Bounleuth Sengsoulin
Bounleuth Sengsoulin, MA
PhD Candidate
The Lao Sangha and modernity: a Buddhist archive in Luang Prabang

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The Lao Sangha and modernity: a Buddhist archive in Luang Prabang

The royal city of Luang Prabang was and continues to be the centre of Lao Buddhism. Although Lao society was confronted with challenges in the 20th century such as French colonialism, Marxist doctrines and capitalist consumerism, traditional forms of Buddhist practices and monastic organization were tenaciously upheld in this city (Rehbein 2007). Despite the city’s geographical remoteness, the monks in Luang Prabang were familiar with early modern technologies such as photography which they used to document monastic life and everyday Buddhist practices. More than 120 years of monastic life has been captured in a total of 35,000 photographs from twelve monasteries; there are photographs of rituals, ceremonies, pilgrimages, portraits of monks and, ultimately, social life in its great diversity.

Unique in all of Southeast Asia, this photographic corpus reflects an eventful century in Lao history. Phra Khamchan Virachitto (1920-2007), abbot of the Wat Saen Sukharam monastery and proprietor of the most important collection of photographs, left behind an impressive trail of correspondence that he carried out for decades with monks and laypeople in Laos, Thailand and the Lao diaspora. Only recently has this extensive collection of Buddhist texts written over the course of the 20th surfaced.

This sub-project will expand on previous work carried out by the applicant (Grabowsky 2007), and reconstruct the societal and political role of the Laotian Sangha. Both the “Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang/Laos” (BAP) database and the correspondence between Phra Khamchan Virachitto will be the most important sources used for conducting research. This correspondence will be collected systematically, edited and, when necessary, translated into excerpts. In addition, written documents of the Sangha contained within the BAP will be analyzed. Sources from Thai and French archives will also be consulted. In the second phase of the project evaluated sources will be verified via interviews with Buddhist dignitaries and laypeople