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Huỳnh Phú Sổ

Huỳnh Phú Sổ
Huỳnh Phú Sổ
Born 1920
An Giang, Cochinchina
Died 1947 (aged 26–27)
Other names Phật thầy
Known for Founding of Hòa Hảo

Huỳnh Phú Sổ (1920–1947), popularly known as Phật thầy ("Buddha Master" in Vietnamese), was the founder of the Hòa Hảo religious tradition.


  • Early years 1
  • Proselytising and imprisonment 2
  • Military campaign 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5

Early years

A digitally remastered photo of Huỳnh Phú Sổ

Born in the village of Hòa Hảo, near Châu Đốc, Vietnam, French Indochina in 1920, Sổ was the son of a moderately wealthy peasant. Plagued in his youth by illness, he was a mediocre student and graduated from high school only because of his father's influence. His father sent him to Núi Cấm in the Seven Mountains to learn from a hermit who was both a mystic and a healer. After some training, Sổ made his mark during a stormy night in May 1939, having returned to his village after his master's death.[1] While in an agitated state, Sổ appeared to have suddenly been cured of his illnesses[2] and started to propound his religious teachings, which were based on Buddhism, on the spot. According to observers, he spoke for several hours spontaneously "with eloquence and erudition about the sublime dogmas of Buddhism ... The witnesses to this miracle, deeply impressed by the strange scene, became his first converts."[1]

His simplified teachings were designed to appeal primarily to the poor and the peasants. He attempted to win supporters by cutting down on ceremonies and complex doctrines, eschewing the use of temples. He won over followers by offering free consultations and performing purported miracle cures with simple herbs and acupuncture, and preaching at street corners and canal intersections.[1] He quickly built up a following in the southern Mekong Delta and was looked to by his disciples for guidance in their daily lifestyles. In a time of colonial occupation, a native religion appealed to the masses who were displaying nationalist sentiment. Unlike Gautama Buddha or Jesus, Sổ was Vietnamese. As a result, Sổ became a nationalist icon and became a wanted man for the French colonial authorities, having gained 100,000 followers in less than a year. He predicted that politics would be the cause of his premature death.[3]

The cult must stem much more from internal faith than from a pompous appearance. It is better to pray with a pure heart before the family altar than to perform gaudy ceremonies in a pagoda, clad in the robes of an unworthy bonze.[1]

Proselytising and imprisonment

In early 1940, after a few weeks in retreat to compose and put on paper oracles, prayers and teachings, Sổ launched a major campaign through the Mekong Delta. He recruited tens of thousands of converts to his movement, many of whom followed him around in his travels. His reputation grew immensely after a series of his predictions came true: the outbreak of World War II, the fall of France to Nazi Germany, and the Japanese invasion of French Indochina. His prediction of a Japanese invasion prompted many rice farmers to desert their farms en masse and flee to the hills. His critics derided him as the "mad bonze". As his movement became politicised, it began to attract aspiring politicians, with the likes of Le Cong Bo, a prominent landowner, and its future military commanders, Trần Văn Soái and Lâm Thành Nguyên. Nguyen claimed that Sổ had cured him from illness.[3]

Fearing anti-French demonstrations and revolts would occur as a result of Sổ's following, Vichy French governor Jean Decoux decided to act. In August, he was detained in the psychiatric hospital at Chợ Quán hospital near Saigon under the reasoning that he was a lunatic. Sổ famously succeeded in converting his psychiatrist, Dr. Tam, who became an ardent supporter (Tam was later executed by the Việt Minh for his activities). A board of French psychiatrists declared him sane in May 1941, reporting that he was "a little maniacal, very ignorant even in Buddhist practices, but a big talker."[3] He was exiled upon his release to the coastal town of Bạc Liêu in the far south. His key supporters were sent to a concentration camp in Nui Bara. The French restrictions strengthened his nationalist appeal, and Bạc Liêu soon became a place of Hòa Hảo pilgrimage, although it was far from the movement's strongholds.[3]

In 1942, the French could no longer withstand the growing popular reactions generated by Sổ's oracular pronouncements and political instructions. They exiled him to Laos. By that time the Japanese had taken over French Indochina, but had left the French apparatus in place, intervening only when they saw fit. The Japanese intercepted the transfer of Sổ with the help of some Hòa Hảo followers and brought him back to Saigon. The Kempeitai kept him under protection and the Japanese authorities rebuffed French protests and demands for extradition by saying that he was held as a "Chinese spy".[4] He avoided accusations of being a Japanese collaborator by predicting their demise, but his contacts with them allowed his supporters to gain weapons.[5]

Military campaign

In 1945, as the Japanese were defeated and Vietnam fell into a power vacuum, Sổ ordered the creation of armed units for campaigns against the local administration, landowners and French colonial forces. This led to the Hòa Hảo becoming less of a religious and more of a military-political movement, as people such as landowners converted in the hope that they could buy protection.[6]

As the Hòa Hảo began battling the French, they also came into conflict with other military organizations such as the Việt Minh and Cao Đài who were also fighting the French. The Hòa Hảo were in control of most of the Mekong Delta and was unwilling to toe the Việt Minh line from Hanoi. On 9 September 1945, a confrontation arose when a band of 15,000 Hòa Hảo, armed with hand-to-hand weapons attacked the Việt Minh garrison at Cần Thơ. With their antiquated weapons, Sổ's men were slaughtered, losing thousands. Sổ's brother and the brother of his commander Soái were captured and executed. The return of French forces helped to keep the Hòa Hảo and the Việt Minh apart, but the Hòa Hảo periodically sought vengeance on the Việt Minh by tying sympathisers together and throwing them into the river to drown. The Việt Minh were worried by Sổ's nationalist credentials and social structure, and attempted to co-opt him into a National Unified Front. It was dissolved in July 1946 after it was apparent that Sổ would not follow the Việt Minh. Sổ entered politics openly by creating the Viet Nam Democratic Socialist Party, known as the Dân Xã. This defiant move made him a target of the Việt Minh as relations deteriorated.[5]

The southern Việt Minh leader, Nguyễn Bình, realising that Sổ would not subordinate himself to the Việt Minh, set up a trap. Sổ was caught in April 1947 and executed. His body was dissected into many small pieces and scattered so that his followers could not gather them and turn it into an object of veneration or as a shrine.[7]

Following his death, the Hòa Hảo's political and military power diminished as the various commanders began infighting without a centralised leadership structure and without a leader. Nevertheless, the religion continues to grow over decades after 1975 and now has been recognized as one of Vietnam's major religions. In 1999, after the many long years of appealing by loyal and faithful followers, the Central Communist Government only permitted the Hòa Hảo to celebrate a few of their religious holidays under closely watched monitoring.


  1. ^ a b c d Fall, pp. 151–52
  2. ^ Huỳnh Phú Sổ profile Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ a b c d Buttinger, pp. 255–57.
  4. ^ Buttinger, p. 259.
  5. ^ a b Fall, pp. 151–53.
  6. ^ Buttinger, p. 260.
  7. ^ Buttinger, pp. 409–11.


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