This is not my usual post, but lately, I found an interesting book on Vietnamese cultural and religious history called Sources of Vietnamese Tradition, and it has helped to fill in gaps of my knowledge of Vietnam.¹ One example is the Hòa Hảo sect of Buddhism in Vietnam, which I heard a lot about, especially in reference to the Vietnam War, but had surprisingly little other information.
Hòa Hảo Buddhism in Vietnam is an interesting example of an entirely lay-based form of Buddhism. I am pretty familiar with lay-based Buddhist organizations in Japan, going all the way back to Pure Land and Nichiren schools, and their modern offshoots, but I know almost nothing about lay-movements outside of that. I know they exist throughout the Buddhist world, but information is pretty scant outside of scholarly journals.
Anyhow, Hoa Hao Buddhism started in the 1939 by the founder Huỳnh Phú Sổ (Jan 15, 1920–1947) who in Vietnamese seems to be called Đức Huỳnh Giáo Chủ or “Virtuous Founder [of our sect] Huynh”.² The English translations I have seen so far on Hoa Hao websites call him a prophet, but I don’t see that in the Vietnamese texts, so I suspect this is a mistranslation. Also, when I looked up English word “prophet” in Vietnamese, it came out totally different. So, I am fairly certain this is a mistranslation.
On the other hand, English information seems to imply that Hoa Hao Buddhists consider Founder Huynh to be a living Buddha, but I can’t tell if this is poor translation or not.
What is clear is that Founder Huynh was carrying on an earlier lay Buddhist milinarian movement in Vietnam called the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement led by a Buddhist mystic named Đoàn Minh Huyên (Nov. 14th, 1807 – Sept 10, 1856). This movement was based in South Vietnam and many miracles were attributed to Đoàn, so much so that he is referred by Huynh in his writings as “Buddhist Master of the Peaceful West” (Phật Thầy Tây An). In English sources, he seems to also be called the Healing Buddha, for his many miracles in helping the poor and sick during a cholera outbreak in the year 1849.
What does Hoa Hao Buddhism teach?
Founder Huynh focused his teachings on the vast peasant/agrarian society in Vietnam at the time, and presented Buddhism in a simple, rustic, straightforward way. He encouraged followers to eschew excessive ritualism and worship:
We must respect the way that worship in pagodas is conducted by the monks. But for those who practice their religion at home, there is no need to create more images; let our worship be simple, and let our faith come directly from our hearts instead of aiming at ostentatious presentation….If one’s house is narrow, all one needs is an incense burner on an altar to worship Heaven,³ because religious observance primarily consists of improving oneself rather than overt acts of worship. People who have Buddhist statues in their homes can keep them. But they should not use paper images, and should burn them….When praying and presenting offerings to the Buddha, only fresh water, flowers and incense sticks are required. Fresh water represents cleanliness, flowers represent purity, and incense is used to freshen the air. These offerings are sufficient.
(pg. 442, translation by Jayne Werner, from “Giao-Hoi Phat-Giao Hoa Hao” published in 1945)
Another emphasis of Founder Huynh and the Hoa Hao sect is the Four Gratitudes, which are frequently found in East Asian Buddhism in various forms:
- Gratitude towards one’s ancestors and parents.
- Gratitude towards one’s nation
- Gratitude towards the Three Treasures of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma [the teachings] and the Sangha [the community])
- Gratitude toward humanity and all living beings.
On Buddhist precepts, Huynh writes:
We must think very carefully about our actions in our religion and in society and no do crazy and absurd things. First, we should not take advantage by relying on the powerful. Second, we should not rely on the help of saints and spirits. Third, we should not count on the support of our master. We must always remember the Buddha’s law of cause and effect. If the cause is well-intentioned, the effect will be beneficial….Let us all use our intelligence to understand our religion’s principles and our master’s teachings and not blindly follow precepts that we have not thought about carefully. Only by doing so will we be able to progress on the path of religious virtue. (pg. 443, translation by Jayne Werner, from “Giao-Hoi Phat-Giao Hoa Hao” published in 1945)
Hoa Hao Buddhist practice and ceremony tend to be simple and austere as well. For example, Hoa Hao Buddhists are famous for using simple brown cloth on their Buddhist altars, rather than more garish cloth you might see in more formal temple settings.
Hoa Hao Buddhism definitely has parallels in other lay-Buddhist movements seen throughout East Asia, but I don’t think it’s not gotten as much attention and research as it warrants due it’s influence in Vietnamese society. Hopefully though, further research and dialogue will help clarify misconceptions and foster better understanding. 🙂
¹ Despite the fact my degree in college is South East Asia studies, with a focus on Vietnam, and having studied there for 2 months. It is a part of the world that still needs more study, especially with respect to Buddhism, which tends to get overshadowed or forgotten. Plus, I was much younger then and less experienced. Age does have its uses. ;p
² This was harder to translate than one would think. I don’t have access to a good Vietnamese dictionary anymore (I rarely ever used it when I did…), particularly the phrase Giáo Chủ.
³ The term “heaven” here should not misconstrued with the Western interpretation. Here “heaven” is a more generic, Confucian term.