Buddhism has long been a strong force in Lao culture and remains a major influence in everyday life. Each ethnic Lao village has its own temple (Wat ), which is the focal point of village festivities and rituals and has traditionally had a guesthouse, monastery and school. Buddhist images are found in shops, homes and offices. The wats fill in the mornings and evenings with people chanting Buddhist prayers. The Pha That Luang is the holiest symbol in Laos.

Buddhism defines the Laotian character. A typical day begin early with an offering to a monk and trip to the market to buy food. They often vised the local temple in the morning and in the evening. 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 is also the dominant school in Thailand and Cambodia. *

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. 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. *

See Separate Articles on Religion and Religious Persecution in Laos

Theravada Buddhism

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, the doctrine of the Buddha, a guide to right action and belief; karma, 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *


History of Buddhism in Laos

Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Luang Prabang in the 13th and early 14th centuries. Mahayana Buddhism may have been introduced in 8th to 10th centuries but didn’t take hold long enough to have a lasting effect. Theravada Buddhism was given a big boost when the when King Fangum, the monarch who unified Laos and created the first Lao kingdom in the mid 14th century, converted his kingdom to Buddhism. He built Laos’s first wat in A.D. 1356 to house the Pha Bang Buddha (see History).

Buddhism took a while to be embraced by ordinary Lao who did not want to give up their beliefs in spirits. It wasn’t until Buddhist schools were established throughout Laos in the 17th century that the religion really began to take hold.

During the civil war period from 1964 to 1973, the Pathet Lao issued a statements saying that it supported Buddhism and over time won the support of Buddhists and monks. Things changed when the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975 . Initially Buddhism was banned in the schools, people were forbidden from makings offerings at temples and giving alms to monks and monks were put to work in fields and forced to raise animals in violation of the monastic vows.

Dissatisfaction over these rules, forced the government to ease off. In 1976, the giving of alms to monks was allowed but only rice was allowed to be given. Over time other restrictions were eased. In 1992, the hammer and sickle was replaced a drawing of the Pha That Luang on the national emblem.

Buddhism under the Pathet Lao Government

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Buddhist Organization in Laos

Theravada Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with more than 4,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice and the center of community life in rural areas. In most lowland Lao villages, religious tradition remains strong. Most Buddhist men spend some part of their lives as monks in temples, even if only for a few days. There are approximately 20,000 monks in the country, more than 8,000 of whom have attained the rank of "senior monk," indicating years of study in temples. In addition, more than 400 nuns, many of whom are older widows, reside in temples throughout the country. The Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization (LBFO) is under the direction of a supreme patriarch who resides in Vientiane and supervises the activities of the LBFO's central office, the Ho Thammasapha. [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 **]

Although officially incorporated into the dominant Mahanikai School of Buddhist Practice after 1975, the Thammayudh sect of Buddhism still maintains a following in the country. Abbots and monks of several temples, particularly in Vientiane, reportedly follow the Thammayudh School, which places greater emphasis on meditation and discipline. **

There are four Mahayana Buddhist temples in Vientiane, two serving the ethnic Vietnamese community and two serving the ethnic Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these temples freely to conduct services and minister to worshippers. There are at least four large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers and smaller Mahayana temples in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China. **

Lao Wats and Stupas

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. *

Wats are characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations in the walls depicting the events of Buddha’s life. Wats are often clusters of buildings with the uposatha (ordination hall) being the most important structure. These have traditionally been built on a multilevel platform and are made of brick covered by stucco. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Lao-style thats (stupas) have a distinctive curvilinear, four-corned shape, said the to represent the unfurling of a lotus bud, along with the steeple-like spire that many stupas have. Pha That Luang in Vientiane is regarded as the model of this style (See Vientiane). =

The high peaked roofs are layered in odd numbers to correspond with certain Buddhist doctrines such as the three characteristics of existence and the seven factors of enlightenment. The edge of roofs often feature a repeated flame motif with long finger-like hooks in the corners that are said to catch evil spirits that fall on the building from above. The umbrella-like spires in the central roof ridge often have small nagas (serpents that protected Buddha) arranged in a double-step fashion said to represent Mt. Meru. =


Buddhist Monks in Laos

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *

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. *

Monks preside over religious ceremonies, festivals, household rituals and funerals. They are often leaders in the community Men have traditionally become Buddhist monks for at least a short period, usually between the time finishes school and starts a career or gets married. Typically they stay for about three months during the Buddhist Lent, which coincides with the rainy season.

The Sangha (monks, nuns and lay residents of monasteries) have traditionally been divided into two sects: the Mahanikai and the Thammauyut (a minority sect based on a Mon form of monastic discipline practiced by the Thai king Mongkut). The Communists abolished the Thammauyut sect and for a while any Buddhist material written in Thai. Although Thai material is now tolerated officially there is only one sect “Lao Sangha,” which puts less emphasis on meditation that other Buddhist sects.


Buddhist Monks Under the Pathet Lao

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The party did not dare abolish the Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), of which the king had been the supreme patron. It did, however, attempt to reshape the sangha into an instrument of control. In March 1979, the Venerable Thammayano, the eighty-seven-year-old Sangha-raja of Laos, the country's highest-ranking abbott, fled by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car tubes. His secretary, who engineered the escape, reported that the Sangha-raja had been confined to his monastery in Louangphrabang and was forbidden to preach. Ordinary monks were not forbidden to preach, but their sermons were commonly tape recorded and monitored for signs of dissidence. As a result of these pressures, the number of monks in Laos decreased sharply after 1975. [Source: Library of Congress]

Monk Life

Monks in Laos have a shaved head wear saffron-robes and often carry a begging bowl. It is common for villagers to give food to monks in a daily ritual. Monks do not look at the donors. Males donor remove their sandals and women kneel as monks pass by in a procession to collect food offerings. In Luang Prabang people usually give an offering of sticky rice to monks. After waking up donors sit on a mat at the footacj and pace a small amount of rice in a special container. Monks arrive later and rice is cooped into their begging bowls.

Monks and Novices have no possessions except the few items that they carry in their bags. As Monks they study at school and learn about being Buddhists. Most of the young men in Laos spend time as a Monk or Novice at some point in their lives during this time they do not drink, smoke, eat after lunchtime, touch women, swear or have money or possessions. Under 20 years the boys are novices but they undergo a ceremony at 20 and become Monks.

These day many monks serve only for a week or two. In some places discipline is lax and it is not uncommon to see monks smoking or even drinking alcohol and doing drugs. Many males don’t even bother to be ordained. All monks are supposed to undergo political indoctrination as part of their religious training.

During the early morning collecting of alms in Luang Prabang, the monks walk the streets in bare feet and the people who offer food kneel. When the monks have accepted the food they chant their thanks. Describing monks in Luang Prabang on their morning rounds, P.F. Kluge wrote in National Geographic Traveler: “Clusters of orange-robed monks, a dozen here, a couple there, begging flowing towards, a silent procession, oldest monks in front, novices trailing behind, all of them advancing to where women kneel on the sidewalk. Barefoot, mute, the monks take the lids off their alms bowls. The women reach into straw baskets for a wad of rice, which they deposit in the passing bowls. It happens every morning, this barefoot walkabout, this silent offering. Watching the orange line file back towards the temples, it’s as if this stroke of orange is like the sunrise itself. “

Daily Life of a Laos Monk

A young man who became a monk in April 2009 wrote: “My name is Khen and I am 20 years and I am a monk in Laos. I was a novice when my father joined the Vat (temple) when my mother die. When I come to live at the temple I am 12 years old. At 12 years old I was novice (monk in training) I could not be monk until I was 20 years.[Source: helpinghands.millpointrotaryclub <<< ]

“Everyday I get up early at 4 am I meditate and then all the monks and the novice monks walk through the streets to collect alms (food). The people wait by the roadside and give us food and this is our food for the day. I eat breakfast and lunch but monks do not eat after lunch until the next day. There are a number of special days in Buddhist Vat. At the Laos New Year in April elders tie wrist ties for all monks and novices at the temple. The wrist ties are tied for long life and good luck. <<<

“The Vat is the place where I come to meditate with the Buddha statues. I sleep with the other monks in the bedrooms. I have a bag which has my things and I carry the bag with me. I learn dharmi and pari as study for Buddhists. There are lots of Buddha statues in the Vat and the Monks spent many hours meditating. The bell summons the monks and novices in the compound to the Vat to meditate. Village people bring food to the temple as a sign of respect. During July the Monks spend the entire month in the temple meditating. <<<

Buddhist Customs

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

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. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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