In the image of Buddha

Novice Sing Thong sat in his tiny room at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, relaxing after an hour learning English, and talked about life in Laos.

His young voice ranged over subjects as diverse as the hand positions in Buddha images to the Lao saying that you might as well play music to a buffalo as talk to a stupid person.

He had an easy way about him that is never evident with Thai novices or monks: the brotherhood and the people are on closer, easier terms in Laos.

About 60% of the 5 million population are Theravada Buddhists. It is the state religion and the premier Buddhist monument, Pha That Luang in Vientiane, is part of the country's emblem.

It was not always such an easy relationship between state and temple: when the communists took power in the mid-seventies, they banned Buddhism from schools and stopped the people making merit by giving food to monks.

Widespread opposition forced the government to first allow the people to make merit by giving rice and, when that was not enough, it restored their right to give any food to monks – and, when even that was not enough, they agreed a government rice allowance for monks.

Now, the government controls the Sangha – the brotherhood of monks – through its Department of Religious Affairs.

Buddhist texts have been sanitised to only those which support the development of socialism and every monk has to undergo political indoctrination.

But in the wats and among the people, the faith is strong. Do good, receive good. In this life and the next.


While much of the civil architecture in the largest habitations – like Vientiane and Luang Prabang – reflect French and Russian styles, the Buddhist architecture remains true to its traditions.

It speaks in form and use of the Buddha, the Buddhist texts, the Sangha and the practices, stories and history of Buddhism.

Wats, for example, are constructed to a strict religious pattern. They must have a chapel for the ordination of monks, a place for the lay population to meet and hear the words of Buddha, a library for the Buddhist texts and accommodation for the monks and novices.

Key elements in Buddhism recur widely in the architecture.

The Naga, for example – the serpent dragon that rose from beneath the ground to protect the Buddha, once coiling itself as a seat and using its seven heads to give shade, and on another occasion routing those who would destroy the Buddha.

The fearsome nagas guard the entrances to wats and temples; and small, highly stylised nagas, perch atop temple roofs to guard against bad spirits falling from the sky.

Lotus buds, too, are seen in most wats: the lotus grows from the mud at the bottom of the lake and bursts forth, beautifully, above the surface –- an analogy for the ignorance of people flowering into Buddhist purity.

Shrines always have places for the people to leave flowers, light candles and burn incense: the flowers for Buddha's purity; the candles for the light shed by the Dhamma, the Buddhist texts; and the incense for the holy fragrance of the Sangha.

A more detailed series of articles on this subject
will be posted over the next few months

Luang Prabang


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