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


Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, Oxford University

Richard Elliott, Oxford University


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.


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 non-reflexive, in that we take it for granted as 'reality’. Mediated experience is an outcome of a mass-communication 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).



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 self-symbolism 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 sect’s young members and their consumption behaviour.



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 informant’s 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 group’s interaction process, especially as to how the group’s 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 group’s conversations and activities (e.g., lunch, Dhamma discussion, Buddhist rituals). Observational data, including the researcher’s 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 individual’s 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.


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 hang-overs 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 Dhammakaya’s 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 don’t listen to popular music or watch TV anymore. You see, my room is so empty. I don’t even sleep on a mattress.

Paul: Do I have a girlfriend? I don’t 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 samsaric cycle 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. It’s not good for our meditation at all.

Doll: You don’t 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 it’s unnecessary to show anyone. We’d 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. It’s 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 didn’t want to possess a million baht [Thai monetary currency. Approximately US$1 equals to 40 Baht.] didn’t want to have a house or a car. I didn’t want to listen to music or to go to the cinema. I didn’t 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 sect’s 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. I’m 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 the samsaric 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. It’s 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. There’s sincere love and care.


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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