Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Opium of the People

Thus far in Asia the Laos people are without doubt the most gentle that I have come across. I am convinced however that a large part of this uncorrupted goodness is not necessarily down to their Laotian genes but due rather to their Buddhist creed that seems to pervade every facet of their daily lives.

Of course this said religious consciousness is made all the more evident by the omnipresence of Buddhist monks with their shaven heads, bare feet and orange robes. Indeed nowhere has this been more so the case than in Luang Prabang, second city of Laos. However what makes it all the more interesting is the fact that the ruling communist government of "The Popular Democratic Republic Lao" which came to power in 1975 had made it their mission to oppress the Buddhist religion until as late as 1992. Did the powers that be soften or was it the realization that their efforts were in vain? I have no idea. Nonetheless while the Laos socialist experiment embraced the market economy in the 1980's, freedom of religion did not return until the nineties, just in time for the opening of their borders and the birth of a vital tourism industry. Incredibly nowadays the very same undemocratic government has absolutely no qualms about filling their tourist publications with image upon image of Buddhist temples and waxing lyrical about their monks and monasteries. Still and all, what is important is not the motive but rather the fact that the people have their beloved religion back and I might add, as strong as ever.

The form of Buddhism practiced in Laos and the surrounding territories is known as Theravada Buddhism which remains unchanged and true to the founding principles which date from the time of Buddha (483BC). Of course as with any religion it would be impossible to fit the essence of the faith into a few paragraphs. Suffice to say that the ideal situation is to reach “Nirvana” without going through reincarnation. It follows therefore that a core belief is the concept of rebirth and one’s direct influence on one’s future lives. Likewise our own past actions are the causes of what we experience now, meaning that every daily action has an effect on our future. Perhaps it is from this that stems their soft nature and enthusiasm which I little deserve but which fascinates me so much.

“Merit” is what we accumulate in past lives and the merit earned in the present life has a bearing on our fate. Judging by my experiences to date it seems to me that the faithful are forever conscious of the merit they have earned. However while that may be so, “intention” is the key and the degree to which the action is performed for purely selfish reasons, the merit earned will be correspondingly less. So perhaps I am wrong after all as there can be no fooling Buddha! Maybe the kindness really is genetic.

Much like the rules under the Kyoto protocol, credit can also be transferred or better said, dedicated to loved ones including the deceased. I am told that in fact this is more often than not the practice. For example when a man temporarily becomes a monk be it for 1 week, 3 months or even years, this accumulates merit for his mother and father, living or dead. Notably, doing so for the deceased is considered to be of utmost importance as the departed spirits are no longer in a position to gain merit for themselves. In Laos and apparently in Myanmar, all Buddhist males temporarily ordain as monks at least once in their lifetime. In Northern Thailand I spoke to a 29 year old cyber café employee who has already done so 3 times.

At 5 am every morning in Luang Prabang well over 1000 monks set out in single file from their respective monasteries, each armed with a large empty sphere-like “alms bowl”. It appears that every temple has their own regular trail although given the size of the town parts of the route are shared with other monasteries. This certainly makes for the most spectacular sight on a typically misty Asian morning when up to 3 orange battalions converge at crossroads in perfect silence. The purpose of the alms round is for the monks to collect food from believers who stand sleepy eyed outside of their homes. Many, invariably a female, get up before sunrise to prepare the food though nowadays in a fast changing society there are some who buy the same pre-packaged offering such as sticky rice (a morning favourite) , curry, soup, spices or even milk. However in true fairness all is not dumped into one alms bowl but rather a fistful or similar of food is placed into the bowl of each monk as he files by. The popular practice of providing grub for the monks is held in very high regard in terms of “merit making” as in assisting the monks one is helping to ensure that the Buddhist teachings live on. This daily food round by the monks is not at all looked upon as begging but rather that theirs is a charitable act in that they provide laypeople with the opportunity to make merit for themselves.

Coming from an Irish or Spanish society that until recently had little or no experience of the non Christian faiths, it is understandable that Buddhism might be a difficult one to grasp. However as one American monk put it to me,

“Merit making is simply an effort to make the world a better place, that honour the dead and that preserve Buddhism for future generations."

I can’t really argue with that now, can I?

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