Many countries carry faith-labels. America is called a “Christian” nation, though only a small percentage (including many who wear the label like a flag) take the teachings of Jesus seriously. Israel is officially a Jewish nation, but most of the Jews are secular. Vietnam is reportedly 80 percent Buddhist, but few show any allegiance to Buddhist teachings.
Laos – at least the parts we visited – struck me as different. It is a Buddhist nation in which Buddhism is a serious matter. Every village has at least one temple, and many temples have associated monasteries where monks (some as young as 10) live in very basic dorm-like housing. Every boy is expected to spend some time (at least three months, I was led to believe) living as a monk in one of the temples, learning the tenets of Buddhism while wearing orange robes and living on whatever food the local people provide.
Our guide told us that he served as a monk for seven years, three in Luang Prabang and four more in Vientienne. He entered at 13 but left at 20 because he wanted to get married rather than face a life of celibacy.
A drumbeat around 5:20 a.m. each day announces that the monks will soon begin a march through the town collecting offerings of packaged food or balls of sticky rice that locals or tourists offer from small straw baskets. The town has many temples: monks from three or more temples may pass by popular gathering places. Later in the day, local women will cook more substantial food and take it to the temple/monasteries for the monks. I don’t know if the temples have committees to look after things like that, but suspect the meals may be more random than regular.
Every village has a temple, and every temple has at least one Buddha figure: usually a large image centered near the back of the temple, in one of several popular poses (there’s one for each day of the week). Most temples have many smaller Buddha images surrounding the larger one, or lined up against the walls. At most any time during the day, devotees show up alone or as families, often carrying candles, incense, and flowers as offerings to the Buddha. Some temples are surprisingly laid-back, with dogs apparently as welcome as worshippers and tourists.
Many of the temples have stupas in the courtyard, some old and decrepit, some basic, some fancy. Some may contain a Buddha image, while others contain the ashes of a famous monk. People show homage to them — or to their ancestors — by applying gobs of sticky rice to various structures or statues surrounding the temple.
Some come to the temple to learn their fortune by holding a tube of narrow numbered sticks at a slight upward angle and shaking it carefully until one drops out. A board nearby has a corresponding fortune for each number. Those who can’t read the special Buddhist language have to consult a monk to learn what it says.
Gongs, bells, or drums announce daily prayer times, where worshippers draped in generally drab sashes sit on the floor and bow while the men chant prayers they learned during their time as a monk.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone stops work and comes to the temple: I suspect only the most devout attend often. Still, the people as a whole seem to take the five basic tenets of behavior for laypeople (monks have more) to heart. The first four guidelines for living sound like they’re excerpted from Exodus 20: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t misbehave sexually, and don’t lie. The fifth calls the faithful to avoid drugs or intoxicants that lead to unconsciousness: it’s hard to practice mindfulness when one is not conscious.
The Laotian people we met were uniformly kind, humble, polite, and cheerful. Merchants in the market don’t pester you for sales, and waiters in restaurants wait for your signal before taking the order or bringing the bill – they don’t want to rush anyone.
Many Buddhist teachings are conveyed through stories, and a number of the stories sound like modern movies, featuring characters with super powers — and the stories are often depicted on the temple walls in almost comic book fashion. For example, the Buddha can sit and meditate peacefully because he is protected by a dragon, sometimes portrayed with one head, and sometimes with seven. An evil serpent called Naga may try to swallow the dragon, but he has the power to keep growing longer, and thus to escape. Most temples have images of dragons on either side of steps leading up to them, and all temples I have seen have stylized dragon heads at every corner of the roof to ward off enemies.
The Buddha is also protected by a lady with a long ponytail: when enemies approach, she shoots water from her ponytail until it drowns or drives away potential attackers. I suppose, in some ways, that’s not so different from Moses parting the sea, Elijah calling fire from heaven, or Elisha whistling up she-bears to attack impertinent youngsters.
I’m not by any means ready to become a Buddhist, but I was impressed by that religion’s apparent influence on the people of Laos. There are Christians who could learn a lesson from them.