Theravada Buddhist Practice in Laos
The main religion in Laos since the 14th century has been Theravada Buddhism, a tradition shared with nearby Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. First introduced to Laos by Mon monks from the Buddhist kingdom in Cambodia, for several centuries Theravada Buddhism competed with Hinduism, Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, all of whose religious ideas and control spread and contracted as Laos was ruled by one or another kingdom. With the establishment of the Laotian kingdom of Lane Xang in 1349, Theravada Buddhism eclipsed the other traditions, which withered and disappeared. Theravada Buddhism flourished and shaped the culture and society of Laos until the coming of the communist government in 1975. While this government has not opposed Buddhism, and indeed has attempted to use its resources and prestige to achieve its own political goals, it is no longer the state sponsored religion that it was for 5 centuries. Since the 1990’s, relaxed political controls have meant a resurgence of traditional Buddhist activities.
Theravada (the name means “Teaching of the elders”) Buddhists consider that their tradition is the closest to the original meaning of early Buddhism; they reject the accumulation of scriptures and ideas which animate Mahayana and Tantric forms of the tradition. As is the case of Buddhist in neighboring countries, Lao Buddhism is heavily influenced by, and intermingled with traditional animistic and shamanistic beliefs. Often, Buddhist monasteries house shrines to the Phi spirits of the land and often Buddhist monks are practitioners of the spirit cult. This accommodation by Buddhism of indigenous beliefs is one reason for its great success.
Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) Buddhism is one of the three major divisions of Buddhism, the others being Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Tantrayana (esoteric Buddhism). This form of Buddhism is the one currently prevalent in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka. It considers itself to be the oldest form of Buddhism and the one closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. All forms of Buddhism have key beliefs in common and the differences are in matters of practice and emphasis.
All Buddhists accept Buddha as the historical founder of the religion: Theravada emphasizes his humanity: he was a man who discovered the way to enlightenment and anyone can follow his footsteps and achieve enlightenment as well. Buddha was a teacher, a guide, one who showed the way to happiness and enlightenment. Buddha was a human who lived, discovered the middle way between pleasure and pain that leads to enlightenment, taught this path for 45 years, and then entered Nirvana (when he passed away). He is not a God, is not involved in the world any longer and thus he cannot answer prayers or petitions. Thus, Theravada stresses self reliance and obtaining enlightenment on one's own by following the way of the Buddha. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana, on the other hand, stress the supernatural quality of the Buddha and the fact that Buddha and other beings can help one on the way to enlightenment.
Buddhism is a religion which originated in India in the 6th century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Asia. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), the religion stresses one's own responsibility for one's actions and promotes the central virtues of love, compassion, kindness, and no harm to any living creature. Buddhism grew out of dissatisfaction with the increasingly ritualistic practices of Hinduism; it also totally rejected the caste system and insisted on the equality of everyone. However, Buddhism kept certain of the key Hindu beliefs, including the belief in reincarnation, the role of Karma (one's actions) in causing reincarnation, the desire to escape from this "wheel or rebirth" and the belief that ending the cycle of life resulted in entrance to Nirvana, a vaguely described feeling of total bliss. Buddhists also believed that the world, while often a thing of joy, is also a place of suffering; the aim of Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of mankind by eliminating the cause of this suffering.
The basic ideas of Buddhism are those taught by the Buddha in his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares, after he himself attained "enlightenment". The legend of the Buddha states that he was a prince (Siddhartha Gautama) of a small kingdom called Sakya (now in Nepal). When he was born, a seer predicted that he would be either a great king or a great world renouncer. His fathe,r the king, wanted to prevent his son from renouncing the world and becoming a wandering holy man and thus surrounded him with luxury and kept from him knowledge of ills and evils. However, the gods took a hand and, when the prince was out riding one day, exposed him to the fours sights: a beggar, an ill man, a corpse, and a holy man. These sights shocked the young prince who realized how much suffering existed. He decided to rid the world of this suffering and one night, at the age of 29, left his palace, his wife, his son (named Rahula, which means fetters), his horse and clothes and adopted the robe of a wandering ascetic. He spent 6 years in self-mortification, starving and suffering and then realized that this was not bringing him closer to understanding the cause of suffering. So he ate and drank in moderation and sat under a tree (since called the Bodhi or tree of enlightenment) and meditated until he came to a realization, an understanding of the cause both of misery and of rebirth. This understanding is called enlightenment and it came to have two meanings: that one would not be reborn again but, upon "death" would go to Nirvana, a state of bliss; and that one would live the rest of one's life in total joy and happiness, unbothered by anything that would happen.
The way to rid oneself of suffering that the Buddha came to understand and to preach was called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the basic core beliefs of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are:
- The world is full of suffering.
- This suffering is caused by desire.
- There is a cure for this suffering.
- The cure is to get rid of desire.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to get rid of desire, which is seen as the cause of all misery AND the cause of rebirth. The Indian term Karma, which literally means actions, was redefined by Buddha to imply that it is the desires behind one's actions that cause the accumulation of karma, which in turn causes rebirth. Thus any action which is accidental or which is done with no selfish desire of any kind does not cause rebirth. The key to escaping from the cycle of rebirth, as well as to achieving happiness on earth, is the elimination of desire. Following the eightfold path is the easiest and best way to achieve this aim. The path consists of three sections: ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. Under ethical conduct, one practices right speech, right action and right livelihood; under mental development one practices right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and under wisdom, one practices right view and right intention.
The various sects which developed had different ideas about what constituted these eight virtues and how to practice them. For example, what is right speech? Is it permissible to tell a lie to save people's lives? Under right action, for example, one must take a vow of non-harm of other creatures. Does this mean that one should starve to death rather than eat meat? Does it mean one should never kill in self-defense? Each of the above 8 virtues raised many questions about its implementation and these were answered differently by different Buddhists.
The center of Buddhist life is the monastery. Buddha felt that it is difficult to avoid desire and preference while leading the life of a householder; giving up the things of the world and living in a monastery with one's simple wants met would make it easier to follow the above eightfold path. Thus, monks and nuns have always been at the center of Buddhism and the monastic way of life is practiced in all Buddhist countries. Gradually a set of rules, called the Vinaya rules, governing monastic life was created. Each monk or nun takes 3 great vows: poverty, chastity, non-harm to others and agrees to abide by ten precepts: to abstain from harming living beings, taking things not freely given, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness, taking untimely meals, dancing, singing, music, the use of flowers, perfumes and personal adornment, the use of high seats, and the use of gold and silver. In Theravada countries, it is the custom for each young boy to spend a certain amount of time, ranging from one week to several months, in a monastery. In his initiation, he repeated the Buddha's life by renouncing things of this world, shaving his head and donning the robes of a monk. This served to inculcate Buddhist values in these young boys and ensure tight relations between the monks and the community.
For the first 300 years or so after Buddha's death, his teachings were passed on orally and were memorized by the monks and nuns. Eventually they were written down into a series of sutras know as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets. These contained the ethical, practical and metaphysical teachings of the Buddha as well as the rules for monastic living. All Buddhists consider these scriptures to be the word of the Buddha and thus sacred. Theravada Buddhists accept only this collection of Sutras as valid. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana Buddhists have additional writings which they consider to also be the teachings of Buddha.
For a detailed discussion of Theravada Buddhism and excerpts from the scriptures (Sutras): http://www.accesstoinsight.org/theravada.html
As is true of Theravada Buddhism through Southeast Asia, a symbiotic relationship exists between the lay people and the monks and nuns. The monks and nuns come from the lay people who in turn, nourish and financially support the monastery. The monastery provides a number of services to the people: education; medical care; care for the elderly, the orphaned, the helpless; as well as undertaking public works projects such as bridge building, providing hostels for travelers and students, etc. The monks and nuns undertake daily “begging rounds” which both serve to financially support the monastery and give the people a chance to earn “merit” and thus an opportunity for a better rebirth.
In Laos, all makes generally spent a period of time as a monk in their youth: this period of time can be as short as one week or as long as several years, but typically lasts 2-4 months. Being ordained as a monk brings great merit not only to the boy but to his parents. It had the advantage in that the novices were taught to read and write as well as learning about Buddhist precepts. This time in the monastery generally during the rainy season, often called the “retreat”, between the months of June and October, also served to strengthen ties between the boys and the monastery after they left. All Buddhist, whether monks or lay person, are expected to observe the 5 prohibitions against: killing, stealing, lying, forbidden sexual pleasures, and taking intoxicants. In addition, young monk observe 75 additional rules and full fledged monks vow to observe the 227 rules of monastic order.
For those who elect to remain as monks, their main concern is to develop detachment form the world as they are working to achieve enlightenment in this life; lay people are working to accumulate merit (good karma) for a better rebirth. Thus, they give up family ties, possessions (owning only the basics, such as clothes, eating bowl, razor, etc. They do not engage in labor of any kind but spend their days in study, preaching, meditation, running the monastery, doing good works, etc. Thus, they are totally dependant upon the people for food, clothing, shelter, etc. the people, especially women, take turns preparing and giving food and robes to the monks; they often clean the monastery, wash the monks clothes and perform other such services as acts of piety and merit.
As In other Southeast Asian countries, Buddhism in Laos brings peace and joy to the people as well as a number of festivals which are breaks in the agricultural working year. The first yearly celebration, Bun Pha Wat, occurs in January, at different dates in different villages, and commemorates the life story of Buddha in one of his previous incarnations as Prince Vestsantara. This story of Buddha’s life just previous to the one in which he discovers the secret of enlightenment and becomes the Buddha, is told in plays and recitations throughout Laos; this is seen as a good time to become a monk.
The Magha Puga ceremony, held on the nigh of the full moon in February commemorates the first sermon given by the Buddha in the Deer Park in Benares to over a thousand people who came to hear him speak. The festival consists of parades of worshippers bearing candles circling their local temples, music and chanting. IN March, a harvest festival, Boun Khoun Khao is celebrated in which the villagers give thanks for a good harvest with gifts to the monastery. One of the most important celebrations occurs in April and last several days. This is Boun Pimai, the Lao New Year which is characterized by, among other things, the throwing of buckets of water on all and sundry. Symbolizing the washing away of sins and a new beginning, the festival also involves washing Buddha statues, feasts, visiting family and temples, dancing and singing.
The Visakha Puja, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, all of which occurred on the same day in different years, takes place in May and is celebrated by candlelit processions to the temples, sermons, chanting, etc. The rocket Festival (Boun Bang Fai) is held at the same time; a remnant of pre-Buddhist rain-making ceremonies, this festival consists of parades, songs, dances and climaxing in the firing of huge, ornate, homemade bamboo rockets. Rocket makers are honored if their rockets fly the highest.
The most sacred time in the Buddhist calendar is the three month Rain retreats (sometimes called the Buddhist Lent in English). This is based on the Buddha’s early injunction that monks and nuns should not travel during this season and is the time when most young men undertake their initiation ceremonies by becoming temporary monks; it is a time when Weddings and other celebrations are not held, when lay people undertake fasts or meditations, and generally try to imitate the lives of monks and nuns as much as is possible. This period begins and ends with celebrations: the Khao Phansaa on the first full moon in July and the Awk Phansaa on the first full moon in October. The Awk Phansaa ceremonies consists of gifts given by villagers to the monks and the launching of hundred of banana-leaf boats decorated with candles, incense and flowers, into the rivers. Boat races are often held in riverside towns as part of these celebrations.
In August, the Haw Khao Padap Din festival occurs. This is a day devoted to remembering and paying respect to the dead. While this festival is observed through the Buddhist world, one unusual aspect of the Laotian ceremony is that recently dead bodies are exhumed, cleaned and cremated, to the prayers and chanting of monks and nuns.
The focal point of every village and town is the temple or Wat. This is a symbol for village identity, the focus of the festivals, the site of local schools, and the residence of the monks. The Wat usually has at least two buildings: one to house the monks and one to house the statues of Buddha; the building can be made of wood and bamboo or brick and stone. The roofs usually are curved to imitate the shape of the mythical water snake, the naga.
Beginning in the late 1950’s the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the Sangha’s influence to increase their status among the people. This was often successful, as Lao society was divided between the urban elites and rural peasants. The politicization of the monastic community continued after the assumption of power by the Pathet Lao in 1975. The government taught that Buddhism and Marxism were similar in that both stressed the equality of all people and sought ways to end people’s suffering. However, the government also discouraged the spending of money on “wasteful” ceremonies, encouraged men not to become monks but to lead productive working lives, and in general discouraged the practice of Buddhism while overtly espousing tolerance. Many monks, compelled to spread party propaganda, fled to Thailand, the number of men and boys being ordained dropped and many Wat were emptied. 1979 saw the lowest point of Buddhism In Laos. After this, political liberalization occurred and the number of monks has steadily increased, donations to the Sangha, participation in festivals, and other Buddhist activities have increased.
In spite of the almost universal acceptance of Buddhism among the Lao groups, most Laotians also believe in the rich traditional spiritual life. The belief in phi (spirits) affects the people’s relationship to nature, provides a cause of illness and misfortune, and shapes interpersonal relationships. Many of the Wat have small spirit huts included on their grounds and many of the village monks are respected as having the ability to exorcise malevolent spirits or contact favorable ones.
Phi have much in common with the spirits of the land worshipped in other Southeast Asian countries. Some are connected with the elements of earth, heaven, fire and water; others are the malevolent spirits of those who dies by accident, violence or in childbirth. There is a belief in 32 Khwan (spirits) which protect people form various misfortunes: illness occurs when one or more of these spirits leave the body. A ceremony is conducted which calls these spirits back into the body; cotton strings are tied around the wrist to keep the spirits in place.
There are also spirits of animals, spirits of places, especially of dangerous places, and offerings of various kinds are made to placate them. Ceremonies generally involve a ritual specialist who oversees the offerings of chickens, rice wine and other agricultural products; after being given to the spirits, the earthly remains are eaten by the worshippers. Each village has a village spirit who needs to be nourished with gifts and ceremonies. The cult of ancestors is also important and a variety of ceremonies takes place honoring them, asking their assistance for their descendants. The belief in the existence of these spirits has mingled quite well with the mainstream Buddhism and no friction occurs between them.