A display with more than two dozen golden images of Buddha fills half of the monk's study. The other side features portraits of Lao President Souphanouvong and Premier Kaysone Phomvihan.
Pha Maha Khamtan, head monk of Laos, joined the Pathet Lao in 1957. Now, he holds forth here, bridging the seemingly impossible gap between communism and Buddhism by overseeing what may be the only quasistate religion in a Communist country.
"Buddha tried to overthrow the four-caste system in India 2,000 years ago," the 57-year old patriarch said by way of explanation. "I wonder if Marx, Lenin or Engels didn't adapt some of Buddha's philosophies into their own. He was revolutionary; he wanted to release humanity from misery and see that all are equal and free."
Instead of banning Buddhism as a "reactionary religion," as was done in Cambodia, or begrudgingly accepting it, as the Eastern European nations accept the Roman Catholic Church, the Lao political leaders have embraced Buddhism and relied heavily on its 12,360 monks to reach the peasants and retain their loyalty.
As a result, buddhism is flourishing here although it has changed under the new system.
During the war, as many monks sided with the Communists as with the Lao government supported by the United States, according to the head monk. Cultural life in Laos today shows how these Buddhists have been rewarded.
Pagodas have received substantial new endowments, cultural as well as religious festival are celebrated with enthusiasm and the Buddhist schools are filled with young and older novices preparing for religious life.
In return, the goverment has had the benefit of thousands of saffronrobed political spokesmen who, with the authority of a religion that has dominated Lao life for centuries, now preach Marxist-Leninism as well as Buddhism. Pagodas are used for political seminars and prayer services.
In all facets of their revolution-religion, language, education, even health-the Lao have carefully retained their own cultural flavor while pushing to create a "new society."
One day peasants bring rice to feed monks and earn religious merit; the next they may attend a pagoda meeting to hear the same monks preach against "Chinese aggression." The change has been dazzling.
Somphou, a 60-year old grandmother, regularly goes to Wat Ongtu in Vientiane to prepare lunch for the 20 monks there.
"I believe deeply in Buddhism. I believe I receive faith from Buddha each day I spend here," she said one afternoon. "I come to hear about the Chinese, too. It does not matter; I am happy whenever I come to the pagoda."
Wat Ongtu also houses the Buddhist Institute, the main college for Laotian monks who will train novices and pass on the religion in its new Marxist interpretation.
Director C. Thepkhamvong, a former monk trained in Benares, India, put the change in doctrine succinctly: 'We still praise Buddha but we understand now that Buddha is a great man just like Lenin, just like Marx. We praise Marx and Lenin at political meetings. We praise Buddha in the pagoda."
Nirvana, the state of perfect contentment and the end to the cycle of rebirth, no longer is an article of the faith, Thepkhamvong said. "Before we said everyone has to be born again. Now we say when you die you become earth.There is no longer nirvana. One goes back to the resources."
The Buddhist Institute is under the authority is a new Communist. The Buddhism taught there is far more "Marxist" than the faith practiced by the people. Experts are divided over which will survive: Buddhism the religion, or Buddhism the cultural mechanism for government change.
"It is remarkable. When a new government directive comes out, all the people in my quarter are called to the pagoda, whether it is an appeal to clean the streets or lessons on world imperialism. The government is using the most authoritative voice in the country-the monks-to bring communism to the people," said a longtime European resident.
The Buddhists themselves are at odds over how the faith is being practiced. The former chief patriarch under the old regime fled to Thailand recently, to avoid medical treatment in the Soviet Union. Pha Maha Khamtan, the head monk under this government, said he still believes in nirvana and the holiness of Buddha, that the faith has not changed substantially. His support of Marxism rests on its ability to encourage people to practice Buddhism.
"i am in favor of the new government not because I made a deep research into communism but because I can see that under this system our people follow the faith better. The young children no longer wear blue jeans and use drugs. They obey their parents, they are told not to lie or to kill. The family tradition is better preserved and so are the five precepts of Buddhism," the head monk said.
Western, especially American, influence was one of the first targets of the new Lao government. Revolutionary songs were composed to replace the rock-and-roll music which caught on so completely during the war. Young women were asked not to wear blue jeans, only the traditional Lao sarong.
Education, once administered under a strictly French system, underwent a complete change. As in so many developing former colonial nations, Loas contends that the use of the native language in schools is the first step toward national pride.
Lao is the only language used in the primary schools. Second languages are promoted in junior and senior high schools but French has been abolished and only Russian and English are allowed in the curriculum. The United States may have dropped more bombs per person on the Lao than any other people, but the Lao reserve their cultural resentment for the French.
Their greatest success has been at the primary school level. For the first time, all children in Laos are receiving an education, even those who lost years of schooling during the war.
Adult literacy campaigns have been equally successful, in large part because the monks have turned their pagodas into evening high schools.
"Within three months, those monks can teach adults the basic reading and writing skills that are needed in Laos," said an international expert in Vientiane. "That's a good achievement in any country."
It is in higher education that the fervor of nationalism gets in the way of progress. Chalk has become a precious commodity because there are few textbooks in Lao and the French books are being discarded. Even at the country's medical college the native language is replacing French and the shortage of textbooks and teachers has become acute.
Last year the Lao government ordered the French to close their embassy and ordered French officials, technicians and teachers to leave. The Lao charged that the French were trying to sabotage their revolution and encourage Lao students and professionals to flee to France.
In the medical field, the Lao have set up a free-clinic system begun in the Pathet Lao areas during the war. Each hospital overseas a network of rural clinics and a crops of barefoot doctors who travel through the countryside and care for the patients who do not need hospital care.
At the Xieng Khouang provincial hospital, there were free dental and outpatient clinics as well as the main hospital where two patients were suffering from injuries causes by unexploded ordnance left from the American bombing.
Yo Yang, 30, lost a foot after stepping on a mine. Phao Tun, a 43-year-old farmer, lost his left hand when he hit a fragmentation bomb with his hoe.
"We have trouble receiving enough medicine," said Boun Phong, a hospital director. "But the biggest problem is unexploded ordnance. We can't clear all the fields."
Another major change is in health-the banning of birth control. Laos faces the unique problem of underpopulation and officials reason that without impediments, the country's population can grow beyond the 3.5 million population. At the same time, the Lao are encouraging late marriages to give young people education and work experience before they raise families.
"Women are taught high determination and discipline," explained Khampeng Boupha, head of the Lao Patriotic Women's Association. "They are asked to abstain before marriage and during marriage they are asked to space their children. If a mother of eight children is in ill health she will be sterilized but otherwise we have no birth control."
The population rate is rising but so are the number of illegal abortions, according to international experts, and this program, like some of the other nationalistic cultural changes, can be considered only a partial success.
"It is only a few years after the war. We are making every attempt to become ourselves, to become revolutionary Laos. We make mistakes but we are confident and we are proud," said Soubanh Srithirath, a high-ranking official. "If there is peace, we can come into our own." CAPTION: Picture 1, Pha Maha Khamtan, head monk of Laos, poses in his study; Picture 2, Somphou, 60, regularly prepares food for monks at the wat. Photos by Elizabeth Becker-The Washington Post; Picture 3, Buddhists praying at a wat during Lao New Year celebrations.