Phật Thầy Tây An, the Founder of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương Buddhist movement, was born in 1807 or the 8th year of Emperor Gia Longs rule. He first revealed the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương doctrine in 1849 and passed away in 1856.
The Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement did not have institutionalized structures similar to any established church, notably in the religious communities of the West. Sequential leaders of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement were not nominated, appointed and ordained in line with either patterns of an institutionalized church, or the tradition of Patriarch-to-Patriarch succession of Chinese Buddhism. Contrariwise, the successive leaders of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement emerged spontaneously, and the faithful venerated them as masters of the teaching. Other leaders thoroughly practiced the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương doctrine and led the mass of faithful, therefore acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of the adherents. Thus the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement has had two types of succession, including spiritual leaders or masters of the doctrine and temporal leaders or disciples of Phật Thầy Tây An.
The masters of the doctrine, also described as Prophets, acquired their spiritual authority due to the spontaneous enlightenment they had presumably achieved. Their influence among the masses of adepts also increased due to their healing practices. The prophets also wrote sutras in verses in order to propagate the doctrine. All the prophets operated inside the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movements areas of influence. Moreover, all of them had certain connections with the sacred area of Seven Mountains, or Thất Sơn. Hence they were revered as living Buddhas, avatars descending into this world with a mission to save mankind.
The masters of the doctrine came into sight in the following order, according to the adherents of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement and Hòa Hảo Buddhism:
1. Phật Thầy Tây An, also known as Đoàn Minh Huyên in his lay life, the Founder of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement (1849-1856).
2. Phật Trùm, or Buddha Master, who preached the doctrine from 1868 to 1875.
3. Bổn Sư, or True Eremite, also known as Ngô Lợi in his lay life, who preached the doctrine from 1879 to 1890.
4. Đức Huỳnh Giáo Chủ, also known as Huỳnh Phú Sổ in his lay life, the Founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism since 1939.
Yet another prominent master of the doctrine was known as Nguyễn Đa, who operated concurrently with Ngô Lợi. However, Nguyễn Đa was not as famous as the religious leaders mentioned above. The temporal leaders believed their mission was to disseminate the teaching of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương. Acting and in the name of Phật Thầy Tây An, they guided the faithful in a number of endeavors, including religious practices and the establishment of new settlements. Subsequently, the temporal leaders organized masses of adepts to resist advancing French forces during the period of colonial conquest. On the other hand, they did not compose doctrinal texts of their own and only propagated the writings of Phật Thầy Tây An. Although they did not devote themselves to full-time religious practices or monastic life, these temporary leaders helped to embody the principles of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương teaching in the everyday life of rural communities. The masses of adherents obeyed them yet these temporal leaders were not revered to the extent of veneration exclusively reserved for the recognized spiritual leaders.
According to the historical acumen of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương and Hòa Hảo Buddhism, the history of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement may be divided into three distinct epochs:
· The first epoch, or the time of the movements emergence, commenced in 1849 or the year of Kỷ Dậu, when Phật Thầy Tây An founded the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement. It ended in 1875 or the year of Ất Hợi, when Phật Trùm passed away.
· The second epoch, or the time of consolidation of the movement, commenced in 1870, when Ngô Lợi started practicing the doctrine. It ended in 1890, when Ngô Lợi passed away. It should be noted that this tentative time frame has been a matter of debate because of five-year overlap of 1870-1875 involving the first epoch. Therefore it might be argued that the second epoch in fact started in 1879, when Ngô Lợi formally assumed the title of Bổn Sư, or True Eremite, and became a de facto spiritual leader of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement.
· The third epoch has been viewed as the time of the movements further development in line with changing historical and socio-economic environment. The initial stage of this period coincided with the spread of “Sám Giảng Người Đời” prophecies, compiled in 1901-1902 by Sư Vãi Bán Khoai or Potato-Selling Monk. These prophecies repeatedly referred to Phật Thầy Tây An and his legacy. Followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism believed that Potato-Selling Monks message served to prepare the mass of faithful for the upcoming advent of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. However, it should be pointed out that the third epoch actually commenced in 1939, when Hòa Hảo Buddhism emerged.