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Gilded Buddhist temples pierce Laotian communism

Amid the rice fields, banana leaves, and low-lying mountains of this former "royal capital," something unusual is happening. New Buddhist temples (wats) are being built.

At first glance that would hardly seem unusual. For there are more than 50 wats already completed in this city of 20,000 people snuggled beside the muddy, curving Mekong River. Saffron-robed monks live, study, and pray in more than 20 nearby monasteries. Several of these beautifully sculpted and gilded edifices date back more than 400 years.

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What is unusual is that the new construction is taking place in an avowedly communist state. For Laos is the only state in Indo-China where Buddhism and Marxism actively coexist.

It is coexistence that communist Laos is proud of. "In Vietnam, Buddhist temples are mainly national museums," one Laotian comments.

Before 1975 when Laos's King Savang Vatthana abdicated and a people's democratic republic was proclaimed, Luang Prabang was the seat of royal government. The King held court in an ornate but modest palace full of Buddhist regalia. He worshipped in nearby Buddhist temples.

The King's residence had been moved here many years earlier, placing it some 200 kilometers north of the administrative capital of Vientiane to protect him from invasions by Burmese or Thais. In Luang Prabang, gently sloping mountains ringed the city and made any would-be invaders' task formidable.

Today, even under communism, the traditional methods of building a new temples persist. Monks call a religious festival. People who come make their donations for construction.

In Vientiane the official line is that under the new order monks should grow their own food, rather than depend on donations from lay people. But in Luang Prabang, officials freely explain that monks continue to exist in large part on alms from the people.

In some ways the durability of Buddhism here is hardly surprising. Many communist bureaucrats spent their adolescent days with shaven heads wearing saffron robes in monasteries.

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Official guides will discuss in detail the theology of Buddhism, the role of such religious figures as boddisatvas (near-Buddhas), and the meaning of various Buddhist maxims.

At Vientiane's "great monument" (known as the That Luong,) the state has taken over care and upkeep on grounds that this is a national Buddhist treasure that must be preserved. Surrounding the monument's central core are 30 towers, each displaying a Buddhist maxim. They range from "Don't be selfish. Help others," to "Stand with difficulties and endure."

This does not mean that Buddhism in Laos has not had to make some accommodations with Marxism. At local airports saffron-robed monks can be seen embarking on soviet-made jets for political indoctrination seminars in Vientiane. Like soldiers and workers, they study the country's latest policy directives, both foreign and domestic.

They are also used to teach literacy to children in villages They may use Marxist primers or, in the absence of written textbooks, Marxist lessons written on blackboards.

Still the Buddhist way of thinking appears deeply engrained in Laos. One high-school student says, "That is thing that makes us more different from the less Buddhist Vietnamese and closer to the Buddhist Thais."

Skeptics suggest the influence of the Buddhist church will be gradually whittled away as a more communist state emerges. Others see the Buddhist faith as a basic Laotian trait to which communism must adapt. In this view, any sharp repression of Buddhism would mean Laos was no longer Laos.

But even if Buddhism does weaken, insiders here say the process will take a long, long time. Just how long will it take to establish a truly Marxist Laotian state? "Twenty to 25 years," reckons one well-placed source.


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