Lao Religion

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LAO RELIGION . The Lao people inhabit both banks of the Middle Mekong, from Louang Phrabang in the north to Khong Island in the south. Properly speaking, they represent only half of the population in the country that bears their name; the number of Lao in neighboring Thailand is five times as great. A variety of influences have contributed to the religious contours of the Lao. Tai-speaking peoples from south of the Chinese empire introduced into the autochthonous Austroasiatic culture of the region a variety of myths and rites exhibiting Chinese influence. In the ensuing process of assimilation elements of both cultures were preserved. The dominant cultural vector, however, stems ultimately from the Indian subcontinent. When asked his or her religion, a Lao invariably will answer that he is a Buddhist, more specifically, a follower of the Theravāda ("doctrine of the elders") school. The center and symbol of the rural collectivity, indeed, of all action that is communal in Lao society, remains the vat (Pali, vatthu ; Skt., vāstu ) or Buddhist monastery. Within its precincts matters both sacred and secularreligious instruction, public meetings, community rituals, the election of a village chiefare conducted. Conversion to Buddhism remains the principal means of assimilation of minorities into the sphere of Lao culture.

Coextensive with Buddhism, and functionally integrated with it, is the so-called phī cult, or cult of local spirits. While belief in local spirits predates the introduction of Buddhism, it is important to recognize that it is impossible to extrapolate from contemporary practice the contours of Lao religion prior to the introduction of Buddhism. Nor is it consistent with the society's own understanding of its religious system to see the phī cult as formally or functionally distinct from Buddhism. Centuries of syncretization have forged an internally consistent religious ideology that has rationalized the mutual interdependence of both systems. The separate consideration of the two in the discussion that follows is merely a heuristic device, designed to illuminate the prevailing religious concerns of each.

The PhĪ Cult

The term phī is common to all Tai-speaking populations (one finds the term fī among certain non-Buddhist Tai in northern Vietnam) and typically designates an ensemble of various entities such as souls, ancestors, evil spirits, and celestial deities. The cult probably originated in pre-Buddhist Tai society, enriched by contact with Austroasiatics, the previous inhabitants of the region. The influence of the phī cult is seen in the concern to maintain the integrality of the person, as it is held that the departure of one (or several) souls provokes sickness and death. Here, it is the therapeutic aspect that dominates, Buddhism having appropriated the funerary rites. The performance of sū khwan ("calling back the souls") is mandated at times of risk: illness, before a voyage or examination, or at the passage to another stage of life. This "call" is accompanied by invocations and the recitation of votive formulas and is concluded by the tying of ligatures of cotton threads to the wrist, thus connecting the souls to the body.

The Lao have recourse equally to specialist healers (mō̡ ) and occasionally to female mediums (nāng thiam ). The most powerful among the former is the mō̡ thēvadā, or "master of divinities," a shaman who invokes the aid of his auxiliary spirits, the phī thēvadā. The mō̡ thēvadā have a double competence, as shamans and as mediums, as demonstrated by the "sacrifice to the talisman protectors" (liang khō̡ng haksā ). In this ceremony, master and disciples stage a séance of successive possessions by diverse deities, among them a class of spirits known as khā, said to include both Austroasiatic authochthones and Vessantara, the Buddha in his last rebirth prior to that in which he achieved enlightenment as Gautama. Richard Pottier (1973) has exposed this same double competence among the nāng thiam of the Louang Phrabang region, who undergo possession in public rites but act as shamans in the course of healing consultations. However, the nāng thiam function principally on the level of the collectivity, where they intervene in ceremonies honoring the guardian deity of the territory (phī muang ) or of the individual village (phī bān ).

The cult of the tutelary deity of the village is headed by a master of ritual known as a caw cam, a position that is gained through village elections. It is the role of the caw cam to announce to the phī all events affecting the life of the collectivity, notably events in which the phī is directly implicated. He addresses to the spirits the personal requests of the villagers; when these requests are granted it is his duty to officiate at the k̦ba, or sacrifice of thanksgiving. His principal task, however, is to organize and execute the annual sacrifice to the tutelary deity, the liang phī bān, or "nourishing of the village spirit," in which all households participate.

Buddhist Influences

Buddhism and the phī cult are not simply juxtaposed in Lao popular religion; over the course of several centuries they have become syncretized. Those who compiled the royal annals have presented the introduction of Buddhism at the time of the Lao kingdom's foundation as a victory over the phī cult that had predominated. They recall the vigorous campaign carried against the phī by King Pothisarath, who passed an edict in 1527 prohibiting them and ordering the destruction of all sanctuaries consecrated to the phī. His successors showed more understanding toward the phī, and Buddhism had to accommodate itself to the persistence of the cult's hold on the population. Some concepts and practices were "civilized" by assuming an outwardly Hindu formit is likely that this phenomenon predates the arrival of Hīnayāna Buddhism.

This syncretism shows up constantly in daily life and in grand public celebrations. For example, one utilizes Buddhist formulas for magical purposes and seeks without hesitation the knowledge of a monk before drawing a number in the lottery. It would never enter anyone's mind to reproach the caw cam phī bān for indulging in acts contrary to tham (Pali, dhamma ; Skt., dharma ), because one generally elects to this position a man known for his devotion to the Perfect One; in fact, before going to officiate at this altar of the tutelary deity, this ritual master first prays at the pagoda. We see within the very compound of the vat the presence of a replica in miniature of the altar of the tutelary deity: this altar, the hō̡ phī khun vat, is dedicated to the spirit benefactor of the monastery, the monk who was its founder. The tutelary deity, in the majority of cases, is also the founder of the village, and it happens frequently that the master of the phī bān ritual is the same as that of the phī khun vat.

One of the great village feasts is the Bun Bang Fai ("rocket festival"). There is no need to overemphasize the sexual symbolism of the giant rockets that are shot against the sky just before the coming of the monsoon with its fecundating rains; moreover, the carnivalesque processions with their ribald songs and provocative exhibition of enormous wooden phalluses for the benefit of young maidens points more explicitly to the nature of the festival. That the Buddhist clergy sanctions and effectively participates in this festival is evidenced by the fact that the rockets are placed within the compound of the pagoda under the supervisions of the monks. It is also in the monastic compound that the dancing nāng thiam enter into trances and where rockets of invited neighboring pagodas are collected for the rites. In numerous villages the festival of Bun Bang Fai is connected with the feast of the tutelary deity. Fertility, bawdiness, the drinking of alcoholic beverages, entering into trances, gambling (with betting on the rockets)all of these are against Buddhist law. However, in the eyes of the Lao farmer, the festival of the rockets commemorates the Visākhā Pūjāthe triple anniversary of the birth, the enlightenment, and the death of the Buddha.

The Buddhist notion that has most profoundly permeated Lao popular religion seems to be that of bun (Pali, puñña ), "merit." One must acquire merit to enrich one's kam (Pali, kamma ; Skt., karman ), which permits the attainment of spiritual liberation in the cycles of transmigration. The Lao thinks very little of niphān (Pali, nibbāna ; Skt., nirvāa ), but remains concerned with a mundane counterpart of merit: prestige, wealth, power. It should be noted that the Lao layman preoccupies himself even less with the inverse notion, that of bāp (Pali, Skt., pāpa ), "error." He is particularly concerned with the acquisition of merits, best obtained through gift giving. Moreover, the gift most laden with merit is that which has as its beneficiary the pha sang (Pali, sangha ; Skt., sagha ), the community of monks. Thus, one who has chosen monastic asceticism by his sacrifice enriches not only his own kam but offers to others the possibility of acquiring merit, even if only through the food alms that he must collect each day. To this daily source of bun must be added the massive enrichment procured through offerings of paraphernalia for the ordination of a monk or for the celebration of Buddhist feasts. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that at least once in his life every man must wear the saffron robe, a trial that constitutes a sort of initiation and preparation to adult life.

Another outwardly Buddhist component of Lao society that also serves non-Buddhist functions is the vat, or monastery. The monastery rises and grows with the collective it represents. After having cleared a section of the forest and forming a sufficiently autonomous hamlet, a group of farmers may decide to establish a hermitage (vat pā, "forest pagoda") for a monk. This small wooden house on stilts becomes the first kutdī (Skt., kutī ; monks' quarters) and grows with the hamlet itself. Consequently, this growth brings an increase in voluntary manpower and thus the construction of a more sophisticated building, the sālā, a public hall. Once this grand square hall on short stilts has been completed, the collective is able to invite a greater number of monks and laity to the village's religious ceremonies. The sālā does not function solely as a religious center, however. It serves also as a forum for meetings where the local inhabitants convene to debate on matters concerning the entire collective, such as the election of village chief, common works to undertake, and feasts to celebrate. It also serves as a warehouse for materials needed for the realization of these projects, a shelter for hawkers and travelers, and as classroom for any occidental-type schools built in the rural area. When a village attains a degree of development and reputation such that it has at its disposal the means to pay hired labor (thanks to collections made during feasts or gifts offered by individuals), it undertakes the construction of a sanctuary (sīm ; Pali, Skt., sīmā ). We see, therefore, that the monastery is the center not only of the religious life of the rural collective but also, by virtue of its multifunctional role, of all activity that is communal in character.

The two currents of Buddhist and indigenous folk religious belief intermingle to form Lao religion, but their respective proportions vary with the epochs and regions. As the reigning power reinforces itself and develops the teaching of Buddhism, the phī cult's influence tends to diminish. Despite this, Lao farmers do not completely abandon this recourse to nature's forces, which guarantee them the resources necessary for the maintenance and renewal of life. Even when they concern the whole village, the phī ceremonies take place beyond the sight of strangers. On the other hand, the monastery bears witness to the adherence of its members to a universalistic religion. The individual finds therein refuge for the most important phases of his spiritual life. But the vat is not there to serve the spiritual activities of Buddhism only; it caters also to all aspects of collective life. By its openness, it bears testimony to a social space comprising the totality of peasant system of relations: state officials on inspection tours hold meetings there, monks whom it shelters come from a hierarchy paralleling that of state administrative divisions, and festivals held in the monastery take all forms, sacred or profane, of Lao culture.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Merit, article on Buddhist Concepts; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Theravāda; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in Southeast Asia.


First and foremost, a portion of the many but dispersed publications of Charles Archaimbault has been compiled in one volume, Structure religieuses lao: Rites et mythes (Vientiane, 1973). Archaimbault's article "Les ceremonies en l'honneur des phi f'à (phi celestes) et des phi t'ai (phi précieux) à Basăk," appears in Asie du Sud-Est et monde insulindien 6 (1975): 85114. Richard Pottier's "Notes sur les chamanes et médiums de quelques groupes thaï," Asie du Sud-Est et monde insulindien 4 (1973): 99103, is supplemented by his very important dissertation, "Le système de santé lao et ses possibilités de développement" (Ph.D. diss., University of Paris, 1979). Another indispensable work on Lao religion is Marcel Zago's Rites et cérémonies en milieu bouddhiste lao (Rome, 1972). For more details, I refer the reader to my own essay, "Notes sur le bouddhisme populaire en milieu rural lao," which appeared in consecutive issues of Archives de sociologie des religions 13 (1968): 81110, 111150. A small section of this essay has been translated into English under the title "Phībān Cults in Rural Laos," in Change and Persistence in Thai Society: Essays in Honor of Lauriston Sharp, edited by G. William Skinner and A. Thomas Kirsch (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975), pp. 252277.

Concerning the Thai-Lao of Phaak Isaan, see Stanley J. Tambiah's Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970). A useful general bibliographical reference is Frank E. Reynolds's "Tradition and Change in Theravāda Buddhism: A Bibliographical Essay Focused on the Modern Period," in Contributions to Asian Studies, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, vol. 4 (Leiden, 1973), pp. 94104.

New Sources

Archaimboult, Charles. Le Sacrifice du Buffle, a S'ieng Khwang (Laos). Paris, 1991.

Condominas, Georges. Le Bouddhisme au Village: Notes Ethnographiques dans la Société Rurale Lao, Plaine de Ventiane. Vientiane, 1998.

Donnelly, Nancy D. Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women. Seattle, 1994.

Evans, Grant. Lao Peasants under Socialism. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Evans, Grant, and Kevin Rowley. Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. London, 1990.

Wilson, Constance M. "The Holy Man in the History of Thailand and Laos." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28 (September 1997): 345365.

Zasloff, Joseph, and Leonard Unger, eds. Laos: Beyond the Revolution. New York, 1991.

Georges Condominas (1987)

Translated from French by Maria Pilar Luna-Magannon
Revised Bibliography