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Buddhism is the primary religion of Laos. The Buddhism practiced in Laos is of the Theravada tradition. Lao Buddhism is a unique version of Theravada Buddhism and is at the basis of Lao culture. Buddhism in Laos is often closely tied to animist beliefs and belief in ancestral spirits, particularly in rural areas.
The percentage of the population that adheres to Buddhism in modern Laos is variously reported, the CIA World Factbook estimates 65% of the total population have taken refuge in the Three Jewels. The creation of accurate estimates of the number of Buddhists in Laos is complicated by the paucity of information made available by the Laotian government, and the close connection between Buddhist and animist practices in Laos could make the numbers of nominal adherents of both Buddhism-Animism as much higher as over 90% because these traditions have influenced on mostly Lao people. There are significant numbers of Chinese or Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhists.
Theravada Buddhism is believed to have first reached Laos during the 7th - 8th Centuries CE, via the kingdom of Dvaravati. During the 7th Century, tantric Buddhism was also introduced to Laos from the kingdom of Nan-chao, an ethnically Tai kingdom centered in modern day Yunnan, China. The Nan-chao kingdom also likely introduced the political ideology of the king as defender and protector of Buddhism, an important ideological tie between the monarchy and the sangha in much of Southeast Asia.
During the 11th & 12th Century, Khmer rulers took control of Muang Sua, the historical region of the kingdom of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. During this period, Mahayana Buddhism replaced Theravada Buddhism as the dominant religious ideology of the ruling classes.
Historically, the Lao state is regarded as beginning in 1353 CE with the coronation of Fa Ngum at Luang Prabang. Fa Ngum brought his Khmer Theravada teacher with him to act as adviser and head priest of the new kingdom. This Khmer monk named Phramaha Pasaman also brought to the kingdom a revered image of the Buddha that became known as the Phra Bang, the namesake of the city of Luang Prabang and the symbol of the Lao kingdom. Subsequent alliances with Burma and Thailand helped cement the primacy of Theravada Buddhism in the Laotian kingdom. Faced with rugged, isolating geography and the absence of a strong central government, Theravada Buddhism became one of the primary unifying features of Lao culture.
Buddhism and the Pathet Lao
The Communist treatment of religion in Laos has diverged from the experience of many other countries which have had a communist regime. Instead of repressing or banning religion outright, the Communists in Laos used the Buddhist Sangha as a vehicle to achieve political aims. Officially, Marxist theory rejects religion because it is seen as a tool used by the ruling classes to mislead the oppressed classes and to keep them subservient. Even though the Pathet Lao saw Buddhism as an antithesis of Marxism, they were able to reconcile aspects of Buddhism with Marxism. (Lafont 1982, p.150, Brown & Zasloff 1986, pp.228-299). The Pathet Lao saw Buddhism and Marxism conflicting on these principles:
(1) Marxism rejects all forms of religion; (2) Buddhism’s spiritual vision of the universe conflicts with Marxism’s materialistic vision; (3) Buddhism regards material attachment as the cause of suffering whereas Marxism bases its utopian vision on the material world; (4) Buddhism strives for harmony whereas the Marxists see a constant class struggle between different classes; and (5) Buddhism eschews the use of violence while Marxism approves the use of violence where necessary. (Lafont 1982, p.150, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.230).
The Pathet Lao re-interpreted Buddhism by affirming that there was no conflict between the teaching of the Gautama Buddha and revolutionary aims.(Morev 1998, pp.33-34). They focused on the life story of the Gautama Buddha. Gautama’s rejection of royal status and his choice of becoming a mendicant could be considered revolutionary as he rejected the trappings of wealth and the privilege of the ruling elite. People were not accorded status based on caste or wealth but were accepted as long as they accepted the Dhamma. The Pathet Lao claimed that Buddha had already envisioned a classless society because of his rejection of class distinction. The Pathet Lao also pointed out Buddhism had a strong dimension of social justice as the Gautama Buddha was interested in the material welfare of people and he wanted to relieve the lot of the poor. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.228) Poverty was seen as a root of evil and as a cause of crime. A minimal level of material well-being was necessary before the Dhamma could be practised. This was not too different from the Pathet Lao’s aim of redistributing wealth. The Pathet Lao also pointed out both Buddhism and Marxism were interested in the ultimate happiness of people; they both aimed to help people escape from suffering; the only difference was in their method of achieving happiness. (Lafont 1982, p.150, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.228, Morev 1998, p.34). Both Buddhism and Marxism rejects the capitalist system. (Pholsena 2006, p.71).
According to the Pathet Lao, Buddhism and Marxism advocated different solutions because they were the evolutionary product of societies at different stages of development. Buddhism was a historical product of a pre-industrial age while Marxism was the scientific ideology of the industrial age. Buddhism was acceptable and it was useful as a tool of the revolution if it was purged of superstitious practices which had accrued over time. (Lafont 1982, p.150).
Politicisation of the Sangha
The Pathet Lao’s choice to co-opt Buddhism into its revolutionary struggle had a historical basis. Traditionally, the monarchy and the Sangha had a reciprocal relationship. The Sangha aimed to remain on good terms with the state. (Morev 1998, p.32). The king’s right to rule was based on his submission to the Dhamma. He only ruled through the power of the Three Jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. In return for the Sangha’s support and legitimation of his rule, the king had to support the upkeep of the Sangha and promote the Dhamma in the kingdom. This was a relationship based on mutual benefits. (Stuart-Fox 1996, pp.68-69, Grabowsky 2007, p.133). The role of the king was to run the secular affairs of the country while the Sangha also derived its moral authority by being detached and aloof from mundane affairs. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.72).
French colonial rule resulted in the marginalization of the Sangha. It was during the Japanese occupation of French Indochina that a nascent Lao nationalist movement began to pay attention to traditional Lao culture. The nationalist movement focused on the role of Buddhism in Lao society and on the Sangha as a repository of traditional Lao values. (Pholsena 2006, p.67). Many young monks became involved in this resurgence of nationalism. It also meant that the traditional role of the Sangha was changing. The Sangha was no longer purely occupied with the spiritual realm; it had crossed into the secular realm. With the exile of the Lao Issara government in Thailand after the resumption of French control in 1946, the Sangha played a significant role in fanning nationalist sentiment in Laos. They also provided financial support by using Buddhist festivals as fundraisers. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.88). In 1950, the Lao Issara movement spilt into two factions. The moderate faction supported independence within the French Union while the radical faction supported the armed struggle of the Viet Minh. Some monks actually joined the Pathet Lao, while other monks used Buddhist teachings to bolster the liberation struggle. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.88). This was effective because of the great moral impact of the Sangha on Lao society. (Lafont 1982, p.148, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.221). As a result, both the government in Vientiane and the Pathet Lao sought to use the Sangha as a vehicle for their political aims. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.88, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.220).
In the First Coalition government of 1957, the Pathet Lao held religious affairs as one of their two portfolios. The Minister for Religious Affairs, Phoumi Vongvichit was a communist and there was a tactical reason for the Pathet Lao to take this portfolio. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.223). The Ministry of Religious Affairs supervised the Sangha directly, a function it inherited from its colonial predecessor. Information and instructions could be transmitted via the Sangha ranks without recourse to the civil administration. This meant that the communists were now in control of a communication network which fanned out from Vientiane to the most inaccessible villages. The ministry funds were also used to pay for monastic meetings where pro-communist ideas could be promulgated. This technique was so effective that even though the Coalition government collapsed in a matter of months, many monks had already been won to the side of the Pathet Lao. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.88). Communist propaganda was also incorporated into Buddhism sermons: the right wing forces were equated with evil and the Communists were seen as the forces of good. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.223).
Rightist Attempt to Co-Opt the Sangha
The success of the Pathet Lao in using the Sangha for their political aims goaded the government in Vientiane and their American supporters into action by trying to bring the Sangha firmly under their control. The rightist government of Phoui Sananikone, which took power after the failure of the First Coalition government, tried to control the Sangha by passing legislation in the form of Royal Ordinance number 160 on 25 May 1959. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.89, Evans 1998, p.52). It defined government control of the internal affairs of the Sangha. Government officials could veto elections of abbots and elders and candidates for higher positions in the Sangha required Cabinet consent. Correspondence between the various administrative divisions of the Sangha had to go via the civil administration. This was an attempt to turn the Sangha into another branch of the executive. This resulted in tension between the Sangha and the government and led to unrest in the Sangha.(Stuart-Fox 1996, p.89, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.222). This proved to be opportune for the Pathet Lao who were quick to exploit these tensions to their own interests. The Americans trained some of the monks, who were then expected to speak against the Communists. Lao-speaking monks from Thailand were also sent to Laos to join the ideological battle against the Communists.(Stuart-Fox 1996, p.89, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.222). These monks were from the Thammanyut-nikay sect, a reform sect which had been founded in Thailand. The Thammanyut-nikay sect was a minority sect in Laos, as opposed to the majority Maha-nikay sect. The immediate consequences of all these actions led to further tensions between the government and the Sangha. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.222). This was quickly exploited by the Pathet Lao. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.89). Two underground movements, with Pathet Lao support was founded to fight against American and government influence in the affairs of the Sangha. They were the “Movement of Young Monks against the Thai Thammanyut monks” and the “Movement of Novices to Demand their Rights”. (Stuart-Fox 1996,p.90).
In addition, many members of the Sangha were already pre-disposed to anti-government propaganda of the Communists due to the “inverse class structure” of the Sangha. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.90, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.222). Under the French administration, the Lao elite was educated in secular schools. The poor could only be educated in the monasteries. Jobs in the government were offered to the French-educated elite; those who were educated in monasteries were denied jobs in the government on the grounds that their religious education was irrelevant for government jobs. Many of those students who were educated in the monasteries had to remain as monks and they harboured grudges against the government. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.90, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.222). This was aggravated by the fact that many members of the Sangha, especially those in rural areas only received a rudimentary education and were ill-disciplined. They only had a flimsy knowledge of the Dhamma and were susceptible to Marxist manipulations of Buddhism. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.91, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.223, Morev 2002, p.396).
Sangha as an organ of propaganda
During the Lao Civil War, the Pathet Lao actively used members of the Sangha in their propaganda campaign. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.93, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.221). For example, a seized Pathet Lao document dated 14 January 1968 reports how the Pathet Lao had sent out thirty-three monks “to preach revolutionary ethics….to protect Buddhism, to revive the real morality, to explain the revolutionary tasks to the people, and to resist the psychological warfare of the American imperialists and their reactionary lackeys”. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.93). According to the Pathet Lao, members of the Sangha could be transformed into revolutionaries. This is because the monk has renounced material possessions and is no longer motivated by selfish personal interests. The monk was seeking the betterment of humanity. As such, the monk could not stand idly by and allow the oppression of the common people. To allow such injustice was a betrayal of Buddhism. The Pathet Lao also officially accepted Buddhism in the zones under their control. (Lafont 1982, p.151, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.220).
With the proclamation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on 2 Dec 1975, the Pathet Lao needed to establish their legitimacy to rule, especially in zones that used to be controlled by the rightists. They actively promoted an eighteen point political programme with the slogan “Laos: Peaceful, Independent, Neutral, Democratic, United and Prosperous”. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.95). The liberal democratic tone of the document appealed to most people. These included unity and equality of all Lao nationals of all ethnic groups, free elections, freedom of speech and the right to free enterprise and property ownership. The fifth point included a call to respect and protect all religions, especially Buddhism. Naturally, the Sangha supported these eighteen points. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.94, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.221). They recruited as many monks as possible to preach these eighteen points in the rural areas. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.95, Evans 1998, p.61). The Pathet Lao message benefited from the goodwill felt by the people towards the Sangha as this message was promoted via the monks. At the same time it must be noted that the monks were accompanied by armed Pathet Lao cadres on their preaching tours, supposedly for their protection. Their sermons were also tape-recorded to ensure that they kept to the official party line. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.99). Monks who did not support the eighteen point political programme were criticised (Baird 2012, p.662).
The Sangharaja or the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Laos also urged the monks to work with the revolutionaries for the good of the nation. A booklet entitled “Action Plan for the Lao Sangha” was prepared. It noted the importance of the Sangha and emphasised the importance of the Sangha as mediators in Lao society. This indicated how the Pathet Lao intended to use the ecclesiastical weight of the Sangha to settle disputes they may face in their transition to power. Monks were to serve as a channel of communication between the Party and the people. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.95).
The Sangha under Communist Rule – 1975 to 1979
Monks were the first to attend Pathet Lao political seminars. At first, they attended voluntarily but as these seminars became protracted re-education classes, monks had to be forced to attend. In these seminars, the monks were taught the Pathet Lao interpretation of Buddhism. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.96). Monks were taught Marxism-Leninism in Buddhist institutes. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.229, Morev 1998, p.33). Both Marxism and Buddhism taught the equality of all men. The Sangha, as a community of men who lived and worked together without individual ownership of property, was similar to a Marxist collective. Both Marxism and Buddhism at an abstract level, aimed to liberate mankind from suffering and to attain happiness. The Pathet Lao tried to purge Buddhism of such superstition as belief in the existence of demons, or of life after death in one of the Buddhist heavens or hells. The accumulation of merit was downplayed; and karma was denounced as leading to fatalism and pacifism.
While proclaiming that Buddhism and Marxism was compatible, the Pathet Lao also sought actively to replace the Dhamma with Marxism-Leninism. They also sought to discourage merit making, as it was seen as a diversion of scarce resources. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.97, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.224). To the Pathet Lao, religion still conflicted with the formation of an orthodox Marxist-Leninist state. Ironically, the Pathet Lao’s attack on the popular aspects of Lao Buddhist practice such as spirit worship and use of special amulets may have actually led to an increased orthodoxy in Lao Buddhism as it is reverting closer to Buddha’s original teachings. (Lafont 1982, p.159, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.229). Thai followers of Buddhadasa are of the opinion that Lao Buddhism has freed itself from false beliefs and local accretions. They point out that spirit worship and the blessing of amulets, which were not part of Buddha’s teachings, have been prohibited. (Lafont 1982, p.159).
More importantly, the Sangha remained as an alternative route to social advancement outside the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party or LPRP, the political wing of the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao sought to make the Sangha an instrument of party policy. It was also important to control the Sangha as it was one of the few organisations that had penetrated every village in Laos. (Evans 1998, p.57). The sectarian divisions between Maha-nikay and Thammanyut-nikay was abolished and the Sangha was restructured as the Lao United Buddhists Association. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.99, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.225, Morev 2002, p.398, Baird 2012, p.662). This association was placed under the auspices of the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education. (Lafont 1982, p.152). The traditional Sangha hierarchy, including the Sangharaja was abolished and their elaborate fans which were the symbols of their ranks, were smashed. Executive positions in the Lao United Buddhists Association were filled by Party appointees. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.99, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.225). All high ranking monks had to attend month long political indoctrination classes. Theravada monks have to attend a fortnightly recitation of the patimokha or the 227 verses of monastic discipline in Pali. This became transformed as a forum to criticise monks who had strayed from the Party line. Monks began to leave the Sangha or flee to Thailand. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.99, Baird 2012, p.662).
At the beginning of 1976, a number of attacks were mounted against Buddhism. The teaching of religion and Buddhist morality was prohibited in primary schools. Buddhist monks were harassed by local cadres. (Lafont 1982, p.152). These attacks did not last as it led to great public opposition. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p. 101). The Pathet Lao also realised that they still needed the monks for their propaganda objectives. By the end of 1976, these pressures on the Sangha ceased. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.101).These pressures also ceased at the same time that the Pathet Lao completed the reorganisation of the Sangha. Monks are still invited to attend all secular state occasions, such as National Day. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.225, Morev 1998, p.32). Official government delegations have attended major Buddhist festivals such as the Pha That Luang Festival. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.107, Trankell 2000, p.198). Although monks are not harassed, they have to use their sermons to encourage the people to support the Party and its policies. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.106, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.226). This also had the effect of reducing the prestige of the Sangha in the eyes of the laity. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.98). Traditionally, the independence of the Sangha acted as the foundation of its moral authority; it was aloof and detached from mundane affairs. By using the monks as a vehicle of political indoctrination, the moral authority of the Sangha was weakened. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.107).
Refugee Lao monks and anti-communist informants have reported that the situation in Laos was much more serious. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.104). Pressure against the Sangha increased between 1976 and 1979. One monk who left Vientiane in December 1976 said that pressure was only subtle and indirect. Monks who did not toe the party line were disciplined by the Sangha and monks were sent on re-education courses but none had been executed. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.105). By 1979, 1000 monks were reported to have been confined to re-education camps. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.227). Another monk who fled Southern Laos in May 1978 reported more heavy handed methods. There were unverified reports that monks had been arrested and shot. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.105). In March 1979, the eighty-seven year old Sangharaja of Laos, Venerable Thammayano, fled to Thailand by floating across the Mekong on a raft of inflated car inner tubes. He had been confined to his monastery and was not allowed to preach. He stated that youths were dissuaded from joining the Sangha and that monastic teachings had to adhere to government guidelines. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.105, Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.225). There was a serious decrease in the number of monks in the Lao Sangha during this period. (Brown & Zasloff 1986, p.227, Morev 2002, p.396). Some monks left the Sangha, many fled and some were sent to labour camps. Young novices were persuaded by the government to leave the Sangha with offers of secular training and education and special vocational schools were set up for them. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.105). This was not aided by the loss of prestige of the Lao Sangha, which was being seen as a tool of government policy. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.98). The significant number of monks who had escaped to Thailand and monks who aided the anti-communist insurgents demonstrates that the regime's attempt to co-opt the Sangha was not completely successful.(Baird 2012).
The Situation of Buddhism after 1979
The official attitudes towards Buddhism began to liberalise, in tandem with economic liberalization in the late 1980s. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.107). The Buddhist Sangha has expanded their traditional roles. Previously, they focused on teaching Buddhism but they also assist in adult literacy programs after the formation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. They teach the Lao language and other subjects in places where schools are not available or where teachers are not available. They play a prominent role in education, especially early education. (Morev 1998, p.34). They continue their role as traditional healers in a country where doctors are scarce. However, they are prohibited from issuing cures of a spiritualist nature. They can dispense traditional herbal cures and Western medicines.(Lafont 1982, p.153, Morev 1998, p.35). In this sense, the Buddhist Sangha have had to re-invent themselves by emphasising their utilitarian roles in Lao society. (Lafont 1982, p.153). The Sangha has become seen as a preserver of national culture, especially in the maintenance of wats and monasteries. (Morev 1998, p.35).
By the early 1990s, Buddhism was on the resurgence. The wat still remained as an important focus of social life. Lines of monks could accept morning offerings from the faithful without interference and attendance at Buddhist ceremonies increased again. At the annual Pha That Luang Festival, most members of the Politburo could be seen making offerings to monks. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.107, Trenkell 2000, p.198). While government policy towards religion has liberalized, the Sangha remains under Party control and monks have to study official government policy. (Pholsena 2006, p.89). Since the 1990s, the Sangha has been re-oriented as a primarily religious organisation. (Morev 2002, p.397). Buddhist institutes for the training of monks have been devoting more time to the teaching of religious disciplines such as the foundation of the Dhamma, the disciplinary code, Pali, the life of the Buddha and the Buddhist canon. (Morev 2002, p.398). Monks appear to give talks on television and radio and they are allowed to give talks in schools and have access to patients in hospitals. (Morev 2002, p.398). Buddhism has survived because it remains central to the cultural identity of Laos, and Buddhism is inextricably interwoven with Lao culture. (Stuart-Fox 1996, p.108).
Buddhism in Laotian Culture
Lao Buddhist are very devout and almost every Lao man joins a monastery, or temple, for at least a short period of time. Many men also become monks for the rest of their lives. Most people donate food to the monks to gain merit and improve their karma. The temples of Laos were once seen as "Universities" for monks. Lao monks are highly respected and revered in Lao communities. Based on Laotian Buddhism, the women of Laos are taught that they can only attain nirvana after they have been reborn as men.
Art and Architecture
The Pha That Luang, Wat Sisakhet, Wat Xieng Thong, and That Dam are all Buddhist structures in Laos. Lao Buddhism is also famous for images of the Buddha performing uniquely Lao mudras, or gestures, such as calling for rain, and striking uniquely Lao poses such as showing the Buddha lying down and welcoming death, after which he would achieve Nirvana.
In the Pra Lak Pra Lam, the Lao Ramayana, instead of having Rama portrayed as an incarnation of Vishnu, Rama is an incarnation of the Buddha. Lao people have also written many versions of the Jataka Tales.
- Savada, Andrea Matles (1994). Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO for the Library of Congress.
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- John Holt (2009) Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. University of Hawaii Press. Page 146
- Women in Laos, activetravellaos, 2005.
- Baird, I.G., (2012) Lao Buddhist Monks' Involvement in Political and Military Resistance to the Lao People's Democratic Republic Government since 1975 The Journal of Asian Studies 71:3 (pp.655-677)
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- Evans, G. (1998) The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975 Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press
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- Lafont, P-B. (1982) Buddhism in Contemporary Laos in Stuart-Fox, M. (ed) Contemporary Laos: Studies in the Politics and Society of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (pp.148-162) St Lucia: University of Queensland Press
- Morev, L. (1998) Religion, state and society in contemporary Laos Religion, State and Society 26:1 (pp31-38)
- Morev, L. (2002) Religion in Laos Today Religion, State and Society 30:4 (pp.395-407)
- Pholsena, V. (2006) Post-war Laos: The Politics of Culture, History and Identity Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
- Stuart-Fox, M. (1996) Buddhist Kingdom, Marxist State: The Making of Modern Laos Bangkok: White Lotus Co., Ltd
- Trankell, I-B., (2000) Royal Relics: Ritual & Social Memory in Louang Prabang in Evans, G. (ed) Laos: Culture and Society (pp.191-213) Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
An interesting ethnographic documentary by Patrice Ladwig and Gregory Kourilsky, Caring for the Beyond: Two Lao Buddhist Festivals for the Deceased can be down loaded here: Bristol University Death Ritual Project.
An interesting description of sacred caves in Southeast Asia and their role in Buddhist practice can be found here:Sacred caves in Southeast Asia