BIRTH AND EARLY HISTORY OF THE HOA HAO
"My heart overflows with love of humanity
In this decadant period of Buddhism .
Priests, can you be impassive to this
And do nothing but pray all day long ?
As I have seen the Illuminated Way
How can I be so selfish
As to care only for my own betterment .
Buddha while on earth,
Endeavored to teach his doctrine of old ."
Huynh Phu So
Huynh Phu So, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism, was born in the lunar year of Ky-Mui - the year of the goat, 1919 - in Hoa Hao Village in what is now Chau Doc Province . Hoa Hao Village was a small farm and fishing villagge located between the Mekong and Bassac Rivers in the area that is often referred to as the Trans-Bassac Area . So was the eldest son of a well-to-do local family which had a reputaion for honesty and altruism . At the age of fifteen he was forced to leave school because of his persistent illness which could not be cured by local physicians . This illness which was not to leave him until he was twenty-one prevented him from pursuing an active secular career . When So was twenty-one he persuaded his father to accompany him on a pilgrimage to the sacred mountains of That Son and Ta Lon which are part of the Seven Mountains in the Western Chou Doc Province . (figure 2)
On the eighteenth day of the fifth month in the lunar year of the cat (1939) in one of the mountain grottos built by the followers of the Master Buddha of Tay An, So became enlightened and was miraculously cured of his illness .
So, believing himself to be the reincarnation of the Master Buddha of Tay An, immedialy started his evangelical mission by reputedly curing alcoholies, opium adicts and others with a variety of social diseases using such simple instruments as green leaves and pure water . During this period So preached throughout the Trans-Bassac area and published a number of papers in which he foretold the coming of war and increased suffering among his people . He extorted his countrymen to renounce the spread of evil and return to the basic Buddhist teachings of Duc Phat-Thay Tay An (Master Buddha) and to become good men in the society while progressing on the path to deliverance . So reportedly cured thousands of people, many with incurable illnesses, while carrying out his ministry during this early period in the development of the Hoa Hao . It was also during this time that he wrote the primary documents used in the new faith . They consisted of six books of oracles combined now into one book of doctrine known as the Sam Giang, and many prophetic poem .
So's teachings, which on the surface revealed a synthesis of faiths common to Viet Nam, actually preached a form of Buddhism with potentially radical social overtones . Appearing in the poetic form traditional among Vietnamese intelligentsia, his writings condemed the religious and social depravity of the early 1940's and called for a return to the primary virtues necessary for a social peace . His teachings showed a need for the development of a religion that was adjusted to modern times and one that would be suitable to all people everywhere . In his modernization of Buddhism So discarded what he considered the futile rites and ceremonies which were not known in original Buddhism but had been developed over the centuries by the monks . In such an environment So preached that what matters is avoiding evil while living in the world and not imposing hardships on one's self through fanatical asceticism .
Like other forms of early religions, the Hoa Hao saw active participation in social life as a necessary part of their religious faith . Their faith emphasized the Buddhist gratitudes to ancesters and parents, to one's native country, to Buddha and to humanity . So also urged a return to the moral guidance of Confucianism (accepted by most Buddhist) with the correct performance of the five human relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and between friends . Although subordination to the superior is directed in each case, the superior has duties and responsibilities toward the junior whether it be ruler to ruled or father to son .
The appeal of Hoa Hao Buddhism is attributed to its simplicity and to the lessened demands it makes on the peasant . So was adamant in his teaching that the people must return to basic Buddhist precepts and must refrain from building elaberate temples, statues and other external manifestations of their religion . He stressed individual worship in the home as a means of attaining a richer spiritual experience while working toward salvation . He taught that there were to be no monks on formal services in Hoa Hao and that money normally spent in their support such as building pagodas, was to be used in helping other less fortunate people . In these teachings he departed somewhat from the philosophy of Tay An Buddha concerning the monks which as previously mentioned, provided the basis theology for the Hoa Hao Buddhism . The simplicity of the new religion was extended to other religious events such as ceremonies in the home before Buddha, marriages, and funerals . So directed the avoidance of drinking, opium smoking, and gambling and also instructed converts on how the Hoa Hao should conduct themselves toward other people, religions and foreign cultures . In this blend of social ethics and religious liberation there was to be a dynamic relationship between personal salvation and social action toward others .
To carry out the principles and teachings of Huynh Phu So a series of reading rooms were later established where laymen could read the collected works of So or listen to them read over loud speakers . This latter technique allowed people in their homes or at work to listen to his teachings without interrupting what they were doing .
The lack of formal service or formal meeting halls plus So's intense desire to save as many souls as possible led a very loose procedure for becoming a Hoa Hao . The candidate simply presented himself to the nearest Hoa Hao board of managers and agreed to obey the rules of the movement . If there were no other Hoa Hao in the area the individual could take the vows himself . His conversion was to be demonstrated by his actions in society and toward his fellow man .
By 1940 the doctrine, mass recruiting and rapid acceptance of Hoa Hao Buddhism by the people made the sect a force to be reckoned with by the French authorities . It should be remembered that Cochin-China was at that time ruled as a colony by the French as opposed to the protectorate status of Annam and Tonkin . This being the case the French were highly suspicious of popular movements and especially one that grew as fast as the Hoa Hao, since they were perceived as potential threats to French rule . Also, in other parts of Indo-China the French were faced with rise of additional new religions and nationalist movements such as the Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen (river pirates but with great power), the Nationalist Party of Viet Nam (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang) and the League for Viet Nam Independance (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi) - the Viet Minh . All of these groups had strong nationalistic leanings. Hence, the situation in 1939-1940 was uneasy to say the least and the French perceived none of the constructive potential of the Hoa Hao or any of the other sects but only recognized them as a grave danger to them and the colonial system .
So's popularity in Cochin-China grew so fast that French Colonial authorities, fearing his revolutionary potential, arrested him and placed him under house detention in what is present day Can Tho City on the Bassac River in the Mekong Delta . This did little to put a stop to his preaching so the French transferred him to a mental hospital in Cholon and placed under the psychiatric care of a Dr. Tran Van Tam . So quickly converted Dr. Tam to Hoa Hao Buddhism and the doctor became so active and fervent in the movement that, after fighting erupt between the Hoa Hao and Viet Mih, he was captured and executed by the latter in 1949 . In May 1941 So, who was titled the "Mad Bonze" by the French, was pronounced sane by a board of French Psychiatrists . Since the French authorities were afraid to release So and allow him to return to his teaching in the Trans-Bassac area, they exiled him to Bac Lieu Province where he was kept under constant surveillance. His most ardent followers were sent to French concentration camps but this did little to reduce his influence with the population in either the Trans-Bassac area or Bac Lieu Province . As So assumed the character of a martyr Bac Lieu became the focal point of pilgrimages by his many believers .
By this time the Japanese were involved in Indo-China having concluded an agreement with the French in June 1941 . This agreement allowed the French to maintain administrative control over the land while granting Japan base rights within the Country and along the coast of Indo-China . During this period the anti-colonialist attitude of the Hoa Hao solidified and many of their main principles of social reform started to emerge . Their anti-French attitude and social reform doctrine brought So again to the attention of the French authorities and they once again brought him to Saigon for observation . When his influence continued to grow, even though he was in Saigon, the French concluded that something must be done with So and they planned to exile him to Laos in October 1942 . The Japanese got wind of this decision and intervened to prevent his exile offering him instead refuge with the Japanese Political Police . So took advantage of this offer and while living with the Japanese, wrote many poems to show that although he was not living with his people, neither was he colaberating with Japanese . One verse in particular was used to illustrate his predicament :
"Trung Tien returned to Han but never became Han's subject .
Lord Quan lived with Tsao but never bent his head to Tsao ."
It is generally agreed that the main reason for the Japanese granting So asylum was to develop support of the Hoa Hao in the even of trouble with the French. They also helped organized the Hoa Hao military and provided them with arms and equipment . The Japanese were fully repaid when the Hoa Hao military participated with them in the Coup d'etat against the French Colonial Administration in March 1945 . Despite this So preserved his reputation as a Vietnamese Nationalist and maintained a very reserved attitude toward the Japanese . He was certain that they would lose the war and wrote early in 1945, "The Japanese will never finish eating its chicken." forcasting their defeat in 1945 - the lunar year of the "Dau" (rooster) . True enough, before the end of the 1945 Japan was doomed to defeat .
After the Japanese surrender, Viet Nam entered a period of unrest and disunity . There was widespread terror arising from reprisals among local factions and there was little or no national leadership to help the matter . The Japanese were gone, the French were not back in power and the local mandarins, who had never been given full authority nor responsibility by the French were unable to cope with the situation . Into the gap stepped the Hoa Hao and other sects such as the Cao Dai and the Binh Xuyen Pirates, each attempting to expand its religious and administrative control not only in the provinces but in Saigon as well . It was during this period that Huynh Phu So and the Hoa Hao movement took the first tentative steps into national politics by forming the Association for Protection of Vietnamese Independence, calling upon all elements of the Vietnamese society to work actively and openly for a totally independent Viet Nam . The association then joined a political coalition called the United Front for National Unification, on August 14, 1945, but withdrew a week later after refusing to support the Front's August 22 decision to join the Viet Minh .
Events were moving at a fast pace during this period . The Viet Minh had effectively taken control of Hanoi and Hue in late August 1945 and had led a demonstration in Saigon to generate local support for a takeover there . When the Hoa Hao and the other sects realized that the demonstration to establish a new Vietnamese Government was led by the Viet Minh they immediately withdrew all support and came out strong against them . Because of the strength of the Viet Minh, who even then wanted to get rid of him, So went into hiding in the countryside for a period of four months and in his absence the Association for the Protection for Vietnamese Independence ceased to exist . After things had cooled down and some semblance of order had been restored in Saigon, So returned and founded the United Vietnamese Buddhist Association whose started goal was to help people who were "in peril due to the times" . The membership was divided into activists "who are willing to sacrifice their lives and properly in the hope of developing moral principles and helping mankind" and supporters who are "philanthropic of heart" but whose family responsibility and occupations precluded total commitment to the organization . The Buddhist Association was to be organized with national, provincial, and village boards of directors responsible to the central boarl and in constant communication with each other, thereby providing great cohesion . The group was unable to attract the participation of the Buddhist clergy, which was then fragmented and did not regard Hoa Hao as a true form of Buddhism and was disbanded soon after its inception .
Despite these two unsuccessful organizational experiments, So persisted in his national orientation while at the same time becoming increasingly anti-Communist . In September 1946 he established the Viet Nam Social Democratic Party to unite all the nationalist groups existing before the Japanese defeat . The party manifesto gave primary importance to the attainment of national independence but also stressed social welfare by making specific proposals for land reform and the establishment of marketing co-operatives .
This party, which was to become the official political party for the Hoa Hao, was to be organized along the lines So had proposed for the United Vietnamese Buddhist Association . The people were to be organized into security teams for village admisnistration and law enforcement with specific attention being given to protection against bandits, a category in which the Hoa Hao came to include the Viet Minh and successors .
After the French returned to Indo-China as a result of the March 1946 Convention which recognized Viet Nam as a free state within the French Union, it quickly became evident that the dominant force in anti-French nationalism was the Viet Minh . Relations between So and the Communists, which had been strained since late 1945, got even worse after a series of armed clashes between the Hoa Hao and the Viet Minh took place in the Trans-Bassac area . In one such encounter at Can Tho, So's borther and several other Hoa Hao leaders were executed after having led a band of 15,000 Hoa Hao armed only with pikes and knives against a well-armed Viet Minh garrision . Seeking to pacify the Hoa Hao, or perhaps to conserve its resources for the more serious fighting against the French in the north and to give their movement the appearance of a representing all elements of Vietnamese society, the Viet Minh appointed So special commissioner of the Executive Commission of Nam Bo, an area controlled by the Communist . Although So's opposition to the Viet Minh was strong and overt, he accepted the post in the interest of national unity and to prevent further bloodshed . Again the poem So used when accused of collaborating with the Japanese seemed to apply .
"Trung Tien returned to Han but never became Han's subject.
Lord Quan lived with Tsao but never bent his head to Tsao."
Throughout late 1946 and early 1947 the Hoa Hao movement in Viet Nam split ideologically more and more with the Viet Minh . The Viet Minh terror campaign agaisnt the Hoa Hao and other nationalist sects became so extreme that many of the leaders defected to the French in order to fight against the Viet Minh. Huynh Phu So was not one of these and he continued to alternately fight against the Viet Minh and attempt reconciliation with them . The situation reached such a dangerous point that the Viet Minh leader, Nguyen Binh, asked So to come to a reconciliation meeting in Sa Dec Province, scheduled for 16 April 1947 . On the way to the meeting So's groups was ambushed by the Viet Minh . His bodyguards were killed and his traveling companions jumped into a canal to save their lives . No one ever saw So again and it was reported that he was captured and executed by Nguyen Binh, and that his remains were cut into small pieces and thrown into a canal .
The Hoa Hao however, did not accept the fact that their master Huynh Phu So was murdered . As proof of this they presently display at their Holy See in Hoa Hao Village, Chau Doc Province, a letter reportedly written by So several days after his death in which he instructs them to remain faithful until his return . According to Church experts tis letter is in So's handwriting . They firmly believed that he could not die because he was a living Buddha, a reincarnation of the Master Buddha Tay An . Even though they believed that So was still alive they took some rather direct and severe action against the Viet Minh in reprisal for the ambush . Many Viet Minh were killed and according to stories told today along the Bassac River, at mid-night on the day following So's disappearance, a barge was floated from Cambodian border to Can Tho with one hundred Viet Minh heads on pikes lighted with hundreds of candles . To understate the case considerably this made a lasting impression on the Hoa Hao and the Viet Minh .
After a period of time, however, the Hoa Hao followers accepted the fact that So had delayed his returned for reasons only understood by himself and until that return his teachings and interpretations of Buddhist Law must be followed exactly and the struggle for political unity through the Social Democratic Party must be of paramount importance.