Phật Thầy Tây An was known as Đoàn Minh Huyên in his lay life. Some sources, notably chronicles of Tòng Sơn village, Sách Tòng Sơn. put his name as Lê Hướng Thiện. However, a closer look at the matter suggests this hypothesis could hardly be substantiated by reliable historical sources. First of all, the very same chronicles said that Lê Hướng Thiện successfully healed a French judges wife. In the meantime, Phật Thầy Tây An passed away in 1856, a decade before of the French conquest of the three provinces in the Western Mekong Delta, or Nam Bộ, which took place in 1867. On the other hand, Phật Thầys gravestone at Tay Ans Temple near Sam Mountain in Châu Đốc province reads that Tây Ans lay name was Đoàn Minh Huyên. This evidence can hardly be interpreted in any different way.
Đoàn Minh Huyên was born on the 15th day of tenth month of the lunar calendar in the year of Đinh Mão, or 1807. His birthplace was Tòng Sơn village in the An Tịnh community, Vĩnh An district, Định Viễn county, Vĩnh Thành province of the Gia Định area. Subsequently Tòng Sơn village became known as Mỹ An Hưng community of Lấp Vò district, Sa Đéc province, near the road from Cái Tàu Thượng to Bắc Mỹ Thuận.
There are no documentary sources available concerning Tây Ans youth. Moreover, no records relative to his years of studies remain. The only known fact of his life is that, in contrast with a vast majority of his contemporaries, Tây An opted to leave his native village. His true motives, as well as questions such as where and when he did go or what he was doing during his pilgrimages throughout provinces of the Mekong Delta remain a historical enigma.
In 1849, Tây An unexpectedly returned to Tòng Sơn following years of self-imposed exile. His fellow villagers then learned from Đoàn Minh Huyên that he had traveled throughout the Delta provinces, including Gò Công, Bến Tre, Bạc Liêu, Cà Mau, Rạch Giá and An Giang. He also revealed that he had spent some time in the area of Seven Mountains, or Thất Sơn, which was widely believed to be an area of profound mystical significance.
In the immediate aftermath of his return to Tòng Sơn, Tây An found a temporary refuge at the Community Temple. Đình làng Subsequently, he led a simple and reclusive life, which was hardly comprehensible for most of his fellow villagers.
Also in 1849, a cholera epidemic swept across the area causing heavy loss of life. The Tòng Sơn village chief and the local sorcerers Hương chức, thầy pháp opted to sacrifice pigs and chickens in order to drive away evil spirits and the “poisonous wind.” Tống gió độc Nonetheless, the ritual was met with an unexpected opposition. Tây An bluntly dismissed the sacrifices as a “superstition.” Not surprisingly, the village chief viewed the criticism as a personal affront and expelled Tây An from the temple. Yet despite the conflict, Tây An launched a healing campaign in an apparent attempt to deal with the epidemic. However, he refrained from the use of sophisticated cures and amulets, which were readily available at the time due to healing efforts of local healers and sorcerers.
Tây An exclusively relied on cold water to deal with the deceases. Simultaneously, he preached Buddhist doctrines and moral values. What happened next were subsequently viewed by Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương followers as miraculous successes, which were instruments in halting the epidemic. This is how Đoàn Minh Huyên gained masses of adherents almost overnight. As new adherents arrived in increasingly large numbers, everyone was give a sort of signed notice. It was a piece of yellow paper with the characters Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương printed in red color. Eventually, his followers commenced referring to him as Phật Thầy, or Buddha Master. Therefore it might be argued that Tây An was not a self-proclaimed prophet but he acquired a religious authority due to sincere veneration by grateful adepts. Subsequently he became known as Phật Thầy Tây An because he moved to Tây An, or Western Peace, Pagoda near Sam Mountain in Châu Đốc province.
It should be pointed out that the expeditious emergence of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương as a mass movement came as an arguably unprecedented development in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. Moreover, the birth of new teaching contrasted sharply with earlier patterns of spreading Buddhist doctrines. In the traditional Mahayana Buddhism of the Far East, new schools emerged in monasteries and teachings were transmitted between individual monks who resided in reclusive pagodas. On the contrary, since its inception Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương developed as a lay-life-oriented mass movement.
The sudden success of Phật Thầy and his teaching might be explained by his perceived mastery of healing practices. On the other hand, the simplistic character of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương rituals also played a role. The Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương sect did not require lavish pagodas and huge statues as well as other visible signs of an institutionalized church. Contrariwise, the adherents were supposed to venerate a symbolic object on the Altar, known as the Brown Ensign or Trần Điều. The ritual itself was also extremely simple as offerings included cold water, joss-sticks and flowers. Adherents were not forced to spend a lot of money because simple altars were not expensive and hence affordable for virtually everyone. Accordingly, adepts were not required to visit pagodas and other institutionalized religious centers because Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương doctrines allowed the worship of the Buddha in private houses.
Due to its ritual frugality, the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương doctrine and worship practices well suited the needs and worldviews of uneducated peasant masses. Not surprisingly, the new teaching rapidly gained mass adherence in Hậu Giang area. On the other hand, the advent of Phật Thầy came as a blow to local sorcerers and healers because Tây An did not charge money in exchange for his healing. It was surely a bad precedent for money-seeking healers. Facing an imminent prospect of losing their earnings, some healers decided to act and reportedly complained to the authorities. They accused Tây An of being a “heresiarch” Gian đạo sĩ. and also a potential accomplice of Khmer rebels, notably Sãi Kế and Lâm Sâm, leaders of recent insurgencies. The military administration of An Giang province responded promptly by assigning two officers, Đội Nhứt Bông and Cai Nhứt Trung. They detained Phật Thầy in Kiến Thạnh village and brought him to An Giang provincial center.
However, Phật Thầy managed to persuade Đoàn Uẩn, the province chief, that he was not a “heresiarch” and had nothing to do with any rebels. Consequently, Đoàn Uẩn sent a favorable report to his superiors. Notably, the province chief suggested to grant Tây An an official recognition along with a title of “Đại Đức Chơn Tu,” or “True Holy Man of Great Morality.” Simultaneously, Đoàn Uẩn insisted that Phật Thầy must have dwelled in the newly built Tây An Pagoda near Sam Mountain in Châu Đốc. Although the official recognition might be viewed as a sign of esteem, the authorities wanted to monitor and control Phật Thầys activities by forcing him to reside inside Tây An Pagoda. Nonetheless, Phật Thầy was still able to disseminate his teaching with the assistance of trusted disciples. Moreover, some Tây Ans supporters also oversaw creation of new agricultural settlements in remote areas of the Mekong Delta.
Phật Thầy passed away in 1856. His gravestone said he was “the Monk of the 38th generation of the Lâm Tế School.” As a matter of fact, it was not the case because Phật Thầy never belonged to the Linzi School of Chan Buddhism, known in Vietnam as Lâm Tế. The fact that Tây An was described as a follower of the Lâm Tế School arguably indicated that the authorities were reluctant to recognize Phật Thầy as a the Founder of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement. Instead, the officials were keen to bring Phật Thầy and his teaching into the framework of the institutionalized Buddhist Church. This is why Phật Thầy was officially recognized as a member of the Lâm Tế School of Buddhism.