It has been widely understood that the works of Huỳnh Phú Sổs and his ideology were not put together with any scientific method or consistency. Therefore, it was argued that in terms of its style and content, the ideology of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was yet to represent any holistic worldview. Critics claimed that the Hòa Hảo doctrine thus suffered from a lack of internal coherence and for this reason could not be called a developed belief-system.
On the contrary, followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism have argued that Huỳnh Phú Sổ deliberately oversimplified his message in order to make it suitable to a wider audience of peasant cultivators. As the founder of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism put it, “in an effort to enlighten laymen simple words were to be used to ensure better understanding.” Quyết dạy đời nên nói lời thường, Cho sanh chúng đời này dễ biết - cf. Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Gíao Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.90.
Moreover, Huỳnh Phú Sổ was arguably preoccupied with immediate contemporary social and political realities. Hence, he refrained from developing a consistent belief-system and did not force his disciples to study doctrines meticulously. Also, Huỳnh Phú Sổ identified the pains and aspirations of uneducated peasants with whom he was most concerned and offered practical solutions. Like a medical doctor, Huỳnh Phú Sổ identified a disease, its causes and offered methods to treat the ailment. In short, Hòa Hảo Buddhism provided a rationale for concrete social action in the temporal world.
It should be pointed out that the immediate social reality, which Huỳnh Phú Sổ faced through the first years of his evangelizing, was oppressive colonial domination. The peasant cultivators, who constituted a vast majority of Vietnams population, were subject to harsh and inhuman treatment. The ordinary Vietnamese saw no way to escape. Moreover, many of Vietnams radical politicians who opposed the colonial regime, tended to ignore the peasants mentality and aspirations. Consequently, most socio-political movements in South Vietnam were mainly tied to urban areas.
On the contrary, Huỳnh Phú Sổ acknowledged that peasants constituted a vast majority of Vietnams population, yet they were ignored by the upper classes of the society. Farmers and tenants were not only subject to mistreatment, they also lacked an appropriate leadership. With a backdrop of these social realities above, Huỳnh Phú Sổ addressed peasants with “simple words,” urging concrete social action and refraining from metaphysical discourses.
Although the doctrine of Hòa Hảo Buddhism somewhat lacked systemic coherence, it was firmly based in the traditional system of the Three Religions, or Tam Giáo. Of course, traditional Buddhism enjoyed a privileged position in an emerging religious amalgam of Hòa Hảo Buddhism. However, Huỳnh Phú Sổ defined Buddhism predominantly in practical and moral terms. Specifically, he rendered to his adherents some detailed, practical, easy-to-understand explanations concerning the meaning of life, causes of suffering and ways of escape. Huỳnh Phú Sổ did not preach abstract dogmas but gave his adepts some practical recommendations how to regulate and improve social life. His works discussed a variety of issues, including problems of civilization and culture, customary habits, national institutions, social and family values, as well as religious beliefs and rituals.
In short, although the doctrine of Hòa Hảo Buddhism could hardly be described as systemized, in line with the Western standards, it developed on the basis of the Three Religions system. It might be argued that Huỳnh Phú Sổ intentionally refrained from metaphysical discussions. In fact, the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism acted as a healer who first identified spiritual as well as social evils and then suggested concrete remedies. Huỳnh Phú Sổ did not outline any firm dogmas and did not force his followers to memorize a sophisticated system of doctrines. Instead, the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism offered his adepts some practical solutions with respect to immediate spiritual and social problems.
It should be pointed out that Huỳnh Phú Sổ put a special emphasis on the rural audience. Therefore, his message sounded completely different as compared to the propaganda efforts of contemporary nationalist politicians, who mainly targeted an urban audience.
An emblematic episode took place in 1945 when the Founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was reportedly approached by Tạ Thu Thâu, leader of the Trotskyists, in Saigon. Thâu raised a question as to why the vast majority of the Hòa Hảo followers were uneducated peasants. Huỳnh Phú Sổ retorted that rural dwellers also were the Vietnamese people and someone must have taken care of this underprivileged majority.
As has been seen, the founder of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism was ardent to deliver his religious message to the widest audience. Presumably, he bore in mind one basic Buddhist concept of compassion, which implied that all living creatures deserved and must have been granted Buddhist salvation. Huỳnh Phú Sổ wanted to gain a mass following in order to tackle urgent social problems, namely taking part in the struggle for national liberation.
A question whether Hòa Hảo Buddhism was a mass movement, a political organization or a religion has been often raised by social scientists. Supporters of Hòa Hảo Buddhism believe that their political involvement has been little more than a temporary phenomenon while their religious mission was instrumental in ensuring the coherence and survival of the movement. It should be pointed out that Hòa Hảo Buddhism emerged in Vietnam as a mass movement, its message combined millenarian, salvationist, pietistic and nationalist elements.
Huỳnh Phú Sổ repeatedly prioritized the ideological synthesis and peaceful co-existence of different traditions. His followers argue that the new religion became known as Hòa Hảo Buddhism not only because Huỳnh Phú Sổ was born in Hòa Hảo village, but also because these words contained a special message of peace and harmony. Hòa Hảo means “peace and harmony.”
It might be argued that the ideology of Huỳnh Phú Sổ was not limited within the frames of mainstream Buddhism, but also included elements of Confucianism and Daoism. Though Buddhist ideas remained the gist of Hòa Hảo ideology, it also incorporated a strong sense of Vietnamese national identity. This is why Hòa Hảo Buddhism underwent successful adaptation to the conditions of Vietnams rural setting, and eventually became a major spiritual force among rural cultivators in the South.