In December 2000, I had the extraordinary experience of visiting Hoa Hao village in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, the site of the Hoa Hao holy land and the center of one of the most significant religious movements in Vietnam’s long Buddhist history,. In the process I witnessed Hoa Hao Buddhism in its natural setting and observed the veneration that Hoa Hao people hold for their founder and prophet, Thay Huynh Phu So. Afterwards, I truly felt that I had visited a holy site. Indeed, despite the impressive political and military power it displayed in the 1950s, Hoa Hao Buddhism's most enduring legacy may lie in the deep religiosity displayed by its adherents, notwithstanding the severe repression they suffered from the Ngo Dinh Diem government in the 1950s and 1960s and the Communists after 1975.
The emergence of Hoa Hao Buddhism also represents one of the major religious events of 20th century Vietnam. In developing his religious philosophy, Thay Huynh Phu So understood that peasants, who had little time or money to attend and support elaborate religious services, had lifestyles unsuited for creeds with temples and an extensive clergy that required broad financial support. Thus, Hoa Hao Buddhism has no clergy or statues and few temples. In addition, Hoa Hao Buddhism does not focus exclusively on Buddhist sutras, but mainly on the teachings of the founder whose words have been mostly transmitted in the form of easily understood poems. In other words, Hoa Hao Buddhism meshes well with the condition of most people in the Mekong Delta region, further proof of the brilliance of Thay Huynh Phu So.
Over time, the extreme poverty and hardship of their lives, had led many peasants to endorse the cult of Maitreya, which believed that a future compassionate Buddha would deliver people from their suffering. Hence, they looked to the future because of the bleakness of their present lives. This dovetailed well into a conviction that Thay Huynh Phu So will 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. Hence, Hoa Hao Buddhism represents an extremely complex amalgamation of earlier Buddhist teachings aimed at delivering believers from lives of bitterness into a better future. In many ways, this faith embodies an extremely rational and sophisticated solution to the problems of this world and the Mekong Delta in particular. Certainly, Hoa Hao Buddhism remains a religion closely in tune with the needs and concerns of the local peasantry.
On the other hand, Hoa Hao Buddhism emerged as a bastion of anti-communism in South Vietnam during its short history because its followers believed that the Communist dominated Viet Minh was responsible for the disappearance of Prophet Huynh Phu So in 1947. Nevertheless, many Hoa Hao Buddhists believe that he still lives and will come back some day as a Buddha.
In this impressive and invaluable work Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, utilizing numerous English, French and Vietnamese language secondary and primary sources, including interviews with many of the participants and the author's own recollection of many of the critical events that transpired, explores the philosophical and economic foundations of Hoa Hao Buddhism. He also explains the importance of Vietnamese nationalism in aiding in the acceptance of the founder's message, the moral teachings and ideology of Thay Huynh Phu So, the religion’s explosive growth and development during the crucial World War II years, the effort to create a united front against French colonialism, and the disappearance of the founder and prophet of Hoa Hao Buddhism in 1947. Through his meticulous research, Nguyen Long Thanh Nam examines the emergence of Hoa Hao Buddhism in the 1950s as a powerful political and military force in South Vietnam, the years of persecution under the Diem regime, its tenuous relations with the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War and its tragic, but inspiring effort, to survive under the forces of Communist repression after 1975.
In the end, Nguyen Long Thanh Nam has crafted both a political and religious history of Hoa Hao Buddhism from its inception up until the modern era that significantly increases our knowledge of this important religious movement and the history of the Mekong Delta in the 20th century. His last chapter on the condition of Hao Hoa Buddhism under the Communists after 1975 represents a particularly valuable piece of scholarship that sheds important light on this grave period in Hoa Hao history.
In the end, by examining Hoa Hao Buddhist history, Nguyen Long Thanh Nam has, to a great extent, has expanded our understanding of this crucial movement and its enormous influence on the history of Vietnam in the 20th century.
Eastern Kentucky University