Huynh Phu So

Born in the Mekong Delta village of Hoa Hao in 1919, Huynh Phu So had a youth plagued by illness until he entered a monastery in 1939 where he experienced what he termed a miraculous cure. Using his significant oratorical skills as well as expertise in herbal medicine and acupuncture, Huynh Phu So founded a new Buddhist sect, the Hoa Hao. He swiftly converted thousands of peasants south of Saigon, stressing the importance of inner experience and the irrelevancy of external evidence. Each member of the Hoa Hao was expected to pray four times daily to Buddha, ancestors, and national heroes. Worried about his growing influence, the French arrested and imprisoned him in a mental hospital in 1940, where he converted his physician and a number of staff people. The French intended to exile him to Laos, but by then the Japanese had taken over Indochina, and Huynh Phu So was placed under house arrest in Saigon. The Japanese allowed him to see disciples and continue to direct his religious work. By then, Huynh Phu So had an army of nearly 50,000. After World War II, Huynh Phu So established the Dan Xa, or Social Democratic party, and the Hoa Hao had become a commanding political-religious sect in southern Vietnam. The movement continued to grow, and by the mid-1950s the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai were very influential in the Mekong Delta, with strong sympathies among possibly half the area's six million people. In April 1947, Vietminh guerrillas killed Huynh Phu So. No comparable leader appeared among the Hoa Hao to replace him.