A Look at Hoa Hao Buddhism in Vietnam


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:

  1. Gratitude towards one’s ancestors and parents.
  2. Gratitude towards one’s nation
  3. Gratitude towards the Three Treasures of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma [the teachings] and the Sangha [the community])
  4. 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.


Ten Thoughts of the Buddha


This is a photo I took in 2013, when I visited the Vietnamese Buddhist temple not too far from my home. I had completely forgotten I had taken this photo, but stumbled upon it recently and wanted to share.

The Ten Thoughts of the Buddha (佛教十項心念) do not appear to be a standard Buddhist list, but might be something local to this temple. Anyhow, the translated list is:

  1. While meditating on the body, do not hope or pray to be exempt from sickness. Without sickness, desires and passions can easily arise.
  2. In your life, do not hope or pray not to have any difficulties.  Without difficulties, arrogance can easily arise.
  3. While meditating on the mind, do not hope or pray not to encounter hindrances.  Without hindrances, present knowledge will not be challenged or broadened.
  4. While working, do not hope or pray not to encounter obstacles.  Without obstacles, your willpower and focus will not strengthen.
  5. In life, do not hope or pray to achieve success easily.  With easy success, arrogance can easily arise.
  6. When interacting with others, do not hope or pray to gain personal profit.  With the hope for personal gain, the spiritual nature of the encounter is diminished.
  7. While speaking with others, do not hope or pray to not be disagreed with.  Without disagreement, feelings of self-righteousness can easily arise.
  8. While helping others, do not hope or pray to be paid.  With the hope of remuneration, the act of helping others will not be pure.
  9. If you see personal profit in an action, do not participate in it.  Even minimal participation will stir up desires and passions.
  10. When wrongly accused, do not attempt to to exonerate yourself.  Attempting to defend yourself will create needless anger and animosity and only perpetuate the endless cycle of karma.

I bet everyone can identify with at least one of these warnings.  I know I do.  🙂


A Look At “The Awakening Of Faith In The Mahayana”

The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana


Recently, after a visit to the doctor, I stopped by the local University of Washington (transferring buses) and stopped off at my favorite used-bookstore: Magus Books. I stop there about once every 1-2 years to look for rare and hard to find books by Roger Zelazny, but I also look at the Buddhist books sometimes.

I was fortunate to find a nice, used hardcover translation of a 6th Century Buddhist text called The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, known as daijō kishinron (大乗起信論) in Japanese, and daeseung gishinron (대승기신론) in Korean. The translation is by Professor Hakeda, who also did a great translation of the writings of Kukai. The book was published in 1969, so it’s probably out of print.

Anyhow, the Awakening of Faith is a famous, but unusual text in Buddhism. It is not a sutra. It is a śāstra (shastra), which is a kind of thesis or essay in Buddhism. Shastras were often written by famous Buddhists in India like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga and so on, as a way to expound their particular understanding of the Buddhist doctrine. Shastras were useful as a way of “summarizing” Buddhist sutras into a single teaching.

Shastras are not well known now, but in the ancient days when Buddhism was imported from India to China (and then Korea, Japan, Vietnam) they were critically important in the development of Asian Buddhism because they helped provide a kind of “structure” to the Buddhist teachings. The shastras of Nagarjuna helped found the Sanlun School (三論宗, “Madhyamika”), the shastras of Asanga helped found the Fa-xiang (法相宗, “Yogacara”) school and so on. They were often valued as highly as the sutras themselves.

The trouble is that Shastras in general are very hard to read and understand for modern readers, because they were written for an audience long ago that already understood the concepts and vocabulary. There’s a lot of “implicit” language that is hard to understand now, and requires a lot of commentary. This is probably why they’re not widely studied anymore except for scholars. I purchased a copy of Nagarjuna’s shastra, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (中論). The translation is great, but the content of the book is really, really terse and cryptic. Reading a few chapters gave me a headache. ;p

Anyhow, the point of all this is that the Awakening of Faith is unusual because:

  • It is a shastra, but it was likely composed by someone in China, not India, who attributed it to the Indian monk Ashvaghosa.
  • No original Sanskrit version has been found (hence people think it was composed in China) and it is not found in Tibetan Buddhism.
  • The shastra is popular in East Asia because it is more practical and less cerebral.

Modern Buddhists might not know about the Awakening of Faith, but it was pretty standard reading for all East Asian Buddhists throughout history. Many famous Buddhists you might know have all quoted from, or provided commentary, on the Awakening of Faith. This includes Kukai, Wonhyo, Fa-zang, Shinran and many others.

The copy I have is pretty short, about 78 pages total, and has 5 sections. The early sections are very short, but very cryptic. Section 2 is only 4 pages, but reading it made my head hurt. However, each section is easier and more practical than the last. So, Section 3 explains section 2, and section 4 explains how to put section 3 into practice, etc.

The purpose of the Awakening of Faith is to provide a single, comprehensive explanation of the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism (大乗仏教, 대승 불교). It’s like a “textbook of Mahayana Buddhism”, but the order is kind of reversed from a modern book: the hard stuff is at the beginning, and gets easier as you read it.

Many of teachings you find in Zen, Shingon or Yogacara Buddhism are explained in this text such as:

The principle [of Mahayana] is “the Mind of the sentient being.” This Mind includes in itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendental world. (pg. 28, section 2)


The triple world [past, present, and future], therefore, is unreal and is of mind only. Apart from it there are no objects of the five senses and of the mind. (pg. 48, section 3)

and finally:

After reflecting in this way [the suffering of all beings], he should pluck up his courage and make a great vow to this effect: may my mind be free from discriminations so that I may practice all of the various meritorious acts everywhere in the ten directions; may I, to the end of the future, by applying limitless expedient means, help all suffering sentient beings so that they may obtain the bliss of nirvana, the ultimate goal. (pg. 101, section 4)

The first two quotes sound very similar to things you might read or hear from Zen or Shingon teachings. The third quote sounds similar to the Four Bodhisattva Vows, doesn’t it?

That’s because many of the things we know about East Asian Buddhism were heavily influenced by the Awakening of Faith.1 Whoever wrote this shastra did a very effective job of summarizing Mahayana Buddhist thought into a short, concise text that inspired many generations that came later.

I haven’t finished the book yet (more than halfway through), but I hope to post more quotes later. Anyhow, if you would like to learn more about The Awakening of Faith, there are many other translations available, so definitely pick up a copy if you can. Although it is not easy to read, I highly recommend to anyone interested in the deeper aspects of Mahayana Buddhism.

1 Arguably, the other major influence is the Lotus Sutra.

For The True Buddhist Nerd: A Review of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism

For The True Buddhist Nerd

Recently, thanks to a helpful conversation with a certain Buddhist Professor (thank you Professor “B”), I got in touch with the Princeton University Press department, who sent me a free copy of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. I was eager to get this book because I saw other reviews of it on blogs and on Twitter, and I was interested in the book because it provides a lot of missing information about Buddhism in languages and cultures you can’t find in other books.

For example, I have been struggling for a long time to find detailed information about Chinese Buddhist schools (Wikipedia entries are sometimes dubious) and for Vietnamese Buddhism in general. I was really happy to flip through this book and find a solid explanation of the Thiền (禪, Zen) tradition in Vietnamese Buddhism. For example, it turns out that there is no separate school of Chan/Zen Buddhism in Vietnam, unlike China, Korea and Japan, but the dictionary explains:

Much of the history is, however, a retrospective creation. The Thiền school is in reality a much more amorphous construct that it is in the rest of East Asia: in Vietnam, there is no obvious Chan monasticism, practices or rituals as there were in China, Korean, and Japan. Thiền is instead more of an aesthetic approach or a way of life than an identifiable school of thought or practice. (pg. 906)

Also, the book has valuable information on the San-lun (三論宗) school of Chinese Buddhism, and on Tian-tai (天台宗) which I was unable to find elsewhere. For the casual Buddhist, this sort of information isn’t really important, but for someone who writes a blog on Buddhist subjects, and spends a lot of time fixing Wikipedia articles, this information is critically important to clarifying vague and poorly understood aspects of Asian Buddhism.

The dictionary even has entries Burmese Buddhism. How many books can you find that even talk about Burmese Buddhism in particular?

The other thing I like about this book is that for the same entry, multiple languages are presented, such as below:

Jingxi Zhanran (J. Keikei Tannen; K. Hyŏnggye Tamyŏn 荊溪湛然) (711-782) Chinese monk who is the putative ninth patriarch of the Tiantai Zong….

While writing this blog, I’ve often struggled to provide the Korean term for something I know in Japanese Buddhism, so it’s great to be able to easily find it now. I’ve used this dictionary probably about 6 times since I received it last week, so I can definitely say it’s useful.

But the book is a big, heavy tome. It’s not something for people who are just curious about Buddhism. Instead, it’s an invaluable reference for Buddhist researchers and people who want to know more about Asian Buddhism in particular. Professors Buswell and Lopez put a lot of work this book and it definitely shows. Plus, the book is nicely printed with good binding, good quality paper and easy to read-formatting which is helpful for me and my worsening eyesight.

Thanks again to Professor “B” and to the folks at Princeton University Press!

The Pure Land Here And Now

I’ve been reading other Buddhist books lately too. For example, I’ve been re-reading a book by the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, called Finding Our True Home. I read this book years ago and didn’t like it that much but lately I’ve reading it again to see if my opinion has changed.

I found a couple interesting quotations here:

The teachings of the Buddha are beautiful and wonderful, because they can bring happiness right at the beginning of the practice. When we begin to practice breathing in to calm ourselves and breathing out with a smile, when we take steps in a leisurely and relaxed way, we already have happiness. There is no reason why we should have to wait a number of years to be happy….That is why the lotus bud from the Pure Land of Amitabha can arise at any time on the form of a smile, in a breath, or in a step. We can help the bud grow and to open. We do not have to wait for the future. (Pg. 45)


I have heard many people say it is difficult to practice meditation but Pure Land is easy. It is a kind of meditation practice. If Pure Land practice does not include meditation practice, then it is just an investment in the future. If Pure Land includes meditation practice, then the Pure Land is available right now and the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism are very close to the spirit of the original teachings of the Buddha. (Pg. 46)

Thich Nhat Hanh specifically mentions four sutras from early Buddhism:

I still feel really ambivalent about this book, years later: what Thich Nhat Hanh says makes a lot of sense and I did read all 4 of these sutras and his understanding of the Pure Land does really seem to fit the Buddha’s teachings. In that sense, the book is brilliant.

But a part of me still wants to believe that the Pure Land is a real place and a real refuge, apart from this world of struggling and strife.

Interestingly, Thich Nhat Hanh addresses that too:

Usually, in the beginning of our practice, the object of our desire and our veneration lies outside of us. The object could be God, Jesus, the Buddha, the Pure Land, or the Kingdom of God. In the beginning when we see that the object of our veneration lies outside of us, what is here and now has no real meaning. We see what is present now as suffering, subject to disintegration and fading away and leading to grief….Human psychology is like that; often we start with the thought that we are not worth anything and so we need to go in search of something that is outside ourselves. We do not know that everything outside of ourselves also arises from our mind. (pg 42)

Again, this makes a lot of sense, but I still have my doubts. So, I’m still reading this, and other Pure Land books at the moment. I hope to post more soon.

Toilets in Asia

A while back, I found this excellent guide to toilets in Korea by the good folks at Seoulistic. Much of this also applies to Japan too. If you travel/live in either place, this is important information of course. 😉

When going to modern, public buildings, usually the toilets are western style, though some also have the traditional “Asian” toilet too. I noticed when I visit older Buddhist temples, they often have only Asian toilets though, and maybe one or two Western ones. So, be warned.

I had to learn all this the hard way years ago when I studied abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam.

No one explained how to use traditional Asian toilets at all and I was scared to make a mess, so I tried really hard to avoid them. In the case of Vietnam, you often have to bring your own toilet paper too so I had small rolls in my pocket just in case. However the problem was that during my entire trip I had bad “intestinal problems”. I’m not sure why though. It could’ve been bad water, the food I ate, or something but almost every day for eight weeks I would have sudden attacks of diarrhea. I took antibiotics the whole time to avoid malaria, but they didn’t stop the intestinal problems.1

So during that time, I had to carefully make a map in my head of good “bathrooms” around me in case I had another attack.

In downtown Hanoi this worked. It wasn’t great, but I survived. However, one day I visited a friend’s village north of Hanoi which was very rural. The only toilet they had around was a classic Asian-style outhouse. Knowing this, I tried very hard to hold it during the entire trip that day. It was a great trip, but my body felt terrible.

Finally, I gave up and went to the outhouse. I was so worried about making a mess but I just couldn’t hold any longer. Finally though, I gave it a good effort and succeeded. Not only was the pain and bloating gone, but I had conquered my fears of using an Asian toilet.

The point of that story though is that Asian toilets are actually pretty to use once you know how. For Westerners, the problem is mental, not physical. Plus, you don’t have to make physical contact with any part of the toilet, which is nice from a hygiene perspective.

On the other hand, the fancy toilets you see in Japan and Korea are fascinating too. Although they physically the same, the extra features can make you feel embarrassed too. I never used the bidet feature until years later because we just don’t have them in the US. It just felt really unnecessary and embarrassing. Once I tried it, I realized why so many toilets have them.

So again, the key is overcoming mental barriers not physical ones.

Be prepare, be adventurous and you won’t have to suffer. 🙂

1 In 2 months I lost a lost of weight actually from heat, food, walking and the problems above. Still, I was much fatter than most Vietnamese people though. I don’t know if things have changed much in 12 years, but life was kind of rough then in Vietnam.

Life as a Refugee and Immigrant

While looking up something on Google, I found this really interesting story posted on July 4th, 2013 by someone who grew up in a poor neighborhood here in Seattle called White Center. During the 1970s and 1980s a lot of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos escaped Communism and war and came to the US and other Western countries. I’ve met other Vietnamese-Americans who told me about their youth spent in refugee camps in Thailand.1

Anyhow I thought this was a good story to share. I encourage people on read and reflect:

The below is just my personal experience growing up as an immigrant in White Center. It was a very small, very insulated world. Even now people often think I just recently immigrated over instead of having been here for 20 years. I still don’t understand a lot of American-ism because I never had to interact with anyone who was “American” unless they were a social worker and we tried our best never, ever to get their attention.

Trigger warning for…everything. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In my experience if you are Caucasian you will only be robbed, and probably scared a little bit but no one in their right mind (PTSD is a horrible, hush-shush elephant in the room.) would do more than that. Southeast Asians, especially the refugee/3rd world kind, who were the main residents of that area at the time, knew better than to bite the hand that fed us.

Back when I heard how Greenbridge was going to replace the old projects I thought, “Really? AWESOME. This place will finally be free of the ingrained violence and culture that allowed the gangs to thrive.” Then I nearly died of asphyxiation I laughed so hard in disbelief when I realized that not only did the community planners gave preferential treatment to long-time residents of the area but invited them back in a lottery when the new buildings were built.

The planners invited the violence back into the neighborhood when it was dispersed between 1998 and 2007.

White Center now is not as bad as when I used to attend a gang-related funeral every five or seven months. Monks in saffron robes with their chanting dully saturating the air and the low murmur of grieving families in plain, homemade white was a daily fact of life. A lot of people who survived genocide, starvation, land mines, diseases and casual human cruelty just dropped dead in the street from gang violence.

It permanently affects a place no matter how gentrified it gets.

I mean no matter what those caught between two cultures did we’ll never be good enough for either of them, so why try? The gangs formed as a way to cope with social and cultural pressure. It was a ruthless, murderous sort of group therapy. This is the attitude that bathed White Center in those years. This was White Center’s cultural heritage.

Hell, I fall back into old thinking/speech habits learned from that place and have to be called out on it, because I don’t notice it. We had a term for those of us who weren’t gangsters. Turtles. As long as you don’t move too fast (make the wrong person have a flashback at the wrong time) or try to shoe in on someone’s territory or try to get authority attention to shut people down, everyone usually ignores you.

My personal history with the area goes something like this: All of my family has those “green cards” that do not have an expiration date. Family was dropped off in South Park first then we slowly…kind of…inched our way up Olson Pl in the 1980s sleeping out of a Nissan minivan and ended up in Side 2 projects. We lived there through the 90s then around 1998 moved out when the “Lake Side Projects” were demolished in chunks, moving every two years for about six years from Upper Side 1 to Lower Side 1 when Upper was demolished then to Sea-Tac as Lower Side 1 went. We managed to get a death grip for about 2.5 years on Tukwila then came back to the new Greenbridge development sometimes in 2007. We stayed until 2011 when my mother passed away. She was in one of the first waves invited back and buildings were still being constructed day and night around her.

Since she was the only link I had with that place I moved so fast I left permanent skid marks behind. *clears throat*

Every single one of my male relatives (and quite a few female ones) were part of gangs. If someone is related (a lot of the times not by blood but by refugee camps) then they were automatically protected even if they weren’t sworn members. A good many of the gang leaders were child soldiers from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and the likes.

I remembered a time when no one needed to know a lick of English to get by. In fact most of the signs were in various Asian languages and when we found an English one we’d…well, ogle it. Like, what is that Safeway doing there smack in the middle of OUR private little hellhole? Not surprisingly it shut down. It’s now the DSHS Dept. of Social and Health Services building.

Oh, and Bartell. Wow, the sheer brain-freezing WTF moment I had when I found out, after fifteen years just puttering around West Seattle, that it’s not only NOT special but that there are a whole lot of other Bartell around. For some stupid reason I always thought it was the only one and our little Asian projects was special because we had a white folk’s store and Rainier Beach didn’t…and no Chubby & Tubby didn’t count. It wasn’t posh. I still remember as if my ear is still pinched how often we (the youngsters) were scolded to be nice to the white ladies and gents working in Bartell. We can’t scare them off. No one will print our photos otherwise.

No, seriously.

Everyone else though? I have no idea. They were never mentioned.

The old projects were called “Side 1” and “Side 2”. Lake Side Projects, I believe, but (maybe it’s only Asian) immigrants who remembered it as that. There’s a tiny arse little lake (Dirtiest, nastiest thing I’ve ever had the misfortune to see/smell on a daily basis. It it clean now? Are M-80s still being lit illegally around the 4rth on the bridge?) in the middle of that city. Cascade Middle School and Evergreen High School are next to it. (Wow, Evergreen. It was all out war in there during the 90s. If you’re Vietnamese and you tried to date a Cambodian or vice versa. You. WILL. Die.) So is White Center library.

Oh, that library is AWESOME. It was neutral ground where all the gangs can go and no one dared make trouble. Unless you’re Asian or African descent from Rainier Beach/Skyway then it’s taken outside and down to that little park.

I still remember my mother accusing me of trying to be “white” and “forgetting who I am”. I remembered how others would say, “no matter how correct your spelling is or how much skin lightening creams you use you’ll never be a white American.”

Half of my family still lives in White Center and I go visit. It’s better now but those cute little mom’n’pop Vietnamese/Cambodian/Thai grocery stores are often owned by former gang members. Yeah, they grew up, had a family. Got a job, opened a business. Trying to survive like normal people instead of the damaged, fractured, barely human things they were.
On the plus side if there ever is a zombie out break I’m heading for White Center. They know how to deal with ravenous, mindless hordes.

When you meet immigrants in your country, it’s important to understand their personal story. Their habits and culture will be different, but maybe there’s a good reason.

1 I remember that the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, said that many Vietnamese people escaped with only their clothes and a copy of the Heart Sutra (般若心経).