Buddhism is the dominant spiritual belief in Laos, though some Lao practice Animism and Christianity. Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, which is based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and focuses on the Four Noble Truths: suffering is universal, the cause of suffering is attachment, suffering can cease and there is a way to end suffering. To do this, one must follow the Eightfold Path: right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking and right meditation. Through the Eightfold Path, a permanent state of peace and enlightment, or nirvana, can be attained.
Individuals are not expected to reach nirvana in this lifetime, but through their moral actions, they can improve karma for their next incarnation. Karma can be improved by avoiding immoral acts (i.e., killing, stealing, lying, forbidden sexual acts and taking intoxicants) or earning boun, or merit, through generous actions. The Lao believe the best way to gain merit is by supporting the sangha — the temple community.
Traditionally, all Lao boys and men are expected to spend a period as a monk as a rite of passage — usually as a novice (before the age of 21) prior to marriage, but possibly in old age as well. Ordination as a monk brings great merit to one’s family, and improves the karma of deceased relatives. This is also a way for Lao boys, especially those of limited means, to receive an education; some boys and men join the sangha to gain both secular and religious knowledge. The period of ordaining as a monk varies from just a few days to many years, though young men typically ordain throughout the three-month Lenten period.
Ordination as a monk requires a man to comply with over 200 precepts of the monastic order; novices must obey 75 precepts; and lay persons are expected to observe the five or eight precepts. Only a few women, usually elderly, become Buddhist nuns called mae khao; they lead an ascetic life but, unlike monks, do not lead religious ceremonies.
This essay was researched and written by Channapha Khamvongsa, the executive director of Legacies of War, an organization dedicated to resolving the problem of unexploded cluster bombs in Laos, providing space for healing the wounds of war and creating greater hope for a future of peace. Legacies of War uses art, culture, education and community organizing to bring people together and create healing and transformation out of the wreckage of war. Previously, Channapha worked at the Ford Foundation and Public Interest Projects, focusing on immigrant and refugee rights, global civil society, civic engagement, capacity building and transformational leadership. She was born in Vientiane, Laos and has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. She received her master's degree in public policy from Georgetown University.