Soon after his enlightenment, Huỳnh Phú Sổ became actively engaged in healing and preaching activities. Initially, he mainly operated in his native Hòa Hảo village, which was destined to become a cradle of the new religion. During the first months of Hòa Hảo Buddhist expansion, healing was viewed as a necessary introductory step designed to attract potential followers. Huỳnh Phú Sổ put it quite clearly in his “Mission of the Master” article. He argued that his “methods depended on the perception level of the faithful.” While preaching Buddhist doctrines aimed at those people who were already inclined to religious values, healing activities were designed to deal with those people who were less inclined to religious life and good deeds, according to Huỳnh Phú Sổ. Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Gíao Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, pp. 19-20.
From the very beginning of his preaching mission, the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism set his priorities distinctly and plainly. Huỳnh Phú Sổ stated that the focus of his mission was religious evangelizing and proselytizing, while healing was believed to be just a temporary solution. This is why healing was only practiced during the first months of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist expansion. The practice of healing was stopped in early 1940. Subsequently, Huỳnh Phú Sổ prioritized religious proselytizing, including verbal preaching aimed at audiences of faithful. On the other hand, the founder of the new religious congregation focused on writing prophecies, sutras and sermons specifically designed for the evangelizing purposes of the emerging Hòa Hảo community.
It should be pointed out that healing was one of the most important skills claimed by the early apostles of many religions in the world. In Vietnam, Tây An also started the propagation of what later became known as the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương tradition by healing practices. As stated above, his success was in larger measure due to his claims of having stopped cholera epidemics in 1849. Many of Tây Ans disciples, notably Phật Trùm, also successfully combined proselytizing and healing.
Religious outbreaks often coincided with various natural calamities and social upheavals. For instance, the French scholar Leopold Cadiere mentioned cholera epidemics in 1908 in Quảng Trị province, Central Vietnam. This particular cholera outbreak was accompanied with increased ritual and worship activities among the affected population. Correspondingly, peasants sought the services of fortunetellers, mediums, astrologers, geomancers, monks, sorcerers, or traditional interpreters of sacred messages.
According to Cadieres account, adepts offered flowers to Buddha, bowed to strange-looking statues, prayed in front of images of tigers and snakes, while sorcerers shouted at invisible evil spirits. Such spectacles related to faith were practiced along with other religions of the highest order. Cadière, Léopold. Croyances et pratiques religieuses des Vietnamiens. Hanoi: Publications de l'Ecole Francaise dExtrême-Orient, vols. 2: 1955, pp.109-110.
In his healing efforts, Huỳnh Phú Sổ did not rely exclusively on cures and herbal remedies. The founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhist community never practiced geomancy, hypnotic trances, divination, and other methods widely used by profit-seeking sorcerers in traditional Vietnam. Huỳnh Phú Sổ never charged money or any other kind of payment in exchange for healing. Every time the founder of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism distributed what was eventually became known as “holy water,” which was in fact merely cold water, or small yellow paper amulets to be swallowed, he only urged the recipients to worship Buddha.
The first incident of healing took place even before Huỳnh Phú Sổ announced the emergence of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism. The founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism successfully cured a measles-suffering child of ordinary farmers from Phú An hamlet, just north of Hòa Hảo village. Subsequently, Huỳnh Phú Sổ practiced healing among potential followers and ordinary people who flocked into Hòa Hảo village in increasing numbers. Yet shortly after the launch of the new religious community, in 1940, the founder of Hòa Hảo opted to stop all demonstration acts of healing. Although public healing had stopped, Huỳnh Phú Sổ occasionally provided medical relief. This is how he won the allegiance of two important converts, Tạ Quốc Bửu, former village chief of Hòa Bình village in Bạc Liêu province, and Chung Bá Khánh, whos wife was also cured in Bạc Liêu.
Some derogators of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, as well as biased observers, claimed that Huỳnh Phú Sổ laced his holy water with aspirin. However, it was clearly impossible for Huỳnh Phú Sổto successfully treat different health conditions and maladies, by aspirin alone. For the followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, the healing practices of Huỳnh Phú Sổ remain a supernatural, phenomena.
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