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.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 9, 2020. Will Nguyen did the English translation.