In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism in Laos

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Archival Sources
  • Texts
  • Travelers’ Reports and Earlier Ethnographic Studies
  • Modern Ethnographic Studies
  • Buddhism and the State
  • Art, Architecture, and Archaeology

Buddhism Buddhism in Laos
Justin McDaniel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0125


Even though Lao studies is experiencing exponential growth due to the availability and exposure of a number of archival sources (especially the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts, cited under Archival Sources), as well as more-liberal visa policies, the study of Lao Buddhism is still in its early stages in Western languages. Bualy Papaphanh, Bounteum Sibounheuang, Khonngdeuane Nettawong, and Thongxeuy, among others, have consistently produced detailed studies in Lao, but these have yet to be published, and a number of foreign scholars have benefited from their guidance in Laos. Besides some short missionary and colonial studies (E. Lefèvre, M. Bassenne, L. Finot, F. Garnier, H. Parmentier, members of the Mission Pavie, among others), which often presented Laos as a place where Buddhist educational, textual, and cultural production was anemic in relation to Burma and Thailand, it was not until the postcolonial period that larger surveys of Lao Buddhism emerged. Recently, work on the origins of Lao Buddhism by Michel Lorrillard (especially Lorrillard 2003, cited under Art, Architecture, and Archaeology), close studies of funerary rites in Ladwig 2003 (cited under Modern Ethnographic Studies), and book-length studies such as McDaniel 2008 (cited under Texts) and Holt 2009 (cited under General Studies) have attempted both to discuss Lao Buddhism as it compares to Sri Lankan, Thai, and Cambodian Buddhism, as well as to emphasize its unique features. However, the problem that still plagues Lao studies is that many anthropologists were in fact discussing Lao ethnic practices among communities in northeastern Thailand and assuming that the same practices take place in Laos. Included here are the most-useful (most in Western languages) sources for the study of Lao Buddhist literature, art history, society, history, and texts.

General Studies

It was not until works such as Zago 1972, Nhouy Abhay 1956, Berval 1956, Archaimbault 1973, Deydier 1952, and Gabaude 1979 (cited under Texts) that we started to understand the details of Lao Buddhism more broadly. These early sources, largely in French, have not been matched until more-recent work in Holt 2009 and Goudineau and Lorrillard 2008, the latter a comprehensive edited collection of research articles.

  • Archaimbault, Charles. Structure religieuses lao (rites et mythes). Collection “Documents pour le Laos” 2. Vientiane, Laos: Vithanga, 1973.

    This is one of the first institutional descriptions of Lao Buddhism, drawing on architectural and art-historical research. It contains ten of Archaimbault’s articles, including work on reliquaries, creation stories, funerary rituals, and other subjects.

  • Berval, René de, ed. Présence du Royaume Lao: Pays du million d’éléphants et du parasol blanc. Saigon: France-Asie, 1956.

    Best read alongside Deydier 1952 and Nhouy Abhay 1956, this includes descriptions of Lao Buddhist practices. Contributions by Nhouy Abhay (“Buddhism in Laos”) and Phouvong Phimmasone (“The Buddhist Institute and Religious Teaching”) are particularly useful.

  • Deydier, Henri. Introduction à la connaissance du Laos. Saigon: Imprimerie Française d’Outre-Mer, 1952.

    Best read alongside Berval 1956 and Nhouy Abhay 1956, this includes descriptions of Lao Buddhist practices, without unnecessary references to Indic “origins” or Thai- and Khmer-related practices. One of the few sources that doesn’t reduce Lao practice to an offshoot of non-Lao practices.

  • Goudineau, Yves, and Michel Lorrillard, eds. Recherches nouvelles sur le Laos/New Research on Laos. Études Thématiques 18. Vientiane, Laos, and Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 2008.

    This impressive collection contains twenty-seven articles, many of which discuss Buddhist art, texts, and rituals. Roughly half the articles are in French and the remaining ones are in English.

  • Holt, John. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009.

    Although the author specializes in Sri Lanka rather than Laos, this is a theoretically sophisticated study of institutional history, social ethics, and so-called animist practices, highlighting changes in religious practice in the colonial, postcolonial, Marxist, and recent “tourist” period of Lao history.

  • Nhouy Abhay, Thao. Aspects du pays Lao. Vientiane, Laos: Éditions Comité Littéraire Lao, 1956.

    These three early collections include short but reliable and rare descriptions of Lao Buddhist practices, which are more in-depth than previous French colonial reports.

  • Zago, Marcello. Rites et cérémonies en milieu bouddhiste lao. Documenta Missionalia 6. Rome: Università Gregoriana Editrice, 1972.

    The first book-length study of Lao Buddhism shows the wide variety of animist rituals that are part of daily Theravada Buddhist monasticism.

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