Although the initial stage of Hịa Hảo Buddhist evangelizing largely relied on acts of healing, Huỳnh Ph Sổ soon became a relentless preacher of the new religion. He was eager to share his teaching with all visitors, regardless of the wealth and social status of those people who came to Hịa Hảo village.
In order to deliver his message, Huỳnh Ph Sổ wrote some 150,000 words of prayers, sutras and gathas. Some of his works were in a prosaic form yet a vast majority of these texts were written in verses. Arguably, the founder of Hịa Hảo Buddhism was knowledgeable of and found inspiration in Vietnams classical literature. It should be pointed out that some traditional Vietnamese poetic forms were used to create the canonical texts of Hịa Hảo Buddhism. Thơ thất ngôn bát cú, trường thien thất ngôn, ngũ ngôn, song thất lục bát, lục bát. Eyewitnesses have said that Huỳnh Phú Sổ rarely revised his writings and did few corrections in his drafts. His creative process was reported to be absolutely free and spontaneous. The founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was rarely seen hesitating over his drafts in the course of writing.
One remarkable feature of the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ was that in his writings he managed to combine profound ideas and simple language. His works and general message were easily understood and remembered by ordinary people. Some farmers learned by heart many pages derived from the canonical texts of Hòa Hảo Buddhism. Moreover, they were able to recite almost faultlessly long quotes in verses of thousands of words.
The ensuing dissemination of the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ was carried out by his adherents. The author himself was rarely directly involved. It should be pointed out that during the late 1930s, southern Vietnams publishing sector was subject to technological and legal restrictions. In practical terms, it was virtually impossible to obtain the permission of French authorities to print unorthodox religious literature, such as the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. This is why many adherents had no alternative but to learn by heart many early works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. Therefore, the canonical texts of Hòa Hảo Buddhism became subject to verbal transmission among masses of followers.
Subsequently, the verses and prose of Huỳnh Phú Sổ were written down and then copied manually. Literate adepts worked as volunteers and considered this work of copying the canonical texts as a gratuitous religious duty. Some volunteers produced from one hundred to five hundred copies of Huỳnh Phú Sổs works, including shorter poems and longer texts. In a yet another way of spreading the message of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, collective recitals of the texts were held. The mass recitals were attended mainly by younger followers who were fast to learn the texts by heart.
As can be seen, these simple methods allowed quite rapid circulation of the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. The fact that most of the texts were written in verses did contribute to the success of Hòa Hảo Buddhism since verses were easier to learn and reproduce verbally.
Only in 1941, when Huỳnh Phú Sổ won the allegiance of Dr. Trần Văn Tâm, it finally became possible to print the sacred texts of Hòa Hảo Buddhism. Dr.Tâms wife, as a French citizen, applied for a permission to publish the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. She obtained an official approval from the French censorship office. This is how the first edition of the early works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ was done.
Accordingly, a mass circulation of printed Hòa Hảo canonical texts ensued. By 1965 some 800,000 copies of the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ were printed and by 1975 the number of printed copies well exceeded one million.
The following works have been widely seen and accepted by Hòa Hảo adherents as the basic canonical texts of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism:
1. The first book, Prophecies and Sermons to Induce Laymen Practice Religion, Sấm Giảng Khuyến Người Đời Tu Nhiệm was written in Hòa Hảo village in 1939. It included a total of 912 lines of traditional lục bát verses. In this book, Huỳnh Phú Sổ described various social strata and his impressions obtained during trips to different parts of southern Vietnam or the “Six Provinces.” Lục Châu Prophecies and Sermons to Induce Laymen Practice Religion includes an in-depth analysis of the contemporary social realities by the religious preacher. It might be argued that the author largely relied on Buddhist values and viewpoints yet he also bore in mind some Confucian concepts and doctrines.
2. The second book, The Gathas of the Insane, Kệ Dân Của Người Khùng was written in Hòa Hảo village in 1939 and included 846 lines of lục bát verses. It contains strong criticism of various worship practices seen as superstitions as well as censures aimed at contemporary patterns of Buddhist ritual practices. According to the author, Buddhism in Vietnam experienced a downturn and separated from the true values of the original Buddhas teachings. It should be pointed out that Huỳnh Phú Sổ deliberately adopted the Người Khùng, or Insane, nickname. Arguably, this stratagem of camouflage was supposed to deceive the French colonial authorities and avoid police scrutiny. Therefore Huỳnh Phú Sổ followed certain patterns of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương tradition, as has been seen, in the case of Sư Vãi Bán Khoai, or Potato-Selling Monk, who disguised as a small vendor to escape the unwanted attention of the colonial authorities.
3. The third book, Prophecies and Sermons, Sấm Giảng was written in Hòa Hảo village in 1939 and included 612 lines of lục bát verses. In this book, Huỳnh Phú Sổ expressed a strong criticism with regard to what he saw as a perceived cultural degradation. The founder of Hòa Hảo argued that Vietnams perceived cultural and moral decline was in fact a by-product of the imported Western civilization.
4. The fourth book, The Gathas of the Enlightenment, Giác Mê Tâm Kệ was written in Hòa Hảo village in 1939. The book included the total of 846 lines of thất ngôn trường thiên verses. In The Gathas of the Enlightenment, Huỳnh Phú Sổ outlined and discussed basic Buddhist doctrines in a simple language.
5. The fifth book, Inciting Good Deeds, Khuyến Thiện was written in Bạc Liêu in 1942 and included 756 lines of combined lục bát and thất ngôn verses. It included an abridged hagiography of Buddha Shakyamuni. In this book Huỳnh Phú Sổ also summarized the basic elements of the Pure Land Buddhist School, or Tịnh Độ, teaching.
6. The sixth book, The Ways of Practicing Religion and Rules of Everyday Life of an Adherent, Sấm Giảng Khuyến Người Đời Tu Nhiệm was written in a prosaic form. It might be argued that the books style somewhat reflected the feelings of urgency in the current situation as it was compiled amid struggles and turmoil in Saigon in 1945. In contains practical recommendations for adepts everyday life as well as rules of the community activities. The Ways of Practicing Religion and Rules of Everyday Life of an Adherent highlighted the concept of the Four Debts, or Tứ Ân, which arguably was seen as a sort of moral rationale of the community life.
Apart from the above main titles, between 1939 and 1947 Huỳnh Phú Sổ wrote more than 200 poems and a number of prosaic works.
Generally speaking, approximately four fifths of Huỳnh Phú Sổs works were written in verses. In the meantime, the remaining titles were compiled in prose. His longest work of evangelizing poetry included nearly 1,000 lines while some poems consisted of just four lines of verses.
During the initial stage of propagation, or between 1939 and 1942, the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ highlighted his evangelizing and preaching priorities as the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism aimed at gaining mass adherence. The subsequent works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ, which were written during the 1943-1947 period, emphasized social aspirations, notably the political agenda of the struggle to liberate Vietnam from foreign domination.
Moreover, even some early works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ included nationalistic and anti-French overtones. As has been seen, Huỳnh Phú Sổ occasionally presented himself as “Insane,” or Khùng Điên, in order to avoid scrutiny and retaliation by the French colonial authorities. It should be also pointed out that his works included both Prophecies, or Sấm, and Sermons, or Giảng. This two-fold, prophetic and preaching religious message obviously appealed to the masses of peasant cultivators.
Critics claimed that Huỳnh Phú Sổs Gathas or litanies in verse were just a mixture of prophecies and lamentations, all put together without any logical and sensible consistency. On the other hand, supporters of Hòa Hảo Buddhism argued that all works of Huỳnh Phú Sổ were consistently united by holistic ideology and methods. A perceived over-simplicity of the canonical texts of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was arguably aimed at delivering the Hòa Hảo message to ordinary peasants without being sufficiently comprehensible for outsiders.
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