Approximately two-thirds of the Lao population identify as Buddhist (64.7%). Buddhism was once the state religion of Laos. While this is no longer the case in contemporary Laos, Buddhism remains a dominant cultural force. Indeed, public signs of reverence for the religion are evident throughout the country and culture. The second most identified affiliation in Laos is ‘none’ (31.4%). Of the remaining population, 1.7% identify as Christian while 2.1% identify with ‘other’ or did not specify their religious affiliation.
Buddhism in Laos
The prominent form of Buddhism practised in Laos is Theravāda Buddhism. This tradition of Buddhism remains the dominant cultural force in Laos. Followers of the Theravāda tradition take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dhamma) and the monastic community (the Sangha). In Laos (and Theravāda Buddhism more generally), the Buddha is not considered a ‘God' as understood in the Christian, Jewish or Islamic sense of the term. Devotion towards the Buddha is more akin to the respect a student has for a teacher. People may wear images of the Buddha around their necks or display such images in their homes. This practice serves as a reminder and inspiration for people to aspire towards the qualities of the Buddha. Some Lao believe such amulets will protect them against evil spirits.
The Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order that includes ordained monks, nuns and/or novices) is an important institution in Laos. Monks, nuns and other lay spiritual leaders are highly respected within their communities. Indeed, such religious practitioners have various responsibilities within the community including leading religious ceremonies, interpreting dreams, acting as traditional medical practitioners or providing counselling. Some Lao will leave their families to gain training in a monastery and perhaps become a monk or nun themselves. Indeed, most young men are expected to become a monk for a period in their life. There are various reasons for this expectation. For example, it is believed that monkhood helps prepare a man for marriage, as well as the making of merit (‘khuu baa’ or ‘karma’) for the son and the family. While women can become nuns, most women tend to be laypeople.
It is common to see exchanges between Buddhist monks and laypeople. This is often through almsgiving, whereby laypeople will remove their shoes and kneel as monks pass by in a procession to collect food offerings along the street early in the morning. For many Lao, the practice of almsgiving is a form of khuu baa. The practice of almsgiving was once discouraged by the government but has nonetheless remained a prominent practice in Laos.
The Buddhist temple complex (wat) is central to community life. Each Lao Loum ( Lao) village has its own wat, which usually becomes the focal point of village festivities and rituals. Most Lao visit their local wat during special holidays and ask for blessings from monks in the event of a wedding, birth or funeral. If unable to visit a wat on important religious days, many Lao will pray at a small Buddhist shrine in or near their home. Even if one is not deeply religious, they will often worship at a wat or seek counsel from a Buddhist monk or priest.
Syncretism of Religions
An important feature of Buddhism in Laos is its fusion with other faiths. Theravāda Buddhism, as practised in Laos, borrows elements from animism (or ‘spirit worship'). Two central characteristics of animism in Laos are ancestor worship and a belief that spirits inhabit all objects. An example of the between Theravāda Buddhism and animism is the spirit houses, known as ‘sarn’ or ‘sarn pha phoum’, throughout the country. Often resembling Buddhist temples, the sarn are small model houses and serve as homes for spirits or ghosts (‘phi’) associated with the site. It is common for Lao to offer considerations for spirits and ghosts they believe to be present. For example, Lao will usually provide daily offerings of food and flowers to the spirits by leaving them outside the phi.
People from other groups, particularly those with ancestry in southern China or Vietnam, mix Confucian ideas with Mahāyāna Buddhism. Thus, religions in Laos tend not to be mutually exclusive. Instead, there is both a practice of and a general tolerance for various religious traditions.
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