In 1939, Prophet Huynh Phu So, a native of Hoa Hao village in Tan Chau district, Chau Doc province, founded Hoa Hao Buddhism. Since then, it has grown rapidly into a major religion. Its influence has spread over the Mekong River Delta which is the Western part of South Vietnam notably n the following provinces: Chau Doc, An Giang, Sa dec, Kien Phong, Vinh Long, Phong Dinh, Chuong Thien, Kien Giang, Ba Xuyen, Bac Lieu, An Xuyen, Dinh Tuong, Long An, Kien Hoa, Kien Tuong, and the capital, Saigon-Gia Dinh.
The highly fertile area of the Mekong Delta plays a very important part in the agricultural economy of Vietnam. In fact, most of the rice exported come from here, known as the Rice basket of Vietnam.
The Western Area covers an area of 18,850 square kilometers of farm land which yields 3,000,000 tons of rice per year, in addition to fishery and animal husbandry, and various other crops.
South Vietnam, with a total area of 173,260 square kilometers, has about 30,000 square kilometers being farmed. The Western Area where Hoa Hao Buddhism was founded, occupies 60 percent of the total cultivable land of the country.
The mountains of the Western area have been the source of many unexplainable mysteries. The most famous of these are the Sacred Mountains of That Son on the border of Chau Doc and Cambodia.
Since 1849, a living Buddha reverently known as Master Buddha of Tay An made His First appearance on the Sacred Mountain of That Son and began his salvation mission by creating BUU SON KY HUONG Buddhism. About 90 years later, exactly in 1939, also near That Son mountains, another living Buddha, Prophet Huynh Phu So, continued the tradition of Buu Son Ky Huong and founded Hoa Hao Buddhism.
Therefore, although Hoa Hao Buddhism was founded in 1939, it is a continuation of the Buu Son Ky Huong established in 1849. Thus its existence is over a century old.
Both Master Buddha of Tay An and Prophet Huynh Phu So have been revered throughout South Vietnam as two Buddhas coming into the world to save mankind from sufferings. They have also been respectfully regarded as two genuine patriots. (See the Book: Biography and Teachings of Prophet Huynh Phu So.)
3. HOA HAO FOLLOWERS
The total number of Hoa Hao followers is estimated at over two million people representing more than one third the population of the Western Area, or 10 percent of the population of South Vietnam.
In such provinces as Chau Doc, An Giang, Kien Phong, and Sa dec, Hoa Hao Buddhist accounts for 90 percent of the population. In other provinces, this proportion varies from 10 to 60 percent.
In elections in Vietnam, Hoa Hao Buddhists have won the majority of seats. At the 1965 Provincial Councils elections held in An Giang and Chau Doc, Hoa Hao followers won all the Council seats; in Kien Phong, Vinh Long and Phong Dinh, they won 80 percent of the seats. This proportion was the same in the 11-09-1966 elections to the Constituent Assembly of the Republic of Vietnam, and the electoral list that won the greatest number of votes in the entire nation was that of Hoa Hao adepts of An Giang province.
4. CHARACTERISTICS OF HOA HAO BUDDHISM
THE FIRST characteristic of Hoa Hao Buddhism lies in the fact that from Buu Son Ky Huong to Hoa Hao, it has always been a Buddhism for the peasants.
During his lifetime, Master Buddha of Tay An used to preach Buddhism and at the same time encouraged agriculture under the slogan PRACTICING BUDDHISM WHILE FARMING YOUR LAND.
Prophet Huynh in continuing the tradition of Buu Son Ky Huong also encouraged agriculture. This is the reason why He chose the most fertile part of Vietnam to begin his evangelical mission, and why the majority of Hoa Hao faithful are farmers.
In the human and social fields, it is known that the farmers, by their pure and simple nature, are predisposed to study religion and self-improvement.
THE SECOND characteristic is that both Hoa Hao Buddhism and Buu Son Ky Huong advocate the practice of Buddhism at home. The reason was that both Master Buddha of Tay An and Prophet Huynh Phu So shared the same view that Buddhism should not only be preached in pagodas and temples, but also be propagated largely into every family.
For this reason, Hoa Hao followers are not required to shave their head and take refuge in pagodas. Instead they are allowed to live with their families, to lead normal lives tilling their land while trying to improve themselves by observing Shakyamuni’s Teachings.
"STUDY BUDDHISM TO IMPROVE YOURSELVES" is the guideline of Hoa Hao Doctrine. in order to attain Nirvana and free ourselves from the cycle of reincarnation, we must follow to the letter the genuine teachings of Buddha, keep a clear mind and improve ourselves to fulfill our duty in our present life.
A Hoa Hao Buddhist practicing Buddhism for self-improvement must first of all do his best to comply with the Four Debts Of Gratitude:
1. Gratitude to our Ancestors and Parents.
2. Gratitude to our Country.
3. Gratitude to the Three Treasures: Buddha, Buddhic Law (Buddhist teachings), Shangha (monks).
4. Gratitude to our fellow countrymen and to mankind. (See Biography and Teachings of Prophet Huynh Phu So.)
To show our thankfulness to our Country, we must be ready to sacrifice ourselves for our country when required.
THE THIRD characteristic is the modernization of the methods of self improvement by discarding all futile rites and superstitious practices. The purpose is to promote the essence of Buddhism in accordance with Buddha’s genuine teachings.
Here are some modifications advocated by Hoa Hao Buddhism:
No pagodas or statues should be built besides the existing ones. Instead, let us reserve our money to come to the assistance of the poor and the needy, a really beneficial act unlike building a large pagoda or casting tall statues.
Let us not require the services of sorcerers, magicians, astrologers, and fortune tellers. Let us not offer food as offerings to Buddha because Buddha would never accept such bribery.
Let us not use flags, banners or streamers. Let us not burn votive paper because this is a futile waste...
Let us not cry or conduct expensive funerals; instead let us pray quietly for the deliverance of the deceased’s soul.
Let us not compel our children to marry the one they do not like. Let us not demand large financial gifts from the bridegroom or organize big wedding parties, because this will result in impoverishing ourselves.
In short, the reform advocated by Hoa Hao Buddhism is aimed at bringing us back to the original teachings of Buddha who taught: OUR BELIEF MUST COME FROM OUR HEART. It is only a matter of heart rather than a matter of rite and ceremony.
According to the reform, worshipping in Hoa Hao Buddhist home should be very simple.
No Buddha statue, bell or gong may not be displayed on the altar. Only a piece of brown cloth symbolizing human harmony and the color of Buddhism should be used. This is Buddha’s Altar.
Under the Buddha’s Altar is the Ancestral altar for the cult of Ancestors.
In front of the house a Heaven’ s altar is set up to enable communication with the Universe ( sky and earth), the four sky Directions and the ten Buddhic Directions.
No food of any kind including fruits may be used to worship Buddhas. Only fresh water, flowers and incense sticks are needed. Fresh water represents cleanliness , and flowers purity. Incense sticks are to freshen the air.
Hoa Hao followers must worship Buddha at least twice a day, morning and evening. On the 1st and 15th each lunar month and on Buddha’s Holy days, they have to go to pagodas or Hoa Hao Meeting Halls or Preaching Halls to pray and listen to sermons.
Prayers are to be in a low voice while no bells or gongs may be used. When the time or worship comes, if we are away from home, let us turn Westwards to pray to Buddha. We should also encourage others to pray silently in their hearts wherever they may be.
At each hamlet, there is at least a Preaching Hall equipped with loud speakers. Every day, at specific hours, a Preacher would go there to say prayers or to give sermons to the audiences.
Hoa Hao Buddhist Preaching Halls are small Pagodas used for the unique purpose of preaching. As they do not have residential quarters, they are much smaller than pagodas or temples, because as said before, Hoa Hao Buddhism puts more emphasis on the practice of Buddhism at home.
Hoa Hao Preaching Halls with their special architectural design are found today at many places throughout South Vietnam. The 1965 Census mentioned a number of 390 Hoa Hao Preaching Halls.
6. HOA HAO BUDDHIST FLAGS AND INSIGNIAS.
Hoa Hao flags are rectangular and brown, bearing no characters or pictures.
Hoa Hao insignias are round and brown, and bearing the picture of a white Lotus and four initials P.G.H.H.(Phat Giao Hoa Hao, literally meaning Hoa Hao Buddhism)
7. HOA HAO HOLY LAND
Hoa Hao Holy Land has been established at Hoa Hao village, the native land of Prophet Huynh Phu So and also the bit place of Hoa Hao Buddhism. There is no sumptuous building nor massive monument here, because Hoa Hao followers are taught to lead a peaceful and religious life in a simple way.
8. SYSTEM OF ORGANIZATION
The Hoa Hao Buddhist Community is administered by a system of Administrative Committees set up at each hamlet, village, district and province, at the top of which is a Central Council of Administrators. A Hamlet Administrative Committee is composed of several subcommittees.
Thanks to this close knit system Hoa Hao leaders can keep close contacts with the masses, all activities are effectively managed and all instructions given have been carried out by all levels, from the central council to the grass-roots subcommittees.
The principle of Centralized Democracy is the guiding principle of Hoa Hao organization and management.
Hoa Hao faithful elect their representatives to the Administrative Committees at the hamlet level. The latter then elect the committee at the village level and this process continues up to the elections of the district and provincial committees.
The Central Council of Administrators is elected by the Administrative Committees from the hamlets, villages, districts and provinces.
As the Administrators have been chosen through elections according to their virtues and in compliance with the principle of democratic centralization, they will naturally have enough prestige to carry out their task.
Each Board of Administrators consists of 10 to 15 members.
The Central Council of Administrators has 23 members.
Beside the Central Council of Administrators there exists a Supervisory Council in charge of applying the Commandments of Hoa Hao Buddhism.
The Supreme Head of the Church is Prophet Huynh Phu So, the Founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism.
Hoa Hao Buddhism was created in 1939 when Vietnam was a French colony. French authorities applied every possible means to oppress and prevent Prophet Huynh Phu So from preaching His doctrine.
After the Japanese troops’ invasion of Indochina, Japanese officials expressed their desire to help the Vietnamese nationalist and religious groups reclaim their Independence from the French. In 1942, they helped liberate Prophet Huynh from Bac Lieu where He was being placed under administrative surveillance by the French, and took Him back to Saigon.
Prophet Huynh was grateful for His liberation, but this did not prevent Him from incessantly asking the Japanese government to grant back Independence to Vietnam.
Since 1945, Hoa Hao Buddhist community organized a guerrilla resistance against the French, and later against the Communist Viet Minh who began to implement a totalitarian communist regime in Vietnam.
Following the signing of the Geneva Agreement in 1954, the Hoa Hao Community underwent another period of oppression by a dictatorial regime headed by Ngo Dinh Diem.
Only since the overthrow of this regime on 11/11/1963 did Hoa Hao Buddhism have the opportunity to re-organize its ranks and elect its Boards of Administrators.
The North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam in 1975 ushered in another dark period of persecution. Together with other religions, Hoa Hao followers again have to face systematic communist tactics of religious annihilation including requisition of Church facilities and arrest of Hoa Hao leaders.
All Hoa Hao Church’s efforts are concentrated on the achievement of two main objectives: first, to propagate Hoa Hao doctrine in and outside of the country; second, to carry out social work and come to the help of the poor.
The propagation of Hoa Hao faith is considered as a sacred mission to foster and promote virtues in society in order to reform mankind. The carrying out of social work serves the purpose of raising the standards of living of the people in line with the 20th. century progress.
Over two millions of Hoa Hao followers practicing Buddhism at home not only do their best to improve themselves physically and spiritually, but they also contribute greatly to the development of the agricultural economy of their country. Moreover, when required, the Hoa Hao followers are always ready to sacrifice their lives to defend the Fatherland.
The 18th of the 5th month of Lunar Year is the anniversary of Hoa Hao Buddhism. On this day, an important ceremony is held at Hoa Hao Holy Land and throughout the Mekong Delta area. The main traits of Hoa Hao Buddhism are observed on this celebration.
10. IN THE WORLD BUDDHIST COMMUNITY
Hoa Hao Buddhism is today one of the four most important religions in Vietnam. With a mass of over two millions faithful closely united in their faith, Hoa Hao Buddhism become an influential force in Vietnam. This force is so well organized that it can not only survive but still develop through severe trials and hardships.
Hoa Hao Buddhist Church has been a founding member of the Vietnamese Council of Religions, a body set up with a view of promoting harmony between major religions in Vietnam such as: Catholicism, Buddhism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Caodaism,... At the same time, the Hoa Hao Community is taking part in activities at the national level befitting a state religion. Outside the country, Hoa Hao Buddhist Teachings have received warm welcome and praise from many intellectual circles in the East as well as in the West.
Where do the successes of Hoa Hao Buddhism come from? The answer is simple: Hoa Hao Buddhism is not an entirely new religion in Vietnam. It is in fact a Buddhism based on the fundamental teachings of Sakyamuni combined with two other greatest and oldest oriental philosophies, Confucianism and Taoism , whose deeply imprinted influence in the heart of the Vietnamese people for centuries has formed a typically Vietnamese system of religious thinking.
With over two millions faithful and the extreme richness of its doctrine, Hoa Hao Buddhism has been a very influential Vietnamese Church which, along with other Buddhist Churches in the world, is working for the propagation of Buddhist thought and is guiding mankind toward a new society, new spiritual values, and the deliverance of mankind.