Spirits of the place: Buddhism and Lao religious culture
By JOHN CLIFFORD HOLT
Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. Pp. 348. Photographs, Plates, Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index.
Although often treated in academic literature as adjunctive to the history of the Thai or Burmese kingdoms, or, in contemporary accounts, as a peripheral setting for dramatic 'secret' war narratives involving the US Central Intelligence Agency during long periods of conflict in Indochina, the arc of Lao history has begun to receive its share of refreshed scholarly attention. With the nascent Lao studies conference series that has been held over the past five years in the United States and elsewhere, and the gradual opening of the country to foreign investment and accompanying economic analyses, this new attention to the nuances of the history of Lao People's Democratic Republic clearly has been strengthened.
The objective that John Clifford Holt sets before himself and the reader in Spirits of the place: Buddhism and Lao religious culture is one which has been complicated by a number of factors related to the complex filigree that is the story of Laos. Holt is clear in his preface that there are certain limitations in the study, as a nuanced understanding of Sri Lankan Buddhism is difficult to project onto a Southeast Asian cultural landscape. Holt is an acclaimed scholar of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism and has spent decades in this intellectual setting, and his linguistic background is steeped in the canonical traditions of Pali and Sanskrit. He writes in his preface that one of the primary motivations for this study was that, in looking for a logical halfway point in his travels between the United States and Sri Lanka, he and his wife selected Southeast Asia as a place of leisure, a way to abbreviate a long flight: this naturally sparked the academic inquiry that the book reflects so well.
By prefacing the reader's anticipated experience and thus altering overall expectations, he does some (but not complete) disservice to some of the text that follows. Long citations amplify his analyses, primarily authored by recognised authorities on Lao history. Grant Evans and Martin Stuart-Fox are so heavily and often quoted that it is easy to become distracted by the referenced texts themselves and to be persuaded to continue following their own lines of argument further. This can make it ambiguous, at times, whether the quoted text strongly supports his observations directly. In short, there is an identity crisis of sorts that is played out in the text with two concepts competing for the reader's attention: Lao history (synchronic and diachronic) on the one hand, and the relationship between Theravada Buddhism and Lao spirit cults on the other. …