Apart from religious beliefs and faiths, under all circumstances the Vietnamese people sustained strong patriotic feelings. Vietnamese patriotism was nurtured in the course of a millennial struggle against foreign aggression and domination. This is why the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương teaching, as a cultural phenomenon, effectively highlighted both national and religious values.
Since its advent in Vietnam nearly two thousand years ago, Buddhism has become an integral part of Vietnamese way of life. Moreover, some Western authors argue that the majority of the Vietnamese people consider themselves Buddhists despite the fact that most believers are unable to separate Buddhist doctrines from popular beliefs and superstitions. Nonetheless, it might be argued that Vietnamese Buddhism was characterized by a close relationship between religious beliefs and patriotic feelings.
In fact, Vietnamese Buddhism contributed to the success of liberation wars against Northern domination, notably in the 10th century A.D. Subsequently, Buddhism became an ideology of emerging Vietnamese statehood and the countrys early dynasties such as Ngô, Đinh, Lý and Trần. Notably, between 1010 and 1400 the Lý and Trần dynasties made Buddhism the countrys official ideology.
However, the split and ensuing war between Trịnh princes of the North and Nguyễn lords of the South arguably caused a deep social downturn. In turn, the situation of societal deterioration produced a general decline of Vietnamese Buddhism. Furthermore, frontier conditions in the South sparked a further decay of religious, notably Buddhist, institutions and practices. It should be also pointed out that sorcerers and magicians who gave out healing amulets and charms were popular among new Vietnamese settlers in the Mekong Delta. Contrariwise, in the settlements of Vietnamese pioneers in the South, the few preachers of rigorous Buddhist dogma had a limited audience. Moreover, the continued presence of Hinayana Buddhism, a predominant faith of the Khmer populace, added to the confusion as the Vietnamese generally adhered to Mahayana Buddhism.
Therefore the teaching of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương emerged amid a sort of religious confusion and ideological turmoil. Not surprisingly, the new doctrine aimed at reversing the further decline of Buddhist doctrine, notably among the masses of peasant cultivators. This is why in his evangelizing efforts Phật Thầy Tây An heavily relied on healing. In order to adapt to the concrete social and ideological environment, Tây An was obliged to accommodate his religious message in conformity with the pre-existing customs of the frontier populace.
It is important to note that the gist of Tây Ans teaching was a chiliastic warning that the world was coming to an end. Tây An repeatedly warned that only those who venerated Buddha and practiced Humanity would have been saved. Moreover, an act of salvation was expected to take place on the day of Final Judgement, or the Dragon-Flower Assembly. Hội Long Hoa Tây An urged his followers to respect Four Gratitudes, or Tứ Ân, namely what was due to the parents, the country, the Three Jewels of the Buddhist teaching, or Tam Bảo, namely the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, as well as compatriots and all mankind. Therefore the teaching of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương prioritized a close interaction of religious and national values.
Accordingly, the rise of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương, as well as the subsequent rise of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, were not mere historical coincidences. What were seen as sudden and unexpected outbursts of religious fervor were in fact logical extensions of Vietnamese cultural traditions within a new environment.
Following the French conquest, the Vietnamese were profoundly conscious of having been conquered by an alien power. The Vietnamese people also had a marked degree of national unity and possessed millennial traditions of previous united struggles against foreign domination. There was, therefore, no question of the appearance of nationalism in Vietnam as a result of colonial conquest: it was already in being.
Moreover, it might be argued that the teaching of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương emerged as an attempt to revitalize traditional religious values amid insecure frontier social conditions. The settlement of Vietnamese pioneers in the South took place with a backdrop of continuing clashes along the border with Cambodia. The region was also plagued by domestic disturbances, notably the revolts of Lê Văn Khôi in 1833 and the rebellion of Lâm Sân and Sãi Kê in 1841.
On the other hand, according to the Vietnamese chronicles such as Đại Nam Chánh Biên Liệt Truyện and Đại Nam Thực Lục Chánh Biên, various ethnic groups such as the Vietnamese, Khmers, Chams and Chinese co-existed in the Mekong Delta in a relatively peaceful way. Hence the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement may be described as an attempt to amalgamate and institutionalize diverse religious traditions and ways of life. Otherwise South Vietnam, recently acquired lands with unsettled social and religious institutions, could have plummeted into perpetual turmoil and disorder.
Summing up, from the sociological point of view, the rise of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement might be viewed as a cultural response of the Vietnamese population living amid insecure frontier milieu in an attempt to revitalize the national culture with a backdrop of cultural decline. Hence the mission of Phật Thầy Tây An relied on religious and patriotic values. In the meantime, the adepts viewed Tây An as a new messiah coming into the world with a sacred mission to bring universal salvation.
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