Laotian, the Religions-Belief and Culture
高鹏 ( Khamphoui KHAMDYPAPHANH )
Department of Mathematics and Statistics of Southwest University
Abstract: Buddhism and Animism are very meaningful for all Laotian people to make their life are
harmonious and peaceful. The religion and beliefs in Laos have created not only the colorful of
harmonious cultural society between ethnic groups in the country, but also hadbeen supporting the
education platform of the country. This short paper is focusing on what is the developing ways of
religion and belief had been supporting Laotian culture.
Keywords: Religion; Beliefs; Shamanism; Animism; Buddhism
Laotian has a high appraising to the loyalty of their family, and generously open friendship
relationship with relative and neighborhood. Religion and beliefs are a central part of the
community in cultural activities. The religion activities have gradually molding deeper and deeper
the colorful culture of the Laotian society into the people heart. In Laos, whether Buddhism or
Animism, are also being the background of ideological belief of the society. The Dhamma and the
Karma from Buddhism Doctrine brought to Laotian people with specific characteristics of creating
the harmonious family living style with many generations together. The Dhammar and Karma also
generated the respectful beloved spirit of the elderly in among the young generation, and keeping
harmonic relation between them in the family and in the society. Understanding these valuable
cultures of Laotian understands their primitive religion and beliefs. It probably is the one of
primary way to understand a nation.
The largest ethnic group is the Lao Loum group which lives in the lowland area of the
country and which is similar in language and culture to the Lao Theung from the uplands of the
country. Together these two groups, which are ethnically related, form the majority of the
population of 6,2 million1. There are a number of tribal minority groups in Laos, including the Yao,
Hmong, Mon-Khmer (Cambodian) and others, which comprise around one-third of the population.
In urban areas, there are significant concentrations of ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese. In spite of
this diversity, Laos has few ethnic tensions and the various groups seem to live in reasonable
Lao Loum (lowland) 68%, Lao Theung (upland) 22%, Lao Soung (highland) including the
Hmong ("Meo") and the Yao (Mien) 9%, ethnic Vietnamese/Chinese 1%.2
The major religion is Theravada Buddhism which most Laotians practicing its tenets.
Buddhism combined with shamanism and animism as it is throughout Southeast Asia. In addition,
there are a few Roman Catholics, who converted during the French colonial period. The official
language is Lao while many of the older generation speak French and many in the younger
generation speak English. The various ethnic groups also speak their own languages.
Comparatively, the religion ratio will be Buddhist 60%, animist and other 40% (including various
Christian denominations 1.5%). 3
The main religion in Laos since the 14th century 4 has been Theravada Buddhism, a tradition
shared with nearby Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. First introduced
to Laos by Mon monks from the Buddhist kingdom in Cambodia, for several centuries Theravada
Buddhism competed with Hinduism, Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, all of whose religious
ideas and control spread and contracted as one or another kingdom ruled Laos. With the
establishment of the Laotian kingdom of Lane Xang in 1349, Theravada Buddhism eclipsed the
other traditions, which withered and disappeared. Theravada Buddhism flourished and shaped the
culture and society of Laos until the coming of the new government in 1975. The new government
has not opposed Buddhism and the other religion. Conversely, the new government indeed has
attempted to use its resources and prestige to achieve its own political goals.
Theravada (the name means “Teaching of the elders”) Buddhists consider that their tradition
is the closest to the original meaning of early Buddhism; they reject the accumulation of scriptures
and ideas, which animate Mahayana, and Tantric forms of the tradition. As is the case of Buddhist
in neighboring countries, Lao Buddhism heavily influenced by, and intermingled with traditional
animistic and shamanistic beliefs. Often, Buddhist monasteries house shrines to the Phi spirits of
the land and often Buddhist monks are practitioners of the spirit cult. This accommodation by
Buddhism of indigenous beliefs is one reason for its great success.
Buddhism and Beliefs
Buddhism first appeared in Laos during the eighth century A.D. as shown by both the
Buddha image and the stone inscription found at Ban Talat near Vientiane, now exhibited at the
Museum of Ho Prakeo. After the foundation of the unified Kingdom of Lane Xang, King FaNgum
(14th century) declared. Buddhism as the state religion and urged the people to abandon animism
or other beliefs, such as the cult of spirits. His policy meant to develop the Lao culture based on a
common faith: the Theravada Buddhism. Today Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of
about 90% of Laotian people. Buddhism is an inherent feature of daily life and casts a strong
influence on Laotian society.
Most Laotians practice Theravada Buddhism. There are regional variations in Laotian
Buddhism, generally according to the area of Laos from which a person originated. Burmese
Buddhism, while central influences northern Laotian Buddhism and Khmer Buddhism influences
southern Laotian Buddhism. Many Laotians also practice a mix of Buddhism and Brahmanism or
Phram. The practice of both, as well as belief in spirits seen in the relatively common approach
to shrines: Inside the home is reserved for the Buddhist shrine; while outside may be found what
appears to be a spirit (Phi) house (small house or shrine on top of a pole or column). Offerings of
food are to spirits, while offerings of flowers are to Phram. In any case, what a person does in life
rather than his or her beliefs is the central canon. There are also strong elements of animism found
“Laos History”, MahaSila Viravong, Ministry of Education, 1956. [pp.20-45].
among many Laotians. It is of little use to try to determine exactly what beliefs or combination of
beliefs a Laotian might hold. The beliefs and symbolism of the traditions and faiths combined and
adapted to one another with no conflict whatsoever. Overall, however, the basic tenets of
Buddhism guide at least most traditional Laotians. These tenets include the Four Noble Truths:
·To live to be to suffer (dukkha) - all sentient beings suffer.
·The cause of suffering is desire, e.g., for happiness, for life, for permanence, for cessation
of suffering, and so on.
·To cease to suffer, one must cease to desire.
·Cessation of desire (enlightenment or nirvana) may occur by following the Eightfold Path
of right thought, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right
mindfulness, and right concentration.
To follow this path to enlightenment, it is necessary to become and remain a member of the
sangha, i.e., a monk. Realistically, few (at least in this life) are able to follow effectively this path,
hence there is a focus on rebirth to a better state based on merit or karma (karma) - especially
related to fulfilling responsibilities to society. The ethic of Buddhism centered on the four "Palaces
of Brahma" or virtuous attitudes: Lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
Theravada Buddhism is neither prescriptive or authoritative, nor exclusive in its attitude
toward its followers and is tolerant of other religions. It is based on three concepts: dharma, the
doctrine of the Buddha, a guide to right action and belief; karma, the retribution of actions, the
responsibility of a person for all his or her actions in all past and present incarnations; and sangha,
within which a man can improve the sum of his actions. There is no promise of heaven or life after
death but rather salvation in the form of a final extinction of one is being and release from the
cycle of births and deaths and the inevitable suffering while part of that cycle. This state of
extinction, nirvana, comes after having achieved enlightenment regarding the illusory nature of
The essence of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha:
suffering exists; suffering has a cause, which is the thirst, or craving for existence; this craving can
stopped; and there is an Eightfold Path by which a permanent state of peace can attained. Simply
stated, the Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right
conduct, right vocation, right effort, right thinking, and right meditation.
The average person cannot hope for nirvana at the end of this life, but by complying with the
basic rules of moral conduct, can improve karma and thereby better his or her condition in the next
incarnation. The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just and impersonal
cosmic law, actions in this life and in all previous incarnations determine which position along the
hierarchy of living beings a person will occupy in the next incarnation. Karma can favorably affect
by avoiding these five prohibitions: killing, stealing, forbidden sexual pleasures, lying and taking
intoxicants. The most effective way to improve karma is to earn merit (het boun--literally, to do
well--in Lao). Although any act of benevolence or generosity can earn merit, Laotians believe the
best opportunities for merit come from support for the sangha and participation in its activities.
Buddhism and Laotian Education
Traditionally, all males expected to spend a period as a monk or novice prior to marriage and
possibly in old age, and the majority of Lao Loum men probably did so from 14th century up to
now. Being ordained also brings great merit to one's parents. The period of ordination need not be
long--it could last only for the three-month Lenten retreat period--but many men spend years in
the sangha gaining both secular and religious knowledge. Study of the Pali language, in which all
Theravada texts written, is a fundamental component of religious training. Ordination as a monk
also requires a man to comply with the 227 rules of the monastic order; novices--those under
twenty years old--must obey seventy- five rules; and laypersons expected to observe the five
prohibitions. Only a few women, usually elderly, become Buddhist nuns; they live a contemplative
and ascetic life but do not lead religious ceremonies as do monks.
For the Lao Loum, the wat is one of the two focal points of village life (the other is the
school). The wat provides a symbol of village identity as well as a location for public traditional
ceremonies and cultural festivals, and the meeting hall for the vilagers. Prior to the establishment
of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every
Laoloum village has a wat, and some have two. Minimally, a wat must have a residence building
for the monks and novices (vihan), and a main building housing the Buddha statues (sim), which
used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions.
Traditionally, Lao education based in wats or temples, where the monks taught the students
scripture, basic arithmetic and social subjects. Of the many ethnic groups in Laos, only the Lao
Loum had a tradition of formal education, reflecting the fact that the languages of the other groups
had no written script. Until the mid-twentieth century, education primarily based in the Buddhist
wat, where the monks taught novices and other boys to read both Lao and Pali scripts, basic
arithmetic, and other religious and social subjects. Many villages had wat schools for novices and
other village boys. Only ordained boys and men in urban monasteries had access to advanced
study. Other ethnic groups did not have traditions of formal education.
As in many other Buddhist countries, education in Laos conducted in monasteries, where
monks were trained and educated for years, and then gave advises to both Sangha order them and
lay people. Traditionally, any Lao man had to be ordained once in a lifetime to gain monastic
education. Even after he disrobed and lived as a householder, he considered a literate person, a
wise man or a ripe person while untrained ones were illiterate, raw men (those who have never
been a monk or novice). In the modern days, education has expanded beyond walls of monasteries.
Still monastic education is necessary to carry on, to improve more and more to catch up with the
worldly education in terms of quality and standardization.
The most remarkable of Laotian education is based in Buddhist wat is the two Sangha
Colleges (Vientiane Sangha College and Champasak Sangha College) that were founded in the
twentieth century ( the Vientiane Sangha College in 1929, and the Champasak Sangha College in
1940)5. With only of these two Sangha Colleges had been contributed the Pali and dham teachers
to primary schools wat around the country over the last 20th century. This evident truth is one of
the others Buddhism had affected positively to Laotian beliefs and to the society spiritual.
The Official and Buddhism
Buddhism was the state religion of the Kingdom of Laos, and the organization of the
Buddhist community of monks and novices, the clergy (sangha), paralleled the political hierarchy.
The faith was introduced beginning in the eighth century by Mon Buddhist monks and was
widespread by the fourteenth century. A number of Laotian kings were important patrons of
“Higher Buddhist Education in Laos”, http://atbu.org/node/28
Buddhism. Virtually all lowland Lao were Buddhists, in the early 1990s, as well as some Lao
Theung who have assimilated to lowland culture. Since 1975 the communist government has not
opposed Buddhism but rather has attempted to manipulate it to support political goals, and with
some success. Increased prosperity and a relaxation of political control stimulated a revival of
popular Buddhist practices in the early 1990s.
The successful of Lao PDR government efforts to consolidate its authority, and continues to
influence Buddhism. In political seminars at all levels, the government taught that Marxism and
Buddhism were basically compatible because both disciplines stated that all men are equal, and
both aimed to end suffering. Political seminars further discouraged "wasteful" expenditures on
religious activities of all kinds, because some monks sent to political reeducation centers and
others forbidden to preach. The evident that monks are renunciated of the private properties it seen
as approaching to the ideal of a future communist society. However, Buddhist principles of
detachment and nonmaterialism are clearly at odds with the Marxist doctrine of economic
development, and popular expenditures on religious donations for merit making seen as depriving
the state of resources. Thus, although overtly espousing tolerance of Buddhism, the state undercut
the authority and moral standing of the sangha by compelling monks to spread party propaganda
and by keeping local monks from their traditional participation in most village decisions and
The nadir of Buddhism in Laos occurred around 1979, after which a strategic liberalization of
policy occurred. Since that time, the number of monks has gradually increased, although as of
1993, the main concentrations continue to be in Vientiane and other Mekong Valley cities. The
Buddhist schools in the cities are remaining but have come to include a significant political
component in the curriculum. Party officials allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and
even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. From
the late 1980s, stimulated as much by economic reform as political relaxation, donations to the
wat and participation at Buddhist festivals began to increase sharply. Festivals at the village and
neighborhood level became more elaborate, and the That Luang festival and fair, which until 1986
had been restricted to a three-day observance, lasted for seven days. Ordinations also increased, in
towns and at the village level, and household ceremonies of blessing, in which monks were central
participants began to recur. Although the role of Buddhism permanently changed by its
encounter with the socialist government, it appears that Buddhism's fundamental importance to
lowland Lao and to the organization of Lao Loum society has been difficult to erase, has been
recognized by the government, and will continue for the foreseenable future.
Animism and Beliefs
In spite of the almost universal acceptance of Buddhism among the Lao Loum groups, most
Laotians also believe in the rich traditional spiritual life. The belief in phi (spirits) affects the
people’s relationship to nature, provides a cause of illness and misfortune, and shapes
interpersonal relationships. Many of the wat have small spirit huts included on their grounds and
many of the village monks respected as having the ability to exorcise malevolent spirits or contact
Phi has much in common with the spirits of the land worshipped in other Southeast Asian
countries. Some connected with the elements of earth, heaven, fire and water; others are the
malevolent spirits of those who dies by accident, violence or in childbirth. There is a belief in 32
Kouan (spirits) 6 which protect people from various misfortunes: illness occurs when one or more
of these spirits leave the body. A ceremony is conducted which calls these spirits back into the
body; cotton strings are tied around the wrist to keep the spirits in place.
There are also spirits of animals, spirits of places, especially of dangerous places, and
offerings of various kinds made to placate them. Ceremonies generally involve a ritual specialist
who oversees the offerings of chickens, rice wine and other agricultural products; after given to
the spirits, the earthly remains eaten by the worshippers. Each village has a village spirit who
needs nourished with gifts and ceremonies. The cult of ancestors is also important and a variety of
ceremonies takes place honoring them, asking their assistance for their descendants. The belief in
the existence of these spirits has mingled quite well with the mainstream Buddhism and no friction
occurs between them.
Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist
beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Laotian population7. The belief in Phi (spirits)
colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for
illness and disease. Belief in phi blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and
some monks respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick
person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the
grounds that is associated with the Phi-khouan-wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery.
Sou-khouan--or more commonly called the Baci--a ceremony that calls all thirty-two khouan
back to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Cotton strings tied
around the wrists of the participants to keep the spirits in place. The ceremony often performed to
welcome guests, before and after making long trips, and as a curing ritual or after recovery from
an illness; it is the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding ceremony and naming ceremony for
Animist believers also fear wild spirits of the forests. Other spirits associated with specific
places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees is neither inherently benevolent nor evil.
However, occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs. In the past, it
was common to perform similar rituals before the beginning of the farming season to ensure the
favor of the spirit of the rice.
Ceremonies oriented to the phi commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice liquor. In
many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the phi, may
asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites.
Each lowland village believes itself protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to
ensure the continued prosperity of the village.
Most Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups are animists, for whom a cult of the ancestors
is also important, although each group has different practices and beliefs. The Kammu call spirits
hrooy and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important,
and spirits of wild places avoided or barred from the village.
Hmong also believe in a variety of spirits (neeb), some associated with the house, some with
nature, and some with ancestors. Every house has at least a small altar on one wall, which is the
“Mental Health Situation Analysis In Lao People's Democratic Republic”, Chantharavady Choulamany, PhD
“International Religious Freedom Report 2003-laos.pdf”,http://atheism.about.com/library/irf/irf03/blirf_laos.htm
center of any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New
Year renew the general protection of the household and ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is
important to household wellbeing and is the object of another annual ceremony and sacrifice. As
with other Lao groups, illness frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners
called to carry out curing rites. Two classes exist: ordinary practitioners and shamans. Ordinary
priests or the household head conduct the household ceremonies and ordinary divinations. The
shaman may call on to engage in significant curing rituals.
According to Hmong belief, spirits reside in the sky, and the shaman can climb a ladder to the
heavens on his magical horse and contact the spirits there. Sometimes illness caused by one's soul
climbing the steps to the sky, and the shaman must climb after it, locate it, and bring it back to the
body in order to affect a cure. During the ritual, the shaman sits in front of the altar astride a
wooden bench, which becomes his or her horse. A black cloth headpiece covers vision of the
present world, and as the shaman chants and enters a trance, he or she begins to shake and may
stand on the bench or move, mimicking the process of climbing to heaven. The chant evokes the
shaman's search and the negotiations with the heavenly spirits for a cure or for information about
the family's fortune.
Hmong shamans believed chosen by the spirits, usually after a serious or prolonged illness.
The illness would diagnosed by another shaman as an initiatory illness and confrontation with
death, which was caused by the spirits. Both men and women summoned in this way by the spirits
to be shamans. After recovery from the illness, the newly-called shaman begins a period of study
with a master shaman, which may last two or three years, during which time he or she learns the
chants, techniques, and procedures of shamanic rites, as well as the names and natures of all the
spirits that can bring fortune or suffering to people. Because the tradition is passed orally, there is
no uniform technique or ritual; rather, varies within a general framework according to the practice
of each master and apprentice.
Theravada Buddhist Practice in Laos
As is true of Theravada Buddhism through Southeast Asia, a symbiotic relationship exists
between the lay people and the monks and nuns. The monks and nuns come from the lay people
who in turn, nourish and financially support the monastery. The monastery provides a number of
services to the people: education; medical care; care for the elderly, the orphaned, the helpless; as
well as undertaking public works projects, such as bridge building, providing hostels for travelers
and students, etc. The monks and nuns undertake daily “begging rounds” which both serve to
financially support the monastery and give the people a chance to earn “merit” and thus an
opportunity for a better rebirth.
In Laos, all generally spent a period as a monk in their youth: this period can be as short as
one week or as long as several years, but typically lasts 2-4 months. Being ordained as a monk
brings great merit not only to the boy but also to his parents. It had the advantage in that the
novices taught to read and write as well as learning about Buddhist precepts. This time in the
monastery generally during the rainy season, often called the “retreat”, between the months of
June and October, also served to strengthen ties between the boys and the monastery after they left.
All Buddhist, whether monks or layperson, expected to observe the five prohibitions: against
killing, stealing, lying, forbidden sexual pleasures and taking intoxicants. In addition, young monk
observe 75 additional rules and full-fledged monks vow to observe the 227 rules of monastic
For those who elect to remain as monks, their main concern is to develop detachment form
the world as they are working to achieve enlightenment in this life; lay people are working to
accumulate merit (good karma) for a better rebirth. Thus, they give up family ties, possessions
(owning only the basics, such as clothes, eating bowl, razor, etc.) They do not engage in labor of
any kind but spend their days in study, preaching, meditation, running the monastery, doing good
works, etc. Thus, they are totally dependant upon the people for food, clothing, shelter, etc. the
people, especially women, take turns preparing and giving food and robes to the monks; they often
clean the monastery, wash the monks clothes and perform other such services as acts of piety and
As mentioned earlier, the focal point of every village and town is the temple or Wat. This is a
symbol for village identity, the focus of the festivals, the site of local schools, and the residence of
the monks. To strengthen the public service of the wat, the official is not doing interfering to the
lawful traditional festival activities of the wat. Conversely, they are paying attention to
encouraging hopefully to the wat to cooperate with the local government to push up the
compulsory education for local schools in the remote countryside. Bring an opportunity for the
orphanhs to have basic education in the wat. Otherwise, to support the Sangha Colleges and the
Sangha schools in the country in order to improve and develop their educational systems as well
as the managerial factors from the college level up to the university level in the future.
Health Care Beliefs and Practices
Health care beliefs and practices are significantly related to Brahmanistic and animistic
beliefs. Illness may be attributed to the loss of one of the thirty-two spirits (think in terms of souls)
thought to inhabit the body and maintain health. The loss of a spirit startled when walk alone,
having an accident, after travel, or other causes. As with other Southeast Asians, "winds" also play
a role in health and illness and bringing the winds into balance restores health or well-being.
Generally, someone who is sick will look first to the family and/or community for
understanding of the problem and treatment. Traditional treatments may be tried first; or, if the
loss of spirit is thought to be the problem, a ceremony performed by a family member, elder, or, if
possible, an Acharn or teacher/healer. The purpose of the ceremony is to call the spirit back to the
body. Another route of treatment is to go to the temple, where prayer and lustral water will be used
to address the problem. The last resource is to seek treatment at a clinic or hospital. Note that
traditional practices often continued while utilizing western medicine.
It by now will be obvious to readers that Laotian views of health, illness, and healing are
complex and multidimensional, and encompass to a very strong degree and spiritual components.
Spiritual or spirit-based practices related to Phram beliefs rather than Buddhism, but many of
these practices will occur in the context of Buddhism. Evidence of the spiritual or spirit
components seen in several phenomena:
Involving of monks or Acharn, as well as the family in spirit-based practices seems
throughout illness and health-related aspects of life, such as birth and death.
Some Laotians wear Katha (or katout), which a string passed through a small cylinder or
cylinders of gold or brass. The metal inscribed with Pali prayers called To Dham. These not
viewed as decorative jewelry, but as potent and sacred talismans, which made, by monks or holy
men. Yarn refers to the magical protective tattoos found on the chest, back and arms of some men;
or to pictures and words on fabric, which may carried or put over a door. Buddha or boddhisatva
images wear on a chain, and ties around the neck by some Laotians.
One will sometimes encounter Laotians with one or more pieces of string tied around the
wrist. This also has spiritual and protective meaning and derives from a practice in Laos of
wearing around the wrist twisted palm leaf on which written To Dham. These thought to prevent
loss of spirits. A small bag worn on a string around the neck called Khong-haksa. The
Khong-haksa given by parents or grandparents and affords protection to the wearer.
Generally, as is so with people of any culture - health care providers should be aware that
traditional practices and beliefs of Laotians are dynamic and changing. In some cases, there may
be little or no reliance on traditional practices. In other cases, illness will result in a turning back to
practices that are more traditional. Especially, as it becomes apparent that Western medicine does
not have all the answers.
The religion in Laos had been infiltrating through the Laotian population and growing up
with positive advantage direction, and supporting the Laotian people to live peacefully. Whatever,
the fine and lawful religious cultural festival activities in Lao PDR are strengthening by the
relevance officials to conservation, and to encourage them to support the government in
developing of cultural tourism. In addition, it is believed that this ideological policy would bring
the country with a certain beneficial on economic reforms.
. “Laos History”, MahaSila Viravong, Ministry of Education, 1956.
. “Higher Buddhist Education in Laos”, http://atbu.org/node/28
. “Mental Health Situation Analysis in Lao People's Democratic Republic”, Chantharavady Choulamany, PhD
thesis, 2002. http://www.google.com/lao-mnh-sit-analysis.pdf
.“International Religious Freedom Report