As its location on the map of southeast Asia might imply, Laos is the result of early contact between the Khmers of Cambodia and the Thais who eventually established Thailand. Laos is a landlocked nation squeezed between Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east and shares shorter borders with Burma in the northwest and Cambodia in the south.
Theravada Buddhism is the main religion of Laos. The pre-republican kingdom of Laos had Buddhism as its official religion, and the clergy (sangha), a society of monks and novices, was structured similarly to the country’s governmental system. About half of the population is Buddhist, mostly lowland Lao.
Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist phi religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Catholics and Protestants make up about 2 percent of the population. Other minority religious groups include Bahá’ Faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Thai folk religion, which is predominant among northern groups of Tai people like the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng.
Sixty-six percent of people practice this religion. Theravada Buddhists make up the majority of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao (Lao Loum and Lao Lom), yet they only make up 40–50% of the population. The remaining population is made up of at least 48 different ethnic minorities. The majority of these ethnic groups practice the Tai folk religion, with a wide range of beliefs between them.
Lao Buddhism is a special variation of Theravada Buddhism and is the foundation of ethnic Lao culture. It is the main religion in Laos, where 66 percent of the population practices it. In Laos, particularly in the countryside, animist beliefs and the veneration of ancestor spirits are frequently intertwined with Buddhism.
However, Laos is a multi-ethnic nation with a sizable proportion of non-Buddhist groups who practice religions that are frequently grouped under the term “animism,” but that can also significantly overlap with Buddhism or at least contain Buddhist elements as a result of cross-cultural contact. There are varying estimates of the percentage of the population in modern Laos who identify as Buddhists, but according to the CIA World Factbook, 66 percent of the country’s people do so.
However, there are significant differences from province to province. Only 20 percent of Buddhists lived in ethnic minority regions like Sekong in 2005, compared to 92 percent in Champassak, which has a strong ethnic Lao population.
Theravada Buddhism is thought to have first arrived in Laos between the seventh and eighth centuries CE via the kingdom of Dvaravati. Tantric Buddhism was also brought to Laos in the seventh century from the kingdom of Nan-chao, an ethnically Tai state with its capital in contemporary Yunnan, China. Another key ideological link between the monarchy and the sangha throughout most of Southeast Asia was probably established by the Nan-chao kingdom: the political ideology of the king as defender and guardian of Buddhism.
Additionally, we know very little about how Buddhism arrived in the area that is now known as Laos, but the level of research at this time points to the possibility that it did not arrive in a single movement. The circumstances surrounding this penetration “remain highly ambiguous,” according to Michel Lorrillard.
The historical region of the kingdom of Luang Prabang in northern Laos, Muang Sua, came under the control of monarchs in the 11th and 12th centuries. During this time, Mahayana Buddhism took the place of Theravada Buddhism as the main religion of the aristocracy. According to epigraphic sources, the Buddhicization of royal power began to become apparent in the early Lao kingdoms about the middle of the fifteenth century, when rulers were given the name cakkavatti. The crowning of Fa Ngum at Luang Prabang in 1353 CE is recognized as the official start of the Lao state. Local historiography claims that Fa Ngum brought his Khmer Theravada teacher along to serve as the nascent kingdom’s advisor and chief priest.
The Theravada Buddhism in Laos and in many other nations that have experienced a communist administration has experienced a different approach to religion than Laos. During the Cold War, the Communists in Laos exploited the Buddhist Sangha as a means of advancing their political objectives rather than simply suppressing or outlawing religion. Beginning in the 1950s, both the Royal Lao Government and more left-leaning politicians began to use Buddhism and monastic organizations as targets for semi-covert surveillance activities. Prominent monks in Vientiane initially supported those who sought a compromise between socialism and capitalism, including Boun Souvannavong, but as political polarization grew, they lost support.
Some Thai and expatriate Lao Buddhists have denounced the communist reformation of Buddhism as being oppressive. This reformation was carried out by a group of recognized Lao monks. As an alternative, it has been praised by reformists in Lao and Thailand as a return to a more pure form of Buddhism free of superstitious accretions. From the perspective of Theravada Buddhism, there can be no doubt that traditional herbal and western medicine is better than the earlier customs of performing exorcisms and dispensing blessings and magical amulets. Furthermore, the past support of traditional Lao ancestor worship and spirit cults had nothing to do with scriptural Buddhism.
The extent of any potential alterations to the original Buddhist writings is unknown, and it is also unclear how such revisions may affect Buddhism in Laos. Theravada writings don’t initially seem to contain much information that is at odds with the mild communism practiced by the Lao government. Some of the restrictions for monks outlined in the Vinaya Pitaka have been lifted, most notably the ban on cultivating the soil, however not all monks in Buddhist nations around the world completely adhere to Vinaya norms. The majority of reports from Laos generally show that Buddhism there coexists peacefully with the communist government.
Monk-training Buddhist institutions like Champasak Sangha College have been spending more time teaching religious disciplines including the Dhamma’s foundation, the disciplinary code, Pali, the Buddha’s life, and the Buddhist canon. In addition to being permitted to speak in classrooms and hospitals, monks also appear to offer talks on television and radio. A form of socially active Buddhism has recently also emerged in Laos. In addition to expanding into other fields that combine social work, environmental protection, and education, monks are now actively involved in drug and HIV prevention initiatives.