Religion in Laos

Religion in Laos

About 6 out of 10 people in Laos follow Theravada Buddhism (the Southern School). It was introduced into Laos between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, but the country had already had influence from the school of Mahayana Buddhism many centuries before. Buddhism developed slowly because the population still believed strongly in spirits (phii) and followed the cult of the spirits of the earth. It wasn’t until the middle of the 17th century that the religion was taught in the schools, a practice that is still followed to this day.

Theravada Buddhism is given the name of “Small Vehicle” because it limits its doctrines to only those canons that were codified by the first Buddhists (as opposed to Mahayana Buddhism, or “Grand Vehicle”, of the North, which respects the teachings of the first Buddhists, but also encompasses other teachings). According to its followers, the Theravada school of Buddhism is an older and less corrupt form of Buddhism than the Mahayana schools found in East Asia or the Himalayas. It originated in the Indian Himalayas in the 6th century B.C. when its concepts were “discovered” by Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

Theravada doctrine stresses the three principal aspects of existence: dukkha (stress, suffering, disease), anicca (impermanence, transience of all things), and anatta (the impermanence of the soul). These concepts were in direct contrast with the Hindu belief in an eternal, blissful self. Therefore, Buddhism was originally a heresy against the prevailing Hindu religion of India, in which country it originated.

The Buddha (meaning “the enlightened” or “the awakened”) spoke of the four noble truths that had the power to liberate any person that could realize them. These noble truths were 1) the truth of dukkha (suffering); 2) “Dukkha is caused by grasping”; 3) “Eliminate the cause of dukkha (i.e. grasping) and dukkha will cease to arise”; 4) the Eightfold Path is the way to eliminate grasping and extinguish dukkha.

The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right understanding; 2) right mindedness; 3) right speech; 4) right bodily conduct; 5) right livelihood; 6) right effort; 7) right attentiveness; 8) right concentration. The word “right” can be translated as “complete” or “full.” These eight branches can be classified into three “pillars” of practice: wisdom, morality, and concentration.

The path is also called “the Middle Way” because it avoids the extremes of austerity and of sensuality.

The ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism is nirvana, which literally means “blowing out” or extinction of all grasping and thus of all dukkha (suffering). It is the end of the cycle of rebirths. The object is to find a way to cool the passions through the practice of morality and mental development. If followed to conclusion, it will result in the wiping out of suffering caused by the human condition.

Most Laotian Buddhists aim for rebirth into a better existence rather than nirvana itself, of which many don’t feel worthy. They may gain merit by making donations to temples, feeding monks, praying regularly, etc. They hope to acquire enough merit to reduce their number of rebirths. “Making merit” is an important social and religious activity in Laos. Both men and women may achieve nirvana, but men are considered to have a higher spiritual status than women. For example, if men are bad, they will return in a subsequent life as a woman (as punishment). All Buddhists, and even many non-Buddhists, believe in reincarnation.

There is no particular day of the week when Buddhists are supposed to visit the temples. They may visit whenever they feel like it. Typically, the visits include the offering of lotus buds, incense, and candles to various altars, offering food to the monks, and perhaps seeking counsel from individual monks or nuns.

Monks and Nuns:
Every male Buddhist is expected to become a monk for a short period in his life, optimally between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries. Traditionally, the amount of time spent in a temple is three months and coincides with the rainy season. Nowadays, however, men may spend as a little as one week in a temple in order to accrue merit as a monk.

Boys under 20 years of age may enter the temple as novices. This practice is very common, as families acquire great merit if one of their sons wears the monastic robe. Of those ordained for a lifetime, a large percentage becomes scholars or teachers. Some specialize in medicine or popular magic, even those this last is strongly discouraged by the political party in power.

Monks must adhere to 227 monastic vows or precepts. They rise early (generally around 4 AM), pray, study, and may eat only twice per day – before noon. They are required to remain strictly celibate and should at all times remain sober and restrained in behavior. In addition to prohibitions against alcohol and drugs, monks are not allowed to listen to music or dance, wear jewellery or perfume, sleep in elevated beds (off of the ground), or accept money for their personal needs. They are allowed to own a razor, a cup, a filter (for their drinking water), a bowl, and an umbrella.

According to the Buddhist scriptures, their life should represent a striving for self-denial and the quenching of earthly appetites. Their life should be one of meditation, asceticism, learning, and in the case of senior members, teaching, interpreting the scriptures, and offering moral guidance. They enjoy high status in society and are recognizable by their orange robes and shaved heads.

There does not exist a similar order for nuns, but they are alowed to live in temples as secular nuns. They have shaved heads like their male counterparts, but wear white robes instead. Temples that have sizeable numbers of nuns are respected because it implies that the quality of teaching in the temple is high. Having to adhere to only 8 vows, nuns have an inferior social standing to monks and may not perform religious ceremonies.

Buddhism after the Revolution:
While war raged between 1964 and 1973, both sides tried to use Buddhism for their own propaganda purposes. In 1968, the Communist party passed a resolution resolving to respect and preserve the Buddhist religion; consequently, many monks supported the Communist cause by the early 70s.

But the Buddhist community felt great upheavals after the Communist takeover in 1975. The teaching of Buddhism was prohibited in the schools, and the people no longer had the right to feed the monks – who were by consequent obligated to work in the fields and raise cattle, which went against one of their basic vows that they had taken as monks.

The following year, responding to public malcontent, the government authorized the people to give rice. But the monks still had to work in the fields, and the people argued that giving only rice did not allow them to accumulate enough spiritual merit. By the end of the year, the government acquiesed and the traditional giving of gifts and food was re-established. Today, however, most Laotians continue to offer only rice, while volunteers working for the temples cook other food for the monks.

In 1992, the government marked the rupture with the post-revolutionary period by replacing the hammer and sickle of the Communist flag with the most sacred Buddhist symbol of the country.

Today, the Buddhist community is placed under the responsibility of the Department of Religious Affairs (DAR), which assures the conformity of Buddhist teaching to Marxist principles. All monks must undergo a political indoctrination and all religious texts have had to be looked over by the DAR for “revision,” in order to insure that they are in accordance with Laotian socialism. Monks are also not allowed to promote the cult of spirits, which is officially prohibited in Laos, along with popular magic.

One of the biggest changes undergone is that all Buddhist texts written in Thai were prohibited, which reduced considerably the number of texts available. Parallely, there was a marked decline in meditation, and the monastic discipline in Laos is today marked by a great laxism – to the point that some monks accumulate a lot more objects than they are allowed, and in certain remote regions, may even be seen drinking alcohol in public during religious festivals.

There is now only one official Buddhist sect in Laos: the Song Lao. The number of monks diminished considerably between 1975 and 1988. Since the liberalization of the economy in 1989 – which permitted the augmentation of offerings to temples – the monastic community has rebounded and now has the same numbers as before 1975. The prohibition against Thai texts has been lifted, and now Laotian monks are even authorized to study at Buddhist universities in Thailand.

Although the majority of Laotians are Buddhist, their ancient Animist traditions (spirit worship) that pre-date Buddhism have hung on. Buddhism, when it appeared in Laos, simply embraced and incorporated the Animist beliefs into the new religion instead of rejecting them. So, although spirit worship is officially prohibited by the government, it is in fact very widespread.

In the Mekong Valley, animism is especially strong among the Thai tribes. Other tribes practice spirit worship or ancestor worship, but some ceremonies are reserved for tribe members, so little is known about them.

The most visible sign of animist beliefs is the spirit house, which can be seen outside of many houses. The spirit house is quite literally a small house built for the spirits of the land to live in. If a spirit house is not offered to the spirits, it is likely that the spirits will end up living in the main house with the people, which can cause a lot of trouble. The average spirit house outside of a personal residence is a birdhouse-sized imitation of a temple mounted on a pedestal.

It is very important to make sure that the spirit house is a more auspicious place to live in than the main residence so that the spirits will not feel slighted and decide to live in the main house. It should have a prominent location and should not be shaded by the main home. Also, the persons in the main house should make offerings of food, flowers, candles, incense, and drinks. If additions or improvements are made to the main house, then improvements must be made to the spirit house, as well. The interior of the house is decorated with ceramic or plastic figurines representing the property’s guardian spirits. A damaged or abandoned spirit house can’t simply be thrown away. It should be deposited against the base of a sacred banyan tree or in the corner of a sympathetic temple where benevolent spirits will watch over it.

Small temples and shrines are often set up on the floors inside of private homes, guesthouses, and other buildings, as well. They are often covered in lights and always have offerings.

Another visible sign of belief in spirits is the giving of a bracelet made of threads of cotton to a traveler, in order to insure that before he departs, all of his 32 “protector spirits” are in place.

Other Religions:
Some Laotians are Christian, but mostly only those that are French-educated. The Constitution of Laos precises that all acts that foment division between different religious groups are prohibited; thus, proselytism and the distribution of religious documents outside of temple, church, or mosque, is forbidden. Several Christian groups have tried to circumvent this law by proselytizing under the guise of teaching a foreign language or in the form of developmental aid. Unfortunately, this has made it difficult for bonafide non-governmental organizations and teachers who wish to enter the country.

A small Muslim community lives in the capital of Vientiane – mostly Arabs, Indians, Cham Vietnamese, and Cambodians who fled the Khmer Rouge.