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Spirits of the Place

Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture

John Clifford Holt
Copyright Date: 2009
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    Spirits of the Place
    Book Description:

    Spirits of the Placeis a rare and timely contribution to our understanding of religious culture in Laos and Southeast Asia. Most often studied as a part of Thai, Vietnamese, or Khmer history, Laos remains a terra incognita to most Westerners-and to many of the people living throughout Asia as well. John Holt's new book brings this fascinating nation into focus. With its overview of Lao Buddhism and analysis of how shifting political power-from royalty to democracy to communism-has impacted Lao religious culture, the book offers an integrated account of the entwined political and religious history of Laos from the fourteenth century to the contemporary era.

    Holt advances the provocative argument that common Lao knowledge of important aspects of Theravada Buddhist thought and practice has been heavily conditioned by an indigenous religious culture dominated by the veneration ofphi,spirits whose powers are thought to prevail over and within specific social and geographical domains. The enduring influence of traditional spirit cults in Lao culture and society has brought about major changes in how the figure of the Buddha and the powers associated with Buddhist temples and reliquaries-indeed how all ritual spaces and times-have been understood by the Lao. Despite vigorous attempts by Buddhist royalty, French rationalists, and most recently by communist ideologues to eliminate the worship ofphi,spirit cults have not been displaced; they continue to persist and show no signs of abating. Not only have the spirits resisted eradication, but they have withstood synthesis, subordination, and transformation by Buddhist political and ecclesiastical powers.

    Rather than reduce Buddhist religious culture to a set of simple commonalities, Holt takes a comparative approach, using his nearly thirty years' experience with Sri Lanka to elucidate what is unique about Lao Buddhism. This stimulating book invites students in the fields of the history of religion and Buddhist and Southeast Asian studies to take a fresh look at prevailing assumptions and perhaps reconsider the place of Buddhism in Laos and Southeast Asia.

    27 illus., 6 in color

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3708-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction Laos and Its Religious Culture
    (pp. 1-14)

    The political history and religious culture of Laos are exceedingly rich, a complex tapestry of interwoven strands. Culturally, bedrock “animistic” perceptions held by virtually all of its disparate peoples, including the majority Lao, have been layered over by Indic or Sinitic philosophical conceptions, social values, and political ideals. Other more specific and subtle religious, social, and cultural influences have come by way of the neighboring Khmer, Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese, by the colonial French, and by the contemporary world of international tourism. Laos has never been easy to field conceptually. Thus, Goscha and Ivarsson introduced their superb collection of essays...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Powers of the Place Buddhism and the Spirit Cults of Muang Lao
    (pp. 15-75)

    If the spirit cults at the root of Southeast Asian religious cultures are not “timeless” or “primordial” in nature, to use now controversial and frequently discredited terms, then surely, at least, they must be recognized as archaic and ruggedly persistent. While it is not uncommon for many Lao, or outside observers of Lao culture, to say “to be Lao is to be Buddhist,”¹ it is also true that Lao understandings of Buddhism have been conditioned by unique historical experiences and interpreted through Lao cultural assumptions. Marcel Zago, the premier student of Lao religion, has observed that

    the Buddhism practiced by...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Interventions from Afar Nonspiritual Powers in Place
    (pp. 76-128)

    In this chapter my primary aim is to ascertain the impact that accompanied Thai, French, and then American interventions not only politically but in terms of transformations of the religious culture beginning in the early decades of nineteenth century and continuing through to the end of the Second Indochina War in 1975. As before I will periodically include comparative observations with Sri Lanka.

    During the nineteenth century the powerful Bangkok-centered Chakri dynasty constrained any Lao aspirations for greater autonomy. Its control over remnants of the Lan Xang mandala was threatened on only two occasions. During the 1830s the Siamese counteracted...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Questions of Place Religious Culture in a Post-revolutionary Space
    (pp. 129-185)

    In this chapter I bring the narrative about how changes in the political order in Laos have impacted religious culture to the threshold of the contemporary scene by examining how the Buddhistsanghaand the spirit cults were affected by and adjusted to the establishment and policies of the Marxist revolutionary Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). This sets the stage for Chapters 4 and 5, which give a synchronic account of contemporary religion in Lao cultural areas.

    Unlike the sudden, dramatic changes of power that occurred in Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975, which were accomplished by conclusive military...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Commodities of the Place Ritual Expressions and the Marketing of Religious Culture
    (pp. 186-231)

    The spectacular growth of the international tourist industry in contemporary Laos, especially in Luang Phrabang, has been almost as remarkable as the persistence of its spirit cults. If there is any place in Asia that represents the process of globalization, to employ that now over-worn concept, it would be Luang Phrabang. Contemporary Luang Phrabang dramatizes a conflict that many other communities in Asia are experiencing: it has been chosen by the West (in this case UNESCO), in collusion with an impoverished “capital-hungry” government, the Lao PDR, to represent and to market an “authentic Asia.” Within one short decade Luang Phrabang...

  9. Plates
    (pp. None)
  10. CHAPTER 5 The Spirit(s) of the Place Buddhists and Contemporary Lao Religion Reconsidered
    (pp. 232-258)

    Throughout this study I have consistently referred to the persistent worship ofphias a cultic propitiation that is ubiquitous within Lao religious culture. I outlined the ontology and political significance ofphifor the social organization of themuangin the first chapter, and in the following chapters I have indicated how spirit cults came under pressure by normative-minded and politically driven Buddhists during the time of the Lan Xang kingdom, during the late French colonial period, and by orthodox Marxists following the revolution of 1975. Yet several pertinent issues remain. In this concluding chapter, my approach shifts from...

  11. APPENDIX 1. Transformations of the Ramayana
    (pp. 259-270)
  12. APPENDIX 2. The Cult of Khwan
    (pp. 271-274)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 275-320)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 321-330)
  15. Index
    (pp. 331-348)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 349-351)