Hòa Hảo Buddhist teachings put strong emphasis on the relationship between religion and the peoples duty to the nation. Huỳnh Phú Sổ reminded his followers that “if the country were lost, the religion would also be purged. The nation must be protected and strengthened so that the religion would be given a place to prosper.” 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.435.
The concept of the Four Gratitudes was an orthodox element of traditional Buddhist teachings. The Four Gratitudes implied obligations to Ones Parents, All living Creatures, Kings, and the Three Jewels. Hòa Hảo Buddhisms version of the Four Gratitudes included debts to Ancestors and Parents, the Fatherland, the Three Treasures, Fellowmen and Humanity. Thus, to the pure religious way of Gratitudes as taught in orthodox Buddhism, Hòa Hảo Buddhism had added emphasis on society and peoples identity still within the fundamentals of Buddhism. Hòa Hảo Buddhisms leader used simple language, easily understood by a predominantly peasant society, to inspire and encourage nationalism as well as to struggle for independence. The Four Gratitudes became the basic knowledge of Hòa Hảo Buddhism followers. This concept called on adepts to act accordingly.
Hòa Hảo Buddhisms version of Buddhist gratitudes, thus, included the purpose of guiding the people toward a national revolution. The Hòa Hảo Buddhist congregation took great pains to ensure its followers could fully understand the reason and the need for such concepts.
The Four Gratitudes concept has emerged as a nexus around which the themes of Hòa Hảo patriotism evolved. “On Gratitude to the Fatherland: Born and raised by our parents and our ancestors but our whole life depends on our fatherland. The land we set foot on, the vegetable we eat... it is our duty to protect the fatherland when invaded, so that our life could be carried on, and our people continue to exist. We must make our land rich, make it strong, save it from foreign invaders. When our national borders are quiet, we can live in peace, when our land is prosperous, we can live in a warm house and wear warm clothing. We should sacrifice ourselves according to our ability. If we have no talent to shoulder important task and no opportunity to help directly our fatherland, then we should avoid any mistake that would create misery. We should not help foreign invaders in harming our fatherland. This is the way to pay gratitude to our fatherland.
On Gratitude to Fellowmen and Humanity: The very moment we were born we had to depend on the people around us, and everyday that we grew up, we had to depend more and more on others. We could live thanks to the rice they planted, we were warm thanks to the cloth they wove, we were protected from sun and rain thanks to the house they built. Happiness: we share with them. Disaster: they suffered with us. They and we are of the same skin color, speaking the same language. Together, we made up what we called our Fatherland. Who were they? They were our fellow countrymen.
Our countrymen and us: we are of the same race, the same heritage, the same historical glory. We help each other in perilous times, we share the same responsibilities for building a bright and glorious future for our country. Our countrymen and us: we are closely related, indivisible, inalienable, and we cannot be alone without our countrymen, nor our countrymen without us. Therefore, it is our duty to assist our countrymen and be grateful to them for what we have received so much in so many years.” Cf. Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, pp.147-149.
Another noteworthy factor in Hòa Hảo Buddhism was the application of a patriotic psychological motivation, which was designed to train masses of followers in the spirit of self-sacrifice and serving other people. A Hòa Hảo follower was expected to remain fearless and practice his faith even when facing a direct threat. An adept of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism while on active military duty, was expected to risk oneself fearless of death and even sacrifice ones life in the name of the eventual happiness of ones fellow countrymen.
To those who queried about possible contradictions in his simultaneous preaching of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist doctrines and politics, Huỳnh Phú Sổ explained that “since in this worldly life there still are those better off living creatures oppressing the less fortunate ones, this is against the true philosophy of Buddhism.” Cf. Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.481. Therefore, according to Huỳnh Phú Sổ, when the French oppressed the Vietnamese, it was obviously a situation contrary to the spirit of Buddhism. Subsequently, as Hòa Hảo Buddhisms followers became engaged in violent struggle against the oppressive colonial regime, they still were seen as acting in accordance with Buddhist doctrine. For the oppressed, using a weapon against the oppressor, thus a logical act, an expression of love towards the Fatherland, and at the same time, an opposition to injustice.
A consensus has emerged among followers of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism that the ideology of Huỳnh Phú Sổ includes three distinct yet indivisible elements, namely Buddhist cogitation, Human perfection and the Way of Liberation. Arguably, this three-point concept included some Confucian, lay-life-oriented elements. On the other hand, all three elements were integral and indispensable parts of the holistic Hòa Hảo set of doctrines.
Buddhist cogitation, or Học Phật, is believed to be an initial step of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist salvation process. Adepts are supposed to grasp the basics of the Buddhist doctrine, notably elements of Buddhist anthropological teachings. This knowledge of Buddhist basics is seen as instrumental in terms of sustaining basic moral values.
Human perfection, or Tu nhân, is understood to be a process of social integration. Following Buddhist cogitation, adherents of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism are supposed to become fully integrated into current social realities. Moreover, they are required to serve the society. Under the concrete circumstances of colonial Indochina, the followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism must have helped to save the Fatherland. This is why many Hòa Hảo adepts eventually became resolute fighters for the cause of the national liberation.
The third step, or the Way of Liberation, is believed to be a final stage of individual self-perfection. Advanced adherents of Hòa Hảo Buddhism are supposed to achieve religious perfection and attain final liberation from the circle of reincarnation.
As can be seen, all three elements were indivisible, according to Hòa Hảo teaching. Buddhist cogitation without Human perfection is seen as inaction and a failure to fulfil ones social duties. On the other hand, too much emphasis on the Human perfection stage would entail the failure to attain final liberation. Huỳnh Phú Sổ stated that as soon as one fulfilled ones obligations towards the fatherland then one could practice Thiền or Chan meditation or practice Pure Land Buddhism by worshipping Buddha Amitabha. Đền xong nợ nước thù nhà, Thiền môn trở gót Phật Đà nam mô - Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.481.
In fact, this concept was in larger measure similar to the pattern of religious practiced by the famous Thiền patriarchs of Lý-Trần period (1010-1400) such as Khuông Việt and Tuệ Trung Thượng Sĩ. During the time of turmoil, these Buddhist monks fulfilled their respective social obligations by helping to sort out the confusion. As soon as enemy armies were defeated and peace returned to the country, the patriarchs once again abandoned lay life and continued their religious perfection.
Obviously, the concept of three-stage path towards holiness implied a measure of dualism because religious perfection was to be achieved in line with the religious considerations while the way of lay life was to be oriented towards certain social goals. These goals involved putting the interests of the fatherland and the nation above all individual interests. Hence, the social priorities of Hòa Hảo Buddhism were reflected in the popular slogan, “Fatherland Above All,” or Tổ Quốc Trên Hết. On the contrary, Huỳnh Phú Sổ and his followers believed that religious perfection, which aimed at egoistic goals such as personal enrichment, was in fact false perfection, or tu dối.
Moreover, it has been argued that the Hòa Hảo Buddhism was a sort of a “national religion,” or Đạo dân tộc. Although it included elements of overseas origin, such as Indias Buddhism and Chinas Confucianism and Daoism, all these doctrines were amalgamated within the frames of the holistic Hòa Hảo Buddhist doctrines to become a coherent national teaching. Since the countrys religious life was arguably dominated by syncretic tendencies, some Western scholars argued that it was impossible to positively determine the concrete religious beliefs of many Vietnamese. Furthermore, in a yet another indication of a strong nationalist bias, Hòa Hảo Buddhism also incorporated the cult of ancestors as well as veneration of Vietnams national heroes.
As has been seen, Hòa Hảo Buddhism consistently highlighted national values and traditions. Many followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism have demonstrated their diehard patriotism and willingness to sacrifice themselves in the name of the nationalist cause.
Not surprisingly, followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism were not affected by the French “divide-and-rule” policy, which over-emphasized regional differences. The colonial authorities not only divided Vietnam into three parts: Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin, the French officials also erected unnatural red-tape barriers between Vietnams different regions. For instance, an inhabitant of northern Vietnam, or Tonkin, had to apply for a special permit in order to visit the south, or Cochinchina. The procedure was similar as if one was going abroad, for example, to Cambodia.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the French authorities endeavored to sustain the policy of division. Notably, the French insisted on the creation of the Southern State, or Nam Kỳ Quốc, and insisted that a referendum was needed to unite all Vietnamese lands. Therefore, the French still implied that the south was not a part of the Vietnamese territory.
Before 1945, many rural cultivators of the Mekong Delta in fact had some very vague ideas relative to Vietnamese geography. For instance, some Southern peasants believed that Vietnam included only the southern provinces. Other rural dwellers of the Mekong Delta summarily described people of northern and central Vietnam as “Huế folks.” Nonetheless, followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism had a strong feeling of national oneness.
Moreover, the preaching of Huỳnh Phú Sổ included a patriotic message of national unity. The founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism specifically stated that “North and South were one land.” Bắc Nam một giải sơn hà - Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.442. Written in April 1945, this line of verses indicated the strong patriotic feelings of Hòa Hảo followers.
As the resistance war against the returning French troops intensified in the south, the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism emphasized the essential unity of the Vietnamese nation. Specifically, Huỳnh Phú Sổ stated that in the north and in the south, descendants of Lạc and Hồng still were of the same origin. Khắp Bắc Nam Lạc Hồng một giống - Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.462. Therefore, he explained the roots of the Vietnamese people by a famous myth attributed to the pre-occupation Hùng kings. This original dynasty attributed their ancestry to a primordial sea-dragon Lạc Long Quân. He swam into the rivers of Vietnam subduing demonic forces as he went. He brought wet-rice cultivation and married the earth goddess Âu Cơ. From this union, a hundred children were born from eggs, half of which returned to the sea, the other half remaining on the land to become Vietnam's first rulers, known as Hùng kings of the Hồng Bàng era.
Prophet Huynh Phu So, French Resistant Period, late 1945
It should be pointed out that Huỳnh Phú Sổs reference to Lạc and Hồng was in fact a message to the Communist leadership of the north. The leader of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community hence indirectly indicated that he was ready for compromise, aiming at joint military action against the French forces. Therefore, the Hòa Hảo leadership was willing to leave behind the violent Communist reprisals against Hòa Hảo adepts in the fall of 1945. Unfortunately, the Việt Minh northern leaders clinched a unilateral deal with the French while the resistance movement in the south was left alone to face the French forces.
In practical terms, Hòa Hảo followers never showed any biased attitudes with regard to refugees from central and northern Vietnam. For instance, when leaders and activists of the nationalist parties, such as Đại Việt, Quốc Dân Đảng, and Duy Dân, sought asylum in the south they were warmly welcomed in the An Giang area. Likewise, when in 1955, northern refugees settled amid Hòa Hảo followers in the Cái Sắn and Đốc Vàng districts of Hậu Giang, they did not face any discrimination. Moreover, there were many high-ranking Hòa Hảo officials who originated from central and northern Vietnam yet there was no division between southerners and northerners in the Hòa Hảo leadership. According to one Quốc Dân Đảng activist, Lê Hưng, when he had to escape from Hanoi, he found asylum and fair treatment at the headquarters of the Hòa Hảo military leader, Lê Quang Vinh.