Review of Spirits of the Place

John Clifford Holt, Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture

Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 348; maps, ills., bib., index.

John Holt has written a marvellous, but at times frustrating, account of religious culture in Laos. The marvel lies in the boldness of an outsider. A veteran scholar of Sri Lankan Buddhism, Holt brings a comparative perspective to a well-rehearsed body of literature on Lao religion.  His core argument, about the persistent vitality of a spirit world that has a distinct ontology of power, is inspired by his experience in Sri Lanka, where capricious spirits have been much more thoroughly institutionalised within official religious structures. The frustration arises because the primary and secondary data that Holt has collected lack sufficient relevant detail to flesh out the creative ambition of his central argument. Without enough ethnographic or historical engagement to sustain the specifics of its thesis, this book runs the risk of unravelling into a series of loosely interwoven “essays”.  Read individually, these essays are in many ways inspiring.  Together, however, they make for a book that is not completely satisfying.

The most exciting “essay,” which explores alternative forms of religious power, is set out in Chapters I and V. Holt starts by exploring two models of socio-spatial organisation at play in Laos: the muang and the mandala.  The muang, which comprised a cluster of villages under the leadership of a tribute-taking chief, is an ancient and persistent political unit. The authority of the chief derived from his special relationship with the muang’s tutelary spirit. Drawing heavily on the work of the French scholar Paul Mus, Holt demonstrates that this spirit was a supernatural condensation of both the power of place and the power of the ancestors. Leaders of villages within a muang had similar special relationships with their villages’ more local spirits. Flows of power within the muang were regenerated through reciprocally linked ritual performances.

This indigenous form of political organisation, with its orientation towards a spiritually powerful centre, was amenable to the introduction of the Indic mandala.  In broad outline, the mandala was structurally similar to the muang, but there were important points of difference. First, a mandala existed on a larger scale, holding several muang within its orbit. Some muang flirted with more than one mandala.  Second, the mandala expressed a clearer sense of hierarchy.  The ruler at its centre was possessed of a pre-eminent authority qualitatively different to the more reciprocally embedded leadership of the muang chief. Third, and most importantly, the mandala introduced a quite different ethic of power, based on Buddhist ideology. The power of the chief of the pre-Buddhist muang was based on his ability to enter into pragmatic deals with the spirits of the place. A strong chief was one who could successfully manage the instrumental exchange of favours with supernatural forces. The ruler of the mandala was very different: power at the centre of the mandala was ethical rather than pragmatic. The authority of the Buddhist ruler was based on the moral virtue that distinguished his life and leadership.

These two versions of power, and the religious practices associated with them, have had a long and sometimes tense coexistence in Laos and in the broader Tai world. Indeed, it hardly takes much imagination to see one more instance of the long-running tussle between pragmatics and ethics in the political confrontation that is now the focus of attention in the region.

Rulers of the mandala, and the modern nation state that steadily nudged it aside, have long been suspicious of the more dispersed spiritual power of the muang.  Spirits of the place can, of course, be found anywhere and ambitious chiefs (or politicians) can readily cultivate pragmatic relationships with local sources of supernatural power. Muang metaphysics is hard to monopolise or regulate. So, it is not surprising that kings, monks, presidents and party bosses have, at various stages, sought to limit entanglements between the populace and the supernatural world. Inspired by Buddhism, nationalism and socialism, these reformers have  replaced guardian spirits with images of the Buddha, attempted to purge religious practice of its unorthodox elements, and directed sacrificial urges towards social, rather than supernatural, goals.

Despite these attempts at religious purification, Holt argues, spirit beliefs remain ubiquitous in Laos. He suggests that viewing Lao religious history as a “war of ontological displacement” (p. 65) would be a misleading simplification. Historically, Buddhist penetration into rural areas was limited, and the power of the modern state to impose wide-ranging cultural transformation has been weak. Holt specifically rejects the argument, developed by some scholars working in Thailand, that spirit cults have been encapsulated by Buddhism. In Laos there is a vigorous “indigenous religious culture or substratum” (p. 20) of spirit belief that needs to be understood in its own terms. The persistence of this substratum is reflected in the “ontologically bifocal” (p. 34) accounts of the origins of Luang Phrabang, which combine tales about the autochthonous power of place and the military triumphs of the great Buddhist warrior, Fa Ngum.

Holt’s boldest argument is that “Buddhism continues to be understood primarily through the lenses of the spirit cult in Laos” (p. 251). This “inspiriting” (p. 233) of Buddhism is evident in relation to one of Laos’s most famous objects of Buddhist veneration, the Phra Bang image from which Luang Phrabang takes its name. The Phra Bang image has taken on a role analogous to a powerful tutelary spirit “located at the pivotal center of political space” (p. 65).  The orientation of Buddhism towards spirit belief is also evident in the veneration of stupas, the conversion of deceased monks into semi-ancestral figures, the presence of guardian spirits at temples, and the holding of boat races to recharge the vitality of temples’ supernatural protectors.  

This discussion is stimulating and provocative, but I was hungry for more detail as I read the long history of Lao religious culture in Chapters II and III of Spirits of the Place. These chapters offer a useful integration of existing work on the topic, but the ontological tensions that Holt addresses in Chapters I and V emerge only occasionally. Instead, one finds what is mainly a history of Buddhism and its interactions with the modernising Lao state. The discussion of the spirit-like cult of communist Laos’s first prime-minister, Kaysone Phomvihane, is one welcome return to Holt’s central theme, but Chapters II and III simply do not include enough fine-grained data on the interaction between alternative religious orientations.

The third component of the book (Chapter IV), which sets out the results of Holt’s fieldwork in Luang Phrabang in 2006 and 2007, has similar limitations.  A survey of 100 novices resident in the city’s temples tells us much about their social origins, aspirations and, in particular, their interactions with tourists. But why not include some survey questions about their attitudes toward the basic cosmological issues that are the book’s primary concern? A good number of these young novices are interested in pursuing a career in business, and I wonder what supernatural connections they will be cultivating in their pursuit of modernity and prosperity. Holt’s study of the New Year’s celebrations in Luang Phrabang strikes me as another missed opportunity.  There is some discussion of how important ritual participants, including the glamorous Miss Lao, represent long-standing concerns with vitality and fertility. But I thought that Holt was overly put off by the raucous flurry of water throwing, beer consumption and over-excited tourists. “[A]t least in public,” Holt writes, “the accent is now on the chaos rather than on purification and order” (p. 228). But what about the alternative versions of power and potency that Holt invites us to explore elsewhere in the book? Some of the spirits I have met in northern Thailand seem very partial to a party, and the exhausting New Year circuits of offering, exchange, feasting and drinking reflect an inebriated and inspirited approach to power that challenges the moral virtue of the exemplary centre.

Andrew Walker
Department of Political & Social Change
ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

About Andrew Walker