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Buddhist Music of Laos

Theravada Buddhism reached Laos during the 7th - 8th Centuries AD via the kingdom of Dvaravati.  During the 7th Century, tantric Buddhism was also introduced to Laos from the kingdom of Nan-chao, an ethnically Tai kingdom centered in modern day Yunnan, China. The Nan-chao kingdom also likely introduced the political ideology of the king as defender and protector of Buddhism, an important ideological tie between the monarchy and the sangha in much of Southeast Asia. During the 11th & 12th Century, Khmer rulers took control of Muang Sua, the historical region of the kingdom of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.  During this period, Mahayana Buddhism replaced Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religious ideology of the ruling classes.

Historically, the Lao state is regarded as beginning in 1353 AD with the coronation of Fa Ngum at Luang Prabang.  Fa Ngum brought his Khmer Theravada teacher with him to act as adviser and head priest of the new kingdom. This Khmer monk named Phramaha Pasaman also brought to the kingdom a revered image of the Buddha that became known as the Phra Bang (left), the namesake of the city of Luang Prabang and the symbol of the Lao kingdom. 
The Phra Bang ("Royal Buddha Image in the Dispelling Fear mudra)," is the palladium of Laos.  The statue is an 83cm-high standing Buddha with palms facing forward, cast in bronze and covered in gold leaf. According to local lore, it was cast in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime between the 1st and 9th century. However, the features of the image suggest a much later Khmer origin. The Phra Bang arrived in Lan Xang in 1353 from Angkor and was used to spread Theravada Buddhism in the new kingdom. In 1359 the Khmer king gave the Phra Bang to his son-in-law, the first Lang Xang monarch Fa Ngum (1353-1373); to provide Buddhist legitimacy both to Fa Ngum's rule and by extension to the sovereignty of Laos. The former Lao capital Luang Prabang, where it was kept, is named after the Buddha image.

Subsequent alliances with Burma and Thailand helped cement the primacy of Theravada Buddhism in the Laotian kingdom. Faced with rugged, isolating geography and the absence of a strong central government, Theravada Buddhism became one of the primary unifying features of Lao culture.

As a devout Buddhist country, stupas and temples are the most culturally significant buildings in Laos. Lao architecture experienced a Golden Age during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when many buildings of cultural significance were sponsored by Kings Visoun, Photisarath, and Setthathirath. The most significant buildings include the national symbol of That Luang (right) an important stupa for Buddhist pilgrimage, the Haw Phra Kaew which formerly housed the Emerald Buddha, Wat Sisaket which was built by King Annouvong in the Bangkok style and was spared destruction in the 1820s, and Wat Xieng Thong which was built in 1560 when the capital of Lan Xang was moved to Vientiane.

There are three distinct types of temple construction in Laos depending on the region and the age of the temple. The Luang Prabang style of temple is best exemplified by Wat Xieng Thong, which shows a low sweeping tiered roof. The Vientiane style of temple is characterized by an open veranda and overhanging tiered roof which have symbolic meaning as levels of Buddhist cosmology, and are crowned by elaborately carved naga at the peak of each roof level. Lastly the Xieng Khouang (left) style is the rarest, due to the extent of fighting which took place in the region during the Lao Civil War. Xieng Khouang style temples are similar to those in Luang Prabang but were often wider and built upon a raised platform with less ornamentation than the other styles.

Lao Buddhist are very devout and almost every Lao man joins a monastery, or temple, for at least a short period of time. Many men also become monks for the rest of their lives. Most people donate food to the monks to gain merit and improve their karma. The temples of Laos were once seen as "Universities" for monks. Lao monks are highly respected and revered in Lao communities. Based on Laotian Buddhism, the women of Laos are taught that they can only attain nirvana after they have been reborn as men

The Lao also have a number of origin legends including the Nithan Khun Borom (Story of Khun Borom) which recounts the creation of the world, and the Nithan Khun Lo which tells how the descendants of Khun Borom settled the lands of mainland Southeast Asia. Reflecting Laos’s Theravada Buddhist heritage a number of religious and morality stories are among the most popular in Laos. The national epic of Laos is the Phra Lak Phra Lam and retells the Lao version of the Ramayana as a previous life of the Buddha. Also, the Vessantara Jataka is generally considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Lao literature. The story recalls the past life of a compassionate prince, Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, including his children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity.

Laos festivals scattered throughout the year often focus on Lao Buddhist beliefs.  Boun Makha Bousa is a Buddhist holiday in February marking three significant events which took place on the same day in different years. The events include Buddha’s sermon to a spontaneous gathering of arahats; Buddha’s sermon to monks establishing monastic life; Buddha’s prediction of his own death and parinirvana. Celebration is marked with solemn candle processions and votive offerings.  Boun Khao Jii in March commemorates the selfless action of an old woman who offered a rice cake to Buddha because it was all she was able to give. The festival marks the importance of the lay community in Buddhism. In the morning during tak bat, or alms giving, monks are offered specially prepared rice cakes as a reminder to them of the importance of the community.  Visakha Bousa in May marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Celebrations include the ritual freeing of birds and small animals.  Khao Phansa in late July is a solemn occasion marking the beginning of Buddhist “Lent” or Vassa, where monks retreat for three months of meditation and strict religious observance. The occasion is marked by Lao boys joining the monastery for the next three months of the monsoon season. After ordinations, the day is marked morning alms tak bat and by the procession of the Lenten candle which will burn in the temple for the next three months. Holy water is poured out by attendees as a merit making way to honor ancestors.  Ork Phansa marks the end of Buddhist “Lent” in late October and the rainy season. Monks are liberated to perform their normal community duties. It is celebrated with boat races and carnivals. In the evening people launch small, candlelit banana-leaf (heua fai) floats on the rivers, decorated with offerings of incense and small amounts of money to bring luck and prosperity.  Also in late October, Boun Suang Heua is the Lao river festival which coincides with the end of Buddhist “Lent.” The festival is marked by boat races throughout the country. In Vientiane, Savannakhet and Champasak the races are held the second weekend in October. The Luang Prabang boat races are held later. A major market day precedes the races and festivities take place throughout the night on race day. Boun That Luang in November concludes with the largest tak bat alms giving procession in the country. People dressed in their finest traditional clothing carry offerings which are left at the foot of the That Luang stupa. The Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism addresses the crowd, and an outdoor ceremony is held in the late morning..