Prophet Huynh-Phu-So created Hoa-Hao Buddhism in 1939. Until April 1975, Hoa-Hao Buddhism was one of the four most important religions in Vietnam. With over two million faithful closely united in their faith, Hoa-Hao Buddhism became an influential force in South Vietnam.1 This force was so well organized that it not only survived but continues to develop through severe trials and hardships.
Hoa-Hao Buddhism is not an entirely new religion in Vietnam. In fact, it is a fundamental Buddhist religion associated with two other greatest and oldest doctrines of oriental philosophy (Confucianism and Taoism) whose influences have been deep in the hearts of the Vietnamese people for centuries.
With the extreme richness of its doctrine, Hoa-Hao Buddhism has been very influential within the Vietnamese Churches, which, along with other Buddhist Churches in the world, is guiding mankind to a new society, to new spiritual values, and to the deliverance of mankind.
Hoa-Hao Buddhism has four special characteristics: Buddhism for the peasants, the practice of Buddhism at home, "study Buddhism to improve yourselves," and the modernization of the methods of self-improvement.
Buddhism for the Common People
The first characteristic of Hoa-Hao Buddhism is Buddhism for the common people. The fact is that, from Buu-Son Ky-Huong to Hoa-Hao, it has always been Buddhism for the common people.
During his lifetime, Master Buddha of Tay-An, who founded Buu-Son Ky-Huong Buddhism, used to preach Buddhism and at the same time encouraged agriculture. His slogan: "Practicing Buddhism while cultivating your land."
In continuing the tradition of Buu-Son Ky-Huong Buddhism, Prophet Huynh-Phu-So also encouraged agriculture. This is the reason why He chose the most fertile part of Vietnam to begin His evangelical mission, and why the majority of the Hoa-Hao faithful are farmers.
In the human and social fields, it is known that the common people, by their pure and simple nature, can practice Buddhism most correctly.
To understand why this tradition is very important, we must review the three basic elements: the physical background, the origin, and the Hoa-Hao followers.
In 1939, Prophet Huynh-Phu-So founded Hoa-Hao Buddhism. Since then, it has grown rapidly into a major religion. Its influence spreads over the Mekong River Delta. It is called Western Buddhism. The highly fertile area of the Mekong Delta plays a very important part in the agricultural economy of Vietnam. Most of the rice exports come from here. It is known as the Rice basket of Vietnam. The Western Area covers an area of 18,850 square kilometers of arable land producing 3,000,000 tons of rice per year.
With total area of 173,260 square kilometers, South Vietnam has about 30,000 square kilometers under cultivation. The Western Area, where Hoa-Hao Buddhism was founded, occupies 60 percent of the total cultivable land of the country.
The mountains of the Western area have been the source of many unexplainable mysteries. The most famous of these are the Sacred Mountains of That Son on the border of Chau-Doc province and Cambodia.
Since 1849, a living Buddha reverently known as Master Buddha of Tay-An made his first appearance on the Sacred Mountains of That Son and began his salvation mission by creating Buu-Son Ky-Huong Buddhism. About 90 years later, exactly in 1939, also near That-Son Mountains, another living Buddha, Prophet Huynh-Phu-So, continued the tradition of Buu-Son Ky-Huong and founded Hoa-Hao Buddhism. Therefore, although Hoa-Hao Buddhism was founded in 1939, it is a continuation of the Buu-Son Ky-Huong established in 1849. Thus its existence is over a century old.
Both Master Buddha of Tay-An and Prophet Huynh-Phu-So have been revered throughout South Vietnam as two Buddhas coming into the world to save mankind from sufferings. They have also been respectfully regarded as two genuine patriots.
The total number of Hoa-Hao followers is estimated at over two million people representing more than one third the population of the Western Area, or 10 percent of the total population of South Vietnam. 2
In such provinces as Chau-Doc, An-Giang, Kien-Phong and Sadec, Hoa-Hao Buddhists account for 90 percent of the population. In other provinces, this proportion varies from 10 to 60 percent.
The Practice of Buddhism at Home
The second characteristic is that both Hoa-Hao Buddhism and Buu-Son Ky-Huong advocate the practice of Buddhism at home. The reason was that both Master Buddha of Tay-An and Prophet Huynh-Phu-So shared the same view that Buddhism should not only be preached in pagodas and temples, but also be propagated largely into every family. It is a convenience for the farmers.
According to the reform, worshipping at a Hoa-Hao Buddhist home should be very simple. On the altar, there is no Buddha statue, bell or gong, but a piece of brown clothes. It is symbolizing the human Harmony and the color of Buddhism. Under the Buddha's altar is the Ancestral altar for the cult of Ancestors. In front of the house is set up a Heaven's altar to enable communication with the universe (sky and earth), the Four Sky Directions, and the Ten Buddhist Directions.
"No food of any kind including fruits may be used to worship Buddha. Only fresh water, flowers and incense sticks are needed. Fresh water is to present cleanliness and flowers to purity. And incense sticks are to freshen the air." 3
Hoa-Hao followers must worship Buddha at least twice a day: in the morning and in the evening. On the 1st and 15th of each lunar month and on Buddha's Holy days, they have to go to Hoa-Hao Preaching Halls or pagodas to pray and listen to sermons. Prayers are to be in a low voice while no bells or gongs may be used.
When the time of worship comes, if they are away from home, they turn Westwards to pray to Buddha. They should also encourage others to pray silently in their heart wherever they may be.
At each hamlet, there is at least one Preaching Hall that equipped with the loud speakers. Every day, at special hours, a Preacher would come there to read prayers or to give sermons to the audiences.
Hoa-Hao Buddhist Preaching Halls are small Pagodas. They are used for the unique purpose of preaching. As they do not have residential quarters, they are much smaller than pagodas or temples, because Hoa-Hao Buddhism puts more emphasis on the practice of Buddhism at home.
Over two million of Hoa-Hao followers practicing Buddhism at home not only do their best to improve themselves physically and spiritually, but they also contribute greatly to the development of the agriculture economy of their country.
"Study Buddhism to Improve Yourselves"
The guideline of Hoa-Hao Buddhism Doctrine is "Study Buddhism to improve yourselves." This means that we must observe the genuine teachings of Buddha to make ourselves better in order to fulfill our duty in our present life, and to be able to reach the Buddhist Paradise to freeing ourselves from the law of Reincarnation.
In practicing Buddhism for self-improvement, a Hoa-Hao Buddhist must first of all do his or her best to comply with the Four Debts of Gratitude:
Thankfulness to our Ancestors and Parents
According to Prophet Huynh-Phu-So's Teachings, "We were born with a body to be active from our childhood to manhood with a given wisdom and knowledge." Our parents have suffered during our childhood years. Remember that our ancestors gave birth to our parents, therefore, we must be grateful to our ancestors as we are towards our parents.
To show our gratitude towards our ancestors, we cannot do anything that is wicked or shameful to our family's name. If our ancestors, for example, had done anything wrong and left a legacy of sufferings to their decedents, we should dedicate ourselves to act in compliance with the moral principles to restore our ancestors' honor.
To show our gratitude to our parents, we must obey the right lessons they teach us and must not annoy them. If our parents did anything wrong or acted against moral laws, we should do our best to advise and prevent them from doing so. We should also support them and keep them from hunger and sickness. To please our parents, we should bring accord among our brothers and sisters and happiness to our family. We always pray for our parents to enjoy happiness and longevity. When they die, we pray for their soul to be freed from sufferings in the Buddhist Kingdom.4
Thankfulness to our Country
We always owe our living to our native land. If we want our life to be happy and our race to survive, while enjoying our land and its produce, we have a duty to defend our Country, therefore, we must contribute to the safeguarding of our fatherland. Whenever there is a foreign invasion, we must liberate it. In case we have no talent to assume responsibilities or no opportunity to help our country, we must avoid wrong doings that may hurt our country. We should never help the enemy to harm our fatherland.5
Thankfulness to the Three Treasures: Buddha, Buddhist Law, and Sangha
According to Prophet Huynh-Phu-So, man is born and brought up thanks to his ancestors and parents. He owes his existence to his country. That is the physical aspect of life. In the spiritual field, man needs the help of Buddha, the Teachings of Buddhism, and the Priests to open his mind.
Buddha is the most flawless and most perfect creature. General speaking, Buddha is infinitely altruistic and determined to save living creatures from misfortune and suffering. That is why He bequeathed His Teachings to the Priests so as to disseminate them through the world. Remember that, the Priests are none but Buddha's great disciples.
As Buddha always guides and saves human beings from bewilderment and suffering, we must respect Him. We believe and have confidence in His world-salvation work. Furthermore, we must comply with His Teachings that the Priests conveyed to us. We must also respect and venerate Buddha. We act in compliance with His Teachings and have cultivated and strengthened our religion so as to expand it. This act is building a castle of peerless and unparalleled virtue bequeathed to posterity.
Our duty is to follow our ancestors' highest virtues. We have a clear mind to reach the path of deliverance and help those who fall into misfortune. We must also especially continue to cultivate and spread Compassion and Fraternity everywhere among human beings.6
Thankfulness to our fellow-countrymen and to mankind
Since our birth, we are depending on people around us. As we grow up, our dependency on them grows. We need their grains to live on, their clothes to keep ourselves warm, and their houses as shelters against weather adversities. We always enjoy happiness and share misfortune with them.
According Prophet Huynh-Phu-So, they and we are of the same culture and tradition, history, and language. Together we form our nation. We call them our fellow-countrymen. Our fellow-countrymen and we are of the same root. We have the same illustrious and heroic history. We must help each other in distress. We have also the same task of building a bright future for our country. Our fellow-countrymen and we have a close relationship. We are indivisible. We never would be there without our fellow-countrymen or vice-versa. We must therefore do our best to help and show them in some way our gratitude for their assistance.
Besides our fellow-countrymen, there are other peoples in the world who are working hard to supply us with necessities. They are the human race those who live with us on this earth. We must be grateful to them. We must think of them as we do of ourselves and of our own compatriots. Moreover, Buddha's mercy and compassion are very wide and deep. In his view, they are boundless. They have no discrimination of race and social status. They are bestowed upon all living creatures. There is, therefore, no valid reason for us to do harm to other people only for our own sake or that of our fellow countrymen. On the contrary, we should have a spirit of concord and indulgence towards them. We should make it our duty to help them in case of distress.
For the priests who have taken refuge in Buddhism, they should thank their donators who supply them with daily needs because they depend on them for their rice, clothes, and medicine. In brief, they are entirely dependent on the kindness of these people. They are deeply indebted to everyone. In order to show their gratitude, they should guide mankind in the search for Truth.7
The Modernization of the Methods of Self-improvement
The fourth characteristic is the modernization of the methods of self-improvement by discarding all futile rites and superstitious practices. This is made to show the essence of Buddhism in accordance with genuine Buddha's teachings.
Here are some modifications advocated by Hoa-Hao Buddhism:
Neither pagodas nor statues should be built besides the existing ones. Hoa-Hao Buddhist followers reserve their money to come to the assistance of the poor and the needy. That is a really beneficial act unlike building a large pagoda or casting the tall and expensive statues.
Hoa-Hao Buddhism followers do not require the services of sorcerers, magicians, astrologers, and fortune-tellers. They do not offer food as offerings to Buddha because they believe that Buddha never accept such bribery. They do also not use flags, banners or streamers. They do not burn votive paper because this is a waste of money.
Hoa-Hao Buddhist followers do not compel their children to marry the one they do not like or love. They do not demand matrimonial deposit money from the groom or organize big wedding parties, because this will result in impoverishing themselves.
Hoa-Hao Buddhist Followers do not cry or conduct expensive funerals; instead they pray quietly for the deliverance of the deceased's soul.
In short, the reform advocated by Hoa-Hao Buddhism is aimed at bringing us back to the original teachings of Buddha. He taught: "Our belief must come from our heart." It is only a matter of heart and not a matter of rite and ceremony.
(Germantown, August 21, 1998)