Robert J. Topmiller PhD
During its long history, Vietnam has endured numerous foreign invasions and, at times, extended periods of alien occupation. For close to a century, France ruled Vietnam leading to periods of great distress for the Vietnamese people. Indeed, the unsettled condition of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region under French colonialism produced numerous holy men and prophets offering apocalyptic views of the future as early as the later part of the 19th century. Many emerged from the Seven Mountains region along the border with Cambodia and performed miraculous healings, or led movements that manifested popular anger over the extreme poverty and exploitation of the area’s peasants.
In the 19th century, a holy man and mystic called the Buddha Master of Western Peace created the Buu Son Ky Huong cult which eventually evolved into Hao Hoa Buddhism. The founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism, the charismatic young healer Huynh Phu So, later claimed that he represented the reincarnation of the Buddha Master when he emerged from the mountains to lead a powerful religious movement that exploded onto the scene on the eve of WW II.
Founded in 1939, Hoa Hao Buddhism matched the conditions and lifestyle of the peasantry of the area well. Realizing that extreme poverty and ties to the land prevented many peasants from participating in Buddhist rites, Huynh Phu So called for a form of Buddhism, bereft of clergy and temples. Instead, he combined ancestor worship with Buddhist ritual and invited his followers to practice their religion at home. At the same time, stories of miraculous healing on his part greatly enhanced his reputation with the people of the region.
The creator of Hoa Hao Buddhism understood that peasants, who had little time or money to attend and support elaborate services, had lifestyles unsuited for a religion with temples and maintaining an extensive clergy. Thus, the Hoa Hao had no clergy, statues or temples. In addition, the sect did not focus on Buddhist sutras. Instead, its followers mainly studied the teachings of the founder whose words had been mostly transmitted in the form of easily understood poems. In other words, the new sect meshed well with the condition of most people in the area, further proof of the genius of Thay Huynh Phu So.
Yet, despite its outward appearance, Hoa Hao Buddhism represented an extremely complex amalgamation of earlier Buddhist teachings aimed at delivering believers from lives of bitterness into a better future. In many ways, this belief system constituted an extremely rational and sophisticated solution to the problems of this world, and the Mekong Delta in particular. The psychology of Buddhism caused the religion to become very popular since it reflected many earlier religious traditions, and it gave people hope for the future. Certainly, it remained a religion closely in tune with the needs and concerns of the local peasantry.
The Hoa Hao experienced explosive growth during WW II and had over one million adherents by the end of the conflict. The prophet’s barely disguised appeals to Vietnamese nationalism alienated the French, but gained the sympathy of Japanese agents who rescued Huynh Phu So from a French ordered deportation to Laos in 1942.
After WWII, great suspicion of Communism among the more entrepreneurial spirited southerners, combined with the organizational weakness of the Communist-dominated Independence League of Vietnam (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi or Viet Minh), sparked far more chaotic circumstances in the south. The relative weakness of the southern branch Communist Party and the Viet Minh along with the growing influence of the religious sects forced the Viet Minh to seek an accommodation with the Hoa Hao and other groups in a broad anti-French coalition. Thus, the situation in the south remained very confusing as the sects focused on protecting their members and the Viet Minh attempted to defeat the French and lessen the power of the religious groups. Exacerbating the problem, several organizations had developed effective military organizations much needed by the Viet Minh to combat the French.
Dr. Topmiller at Hoa Hao Buddhist Celebration, Santa Ana, Ca 2005
In 1947, the Communists allegedly abducted the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism because they feared his growing influence in the anti-French resistance. Since his disappearance Hoa Hao beleivers expect him to return some day as a Buddha who will bring them peace and happiness.
The extreme poverty and hardship of their lives led many peasants to endorse the cult of Maitreya, which believed that a future compassionate Buddha would deliver people from their suffering. Thus, they looked to the future because their present lives remained so bleak. This dovetailed nicely into a belief that Thay Huynh Phu So would return someday as a Buddha to lead his followers to a land of peace and prosperity, very much like the Western Land subscribed to by Pure Land Buddhists.
Not surprisingly, the Hoa Hao believers never forgot the fact that the Communists had abducted their founder and became fervently anti-Communist, joining the French against them and later the South Vietnamese government against the National Liberation Front (the NLF, better know as the Viet Cong). As a result, the Hoa Hao believers opposed efforts to negotiate with the NLF, instead choosing to fight the Communists until the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.
Unfortunately, the victorious Communists aimed a particularly potent retribution at former members of the South Vietnamese government and other religious and military leaders after defeating Saigon. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese suffered imprisonment in the ghastly prisons the regime euphemistically referred to as “reeducation camps,” while the new overlords of a reunified Vietnam executed thousands more. These factors convinced many South Vietnamese to seek new lives outside of Vietnam.
The author of this work, Nguyen Huynh Mai, and her family fled South Vietnam to the US during Saigon’s last days. Although her family lost everything when the Communists overran their country, they quickly applied the extraordinary work ethic of the Vietnamese people to rebuilding their family business in America. While other members of her family labored mightily to realize the American dream, Mai dedicated her life to serving Hoa Hao Buddhism both by maintaining a bilingual Hoa Hao web page, overseeing the production of a quarterly journal about her religion, and producing numerous books about her religious journey through life. In addition, she became an outspoken and ardent critic of the Vietnamese Communist Party, particularly its suppression of religion in her homeland. As a result of her dedicated efforts to fight for religious freedom, Mai even testified before the US Commission on Religious Freedom on May 13, 2001.
Immigrants have always been part of the rich cultural American fabric. Yet in coming to the US, each immigrant left friends, family and possessions behind. This seems particularly true of the South Vietnamese who were driven from their land by history’s most evil ideology, Communism. Forced to settle in a new home, the Vietnamese demonstrated astonishing resiliency and their contributions to American life have been astounding. Yet, they still retain a strong loyalty to that wonderful, magical place called Vietnam. They lost their country but they made our land much better.
Mai’s book, with its wonderful stories about strong family commitment and deep loyalty to Vietnam and the Hoa Hao religion reminds us of what they lost but also of what America gained. In establishing themselves in the US and other countries outside of Vietnam, Hoa Hao Buddhism evolved into a worldwide religion whose teaching about love, kindness and generosity provide guidance for all humankind. Mai remains her religion’s most eloquent spokesperson.
Robert J. Topmiller PhD
Eastern Kentucky University