Theravada Buddhism is the predominant religion in continental Southeast Asia, including Laos. It is the only surviving school of the Nikaya branch of Buddhism that emerged in India after the death of the Buddha (c. 623 BCE-543 BCE).
Theravada Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, which function as categories through which Buddhists frame experience in a way designed to lead to enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths consist of suffering; the cause of suffering, which is desire; the cessation of suffering, which is the relinquishment of desire; and the path leading to the cessation of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhists believe that ignorance of the Four Noble Truths is the reason that we remain bound to the cycle of birth, aging, illness, death, and rebirth. To be released from this cycle, we must comprehend the first Noble Truth, abandon the Second, realize the Third, and develop the Fourth. Enlightenment is the cessation of ignorance, desire, and suffering.
In Theravada Buddhism, the religious practice of lay people focuses on the pursuit of merit-making activities. These include offering food and other necessities to monks, donating money and goods to temples and monasteries, volunteering to attend to the monks' practical needs, burning incense and lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting merit-making verses from the Pali Canon, a series of texts that form the scripture of Theravada Buddhism.
While lay people pursue merit-making activities, monks, who comprise the Sangha, pursue study and meditation, with the goal of ultimately attaining enlightenment. They also preside over religious ceremonies for and give religious instruction to the lay people. Monks are required to comply with the monastic order's 227 rules, and novices with 75. In Laos, it is common for young men to serve as novices for some length of time. Serving as a novice or monk is regarded as a means for a young man to bring merit to his parents.
Theravada Buddhism permeates everyday life in Luang Prabang. The city itself is organized as a collection of communities, each centered on a vat (monastery). The vat is not only a symbol of the community's identity, but the location of the many religious ceremonies and festivals that punctuate the year. The Quiet in the Land is working closely with many of the vats of Luang Prabang and the communities that they serve.