Buddhism in Laos
The primary sources for the history of Buddhism in Laos are texts, such as palm leaf and mulberry leaf manuscripts, stone and metal inscriptions, traveller’s reports, and printed materials:
These sources, which are held in monastic, governmental, and royal archives, provide information on Lao Buddhism from only the 14th century and after, and many have yet to receive scholarly scrutiny.
A survey of the information gleaned from these sources reveals the story of Buddhism in Laos to be a fragmented and contested history of royal patronage and governmental reform, as well as a creative engagement between local, indigenous beliefs and a translocal religion.
As the various kingdoms of what became Laos emerged as regional centres of power and wealth, Buddhism helped construct Lao identity. In turn, royal reform, rituals, beliefs, aspirations, and vehicles of expression reconstituted Lao Buddhism.
Texts and inscriptions reflect the fragmented and, for lack of a better word, syncretic, nature of the early history of Lao Buddhism:
Generally, the most common texts found in Laos before the 20th century are:
- nithāns (folktales),
- anisaṁsas (blessings used in Buddhist ritual and magical ceremonies),
- parittas (incantations for protection),
- xalongs (ceremonial instructions for both lay and religious ceremonies),
- apocryphal Jātaka (non-canonical birth stories of the Buddha),
- nissayas (creative glosses and commentaries of Pāli texts), and
- tamnāns (relic, image, and monastery histories).
Xalongs, anisaṁsas, and parittas are used in everyday house, buffalo, monastery, and bodily blessings; they are also used when making love potions and protective tattoos.
The tamnāns show the heavy Buddhist influence in the governmental, economic, and military history of Laos.
Nithāns and apocryphal Jātakas are intricate and entertaining stories of heroism, romance, and adventure that were (and are) often narrated at religious events or life-cycle rituals, such as funerals, and at the end of the rains retreat.
Nithāns and apocryphal Jātakas were also the basis for monastic education and public sermons.
What should be emphasized is that Pāli canonical texts are often in the minority in these collections.
Translocal Buddhist narratives and philosophical texts have been commented on and adapted by local Lao teachers, and these commentaries and adaptations are much more popular in Laos than their source texts from India and Śrī Lanka.
Although they have yet to be fully surveyed, read, and catalogued,
Lao Buddhist inscriptions, particularly votive inscriptions, generally provide evidence of royal or wealthy lay patronage of certain monasteries.
They also reflect the great influence that Northern Thailand and, after 1560, Burma (Myanmar) had on the practice of Buddhism in Laos.
One inscription from Dansai (formerly part of the Lao Kingdom of Lān Xāng, but part of Thailand since the mid-19th century) tells of Buddhist monks accompanying the king to a political meeting with the King of Ayutthaya.
Another inscription from Vientiane (the present capital of Laos) suggests that there were many monks from Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) in the region, which would account for similarities in Lao and Northern Thai Buddhist and secular literature composed between 1480 -1620.
King Phothisālarāt (r. 1520-1547) was probably the most active patron of Buddhism and Buddhist literature in Laos:
It is Phothisālarāt and his son Xetthāthirāt (r. 1548-1571) who were responsible for the creation of most of the extant sources of Lao Buddhist history.
Phothisālarāt actively tried to “purify” Lao Buddhism by banning magical practices and the worshipping of phī (ghosts) and phrabhūm (local deities of trees, rocks, waterfalls, etc.).
However, modern rituals like the riek kwan, phūk heuan, and bun bang fai in various parts of Laos show the limited success of his reforms:
all of these rituals combine the worship and propitiation of phī and phrabhūm by Buddhist monks with the chanting of Buddhist mantras.
The practice of drawing magical diagrams (yantras) by monks and lay experts has also been popular since at least the 15th century
and involves the mixing of Buddhist prayers with aspirations to be lucky in love, finance, and the avoidance of attacks by knives, guns, and poison.
Laos did not have a printing press until the French colonial period (ca. 1893-1954) and only recently has there been a regular printing of religious books in Lao:
These books cover a wide range of subjects, but generally resemble their palm and mulberry leaf manuscript predecessors.
Still, whether it be printed books, inscriptions, or manuscripts, the textual sources resist easy classification and cannot be used to provide a clear, linear history of Buddhism in Laos.
However, this should not suggest that Lao scholars from the 14th century to the present did not attempt to write (or perhaps preserve orally) historical chronicles:
There are several extant royal and religious chronicles, the most famous being the Nithān Khun Borom (The Story of Khun Borom):
These chronicles tell of:
- the introduction of Buddhism into Laos under King Fā Ngum (r. 1353-1374) in the mid-14th century;
- the growth and reform of Buddhism under King Xetthāthirāt in the late 16th century;
- the movement of monks, scribes, artisans, and so on from Chiang Mai to Laos after the Burmese invasion of the former in the 1560s;
- the patronage and building of numerous monasteries under King Surinyavong (r. 1638-1695);
- the burning of the Sisaket Monastery and the theft of the Emerald Buddha by the Siamese (Thai) in the late 18th century;
- the building of numerous monasteries
- and the reunification of the 3 kingdoms of Laos (Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak) by King Ānouvong (r. 1804-1828) and the subsequent burning of the Vientiane by the forces of Siam in 1827.
Still, these chronicles, like Western and local modern historical reconstructions written in the 20th century, generally sacrifice accuracy to clarity, covering over the variety of Buddhist beliefs and practices with a sheen of unity and linearity.
In the 19-20th centuries, travellers’ reports provide information about the history of Buddhist practice among the general population, information that is lacking in royal chronicles, protective chants, and relic and monastery histories.
Travellers’ reports confirm the validity of some of the rituals described in folktales and epic poems.
The multivolume collection by members of the Mission Pavie (1879-1895) and the work of Karl Izikowitz in the 1930s discuss how local animistic practices of the Hmong, Sedang, Moi, and other Lao hill tribes became mixed with Buddhist practices:
These sources also describe how monks took on the roles of magicians, appeasers of local deities, doctors, and secular and religious teachers in Lao villages.
Still, aside from these reports and many others, a comprehensive study of how Buddhism and indigenous Lao religions have interacted remains a desideratum.
After almost a century of war and foreign occupation, the independent People’s Democratic Republic of Laos emerged in 1975:
Its Marxist government has allowed the practice of Buddhism to flourish and has even enlisted Buddhist monks to serve as political advocates who hold up the communist ideals of generosity, community cooperation, and equality among the classes.
The Lao government has encouraged greater involvement of monks in community development and secular education by sponsoring the Union of Lao Buddhists and other Buddhist/Communist organizations,
while discouraging monks’ practice of traditional healing rituals, exorcism, and prophecy, and discouraging them from using the monkhood to avoid military and government service.
The Lao government has also attempted to limit lay donations (in order to gain merit for a favourable rebirth) to monasteries, even though this practice has been the foundation of lay/monk interaction for the entire history of Lao Buddhism.
Still, like the efforts of King Phothisālarāt and King Ānouvong to reform Buddhism, these government policies have mostly been quietly ignored,
and although monks have played a greater role in secular education since 1975,
the unique and syncretic practices of Lao Buddhists that the sources reveal persist and even flourish among both the urban and rural populations.