Laos has an area of 85,000 square miles (220,000 km2) and contains a population of approximately 6.6 million. Almost all ethnic or "lowland" Lao (Lao Loum and Lao Lom) are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, they constitute only 40-50% of the population. The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups. Most of these ethnic groups (30%) are practitioners of Laotian folk religion, with beliefs that vary greatly among groups.
Laotian folk religion is predominant among most Lao Theung, Lao Sung, the Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Tibeto-Burman groups. Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist phi religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2% of the population. Other minority religious groups include those practicing the Bahá'í faith, Mahayana Buddhism, and Chinese folk religions. A very small number of citizens are atheist or agnostic.
Although the Government prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, some resident foreigners associated with private businesses or nongovernmental organizations quietly engage in religious activity. The Lao Front for National Construction is in charge of religious affairs within the country and all religious organizations within Laos must register with it.
Buddhism was introduced to Laos 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 Buddhism.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the Pathet Lao attempted to convert monks to the leftist cause and to use the status of the sangha to influence the thoughts and attitudes of the populace. The effort was in many ways successful, despite efforts by the Royal Lao Government to place the sangha under close civil administrative control and to enlist monks in development and refugee assistance programs. Political scientist Stuart-Fox attributed the success of the Pathet Lao to the inability of the Lao Loum elite to integrate the monarchy, government, and sangha into a set of mutually supportive institutions.
Popular resentment of the aristocracy, division of the sangha into two antagonistic sects, the low level of its religious education and discipline, and opposition to foreign (i.e., Western) influence all contributed to the receptiveness of many monks to Pathet Lao overtures. The politicization of the sangha by both sides lowered its status in the eyes of many, but its influence at the village level augmented popular support for the Pathet Lao political platform, which paved the way for the change in government in 1975.
The LPDR government's successful efforts to consolidate its authority also 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 were sent to political reeducation centers and others were forbidden to preach.
The renunciation of private property by the monks was seen as approaching 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 are also 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 activities.
During this period of political consolidation, many monks left the sangha or fled to Thailand. Other pro-Pathet Lao monks joined the newly formed Lao United Buddhists Association, which replaced the former religious hierarchy. The numbers of men and boys being ordained declined abruptly, and many wat fell empty. Participation at weekly and monthly religious ceremonies also dropped off as villagers under the watchful eye of local political cadre were fearful of any behavior not specifically encouraged.
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. Buddhist schools in the cities remain but have come to include a significant political component in the curriculum. Party officials are allowed to participate at Buddhist ceremonies and even to be ordained as monks to earn religious merit following the death of close relatives. The level of religious understanding and orthodoxy of the sangha, however, is no higher than it had been before 1975, when it was criticized by many as backward and unobservant of the precepts.
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, also began to recur.
Theravada Buddhism is by far the most prominent organized religion in the country, with nearly 5,000 temples serving as the focus of religious practice as well as the center of community life in rural areas. In most lowland Lao villages, religious tradition remains strong. Most Buddhist men spend some part of their lives as monks in temples, even if only for a few days.
There are approximately 22,000 monks in the country, nearly 9,000 of whom have attained the rank of "senior monk," indicating years of study in temples. In addition, there are approximately 450 nuns, generally older women who are widowed, residing in temples throughout the country. The Buddhist Church is under the direction of a supreme patriarch who resides in Vientiane and supervises the activities of the church's central office, the Ho Thammasaphat has the 20% of the populations.
Lao Buddhists belong to the Theravada tradition, based on the earliest teachings of the Buddha and preserved in Sri Lanka after Mahayana Buddhism branched off in the second century B.C. Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant school in neighboring Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.
That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November.
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 ceremonies and festivals. Prior to the establishment of secular schools, village boys received basic education from monks at the wat. Nearly every lowland 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 is used for secular village meetings as well as for prayer sessions. Depending on the wealth and contributions of the villagers, the buildings vary from simple wood and bamboo structures to large, ornate brick and concrete edifices decorated with colorful murals and tile roofs shaped to mimic the curve of the naga, the mythical snake or water dragon. An administrative committee made up of respected older men manages the financial and organizational affairs of the wat.
Buddhist ceremonies generally do not mark events in a life- cycle, with the exception of death. Funerals may be quite elaborate if the family can afford it but are rather simple in rural settings. The body lies in a coffin at home for several days, during which monks pray, and a continual stream of visitors pay their respects to the family and share food and drink. After this period, the body is taken in the coffin to a cremation ground and burned, again attended by monks. The ashes are then interred in a small shrine on the wat grounds.
Although officially incorporated into the dominant Mahanikai School of Buddhist Practice after 1975, the Thammayudh sect of Buddhism still maintains a following in the country. Abbots and monks of several temples, particularly in Vientiane, reportedly are followers of the Thammayudh School, which places greater emphasis on meditation and discipline.
There are four Mahayana Buddhist temples in Vientiane, two serving the ethnic Vietnamese community and two serving the ethnic Chinese community. Buddhist monks from Vietnam, China, and India have visited these temples freely to conduct services and minister to worshippers. There are at least four large Mahayana Buddhist pagodas in other urban centers and smaller Mahayana temples in villages near the borders of Vietnam and China.
Laotian folk religion (Lao sasna phi, "religion of the spirits") is an overarching term for the ethnic religions practiced by 30.7% of the population of Laos. These religions are pantheistic and polytheistic, and involve classes of shamans.
The category comprehends traditions of the Lao and other Tai-Kadai people, the Khmu and other Mon-Khmer people, as well as religions of the Hmong-Mien (Hmongism and Yao Taoism), Tibeto-Burman, and other ethnic groups of Laos. Among the Lao, the Lao Loum and Lao Lom are predominantly Buddhist, while the Lao Theung and Lao Sung are predominantly folk religious.
There are approximately 45,000 members of the Roman Catholic Church, many of whom are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers and surrounding areas along the Mekong River in the central and southern regions of the country. Catholicism is an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, and Catholics are able to worship openly. The church's activities are more circumscribed in the north. Church property in Luang Prabang was seized after 1975, and there is no longer a parsonage in that city. An informal Roman Catholic training center in Thakhek prepared a small number of priests to serve the Catholic community.
Approximately 400 Protestant congregations conduct services throughout the country for a community that has grown rapidly in the past decade. Church officials estimate Protestants to number as many as 100,000. Many Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer groups, especially the Khmu in the north and the Brou in the central provinces. Numbers of Protestants also have expanded rapidly in the Hmong and Yao communities.
In urban areas, Protestantism has attracted many lowland Lao followers. Most Protestants are concentrated in Vientiane Municipality, in the provinces of Vientiane, Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang, Bolikhamsai, Savannakhet, Champassak, and Attapeu, as well as in the former Saisomboun Special Zone, but smaller congregations are located throughout the country. The LFNC officially recognizes only two Protestant groups - the Lao Evangelical Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church - and requires all non-Catholic Christian groups to operate under one of these organizations.
Seventh-day Adventists number slightly more than 1,000 country-wide, with congregations in Vientiane Municipality as well as Bokeo, Bolikhamsai, Champassak, Luang Prabang, and Xieng Khouang provinces. Christian denominations that have some following in the country, but which are not recognized by the Government, include the Methodists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Baptists. Official membership numbers are not available.
Laos used to be part of the Khmer Empire and has some remaining Hindu temples.