ANIMISM, SPIRITS, FUNERALS AND SUPERSTITIONS IN LAOS

ANIMISM AND SPIRITS IN LAOS

While Buddhism is the religion of most Lao people, animist beliefs pervade all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) defines the relationship of Lao people with nature and community and is often considered the cause of illness and disease. Particularly at the village level, belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, and often monks are respected as having the ability to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to prevent them entering a house. Most wats (temples) have a small spirit house built on the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the benevolent spirit of the monastery.[Source: JG Learned, North by Northeast blog]

In Laos, Buddhism and Animism exist side by side. "Phi" means spirit, soul, and ghost. Any Laotian will tell you about "Phi" who visits during sleep. They are everywhere; good, bad, mischievous. In trees, animals, houses and people. The Southeast Asian version of a "genie". Next to Buddhism, traditional beliefs influence people's life. These beliefs predate Buddhism. For ethnic groups in the mountainous North, they are even more influential, even though Buddhism and traditional beliefs coexist quite free of conflict. You will see traditional beliefs above all in two moments: many Lao homes are guarded by 'spirit houses' where people worship the spirits by offering food. However, a general account can not be made as traditions and beliefs differ from ethnic group to ethnic group.

The highland ethnic minorities practice animism, which emphasizes a reverence for all living things. The Lao have also incorporated animism into their religion beliefs. In some of the main temples in Vientiane and other cities the main object of devotion is not a Buddha figure but a lak meuang (city pillar), regarded as the dwelling place for guardian spirit of the city. See Thailand

The Lao believe spirits called phi (similar to nats in Myanmar) inhabit certain places such as rivers, mountains, rice fields and groves of trees. Villages also have titulary spirits and a goddess of the rice crop. The spirits, especially the rice goddess, are honored with regular offerings. Beliefs in phi are particularly strong among tribal Thais, especially the Thai Dam, who revere earth spirits called ten .

It is widely believed to be that malevolent spirts and ghosts can possess people and bring illnesses. They can be exorcized by spirit doctors. Spirit practitioners are usually elderly men. Mediums can be of both sexes. Spirit practitioners preside over weddings, birth-related rituals and numerous informal ceremonies call basi or sou khouan , which are held to mark thing like the recovery from an illness, construction of a new home or departure in a journey.

While animists generally experienced little interference from the Government in their religious practices, the Government actively discouraged animist practices that it deemed outdated, unhealthful, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives underneath homes. In some areas where animism predominated among ethnic minority groups, local authorities have actively encouraged those groups to adopt Buddhism and abandon their beliefs in magic and spirits which the authorities considered "backward." [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]

Lao Animist Beliefs

Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for illness and disease. Belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and some monks are respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Most Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups are animists, for whom a cult of the ancestors is also important, although each group has different practices and beliefs. The Kammu call spirits hrooy, and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important, and spirits of wild places are to be avoided or barred from the village. Lamet have similar beliefs, and each village must have one spirit practitioner (xemia), who is responsible for making all the sacrifices to village spirits. He also supervises the men's communal house and officiates at the construction of any new houses. When a spirit practitioner dies, one of his sons is elected by the married men of the village to be his successor. If he has none, one of his brother's sons is chosen. Ancestor spirits (mbrong n'a) are very important to the Lamet because they look out for the well-being of the entire household. They live in the house, and no activity is undertaken without informing them of it. Ancestor spirits are fond of buffalos; thus buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the gable of the house. Numerous taboos regarding behavior in the house are observed to avoid offending ancestral spirits. *

Hmong Animist Beliefs

Hmong also believe in a variety of spirits (neeb), some associated with the house, some with nature, and some with ancestors. Every house has at least a small altar on one wall, which is the center of any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New Year renew the general protection of the household and ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is important to household well-being and is the object of another annual ceremony and sacrifice. As with other Lao groups, illness is frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners are called to carry out curing rites. Two classes exist: ordinary practitioners and shamans. Ordinary priests or the household head conduct the household ceremonies and ordinary divinations. The shaman may be called on to engage in significant curing rituals. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

According to Hmong belief, spirits reside in the sky, and the shaman can climb a ladder to the heavens on his magical horse and contact the spirits there. Sometimes illness is caused by one's soul climbing the steps to the sky, and the shaman must climb after it, locate it, and bring it back to the body in order to effect a cure. During the ritual, the shaman sits in front of the altar astride a wooden bench, which becomes his or her horse. A black cloth headpiece covers vision of the present world, and as the shaman chants and enters a trance, he or she begins to shake and may stand on the bench or move, mimicking the process of climbing to heaven. The chant evokes the shaman's search and the negotiations with the heavenly spirits for a cure or for information about the family's fortune. *

Hmong shamans are believed to be chosen by the spirits, usually after a serious or prolonged illness. The illness would be diagnosed by another shaman as an initiatory illness and confrontation with death, which was caused by the spirits. Both men and women can be summoned in this way by the spirits to be shamans. After recovery from the illness, the newly-called shaman begins a period of study with a master shaman, which may last two or three years, during which time he or she learns the chants, techniques, and procedures of shamanic rites, as well as the names and natures of all the spirits that can bring fortune or suffering to people. Because the tradition is passed orally, there is no uniform technique or ritual; rather, it varies within a general framework according to the practice of each master and apprentice. *

Phi and Ghosts

Spirits play a large role in Lao life. The Lao strongly believe that spirits co-exist with the living and that they should be respected. There are many different types of spirits, to be found in all sorts of objects and places.

Phi are everywhere and diverse. Some are connected with universal elements - earth, air, fire and water. Many Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) believe that they are protected by thirty-two spirits called khwan, that live within us. Illness can occur when one or more of these spirits wanders from the body; this condition may be reversed by the su khwan ceremony - more commonly called the bai sii or baci - a ceremony that calls all thirty-two khwan to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the participants. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the participants to bind the spirits in place. The ceremony is often performed to welcome guests, before and after long trips, as a curing ritual or after recovery from illness; it is also the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding and naming ceremony for children. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Many Lao believe that the khwan of persons who die by accident, violence, or in childbirth are not reincarnated, becoming instead phi phetu (malevolent spirits). Animist believers also fear wild spirits of the forests. Other spirits associated with specific places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees are neither inherently benevolent nor evil. However, occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs. In the past, it was common to perform similar rituals before the beginning of the farming season to ensure the favor of the spirit of the rice. These ceremonies, beginning in the late 1960s, were discouraged by the government as successive areas began to be liberated. This practice had apparently died out by the mid1980s , at least in the extended area around Vientiane. *

Phi Ceremonies and Rituals

Ceremonies oriented to the phi commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice liquor. Once the phi have taken the spiritual essence of the offering, people may consume the earthly remains. The head of a household or the individual who wants to gain the favor of the spirit usually performs the ritual. In many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the phi, may be asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites. Each lowland village believes itself protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to ensure the continued prosperity of the village. The village spirit specialist presides over this major ritual, which in the past often involved the sacrifice of a water buffalo and is still an occasion for closing the village to any outsiders for a day. To liang phi ban (feed the village spirit) also serves an important social function by reaffirming the village boundaries and the shared interests of all villagers. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

A typical bai sii ceremony is performed around a low table, the participants sitting in a circle around it. An ornate flower and banana leaf offering draped with cotton threads is the centerpiece of the table. On it also are a boiled chicken or eggs, a basket of sticky rice and a bottle of distilled white lightning. Each participant is given a ball of rice, a piece of chicken and a small glass of alcohol to hold in his or her right hand. The left hand is rested on the table edge while the elder performing the ceremony chants a formula to recall all the spirits to the body. While this is going on, other villagers will touch those around the table with one hand, making a connection between all – the human and the spirit world.

Having completed the chanting ritual, first the shaman, and then the rest of the villagers tie the white cotton threads around the wrists of those for whom the ceremony is performed. The food and alcohol are then consumed, ensuring the blessings protect both the interior and exterior of the body and all the 32 spirits propitiated.

See Baasil Below

Lao House Spirits and Spirit Houses

To protect themselves and show respect, people build a "spirit house", a small altar which placed in a precise spot, in front of the house or in the garden. The "house" is always sheltered from the sun and offerings of food and drinks are made to keep the spirit pacified. House spirits, as the name infers, are the spirits that inhabit and surround a house or building. An important way to ensure that house spirits are respected is to keep and maintain a spirit house. These are effectively little shelters come shrines where the spirits can have their own space so that they don’t cause problems and are encouraged to protect your home. [Source: falangprabang.com<^> ]

According to falangprabang.com In Luang Prabang, spirit houses (or “haw pii” as they are called in Lao) are everywhere – outside homes, businesses, guesthouses, you name it. The style and structure of the houses vary from simple wooden or metal platforms to ornate miniature temples, usually mounted on a pillar.Although they are not thought to be bad or evil, spirits are thought to be mischievous and likely to cause problems if appropriate measures are not taken to keep them happy…and in good spirits ha ha. And providing them with a mere roof over their heads is by no means enough to appease them. <^>

“To keep the spirits amused, these miniature houses are often decked out with little figurines of people and animals. Surrounding the houses you will almost always have a small balcony space for burning incense and candles and making offerings. The most devout and suspicious Lao light incense and make offerings every morning to ask the spirits to watch over and protect their home. Others are more casual and tend to their spirit houses on a weekly basis. The traditional offerings in Luang Prabang include flowers, something to eat ( like bananas, sticky rice), something to drink (small cups of water, whiskey or beer) and sometimes cigarettes to smoke! <^>

Each house is a unique work of art and made from combinations of river driftwood, bits of metal, bamboo, stones and pieces of discarded items that he finds around town. Before installing a new house, it is necessary to consult the village Shaman or Buddhist Abbott. He will come to your home and help you find the best position for the spirit house - ensuring maximum spirit contentment and home protection. Generally, (as I understand it) these are the major dos and don’ts. <^>

Dos: 1) Place your spirit house in front of a tree. 2) Place the spirit house in line with the Buddha room in the building (if there is one). 3) Face the spirit house towards north or northeast. 4) Place the spirit house by the front steps of the house (the spirits are thought to spenda lot of time hanging around the steps). <^>

Don’ts: 1) Put the spirit house on the left side of a door. 2) Face a spirit house towards a toilet or a road. 3) Put the spirit house in the shadow of the house. You should always avoid removing a spirit house.If you want a new one, it is best to just leave the old one intact and put the new one alongside.If you do wish to remove the old spirit house, a ceremony should be held to move the spirit from the old spirit house to the new one.The village Shaman or Buddhist Abbott will determine the right date and time for this and will conduct the ceremony. <^>

Spirits of the Mekong River

One person posted on Lao Internet forum: I remember as kid in Lao hearing about how the spirit in the Mekong river would claim so many lives every year, has anybody in here old enough to remember it?

Another replied: I remember as kid in Lao hearing about how the spirit in the Mekong river would claim so many lives every year, has anybody in here old enough to remember it? Just couple of years ago it claimed more lives during boat race festival... but many peoples said that all those peoples that dies... ate snake (not sure that day or few days before). In the Thai news, they said the divers that tried to rescued them, couldn't hang on to their body because their body feel slippery and snake-like skin. They also said "it's very scary, nothing like they have seen before."

Yet another said: oy...gives me goosebumps. Spooookkkyy!!!!! You know during the escaping decade there were a lot of people who didn't make it. But there is no stats on how many people died. I'm really curious about that. We all know there are a lot of people.

Another wrote: “A lot of people died in that river mostly Hmong that can't swim or shot by ai nong during the escaping time. When I crossed over it was on a boat and I was scared that someone is going to shoot us two.. mom and me.

Lao Superstitions

Some Lao superstitions posted on bulletin boards and forums on the Internet, mostly by overseas Laotians or members of Lao-American families: 1) Don't cut your nails at night it's gonna make your life horrible. 2) Don't whistle at night, you'll call ghosts. 3) Don't forget to cover your sticky rice container [thip kow] or else you won't find a husband. 4) Don't sleep and eat or you'll be a snake. 5) Don't eat just the food without rice or you'd get a big belly that will eventually pop. 6) Don't sing while eating, or you'd find an older spouse. 7) If you write with the left hand, you will be an odd child, so we were always forced to write with the right, eat with the right hand. 8) When a baby smiles at you, you will lose hair. 9) When the baby is new born and they pee on you, they will grow up loving you.

10) Don't rub/touch the baby's cheeks because they won't have a great meal after being touched or rubbed on the cheeks. 11) If you have bird crap on you. 12) Don't cut your hair on the day you were born because it will shorten your life span. 13) Don't sing in the kitchen because you will marry an old man. 14) If you peel an apple in front of a mirror with a candle in front of it, your future husband will appear in the mirror. 15) Don't always buy a bloom flowers because you’re gonna end up marrying an old man. 16) If you had a bad dream from the night before, spit in the toilet and flush. 17) Don't point at the rainbow cause you'll lose a finger. 18) Don't show a baby its reflection cause his or her teeth aren't going to come in. 19) Don't play hide and seek at night cause ghosts will hide you from the human sight.

20) Don't sharpen the knife at night or a ghost will come and haunt your dream. 20) Don't wash the dishes at night because you will wash away luck, money etc. 21) Don't shower at night when you are pregnant because you will lose the baby. 22) Cutting hair on a Wednesday is bad luck. 23) If your right eye twitches its bad luck and when the left eye twiches its good luck. 23) Dreaming of a snake means a husband or a guy really likes you 34) Dreaming of someone giving you jewellery means a baby is expecting. 35) When the dog howls it means a ghost is around. 36) When your ear is burning, someone is talking about you. 37) When you sneeze someone is thinking about you.

Internet Chatter About Lao Superstitions

One person posted on Lao Internet forum: “When you dream you've moved into a new house or lost your teeth, go to the bathroom and pee or do something so no one gets injured in the family because you've cleared this out of your system [odd thing I've dreamt my teeth all fell out and grew back in the matter of minutes--my grandmother passes away 2 weeks later and 2 days after, my little cousin was born].”

Another wrote: “Lao and Khmer superstitions are almost the same like when you cook and sing you will have an old man for husband....don't know if it just a superstition but sometimes supertitions come from the truth...There's a superstition about soaking sticky rice for more than 2 days or not soaking it one morning to cook the next morning, because it will turn red and that's a sign of bad luck, because the red color makes it look like blood, etc.”

Another person posted: “Anybody heard of when you put your hands on your chest when sleeping allows ghost to go into you? Its happen to me putting my hands on my chest and my body froze and stuff, but its proven that your body can sleep but mind is still awake, but then again I did have my hands on my chest...Growing up in Laos, I remembered all kinds of superstitions imposed on me as a child...for example - don't cut fingernails or toenails at night, sweep floor or clean house at night.”

One person posted: “ My mom used to tell me "don't have hatreds towards anyone while you're pregnant, because your child might end up looking like that person"...I think it's true!!!!! Another person responded: “ Yeah, I heard of that one before also...remember this pregnant girl was telling me that she's trying her best not to patronized people on how they act or look, because she was afraid that's how her child would turn out...I remembered my brother-in-law used to bitched about spoiled....crying kids. He used to say "I've never let my kids be like that and I would slap the crap out of my kids if I ever have one like that" now his 2 years old is ten times worse than any other spoiled kids I know, I always teased him about why he is not slapping his kid like he said....he would say "I know...I know" I just say "som gnam nah".”

Another person posted: “I hate to say this but the eyes twitching is the prediction of what to come for me. I notice this many times and I observes it many times. Lower left eyes, very good things will happen. Upper left eyes, you'll laugh a lot, or happy things. Lower right eyes, very bad thing will happen. Upper right eyes, you'll be crying. One person responded: “ I believed in that too. It's funny, my friend used to slap her own eyes...because it was twitching...I just laughed at her and tell her to slap harder next time.”

A Western person wrote: I believe it's still popular for people in Lao to worship ancestor's spirit and other spirits so they could be healthy and prosper. We have something similar to what you call psychic here in the west.” A Lao person responded: “Yep we sure do. I believe it was there long before Buddhism was introduced to Laos in the 13th century or was it 15th, I'm not sure. My dad forbidden us to seek those out, but mom went anyway... Dad was a monk for many years, and said it was not the Buddhist way.”

Another Lao wrote: I don’t believe in superstitions..cause I don't want to believe it. Someone told me if I burn my huat cooking kow neel, i will have 7 yrs bad luck. I did burn the pot to the core, blackened & watered dried up a couple of times..so far i'm having the best years of my life.”

Funerals in Laos

Funerals are largely conducted in accordance with Buddhist customs. Following death of natural causes the body is kept at the home of the deceased one to three days, during which time villagers come to pay their respects and assist the family of the deceased in what is a sort of long long, continuous, low-key wake. The body is usually cremated but in some cases is buried.

One 20-year-old monk wrote: “In February my dad died after sickness in hospital and we are all very sad. This are my family at my dad funeral, my sister has the picture of dad. I am still a novice as I have yellow around my middle that shows I still a novice. A white casket behind the family is where his fathers body is held and after several days of feasting and ceremony the funeral pyre is lit at night and the body is burnt. [Source: helpinghands.millpointrotaryclub <<< ]

One Lao-American posted on an Internet forum: “I grew up in U S A I have gone to 2 Laotian funerals I was quite confused before the day of the funeral I noticed that people constantly comes to the house of the decease not only to pay their respect, but they also stayed there for food, drinks, and playing cards (gambling) until late at night. Inside the house it was noisy with laughter, and some singing. I thought to myself am I here to celebrate the death of this family's love one? or to pay my condolence, and to comfort a living family. I'm not talking about a day of visitation at the house, but at least 2 to 3 days of the visits if it's in America. Someone had told me in Laos this carries on for a week long. I felt bad for the decease's family not only that they have the responsibility for funeral arrangements , but also be a host at their house for days yet, and that's not include a wake, and after a funeral. My concern for this family is they had so much to deal with before they even get to mourn for their love one that has just past. I wonder, who came up with this kind of rule? it needs to be rewritten. There are so many things that's going on at the funeral that aren't clear to me. At the funeral one of the adults told the decease's son to pres button for his dad's cascade for the cremation process with no explanation of why he was chosen to do this so that it would be more meaningful to him. He looked sad and confused. I hoped for anyone who read this could give me some insight about Lao Buddhist Funeral. Thank you

Funeral Traditions in Laos

Lao funeral traditions and taboos: 1) Don't kill any animal to cook during the funeral. 2) Don't bring any foods away during the funeral. 3) Don't play loud music or dance or singing, i mean a kind of entertainment during the funeral ,you can do that after cremation or burred. 3) Normally, the body is kept 2-4 days in the house before cremation (comfortable death or Tai mee heng). 4) The body can't be kept in the house if the death is a sudden or accidental death. 5) In a Buddhist funeral, the body must keep in the temple and must be buried as soon as possible. 6) Traditionally, the people who come to the funeral will stay over night to keep the cousin of death person a company, normally playing cards, watching videos and chilling during the night. [Source: Anonymous, June 30, 2009]

7) People who come to funeral, normally offer some money, some rice with Thoup, Tian and flowers to show respect to the dead. This is called '' Kin tan'' in Lao language (“eat and offer” in English). After the funeral is over, this money and stuff belongs to relatives, parents of the dead person. 8) Relatives and friends of dead person will be attended by a monk or nun on a day of cremation.

9) After the cremation, it is time to collect the bones in the cemetery and put them into an urn and move them to a small stupa in the temple. The family of the dead must to invite monks to pray in order to invite the soul of the dead person to the urn in the stupa . This process, as far as I know, can be held after the funeral or it can be held later depends on the finances and conditions of relatives.

One Internet poster wrote: “A real Buddhist funeral is a simple, solemn and dignified ceremony. Unfortunately, some people have included many unnecessary, extraneous items and superstitious practices into the funeral rites. The extraneous items and practices vary according to the traditions and customs of the people. They were introduced in olden days by people who probably could not understand the nature of life, nature of death, and what life would be after death. When such ideas were incorporated into Buddhist practices, people tended to blame Buddhism for expensive funeral rites. If only the Buddhist public would approach proper persons who have studied the real Teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist tradition, they could receive advice on how to perform Buddhist funeral rites. It is most unfortunate that a bad impression has been created that Buddhism encourages people to waste their money and time on unnecessary practices. It must be clearly understood that Buddhism has nothing to do with that. Most of Lao people can't distinguish between traditions and religion. Lao people are Buddhists, but they do not know a lot about Buddhism.

Taboos at a Lao funeral: 1) At the "heuan dee", don’t take food or anything from there. They called it 'Huan Dee' because it's considered that the deceased has moved on and beyond and in a sense, relieved of their life's sin that they have to re-pay in this lifetime. In Lao custom and Buddhism, people are re-born to re-pay for past life's sin. 2) You can't make noodle dishes until after the cremation on day of the funeral. You can't make noodle dishes because noodles are considered strings and some think that noodle dishes represent a string that may bind the deceased soul to their former life and those that they left behind. 3) You must wash your hands with the blessed water before leaving the funeral home or entering the house. “I always take a good shower after coming back from visiting 'Huan Dee', that's how my family had been doing and I follow the tradition. Basically, it's sort of like washing away any 'dead' scent away from your body.” 4) Women who are menstruating cannot "bouat" as the "mae kao". 5) People can't cook and take food over to "heuan dee". 6) One more rule that I practice is that if it's not an immediate family's wake, then the children under 16 should not attend...this is due to the explanation that children are more prone to being followed or manipulated by the deceased soul, however, if it's immediate family then it's okay because the deceased knows them.

Lin pai is a way of passing the time during the wake. Lin pai helped pass the time and ensure that someone stay awake to watch over the coffin. I have never understood why during the wake someone must stay up and watch the coffin until my mother-in-law's funeral...It was 2001 and we were in Laos...on the fourth night, everyone was in bed, I was designated as the watcher and I was alone playing video game to help pass the time, a gush of wind blew the candle off the mantle and if know one was up, the whole place would have burn down. Since we have to keep the candle burning 24/7 during the wake, it's understandable that someone must be up to watch/monitor it...I remember that in the old day, they said one of the reason why you have to watch it, is to prevent a black cat from jumping over the coffin and wake the dead...make them sort of like in a Zombie state like...

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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