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Monk standing by the door of That Luang, Vientiane
Courtesy Gina Merris


Monks sawing logs for charcoal, Louangphrabang
Courtesy Gina Merris


Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy. The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was widespread by the fourteenth century (see Early History , ch. 1). A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao Theung who have assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975 the communist government has not opposed Buddhism but rather has attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s.

Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C. Theravada Buddhism (see Glossary) is also the dominant school in Thailand and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism is neither prescriptive, authoritative, nor exclusive in its attitude toward its followers and is tolerant of other religions. It is based on three concepts: dharma (see Glossary), the doctrine of the Buddha, a guide to right action and belief; karma (see Glossary), the retribution of actions, the responsibility of a person for all his or her actions in all past and present incarnations; and sangha, within which a man can improve the sum of his actions. There is no promise of heaven or life after death but rather salvation in the form of a final extinction of one's being and release from the cycle of births and deaths and the inevitable suffering while part of that cycle. This state of extinction, nirvana, comes after having achieved enlightenment regarding the illusory nature of existence.

The essence of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha: suffering exists; suffering has a cause, which is the thirst or craving for existence; this craving can be stopped; and there is an Eightfold Path by which a permanent state of peace can be attained. Simply stated, the Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking, and right meditation.

The average person cannot hope for nirvana at the end of this life, but by complying with the basic rules of moral conduct, can improve karma and thereby better his or her condition in the next incarnation. The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just and impersonal cosmic law, actions in this life and in all previous incarnations determine which position along the hierarchy of living beings a person will occupy in the next incarnation. Karma can be favorably affected by avoiding these five prohibitions: killing, stealing, forbidden sexual pleasures, lying, and taking intoxicants. The most effective way to improve karma is to earn merit (het boun--literally, to do good--in Lao). Although any act of benevolence or generosity can earn merit, Laotians believe the best opportunities for merit come from support for the sangha and participation in its activities.

Traditionally, all males are expected to spend a period as a monk or novice prior to marriage and possibly in old age, and the majority of Lao Loum men probably did so until the 1970s. Being ordained also brings great merit to one's parents. The period of ordination need not be long--it could last only for the three-month Lenten retreat period--but many men spend years in the sangha gaining both secular and religious knowledge. Study of the Pali language, in which all Theravada texts are written, is a fundamental component of religious training. Ordination as a monk also requires a man to comply with the 227 rules of the monastic order; novices--those under twenty years old--must obey seventy- five rules; and lay persons are expected to observe the five prohibitions. Only a few women, usually elderly, become Buddhist nuns; they live a contemplative and ascetic life but do not lead religious ceremonies as do monks.

Monks are trying to develop detachment from the world and thus, may have no possessions but must rely on the generosity of people for food and clothing. These gifts provide an important opportunity for the giver to earn merit. Women are more active than men in preparing and presenting rice and other food to monks, who make their morning rounds through the town carrying a bowl to receive offerings that are their only nourishment for the day. In villages where there are only a few monks or novices, the women of the village often take turns bringing food to the wat each morning. Attendance at prayers held at the wat on the quarter, full, and new moon of each lunar cycle also provides a regular means of gaining merit.

Major religious festivals occur several times a year. The beginning and end of the Lenten retreat period at the full moon of the eighth and eleventh months are occasions for special offerings of robes and religious articles to the monks. During Buddhist Lent, both monks and laity attempt to observe Buddhist precepts more closely. Monks must sleep at their own wat every night-- rather than being free to travel--and are expected to spend more time in meditation. Offerings to monks and attendance at full-moon prayers are also greater than at other times. Vixakha Bouxa, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha at the full moon of the sixth month--usually May--corresponds with the rocket festival (boun bang fai), which heralds the start of the rains. The date of Boun Phavet, which commemorates the charity and detachment of Prince Vessantara, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, varies within the dry season, and, aside from its religious orientation, serves as an important opportunity for a village to host its neighbors in a twenty-four-hour celebration centering on monks reciting the entire scripture related to Vessantara. That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November.

For the Lao Loum, the wat is one of the two focal points of village life (the other is the school). The wat provides a symbol of village identity as well as a location for ceremonies and festivals. Prior to the establishment of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every lowland village has a wat, and some have two. Minimally, a wat must have a residence building for the monks and novices (vihan), and a main building housing the Buddha statues (sim), which is used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions. Depending on the wealth and contributions of the villagers, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon. An administrative committee made up of respected older men manages the financial and organizational affairs of the wat.

Buddhist ceremonies generally do not mark events in a life- cycle, with the exception of death. Funerals may be quite elaborate if the family can afford it but are rather simple in rural settings. The body lies in a coffin at home for several days, during which monks pray, and a continual stream of visitors pay their respects to the family and share food and drink. After this period, the body is taken in the coffin to a cremation ground and burned, again attended by monks. The ashes are then interred in a small shrine on the wat grounds.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the status of the sangha to influence the thoughts and attitudes of the populace. The effort was in many ways successful, despite efforts by the RLG to place the sangha under close civil administrative control and to enlist monks in development and refugee assistance programs. Political scientist Stuart-Fox attributed the success of the Pathet Lao to the inability of the Lao Loum elite to integrate the monarchy, government, and sangha into a set of mutually supportive institutions. Popular resentment of the aristocracy, division of the sangha into two antagonistic sects, the low level of its religious education and discipline, and opposition to foreign (i.e., Western) influence all contributed to the receptiveness of many monks to Pathet Lao overtures. The politicization of the sangha by both sides lowered its status in the eyes of many, but its influence at the village level augmented popular support for the Pathet Lao political platform, which paved the way for the change in government in 1975.

The LPDR government's successful efforts to consolidate its authority also continues to influence Buddhism. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all men are equal, and both aimed to end suffering. Political seminars further discouraged "wasteful" expenditures on religious activities of all kinds, because some monks were sent to political reeducation centers and others were forbidden to preach. The renunciation of private property by the monks was seen as approaching the ideal of a future communist society. However, Buddhist principles of detachment and nonmaterialism are clearly at odds with the Marxist doctrine of economic development, and popular expenditures on religious donations for merit making are also seen as depriving the state of resources. Thus, although overtly espousing tolerance of Buddhism, the state undercut the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and activities. During this period of political consolidation, many monks left the sangha or fled to Thailand. Other pro-Pathet Lao monks joined the newly formed Lao United Buddhists Association, which replaced the former religious hierarchy. The numbers of men and boys being ordained declined abruptly, and many wat fell empty. Participation at weekly and monthly religious ceremonies also dropped off as villagers under the watchful eye of local political cadre were fearful of any behavior not specifically encouraged.

The nadir of Buddhism in Laos occurred around 1979, after which a strategic liberalization of policy occurred. Since that time, the number of monks has gradually increased, although as of 1993, the main concentrations continue to be in Vientiane and other Mekong Valley cities. Buddhist schools in the cities remain but have come to include a significant political component in the curriculum. Party officials are allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. The level of religious understanding and orthodoxy of the sangha, however, is no higher than it had been before 1975, when it was justly criticized by many as backward and unobservant of the precepts.

From the late 1980s, stimulated as much by economic reform as political relaxation, donations to the wat and participation at Buddhist festivals began to increase sharply. Festivals at the village and neighborhood level became more elaborate, and the That Luang festival and fair, which until 1986 had been restricted to a three-day observance, lasted for seven days. Ordinations also increased, in towns and at the village level, and household ceremonies of blessing, in which monks were central participants, also began to recur. Although the role of Buddhism has been permanently changed by its encounter with the socialist government, it appears that Buddhism's fundamental importance to lowland Lao and to the organization of Lao Loum society has been difficult to erase, has been recognized by the government, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Data as of July 1994

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