Montpellier celebrates the Laotian New Year

- through Henry Oudin

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To celebrate Pi Maï, the entry into the year 2562 (1), the Laotian pagoda in Montpellier has opened its doors to all those who appreciate this spiritual and festive tradition. Hundreds of people of Laotian origin met there in good humor and sharing, but also several dozen Westerners, attracted by the joyful serenity of the place.

By crossing the gate of the pagoda (2), on this Sunday, April 14, 2019, the memory of being in Montpellier fades. To the north, an elegant wooden building adorned with gilding and topped with tapered roofs draws its inspiration from the Wat Xieng Thong Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital in northern Laos. It is reserved for monks. To the south, in a vast prayer hall, Buddha statues and multicolored flowers. Between the two, hundreds of people with Asian features stroll peacefully in the morning freshness. The religious ceremony takes place in the open air. Two monks dressed in their orange tunics chant prayers in Pali (3). The audience whispers, hands clasped. Western faces appear here and there, just as contemplative. Then comes the moment when the crowd stretches out in a long line to pay homage to the monks. Each visitor hugs a silver or gold container, an alms bowl filled with offerings intended for the religious: avocados, citrus fruits, bananas, rice… And bottles of water.

Pi Maï is also the water festival. Mid-April, peak of the hot season in their country, Laotians wash everything: their house, the Buddhas and their sins. The tradition has been exported to the West. Children and adults have fun pouring water on the statues lined up in front of the temple for the occasion. Below, the faithful place their wishes in the heart of a sand stupa, in the form of small streamers marked with the signs of the zodiac. Soon, the orchestra begins to play and two women in colorful outfits take turns sketching traditional dance movements. Lunch is offered by the organizers. In a good-natured atmosphere, more than 500 people are waiting to be served a bowl of noodles, a little sticky rice, a few vegetables, maybe a piece of chicken. A mild sweet-salty flavor takes us back to Asia. For Bounhéng Saignavongsa, president and founder of the Laotian association of Languedoc-Roussillon since 1992, project manager for the construction of this centre, “Buddhism is much more a philosophy than a religion. It's a way of life. In Laos, the majority of the population was born Buddhist (from the theravada branch, Editor's note). She goes to the pagoda because it is the tradition, because the parents already had this habit. We go there to make donations, to offer meals to the monks, to meet people. The pagoda has a social, cultural, artistic character. The monk has a lot of moral power. People tell him their legal, health or family problems and listen to his advice. They return home happy and reconciled. »

A haven of wisdom

Another highlight ceremonies then takes place in the presence of the two monks who were reciting the prayers a little earlier. Each faithful waits his turn to place in front of them a new robe of ocher color, carefully folded. “By giving to the saints, we are giving to our dead. Everything has a meaning, ”says a faithful. “You are going to see the priest. You make a wish. He prays for you. He ties you a bracelet. You have to wear it until it comes off and your wish comes true”, believes a Westerner who returns every year, stars in her eyes. Stéphane, 42, has been keeping his little fabric cord around his left wrist for a year: "We feel that we have a blessing, even if we don't really know what it means". “More and more friends of European origin and non-Buddhists are visiting the pagoda because they feel good there,” confirms Bounhéng Saignavongsa. This is the case of Fabienne, 58 years old. She goes once a month to the pagoda. Although she performs ritual offerings and prayers, she does not consider herself to be a Buddhist or a practitioner. She comes “for wisdom”. "The Laotians are impregnated from an early age with this state of mind that we are trying to acquire now", assures Michel, who lived six years in this country and married one of its inhabitants.

“The pagoda has a social, cultural, artistic character. The monk has a lot of moral power. People tell him their legal, health or family problems and listen to his advice. They return home happy and reconciled. » Bounheng Saignavongsa

The sun finally comes out. The young people take the opportunity to spray themselves with water. Perched on a palanquin, a golden Buddha statue is carried by adults who take it around the temple three times. She is followed by the cheering crowd. Jean-Christophe Marchal observes the procession with a smile. This French architect lived in Luang Prabang in the mid-90s, to work on the inscription of the city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then he participated in the construction of a temple in Vientiane. It was there that he made his first Theravada retreat. Meditation made him a different man. “You do nothing, you think nothing, you meditate. For me, being a westerner and thinking non-stop, I came out as if I were a newborn. I no longer wanted to continue in business; on the contrary, I wanted to observe, to make pottery, to take up drawing again,” he recalls. When Jean-Christophe returned to France, it was on a voluntary basis that he agreed to support Bounhéng's project: to build a pagoda in the heart of Montpellier. Since 2004, more than one and a half million euros have already been invested in this vast project, thanks to donations from all over. But there is still work to be done so that this haven of peace can regularly welcome the public. While waiting for other donations, the Laotian enclosure opens its heart one Sunday a month on the occasion of religious festivals. And in mid-April to celebrate Pi Maï

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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