self at all. We tend to go for the interpretation that 'anatta' means there is no intrinsic self which is fixed,
unified or trancendental. Historically this Buddhist concept of self was proposed as a critique to the
concept of 'trancendental self' in Hinduism. The Anatta Doctrine in Buddhism advocates that individual
existence, as well as the whole world, are in reality nothing but a process of ever-changing phenomena.
There is nothing absolute in this world; everything is in continuous flux and is relative, conditioned and
impermanent. Thus, to avoid suffering, we should not attach ourselves to the selfness.] does s/he still
aspire to create the self? This study explores how a group of religious Buddhist teenagers in Thailand
negotiate their Buddhist beliefs and endeavour to create a sense of identity in their everyday consumption.
Instead of detaching themselves from selfness, these teenagers paradoxically fall into attachment to
particular symbolic consumption in an attempt to create their Buddhist selves.
THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS
Symbolic Consumption and The Self
The self is conceptualised not as a given product of a social system nor as a fixed entity which the
individual can simply adopt, but as something we actively create, partially through our everyday
consumption (Gabriel and Lang 1995). Central to postmodernism is the recognition that we do not make
consumption choices solely from products utilities but also from their symbolic meanings (Belk 1988), and
the functions of the symbolic meanings of products operate in two directions, outward in constructing the
social world: Social-Symbolism, and inward towards constructing our self-identity: Self-Symbolism (Elliott
1997).
Thompson (1995, p. 210) describes the self as a symbolic project, which the individual must actively
construct out of the available symbolic materials, materials which "the individual weaves into a coherent
account of who he or she is, a narrative of self-identity." Symbolic self-completion theory (Wicklund and
Gollwitzer 1982), suggests that if individuals feel insecure in social roles then they will attempt to'complete
their discrepant self-concept by the use of symbols they believe to demonstrate role competence.
Additionally much literature suggests that we are what we have since our possessions are viewed as
major parts of our extended selves (Belk 1988). Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) explain that
we invest "psychic energy" such as effort, time, and attention in an object. This energy and its products are
regarded as a part of self because they have grown or emerged from the self.
Lived vs. Mediated Experience
The symbolic resources available to the individual for the construction of the self can be distinguished as
being either lived experiences or mediated experiences (Thompson 1990). Lived experience is a practical
activity and face-to-face encounter in our everyday lives. It is situated, immediate, and is largely nonreflexive, in that we take it for granted as 'reality. Mediated experience is an outcome of a masscommunication culture and the consumption of media products and involves the ability to experience
events which are spatially and temporally distant from the practical context of daily life. It is
recontextualised experience, in that it allows the experience of events that transpire far away, and will vary
widely in its relevance to the self.
The individual can draw selectively on mediated experience and interlace it with lived experience to
construct the self. The life history and social situation of individuals will lead to differential valorisation of
forms of experience, varying between those at one end of the continuum who value only lived experience
and have little contact with mediated forms, and others at the opposite end of the continuum for whom
mediated experience has become central to the project of the self.
Advertising and Symbolic Meanings
Advertising is recognised as one of the most potent mediated sources of valorised symbolic meanings
(Mick and Buhl 1992). With the decline of traditional social meaning systems such as religion, politics and

the family, advertising fills the gap with its privileged 'discourse through and about objects which allows us
to orientate ourselves to the social meanings of our everyday consumption (Slater 1997).
FIGURE 1
CONSUMPTION AND THE SYMBOLIC PROJECT OF THE SELF
Although advertisers aim to create particular meanings for their brands in advertising, meanings
interpreted by the consumer may be varied and diverse. There is growing recognition that we are an active
and participating audience (Mick and Buhl 1992; Livingstone 1995). We may attend only to certain
messages and interpret or make sense of the meanings according to our personal perception and our
social knowledge (Livingstone 1995).
Self-Symbolism vs. Social-Symbolism
The creation of meanings does not conclude in a negotiation process between advertising text and the
audience during the exposure."Shared meanings involving media content will arise among participants in
the social action performances of reception and subsequent accommodation" (Anderson and Meyer 1988,
p. 47). A variety of meanings are created as outcomes of our personal interest-driven, culturally-situated
act of advertising interpretation (Mick and Buhl 1992). Ritson and Elliott (1995) suggest that the issues of
cultural and interactive advertising can be integrated by a model of advertising literacy. Advertising literacy
is not only the skill to be able to understand and transfer the meanings from an advertisement but also the
ability to use those meanings within the social context of existence. The social consumption of advertising
meanings always involves the process of discursive elaboration (Thompson 1990) where we describe,
discuss, argue about or laugh at that advertisement. In such process, symbolic meaning evolves.
A Model of Consumption and the Symbolic Project of the Self
The development of individual self-identity is inseparable from the parallel development of collective social
identity, andthis problematic relationship has been described as the internal-external dialectic of
identification by Jenkins (1996), who maintains that self-identity must be validated through social
interaction and that the self is embedded in social practices. To pursue our symbolic project of the self, we
draw symbolic meanings from mediated experience like advertising and interlace them with lived
experience in the dialectic process between the two realms of self-symbolism and social-symbolism.
Differential valorisation of forms of experience depends on the life history and social situation of
individuals, and simultaneously, we will validate those symbolic meanings from both forms of experience
through the process of discursive elaboration in our social interaction (Elliott and Wattanasuwan 1998).
Until meanings from mediated experiences of advertising have been subjected to discursive elaboration in
a social context and interwoven with behavioural significations derived from lived experience, they remain
viscous, liable to be rejected or just forgotten. Only after this discursive elaboration can symbolic meanings
be fully concretised and become what Eco (1979) calls'realised text.
The process of the consumption of both mediated and lived experience and the two realms of selfsymbolism and social-symbolism are illustrated in Figure 1.
Thai Consumers and the Buddhist Self
Buddhism is the major religion of Thailand. About ninety-five percent of the Thai population declare
themselves to be Theravada Buddhists. In Thai thinking, Buddhism is a way of life, a national identity and
the key to primordial "Thainess". However, it is commented that although most Thai think that they are
good Buddhists, they must really be considered as having only a superficial adherence to the tenets of
Buddhism (Mulder 1996). Although the institutional and ritual expressions of Thai religion appear to be
very Buddhistic indeed, its characteristic mentality does not reflect very much on 'anatta or 'no-self
philosophy of Buddhism. Evidently the common understanding and practice of Thai Buddhism remains

animistic. This is because both Thai Buddhism and animism apparently share the recognition of
impermanence and instability of the realities.
In order to cleanse an image of being a superficial Buddhist, various religious sects have tried to
propagate their moral way of life which they believe will lead Thai people to become "real" Buddhists. In
this paper, we study a group of university students who are attached to the Dhammakaya sect. Having
employed marketing concepts, the Dhammakaya sect has successfully attracted a large number of
teenagers from middle-class families. Each year, the sect organises several Dhamma (Buddhist teaching)
camps for students, many of whom later become committed followers of the sect. The sect focuses on the
combination of discipline and esoteric Dhammakaya meditation as well as strong group solidarity.
Although Dhammakaya attracts a considerable number of followers, particularly amongst the young, it also
draws much criticism from other Thai Buddhists. However, we will not discuss this interesting controversy
here, but will focus on the relationship between the self-concept of the sects young members and their
consumption behaviour.
TABLE 1
METHODOLOGY
Research Questions
This study was undertaken to examine the following research questions: (1) How do religious Buddhist
teenagers in Thailand use their everyday consumption to create their religious selves? (2) To what extent
do they draw symbolic meanings from their mediated and lived experiences? (3) How does self-symbolism
iteract with social-symbolism in their symbolic project of the religious self?
Research Informants
A friendship group of teenage Buddhists who belong to the Buddhist Society of a well-known university in
Bangkok was purposively recruited as our research informants. Since teenagers are in the important
period of creating their self and group identities (Willis 1990), they are the best subjects with whom to
explore the relationships between identity and symbolic consumption.
Purposive sampling criteria were that these informants spend their leisure time together as a group,
perform some religious activities together and publicly express their religious selves. A profile of the
informants (pseudonyms) is presented in Table 1.
Data Collection
To explore the in-depth accounts of symbolic meaning in the context of the religious teenagers everyday
consumption, we adopted a naturalistic mode of inquiry via ethnographic fieldwork. Central to the choice of
methods was the problem of dealing not only with the incoherence and paradox of the cultural meanings
and symbolic significance of everyday consumption from the perspective of the informants involved, but
also the distinctive nature of each informants lived experience and the socially shared meanings of
consumption (Ozanne and Hudson 1989). Thus, we employed triangulation across several methods to
cope with the complexity and ambiguity of the issues studied.
Observation (both participative and non-participative) and long interviews (McCracken 1988) were two of
the main data collection methods. The observation was conducted in the most natural setting possible
allowing a situated appreciation of the symbolic meanings of the informants behavioural signification as
well as to understand the groups interaction process, especially as to how the groups shared meanings
influence its members consumption choices. The group was observed for 13 weeks, approximately 6
hours a week. During the observation, the female Buddhist Thai researcher participated in the groups
conversations and activities (e.g., lunch, Dhamma discussion, Buddhist rituals). Observational data,
including the researchers impressions, was recorded in the form of tape recordings, fieldnotes and
photographs.

The long interviews were conducted individually when the informants began to be familiar with the
researcher. A phenomenological approach (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989) was adopted to study
the individuals lived experience and constructed reality of symbolic meaning. It aimed to capture the
personal meanings, values and sense of religious identity that were embedded in their symbolic
consumption as well as their relationship to the culturally constituted world. Interview questions were
phrased in a loosely-structured and non-directive manner (McCracken 1988) that allowed emergent
dialogue. They were formulated during the course of each interview as each informant described their
experience, thoughts and feelings.
For some informants, the interview sessions were conducted at their homes, which allowed the researcher
to explore their bedrooms and personal possessions. Interviews were audio-recorded and photographs
were taken whenever possible.
RESEARCH FINDINGS
The Buddhist Self: the primary symbolic project of the self
Being a virtuous Buddhist was the principal life goal of all informants. Overtly this goal orientated every
aspect of their way of living, which was clearly reflected in their everyday consumption. The way they
dressed, the way they had their hair cut, the way they ate, or even the way tey spent their leisure time was
strictly pursued towards their interpretation of being a virtuous Buddhist. To them a decent Buddhist should
not only lead her/his life modestly by disengaging her/himself from materialism but also refrain from the
common order of life (e.g., romantic love, entertainment).
Like most Thai, all informants had been a Buddhist by birth and followed the Buddhist philosophy
superficially. They had enjoyed their childhood and their early teens like other kids in a consumer culture,
whose lives were surrounded by popular music, television, shopping malls and so on. The informants had
only become interested in Buddhism when they entered adolescence. Such a transition into adulthood had
revealed to them different realities in life; thus they had begun to feel uneasy with themselves and started
to question their existence in this unruly world. Oz and Tom who were the first sons and apparently the
central attention of their families found that they were nobodies in the outside world. Lynn and Kay who
were timid girls from upcountry had felt powerless in a big city like Bangkok. Doll whose beloved
stepmother had lately left her family had realised the uncertainty of life. Paul had become bored with hangovers after his frequent nights out with friends. Consequently they all felt that there was something missing
in their lives. Having been attracted to the poster of Dhammakayas Summer Camp which promised to
show them how to actualise true happiness in life, they consulted their seniors in the Buddhist Society and
then joined the training. Impressed by the training and the temple, the informants decided to follow the
Dhammakaya path to fulfil the incompleteness of their human self.
To complete the ideal human self. From the training, the informants believed that a human being should
cultivate wisdom in order to differentiate themselves from other beings, and the Buddhist path via the
Dhammakaya meditation is a way to achieve it.
Tom: We were born and grew up, then got married and later raised our children and so on. This life cycle
is not different from animals at all. Being a human should be more special than that.
Doll: Because I have a broken family, I see that life is suffering. I feel that there must be something better
for a human being than just to live, to work, to get married and then to die.
The informants observed eight sila or precepts (most Thai Buddhists observe only five precepts) and
regularly went to the temple. Whenever they went there, they always put on a white outfit to symbolise the
pure self. Sometimes they put on a "STOP" T-shirt bought from the temple co-operative shop to
characterise their ability to control their mind via meditation. Evidently all of them had at least two of these
T-shirts. To enhance their Buddhist self, they exercised merit-makings, such as giving food to monks twice
a week, and practised meditation at least once a day. They read Dhamma books and the Dhammakaya

magazine as well as listened to Dhamma songs. They wore short hair and modest clothes to signify the
simplicity of their life style.
All informants possessed the Dhammakaya crystal balls which symbolise the crystal ball they visualise
when they practise meditation. These balls are given by monks or their senior to remind them not only of
the serene feeling they obtain from the meditation but also their commitment to the temple. Douglas and
Isherwood (1978) comment that material objects help to sustain symbolic meanings in our everyday life.
Additionally they believe that the balls hold spiritual power to protect them from any misfortune as well as
to empower them in their meditation practice.
Lynn: I have this crystal ball with me all the time. It is said that a person survived a car accident because
he carried the ball with him. Apparently the police saw bright light above the car after the accident.
Kay: These balls give me power to practise my meditation. Whenever I see thm I feel like meditating.
The informants also had a collection of souvenirs such as photographs of Luangpor Sod who had
discovered the Dhammakaya meditation, Luangpor Dhammachayo who was the head of the Dhammakaya
temple and Khunyai (grandmother) who built the temple. This collection became their personal archive or
museum (Belk 1988).
The symbolic project to create the informants Buddhist self still goes on. All male informants have planned
to join the monkhood at the temple again after they finish their degree; while all the girls have considered
working for the temple rather than working in business according to their degree.
To avoid and dispose the unwanted self. To become a virtuous Buddhist, the informants thought they must
refrain from materialism and the common order of kilesa (i.e. desire, prejudice). They did not want to be
like other Thai Buddhists who are wrapped up in the materialistic world. They avoided consuming anything
beyond necessities. For example, they tried not to consume any entertainment of the popular culture nor
they did wear cosmetics and fashionable clothes. Most of them abstained from eating after mid-day and
gave up sleeping on mattresses. All informants also refrained from romantic and sexual activities.
Tom: I give up all luxuries in my life. I dont listen to popular music or watch TV anymore. You see, my
room is so empty. I dont even sleep on a mattress.
Paul: Do I have a girlfriend? I dont need a girlfriend. Romantic love brings suffering.
To liberate the samsaric self. Buddhism advocates that life is conditioned by the law of karma and that we
are imprisoned in the samsariccycle of birth-death-rebirth. Evidently the informants actively geared their
consumption to cultivate goodness and morality in order to liberate themselves from the cycle of karmic
conditioning. Their merit-making is a mechanical contract to buy themselves a better rebirth and ultimately
to buy Nirvana.
Kay: We cannot bring any possessions with us when we die. The only thing we can carry along to our next
life is our "boon" [merit]. We, human beings, were born to accumulate "boon" for our following lives.
Sources of Symbolic Meanings: Mediated vs. Lived Experience
Since the informants withheld themselves from popular media, most of their mediated experience was
through advertising materials of the Dhammakaya sect. They often talked about words or pictures in those
materials. Mostly the words and pictures were related to meditation and the cultivation of "boon".
Seemingly those words and pictures not only reminded them of their happy time with the sect but also
reinforced their Buddhist self.
The fact that the informants abstained from popular advertising, however, did not mean that the informants
did not derive any symbolic meaning from it. The popular advertising symbolised the materialistic
world B the world from which they wanted to liberate themselves. Life styles portrayed in advertising
represented an illusory way of living which cannot give true happiness in life.

Oz: Those things [popular media] stimulate our desire which will make our mind become coarse. Its not
good for our meditation at all.
Doll: You dont get anything from advertising. Most people just want to follow the fashion, especially those
teenagers who need to show off that they have expensive things. I feel that its unnecessary to show
anyone. Wed better consume only essential things and save money to do goodness [e.g., merit-making].
Although the mediated experience was notable, it wa still much less important than the lived experience
the informants acquired through actual behaviour and interactions with significant others. The symbolic
meaning of happiness mentioned in the Dhamma Tayat leaflet became concretised only after it was
brokered by lived experience.
Lynn: I was very moved by the training [Dhamma Tayat], by my mentor, by the activities and by the
serenity at the temple. Its really different from the outside world.
Tom: They must come to the temple to understand what I told themto realise that the ideal society does
exist. We are extremely impressed when we are there, but they can feel only ten percent of what we told
them.
Oz: [talking about his meditation when he was very sick] It helped a lot. I felt so good It was the only thing I
wanted to do at that time. I didnt want to possess a million baht [Thai monetary currency. Approximately
US$1 equals to 40 Baht.] didnt want to have a house or a car. I didnt want to listen to music or to go to
the cinema. I didnt want anything. The more I did it, the more I realised that what we needed in life were
not those things. They gave us only temporary satisfaction, unlike the happiness of the meditation.
Self-Symbolism vs. Social-Symbolism
To create a sense of identity is not only to distinguish the individual from the masses but perhaps also to
lose a sense of difference and become like the others. Due to the Dhammakaya sects emphasis on group
solidarity, the informants constantly and actively validated the symbolic meanings from both lived and
mediated experiences through the process of discursive elaboration in their social interaction. The
informants were immensely influenced by other people in the Dhammakaya sect. The study clearly
showed the process of the internal-external dialectic of identification (Jenkins 1996) in the informants
symbolic project of the religious self. Whenever they were free from class or other academic activities, they
habitually discussed the Dhammakaya sect, meditation or everyday moral conduct. They would advise
each other how to enhance their Buddhist selves. Additionally they would notify a group member who
engages in any inappropriate conduct.
Lynn: I really enjoy talking about the history of the temple with my senior. Im so proud to be a part of it.
Kay: We will warn each other if we see that any of us has done something improper. We call it "orientating
the treasure trove". This is how a good Buddhist should be.
Certainly they kept reinforcing each other to pursue their project of the Buddhist self.
Emergent Themes
Although the informants were trying to follow the Buddhist path strictly, it did not mean that they were able
to liberate themselves from thesamsaric cycle. Paradoxically there was some evidence emerging from the
field that illustrated their kilesa (desire) and their attachment to the creation of the self.
Kilesa to be more superior than the others. The informants thought that to employ moral conduct strictly
and to practise meditation would elevate their beings above other mundane people. Such thinking
reflected their attachment to the kilesa. They seemed to be obsessed with the construction of the self in
order to be superior.

Kay: If we observed only five precepts, we will not be superior to other Buddhists. Thus, we observe eight
precepts instead.
Paul: In the Buddhist Society we do not talk non-sense like other teenagers. We discuss Dhamma to
elevate our mind to cultivate wisdom.
Kilesa to be a part of the greatness and to extend the self across time. As Wt Pra Dhammakaya
campaigned for the project to build Dhammakaya Ceteya, all informants donated a lot of money to build at
least one of their own "personal Buddha images" ($ 250-$500). They claimed that this stupa [A round
usually domed Buddhist monument, usually containing a sacred relic.] would become the Eighth Wonder
of the World and it would remain for thousands of years. They were so happy to be a part of this
greatness. They visualised how the visitors to this stupa would see their names on their "personal Buddha
images" and praise their commitment to Buddhism. Obviously this was evidence of consumption to extend
the self both spatially and temporally.
Lynn: We cannot live forever, but this stupa will exist for at least two thousands year.
Kay: This stupa will make Thailand [more specifically Wat Pra Dhammakaya] the centre of world
Buddhismjust like the Vatican being the centre of Christianity. Its a great 'boon to be a part of it.
Kilesa to be loved. All informants mentioned that they felt sincerely loved and cared for by their friends in
the Buddhist Society and the Dhammakaya sect. They also felt comfortable spending time with the group
at the society and the temple because everything was seemingly in order. They knew where they were
located in the Dhammakaya community. It was like a 'Pra Sri Ariya [A Utopian-like community in Buddhist
folklore.] community for them. Clearly it was the community where they sought refuge from the unruly
world.
Paul: I feel secure here. No deception. No jealousy. Theres sincere love and care.
CONCLUSION
The study strongly supports that in postmodernity religion may still be a significant dimension in the
construction project of the self. Although Buddhism advocates the concept of 'no-self, these teenagers still
aspire to create, maintain and express their religious selves in order to sustain their existence in this unruly
world. Instead of trying to detach themselves from selfness, these teenagers paradoxically fall into
attachment to particular symbolic consumption in an attempt to become what they believe a good Buddhist
should be. Furthermore, the study shows how these teenagers draw symbolic meanings from mediated
experiences and interlace them with lived experiences in the process of the internal-external dialectic of
identification (Jenkins 1996) between the two domains of self-symbolism and social-symbolism. Evidently
they always validate those meanings of how to be a good Buddhist through the process of discursive
elaboration in their social interaction.
Methodologically the interpretive approach we employed in this research helped us deal with the
complexity of the issues studied. Whilst observation provided evidence of these teenagers actual
behaviour and their social interaction, especially the process of discursive elaboration within the group, the
long interviews allowed us to delve phenomenologically into their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
The realities are too complex and paradoxical to be understood by logical thinking; and possibly they can
be best understood only through experience.
A Thai Buddhist monk
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