Laos is mainly Buddhist with a Theravada or small vehicle tendency (over 60% of the population). Buddhism, like Christianity, hides numerous splits and ruptures which date from the death of Buddha. One of the main controversies concerns intermediary existence : some people think that its a short twilit life separating death from rebirth; whereas others refuse this idea. Still others think that we still have a voice after death, whereas others again think that the five organs cease to exist…
We don’t need to name here all the schools and sects acknowledged in Buddhism. The following lines are just to show that there are many divergences behind the word Buddhism, there are many currents…
Theravada or Petit Vehicle
Theravada, was initiated by Emperor Ashoka ("The Pious", "Loved by the Gods") by the creation of the “Teaching of the Elders” or Theravadin, and is considered as the original form of Buddhism. The particularity of this branch is that it only takes as fundamental standards, the first Buddhist writings, dating from the beginning of our era, not, all the older writings, like the Mahayana. Theravada is widespread in S.E. Asia (which is also called the School of the South …) especially in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka.
In Laos, Theravada became the religion of Kings as from the 14th century, when the Emperor Fa Ngum came to the throne. He had been converted very young by the Khmers of Cambodia. It was only in the XVIth century that it was installed as a state religion by Phothisarat, who forbid animism and any other spiritual worship as from then.
In Laos, spirit worship is still present in Laotian everyday life. The "Phi" are everywhere, and represent the surroundings in which Laotians live, guiding or punishing them. Laotian Buddhism doesn’t contradict their existence, but insists that they not be made objects of worship.
Mahayana or Great Vehicle
This represents the main school of Buddhism. At the beginning of our era, the Great Vehicle appeared and set itself up as a system under the influence of Nagarjuna. For the founder of the Madhyamaka School, or Middle Way, the whole universe is “empty” and without substance.
One of the main points of this teaching is the idea of Universal Emptiness and the latent Buddhism in every man who carries inside him a germ of perfection.
This comes from Mahayana, but its mystic and irrational character makes it almost inaccessible by occidentals. Apparently it started, in India in the third century of our era, when old magical beliefs, even older than Buddhism were still practiced.
The great novelty of Tantrism is to confirm that passions are not bad in themselves and that it is not necessary to get rid of them by force but to use them and to redirect their energy; in this way transforming them into virtues.
Meditation techniques are very original in comparison to the classical ones. By creating mandalas, Yoga breathing techniques and meditation based on the principle of the correspondence between sounds, colours, syllables and forms; tantrism has created a path called the Diamond Way or Thunderbolt Way.
Another peculiarity of tantrism is to find again women, which Buddhism (unlike Hinduism) had not quite removed, but had given a minor role. Women again becomes sublime and unchanging, in which everything is born, dies and comes back to life, a strength that works, breeds and spiritually nourishes the origin.
Originating from China, this Buddhist school was widespread in Japan in the XIIth century. It favours the teachings of the Master to the pupil and only grants a minimal importance to writings and beliefs. Illumination is supposedly promoted by meditation techniques. Certain schools (Satori) stress the importance of Koan (short sayings, which may appear mysterious and which call on mental facilities so as to surpass one’s intellectual reasoning which would lead us to the Awakening). The sound of two hands clapping and the blows given by masters to help the followers attain illumination, whilst others prefer mediation, sitting calmly to encourage the illumination (Zazen).