Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Buddhist monks by the Mekong River
It’s as though I’ve been transported back in time. 

I’m on an old stone stairway overlooking the Mekong, when a simple wooden boat pulls up to the riverbank below. It docks at the base of the long staircase, and four Buddhist monks step ashore, then begin ascending the steps. Their bright saffron orange robes stand out against the natural earthly colors of the surrounding landscape. Like all monks, their heads are completely shaved. These humble monks carry nothing, since they possess nothing. They are silent, and the only sound they make is the light slapping of their sandals as they rise the steps towards me. They pass by me quietly, then enter the monastery that is their home at the top of the hill. 

There is no hint of modern technology in what I’ve seen. This scene typifies the simple life that has existed in Buddhist monasteries of Laos for centuries. In this quiet town Buddhism is the dominant religion followed by Lowland Lao, the country’s largest ethnic group. The Lowland Lao are traditionally Theravada Buddhists, an early and traditional form of the religion.

As one of the world’s older religions, Buddhism predates Christianity. The religion is based on the idea that life is suffering. But by accepting this idea as fact, through Buddhism suffering can be avoided and happiness attained. Reincarnation is a central theme, and they believe that good deeds and charitable donations build merit for each to improve their position in their next life. 

Buddhism was first brought to Luang Prabang in the 13th or 14th century, making this town the spiritual center of Laos. It’s no wonder that I’ve walked by so many temples and shrines during my stay here. 

The old wooden temple of the Buddhist monastery
Visiting hours are over, so I come back another day. When I return, I climb the old steps and enter this revered place known as a wat, which is a monastery temple. The name of this particular Buddhist monastery is a mouthful: 
“Wat Xiengthongratsavoravihanh”. This aging complex was originally built way back in the 16th century on orders of the King. It’s one of the few wats in all of Luang Prabang that wasn’t destroyed over the centuries during various pre-colonial invasions. 

As opposed to the great stone temples that Southeast Asia is known for, this temple and most others in town are made of wood. Despite their lack of heavy stone, they are grand architectural structures. Looking up at the dark temple, curving, traditionally tiled rooftops slope over heavy wooden pillars. The tiles were at one time red, but have been heavily darkened from years of aging. Snakelike nagas emerge from the rooftop’s corners. These serpent-like figures are the only thing that looks threatening in the entire monastery. 

One of many elaborate mosaics decorates a temple building
Many buildings and shrines in this compound are adorned with mosaics, depicting life in old Luang Prabang. There are colorful scenes of men riding elephants, boats conducting trade, farmers working the rice fields, and of course monks conducting Buddhist rituals. 

As I approach the main temple, I can hear the unmistakeble sound of chanting. Reaching the door, I peer in to find an impressive sight. All of the wat’s monks, around 30 of them, are seated cross legged on the floor. They are chanting in unison. Facing them at the far end, is an immense, elevated golden statue of Buddha. Like the monks, it wears an orange robe across one its golden shoulders. Smaller Buddha statues and colorful flowers surround the tall icon. 

To the sides, six massive wooden pillars support the ceiling, with intricate gold detailing covering them from top to bottom. Each pillar has been fashioned from a single giant tree taken from the jungle. There are no windows here and lighting is dim, giving a somber feel to the scene. Since there are only monks inside, I decide to stay at the door and watch. This is Buddhist ritual as it has been for centuries.

Buddhist monks of all ages inside the temple
Buddhist monks renounce worldly pleasures, and theses men live a very basic life of study and meditation. For sustenance, they rely on donations from their neighbors. At dawn in Luang Prabang, gongs heard in the streets announce the approach of a procession of monks. Holding metal containers, they accept gifts of rice from Buddhists, who earn merit from their donations.

Looking over these chanting monks, they appear to be arranged by age. The oldest are seated in front, with the youngest in the back near me. Some of these novice monks look no older than 12. One way that families earn merit is by having their sons enter a wat, and most Lao males become a monk for at least a three month period. If they decide to become a monk for life, they may pursue the ultimate goal of 'nirvana', or enlightenment. 

Buddhism was the official state religion for centuries, until Kaysone and the communists took over. Pushing toward the secular, they began discouraging the practice of many Buddhist traditions. Families were discouraged from sending their sons into wats, and it was forbidden to give rice or alms to the monks on their morning rounds. 

But the ethnic Lao identified with Buddhism far more than they did with the communists, and these restrictions lost them support from devout Buddhists. Fortunately these restrictions didn’t last; policies were relaxed in the 1980’s. By the 1990’s, government officials of the communist party were openly supporting Buddhism again, even taking part in Buddhist celebrations. Government meddling isn’t completely gone though. Most monks now receive some government indoctrination as part of their training. In the past half century, Communism in Laos has changed far more than Buddhism has.

Young monks pile into a truck in Luang Prabang, the country's spiritual capital
Although the communists' restrictions on Buddhists have lessened, these reforms have not extended to all faiths. Government repression has shifted from the Buddhists, to Protestants. Although a small minority in Laos, the government still fears the rise of Christian converts. 

According to a 2008 report from the US State Department, “Local officials have pressured minority Protestants to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages in Bolikhamsai, Houaphan, and Luang Namtha provinces. In some areas, Protestants have been forbidden to gather to worship.”

Threats of arrests sometimes lead to imprisonment. One example in the report refers to oppression in Bokeo: “The village had previously experienced problems, as in late 2005 when local officials destroyed an unapproved LEC church in Houaysay Noi Village and arrested six church leaders. One of the six died while in jail, and the other five were released in early 2006."

Although freedom of religion is supposed to be guaranteed in the current constitution of Laos, what actually happens in practice is something else. The communist government has made a peace with Buddhism, but they aren’t about to grant genuine religious freedom anytime soon. 

No comments:

Post a Comment