Community Portrait: Lao
by Miriam Gross
The Lao Version of Buddhism
The Buddhism that was practiced in Laos was a unique intermingling of traditional Buddhist beliefs and spirit worship. Theravada Buddhism, originally from India, is thought to have been introduced in Laos by Khmer (Cambodian) monks in the fourteenth century.83 At that time Laos already had a strong religious base worshiping the phi, or natural spirits inhabiting the land, the household, the village, and many other places and people.84 Buddhist values and beliefs were added to traditional practices rather than replacing them. The phi continued to be included in all ceremonies, often by the Buddhist bonzes themselves.85 Once a year a celebration was held to particularly honor the village’s protective spirits.86 In addition, most households had altars to the phi who lived in and safeguarded the household.87 Most livestock were sacrificed to the phi before being eaten.88
At the same time, with some alteration, traditional Buddhist ideas continued to be practiced. Such doctrine included a belief in a lifetime of suffering, reincarnation, doing merit-making activity in this life in order to determine the quality of the next life, and the ultimate goal of enlightenment.89 Many other Buddhist cultures believed suffering in this life encouraged behaviors leading to a better next life. Many purposely avoided sensuality as a means of gaining enlightenment more quickly.90 The Lao, on the other hand, always believed in mixing merit-making opportunities and the pleasures of the moment.91 It was felt that since gaining pleasure obviously shows the individual’s success in eradicating suffering, which was also the reason for becoming enlightened, it was a logical thing to do.92 Therefore, almost all Buddhist ceremonies and formal occasions, such as funerals, included feasting, drinking, singing, storytelling, and active courting by the youth. For the same reason, there was no point in working incredibly hard in order to accumulate wealth for its own sake. In fact, hoarding a surplus caused a loss of prestige in the community. Money was useful only in that it could help one gain merit and confer pleasure through greater giving.93
The Basis of Traditional Healing
Buddhism and worship of the phi were also intermingled when dealing with sickness. Humans were believed to be composed of thirty-two souls, each of whom was present within a different organ in the body.94 In fact, the Lao word for human, khon, also means "to mix," not only because humans have been created out of multiple souls but also because they live within many worlds and over many lives.95 When one soul left, that portion of the body became ill.96 Souls could be called back by both bonzes and by shamans using ceremonies and herbs in order to rebalance an individual’s original "mixture" so that they will be healthy.97 Curing a person almost never involved cutting or operating since it was counterproductive to open up the body and encourage an additional soul to escape.98 Mental illness was not recognized as a disease in Laos. People were considered to be either normal or insane.99 Those who were disturbed, upset, or angry were also thought to be out of balance. Balance was regained either by rituals to call back the missing soul, or by going to the temple to talk with the bonze and to meditate.100 At death, all thirty-two souls would disperse and then recombine with other spirits in order to be reincarnated again.101 In addition to bonzes and shamans, some of the few available secular teachers carried Western medical kits that they dispensed with varying degrees of skill.102 However, few Laotians in the countryside had any experience with Western medicine.
Leadership in the Village
Although gender helped to establish one’s role in the family, age usually was the main determinant of status both in the family and in the village.103 Younger children were always supposed to respect their elder siblings.104 All children were expected to respect and obey parents and, to an even greater extent, grandparents. In addition to formally serving on the council of advisers, grandparents advised their children and helped them solve internal family conflicts. In general, elders receive almost all leadership positions in the village.
Most villages had a wide variety of leadership who served in many different functions. Although the chief bonze was the most important leader in the village,105 he generally did not involve himself in secular affairs unless they directly affected the temple.106 Bonzes also became leaders in that they officiated at all ceremonies and major celebrations of the life cycle, provided boys with education, and acted as advisers for problems that could not be solved in other ways.107 When they left the monastery, Buddhist laymen became respected elders in the community and continued advisory relationships formed with youth when they had been young disciples in the temple.108
In addition to the council of elders, the shaman, and occasionally a secular teacher, the main authority in the village was the village headman and one or two assistants, all of whom were voted in by the villagers.109 The headman was always the most respected male head of household.110 He was usually somewhat wealthier than other villagers, which enabled him to contribute heavily to celebrations. However, it was his moral stature, fairness, and generosity that caused people to choose him as leader.111 Although the leader was greatly respected, he was usually thought to be equal to his peers.112 This meant he had to create consensus through persuasion, rather than through authority.113 The headman, who was unpaid, had a specifically defined set of jobs including organizing a series of labor exchanges between families and for bigger village projects, settling disputes, welcoming strangers, announcing government directives, and referring problems.114 Headmen were generally elected for life.115
With the rise of the Pathet Lao and the massive American cluster bombings, patterns of life in the village started to change dramatically. Thousands of people were killed or maimed. Fields were filled with unexploded ordnance that often blew up when people tried to work in the fields.116 Most people tried to work mainly at night. Eventually over 700,000 of the 1 million people located in Pathet Lao occupied territories left their villages.117 Many of them crossed the Mekong River into Thai or UN-run refugee camps. The trip to the camp was extremely dangerous. Many Thai soldiers used the opportunity to randomly imprison, steal, or rape the refugees.118 Once in the camps, refugees discovered limited food, water, or medicine; extremely poor housing with almost no privacy; violence and rape by fellow refugees and by Thai administrators; and an overwhelming helplessness and dependence on UN provisions that was difficult for such independent villagers to accept.119 Most refugees spent years in the camps waiting and hoping to be accepted into the United States and unable to continue their lives.