Western scholars indicated that Hịa Hảo Buddhism, in fact, constituted a sort of “reformed Buddhism.” In other words, the new religion was seen as an attempt to reform Buddhist teachings in southern Vietnam. However, followers of Hịa Hảo Buddhism did not accept this point of view. The adepts argued that Huỳnh Ph Sổ did not re-examine and revise an existing set of mainstream Buddhist doctrines. Moreover, Huỳnh Ph Sổ had unequivocally stated that he viewed himself as “an adamant disciple of Buddha Shakyamuni.” He also said that orthodox Buddhist doctrines, notably a concept of salvation, should have been applied “not only in temples of meditation but on the political arena as well.” Interview to Hồn Quyn, Nam Kỳ daily, November 29, 1946.
Therefore, spiritually speaking, it might be argued that Hịa Hảo Buddhism was not a totally “new” reformist religion, which aimed at rethinking and revising widely accepted orthodox doctrines. In term of practicality, emerged in 1939, Hịa Hảo Buddhism was a revitalization movement, which intended to improve ways of practicing religion in order to adapt ritual and worship practices to the current realities of everyday life in the Mekong Delta.
The followers of Huỳnh Ph Sổ viewed their teaching as a direct extension of the teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni. Hịa Hảo Buddhism arguably was not a renovated Buddhism” but an authentic Buddhist school, which was well adapted to the current socio-historic environment of contemporary southern Vietnam.
It should be pointed out that Hịa Hảo Buddhism was strongly influenced by the doctrines of the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (637-713), whose life and teachings marked the beginning of a truly Chinese Chan Buddhism. The traditional story which the Dhyana or Chan School gives of its origin is that Indian monk Bodhidharma, the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism beginning from Shakyamuni himself, came to southern China from India around the year of 520. Subsequently, from each generation of Chan Patriarchs to the next there had in theory been a direct imprint of mind on mind. Just as a genealogical chart testifies to the authenticity of lineage and the rights of inheritance, so a succession of Patriarchs is supposed to testify to the authenticity of a monk's understanding and his right to teach. Hence what he teaches has come ultimately from the Buddha Shakyamuni himself.
The image of Hui Neng was particularly popular among followers of Vietnams Thiền or Dhyana Buddhism. Notably, it has been argued that Hui Neng originated from the southernmost frontier of the Chinese Empire. These lands were once known as Lĩnh Nam. In fact, it was a cradle of the Vietnamese nation in the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, doctrines of Hui Neng sounded appealing to many generations of Vietnamese Buddhists who viewed the Sixth Patriarch of Chan as Vietnams prominent religious master. Huỳnh Phú Sổ urged his adherents “to follow the Sixth Patriarch and not to follow Shen Hsiu.” Theo Lục Tổ, chớ theo Thần Tú - cf. 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, p.61. According to Chan tradition, Hui Nengs disciple Shen Hsiu was understood to be an advocate of widely accepted Chinese Buddhist Dhyana practices. Shen Hsiu believed that Chan Buddhism should have relied in larger measure on so-called sitting mediation and institutionalized ritual practices. On the other hand, Hui Neng in his Platform Sutra advocated the concept of naturalness and spontaneousness. Therefore, followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism viewed Hui Neng as an advocate of ritual simplicity and a natural adversary of all superstitions.
According to an eyewitness at Hòa Hảo village, during the first months of Hòa Hảo Buddhist evangelization, Huỳnh Phú Sổ endeavored to undertake an audacious symbolic gesture aimed at eliminating what he viewed as superstitions. First, he sat on the altar built for local spirits, or genii loci, near his house and then he threw the altar into the Mekong River. By removing the altar, which was venerated by his fellow villagers, Huỳnh Phú Sổ intended to highlight his call for uncompromising ritual simplicity and frugality.
Like the Buddha himself, he was believed to be symbolically awake all the time since in Sanskrit the root Budh denotes both “to wake up” and “to know.” He argued that “we should not kill animals as offerings to the deities, because deities do not accept bribes from us in order to forgive us. If we committed sins, we should be punished. As to those deities who accepted offerings designed to cure sick people then these were in fact evil spirits. If we continue to give them offerings, they would get used to these bribes and would harm us…” 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, p.179.
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