The September 2020 Religion Bulletin focuses on the Cao Dai religion, with information on the seizures of independent Cao Dai temples in [The Government’s Reach]; the assault on the Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners eight years ago in [On This Day]; and we introduce the Cao Dai sects that are exempt from having to join one unified organization in [Did You Know?]. [Religion 360°] brings you information regarding the arrests and punishment endured by Falun Gong practitioners, along with other news.If you have any suggestions or would like to contribute reports to the Religion Bulletin, please email us at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Religion Bulletin, September 2020:
- The Government’s Reach
- Religion 360*
- A Summary of 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion
- Cam My District, Dong Nai Province, prosecutes Six Falun Gong proselytizers
- The city of Hai Phong suppresses Falun Gong proselytizing activities
- Eleven years of struggle to eliminate the Ha Mon religion in Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province
- Pastor A Dao released early from prison
- On This Day
- Did You Know?
The Government’s Reach
The fate of independent Cao Dai temples
After a period of peaceful practice, Cao Dai practitioners are now facing harassment from state-backed Cao Dai groups who are attempting to take over their temples.
The case of Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple
Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple is located in Cluster 5 of Phu Lam Township, in the city of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen Province. This temple was built in 1964 and restored in 1999.
The authorities assert that this temple is under the management of the Tay Ninh Holy See of the Cao Dai Great Temple*, the largest Cao Dai organization recognized by the state (in 1997) and also known as “Sect 1997”.
Phu Lam Temple overseer Cao Van Minh states that he and temple practitioners simply want to follow their own religious orthodoxy and that they do not accept the leadership of Sect 1997.
However, the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple stated that the Phu Lam Temple falls under its management and sent people to take over the temple with the backing of local authorities.
How did the forceful seizure of Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple transpire?
June 18, 2020:
Event 1: Overseer Cao Van Minh was invited to the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee one morning for questioning; the committee firmly requested him to be there at 8:30 AM sharp.
Event 2: Local cadres and a group of the followers of the Tay Ninh Holy See, on orders from the Tay Ninh Holy See of the Cao Dai Great Temple, arrived to take over Phu Lam Temple.
Event 3: Overseer Nguyen Ha of Nhon Ly Cao Dai Temple, another independent temple in Binh Dinh Province, arrived to support fellow practitioners at Phu Lam Temple.
Event 4: A group of Phu Lam practitioners opposed the (Holy See’s) take-over order and closed the gates. The two sides engaged in heated arguments over the order.
July 28, 2020:
Son Thanh Dong Commune police (Phu Yen Province) invited Mr. Truong Minh Le, a Phu Lam Temple follower, in for questioning on July 30, 2020 regarding the public disturbance on June 18, 2020.
July 30, 2020
Son Thanh Dong Commune police (Phu Yen Province) continued to invite Phu Lam Temple practitioners in for questioning on August 4, 2020 regarding the public disturbance on June 18, 2020, including Mr. Huynh Tan Luc, Ms. Doan Thi Mieu, and Ms. Tran Thi Hong.
It seems that no practitioners of Sect 1997 were called in for questioning regarding the disturbance.
August 20, 2020
Overseer Nguyen Ha and fellow practitioner Nguyen Van Danh were invited in for questioning on August 21, 2020 by Quy Nhon city and Binh Dinh provincial police regarding their “religious activities.”
August 21, 2020:
Danh relayed that he was asked by police if he had accompanied Ha to Phu Lam Temple. Danh confirmed that he did not, and the interrogation moved to whether he had accepted gifts from a supply delegation – a charity event carried out by Hua Phi, a Cao Dai follower, whom authorities view as anti-state and who is also joint chairman of the Interfaith Council of Vietnam.
Ha said that police warned him not to come to Phu Lam Temple again, during Sect 1997’s next take-over attempt. Police also questioned him regarding his relationship with Hua Phi and the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Interfaith Council of Vietnam.
September 1, 2020:
Cao Van Minh receives an invitation letter from the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee to come in for questioning on September 3, 2020.
September 3, 2020:
Cao Van Minh arrives at the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee for questioning with Tuy Hoa City representatives (from the Fatherland Front, Women’s Association, and Office of the Interior) and Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee representatives.
The authorities state that Minh should accept the Holy See’s take-over order. Minh asserts that he will not organize any welcoming or acceptance of Sect 1997’s take-over order. Minh also asserts that his followers did not disturb public order on June 18, 2020, when Sect 1997 came to take over their temple.
Below is an excerpt from Nguyen Ha’s interrogation on August 21, 2020, as relayed by him personally:
Binh Dinh Province police: Did you enter Phu Lam Temple in Phu Yen Province recently?
Nguyen Ha: Yes.
Police: To do what?
Nguyen Ha: I came to emotionally support fellow practitioners, protect their beliefs and to close the gates to prevent a number of heretics from entering.
Police: Are you aware that the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Great Temple ordered Mr. Pham Xuan Thanh to Phu Lam Temple to administer it?
Nguyen Ha: Yes, that’s Thanh’s business. It has nothing to do with us.
Police: Thanh is recognized by the state, unlike what you all are doing.
Nguyen Ha: Whether the state recognizes us or not is the state’s business; I and fellow practitioners simply want to preserve the original teachings that God has laid out. The current Cao Dai religious organization, with state intervention, has destroyed the original teachings.
Police: If in the future, the Great Temple puts forth someone else to administer Phu Lam Temple, would you still come to support temple practitioners?
Nguyen Ha: Yes, I would.
Police: Who is Mr. [Hua] Phi to you?
Nguyen Ha: Mr. Phi and I are fellow practitioners who seek to protect the original teachings.
Police: Have you and Phi established any organization?
Nguyen Ha: We have not established any organization, only the Khoi Nhan Sanh Cao Dai Religious Committee to visit fellow practitioners around the country who have maintained the faith and to share among ourselves the difficulties of our spiritual practice. We also remind them to preserve the original teachings of Duc Chi Ton, and to not be swayed.
Police: Were you aware of Abott [Thich] Khong Tanh’s life history when you allowed him to come to Nhon Ly Temple to distribute presents for people?
Nguyen Ha: Venerable Thich Khong Tanh and I are fellow religious dignitaries; if he arrives at my temple, then naturally, I have to receive him.
Police: Are you aware of whether his life history is good or bad?
Nguyen Ha: Whether it’s good or bad is your business with him. As for me, I know he is a good person, which is why I have connected across religions with him. He always comes to Nhon Ly Temple with open arms, handing out presents for our older individuals both in and outside the temple. It is an act of great generosity, nothing unseemly for you all to oppose.
Police: Mr. Khong Tanh opposes the state…
Nguyen Ha: As soon as anyone disobeys the state, even if that person or their acts are good, it all becomes bad; you even try to accuse them of being anti-state so you can frame them. But if a person listens to the state, even if they are actually bad, they remain a “good person”.
Look at Pham Xuan Thanh [who was sent to take-over Phu Lam Temple] for example. Do you check to see what kind of practitioner he is before you appoint or promote him? This is how religious values are lost. And then you force us to accept your decisions; what is the meaning of this?
Police: Do you participate in the Interfaith Council of Vietnam?
Nguyen Ha: No.
Police: You do not participate now, but will you join in the future?
Nguyen Ha: Whether I participate or not is my business.
Police: We’re letting you know, if you enter Phu Lam Temple again and police handle you roughly, we won’t be able to help you. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Nguyen Ha: This whole time you’ve only helped those carrying out your orders; when have I ever needed your help?
The drive to eliminate all independent Cao Dai temples
Phu Lam Temple is one of a number of Cao Dai temples standing separate from Sect 1997. These independent temples assert that the state has interfered with religious practices and that they thus desire to operate independently.
When the religion was first established in 1926, Cao Dai practitioners all belonged to the Tay Ninh Holy See, but later in the 1930s and 1940s, the Cao Dai reigion splintered into different sects.
After 1975, the Cao Dai religion was forbidden to operate until the end of the 1980s. From 1995, the government began to recognize Cao Dai temples as religious organizations. Today, there are approximately 10 Cao Dai organizations that are legally recognized as temples. Besides these, there are approximately 20 other Cao Dai organizations that legally operate but are not considered as temples.
In recent years, independent temples such as Phu Lam Temple have been pressured by the authorities and other churches to “reunite” and return to the administration of the churches from which they splintered. The purpose of this coercion is to control religious activities, what the state refers to as “reorganizing and regulating” religious activities. Currently, there are no precise numbers on how many temples have refused to “reunite”. In 2007, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs stated that the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai Temple had 40 temples that had not reunited.
According to Mr. Cam Sinh, a Cao Dai practitioner of the Overseas Tay Ninh Holy See, beginning in 2013, the Vietnamese government enacted Resolution 92/2012/NĐ-CP regarding the Implementation of the 2004 Law on Faith, which led to many temple seizures and consolidations with state-recognized Cao Dai temples.
In 2012, Ms. Nguyen Bach Phung, a Cao Dai practitioner well-known for actively fighting for the independence of temples, stated that the government was interfering in the internal affairs of the Cao Dai religion and causing conflicts.
“This matter [of disputes has] occurred in many places, including Long Binh Temple in Go Cong, An Ninh Tay Temple in Long An Province, Phu My Temple in Binh Dinh Province, and An Nhon Temple. The state caused difficulties for practitioners when they went from house to house to pressure our people to join the state-approved Chuong Quan Council, Tuy Phuoc Temple in Binh Dinh, Phu Suong Temple in Phu Yen…”. Ms. Bach Phung stated that in a number of places, conflicts broke out between members of Cao Dai temples and independent temples.
Mr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, director of the organization Boat People SOS, stated that since 1997, the Vietnamese government has helped Sect 1997 “occupy” approximately 300 Cao Dai temples.
The take-over of these independent temples regularly met with opposition from the affected practitioners, opposition which police then used to frame practitioners for disturbing public order.
Summarizing 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion
On September 18, 2020, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs organized a conference to summarize 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion.
Attending the conference were cadres from the relevant central committees and cadres from the 35 provinces that have Cao Dai practitioners, totaling approximately 200 cadres altogether.
The Committee said that the state’s achievements in managing the Cao Dai religion had allowed Cao Dai establishments to renovate and build structures, practitioners to actively participate in charitable and purely religious activities, and prompted the majority of dignitaries, their activities, and Cao Dao practitioners to abide by the law.
The Committee also acknowledged that some Cao Dai dignitaries were moving to separate from state-recognized temples and religious bodies, that some temples were facing conflicts, and that a number of religious activities violated the Law on Faith and Religion.
The former head of the Committee, and currently deputy minister of the Ministry of the Interior, Mr. Vu Chien Thang, stated that in the future, the government needed to instruct state-recognized temples on the appointment of overseas Cao Dai dignitaries, increase research on Cao Dai management methods, and coordinate with other branches, such as propaganda, public relations, the Fatherland Front, the army, and the police to address the “complicated issues related to Cao Dai activities”.
Cam My District, Dong Nai Province, prosecutes 6 Falun Gong proselytizers
The Dong Nai Province People’s Committee news website reported that Cam My District recently prosecuted 6 Falun Gong practitioners for illegally spreading the faith.
This news website also stated that these individuals would completely cover their faces when entering people’s homes in the district to promote Falun Gong. These individuals had been previously warned to cease their proselytizing activities and not drag others into the faith.
Cam My District authorities stated that the Falun Gong movement was not yet recognized as a “faith or religious organization” and thus proselytizing activities were illegal.
The city of Hai Phong suppresses Falun Gong proselytizing activities
According to the People’s Public Security Newspaper, Hai Phong city authorities were closely monitoring groups of Falun Gong practitioners. The article stated that Hai Phong City Police Department had confirmed more than 10 groups, with approximately 160 individuals “practicing Falun Gong”.
The article said that from the beginning of 2020 until now, the Hai Phong City Police Department had prosecuted seven cases related to “mobilizing and illegally spreading the Falun Gong movement.”
Readers can find more details regarding the arrest and prosecution of Falun Gong proselytizers in our data regarding freedom of religion: https://airtable.com/shrYIDdMrohUbQztF
Eleven years of “struggle” to eliminate the Ha Mon religion in Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province
In September 2020, the Mang Yang District People’s Committee of Gia Lai Province summarized the results of 11 years of struggle to eliminate the “Ha Mon heresy” that began in 2009.
According to the summary, the district prosecuted 10 individuals who followed the Ha Mon religion for disrupting national unity. Furthermore, authorities arrested 71 individuals, “campaigned to voluntarily turn in” 55 individuals who absconded to the jungle, and eliminated 15 groups with more than 242 followers of the Ha Mon religion.
According to the Vietnamese authorities, the Ha Mon religion operates in all of the Central Highland provinces and that Mang Yang District was merely one of many areas in which the religion operated. The authorities assert that the Ha Mon religion is heretical and is being used by members of FULRO to oppose the Vietnamese state.
The government’s “war” against the Thuong ethnic minority’s religious freedom in the Central Highlands is currently directed at three religious groups: Dega Protestantism, the Ha Mon religion, and the Protestant Church of Christ.
Pastor A Dao released from prison early
On September 18, 2020, Vietnamese authorities released early from prison Pastor A Dao, who had served four years of his five-year sentence for organizing illegal border crossings.
State journalists did not report on Pastor A Dao’s early release.
Pastor A Dao. Photo: Unknown.
Mr. A Dao, 39, is a well-known pastor among the ethnic Thuong refugees in Thailand. He was arrested on August 18, 2016 after returning home from a religious conference in East Timor. After he was arrested, he was held incommunicado for five days. Vietnamese police accused him of organizing illegal border crossings to Thailand for ethnic Thuong. Police stated that he coordinated with Mr. A Ga, a Protestant pastor, and at the time, a refugee in Thailand. Mr. A Dao rejected the government’s accusations.
On August 28, 2017, the Gia Lai Province People’s Court sentenced Pastor A Dao to five years in prison for organizing illegal border crossings. In January 2018, Mr. A Ga was arrested by Thai police and was extradited back to Vietnam, but the United States intervened and gave him and his family political asylum in the United States.
On This Day
Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners assaulted during a seizure in September 2012
For years, practitioners of independent Cao Dai temples have lived in fear, under pressure from both the government and other Cao Dai churches to “consolidate”.
On September 16, 2012, Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners in Binh Dinh Province publicly denounced the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church (Sect 1997), accusing it of hiring thugs to attack them in their own temple. Mr. Nguyen Huu Khanh reported to RFA that a total of six practitioners of the Phu My Temple were assaulted that day.
“Because practitioners here follow the Chon Truyen Orthodoxy, and not the Chuong Quan Council – that is, they don’t follow “state-run” Cao Dai organization –, they [Sect 1997] came to seize our personal property and the temple of the Bao Thu Chon Truyen. They’re using the Chuong Quan Council, which is backed by the government, to break in to our temple”, Mr. Khanh stated as he explained why and how Phu My Temple practitioners were attacked.
Local police were on the scene during the scuffle but did not intervene and did not initiate an investigation or press charges.
Mr. Nguyen Ha, an independent Cao Dai practitioner and staunch defender of independent churches, stated that previously Phu My Temple had been under the administration of Sect 1997’s Chuong Quan Council, but after seeing that it was controlled by the government, the temple seceded, suffering the consequences.
Regarding the scuffle, the person who was in charge of Cao Dai affairs in the Government Committee for Religious Affairs stated to RFA: “They must resolve their own religion’s internal matters. The state merely guarantees order and security for them to carry out their religious protocols”.
Did You Know?
The Cao Dai religion in Vietnam has a number of different religious organizations, many of which are recognized by the state
Among religions in Vietnam, the Cao Dai religion appears exempt from having to organize a “unified” structure, as other religions must do.
Currently, the Cao Dai religion has approximately 10 religious organizations recognized by the state.
Meanwhile, within Hoa Hao Buddhism there exists many religious organizations but the state only recognizes one. Buddhism also has two sects; the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam was established in 1964 and operates to this day, but the government only recognizes the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam established in 1981.
Not only are there 10 religious organizations recognized by the government but there are approximately 20 other Cao Dai organizations that operate legally and independent: Thuong De Cao Dai, Cao Thuong Temple, Nam Thanh Temple, Pho Thong Giao Ly Dai Dao Institution, Lien Hoa Cuu Cung Thien Dao Path of Study, Tan Minh Quang Temple, Huynh Quang Sac Temple, Thien Truoc Temple, and the Bau Sen Temple.
These Cao Dai temples and organizations historically branched out because of disagreements over religious practices. However, despite the splintering, the state and its temples are pressuring (independent) temples to return to their original church.
Below is information regarding the Cao Dai religious organizations and temples recognized by the Vietnamese government:
Tay Ninh Cao Dai Holy See
Year established: 1926
Current headquarters: Tay Ninh Holy See, Pham Ho Phap Highway, Long Hoa Ward, Hoa Thanh Township, Tay Ninh Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1997
Number of practitioners: 1,510,000 (2011)
This is the earliest established, as well as the largest, Cao Dai organization today. The Cao Dai organizations that have emerged afterwards are all the result of internal disputes and splintering from the original Tay Ninh Holy See in the 1930s and 1940s.
After 1975, the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Holy See was seen as “heretical” and due to previous anti-communist activities, was forced to shut down. It was not until 1997 that the authorities officially recognized this organization. To this day, independent Cao Dai practitioners refer to it as “state-run Cao Dai”, to indicate that the entire organization is completely controlled by the state.
Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai
Year established: 1934
Current headquarters: Ben Tre Holy See, 100c Truong Dinh, 6th Ward, Ben Tre Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1997
Number of practitioners: 971,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 258 (2011)
The Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai split from the Tay Ninh Holy See in 1934, and then split further into the Ban Chinh Ben Tre Cao Dai and Ban Chinh Do Thanh Cao Dai. In 1994, these two blocs reunited to form the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai. The Vietnamese state recognized this organization in 1997.
Tien Thien Cao Dai
Year established: after 1930
Current headquarters: Chau Minh Holy See, T884 Road, Tien Thuy, Chau Thanh, Ben Tre Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1995
Number of practitioners: 79,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 132 (2011)
Tien Thien Cao Dai was established in My Tho after two dignitaries, Mr. Le Van Lich and Mr. Nguyen Huu Chinh, were ejected from Tay Ninh Cao Dai. After a period of changes, the Tien Thien Cao Dai split into two sects in 1963, Tien Thien Minh Duc and Tien Thien Chau Minh. In 1995, these two sects were “made whole again”, taking the name Tien Thien Cao Dai and receiving recognition from the Vietnamese government.
Chon Ly Cao Dai
Year established: 1931
Current headquarters: Chon Ly Cao Dai Holy See, 193 Nguyen Trung Truc, My An Hamlet, My Phong Commune, My Tho City, Tien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2000
Number of practitioners: 7,000 (2011), 14,000 (2017)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 33 (2011)
This is the earliest sect to separate from Tay Ninh Cao Dai. Due to a disagreement, Mr. Nguyen Van Ca, who at the time was equivalent to an archbishop in the Catholic church, returned to My Tho to practice his own religion. In 1932, he established the Minh Ly Dao Cao Dai, which he later changed to the Minh Chon Ly Cao Dai or Chon Ly Cao Dai.
Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai
Year established: 1934
Current headquarters: Ngoc Sac Holy See, Xom So Hamlet, Ho Thi Ky Commune, Thoi Binh District, Ca Mau Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 30,500 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 49 (2011)
Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai was established by Mr. Tran Dao Quang after he split from Chon Ly Cao Dai over differences in religious practices. Quang, along with others, practiced independently in Bac Lieu, then founded Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai in 1934.
Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai
Year established: 1936
Current headquarters: Ngoc Kinh Holy See, #675, Hoa An Hamlet, Mong Tho Commune, Chau Thanh District, Kien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1998
Number of practitioners: 4,500 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 13 (2011)
When they saw that religious practices had deviated from the original forms, a number of Chon Ly Cao Dai practitioners broke off and established a separate sect called Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai. The phrase “Bach Y,” which means white clothes in Vietnamese, stems from the fact that dignitaries of this sect all wear white.
Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai
Year established: 1960 (predecessor was Viet Nam Cao Dai)
Current headquarters: Hoang Dao Heavenly Temple, Cho Hamlet, Area 4, Binh Duc Commune, Chau Thanh District, Tien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2011
Number of practitioners: 7,000
Number of temples directly administered: 9 (2011)
Viet Nam Cao Dai originally splintered from Chon Ly Cao Dai. At the beginning, Mr. Nguyen Van Nam and others split from Chon Ly Cao Dai and practiced separately in a place called Ben Tranh, after which they returned to Binh Duc Commune in My Tho Province to found Viet Nam Cao Dai – the Central Church in 1960. The majority of practitioners at the headquarters in Ben Tranh moved to the headquarters in Binh Duc, hence the two names Ben Tranh Viet Nam Cao Dai and Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai. The Vietnamese government recognized the Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai in 2011. Viet Nam Cao Dai has produced its own holy texts.
Truyen Giao Cao Dai
Year established: 1939
Current headquarters: Trung Hung Temple, 63 Hai Phong, Thach Thang Ward, Hai Chau District, Da Nang City
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 47,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 124 (2011)
Truyen Giao Cao Dai mainly operates in central Vietnam. This sect was preceded by the Trung Ky Temple, established after efforts by the Tay Ninh Church to bring the religion to Vietnam’s central region. In 1956, after inaugurating Trung Hung Temple, the sect changed its name to Truyen Giao Cao Dai.
Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai
Year established: 1937
Current headquarters: Central Holy See, An Thai Hamlet, Tam Quan Township, Hoai Nhon District, Binh Dinh Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2000
Number of practitioners: 9,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 33 (2011)
Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai took shape after a number of dissatisfied practitioners from Tay Ninh Cao Dai returned to Saigon to practice at Cau Kho Cao Dai Temple. In 1937, the Cau Kho Cao Dai sect, Viet Quang Center Church, was established. It is more commonly known as Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai.
Cao Dai Chieu Minh Long Chau
Year established: 1956
Current headquarters: Long Chau Holy See, Thanh Loi Hamlet, Tan Phu Thanh Commune, Chau Thanh A District, Hau Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 5,500 (2005)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 19
Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai was established by followers of Chieu Minh Cao Dai, a sect founded by Mr. Ngo Van Chieu and based on practices to escape the mortal realm. The organizational structure of Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai is simpler and looser than other sects.
Religion Bulletin, July 2021: Government Discusses Religious Resources In The Realm Of Social Welfare
In other news: monks volunteer to look after the ill, prisoners of conscience at risk of COVID-19 infection.
We know you and your loved ones may be experiencing difficult days as the pandemic rages on. We hope you all remain safe and healthy.
As all of Vietnam faces down the fourth wave of COVID-19, religious activities, as with other activities involving gatherings of people, carry the risk of spreading disease. This fact has caused the public to become more or less averse to religion.
We should not forget that religious organizations have been a sizeable resource in helping the community through difficult times.
Over the past few weeks, Ho Chi Minh City has faced a crisis in social welfare, and religious organizations have stepped up to support the people. However, compared to other countries in the region and with the south before 1975, religious, philanthropic activities nowadays encounter many obstacles.
This July, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs organized a seminar on religious organizations’ resources and their relationship to social welfare. When will these religious organizations be able to conduct charity independently and without hindrance?
The Government’s Reach
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs discusses religious resources in the realm of social welfare
On July 13, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs convened a seminar with some researchers, religious dignitaries, and representatives of central ministries and branches to take stock of the resources religious organizations possess for social welfare and philanthropic activities. 
The seminar was organized as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) faced a severe social welfare crisis due to the government’s tightening of social distancing guidelines to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs stated that the seminar aimed to evaluate the ability of religious organizations to function as independent entities in charity and social welfare activities.
Nguyen Anh Chuc, deputy head of the committee, stated that these religious organizations’ activities were still unorganized and spontaneous.
“Because of this, there needs to be a clear and transparent legal corridor in social welfare work, as well as increased coordination between the Fatherland Front and religious organizations,” Chuc declared.
After 1975, social welfare and philanthropic activities conducted by religions were disrupted. Many facilities, such as schools, hospitals, relief organizations, and orphanages, were confiscated by the government and banned from operating.
Today, religious organizations are allowed to operate in preschool education (kindergarten) and vocational training, but only to a minimal degree. They have not yet been allowed to resume general education activities.
For nearly five decades, the government has asserted that religious organizations must focus strictly on religion and help the state implement policies establishing national unity. This view has led to policies that precisely control the participation of religious organizations in other areas.
Article 55 of the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion permits religious organizations “to participate in educational, training, medical, social welfare, philanthropic, and humanitarian activities in accordance with relevant laws.”
However, the 2016 law and other codes and legal documents do not regulate specific charitable and social welfare activities, nor the level or conditions of participation for religious organizations. The legal recognition of religious organizations is still minimal, and they are not allowed to set up their organizations for charitable activities.
Furthermore, the state strictly controls the resources of religious organizations in charity and social welfare activities. For example, religions seeking to fundraise domestically or accept foreign aid must undergo very complicated procedures.
In reality, charity and humanitarian activities are the core values of many religions. Currently, religious organizations still maintain a few charitable activities but only on a small scale. Current policy does not allow them to operate on a larger or more professional scale, as before 1975.
Central Propaganda Department issues instructions for propaganda regarding ethnic groups and religions
The articles you read and the television programs you watch about religion may be part of a state propaganda campaign.
On July 19, 2021, the Central Propaganda Department issued guidelines for state agencies and press organizations on propaganda about ethnicity and religion. 
According to the guidelines, propaganda about ethnic groups and religions will focus on cadres, party members, and residents in areas deemed “complicated and sensitive” (remote, upland, and border areas with many religious practitioners). The substance of the propaganda will include the state’s policies and achievements in matters of religion and ethnicity and its rebuttals to the accusations of independent press and human rights organizations regarding religious and ethnic issues.
The propaganda will be issued comprehensively overall mass media, in newspapers, on social media, in the streets, and even during religious sessions.
The guidelines also state the Ministry of Information and Communication has the task of controlling mass media on ethnic and religious issues and must strictly punish those who provide incendiary or false information.
The Ministry of Education and Training is responsible for inserting propaganda on ethnicity and religion into the educational curriculum at every level of study.
The guidelines assert that it is necessary to fight against and criticize activities that “propagate false religions, incite practitioners to oppose the regime, […] practice superstitions, […] and distort the truth on democracy, ethnic equality, and freedom of belief and religion in Vietnam.”
The Vietnamese government maintains complete control over ethnic and religious affairs. Upland areas with large ethnic minority populations are subject to more stringent rules than urban areas. Even though the government recognizes the religious activities of ethnic minorities, they must be reported and are closely monitored.
Risk of COVID-19 infection for prisoners of conscience in prisons and temporary detention centers
According to The 88 Project, Vietnam currently holds in its custody 179 prisoners of conscience. Another 37 are in temporary detention, waiting to be tried for “crimes” related to their political activities or freedom of speech. Among those serving their sentences or in temporary detention, 59 cases have to do with freedom of religion. 
As COVID-19 rapidly spreads across many locations, prisons and temporary detention centers also face a high risk of infections. The most recent example involves an outbreak among detainees at the Chi Hoa Detention Center in HCMC; on July 7, 2021, the HCMC Department of Health reported 81 cases of COVID-19 there, including 45 cadres and 36 inmates. 
Before that, on the evening of July 6, the press had reported a prison riot at the same detention center.  According to information provided by the government, the riot was caused by an inmate who created a scene while the detention center was conducting COVID-19 screening. The press reported that riot police were mobilized to the detention center to handle the disturbance and that people in the surrounding area heard gunshots coming from the detention center.
On July 7, some inmates were transferred to the T30 Detention Center in Cu Chi Suburban District to implement social distancing.  However, the authorities have not released any further information on the COVID-19 situation at the Chi Hoa Detention Center.
The government has stated that prisons and detention centers across the country were strictly implementing COVID-19 prevention measures.  Nonetheless, the disease has spread throughout Hanoi, HCMC, and the Mekong Delta, bringing with it concerns of infection in areas of dense incarceration, particularly given that more than 500 suspected cases of infection were discovered at the Bo La Drug Rehabilitation Facility in Binh Duong Province at the end of July 2021. 
The government has not made any announcements on vaccinating criminals or prisoners. Currently, all temporary detention centers and prisons have stopped inmate visitations.
More than 1,000 practitioners, monks, and nuns volunteer to look after COVID-19 patients in Ho Chi Minh City
As of July 20, 2021, more than 1,000 practitioners, monks, and nuns of Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism have volunteered to serve at field hospitals in HCMC.  This number continues to grow.
On July 22, about 300 more volunteers of different religions set out to COVID-19 treatment hospitals in the city of Thu Duc to support patient care.
Before this, the Vietnamese Fatherland Front Committee in HCMC had called on “all classes of people, religious organizations, and compatriots” to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,  marking a rare occasion where the government officially sought the support of religious organizations.
The COVID-19 pandemic still rages in HCMC. The current number of infected persons has exceeded 100,000 and continues to increase. According to the Ministry of Health, as of August 6, 2021, more than 2,000 people have died.
You may not have heard of the activities of new religions, but that does not mean these religions don’t exist. New religions are developing all over Vietnam. Before judging their activities, we should first understand how they suffer daily harassment from the state and the press.
7 Falun Gong practitioners punished for gathering during lockdown
On July 7, 2021, Tuoi Tre News reported that seven Falun Gong practitioners were administratively punished by the authorities of Tan Hung Commune, Cai Be Suburban District, Tien Giang Province, for gathering while the province was implementing social distancing. 
According to the article, on June 24, 2021, six people gathered at a household in the commune to practice Falun Gong together. Each person was fined 7.5 million dong ($328) for violating local pandemic regulations.
The sanction of this Falun Gong group was not an isolated incident. In 2020, when pandemic regulations were not applicable, the government continuously banned this group from operating and sanctioned them for various other reasons. 
Local authorities and the press heavily condemn the Falun Gong movement, and they have seen it as a “false religion” that gravely affects people’s health. However, the religion has developed across many provinces and cities, and many practitioners claim that they benefit from its practice.
Since the beginning of 2021, the government’s obstruction of Falun Gong activities has not appeared in media as much as in 2020. Reasons may include the government’s increased propaganda activities hindering the religion’s practice and the complications surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of May 2021, the press heavily covered the case of infections at the Phuc Hung Missionary Church in HCMC. On May 29, 2021, Go Vap District police issued a decision to move ahead with prosecution for the crime of “spreading a dangerous and infectious disease to others.”  As of the end of July 2021, police have not released more information about this case.
Chairman of Mang Yang Suburban District, Gia Lai Province: no followers of the Ha Mon religion remain
If you’ve been following previous religious news, you’re probably familiar with the fact that the government considers the Ha Mon religion in the Central Highlands a “false” one. The religion is currently facing extinction in Gia Lai Province.
In July 2021, a Mang Yang Suburban District representative told Dan Viet newspaper that the district no longer had anyone who followed the Ha Mon religion. According to Le Trong, chairman of the suburban district’s People’s Committee, “those who were lured and deceived into following the false Ha Mon religion were educated and mobilized to return to their families” and received local support “to reintegrate into the community.” 
Trong also revealed how the government propagandizes and mobilizes, including “evaluating impoverished and borderline-impoverished households.”
According to Trong, villagers will “evaluate impoverished and borderline-impoverished households (those who previously followed the false religion in particular, and the entire population in general)” according to the principles of democracy and fairness. From there, the locality will come up with “suitable approaches,” such as bank loans and participation in agricultural expansion programs and models, etc.
The statement indicates that the Mang Yang Suburban District government has used the household poverty line to force families to give up the Ha Mon religion. This act is contrary to official regulations.  The household poverty line is based on per capita income and deprivation in accessing essential social services.
Over the years, many Central Highland Montagnards who belong to unrecognized religious groups have attested that the local authorities punish them economically by not approving impoverished household designations and bank loan applications, stripping them of social welfare benefits, or refusing to provide administrative services such as ID card provisions and marriage registrations.
The Mang Yang Suburban District People’s Committee chairman has also stated that the government has encouraged the children of families who follow the Ha Mon religion to continue going to school.
Several witnesses have told Luat Khoa that local authorities in the Central Highlands increase tuition fees for families who belong to unrecognized religious groups as a form of punishment.
In July 2021, the People’s Army Newspaper also reported that “the Ha Mon religion no longer existed on Gia Lai land.”  The Ha Mon religion uses Catholic teachings as life precepts; practitioners do not go to church but practice rituals at home. In 2011, the religion had 1,357 followers in Mang Yang Suburban District.
New religions in Dak Nong
The Dak Nong News reported that the province saw numerous activities carried out by new religions and that provincial authorities were tackling these religious groups. 
Religious activities considered illegal in the province include “building structures for the purpose of unauthorized religious activities; improperly using the name of the ‘Vietnamese Protestant Church’ for associations and groups, and causing difficulties in the state’s management of religion.”
The newspaper cited two cases in the Dak Nia Commune, Gia Nghia Suburban District, accused of conducting for-profit religious activities but did not provide any evidence. In both cases, it was alleged that temples were built without government permission.
Furthermore, the provincial Religious Affairs Committee reported that land was being illegally donated and transferred to build religious facilities, that religious activities were being self-organized without the participation of a state-recognized sangha, and that group religious activities were unregistered with local authorities.
People following new religions are becoming increasingly common in Vietnam. However, it is challenging for these religions to meet the strict government requirements for recognition according to the Law on Faith and Religion.
Tuyen Quang police: alerting the people not to follow “religion seeking to firmly establish the rule of law at its heart”
After Hai Duong Province, Tuyen Quang provincial police also alerted people to the activities of the “religion seeking to establish the rule of law at its heart firmly.” 
Police reported that the religion attracted participants through live videos on social media, including content that criticized political, social, and religious situations.
Like Hai Duong provincial police, Tuyen Quang provincial police on social media urged people not to listen to the shared information and invitations to join the religion. Police claim the religion’s statements violate state laws, propagate superstitions, and take advantage of beliefs for personal gain.
“Subjects of the ‘religion seeking to establish the rule of law at its heart’ firmly have taken advantage of the right to freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech, as well as taken advantage of belief and religion to operate illegally,” the Capital Security Newspaper said, citing the announcement by Tuyen Quang provincial police.
Information on this religion has been removed from popular social media platforms in Vietnam, such as Youtube and Facebook.
The Tumultuous And Tragic History Of Hoa Hao Buddhism
If you ever visit An Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta Vietnam, you might be surprised by how a number of families practice Buddhism there. They follow Buddhism, but they do not pray to statues or depictions, but rather, a wooden board painted crimson, placed squarely in the center of the altar.
If you look closely, you’ll see individuals dressed in brown, their hair placed in high buns, worshipping Buddha in the simplest of ways at home – without the knocking of wooden bells or the reading of scriptures, but rather, only with the placement of flowers, incense, and water.
These people are practitioners of Hoa Hao Buddhism, a religion built on a Buddhist foundation but with completely different practices from any other school of thought.
From humble beginnings, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism brought to the inhabitants of the Mekong River Delta a simplified Buddhist philosophy, suitable for their impoverished circumstances. Not long after its establishment, the religion would quickly catch fire in the hearts of countless citizens.
Hoa Hao Buddhist clergy don’t cut their hair as in other schools of Buddhism. They also don’t have splendid and majestic temples; rather, they advise their adherents to practice at home and to worship simply, diligently perform good works, simplify weddings and funerals, and live with responsibility towards the nation.
Huynh Phu So – the Muhammad of the Mekong Delta
As we know, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Nguyen Dynasty ceded the entirety of southern Vietnam to French rule. In the Mekong Delta, nearly all residents were farmers, but they had to lease land from landowners at exorbitant prices, leading to arduous existences.  The people suffered in poverty under France’s oppressive politics that favored the landlord class.
Numerous anti-French peasant movements broke out around this canal-crisscrossed land, and the French authorities established a system to closely monitor civil activities.
Religions are often born out of thrilling or mysterious events that are able to win over large amounts of people.
In 1940, in the area of Chau Doc, the French began taking notice of an unusual young man who announced the establishment of Hoa Hao Buddhism and who became the head of a religion at only 19 years of age. Followers came from all over and even the most notable figures became disciples. 
That young man was Huynh Phu So, who has been described as having a slender figure, a luminous face, and an articulate manner of speech.
In a 1942 speech written by Huynh Phu So himself, and preserved by apostles to this day, the young man stated that he himself had spent many lives saving people and that this life was a continuation of the Buddha’s sending him down to “save sentient beings.”
The religion’s Central Management Board records Huynh Phu So as having established the religion after travelling with his family to the region of the Seven Mountains (Thất Sơn), today a part of An Giang Province and seen by many as a sacred area that also gave birth to the Buu Son Ky Huong [Strange Fragrance of the Treasured Mountain] religion.
According to Sấm Giảng (Huynh Phu So’s teaching books), Master Huynh Phu So expressed in a verse comprised of hundreds of rhyming sentences that he was the successor of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect.
Thus, the principle “study Buddha, cultivate man” and the foundational “Four Great Gratitudes” (Gratefulness to one’s parents and ancestors, gratefulness to one’s nation, gratefulness to the three treasures [the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha], and gratefulness to one’s compatriots and mankind) of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect became core values of Hoa Hao Buddhism.
In terms of communication, Huynh Phu So would convey everything simply and easily, and as a result, his religion was easily absorbed by the masses. The article “Principles of Religious Practice”, written by Huynh Phu So in 1945, summarizes in just 10 pages the religion’s philosophy and guides people on how to live a good life from his point of view.
The religion’s philosophy attracted poverty-stricken farmers by offering them the possibility of a good life and showing them how to practice Buddhism, even in conditions of deprivation.
“Meditate without action rather than with offerings of food,
Buddha would never want sentient beings to bribe.
Because our crops were flooded this year,
we should quickly dispense with superstition.
Try to maintain the three cardinal guides,
Completed virtue is what is precious.”
(Excerpted from “A crazy person’s disregard for the people”)
Moreover, Hoa Hao Buddhism’s philosophy was able to reconcile individual and family lives with responsibility for the nation, based on the foundation of the “Four Gratitudes,” providing people with the rationale for becoming practitioners.
“The monk decided to close the pagoda doors,
Drew his golden sword, mounted his horse, and charged into danger.
After he settled scores with the enemy nation,
The Zen pagoda returned to Buddhist homage!”
(The Words of Huynh Phu So)
The concept of the “Four Gratitudes” brought Hoa Hao Buddhism to life, making it both dear to the people and compatible with the conditions of deprivation at the time.
Beyond his ability for eloquence, Huynh Phu So was also celebrated for his rare ability to treat the illnesses of his followers, who saw him as both a prophet and a fighter for national independence.
Fighting for national independence
In 1942, the Japanese intervened to bring Huynh Phu So to Saigon for refuge after a period of strict house arrest by the French that began in 1940. In Saigon, he quietly linked up with followers to advocate for Vietnam’s independence, which was consistent with both his religion’s principles and the zeitgeist at that time.
In 1944, Hoa Hao Buddhism established a paramilitary force called Bao An [Peace Protection] Group to maintain the security of Hoa Hao Buddhist villages in the Mekong Delta.
With Huynh Phu So’s profile and his large number of parishioners, Hoa Hao Buddhism had a notable voice in the independence movement in the south. With the aim of creating a political voice in society, Huynh Phu So and a number of intellectuals established in 1946 the Vietnamese Social Democracy Party – abbreviated as S.D. Party.
In the beginning, besides linking up with different religious and political organizations, Hoa Hao Buddhists also connected with the Viet Minh to advocate for Vietnamese independence. However, it was not long before a serious conflict erupted between the two groups.
This conflict would eventually lead to Huynh Phu So’s mysterious disappearance. On April 16, 1947, Huynh Phu So went missing during a meeting between the Viet Minh and Hoa Hao Buddhists in the area of Dong Thap Muoi (Plain of Reeds). To this day, his disappearance remains a mystery.
According to an article written by Nguyen Van Tran, and published in the overseas newspaper Viet Bao Online in 2016, the author cited a letter related to Hoa Hao Buddhism and Huynh Phu So that was stored at National Archive Center #4, under the Ministry of Home Affairs Department of State Documents and Archives. The letter, dated April 17, 1947, confirmed that the Viet Minh’s Long Xuyen Administrative Committee held Huynh Phu So in their custody but the letter did not state clearly what happened to him after that.
To Hoa Hao Buddhists today, the day Huynh Phu So went missing is referred to as “the day Virtuous Master disappeared,” or “the day of Virtuous Master’s Longevity Calamity.”
According to author Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, who was active in Hoa Hao Buddhism, and who worked for the government of the Second Republic (the Republic of Vietnam), the animosity between Hoa Hao Buddhists and the Viet Minh only worsened after Huynh Phu So’s disappearance. A number of Hoa Hao Buddhists changed sides and worked with the French to oppose the Viet Minh. According to Nam, in the approximate period from 1947 to 1955, Hoa Hao Buddhism became a competent military force with the help of the French. This fact would also lead to the religion facing strong repression from Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, which sought to consolidate military forces.
After Ngo Dinh Diem’s period of discriminatory treatment towards religions, Hoa Hao Buddhism was strengthened and developed under the Second Republic (1967 – 1975). At that time, exiles who had faced repression under Ngo Dinh Diem, such as Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, returned home to restore the religion. It was also during this time that Hoa Hao Buddhism split into two sects: the new sect was led by Luong Trong Tuong, while the original sect was led by Huynh Van Nhiem. In 1972, another sect splintered from the original group, led by Le Quang Liem. These divisions, however, did not hinder the development of the movement.
In 1975, as their religious activities proliferated, Hoa Hao Buddhist groups also operated six high schools, a university, and two hospitals.
However, after the upheaval of April 30, 1975, which saw the fall of the government of the Republic of Vietnam in the south, the vibrant religious scene in the south darkened under the shadow of the victors.
Scene of darkness after April 30
From the day Huynh Phu So disappeared, Hoa Hao Buddhists fiercely opposed the Viet Minh; thus, from April 30, 1975, onwards, the religion was completely banned from operating.
Author Nguyen Long Thanh Nam cited an article published in the Liberated Saigon (Sài Gòn Giải phóng) newspaper on August 9, 1975, to describe the government’s policy towards Hoa Hao Buddhism after the events of April 30.
The Liberated Saigon article stated that the leaders of the religion, Luong Trong Tuong and Huynh Van Nhiem, “opposed religion, the nation, and the revolution.” It also described a three-day high-level meeting of some Hoa Hao Buddhist leaders in Thot Not Suburban District, Can Tho Province. At the end of that meeting, this group announced the dissolution of the Management Committee, S.D. Party’s Executive Committee, specialized organizations, as well as social workgroups. This meeting was held to accompanying the request of the government to prevent further assemblies of people in that area.
Author Nam also cited an article translated into Vietnamese from the Los Angeles Times (published in 1978), which stated that leaders and practitioners of Hoa Hao Buddhism who had participated in politics were all sent off to re-education camps.
In December 1998, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of belief and religion, Adbelfattah Amor, released his report following a formal visit to Vietnam in October 1998.
In his report, the rapporteur stated that he was not able to meet any Hoa Hao Buddhists, either formally or privately. Non-state sources had informed him that after April 30, 1975, the government closed more than 3,500 Hoa Hao pagodas, as well as more than 5,000 worshipping centers, where the Hoa Hao Buddhists often held their social and religious activities.
Amor concluded that Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Muslim religious organizations could not be established nor operate independently of the government. The existence of registered religious groups at the time served more as the government’s tools of social control than citizens exercising their religious freedom.
In 1999, Hoa Hao Buddhism fundamentally split into two sects. One sect, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, was permitted by the government to operate and is headquartered at An Hoa Temple in Phu My Town, Phu Tan Suburban District, An Giang Province.
Many Hoa Hao Buddhists do not participate in this sect, stating that the management committee is controlled by the government and does not operate according to t proper religious principles.
The remaining other sect is not recognized by the government as “official” and is headquartered at the Hoa Hao Buddhist Family Group no more than 3 km from the An Hoa Temple. The activities of the independent Hoa Hao Buddhists are forbidden.
In August 1999, the overseas newspaper Viet Bao Online reported a conflict between the two sects in An Giang Province involving the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church being the only sect recognized by the state. The “official” church was able to organize public festivals and events but did not organize a holiday around “the Day of Virtuous Master’s Longevity Calamity,” nor did it read sermons during any holidays.
In 2014, Vietnam continued to invite special rapporteurs from the UN to evaluate the country’s level of religious freedom. The rapporteurs’ report maintained that the oppressive situation independent Hoa Hao Buddhists faced had not changed appreciably. Their freedoms continued to be obstructed, and they were often followed, arrested, beaten, and imprisoned.
Every year, the United States’ Report on International Religious Freedom touches on the Vietnamese government’s harassment of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists and its restriction of their activities. The 2012 report stated that the government allowed only 5 of 10 of Hoa Hao Buddhist religious texts to be published and that it banned the reading of Huynh Phu So’s writings in public. Beyond the charges of repression of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, the 2018 US report documented that the government continued to ban followers from celebrating any holidays related to the life of Huynh Phu So.
 Vietnam during the French colonial era, Nguyen The Anh, Culture – Literature & Art Publishing House, p. 227.
 On the historical roots of Hoa Hao Buddhism, Pascal Bourdeaux, Dang The Dai Dich.
The Coconut Monk’s Adventure Between Religion And Politics
A mentally ill old man or an anti-war monk?
In 1968, the south of Vietnam had just moved past a period of long-running political unrest that had society shaken and stirred. The people were fed up with the promises and realities that the government brought their way. The fears of both the Communist and the Nationalist sides were not so different. To survive, people had to gird themselves and pray that spiritual forces would deliver them from the war’s uncertainties.
Moving beyond the religious sphere, many southern monks openly opposed the increasingly brutal war. International journalists began paying attention to priests and spiritual leaders, who possessed enough credibility and representation to express the general population’s suffering.
In the spring of 1968, journalist John Steinbeck IV, the 22-year-old son of internationally-renowned American writer John Steinbeck, followed his friends down to My Tho (in today’s Tien Giang Province) to meet an enigmatic Zen Buddhist monk, the Coconut Monk, a person whom some of the officials in the southern government saw as a mentally ill, troublesome old man.
Upon arriving in My Tho, Steinbeck’s group climbed onto a motorized boat and headed to the Coconut Monk’s sanctuary in the middle of the My Tho River. The roar of Steinbeck’s boat and the crashing waves were no match for the wind chimes, constructed from the used metals of tank ammunition, that were reverberating from Con Phung (Phoenix Island), the Coconut Monk’s island. At his pagoda, he and his disciples transformed the shells of wartime bombs and bullets into objects of peace. He even raised a cat and a mouse together to prove that the north and the south could live in peace with one another despite their differences.
Stepping onto the pagoda, Steinbeck saw before him 200 followers dressed in brown, their heads wrapped in head cloths, prostrated towards the setting sun. On a platform of flowered tiles, where followers conducted their ceremonies, colorful cement dragons wound around nine pillars erected in the courtyard. The nine columns represented the tributaries that form the Mekong River delta, a region of rare abundance.
The lower part of the pagoda appeared to rise from the middle of the river, its floor lined with a cement map of Vietnam about 20 meters in length. Scattered underneath were little model homes, the greenery designed to resemble miniatures of cities from north to south. Saigon and Hanoi were marked by two high cement columns on the map, allowing the two cities to be seen even when high tide submerged the map. Each day, the Coconut Monk would pray for peace in Vietnam by traversing the symbolic map from Saigon to Hanoi.
The Coconut Monk received Steinbeck in a yellow monk’s robe but dangled a Catholic crucifix on his chest. His head was not wrapped as his followers; instead, his ponytail was plaited and wrapped in a white cloth, which the Coconut Monk stated was in the style of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Occasionally, his plait of hair would be let down to his chest, whereby he would say he represented the image of the Maitreya Buddha.
At their first meeting, Steinbeck and the Coconut Monk experienced a special moment of inspiration. Originally an admirer of Buddhism and Daoism, Steinbeck stated that the day before, he looked at a map of Vietnam and saw that if a circle were drawn around the S-shaped expanse of land, it would resemble a Tai Chi symbol from the doctrine of yin and yang. In this Tai Chi symbol, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake was the white dot in the black portion, represented by the land, while China’s Hainan Island was the black dot in the white portion, represented by the sea. The Coconut Monk then had his follower bring over a map he had drawn the day before that matched what Steinbeck had just stated, confirming a strange coincidence. Followers became increasingly surprised at the spiritual connection between the two. Steinbeck also felt something he couldn’t quite put his finger on when he stepped foot onto the enigmatic pagoda.
Steinbeck would take a motorbike from Saigon down to Con Phung every weekend and stay overnight from that fateful meeting onwards. He felt calmer there than any other place, which seemed completely isolated from the terrible war crisscrossing the south. Steinbeck wrote in his memoir that his days spent at the pagoda were the happiest time of his life.
A letter to President Johnson
One morning, the Coconut Monk’s followers woke Steinbeck up while the sky was still dark. When he cleared the sleep from his mind, he saw that his motorbike was propped up neatly in a motorized boat. The Coconut Monk wanted Steinbeck to return to Saigon immediately to have lunch with his (Steinbeck’s) friends, reporters, at a restaurant in Cho Lon. Steinbeck quickly hit the road but could not dispel his worries, as he knew that the government never wanted this troublesome monk to step foot in Saigon.
That afternoon, the Coconut Monk stopped by the restaurant to see Steinbeck having lunch with his friends. Through a luxury Buick automobile window, the Coconut Monk told Steinbeck that he wanted Steinbeck to tell the reporters about his new movement. The monk stated that tomorrow, he would arrive at Independence Palace and march to the American Embassy (now at No. 4 Le Duan Rd. in Ho Chi Minh City) to deliver a letter explaining his plan for peace to then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Having frequently witnessed how Saigon police dealt with protestors, Steinbeck knew this was a very dangerous plan. To protect his teacher, he chose to notify the embassy of the Coconut Monk’s plans, a decision that would prove extremely naïve.
The next afternoon, with a coconut in one hand, the Coconut Monk stepped out of his car at a corner near Independence Palace. He was half-surrounded by people jeering or prostrating themselves and half-surrounded by plainclothes police. At that moment, police vehicles poured onto the street, blocking the monk’s path into Independence Palace. The Coconut Monk switched routes, going straight to the American Embassy despite police warnings.
As the crowds followed the Coconut Monk to the embassy, a contingent of Marines awaited him there. On the roof of the enormous blockhouse were approximately 40 Marines with their guns trained on the group of people below. In the air, a helicopter hovered overhead as the short, emaciated monk slowly and deliberately sat down on the sidewalk with his coconut.
After more than 20 minutes, the embassy became aware of the military overreaction. It sent out an employee who accepted the monk’s letter but rejected his coconut because the American president was unable to accept gifts from foreign dignitaries. The monk returned to his island satisfied, escorted by the unwilling police. As a warning for the Coconut Monk never to step foot in Saigon again, the police arrested 30 of his closest followers after he left the city.
The letter the embassy received was an unprecedented petition. The Coconut Monk asked President Johnson to borrow 20 transport planes to deliver him, his followers, and materials to the 17th parallel—where Vietnam was divided into two enemy states. He and his followers would form a prayer group right in the middle of the Ben Hai River. He would sit at the center of this group and pray for seven days with no food or drink. On each side of the river would be 300 monks praying together with him.
No one knows if the letter ever reached President Johnson, but everyone knows that the Coconut Monk never gave up his dream of bringing peace to Vietnam.
From a warm-hearted uncle to the Coconut Monk
In Con Phung (Ben Tre) today, which was once the Coconut Monk’s territory, there remains a marble slab with a brief inscription describing the monk, which states:
“From 1928 – 1935, he studied abroad in France at the College of Physical Chemistry in Lyon – Caen – Rouen. After three years, he succeeded in his study. But for what? From 1935 – 1945, he returned home and climbed the mysterious That Son [Seven Mountains] to look for a path to peace, meditating on the principles of yin and yang and ‘no war, no violence.’ From 1947 – 1972, he worked for peace and was imprisoned once or twice. He lived without losing heart, wisdom, or courage. (His) Morality united Vietnam to live together with meditative hearts. Thich Hoa Binh (Love Peace), of divine rights and virtue”.
Articles about the Coconut Monk today confirm that his name was Nguyen Thanh Nam and that he was the only child of a wealthy family in Ben Tre.
After he returned from studying overseas, Nguyen Thanh Nam married his wife. He opened up a factory producing soap out of coconut before leaving for the monkhood near the Seven Mountains, An Giang Province, in 1945.
Three years later, when his body had taken on the form of an emaciated old man who pursued asceticism to the fullest, Nguyen Thanh Nam, aged 37, descended from the mountains and continued to meditate under a tree overlooking the Tien River for another two years. At that time, several people began noticing him, especially the fact that he only drank coconut water and only ate a bit of fruit for daily sustenance.
Then in 1952, he built an Eight Trigrams platform in the middle of an irrigation canal using a 14-meter coconut tree. For the entirety of the next two years, people from all over came to see this strange man who meditated rain-or-shine. He never uttered a word and only wrote down what he wanted to communicate to others.
In 1963, the Coconut Monk and others purchased a large barge where he built the massive Nam Quoc Pagoda at Con Phung, in the middle of the My Tho River. At the pagoda, he allowed the construction of many structures, including a model of the Seven Mountains, an image of the Buddha laying his hand on the body of Jesus, an image of the Virgin Mary embracing Guan Yin, and a nine-story tower. This was the sanctuary of the Coconut Religion, also known as the Religion of Congeniality.
His unusual methods of religious practice included taking a vow of silence, only drinking coconut water and eating fruit, abstaining from sugar and salt to keep the body pristine after death, persuading others to take up vegetarianism, performing good works, and praying for peace. People found the fact that he found religion near the sacred Seven Mountains irresistible. In 1974, in Dinh Tuong Province (today a part of Tien Giang Province), there were up to 3,516 followers of the Coconut Religion, while Protestantism only had 3,512.
Conducting politics or prayer?
Both the first and the second republics of (South) Vietnam did not kindly those calling for peace, whether they were a respectable monk or an ordinary farmer, a well-known journalist or a good-natured student.
It was precisely because of the government’s sensitivity that the Coconut Monk was forbidden from travelling to Cambodia to pray for peace in 1961. However, the authorities were unable to stop him from conducting the same activities in Saigon.
In December 1964, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to Saigon, the Coconut Monk and his disciples looked for him while holding two cages, one holding a cat and another holding a rat. The Coconut Monk released the cat and the rat into one cage, but the cat did not consume the rat. The press wrote many stories about the event. Later on, Thich Nhat Hanh would retell the story in a children’s picture book with the ending: “If the cat and the rat can live in peace with one another, can humans do the same?”.
Many people, including the government at the time, believed that the Coconut Monk used the cover of religion to conduct politics. The evidence included the two times he ran as a presidential candidate in the 1967 and 1971 elections, where he raised a large number of campaign funds, supposedly from his followers. He also frequently organized press conferences and sought out and sent letters to political figures to call for peace in Vietnam.
His activities were non-violent, but the Saigon government still found ways to crack down on him. Either he would be arrested, the Nam Quoc Pagoda would be raided, or his followers would also be arrested. Despite this, the Saigon government still allowed the Coconut Monk to freely practice his religion, as long as he stayed put at Con Phung and refrained from causing disruption and occupying the authorities. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote at the beginning of 2010 regarding religious freedom in Vietnam: “During the colonial period, during the time of Diem and Thieu, religious practitioners did experience many difficulties, but they were never as tightly and unreasonably controlled as they are today [after 1975]”.
Dying under the Communist sky
After 1975, all of the south fell under the control of communist totalitarianism. Religions were deemed superstitions, church properties and possessions were confiscated, and monks and religious dignitaries were imprisoned in re-education camps without trial. Vietnam became one of the most religiously oppressive countries on earth at the time. The Coconut Religion, then very new religion, obviously did not stand a chance against government eradication.
According to Phap Luat [Law] Newspaper, after April 30, 1975, the Coconut Monk was no longer allowed to practice his religion. After a period of time, he tried to escape over the border and was caught by the authorities. It wasn’t until 1985 that the government released the diminutive monk, who weighed less than 40 kg and reached less than 1.4 meters tall and allowed him to return home.
Due to government censorship, it is challenging to find complete information on the Coconut Monk’s activities after being released from prison.
After returning home to Chau Thanh Suburban District in Ben Tre Province, the Coconut Monk resumed religious activities and was visited by many followers. After a time, he established a local radio station and opened every broadcast with: “This is Phu An Hoa Radio, the voice of the Religion of Congeniality….”
The government asserted that the Coconut Monk’s radio station was superstitious and slandered the state, and so it confiscated his broadcasting equipment and questioning him and his followers.
Forbidden from practicing his religion, he and his followers moved to Phu Quoc Island in Kien Giang Province, but they were quickly and forcibly sent back to their homes. In May 1990, when his followers secretly transported him to Ho Chi Minh City to take refuge before returning to a follower’s home in Tien Giang Province, the police found him. A scuffle broke out between the two sides at a residential home, leading to the Coconut Monk’s death.
After that incident, the People’s Court of Ben Tre Province convicted the Coconut Monk’s followers of obstruction of officials, handing them heavy sentences. However, the details of that trial were never publicized by the press and kept secretive by the Vietnamese government.
In 1986, Steinbeck overheard overseas Vietnamese say that the Vietnamese government wanted to transform the Nam Quoc Pagoda into a tourist attraction in a Paris restaurant.
Later, Steinbeck would write in his memoir of the Coconut Monk: “When I saw him for the last time, we didn’t say goodbye. He touched his eye, indicating a rare tear. Then grinning, he pointed to the sky where he lived. Memories are obsolete, and I can’t forget.”
In February 1991, less than a year after the Coconut Monk’s unjust death, Steinbeck passed away during a surgical procedure on his spine. In Vietnam, the Coconut Monk was buried according to his will: his body was standing up.
The Nam Quoc Pagoda later became a tourist destination, and the Vietnamese press continues to write stories smearing the Coconut Religion to this day.
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