The Phra Bang Buddha That Refused To Be Captured, Temples, Monks and Theravada Buddhism In Laos
The Phra Bang Buddha That Refused To Be Captured, Temples, Monks and Theravada Buddhism In Laos
About fifty percent of the population of Laos are Buddhists.
The remainder of the population practice ancient religions that were practiced by their own ethnic groups for centuries.
Most of these ethnic groups are practitioners of the Tai Folk religion, with beliefs and festivals that vary greatly among the ethnic groups.
The Tai Folk religion, which roughly translates as “The religion of Spirits” (also called Ban Phi), is practiced predominantly by the Tai people living in northern Laos.
It is a form of animist religion that is intermixed with Buddhist and Hindu traditions and has local traditional influences, centered on unseen Spirits and appeasing the forces and Spirits of Nature.
But without any doubt, Buddhism is the predominant religion in Laos.
It has long been a strong force in Lao culture and remains a major influence in everyday life.
Each ethnic Lao village has its own temple (called “Wat”) which is the focal point of village festivities and rituals. Traditionally, each Wat also had a guesthouse, a monastery and a school.
As is the practice in other Buddhist countries, young boys from poor families are sent to get their Buddhist education in the temples, and later they have a choice to stay and become monks, or to leave and live a secular life.
Nearly all men in Laos spend some time in the monasteries and live as monks prior to marriage.
Some spend only a few days and some do a three month silent retreat.
The wats are the heartbeat of each city and village, with people coming each morning and evening to pray, while the monks sing and chant prayers.
The monks get up before dawn, and begin their alms begging early.
It does not really involve any begging, since the mere sight of the monks in their saffron robes elicits donations of food.
It is considered good merit to make an offering to the monks, and people wake up early and make a trip to the market to buy food like sticky rice in banana leaves or inside bamboo baskets, to offer to the monks.
Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka, after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C.
Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant sect of Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia.
Buddhism was first introduced to Laos in the eighth century by Buddhist monks, and by the fourteenth century, it had become widespread across the kingdom.
Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and was always prioritized by the ruling kings.
A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of Buddhism.
Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists until the early 1990s.
In 1975, when the communist government took power, they did not oppose Buddhism, but rather attempted to manipulate it to support their political goals, and with some success.
Theravada Buddhism is not an authoritative nor a demanding religion towards its followers, and it is tolerant of other religions.
It is based on three concepts:
Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha, which is used as a guide for right thinking, right action and right beliefs.
Karma – the responsibility of each person for all his or her actions, in all their past and present incarnations, and the belief that the soul seeks to correct all of its own wrongdoings and grow in the process.
Sangha – the awareness that we live in a community, and the knowledge that each person can improve his or her actions.
In Buddhism, there is no striving for heaven or the afterlife.
The journey is towards Enlightenment or Salvation, by recognizing your True identity beyond the illusion of form.
The final extinction of all illusions means that you are released from the cycle of many births and many deaths, and thus from the inevitable suffering that is inherent in each cycle.
This state of extinction is called Bliss or Nirvana, and it comes after having achieved Enlightenment, recognizing the illusory nature of existence.
The essence of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, taught by the Buddha.
The Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking, and right meditation.
In my travels, I have encountered many Buddhist people, and I have witnessed that the average Buddhist person does not really believe that he or she can hope to achieve Enlightenment or Nirvana.
They believe that only monks or nuns who devote their whole lives to the Dharma and the practice of meditation can achieve that.
All they hope for is to improve their karma and to gain more favorable circumstances in their next incarnations, by complying with the basic rules of moral conduct.
They believe that their Karma can be favorably influenced by avoiding the five prohibitions: killing, stealing, sexual perversion, lying, and taking intoxicants.
It is widely believed that the most effective way to improve your karma, is to earn merit (“to do good” in Laos).
Although any act of benevolence or generosity can earn good merit, Laotians believe that the best opportunities for merit come from supporting the Buddhist Sangha of monks and nuns, and by participating in temple activities.
Theravada Buddhism was introduced in Luang Prabang in the 13th and early 14th centuries.
There is evidence that Mahayana Buddhism was introduced earlier, in the 8th to the 10th centuries, but it didn’t really spread enough to have a lasting effect on the community.
In the mid 14th century, King Fa-Ngum, the monarch who unified Laos and created the first Lao kingdom, converted his kingdom to Theravada Buddhism.
He built Laos’s first wat in 1356 A.D. and enshrined the mystical Pha Bang Buddha statue.
“The Pha Bang Buddha,” is a standing Buddha statue, about 83 cm in height, with
his palms facing forward. The statue was cast using bronze, gold, and silver.
According to local lore, it was cast in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime between the 1st and 9th centuries. However, some argue that the features of the image suggest a later Khmer origin.
The Phra Bang Buddha was enshrined in Luang Prabang and was regarded as the most sacred and culturally significant Buddha image in Laos.
In 1705, the Phra Bang was taken to Vientiane, now the capital city of Laos.
In 1778, the Siamese (Thailand) invaded Vientiane and captured the Phra Bang Buddha, taking it back to Bangkok.
While the Buddha statue was being held in Bangkok, political upheaval and misfortune were attributed to the captured Buddha, and in 1782 it was returned to the Lao people.
Again, in 1828, the Siamese captured the Phra Bang Buddha statue, and again returned it to Laos in the year 1867, after a similar period of political upheaval.
Today the statue stands in the Wat by the Royal Palace, where it is content to be among other ancient statues, many of them carved from wood in the 1400’s.
Buddhism flourished in Laos until the communists took control of the country in the late 1960’s.
Buddhism was banned in schools, people were forbidden from making offerings in the temples and from giving alms to the monks.
The frail monks were put to work in the fields and forced to raise animals, in violation of their monastic vows.
Public outcry over these rules forced the government to ease off a bit.
In 1976, the giving of alms to the monks was allowed again, but only rice was allowed to be given.
Over time, other restrictions were eased as well.
The Wats are not all expensively decorated.
Depending on the wealth of the village and the villagers’ contributions to the temple, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures, to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon.
Wats in Laos are characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations on the walls depicting the events of Buddha’s life and his path towards enlightenment.
The Wats are usually a cluster of buildings, with the ordination hall being the most important structure.
Lao-style stupas have a distinctive curvilinear, four-cornered shape, said to represent the unfurling of a lotus bud, along with a towering umbrella-like spire at the top.
The edges of roofs often feature a repeated flame motif with long finger-like hooks in the corners that are said to catch evil spirits that might fall on the building from above.
The spires at the central roof ridge often have small Nagas, the Cobras that protected the Buddha from the sun, arranged in a double-step fashion said to represent Mt. Meru.
The high peaked roofs are layered in odd numbers to correspond with certain Buddhist doctrines such as the three characteristics of existence, and the seven factors of enlightenment.
The three characteristics of existence are:
* Impermanence (Anicca) all physical things are transitory and impermanent;
* Suffering (Dukkha) all attachments and trying to hold onto things cause suffering;
* Non-self (Anatta) all things are without self. There is no “I” or “mine,” these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind.
The seven factors of Enlightenment are:
* Mindfulness (Sati)
* Awakening (Keen investigation of the Truth)(Dhammavicaya)
* Energy (Viriya)
* Rapture or happiness (Piti)
* Calmness (Passaddhi)
* Concentration (Samadhi)
* Equanimity (Upekkha)
The monks study the Pali language, in which all Theravada texts were written, as part of their religious training.
A monk is required to comply with the 227 rules of the monastic order.
Those under twenty years old must obey 75 rules, and lay people are expected to observe the five prohibitions.
Only a few women, usually elderly widows, become Buddhist nuns.
They choose to live a contemplative and ascetic life, but usually do not lead religious ceremonies as do the monks.
Monks try to develop detachment from the world and worldly possessions, and thus they have no possessions but must rely solely on the generosity of people for food and clothing.
These gifts provide an important opportunity for the giver to earn merit.
Women prepare and present rice and other food to monks, who make their morning rounds through the town carrying bowls to receive offerings that are their only nourishment for the day.
In villages where there are only a few monks, the women of the village often take turns bringing food to the wat each morning.
People attend prayer ceremonies held at the wat on the quarter, full, and new moon of each lunar cycle, as a regular means of gaining more merit.
Monks in Laos have shaved heads, wear saffron robes and often carry a begging bowl.
While receiving alms, the monks do not look at the donors.
Male donors remove their sandals and women kneel as monks pass by in a procession to collect food offerings.
In Luang Prabang, people usually give an offering of sticky rice to the monks.
Early morning, the donors sit on straw mats located outside the wats on the main street of town, and make offerings of cooked rice wrapped in special bamboo baskets.
Monks walk by barefoot while the donors kneel and place the sticky rice baskets into their begging bowls.
After the monks have accepted the food, they chant their thanks.
Monks get up every day at 4 AM to meditate and then walk barefoot through the streets to collect alms of food, (not money).
The food collected is the only food the monks eat for the day.
They eat breakfast and lunch, but monks do not eat after lunch, until the next day.
Monks preside over religious ceremonies, festivals, household blessings and rituals, and funerals.
While we were in Luang Prabang, we visited a Wat on a day when New Year’s blessings were taking place.
We were invited to participate.
Two monks wrapped a white cord around the clean car of a Laotian couple.
The couple sat on the floor in front of the monks at the entrance to the main hall, and we sat to their right.
The monks held the long white cord that was wrapped around the car, and in harmonious voices, chanted Buddhist prayers.
We put our hands together and closed our eyes while they chanted.
The ancient golden Buddha statue was reflecting through the glass, casting a golden light on the floor behind the monks.
The monks used no musical instruments, yet their voices created sweet music.
After the prayers were over, I asked if the car being blessed was new, but was told that this is a ceremony they do every year, to bless their car and protect it from accidents and problems.
I love the way this lofty religion of striving for perfection and higher realization of the nature of reality is mixed with ordinary life.
People pray for good business, for happiness and good health, for good marriages and for protection of their cars….
May the light of love be with you always,