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Vietnam: Seven State Secrets About Religions That May Surprise You

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Major General Pham Van Vinh - deputy director of the Internal Political Security Department under the Ministry of Public Security, carried out a training on the Law on Protection of State Secrets to the police in Hai Duong Province, October 2020. Photo: Hai Duong Provincial Police Department.

Every government will have state secrets that it would like to keep confidential. However, the state secrets involving the freedom of religion in Vietnam prompt people to question the government’s transparency in its strict control of religions and religious organizations. 

Stories from the past that the government wants to continue keeping them secretive

In mid-April 1947, a prominent figure from the southwest of Vietnam disappeared after meeting with the Viet Minh. This mysterious disappearance created an eternal feud between the Hoa Hao Buddhist community and the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). The person who disappeared was Hoa Hao Buddhist founder Huynh Phu So.

Over the past 70 years, no official documents have been released about Huynh Phu So’s disappearance. Millions of Hoa Hao Buddhists are still waiting for an official answer about what happened to their founder. “The day the teacher went absent,” or the date of Master Huynh Phu So’s disappearance, is still a formal commemorative holiday in Hoa Hao Buddhism. However, from 1975 until now, the government has banned the public celebration of this day without explaining.

In a different and more recent event, a special task force consisting of high-ranking VCP military members was sent to the Central Highlands in April 2004 to deal with the largest demonstration of the Montagnard people since 1975. Some 10,000 to 30,000 Montagnards protested against harsh government policies on land, religion, and ethnic groups in the region. 

How violent were these protests, and how were they put down? We may not know for sure, but there have been reports about many Montagnards who escaped Vietnam and travelled to Cambodia on foot after these protests. 

After the government quelled all of the protests, the Vietnamese state, international media, and human rights organizations released inconsistent information about the actual number of deaths. Furthermore, the Vietnamese government never published the total number of those injured or imprisoned during the protests; they refused to release the details of the trials and court hearings of those arrested. What happened in the Central Highlands in 2004 is still a mystery to the local people and the world.

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Montagnards in the Central Highlands fled from Vietnam to Cambodia to seek refugee status in 2004. Photo: AP.

The wounds the government could have inflicted against these people will not heal until the truth behind the incidents should be transparent to the public.

Huynh Phu So’s unexplained disappearance and the crackdown in the Central Highlands in 2004 are just two of these wounds that remain unaddressed in Vietnam, and they will continue to fester for as long as they remain as such. 

In 2020, Vietnam released a list of classified state documents, showing that the government kept confidential and secretive information on various religious groups.

Nevertheless, while releasing this information might have been good news, it actually brought more issues because it raised more questions than answers. The released list and the information on these state secrets on religious organizations will continue to be kept secretive by the government indefinitely.

The Law on the Protection of State Secrets in Vietnam

In 2018, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the Law on the Protection of State Secrets. According to this legislature, state secrets are classified into three levels: top secret, secret, and confidential. The government will protect the top-secret information for up to 30 years, 20 years for secret information, and confidential information gets the least duration of protection: only up to 10 years.

Yet, the level of confidentiality of a secret does not matter much because the government can extend the protection of any state secrets indefinitely. Article 20 of the Law on the Protection of State Secrets gives the government the ability to continue extending the lifetime of any state secret. 

It should also be noted that when the government declassifies formerly sensitive information, it does not mean that those content will be disclosed to the public in Vietnam. Only the state gets to decide what gets released into the public sphere. Therefore, the authorities announce that they have state secrets on a certain religious group. Still, they do not have to disclose what this information is, and they will continue to keep them as state secrets indefinitely.

In Thanh Tra (Inspection) magazine, Nguyen Phuong Vy of the Institute of Strategy and Science of the Inspector also believed the law regarding the scope of state secrets is too broad. She stated that, in effect, ordinary and non-sensitive information could also be classified as sensitive. 

This can be particularly observed in the field of religion. Here are seven of the top religious state secrets in Vietnam that may surprise you.


  1. The VCP puts its members among the religious leaders. Who are these people? It’s a state secret.

Many people have been wondering whether or not the VCP assigns some of its members to be part of various religious organizations. Decision 1722/QĐ-TTg of the prime minister provided the government’s list of state secrets, released in November 2020. 

This specific list confirms that the VCP does indeed have its members present in the leadership of many religious organizations. However, information about how these Party members are “selected, arranged, and enlisted” is not disclosed; this falls under the confidential tier of classified information  (Article 3, Clause 7, Section c).

Religious organizations are not state organs, but the party and the state can assign people to control them. This shows that the recognized religious organizations in Vietnam are not independent of the state and are under the government’s influence and coercion. 

  1. The state uses “advocacy work” to identify critics against it, but how much does that work cost in tax money? That’s another secret!

Vietnam uses the special term “advocacy work within the religions” to define how the government should mobilize religious dignitaries to support the state. The goal of this process, according to Dan Van magazine, is to “fight, educate, differentiate, and narrow down the number of people who have opinions or beliefs that oppose, disagree or contravene the policies of the party and the law of the State.”

According to the information we have, the government has never disclosed the budget for this group to the public. The amount of money spent on these activities is classified as secret information by the State according to Decision 960/QĐ-TTg dated July 7, 2020, issued by the prime minister.

  1. Information of meetings between the state and the religious leaders in the country is confidential.

Information about meetings between religious organizations, their leaders, and even certain members that have “influence” within a specific religion, with the government is considered the state’s top secret. The minutes of these meetings are also on the VCP’s list of confidential information.

This regulation is extensive, with no restrictions on what can be discussed in these meetings. Likewise, any gathering with state leaders from the provincial level upwards can be considered a state secret. There are also no specific regulations or definitions on who can be considered an “influential” member of a religious organization.

These ambiguities may cause problems for certain members of religious groups. They either must keep all of the information they have discussed in meetings with the state confidential, or they will face being accused of disclosing state secrets.

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Six religious leaders are members of the 14th National Assembly. Photo: National Assembly Newspaper, Dan Van magazine
  1. Veterans’ and Farmers’ Associations are considered “special forces” of the government in working with religions. There are a lot of secrets involving their works. 

It may be unclear to see the Veterans’ and Farmers’ Associations belong to the government’s organizations that work with religious leaders and religions in the country.

The Veterans’ Association’s list of state secrets, according to Decision No. 872/QĐ-TTg dated June 19, 2020, issued by former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, affirms that one task of that association is to “enlist religious dignitaries in service of national defense and security.” They are also required to detect and report activities which “violate national security, social order, and safety.” Their reports on these topics to the government are classified as confidential.

The Farmers’ Association also has the added task of “reflecting and evaluating the situation of farmers having changes in ideology and awareness, and to monitor activities which may affect politics, national defense, security and society in the areas considered to be hotspots of ethnic and religious issues.” The reports and surveys regarding this task are also considered state secrets.

  1. The Vietnam Women’s Union places its members among religions within areas that the government has considered to be “religious hotspots” 

The state also gave The Vietnam Women’s Union, like the Farmers’ Association, a mission in areas considered by the government to be religious hotspots.

According to the list of state secrets of the Vietnam Women’s Union, Decision No. 1222/QĐ-TTg – issued by former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc – identified that the Vietnam Women’s Union has provided “reports related to evaluating and commenting on the mobilization of union members in ethnic and religious hotspots” and maintained their confidentiality.

In addition, this association also deploys its “key members” into areas that the government considered to be ethnic and religious hotspots. The list of these key members is also classified as confidential by the state.

  1. Information that the state has on educational activities organized by religious organizations which “affect national security” are classified as state secret.

According to the list of state secrets in education and training (Decision No. 809/QĐ-TTg, dated June 10, 2020, issued by former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc), information on the educational activities of religious organizations “influencing politics, defense and security” is confidential.

The state has always considered the educational activities organized by religious organizations to be sensitive information.

Since 1954 in the north and after 1975 in the south, religious organizations have been banned from participating in activities in the field of general education. The educational activities within these organizations are also controlled and monitored by the State. According to the Law on Belief and Religion, the state requires all religious organizations that if they want to teach law and history, they will have to follow strictly with the guidance of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education and Training.

  1. How the state handles what it claims to be “complex religious matters” in Vietnam is top secret.

The “handling of complex religious matters” is classified as top secret in both the VCP’s state secrets list and the state secret list maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs considers the information it has on the “complex religious issues” to be more secretive and confidential than the information about the government’s personnel list. 

For these “complex religious matters”, because they are listed as utmost top-secret, even if the state does not extend the duration of the protection clause when it expires, yet it will take 30 more years from now for this information to be publicly released. 

If we think back about the story about the crackdown in the Central Highlands in 2004 mentioned earlier in this article, which the state considers a complex religious situation, the public may not know about the story’s facts until at least 2034.

Currently, Vietnam does not have any law that defines how a religious issue can fall under this “complex matter” category; it all depends on the perspectives of the VCP and the state.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on January 27, 2021. The English translation was done by Jade NG.

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The Tumultuous And Tragic History Of Hoa Hao Buddhism

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Hoa Hao Buddhists conducting a ceremony at the Hoa Hao Buddhists Club, Santa Ana, California, United States. Photo: hoahao.org.

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.

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A map of the 13 provinces of the Mekong Delta today. The shape of An Giang Province has four distinct sides, so it is often called the Long Xuyen quadrilateral (Long Xuyen being the provincial capital city). An Giang Province shares a boundary with Cambodia and borders Dong Thap, Kien Giang, and Can Tho provinces. Photo: Gocnhin.net.

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. [1] 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. [2]

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.”

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Hoa Hao Buddhists attend the opening of festivities on May 17, 1971, marking the anniversary of the religion’s founding. Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhism Family.

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.

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Hoa Hao Buddhist soldiers practice martial arts in July 1948. Photo: LIFE Magazine.

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. 

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Hoa Hao Buddhists attend opening festivities on May 17, 1971, marking the religion’s founding day. Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhism Family.

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.

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Hoa Hao Buddhist Bui Van Trung during his preliminary trial on February 9, 2018, in the An Giang Province People’s Court. For allegedly disturbing public order, he was sentenced to six years in prison, while five other Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two to six years. Photo: RFA.

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.


References:

[1] Vietnam during the French colonial era, Nguyen The Anh, Culture – Literature & Art Publishing House, p. 227.
[2] On the historical roots of Hoa Hao Buddhism, Pascal Bourdeaux, Dang The Dai Dich.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on August 3, 2019. Will Nguyen did the English translation.

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The Coconut Monk’s Adventure Between Religion And Politics

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The Coconut Monk in the 1970 documentary Sad Song of Yellow Skin, directed by Michael Rubbo.

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.

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The Coconut Monk’s followers conducted a ceremony on Nam Quoc Pagoda’s Nine Dragon Pavilion in 1969. Photo: Lance & Cromwell.

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.

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Front row from left: John Steinbeck, the Coconut Monk, and the director of Sad Song of Yellow Skin, Michael Rubbo, in 1970. 
Photo: Sad Song of Yellow Skin.

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.

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An erected image of the Buddha laying his hand on the body of Jesus at Nam Quoc Pagoda. Photo: Lance Nix.

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]”.

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Followers of the Coconut Religion in 1969 at the Nam Quoc Pagoda. Photo: Lance Nix.

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.

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Venerable Thich Quang Do: A Lifetime Of Struggle

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Venerable Thich Quang Do, aged 70, in a picture taken in HCMC after he was released from prison in 1988. Photo: AFP.

This article contains many quotes and literary excerpts from Venerable Thich Quang Do. A number of excerpts may be difficult to comprehend, and the formatting may be different from section to section. The author, Luat Khoa Magazine, and The Vietnamese Magazine maintain the excerpts in full respect for Venerable Thich Quang Do.

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Thich Quang Do

Thich Quang Do’s birth name is Dang Phuc Tue. He was born in Thanh Chau Commune, Tien Hai Suburban District, Thai Binh Province, on November 27, 1928, into a family with three other siblings.

He left his home in 1942 at 14 years of age to become a monk at Thanh Lam Village Pagoda in Ha Dong Province, which is today a part of Hanoi. 

He passed away on the night of February 22, 2020, at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City.

An undated portrait of Thich Quang Do. Photo: Phattuvietnam.net
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In the beginning months of 1945, famine swept across the northern part of Vietnam, killing two million people. At the time, 18-year-old Thich Quang Do was in training in Ha Dong Province, as a disciple of the Venerable Thich Duc Hai. 

Much later, in 1992, he would recall his early days of entering the monkhood in his memoir:

“In the year of the rooster (1945), the people were very hungry, especially in the two provinces of Thai Binh and Nam Dinh. Those who had starved to death littered the streets. […] At the time, my master at Thanh Lam Village Pagoda […] heard from people heartbreaking stories, so he travelled out to Ha Dong Township and established a relief group to help the hungry. That was March 1945. My master opened up a food camp to help sustain the hungry. He relied on Ho Dac Diem, who was the Ha Dong Province chief, to intervene with the Japanese and request some rice to rescue the starving. The group was able to carry many people through the famine.” [2]

A young woman (left) and three siblings of another family in Thai Binh during the 1945 famine. The northern famine was caused by the Japanese and the French and led to approximately two million deaths. Photo: Vo An Ninh.

Right after that disaster, the August Revolution broke out, and seeing that the people were still incensed at the famine caused by foreign countries, the Viet Minh hunted down Vietnamese traitors and those who worked for the Japanese or the French, executing them. The executions were seen – by some – as a way for the Viet Minh to flaunt their prestige. Thich Quang Do’s master was allegedly a Vietnamese traitor. 

He recalled in an open letter sent to the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Do Muoi, in 1994: 

”At 10 AM, on the morning of August 18, 1945 […] as I looked at my master, his two hands bound behind his back by zinc wire, on his neck hung two signs scrawled with the words ‘Vietnamese traitor, national sellout’ […] On both sides, a group of people holding sticks, spears, and scythes, stood guard. A group calling themselves the magistrates of the People’s Tribunal stood on a platform […] forcing my master to kneel down in the courtyard and listen to the court convicted him. They immediately sentenced him to death, carrying him out to the field of grass in front of the courtyard, blood continuing to flow from his mouth [as he had been punched]. Upon reaching the field of grass, they wrestled him down onto his side, shooting him through the ears three times with a pistol. Another stream of bright red blood sprayed straight up, and my master died instantly.” [3]

Spurred by the exceedingly painful image of his master being executed, Thich Quang Do wrote: “I swore to fight fanaticism and mercilessness, and to devote my entire life to pursuing justice through Buddhism’s teachings on non-violence, tolerance, and mercy”. [4]

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In 1947, Thich Quang Do was ordained as a monk while studying at the Quan Su Buddhist Institute in Hanoi. During this time, he wrote for the magazine Phuong Tien [Means], where Venerable Thich To Lien was editor-in-chief. In 1951, Venerable To Lien dispatched Do to study abroad in Sri Lanka [5]. In that same year, Buddhist temples throughout the country were unified under the leadership of the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation, headquartered at Tu Dam Pagoda in Hue. [6]

After Sri Lanka, Thich Quang Do travelled to India in 1953 to continue his studies. The year after, Vietnam was divided in two, and the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation splintered. Buddhist sects and associations continued to operate independently, and a number of northern Buddhist temples moved south.

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While Vietnam awaited a free general election, the Geneva Accords split the country at the 17th parallel into two separate militarized zones; residents on each side were free to move to the other side. Approximately 800,000 northerners moved to the south, according to data from the South Vietnamese government. This photo depicts northerners preparing to move to the south. Photo: LIFE.

In 1958, Thich Quang Do, 30 and fluent in English and Chinese, returned to Saigon to teach and translate scriptures. [7] During this time, the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation moved its headquarters to An Quang Pagoda in Saigon, and Buddhist sects and associations continued to operate independently. [8]

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At the end of 1961, Buddhists and monks were increasingly subjected to excessive religious persecution by the Saigon government. There were reports that many areas banned Buddhists from practising and forced them to give up their religion. By April 1963, as Vesak Day (Buddha Day) approached, monks in Hue were no longer able to tolerate the repression, declaring that they were at odds with the government and commencing a period of impassioned struggle for Buddhism. [9]

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Nuns, monks, and Buddhists scuffle with police in Saigon, protesting against government repression. Buddhist leaders demanded that the government respect the Buddhist flag, cease the repression of Buddhists, treat them equally, grant them the freedom to proselytize and practice, and make reparations for those killed. Photo: HORST FAAS/AP.

To weather the religious crisis, the Inter-sectarian Committee to Protect Buddhism was established in May 1963. It comprised 11 sects and associations and was headquartered at Xa Loi Pagoda in Saigon. The committee included 19 individuals, of whom Venerable Thich Tinh Khiet was the highest leader and Thich Quang Do was an assistant to the diplomatic corps. [10]

The committee organized large-scale protests and hunger strikes. Thich Quang Do hit the streets with thousands of monks, nuns, and Buddhists to fight for the religion. The government cracked down. Many monks self-immolated to demand a resolution to Buddhism’s five aspirations. Dozens of people lost their lives in clashes with police. The tumult lasted for many months, stirring world opinion.

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Thich Quang Do, 35, elaborating on the Buddhist struggle in front of monks, nuns, Buddhists, students, and police. Photo: Buddhist Struggles (Quoc Oai)

On August 20, 1963, the government arrested Thich Quang Do in its “floodwater campaign,” in which pagodas were raided simultaneously to capture Buddhist leaders. He was tortured in prison. While behind bars, he secretly received English articles, translating them into Vietnamese and then sending them out, where they were reprinted in Buddhist newspapers to encourage the fighting spirit of monks, nuns, and Buddhists. [11]

The conflict between Buddhists and the government led the United Nations to send a fact-finding mission to Vietnam on October 24, 1963. A week later, President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated, and Buddhism was able to gain the upper hand. Thich Quang Do was released but remained seriously ill due to the torture he suffered while in prison. [12]

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Immediately after the 1963 Buddhist crisis and with the flames of solidarity burning bright in the hearts of monks and nuns, a number of well-respected monks reiterated calls to unify Buddhism.

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A scene from the opening of the Buddhist Unity Congress at Xa Loi Pagoda on December 31, 1963; outside the pagoda, thousands of Buddhists gathered to support Buddhist solidarity. Photo: Buddhism’s Historic Struggle.

At the beginning of 1964, the Buddhist Unity Congress concluded. Eleven sects and associations were merged into a single Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCVN), headquartered at the National Pagoda of Vietnam (which was just starting construction). The UBCVN ratified a charter edited by Thich Tri Quang [13] and sat under the supervision of the Supreme Patriarch Institute and the Hoa Dao Institute. 

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In 1966, a little over two years after unification, the church began to fracture under pressure. A conflict arose between two groups. On one side was the An Quang bloc, led by Thich Tri Quang, which advocated a fierce struggle to interfere in politics, with its overwhelming force and superior organizational ability. On the other side were the moderated at the National Pagoda of Vietnam, led by Thich Tam Chau, who only fought for religious freedom.

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Thich Tri Quang (left) and Thich Tam Chau(right) sit in a Saigon monastery on April 9, 1966, to announce to the press their demand for the establishment of a Constitutional Committee for the general election of a civilian government. Photo: AP.

In October 1966, the An Quang bloc established its own and separate Hoa Dao Institute with three sects and associations. [14]

By 1967, the National Pagoda of Vietnam bloc convened a congress with eight sects and associations to amend its charter, asserting that the 1964 charter sought to eliminate the autonomy of sects and associations. From here, the conflict deepened when the government recognized the National Pagoda of Vietnam bloc’s amendments. 

Also in 1967, the An Quang bloc organized a series of large-scale protests, carrying the Buddhist altars down to the streets to oppose both the government and the National Pagoda bloc. The government accused the An Quang bloc of “sowing chaos” and accordingly cracked down against them. The government later broadly apologized to all Vietnamese Buddhists and monks that it had to maintain social order and there were no other methods except for cracking down against the monks of the An Quang bloc.

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Not only did the An Quang bloc organize protests, but it also organized other noteworthy activities, such as carrying the Buddhist altars into the streets, hunger strikes, and a number of acts that are still considered controversial to this day for their perceived un-Buddhist spirit. Photo: LIFE.

According to the Sangha of the United Southern Buddhist Church, Thich Quang Do served both as the spokesperson for and inspector of the UBCVN’s Hoa Dao Institute in 1972; two years later, he was appointed general secretary.

The conflict between the An Quang and National Pagoda of Vietnam blocs, with their different approaches, continued until April 30, 1975.

From when he returned to Saigon until 1975, Thich Quang Do taught at Van Hanh University, the Saigon University of Literature, Hoa Hao University (An Giang), even the Pontifical Academy of Pius X (Da Lat), and other Buddhist academies. [15] He also edited numerous scriptures and books on Buddhism.

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After taking control of the south, the victors immediately cracked down on all religions, sending dignitaries to re-education camps, destroying Buddhist statues, and confiscating the property of sects and associations.

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General Tran Van Tra, head of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Military Management Committee, organizes an international press conference on May 8, 1975. Photo: Herve GLOAGUEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Thich Quang Do witnessed what the victors did to Buddhism. He recounts in an interview with Radio Free Asia in 2015: 

“On April 30, 1975, the Communists forcibly conquered South Vietnam. All the Vietnamese people were enslaved to an inhumane, cruel, hateful policy that was unmerciful towards religion. Our Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was also stripped of its more than 2000 years of legal status, Buddhist leaders were fiercely repressed, and 12 monks and nuns of Duoc Su Pagoda self-immolated.” [16]

“During the investigation in Can Tho Province into the 12 self-immolations against repressive communist policies [one individual was only 14 years of age], the Communist authorities accused Venerable Thich Hau Hien of being an informant for the Americans and South Vietnamese, committing lewdness against other nuns in their attempt to invalidate 12 immolations. That plot, however, failed because I didn’t sign the final forms legitimizing their scheme.

[…] Things hit a fever pitch on March 3, 1977, when the Communists came to appropriate the Quang Thi Trang convent […], tearing down the “UBCVN” sign and tossing it to the ground. At exactly 11 AM that day, as general secretary of the Hoa Dao Institute, I signed circular urging monks and nuns to prepare to sacrifice to protect the religion and the honor of the Church.”

On April 6, 1977, Venerable Master Huyen Quang and I, along with a number of others, were imprisoned in Phan Dang Luu Prison in Ba Chieu, Gia Dinh. Later, I would find out that former Venerable Master Thich Thien Minh was also captured and had died of unknown causes at the Saigon police headquarters.” [17]

According to Amnesty International, Venerable Thich Thien Minh had died in a temporary detention camp in October 1978. [18] To this day, the Vietnamese state has yet to make an announcement about his death in Detention Camp #4 on Phan Dang Luu Rd., Ho Chi Minh City.

A portrait of the Venerable Thich Thien Minh. He was born in 1921 in Quang Tri and entered the monkhood as a child. After the Buddhist Unity Congress in 1964, he was selected as general director of the Unified Buddhist Church’s youth affairs. Minh stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Venerable Thich Tri Quang during the Buddhist political struggles in the south. Photo: Hoavouu.com.

Seven members of the An Quang bloc and Thich Quang Do were eventually tried in December 1978. [19]

The seven were accused of numerous crimes: taking advantage of religion to disrupt national security, disrupting national unity, and acting to oppose the revolution. Under international pressure, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Venerable Thich Thanh The were acquitted. [20] In that same year, Thich Quang Do and Venerable Thich Huyen Quang were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. [21]

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From 1980 – 1981, Do, Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Duc Nhuan, and a number of others disagreed with the remaining An Quang bloc members, who advocated cooperating with the state to establish the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which would allow the Communist Party to tightly control church activities.  

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In just one day, the government united all monks, nuns, and Buddhists across the country during the Conference of Representatives to Unify Vietnamese Buddhism, which took place on November 7, 1981, at Quan Su Pagoda. Photo: Buddhist Church of Vietnam. 

With the establishment of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the UBCVN, with its history since 1951, became illegal and remains so to this day. Venerable Thich Quang Do recalls:

“From the day former Venerable Master Tri Thu was elected head of the state church [that is, today’s Buddhist Church of Vietnam], the UBCVN no longer had a director leading the Hoa Dao Institute. Without a director, the vice-director stepped up until another congress could be convened to elect officials […]. Because of that, Venerable Master Huyen Quang was the first vice-director to become institute director, and we continued to conduct business with the church [UBCVN] as usual”.

“At four in the afternoon on February 24, 1982, I received a letter from the municipal police headquarters, with the word ‘express’ written on it. When I opened it, I saw that I had been ‘invited’ down to their office.

At exactly 8 AM [the next day], I arrived at police headquarters and was led to a waiting room, where two uniformed officers stood guard with pistols. After approximately an hour, I guess when they figured that was enough psychological torture, I was taken in to see Quang Minh. He said: ‘You’re being involved in religion also means you’re involved in politics (!), we’re going to have to handle you accordingly.’ After about five minutes, Quang stood up and read out the decision, […] expelling me from the city.” [22]

In the ten years after, Thich Quang Do lived alone under the watchful eyes of Thai Binh police: “The Communists […] exiled me to Vu Doai Commune, Vu Thu Suburban District, Thai Binh Province from February 25, 1982, for the crime of ‘being involved in religion and thus being involved in politics.” [23]

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Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang in an undated photo, possibly during the time Thich Huyen Quang was exiled in Binh Dinh. Venerable Thich Huyen Quang was born in 1919 and left home to become a monk in Binh Dinh when he was 13 years old. According to the UBCVN, he was detained in the pagoda until his passing in 2008. Photo source: unknown. 
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In the late 1980s, Vietnam entered the era of Doi Moi when the country’s economy changed into the market economy of capitalism. At that time, some monks saw that as the opportunity to fight for religious freedom. 

At the end of 1991, Venerable Thich Don Hau, nearing death, left in his will a call to restore the UBCVN and reactivate the 1964 church charter, amended in 1973. [24] He reminded the dignitaries, among them Venerable Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, that they respectively held the positions of director and general secretary of the Hoa Dao Institute.

Religious repression continued to intensify in 1992 and 1993, and the self-immolation of monks in the Mekong River Delta demanding religious freedom led to enormous protests in Hue, which the authorities cracked down upon and suppressed information about. [25]

On May 21, 1992, a man self-immolated at Thien Mu Pagoda, leading to the temporary detention of Thich Tri Tuu, a Buddhist nun. Immediately after that, thousands of monks and nuns took to the streets in protests that shook the city, and a government car was set on fire. Photo: Nicolas Cornet.

After living in exile in Thai Binh for 10 years, in 1992, Thich Quang Do decided to return to the south a month after notifying the authorities of his plans:

“On February 10, 1982, the Communists also inexplicably exiled my mother to Vu Doai Commune with me, where she died a tragic death […] in January of 1985 from cold and deprivation.  Left all on my own, I decided that I could no longer allow myself to be hemmed in so senselessly, interminably, and unscrupulously. On March 22, 1992 (after 10 years and 27 days of exile), I returned to Saigon after letting Hanoi police know, arriving on March 25, 1992. [26]

I returned to the south in 1992 and continued to work on the [Phat Quang] dictionary series; in 1994, I sent to Do Muoi [a former senior leader] a series of assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the nation and Vietnamese Buddhism. After that, I went out into the community to provide aid.” [27]

In November 1994, the Mekong River Delta suffered an unexpected flood, killing approximately 400 people. Representing the UBCVN, Venerable Thich Quang Do, along with a number of monks and retired scholars, went out to render aid to their compatriots, only to be arrested afterwards. 

“On January 4, 1995, they arrested me and imprisoned me at the temporary detention center on Nguyen Van Cu St. in the middle of Saigon. Venerable Khong Tanh and I each received five years in prison and five years probation”. [28]

Thich Quang Do, together with Thich Khong Tanh, Thich Nhat Ban, Thich Tri Luc, and two retired scholars Dong Ngoc and Nhat Thuong, at their August 1995 trial in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Vietnamese Buddhists.

“My time in jail wasn’t too bad; it was fairly leisurely […]. You eat and you go about your work, just like anywhere else […]. Before I was imprisoned, I had requested […] that they give me the Phat Quang dictionary set that I was working on.

I completed [the dictionary series] while in prison; when I received special amnesty and was released on September 2, 1998, they refused to return the nearly 100 volumes that I had already translated […]. They required I fill out a request form. 

Unreasonable! This having-to-request business. If it’s going to be that way, then I’m not going to request anything. They can just keep it and use it however they like; I’ll just redo everything again at home. So I did, and it took me two years. I redid everything, without having to make a request of anyone. Please be reasonable. Let’s think about this. For example, if you’re hungry, then you go and ask people for food. When people give it to you, you thank them. But in this situation, the government simply kept my work, I didn’t give it to them”. [29]

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At the beginning of 1999, Thich Quang Do went out to Quang Ngai to visit Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, who had just been exiled three days before. Also in the same year, Do became the director of the UBCVN’s Hoa Dao Institute.

After his trip to Quang Ngai, he was interrogated by police. In February 2001, he was formally put under house arrest for violating the terms of his probation. [30]

After that trip, Thich Quang Do stated to the press that: “I will continue to speak loudly, strongly, and firmly for freedom, democracy, human rights, and freedom of religion, so that those in and outside the country hear the church’s calls and its support for human rights and democracy.” [31]

In 2001, Thich Quang Do issued a call for democracy in Vietnam to his domestic and overseas compatriots, as well as to the Vietnamese government:

“But today, as other countries around the world develop, growing more prosperous, free, and democratic by the day, our country is becoming increasingly paralyzed and impoverished, our people oppressed and trampled on. […]

This catastrophe persists, nurtured by three factors: the government thinks too highly of itself and refuses to accept the opinions of others, resulting in a single-party dictatorship; the government has broken away from the people and refuses the most basic calls for human rights and citizens’ rights, resulting in an abominable authoritarian regime; the government is too dependent on foreign countries, from ideology to the structure of the state apparatus, causing social and civilizational upheaval [,..] moral decay and national stagnation.” [32]

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In October 2003, after the state lifted its probation order, Quang Do risked his life to bring Thich Huyen Quang from Binh Dinh to HCMC for medical treatment. While on the road, the two were stopped by police and held on National Highway 1A, accused of keeping some state secrets with them [33], resulting in approximately 200 monks and nuns, and more than 1,000 Buddhists from nearby pagodas protesting to protect the two. [34]

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Venerable Thich Quang Do visits Venerable Thich Huyen Quang (laying down) in 2006. Venerable Thich Huyen Quang passed away on July 5, 2008, at Nguyen Thieu Monastery in Binh Dinh Province. Photo: Vietnamese Buddhists.
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In 2006, Thich Quang Do received two awards for his human rights work, Norway’s Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize and the World Movement for Democracy’s Democracy Courage Tribute. However, the Vietnamese government prevented Do from travelling overseas to accept the awards. 

In 2007, the UBCVN began mutually supporting disenfranchised citizens through the Disenfranchised Relief Fund, helping those who had long petitioned the government on land issues. 

And in order to eradicate what it does not approve of, the government began a well-worn campaign of using the press to cast aspersions on Do and the UBCVN.

Newspapers from Nhan Dan [The People] to Tuoi Tre [Youth] called Do “a religious exploiter” accusing him of “political opportunism,” “inciting the people,” being “on a mission of vengeance,”  and behaving like “an old dog who can’t learn new tricks.” 

In the same year, during which he was banned from talking to the press, Thich Quang Do responded to Al-Jazeera through video: [35]

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“We are prisoners in our own homeland, where the government decides who has the right to speak and who has to keep their mouths shut. Even at this very moment, I’m being held at the Thanh Minh Monastery in Saigon. Secret police tail me day and night, preventing me from moving freely.

I’ve been continuously repressed by the Communist regime since 1975. But I myself am not afraid of anything because I am fighting for what is right.

Today, we lack an opposition party and freedom of the press, independent religions are being cracked down upon, and anyone demanding political reform, democracy, or human rights could be subject to immediate arrest.

We must have political pluralism, the right to free elections, and the right to decide our political system […]. In sum, we must have the right to determine our future and our fate.”

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From 2001, Venerable Thich Quang Do was held under house arrest at Thanh Minh Monastery, where he was closely monitored by police and isolated from church activities and the outside world. Politicians from the world over regularly tried to find ways to visit him. Photo: Clochers & Lieux de culte.

In 2012, while he was meeting with the Australian ambassador in Vietnam, Thich Quang Do had expressed his views regarding the East Sea [South China Sea] problem:

“Vietnam has already lost a portion, an island in Hoang Sa [the Paracels], eight islands in Truong Sa [the Spratleys]. China just established the Tam Sa [Sansha] district center, setting up administrative and military bodies to control that region. […] For now, I only wish for Vietnam to democratize and then ally itself with the world’s democratic nations. […] As it stands right now, I don’t have any hope for Vietnam.” [36]

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In 2011, Thich Quang Do became the fifth patriarch of the UBCVN but met with many difficulties in developing the UBCVN due to his house arrest at Thanh Minh Monastery:

“They [the government] have yet to cease discrimination and repression of the UBCVN. Thus, the church has struggled to conduct activities over the past 30 years. We can’t preach, we can’t open schools to teach. […] If they had an opportunity to completely do away with the church, they absolutely would. 

For several decades, [I have been restricted to] a single room upstairs that I inhabit. […] Every two months, I go to the hospital, and that’s it. No one is allowed to come and go, and I can’t move freely either. When I go to the hospital, they [the police] follow.” 

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A photo of Venerable Thich Quang Do in his room at Thanh Minh Monastery on September 3, 2018. Photo: International Buddhist Information Office. 

“As of now, I eat only one meal a day, which is brought up to me in the morning. There’s a chair outside my door that I leave my plates on after I finish eating. The kitchen will come up to take them away, and then they lock the metal gate. The stairs up to my room have a metal gate, just like a prison cell. It’s been like this for more than 20 years since I returned from the north. 

I owe my residence here to Venerable Thich Thanh Minh’s pagoda […]. Since I left to join the monkhood some sixty years ago, I have lived thanks to the generosity of others. […] As of now, I only recite Buddhist scriptures to myself. I’m not allowed to pray for or preach to others; I can only recite to myself. They have stipulated this very clearly.” [37]

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In mid-September 2018, exactly three months after American Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink came to visit him, Thich Quang Do was evicted from Thien Minh Monastery, staying at a number of pagodas before heading home to Thai Binh at 90 years of age:  

“I returned to my hometown as an ostensible retreat, but if there were any small pagodas, I would recite Buddhist scriptures there. No matter what happens to the church, even if I die, I could never give it up.”

American ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink (left) and a colleague visit Venerable Thich Quang Do on June 14, 2018. Photo: International Buddhist Information Office.

Not long after, Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fifth patriarch of the UBCVN, returned to HCMC at age 90 to continue his obstacle-plagued work of the church.

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Two years later, at 9:30 PM on February 22, 2020, Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fifth patriarch of the UBCVN, took his last breath at Tu Hieu Pagoda; his painful endeavor for the Vietnamese homeland finally came to an end.

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On February 25, 2020, three days after his funeral, monks, nuns, and Buddhists escort Venerable Thich Quang Do to his cremation site; his ashes were scattered at sea 49 days later. Photo: Giac Ngo [Enlightenment].

This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Phuong and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 1, 2020. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

*** In our previous version of this article, we have cited the 1979 report of Amnesty International on the death of Venerable Thich Thien Minh. However, upon our recent re-checking of the cited link, it is unfortunate that the link is no longer accessible. Therefore, we have changed the link to the copy of Amnesty International’s January 1979 newsletter. We apologize for this inconvenience.***

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References:

[1] Thich Quang Do, Defiant Rights Champion in Vietnam.
[2] Assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the Nation and Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
[3] Letter written to Do Muoi, Thich Quang Do, written in 1994.
[4] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
[5] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), Sangha of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
[6] Vietnamese Buddhism Monthly Review #1, published by the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation. 

[7] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), cited material.
[8] Vietnamese Buddhism Monthly Review #27 and #28, published by the Vietnamese Buddhist Federation.
[9] Vietnamese Buddhism’s Historic Struggle, Nam Thanh, published by the UBCVN Hoa Dao Institute in 1964. [10] Vietnamese Buddhism’s Historic Struggle cited material.
[11] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, cited material.
[12] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), cited material.
[13] White paper on the divide between An Quang and the National Pagoda of Vietnam, written by Thich Tam Chau in 1993.
[14] White paper on the divide between An Quang and the National Pagoda of Vietnam cited material.
[15] Brief biography of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do (1928 – 2020), cited material.
[16] Interview of Elder Venerable Thich Quang Do regarding the UBCVN over the past 40 years.
[17] Assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the Nation and Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
[18] Amnesty International Newsletter January 1979. (1979, January 1). Amnesty International. https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/nws210011979en.pdf.
[19] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, cited material.
[20] Amnesty International Report 1979, p.117, cited material.
[21] Thich Quang Do is appointed the new leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, cited material.
[22] Assessments regarding the Vietnamese Communist Party’s mistakes towards the Nation and Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Quang Do, written in 1992.
[23] Letter written to Do Muoi, Thich Quang Do, written in 1994.
[24] Venerable Thich Don Hau’s will.
[25] In Vietnam, Monks Lead Protest to Repression.
[26] Letter written to Do Muoi, Thich Quang Do, written in 1994. 

[27] Letter of truth Venerable Thich Quang Do sent to HCMC police.
[28] RFA interviews Venerable Thich Quang Do.
[29] Letter of truth Venerable Thich Quang Do sent to HCMC police.
[30] In the News Summer 2001, Tricycle.
[31] Venerable Thich Quang Do publicizes his call for democracy.
[32] Venerable Thich Quang Do’s call for democracy in Vietnam.
[33] Vietnam denounces Venerable Thich Huyen Quang.
[34] Vietnam backs down over monks.
[35] In My Review: Vietnam’s Buddhist Monk.
[36, 37] Australian ambassador visits Venerable Thich Quang Do.

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