Saturday, September 17, 2011

Religious Life in Laos

The cocks crowed hours too early outside my sleepy bungalow in Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos. By four-thirty in the morning, the small town of around 200 was abuzz with the clatter of food preparations and the drone of battery-operated Lao radio. While most days begin around dawn for almsgiving to the village’s monks, today was a special day in which everyone in the town participated wearing their finest sarongs and festive wear in order to give food, gifts, and money in memory of their deceased family members and ancestors.

Saan, my guide, had invited me to participate with his family. He—like me—had lost siblings, and woke at four to prepare meals to bring to the temple to fuel his brother’s and sister’s journey in the spirit world.

With my body fully covered and a scarf tied across my chest in the style of a Lao Buddha image, I stumbled from bed and found my place in the line of people that had formed to wait for the monks. From the temple at the edge of the village came the soothing sound of chants and gongs, leaving the crowd in excited anticipation for the procession. My offering plate overflowed with the banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice and cookies Saan had shared with me to give to the monks.

Laos is one of the only places in the world where Buddhist morning alms-giving persists as a daily ritual practiced by the majority of townspeople. The contemporary significance of Theravada Buddhism is quite remarkable considering Communist beliefs about religion. Just beyond Loas’s borders, Cambodian and Chinese Buddhists witnessed the destruction of temples and the systematic suppression of religious tradition, making modern Buddhism a shell of what it once was. Laos is an anomaly among Communist nations, with a strong religious culture that continues to govern the largest to most subtle daily decisions.

Temples continue to be found on every corner in Lao cities, like Starbucks in America. The temple structures—decorated in bright gold paint, bits of mosaic glass, and murals—demand a sense of awe, mimicking experientially the concept of achieving nirvana. While I’m not particularly keen on the ostentation, I did find peace meditating with monks inside the temples and particularly liked the artistry of the glass mosaic tiles.

Monks were some of the friendliest people I encountered in Laos. All Lao males are expected to become monks at some point, and families take great pride in their sons donning orange robes. Some choose monkhood for a couple of years while they attend school, and others devote their entire lives to the tradition. Several who studied English spoke with me about their daily routines which involve a great amount of study and personal discipline. While not all Buddhists refrain from meat-eating, monks and nuns do; they keep short sleep schedules; eat only two meals a day at 6am and noon; and remain dedicated to critical reasoning and investigation through many hours of daily study.

Next on my tour of temples and culture is Thailand! I expect Thailand to be the easiest place I have traveled so far in terms of navigation, and look forward to sampling delectable food, spirited dance, and sensational scenery.

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