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Buddhism is the primary religion of Laos. The Buddhism practiced in Laos is of the Theravada tradition. Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravada Buddhism and is at the basis of Lao culture. Buddhism in Laos is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas.[1]

The percentage of the population that adheres to Buddhism in modern Laos is variously reported, the CIA World Factbook estimates 65% of the total population have taken refuge in the Three Jewels.[2] The creation of accurate estimates of the number of Buddhists in Laos is complicated by the paucity of information made available by the Laotian government, and the close connection between Buddhist and animist practices in Laos could make the numbers of nominal adherents of both Buddhism-Animism as much higher as over 90% because these traditions have influenced on mostly Lao people [3]. It is still exclusive significant numbers of Chinese or Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhists.



Theravada Buddhism is believed to have first reached Laos during the 7th - 8th Centuries CE, via the kingdom of Dvaravati.[1] During the 7th Century, tantric Buddhism was also introduced to Laos from the kingdom of Nan-chao, an ethnically Thai kingdom centered in modern day Yunnan, China. The Nan-chao 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 sangha in much of Southeast Asia.

During the 11th & 12th Century, Khmer rulers took control of Muang Sua, the historical region of the kingdom of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. During this period, Mahayana Buddhism replaced Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religious ideology of the ruling classes.[1]

Historically, the Lao state is regarded as beginning in 1353 CE with the coronation of Fa Ngum at Luang Prabang.[4] Fa Ngum brought his Khmer Theravada teacher with him to act as adviser and head priest of the new kingdom. This Khmer monk named Phramaha Pasaman also brought to the kingdom a revered image 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.[4] Subsequent alliances with Burma and Thailand helped cement the primacy of Theravada Buddhism in the Laotian kingdom. Faced with rugged, isolating geography and the absence of a strong central government, Theravada Buddhism became one of the primary unifying features of Lao culture.[4]

During the 1920s, the administration of Buddhism in Laos was reorganized by Prince Phetsarath, who established a system of schools for providing instruction to the Lao clergy.[1]


Buddhism and the Pathet Lao

In contrast with the brutal repression of the sangha undertaken in Cambodia, the communist government of Laos has not sought to oppose or suppress Buddhism in Laos to any great degree. Rather, since the early days of the Pathet Lao, communist officials have sought to use the influence and respect afforded to Buddhist clergy to achieve political goals, while discouraging religious practices seen as detrimental to Marxist aims.[1]

Starting as early as the late 1950s, members of the Pathet Lao sought to encourage support for the Communist cause by aligning members of the Lao sangha with the Communist opposition.[1] Though resisted by the Royal Lao Government, these efforts were fairly successful, and resulted in increased support for the Pathet Lao, particularly in rural communities.[1]

Following the Pathet Lao's ascension to control of the government in 1975, efforts to link Buddhism and Communism in the popular imagination continued, with the government stressing the fundamental similarities of Buddhist and Communist views with regard to equality and material possessions, while simultaneously discouraging religious practices seen as wasteful or otherwise at odds with Communist doctrine- such as the donation of large sums to monastic institutions.[1] Traditional donations of food to monks were curtailed, and replaced with a government rice ration.[4] In response to this and other government policies limiting the traditional role of Buddhist monks in village life, the number of monks in Laos declined during the late 1970s as new ordinations declined, combined by an exodus of monks either fleeing to neighboring Thailand or leaving the sangha and returning to lay life.[1]

Senior clergy, such as the sangharaja, were forbidden by the government to preach. Lower clergy were allowed to preach to the public, but their sermons were often taped or otherwise monitored by government officials to ensure that they didn't use their position as a platform for agitating against the government.[1] As a result, in 1979, the Sangharaja of Laos, Venerable Thammayano, fled to Thailand by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car inner tubes.[1]

After 1979, government policy regarding Buddhism began to liberalize, resulting in a gradual resurgence of Buddhist institutions and practices.[1] Party officials are no longer barred from participation in religious services, and may even undergo temporary ordination. Buddhist schools in urban areas continued to teach Buddhist doctrine to monks and laity, albeit with a political bent to their doctrine. Ordinations- both temporary and permanent- have increased, primarily in Vientiene and the Mekong River region.[1] Lao monks are required to do productive work, with most working as teachers and physicians. The curriculum they teach- which includes basic literacy and Lao history- as well as the medicine they practice (Western medicine and traditional herbal remedies have replaced the sale of blessed amulets and other spiritualist cures) are controlled by the government.[4]

Communist reform of the Lao sangha has been variously praised and criticized by outside observers, with supporters seeing it as a significant achievement in modernizing and reforming a traditional institution, and opponents criticizing the co-opting of Buddhist clergy to serve political ends.[4]

Buddhism in Laotian Culture

Lao Buddhist are very devout and almost every Lao man joins a monastery, or temple, for at least a short period of time. Many men also become monks for the rest of their lives. 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.

Art and Architecture

The Pha That Luang, Wat Sisakhet, Wat Xieng Thong, and That Dam are all 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 Nirvana.


In the Pra Lak Pra Lam, the Lao Ramayana, instead of having Rama portrayed as an incarnation of Vishnu, Rama is an incarnation of the Buddha. Lao people have also written many versions of the Jataka Tales.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Savada, Andrea Matles (1994). Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO for the Library of Congress.  
  2. ^ "CIA World Factbook- Laos". Retrieved 2007-04-10.  
  3. ^ International Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Laos
  4. ^ a b c d e f Reat, Noble Ross. " "Buddhism in Laos".". Retrieved 2007-04-12.  

External links

An interesting description of sacred caves in Southeast Asia and their role in Buddhist practice can be found here:Sacred caves in Southeast Asia


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