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Buddhism at Luang Prabang

Buddhism, which is participated in, by most Laotians, gives a rhythm to their life as from first thing in the morning. Daytime, as we say here, starts in the evening with the preparation of sticky rice that will serve as a basis for the morning collections. This rice needs a long preparation as several hours are needed before it becomes edible. (Before being cooked, it must be carefully cleaned, by hand, of its impurities, then it must ‘rest’ for about 6 hours in water, before being cooked at around 5 to half past 5 in the morning).

In Luang Prabang more than anywhere else in Laos, the inhabitants get up to participate in this ritual, which enables hundreds of bonzes to eat (they are only allowed to eat what is given to them). Every day of the year, everybody must be ready at sunrise (7 o’clock in winter, 5 o’clock in summer), women on their knees and men often standing, everybody shoeless, to give their donation (most of the time rice that is still hot) to each of the bonzes that pass in front of them.

Its customary that the bonzes all come out at the same time, the most revered monk of the temple at the head of his procession. They are more than a thousand in this small town of only 20000 people. The day is only just rising, the morning mist is clearing little by little and the bonzes enter the town, going through the town during the first half hour of the day to collect, what will represent their two daily meals, all dressed with three pieces of different yellow material as was worn by the Supreme Buddha for nearly 2500 years.

Holidays are numerous, as there are numerous faiths and numerous cults to be respected, spirits and ancestors to be honoured. Every 28 days, its the full moon (Van Sin), a very important day because its a holiday (nobody works that day, and if anybody works, they are absolutely forbidden to make a noise) ; on these occasions, many more devout people come to offer not only rice this time, but also sweets, cakes and even money (which has become necessary now for the bonzes who have a portable telephone). Laughs and smiles are good for one’s karma and Laotians are never short of an opportunity to share them.

Being very religious, these Buddhists often go to pray at the temple, and leave some offerings. A few balls of sticky rice, which is a rite left over from their animist cult, on the small ‘stupas’ where the ashes of their ancestors lie, or on the statues of Buddha which could bring luck.

In this part of the world, Luang Prabang is an important spiritual symbol for all Buddhists and especially for Therravada Buddhism, because of its history and its legends, but also because the town has always been the centre for religious culture; the town’s richness enables it to take on the responsibility of many pagodas housing many bonzes. There are many pagodas that collapsed in 1900 and have not been rebuilt since, but there are also many new ones which villages that are "rich" with parents having succeeded abroad, can offer themselves.

There’s a special silent and calm atmosphere here, appropriate for meditation. Its often said that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion. Particularly at Luang Prabang, its a way of life, a social rule, a standard for living, and a religion, being as it can be said that Buddha has been uplifted to the rank of God, even if he himself denied his existence.

For those who would like to participate in this ritual, it is essential to know (and to conform to) the rules of conduct.