Laos | Buddhism & Communism


1. Buddhism in Laos

Buddhism is the primary religion of Laos. The Buddhism practiced in Laos is of the Theravāda tradition.

Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravāda Buddhism and is at the basis of ethnic Lao culture. Buddhism in Laos is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas.

However, Laos is a multi-ethnic country with a large proportion of non-Buddhist groups that adhere to religions that are often subsumed under the denominator "animism", but that can also substantially overlap with Buddhism, or at least contain Buddhist elements resulting from cross-cultural contact.

The percentage of the population that adheres to Buddhism in modern Laos is variously reported, the World Factbook estimates 65% of the total population identify as Buddhist. Although this overall number is likely to be correct, there are large variations from province to province.

Ethnic minority provinces like Sekong had only a quota of 20% of Buddhists in 2005, while provinces largely populated by ethnic Lao like Champasak reach 92% in the same year.

There are also some Chinese or Vietnamese Mahāyāna Buddhists, primarily in urban centres.


2. Early history of Lao Buddhism

Buddha statue,
Vientiane, Laos

Theravāda Buddhism is believed to have first reached Laos during the 7- 8th centuries CE, via the kingdom of Dvāravatī.

During the 7th Century, tantric Buddhism was also introduced to Laos from the kingdom of Nanzhao, an ethnically Tai kingdom centred in modern-day Yunnan, China.

The Nanzhao Kingdom also likely introduced the political ideology of the King as defender and protector of Buddhism, an important ideological tie between the monarchy and the Saṅgha in much of Southeast Asia.

We also know very little about the transfer of Buddhism to the region which today is called Laos, but the current state of research suggests that Buddhism did not come in a single movement:

From a general perspective, research on the early history of Lao Buddhism had advanced slowly, but recent studies are also signalling progress.

During the 11-12th century, rulers took control of Muang Sua, the historical region of the kingdom of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. During this period, Mahāyāna Buddhism replaced Theravāda Buddhism as the dominant religious ideology of the ruling classes.

Epigraphic sources confirm that the early Lao kingdoms display the first clear signs of the Buddhism of royal power around the middle of the 15th century when kings were called Cakkavatti (Pāli for king as the 'turner of the wheel of the Buddhist Dhamma').

Historically, the Lao state is regarded as beginning in 1353 CE with the coronation of Fa Ngum (1316 – 1393) at Luang Prabang:

According to local historiography, Fa Ngum brought his Khmer Theravāda teacher with him to act as adviser and head priest of the new kingdom:

Phra Mahā Pasaman, an old monk and Phra Mahā Theplangka followed by 20 monks and 3 wise men brought Buddhism from Cambodia.

This Khmer monk named Phra Mahā Pasaman also brought to the kingdom a revered icon of the Buddha that became known as the Phra Bang, the namesake of the city of Luang Prabang and the symbol of the Lao kingdom.

Subsequent alliances with Burma and Thailand helped cement the primacy of Theravāda Buddhism in the Laotian kingdom.

As attested in inscriptions, King Photisarath (1501–1547) tried to suppress the worship of spirits and further assimilate the population in Buddhism.

However, the "animistic" elements of Lao Buddhism have over time survived all purification efforts and are still today of crucial importance:

Local spirit cults and rituals associated with indigenous ideas of "soul substance" (khwan) are in most cases seamlessly integrated into Buddhism, and practitioners rarely see them as contradictive.

Faced with rugged, isolating geography and the absence of a strong central government, Theravāda Buddhism became one of the primary unifying features of Lao culture.

This is also attested by the fact laws for governing the monastic order has been an important part of Buddhist statecraft in pre-modern, but also colonial Laos.

3. Lao Monastic Education during French Colonialism

Pha That Luang,
Vientiane, Laos

The French colonial regime from early on sponsored Buddhism and its Educational Institutions:

New curricula were set up, several monasteries were renovated and the educational system for monks was transformed so that it could serve colonial demands.

During the 1920s, the administration of Buddhism in Laos was further reorganized by Prince Phetsarath Ratanavongsa (1890-1959) and the French colonial regime.

In order to subvert the dominance of Thai monastic education in the region, and use Lao and Khmer Buddhism for enhancing colonial control, the French set up institutes for the training of Buddhist monks under the auspices of EFEO (French School of the Far East).

On 24 November 1914 the Ecole de Pāli was founded by royal decree in Phnom Penh and renamed Ecole Superieure de Pāli in 1922.

Having the aim to enhance the study of Buddhism through teaching monks "proper" Pāli and Sanskrit, 2 Cambodian monks were in 1922 sent to EFEO Hanoi for language training.

Lao monks first went to Phnom Penh to study at the Buddhist Institute, but Lao branches were finally opened in 1931, reflecting the peripheral position of Laos in the colonial project.

The French introduced new curricula based on the study of selected and appropriate texts, awarded monks with certificates and printed Buddhist books.

The agendas behind this reorganization of Buddhism in Cambodia and Laos were similar:

In order to build a national Buddhism within the context of Indochina, Siamese influence had to be curtailed. Instead of Bangkok, the Khmer and the Lao branches of the Buddhist Institute were to become centres for the higher education for monks.

This sponsorship and control of Buddhism was also grounded in Buddhism's potential for anti-colonial resistance:

During the early phase of French colonialism Buddhist millennial movements caused major troubles for the French regime, and parts of the Khmer Saṅgha also opposed French influence.

The influence of these colonial reforms in the field of monastic education were somewhat neutralized by the increasing political struggles during the 1950s, and finally the Socialist Revolution in 1975.

However, during the first years of independence until 1975, signs of secularization also became visible in the domain of monastic education: While a state school system was spreading, monastic education became an increasingly specialized subfield.

4. Buddhism and the Pathet Lao Communists

The Communist treatment of religion in Laos has diverged from the experience of many other countries which have had a communist regime:

Instead of repressing or banning religion outright, the Communists in Laos used the Buddhist Saṅgha as a vehicle to achieve political aims during the Cold War.

Buddhism and monastic institutions became from the beginning of the 1950s fields where partially clandestine surveillance operations were carried out, both by Royal Lao Government forces and by more left-leaning politicians.

Advocates of Middle Way between socialism and capitalism at the beginning gained support by prominent monks in Vientiane, but were increasingly marginalized when the political polarizations increased.

Officially, Marxist theory rejects religion because it is seen as a tool used by the ruling classes to mislead the oppressed classes and to keep them subservient.

Even though the Pathet Lao saw Buddhism as an antithesis of Marxism, they were able to reconcile aspects of Buddhism with Marxism.

The Pathet Lao saw Buddhism and Marxism conflicting on these principles:

=> Marxism rejects all forms of religion;

=> Buddhism's spiritual vision of the universe conflicts with Marxism's materialistic vision;

=> Buddhism regards material attachment as the cause of suffering whereas Marxism bases its utopian vision on the material world;

=> Buddhism strives for harmony whereas the Marxists see a constant class struggle between different classes; and

=> Buddhism eschews the use of violence while Marxism approves the use of violence where necessary.

The Pathet Lao re-interpreted Buddhism by affirming that there was no conflict between the teaching of the Gautama Buddha and revolutionary aims:

They focused on the life story of the Gautama Buddha:

Gautama's rejection of royal status and his choice of becoming a mendicant could be considered revolutionary as he rejected the trappings of wealth and the privilege of the ruling elite.

People were not accorded status based on caste or wealth but were accepted as long as they accepted the Dhamma. The Pathet Lao claimed that Buddha had already envisioned a classless society because of his rejection of class distinction.

The Pathet Lao also pointed out Buddhism had a strong dimension of social justice as the Gautama Buddha was interested in the material welfare of people and he wanted to relieve the lot of the poor: 

Poverty was seen as a root of evil and as a cause of crime. A minimal level of material well-being was necessary before the Dhamma could be practised. This was not too different from the Pathet Lao's aim of redistributing wealth.

The Pathet Lao also pointed out both Buddhism and Marxism were interested in the ultimate happiness of people; they both aimed to help people escape from suffering; the only difference was in their method of achieving happiness.

Both Buddhism and Marxism reject the capitalist system.

According to the Pathet Lao, Buddhism and Marxism advocated different solutions because they were the evolutionary product of societies at different stages of development:

Buddhism was a historical product of a pre-industrial age while Marxism was the scientific ideology of the industrial age. Buddhism was acceptable and it was useful as a tool of the revolution if it was purged of superstitious practices which had accrued over time.

5. Politicisation of Saṅgha

The Pathet Lao's choice to co-opt Buddhism into its revolutionary struggle had a historical basis. Traditionally, the monarchy and the Saṅgha had a reciprocal relationship. The Saṅgha aimed to remain on good terms with the state.

The king's right to rule was based on his submission to the Dhamma. He only ruled through the power of the Three Jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, the Dhamma and the Saṅgha.

In return for the Saṅgha's support and legitimation of his rule, the King had to support the upkeep of the Saṅgha and promote the Dhamma in the kingdom.

This was a relationship based on mutual benefits:

The role of the King was to run the secular affairs of the country while the Saṅgha also derived its moral authority by being detached and aloof from mundane affairs.

French colonial rule resulted in the marginalization of the Saṅgha.

It was during the Japanese occupation of French Indochina that a nascent Lao nationalist movement began to pay attention to traditional Lao culture:

The nationalist movement focused on the role of Buddhism in Lao society and on the Saṅgha as a repository of traditional Lao values. Many young monks became involved in this resurgence of nationalism.

It also meant that the traditional role of the Saṅgha was changing. The Saṅgha was no longer purely occupied with the spiritual realm; it had crossed into the secular realm.

With the exile of the Lao Issara (Free Laos) government in Thailand after the resumption of French control in 1946, the Saṅgha played a significant role in fanning nationalist sentiment in Laos. They also provided financial support by using Buddhist festivals as fundraisers.

In 1950, the Lao Issara movement split into 2 factions:

The moderate faction supported independence within the French Union while the radical faction supported the armed struggle of the Viet Minh.

Some monks actually joined the Pathet Lao, while other monks used Buddhist teachings to bolster the liberation struggle. This was effective because of the great moral impact of the Saṅgha on Lao society.

As a result, both the government in Vientiane and the Pathet Lao sought to use the Saṅgha as a vehicle for their political aims.

In the First Coalition government of 1957, the Pathet Lao held religious affairs as one of their 2 portfolios:

The Minister for Religious Affairs, Phoumi Vongvichit (1909-1994) was a communist and there was a tactical reason for the Pathet Lao to take this portfolio.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs supervised the Saṅgha directly, a function it inherited from its colonial predecessor:

Information and instructions could be transmitted via the Saṅgha ranks without recourse to the civil administration. This meant that the communists were now in control of a communication network which fanned out from Vientiane to the most inaccessible villages.

The ministry funds were also used to pay for monastic meetings where pro-communist ideas could be promulgated.

This technique was so effective that even though the Coalition government collapsed in a matter of months, many monks had already been won to the side of the Pathet Lao.

Communist propaganda was also incorporated into Buddhism sermons: the right wing forces were equated with evil and the Communists were seen as the forces of good.

6. Rightist Attempt to Rule the Saṅgha

The success of the Pathet Lao in using the Saṅgha for their political aims goaded the government in Vientiane and their American supporters into action by trying to bring the Saṅgha firmly under their control:

The rightist government of Phoui Sananikone (1903-1983), which took power after the failure of the First Coalition government, tried to control the Saṅgha by passing legislation in the form of Royal Ordinance number 160 on 25 May 1959:

It defined government control of the internal affairs of the Saṅgha:

Government officials could veto elections of abbots and elders and candidates for higher positions in the Saṅgha required Cabinet consent. Correspondence between the various administrative divisions of the Saṅgha had to go via the civil administration.

This was an attempt to turn the Saṅgha into another branch of the executive. This resulted in tension between the Saṅgha and the government and led to unrest in the Saṅgha. This proved to be opportunity for the Pathet Lao who were quick to exploit these tensions to their own interests.

The Americans trained some of the monks, who were then expected to speak against the Communists:

Lao-speaking monks from Thailand were also sent to Laos to join the ideological battle against the Communists. These monks were from the Dhammayuttika Nikāya sect, a reform sect which had been founded in Thailand. The Dhammayuttika Nikāya sect was a minority sect in Laos, as opposed to the majority Mahā Nikāya sect.

The immediate consequences of all these actions led to further tensions between the government and the Saṅgha. This was quickly exploited by the Pathet Lao:

2 underground movements, with Pathet Lao support was founded to fight against American and government influence in the affairs of the Saṅgha:

a) "Movement of Young Monks against the Thai Dhammayuttika monks"
b) "Movement of Novices to Demand their Rights".

In addition, many members of the Saṅgha were already pre-disposed to anti-government propaganda of the Communists due to the "inverse class structure" of the Saṅgha:

Under the French administration, the Lao elite was educated in secular schools. The poor could only be educated in the monasteries.

Jobs in the government were offered to the French-educated elite; those who were educated in monasteries were denied jobs in the government on the grounds that their religious education was irrelevant for government jobs.

Many of those students who were educated in the monasteries had to remain as monks and they harboured grudges against the government.

7. Saṅgha as a Medium of Propaganda

During the Lao Civil War, the Pathet Lao actively used members of the Saṅgha in their propaganda campaign:

For example, a seized Pathet Lao document dated 14 January 1968 reports how the Pathet Lao had sent out 33 monks….

… "to preach revolutionary ethics….to protect Buddhism, to revive the real morality, to explain the revolutionary tasks to the people, and to resist the psychological warfare of the American imperialists and their reactionary lackeys".

According to the Pathet Lao, members of the Saṅgha could be transformed into revolutionaries:

This is because the monk has renounced material possessions and is no longer motivated by selfish personal interests. The monk was seeking the betterment of humanity.

As such, the monk could not stand idly by and allow the oppression of the common people. To allow such injustice was a betrayal of Buddhism.

The Pathet Lao also officially accepted Buddhism in the zones under their control.

With the proclamation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic on 2 December 1975, the Pathet Lao needed to establish their legitimacy to rule, especially in zones that used to be controlled by the rightists:

They actively promoted an 18-point political programme with the slogan "Laos: Peaceful, Independent, Neutral, Democratic, United and Prosperous".

The liberal democratic tone of the document appealed to most people:

These included unity and equality of all Lao nationals of all ethnic groups, free elections, freedom of speech and the right to free enterprise and property ownership.

The 5th point included a call to respect and protect all religions, especially Buddhism.

Naturally, the Saṅgha supported these 18 points. They recruited as many monks as possible to preach these 18 points in the rural areas. The Pathet Lao message benefited from the goodwill felt by the people towards the Saṅgha as this message was promoted via the monks.

The monks were accompanied by armed Pathet Lao guards on their preaching tours, supposedly for their protection. Their sermons were also tape-recorded to ensure that they kept to the official party line. Monks who did not support the 18 point political programme were criticised.

The Saṅgharaja or the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Laos also urged the monks to work with the revolutionaries for the good of the nation:

A booklet entitled "Action Plan for the Lao Saṅgha" was prepared. It noted the importance of the Saṅgha and emphasised the importance of the Saṅgha as mediators in Lao society.

This indicated how the Pathet Lao intended to use the ecclesiastical weight of the Saṅgha to settle disputes they may face in their transition to power. Monks were to serve as a channel of communication between the Party and the people.

8. Saṅgha under Communist Rule (1975-1979)

Monks were the first to attend Pathet Lao political seminars:

At first, they attended voluntarily but as these seminars became protracted re-education classes, monks had to be forced to attend.

In these seminars, the monks were taught the Pathet Lao interpretation of Buddhism. Monks were taught Marxism-Leninism in Buddhist institutes.

Both Marxism and Buddhism taught the equality of all men.

The Saṅgha, as a community of men who lived and worked together without individual ownership of property, was similar to a Marxist collective. Both Marxism and Buddhism at an abstract level, aimed to liberate mankind from suffering and to attain happiness.

The Pathet Lao tried to purge Buddhism of such superstition as belief in the existence of demons, or of life after death in one of the Buddhist heavens or hells. The accumulation of merit was downplayed; and karma was denounced as leading to fatalism and pacifism.

While proclaiming that Buddhism and Marxism was compatible, the Pathet Lao also sought actively to replace the Dhamma with Marxism-Leninism. They also sought to discourage merit making, as it was seen as a diversion of scarce resources.

To the Pathet Lao, religion still conflicted with the formation of an orthodox Marxist-Leninist state.

Ironically, the Pathet Lao's attack on the popular aspects of Lao Buddhist practice such as spirit worship and use of special amulets may have actually led to an increased orthodoxy in Lao Buddhism as it is reverting closer to Buddha's original teachings.

Thai followers of Buddhādasa are of the opinion that Lao Buddhism has freed itself from false beliefs and local accretions. They point out that spirit worship and the blessing of amulets, which were not part of Buddha's teachings, have been prohibited.

More importantly, the Saṅgha remained as an alternative route to social advancement outside the Lao People's Revolutionary Party or LPRP, the political wing of the Pathet Lao.

The Pathet Lao sought to make the Saṅgha an instrument of party policy. It was also important to control the Saṅgha as it was one of the few organisations that had penetrated every village in Laos.

The sectarian divisions between Mahā Nikāya and Dhammayuttika Nikāya were abolished and the Saṅgha was restructured as the Lao United Buddhists Association. This association was placed under the auspices of the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education.

The traditional Saṅgha hierarchy, including the Saṅgharaja was abolished and their elaborate fans which were the symbols of their ranks, were smashed.

Executive positions in the Lao United Buddhists Association were filled by Party appointees. All high ranking monks had to attend month long political indoctrination classes.

Theravāda monks have to attend a fortnightly recitation of the Pātimokkha or the 227 verses of monastic discipline in Pāli. This became transformed as a forum to criticise monks who had strayed from the Party line.

Monks began to leave the Saṅgha or flee to Thailand.

At the beginning of 1976, a number of attacks were mounted against Buddhism:

The teaching of religion and Buddhist morality was prohibited in primary schools. Buddhist monks were harassed by local cadres.

These attacks did not last as it led to great public opposition. The Pathet Lao also realised that they still needed the monks for their propaganda objectives. By the end of 1976, these pressures on the Saṅgha ceased.

These pressures also ceased at the same time that the Pathet Lao completed the reorganisation of the Saṅgha:

Monks were still invited to attend all secular state occasions, such as National Day. Official government delegations have attended major Buddhist festivals such as the That Luang Festival.

Although monks were not harassed, they had to use their sermons to encourage people to support the Party and its policies. This also had the effect of reducing the prestige of the Saṅgha in the eyes of the laity.

Traditionally, the independence of the Saṅgha acted as the foundation of its moral authority; it was aloof and detached from mundane affairs. By using the monks as a vehicle of political indoctrination, the moral authority of the Saṅgha was weakened.

Refugee Lao monks and anti-communist informants have reported that the situation in Laos was much more serious. Pressure against the Saṅgha increased in 1976-1979. One monk who left Vientiane in December 1976 said that pressure was only subtle and indirect:

Monks who did not toe the party line were disciplined by the Saṅgha and monks were sent on re-education courses but none had been executed.

By 1979, 1000 monks were reported to have been confined to re-education camps.

Another monk who fled Southern Laos in May 1978 reported more heavy-handed methods: There were unverified reports that monks had been arrested and shot.

In March 1979, the 87-year-old Saṅgharaja of Laos, Venerable Thammayano, fled to Thailand by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car inner tubes. He had been confined to his monastery and was not allowed to preach:

He stated that youths were dissuaded from joining the Saṅgha and the monastic teachings had to adhere to government guidelines.

There was a serious decrease in the number of monks in the Lao Saṅgha during this period. Some monks left the Saṅgha, many fled and some were sent to labour camps.

Young novices were persuaded by the government to leave the Saṅgha with offers of secular training and education and special vocational schools were set up for them.

This was not aided by the loss of prestige of the Lao Saṅgha, which was being seen as a tool of government policy.

The significant number of monks who had escaped to Thailand and monks who aided the anti-communist insurgents demonstrates that the regime's attempt to co-opt the Saṅgha was not completely successful.

9. Lao Buddhism after 1979

The official attitudes towards Buddhism began to liberalise, in tandem with economic liberalization in the late 1980s.

The Buddhist Saṅgha has expanded their traditional roles:

Previously, they focused on teaching Buddhism but they also assist in adult literacy programs after the formation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic:

They teach the Lao language and other subjects in places where schools are not available or where teachers are not available. They play a prominent role in education, especially early education.

They continue their role as traditional healers in a country where doctors are scarce. However, they are prohibited from issuing cures of a spiritualist nature. They can dispense traditional herbal cures and Western medicines.

The Buddhist Saṅgha has had to re-invent themselves by emphasising their utilitarian roles in Lao society. The Saṅgha has become seen as a preserver of national culture, especially in the maintenance of Wats and Monasteries.

Buddhism has survived because it remains central to the cultural identity of Laos, and Buddhism is inextricably interwoven with Lao culture.

10. Contemporary Lao Buddhism

By the early 1990s, Buddhism was on the resurgence.
The Wat still remained as an important focus of social life.

Lines of monks could accept morning offerings from the faithful without interference and attendance at Buddhist ceremonies increased again.

At the annual Pha That Luang Festival, most members of the Politburo could be seen making offerings to monks.

Now party officials also engage more visibly in the worship of the relics enshrined in this monument and thereby reaffirm the relationship between Buddhism and the state – a long-standing feature of Buddhism, its cosmology and the political sphere.

Moreover, in 2003 and 2010 the Ministry of Information and Culture inaugurated statues of King Fa Ngum and King Anouvong (1767 – 1829).

The rituals surrounding the worship of relics and statues have become displays of the patronage power of the Lao government that thereby is intending to connect itself to a glorious Buddhist past in order to increase its legitimacy in the present.

However, many state rituals have also been carefully re-engineered since 1975:

While government policy towards religion has liberalized, the Saṅgha remains under Party control and monks have to study official government policy.

Since the 1990s, the Saṅgha has been re-oriented as a primarily religious organisation:

With Buddhist institutions being still firmly integrated into the Party State, Buddhism and the language, moral values and lifestyles associated with it, are now again promoted as "national culture".

Although the ethnic and religious conversion of animist ethnic minorities has been a long-standing feature of the region, it seems that the increasing reach of the nation-state accelerates this process.

Buddhist institutes for the training of monks have been devoting more time to the teaching of religious disciplines such as the foundation of the Dhamma, the disciplinary code, Pāli, the life of the Buddha and the Buddhist canon.

Monks appear to give talks on television and radio and they are allowed to give talks in schools and have access to patients in hospitals.

Lately, a kind of socially engaged Buddhism has also developed in Laos:

Monks are now active in HIV-and drug-prevention programs and expand into other areas that mix social work, environmental protection and education.

The UNESCO world heritage status of Luang Prabang has also led to more global engagements of its Buddhist institutions:

The highest ranking monk of Luang Prabang Phra Khamchan Virachitta Mahā Thela (1920–2007) kept his transnational networks even during the time of socialism active, and has had a major impact on the resurgence of Buddhism in Laos.

The large collection of photos he left after his death, and those of other laypeople and monks taken over the last hundred years, are now being transformed into an archive that will be of great value for documenting the past of the religious culture of the city.

11. Buddhism in Laotian Culture

Lao Buddhists are very devout, and in the past almost every Lao man joined a monastery, or temple, for at least a short period of time. Some men also become monks for the rest of their lives.

Through the demands of modern life, this practice is currently undergoing changes. Most people donate food to the monks to gain merit and improve their karma.

The temples of Laos were once seen as "Universities" for monks.

Lao monks are highly respected and revered in Lao communities. Based on Laotian Buddhism, the women of Laos are taught that they can only attain Nirvāṇa after they have been reborn as men.

12. Art and Architecture

The Pha That Luang (Great Stūpa), Wat Si Saket, Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City), and That Dam (Black Stūpa) are the best known Buddhist structures in Laos.

Lao Buddhism is also famous for images of the Buddha performing uniquely Lao mudras, or gestures, such as calling for rain, and striking uniquely Lao poses such as showing the Buddha lying down and welcoming death, after which he would achieve Nirvāṇa.

During the colonial era, Henri Parmentier undertook a massive survey of Lao arts and architecture that remains of crucial value for the general documentation of this field before the destruction that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.