For over 1,000 years, the people of the Dai ethnic minority have been devout Buddhists and subscribe to a sect of the religion known as Hinayana. They adopted the Indian religion sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries and it has had a profound influence on their culture, virtually shaping many of their customs and practices. From the temples that rest like jewels at the heart of every Dai village to the many murals depicting the history of Buddha, the love and admiration that the Dai have for their faith is palpable everywhere.
According to the Dai’s Buddhist beliefs, the world of the senses is void and in order to reach paradise, or nirvana, one must first achieve a state of enlightenment by releasing ones grip on the material world and transcending the demands of the senses. To become enlightened, one must follow the Tripitaka, which is an umbrella term for three categories known as sutras, abhidharma and vinaya. Sutras are the sermons of Gautama Buddha, the founding father of Buddhism, that have been transcribed. Adhidharma is the philosophical and psychological discussion and interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. Vinaya are the rules and regulations that apply to Buddhist monks, such as dress code, dietary restrictions, and appropriate behaviour.
The religion plays such a focal role in the lives of the Dai people that it is common for most boys between the ages of 8 and 10 to be sent to a temple. There they will learn how to read, write, chant scripture, and learn sutras. After between one to five years, many of them will return home in pursuit of a secular lifestyle while some will stay on at the temple as monks. This practice evolved because, in the past, this was the only way that boys could receive an education and in exchange the parents would financially support the temple. So remember, even in ancient times you couldn’t get out of going to school!
Yet while the Dai officially follow Buddhism, many communities still hold on to their ancient shamanistic and animistic beliefs. In Xishuangbanna Prefecture, there is a Dai proverb that states: “Buddhism is for our future, but the cult of the village gods is what helps us in the present”. Their indigenous religion still plays a vital role in daily life and many villages will have sacred groves or forests where they believe the spirits of their ancestors live.
These spirits act as protective gods that watch over the village and people will only enter the forest on two occasions during the year, both times as part of a ceremony to honour the ancestors. All of the animals and plants, the water and even the soil in this forest is sacred and cannot be damaged or taken away. It is forbidden to cut the trees, hunt the animals, cultivate the earth, or gather the fruits from this forest. Anything that dies, even fruit that falls from the trees, is left to rot naturally. So if a tasty mango on the forest floor catches your eye, be sure to check with the locals before you eat it!
 Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel its energy. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.
 Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.