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Spirits of the Place

Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture

John Clifford Holt

Publication Year: 2009

Spirits of the Place is 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 of phi, 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 of phi, 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

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7

Contents

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pp. vii-9

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Preface

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pp. ix-xiii

Laos and Sri Lanka are important venues for Theravada’s persistence in the contemporary world, but their historical experiences, of course, have been quite varied, and so the manner in which aspects of the sasana (Buddhist tradition) have been cultivated in each has varied significantly as well. Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka from...

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Introduction: Laos and Its Religious Culture

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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...

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CHAPTER 1. Powers of the Place: Buddhism and the Spirit Cults of Muang Lao

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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...

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CHAPTER 2. Interventions from Afar: Nonspiritual Powers in Place

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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...

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CHAPTER 3. Questions of Place: Religious Culture in a Post-revolutionary Space

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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 Buddhist sangha and the spirit cults were affected by and adjusted to the establishment and policies of the Marxist revolutionary Lao Peoples Democratic Republic...

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CHAPTER 4. Commodities of the Place: Ritual Expressions and the Marketing of Religious Culture

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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...

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CHAPTER 5. The Spirit(s) of the Place: Buddhists and Contemporary Lao Religion Reconsidered

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pp. 232-258

Throughout this study I have consistently referred to the persistent worship of phi as a cultic propitiation that is ubiquitous within Lao religious culture. I outlined the ontology and political significance of phi for the social organization of the muang in the first chapter, and in the following chapters I have indicated how spirit cults came under...

APPENDIX 1. Transformations of the Ramayana

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pp. 259-269

APPENDIX 2. The Cult of Khwan

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pp. 271-274

Notes

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pp. 275-319

Bibliography

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pp. 321-329

Index

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pp. 331-348

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About the Author

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pp. 349-365

John Clifford Holt is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He has authored numerous books, among them The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics and Culture (2004), The Religious World...

Image Plates

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pp. 366-370


E-ISBN-13: 9780824837082
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833275

Publication Year: 2009