Bayou Lotus: Theravada Buddhism in Southwestern Louisiana
Carl L.  Bankston III
Sociological Spectrum
Vol. 17 No.4   Oct-Dec 97
Copyright by Sociological Spectrum
This study suggests that understanding how religion promotes adaptation to
social changes, such as immigrant resettlement, depends on viewing religion
as a cultural institution that enables human beings to make sense of their
environments. Religious beliefs solve problems of meaning in given social
environments by expressing the essential facets of those environments as
collective representations. Coping with change depends on maintaining
 continuity with a preexisting belief system, while reshaping the belief
system to reflect new environmental problems. The study illustrates this
argument by offering a cultural analysis of Laotian-American Buddhism in
three parts. First, it provides an interpretive discussion of Theravada
Buddhism in the social context of Laotian village society. Second, it
describes how a particular community of Laotians, resettled in the United
States, came to construct a temple and to reconstruct their religious
practices in the United States. Third, it uses interviews with members of
this community to suggest how the religion has been subtly reshaped by the
American social context and to describe how this reshaped religion supplies
the resettled refugees with ethnic identities and with a comprehensible
moral order.
Every migrant faces the challenge of finding a meaningful moral order and a
meaningful personal identity in a new environment. The further the migrant
has travelled, in both the geographic and cultural senses, the greater this
challenge is likely to be. The refugees of Southeast Asia who have
resettled in the United States since 1975 may have faced some of the
greatest normative and epistemological challenges.
In 1990, according to the U.S. Census, there were about 172,000 refugees in
the United States from the country of Laos alone (U.S. Bureau of the Census
1991). This number, which includes close to 90,000 Hmong from the mountains
of Laos and about 165,000 ethnic Laotians, may have been a drastic
undercount, as the substantial and continuing secondary migration of
Laotians within the United States has made it difficult to keep accurate
records (Bankston 1995a, 1995b). The Laotians have, perhaps, travelled as
great a cultural distance as any migrants in history. They have come to the
postindustrial United States from a largely subsistence economy, based
heavily on the cultivation of rice by hand and water buffalo. They have
left small villages based on interlocking kinship ties for a mobile,
urban-suburban civilization. Overwhelmingly Buddhist in their original
homeland, they now live in a nation heavily influenced by Christian
traditions and beliefs.
This study looks at the role of Theravada Buddhism in the construction of
moral order and identity among ethnic Laotians. Although it does rest on
empirical data from observations and interviews, it is primarily an attempt
at interpretive rather than empirical sociology. Immigrant adaptation is, I
suggest, greatly shaped by the systems of meaning that immigrants bring
with them and draw on to understand their new environment. To establish
this point, I use qualitative data from participant observation and
interviews. This makes it possible to provide a substantive picture of the
meaning system of a particular group of immigrants, and it makes it
possible to show how these immigrants use a conceptual framework from a
previous life to fashion a way of being in a new life.
A substantial body of literature supports the view that religion is an
important source of psychological adjustment (Witter, Stock, Okun, and
Haring 1985; Antonovsky 1987; Ellison, Gay, and Glass 1989; Pollner 1989;
Ellison 1991; Stack 1993; Ellison 1994). A number of researchers have
found, further, that religious involvement contributes specifically to the
psychological adjustment of immigrants to their new homelands (Haddad and
Lummis 1987; Hurh and Kim 1990; Kivisto 1993). Those who have studied the
religions of the traumatically resettled Southeast Asian refugees have
found that these religions are often central in promoting adjustment
(Bankston and Zhou 1995a, 1995b; Zhou and Bankston 1994; Nash 1992;
Rutledge 1985). The studies, however, generally lack specificity on how
religions contribute to immigrant adaptation. I believe researchers can
obtain some insight into this question by considering religion as the key
cultural institution for addressing the problem of meaning in human life
and by looking at some of the ways in which religious beliefs persist and
change in the process of resettlement.
Wuthnow (1987) has suggested that classical and neo-classical approaches to
culture have been overwhelmingly concerned with the problem of meaning.
This tendency has, perhaps, been clearest in classical and neo-classical
approaches to the sociology of religion. Durkheim's ([1915] 1965)
collective representations, for example, are not simply a collection of
beliefs, but of beliefs that provide an ordered basis of social life. The
social control aspect of this ordering has been heavily emphasized in
objective analyses of human behavior, particularly in the literature on
deviance. However, ordered systems of beliefs provide interpretive
frameworks for understanding the world and one's place in it, as well as
mechanisms of control.
According to Wuthnow (1987: 36-37), neo-classical theorists of religion,
such as Berger, Bellah, and Geertz, have emphasized this last aspect of
Durkheimian theory. Geertz (1973) saw religion as a central part of a
cultural web of meanings used to comprehend the nonhuman world. Berger
(1969:23) described the nomos of religion as "an area of meaning carved out
of a vast mass of meaninglessness." In making the world meaningful, Bellah
(1970) argued, religion provides identity and motivation to groups and to
individuals as members of groups.
Swidler (1986) raised the important question of how culture is related to
action and, in raising this question, created a means of conceptualizing
the role of cultural tradition in social change. Swidler argued that,
rather than seeing culture as a set of values that shape behavior, we
should understand culture as a "'tool kit' of symbols, stories, and
worldviews, which people may use in varying configurations to solve
different kinds of problems" (p. 273). Thus, actors can draw on different
aspects of their cultural equipage to deal with the new situations
presented by social change. This is a helpful way of thinking about
culture, and religion as an element of culture, but the metaphor of the
toolbox may be a little misleading. As images of dominant social themes,
cultural components do not form loose assemblages of tools, but dramatic
depictions for thinking about the problems to be solved. These depictions
will shift; some parts will be erased, some magnified, and some moved about
as the problems to be solved change.
Swidler (1986) maintained that ideological aspects of culture are
particularly important when people's lives are unsettled: "When people are
learning new ways of organizing individual and collective action,
practicing unfamiliar habits until they have become familiar, then
doctrine, symbol, and ritual directly shape action" (p. 278). In other
words, the kinds of interpretive frameworks provided by religion, as a
central source of cultural components, become particularly important when
people are coping with changing environments.
Culture, I suggest, is shaped by the kinds of problems it solves. If a
culture is to render comprehensible the relations of an agricultural
society, it will reproduce and represent the forms of agricultural
relations. A radical social change may make a religion, as a system of
cultural representations, inadequate for carving out Berger's (1969) "area
of meaning," as the change presents an entirely new set of environmental
challenges. At the same time, though, religion acquires even greater
importance as a means of coping with the environment, as change presents
new situations that demand interpretation. A social group can resolve this
tension by drawing at once heavily and selectively on a religious heritage
to construct a moral order in which the old symbolic elements are
reoriented to a new environment.
I argue here that Laotian Buddhism developed as an expression of social
relations within highly interdependent rice-growing rural villages. In the
American community studied here, resettled Laotians live in an
urban-suburban environment and engage in industrial economic activities.
They make sense out of their new environment by using cultural components
from traditional religion, but these are subtly altered and rearranged to
reflect the demands of the new environment.
                              METHOD AND DATA
This study is based on participant observation data, collected over a
period of several years in Southeast Asia and in the United States, and on
interviews conducted during the summer of 1996 with members of a particular
Laotian community.
                          Participant Observation
I assembled the background information and formed a grasp of the conceptual
context of this study during three periods of participant observation.
First, from the beginning of 1983 until the middle of 1985, I lived in a
small village in the ethnic Laotian part of Thailand, near the Thai-Lao
border, while serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Living with an
ethnic Laotian family, I learned to speak Lao at this time, and I
participated regularly in religious ceremonies. Second, from the middle of
1985 until the end of 1989, I worked with the U.S. Refugee Program in a
camp in the Philippines for refugees from Southeast Asia. There, I had
daily contact with Laotian refugees and spent a great deal of time at the
Laotian Buddhist temple in the camp. My discussion of Lao religion in a
village social context is based heavily on participant observation in the
ethnic Lao village in Thailand and in the refugee camp, but I also rely on
written sources, which are cited below. Third, during the summer of 1996, I
conducted a study of a Laotian community in southwestern Louisiana. This
involved visiting homes, eating meals with members of the community, and
participating in rituals. I wrote down notes each evening on observations
during each day.
In addition to information collected during the course of daily
interaction, I also conducted 63 unstructured interviews with members of
the Laotian community. All of the interviewees arrived in the United States
between 1980 and 1986, and all arrived in this particular community before
1989. Some interviews were conducted in English, some in Lao, and some
involved shifting back and forth between those languages. All of the
Laotians whom I interviewed were Buddhists, as are well over 90% of the
Laotians in Laos. These interviews concentrated on experiences during the
resettlement process, adjustment difficulties in the United States, and
respondents' views on American society and their places in it.
In the following analysis, I draw on my observations of Laotian Buddhism in
Southeast Asia to offer, first, a brief description of how Laotian Buddhism
functions as a system of meaning in the rural village context. Then I
describe the development of a particular Laotian American Buddhist
community in the United States in order to show how a group of refugees
adapted their traditional religious society to changed circumstances.
Finally, I use both observations and interviews to describe how adherents
use concepts from an adapted traditional religion to make sense out of a
new and strange environment and to define their own identities in this
environment. I quote responses that represented themes that emerged
repeatedly in our talks and that appeared to be matters of general
                 Laotian Buddhism as a Village Moral Order
Laotian Buddhism incorporates both canonical Buddhism and elements of
pre-Buddhist animism (LeBar and Suddard 1960; Tambiah 1976). As the most of
the religion's practitioners do not distinguish doctrinal Buddhism from
"folk Buddhism," it seems best to treat both the historically "orthodox"
aspects of the religion and its adoptions from other belief systems as
parts of a single set of religious beliefs and practices.
For the most part, Laotian Buddhism is virtually identical to the form of
the faith found in Thailand, and it belongs to the Theravada school that
also predominates in Cambodia, Burma, and Sri Lanka. One of the central
philosophical differences between Theravada Buddhism and the Mahayana
version found in Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea has to do with the role
of the Bodhisattva (literally, "enlightened being"). To simplify a complex
doctrinal issue, Bodhisattvas, in Mahayana Buddhism, are individuals who
have achieved enlightenment but delay passing over into Nirvana in order to
help with the salvation of others. The position of Theravada Buddhism is
that each individual must achieve enlightenment and salvation through his
or her own efforts.
The three central concepts of Buddhism may be identified as dharma (dhamma
in Pali, Tham in Lao), karma (kamma in Pali, kam in Lao), and sangha (sang
in Lao). The first term may be translated as "law," but it refers more
broadly to the order of the universe and the Buddha's teachings on right
order and belief. In the present context, it may be interesting to note
that it is similar in meaning to the ancient Greek nomos adopted by
sociologists. Karma refers to the retribution for actions and to the
responsibility of individuals for their actions in prior incarnations and
for all actions in the present life. It thus presupposes reincarnation. The
sangha is the monastic community within which people can improve their own
The best way to improve one's position is by becoming a monk. Indeed, it is
traditional for Laotian men to try to be ordained for a period, either in
youth before marriage and family or in old age. Even in Laos, however, this
may not be possible for all men, and it is impossible for women. Therefore,
in addition to becoming a part of the sangha, Laotian villagers may improve
their lots through their relations to the monastic community (Halpern 1958;
Archimbault 1973).
The chief mechanisms for influencing one's own destiny, in the present life
or in the future, are bun (usually translated as "merit") and baab (which
may be cautiously translated as "sin"). Any type of meritorious action may
"make merit," but the primary source of merit is the temple. Nearly every
Laotian village has a temple at its geographic and cultural center.
Villagers make merit by feeding monks, by donating robes, and by
contributing labor. This emphasis on external activity contrasts with the
emphasis of textual Buddhism on meditation and internal states (Conze 1972;
Tambiah 1984).
Temples are gathering places, and virtually all ceremonies, which are timed
according to the agricultural cycle of seasons, are held at temples. Thus,
in a Durkheimian sense, one can see the temples and the monks in them as
expressions of communal existence. Making merit through temples can be
interpreted as expressing commitment to the sacralized collectivity of the
One pre-Buddhist ritual, which is perhaps the key ritual for Laotians, that
has become a part of the national Buddhist belief system is the ritual of
the baci or soukhouan, or "invitation of the soul." The khouan might be
described as a "mobile soul": The soul can wander away, causing an
individual to become ill or even die. When people are parting from one
another, especially, a soul may go off with the other to whom one is
The baci or soukhouan ceremony is one that should delight sociologists and
anthropologists everywhere, as it involves explicit symbolic expressions of
individuation and social bonding. The ceremony is usually preceded by the
chanting of scriptures in the Pali language by a group of monks. Then,
participants take bits of white cotton string as an elder layman calls upon
the khouan to reenter the bodies of those present. The celebrants tie the
string around one another's wrists. If one of those present is being
especially honored, has just returned from a journey, is about to set out
on a journey, or has experienced the death of a family member, those
present will concentrate on tying the bits of string around this person's
wrist, binding the soul to the individual.
Before tying the knot, celebrants will often place hard-boiled eggs or
rice, symbols of fertility, into the palms of those whose wrists are being
encircled. While tying, they will make wishes for those being honored, most
often wishing them long life, good luck, and many children (on this
ceremony, see also Rajadhon 1988; Ngaosyvathn 1989; Bankston 1996).
The ceremony lends itself readily to interpretation as an expression of
finding an individual identity (represented through the khouan) through
group membership: One's soul is bound to one by other members of the
community. It is revealing that those in liminal situations such as grief
or preparation for travel receive special attention: These are the ones who
particularly need to have their identities bound to them by the group.
Laotian Buddhism, then, can be taken as portraying the village as a
meaningful social universe. The center of this universe, its Mount Meru, is
the temple, where the development of individuals proceeds through their
contributions to an expression of community. At the temple, also, explicit
ritual metaphors of the relationship between individual and collectivity,
such as the soukhouan ceremony, occur. What lies beyond this microcosm,
The nonhuman world is haunted. Laotian Buddhism has inherited from its
pre-Buddhist past the cult of spirits, or phi. The jungles and forests,
outside the village pales, are inhabited by these spirits, and wild or
unknown places are described as fearsome by Laotians because they are home
to spirits.
Phi may also be spirits in the sense of spirits of the dead, or ghosts. The
dead are those who have passed beyond the known, social, collectively
represented universe. When an individual dies, after funeral rituals,
during which monks recite prayers for the deceased, the body is taken away
from the village to a field or riverbank. Following festivities, the body
is cremated, and the ashes are taken even further from the village and
buried in the forest. It is hoped that all signs of the grave will
disappear quickly; otherwise the spirit of the deceased may join a
particularly evil set of phi, who bring sickness and misfortune to
If religion is, as the Durkheimian tradition maintains, an expression of
social relations, then one can interpret many characteristics of Laotian
Theravada symbolic affirmations of village social relationships. In the
system of wet rice farming that prevails in the lowlands inhabited by the
ethnic Lao, villages lie at the center of fields owned by individual
families. Despite individual ownership, though, farmers require continual
help from friends and neighbors in the cultivation of this labor-intensive
crop. Although each person is expected to take responsibility for his or
her own sustenance, this is only possible through shared contributions to a
collective existence. The contributions people make to shared efforts
result in obligations from others so that, in the profane as in the sacred
sphere, individual benefits flow from donations of time and energy to a
central collective.
These benefits are products of a form of moral causation that shapes both
present and future lives. As Orru and Wang (1992) recognized, in canonical
Buddhism one finds little of the strict sacred-profane dichotomy proposed
by Durkheim. Buddhists move toward the ultimate resolution of suffering and
temporality by following the teachings of the Buddha. They also achieve
"better" rebirths, in the sense of lives that are closer to the ultimate
resolution of Nirvana, by the same moral process. Thus, in a sense, moral
and psychological improvement is a matter of worldly progression.
In popular Laotian Buddhism, making merit does lead to better future lives
in the sense of lives that are more advanced spiritually, but it also leads
to better future lives in the sense of lives that are more materially
rewarding. The present life is simply one part of this progression, so that
a believer influences material destiny in this life by the same moral means
that he or she can influence destiny through a series of lives.
              Laotian Resettlement and the Problem of Meaning
Bar-Yosef (1968:27) has described immigration as "a type of social
situation characterized by the disintegration of the person's role system
and the loss of social identity." Successful immigrant adaptation, she
suggested, consists of constructing a new role system and adopting a new
social identity. The Laotian cultural constellation described in the
previous section consists of a village-based cultural system in which a
form of Buddhism establishes the identity of each individual and the
relations among individuals.
When I asked my interviewees about their initial problems in adapting to
life in the United States, they did frequently mention issues such as
worries about finding jobs, concerns with money, and difficulties with the
English language. They also, however, described a social-psychological
difficulty that was even more basic than these specific cares: Life in the
new world did not make sense to them. one of them put this reaction into
At first, I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything. I was afraid of
everything around me, because it was all so different. Even the sky and the
earth were different. I thought that everything that was right in Laos
might be wrong in America.
The fundamental social-psychological problem for these refugees from a
vastly different society was one of establishing a means of interpreting
life in the new country. In the following sections, I describe how a
Laotian American community based on Buddhist beliefs and practices has
enabled a group of Laotians to translate a preexisting moral order into an
American social context.
           Construction of a Laotian American Buddhist Community
The peak of resettlement of Laotian refugees in the United States occurred
in the years 1979 through 1981, when about 105,000 people from Laos
(including both Hmong and ethnic Laotians) came from Thailand, their
country of first asylum (Rumbaut 1995:239). The creation of a large Laotian
community in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, in the early 1980s and the growth of
other Southeast Asian communities outside the New Orleans area, emerged
from new job opportunities produced by the Louisiana oil boom of that
period and by federal funding for job training. In Iberia in 1980, Redfox
Industries began training unemployed Vietnamese to do welding, pipefitting,
and other forms of skilled labor. The funds for this training were made
available under the federal Comprehensive Training and Employment Act
(Bankston 1995a).
Laotians who had been settled elsewhere in the United States heard from
Vietnamese contacts that training and jobs were becoming available in
southwestern Louisiana, and Laotians began moving to the area in order to
be placed in these programs. Because kinship networks directed the flow of
secondary migration, the new Laotian arrivals in Iberia Parish tended to
reconstitute a small set of homeland villages, and they tended to settle in
ethnic concentrations. The first such concentration took root in a complex
of federally subsidized, low-income apartments on the western edge of the
city of New Iberia.
Southwestern Louisiana has a textile industry as well as an oil industry.
Laotian women began finding work just north of New Iberia, at a factory in
St. Martinville. Thus, by the mid-1980s almost all of the women were
commuting to jobs in the north every day, while their husbands were
commuting south to the Port of New Iberia.
Reliable data on the Laotian population are difficult to obtain, as their
numbers have grown so rapidly and they tend not to respond to official
inquiries. The 1990 U.S. Census reported only 688 Laotians in Iberia Parish
(U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991), but this appears to be a drastic
undercount. Moreover, the number of Laotians has been growing rapidly since
1990. Police, community leaders, and Laotian proprietors of stores selling
ethnic goods estimate the actual numbers at roughly 3,000 in 1996. The
majority of adults are first-generation immigrants who come from rural
village backgrounds in Laos. Few of these first-generation adults completed
high school in their native country. Most men over the age of 40 were
soldiers, which is commonly the case for Laotian men, given the country's
history of internecine warfare before 1975.
The original apartment complex and its surrounding area have continued to
provide homes for large numbers of the Southeast Asian settlers. However,
the incomes provided by having at least two wage earners in most homes made
it possible for many to move away from this low-income, high-crime
neighborhood. They began to purchase homes in other, more suburban parts of
New Iberia and its environs. Instead of dispersing, however, they formed a
number of ethnic pockets, with individuals attempting to buy or build homes
close to friends and kin.
The availability of land and housing meant that they could not establish a
single ethnic enclave. Driving, however, is nearly universal among adult
and adolescent members of this group, as many had driven to Louisiana from
other parts of the United States and most commute daily to jobs at the port
or the mill. Therefore, there is a single Laotian community in this area,
consisting of scattered clusters of homes joined together by the
In the mid-1980s, community members began to talk of building a cultural
and religious center. In 1986, a number of men generally recognized as
leaders formed the Temple Corporation, an association dedicated to building
a Lao-style Buddhist temple that would be surrounded by an ethnic
residential enclave. They found a tract of land in a semirural area on the
northern edge of Iberia Parish, near the boundary of Lafayette Parish. The
tract was relatively inexpensive, as it was outside of established
residential, commercial, and industrial zones, and it was at that time
unused for farming.
In 1987, the temple was completed, and streets named after provinces in
Laos were laid out from it. The little settlement was named Lane Xang
("Million Elephants") Village, after the historic Laotian kingdom of Lane
Xang. Initially, most of the homes were trailers, but members of the
community set a rule that any settlers would have to build a permanent home
within 5 years of moving into the neighborhood. There has been some
flexibility in the enforcement of this rule, and new people have moved to
the area, so by 1996 approximately one fourth of the homes were still
trailers, but about three fourths were permanent buildings. In 1996,
approximately 400 people resided in Lane Xang Village, and the temple
itself served as a religious and cultural center for all of the Laotians in
southwest Louisiana. Through contacts with Laotian communities elsewhere in
the United States, the community leaders found a Buddhist monk, who took up
residence in the temple (see the discussion below).
     Moral Order and Identity in a Laotian American Buddhist Community
                        Monasticism and Moral Order
In Laos, as I have mentioned above, the ideal is for every male to serve
some time in a monastery. The Louisiana Laotians, however, all agreed that
this ideal was unrealistic under the conditions of American society. None
of my interviewees planned to become monks, even for short periods of time.
As one explained, We have jobs that we have to go to every day. Everybody
has to work to get by. So we can't take time out to go into the temple. But
we still hold Buddhism. We want to make merit, so we give to the monk who's
there, and we can make merit through him.
The function of monk and temple as focal points, in other words, has been
intensified and altered by the demands of the American working environment.
Monasticism is no longer seen as a status into which many, if not most,
male community members will enter at some point. Thus, although the single
monk in the Louisiana temple remains a center of religious attention,
monasticism is no longer as deeply intertwined with laity. It has, in a
word, become a matter of professional specialization.
When I asked my interviewees what they would do if the single monk
currently at the temple moved to another temple, they all had the same
answer: they would seek to bring in another lifelong monk from another
Laotian American community. The monastic order continues to lie at the
heart of social relations, and it continues to be the chief mechanism for
individual moral advancement, but monasticism has become a specialized job
rather than a stage of life.
Redefining monasticism as a specialized job serves as a means of mediating
between the centrality of monasticism to traditional Laotian Buddhism and
the demands of contemporary American social and economic structure. In
social-psychological terms, monasticism enables Laotian Buddhists to
establish a sense of worth by making merit. Previously, in Laos, this was
done both by active participation as monks and by contributions to monks.
Active participation in monasticism is no longer possible for most. Having
one individual take on monasticism as a full-time job; then, serves as one
means of translating the preexisting moral order into an American social
                  Temple Participation and Ethnic Identity
Whereas they are focal points of village identity in Laos, in the United
States the temple has become a focus of a minority ethnic identification.
Temples in Laos are found in the centers of tightly clustered settlements,
but the temple of the Louisiana Laotians serves the needs both of those
residing in its immediate vicinity and of those who live in the small
suburban pockets radiating from it. Living surrounded by non-Laotians, they
come to see religious participation as an affirmation of ethnic identity.
Another interviewee observed,
In Laos, my religion was Buddhism. My religion taught me to be a good
person, but I never thought my religion made me Lao. In America, Buddhism
is a Lao religion, and that makes me Lao. The ones who become
Christian--they are still Lao, but it isn't the same.
Religious and cultural events are held at the temple, as in Laos, but they
are, by the very nature of the scattered settlement of Laotians, occasions
on which people leave their American-style homes, after their
American-style jobs, to celebrate ethnic events. The biggest event of the
year is the "Water Festival," or Lunar New Year's celebration, held each
year about the time of Easter. It is worth noting that the timing of this
festival, which is held at the full moon of the fifth month in Laos, has
been set to coincide with Easter holidays, so that people can get away from
their jobs to participate.
The Louisiana Laotians engage in many of the same activities that
characterize the Water Festival in Laos. There are parades with young women
performing traditional dances, the baci or soukhouan ceremonies are held,
and believers build sand stupas in the temples. But the festival is
increasingly seen as a means of rejuvenating and perpetuating an imperiled
ethnic identity. "It is a chance for my children to learn how we do things
in my country, and to bring something of my country to America," one
middle-aged man observed of this occasion.
Ceremonies and festivals are more than occasions for nostalgia. They help
to translate older role systems and identities as members of a village
society into newer roles and identities as members of an American ethnic
minority. "Of course, America is our home now," one of my interviewees
reflected, "but when we have a baci here, in our own temple, in America, I
feel like we are bringing Laos to America. It makes me feel like we can be
Laotian and American." This is a revealing statement, because in Laos
religious ceremonies and festivals serve to bind people together as members
of villages or family groups, but not as members of an ethnicity. It is
precisely the resettlement in a non-Laotian setting that makes ethnicity
the basis of a new social identity, and the transplanted religious
practices serve to express this identity.
                From Village Community to Suburban Community
The temple continues to function as a community center, then, but it is a
center for a vastly different sort of community. Although it is situated in
an entirely Laotian settlement, the homes are all either newly built
suburban-style houses or trailers serving as temporary homes before the
owners can afford to put up permanent structures. Those living in the
settlement drive daily to jobs at the port or in the mill; they do not walk
to surrounding fields. Beyond the settlement are other small clusters of
Laotians who must drive to the temple for their religious practices.
At noon each day one can find small numbers of older men and women having
lunch in the temple. It is really only on weekends, though, that large
numbers of people, especially people living outside of Lane Xang Village
itself, will gather at the temple. The American work week has reorganized
the use of time. "Before [in Laos]," remarked one of my interviewees, "we
were together all the time. Now, we have to come together. The temple gives
us a place to be together."
The religious institution no longer lies at the heart of a small knot of
tightly intertwined social relations. Instead, the little clusters of
Laotians who have settled in the area of Iberia Parish are tethered to one
another by weekend trips.
                  Moral Causation and Immigrant Adaptation
As noted in the discussion of Swidler (1986) above, ideologies can be
particularly important for guiding behavior in situations of rapid social
change. Ironically, this means that the belief systems that are used to
adapt to a new situation are developed as responses to the old situation.
An important part of adaptation, then, may be the establishment of
continuity between the old and the new, so that a dramatic representation
of social reality is shifted, without being abandoned.
Baci ceremonies continue to be held at the temple on all major occasions.
People may be living in vastly different circumstances, but they still feel
the need for this symbolism of social binding and self-definition. They
also like to include outsiders in these ceremonies as a way of creating
connections between themselves and the non-Lao world in which they now
live. "It is an occasion when we can welcome our American friends and treat
them as our guests, since they brought us as guests to this country," a
woman in her mid-30s told me.
The phi, the spirits ubiquitous in Laos, seem to have somewhat of an
attenuated existence in America. "I think I still believe in phi," one man
told me, "but I don't feel them here in America. Maybe it's like the AM-FM
radio. I could feel the phi in my own country, but here I'm an AM radio
trying to pick up an FM station." Many others reported a similar
insensitivity to the spirit world. Some said that they could sometimes feel
that phi were present but that the spirits were much weaker and much less
concentrated in particular places than in Laos.
If I am correct that the phi symbolize the nonhuman realm that surrounds
the little intelligible universe of the Laotian village, then the decline
in the detectable presence of these beings may be due to the lack of strict
separation between the human and nonhuman in the urban-suburban settings of
Laotian Americans. People no longer live in village islands of humanity,
surrounded by forests. Although most people reported that they still
believed in the existence of spirits, they generally said that they now
feared the spirits much less than they did in the old homeland. One woman
who lived in the low-income neighborhood in New Iberia where the Lao first
settled told me, "I used to be afraid of phi. But now I'm more afraid of
the people around me."
Although the phi have diminished as a part of the Louisiana Laotian
cultural depiction, the idea of life as part of a morally shaped sequence
of births and rebirths remains strong. My interviewees often described
their "new life" in the United States in terms of a rebirth. Several were
even explicit about reincarnation as a paradigm for thinking about starting
over in the United States. "We are always starting new lives," one
observed, "before we die, and after we die. We always change."
Conceiving of life in a strange and new country in cosmological terms, as
part of an ongoing universal cycle, helps to establish continuity between
the familiar and the unfamiliar. Understanding this universal cycle as a
moral process helps to humanize it. "My religion teaches me," said a woman
in her mid-30s, "that we make the world around us by our actions. It is our
It is true that this kind of moral interpretation of events can, in some
cases, lead to blaming the victim. It also, however, provides a nomos in
Berger's (1969) usage of the word, an "area of meaning." One of the dangers
faced by immigrants, and especially by refugees, is finding themselves in a
world that simply makes no sense; the occurrences around them are random
and without normative form. The Buddhist chain of causation places actors
in a universe in which their own thoughts and actions are linked to events
outside themselves, so that they can avoid falling into the anomie that
threatens the uprooted and dislocated.
This study offered a cultural analysis of Laotian-American Buddhism in
three parts. First, it offered an interpretive discussion of Theravada
Buddhism in the social context of Laotian village society. Second, it
described how a particular community of Laotians, resettled in the United
States, came to construct a temple and to reconstruct their religious
practices in the United States. Third, it used interviews with members of
this community to suggest how the religion has been subtly reshaped by the
American social context and to describe how this reshaped religion supplies
the resettled refugees with ethnic identities and with a comprehensible
moral order.
My research has indicated that religion affects adaptation to social change
by cultural means: Religious beliefs provide an interpretive framework that
enables individuals to make sense of their world and to establish their own
place in this world. This interpretative framework undergoes a subtle shift
as social surroundings change, but the persistence and continuity of
beliefs enables individuals to comprehend new situations through
traditional world views. The ways in which groups adapt to change therefore
depend both on the nature of the older situation, in which beliefs and
practices are formed, and on how beliefs and practices are reshaped to
address questions of moral order and identity in the new situation.
I have looked at one group: the Laotians of southwestern Louisiana. To
comprehend variations among groups, it is important that future research
look at how other religious traditions that have taken shape in differing
social and historical circumstances may be related to adaptation to social
change. I have also concentrated here on members of a moral community who
retained and modified their religion as their environment changed. These
ideas may also, however, be fruitfully applied to the phenomenon of
religious conversion. For example, in Steltenkamp's (1993) excellent study
of the later years of famed Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk, when
Black Elk had converted to Catholicism and become a catechist, it seems
evident that the former medicine man and his fellow converts were
translating many of their older beliefs into the new language of
Christianity, and adjusting to social change by reshaping, rather than
discarding, their traditional representations of reality.
I would like to acknowledge the support of a Summer Research Grant from the
University of Southwestern Louisiana, which made possible the collection of
the data presented in this study. I would also like to thank three
anonymous reviewers for their recommendations on an earlier version.
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Received 2 October 1996; accepted 29 January 1997.