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‘Following Uncle Hồ to save the nation’: Empowerment, legitimacy, and nationalistic aspirations in a Vietnamese new religious movement

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This article investigates new religious movements that have emerged in post-Renovation Vietnam. The formation and development of movements that worship Hồ Chí Minh will be examined through the Way of the Jade Buddha. My analysis of this indigenous movement will discuss its controversial attempts to establish communication with the spirit of Hồ Chí Minh. It is argued that the movement is a channel through which people can empower themselves, seek legitimacy, and promote nationalistic aspirations. The emergence of such movements demonstrates the ongoing millenarian dream of social transformation in the face of the challenges of international integration and the tensions caused by maritime conflicts with China.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
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‘Following Uncle Hồ to save the nation’: Empowerment, legitimacy, and
nationalistic aspirations in a Vietnamese new religious movement
Chung Van Hoang
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies / Volume 47 / Issue 02 / June 2016, pp 234 - 254
DOI: 10.1017/S0022463416000060, Published online: 29 April 2016
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0022463416000060
How to cite this article:
Chung Van Hoang (2016). ‘Following Uncle Hồ to save the nation’: Empowerment, legitimacy, and
nationalistic aspirations in a Vietnamese new religious movement. Journal of Southeast Asian
Studies, 47, pp 234-254 doi:10.1017/S0022463416000060
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Following Uncle Hồto save the nation:
Empowerment, legitimacy, and nationalistic
aspirations in a Vietnamese new religious movement
Chung Van Hoang
This article investigates new religious movements that have emerged in post-
Renovation Vietnam. The formation and development of movements that worship
̀Chí Minh will be examined through the Way of the Jade Buddha. My analysis
of this indigenous movement will discuss its controversial attempts to establish com-
munication with the spirit of HồChí Minh. It is argued that the movement is a chan-
nel through which people can empower themselves, seek legitimacy, and promote
nationalistic aspirations. The emergence of such movements demonstrates the ongoing
millenarian dream of social transformation in the face of the challenges of inter-
national integration and the tensions caused by maritime conflicts with China.
Renovation since 1986 in Vietnam brought changes in religious policies and a
general lessening of government regulation of religious activities, providing the con-
ditions for religious dynamism. New regulations issued in the early 1990s relaxed the
governments control of religion and religious practices. Although some emerging
religious groups were suppressed or closely watched by the authorities, there has
been a phenomenal revival of religion throughout the nation since then.
Mainstream and institutionalised religions such as Catholicism, Buddhism and
Protestantism have regained their vitality in the public domain. There has been offi-
cial recognition of Vietnamese religions such as Hòa Hảo Buddhism and Caodaism,
while many newly-introduced Protestant denominations are now registered with local
authorities. At the same time, international new religious movements have found their
way into Vietnam through the missionary activities of visitors and expatriates and by
Vietnamese returning after a period of living abroad. Gradually, the Vietnamese pub-
lic have become aware of movements such as Soka Gakkai, Mormonism, Jehovahs
Witnesses, Falun Gong, I-Kuan Tao, Transcendental Meditation, and the Way of
Chung Van Hoang is a full-time postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Religious Studies, Vietnam
Academy of Social Sciences. Correspondence in connection with this article should be addressed to:
vanchung.hoang@gmail.com. The author would like to thank La Trobe University, Melbourne, for fund-
ing his research on new religious groups in Vietnam between 2009 and 2014. A special thank you to
Dr Barley Norton from the University of London who provided valuable comments and suggestions
on a draft of this article.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 47(2), pp 234254 June 2016.
234
© The National University of Singapore, 2016 doi:10.1017/S0022463416000060
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the Supreme Master Ching Hai. All these phenomena have contributed to the growth
and diversity of religious beliefs and practices in contemporary Vietnam.
Evidence of a religious revival can further be observed in the dynamics of popular
faith-based activities. There has been a visible increase in the material resources mobi-
lised to support these activities, such as the restoration and maintenance of sacred
buildings and sites, and the restoration of rituals and festivals. At the same time, aban-
doned spiritual practices once deemed superstitious have resumed, as can be seen in
the popularity of the worship of goddesses and national heroes; the practice of
mediumship; as well as enthusiastic engagement with the world of the dead, spirits,
and ancestors.
1
Notably, a number of practices formerly stigmatised as superstitious,
even as technically illegal, are now considered by the state as legitimate beliefs
which convey cultural and moral values. These trends demonstrate an expansion in
popular religion under Renovation.
Numerous new indigenous religious groups have appeared throughout the North.
Prominent among them are: the Way of Maitreya (đạo Long Hoa Di Lặc); Heavenly
Secrets (đạo Thiên Cơ); The Way of Immortal and Dragon (đạo Tiên-Rồng); Tô
´
Dươngs Field of Extrasensory Perception (Trường Ngoạica
̉mTô
´Dương); the Way
of Yellow Heavenly Dragon (đạo Hoàng Thiên Long); the Way of Jade Buddha
̀Chí Minh (đạoNgo
̣c PhậtHô
̀Chí Minh); the Way of Hà Mòn (đạo Hà Mòn);
and the Canh Tân ĐặcSu
̉ng movement (Christian Charismatic Renewal). These
groups appear to be thriving despite the cautious approach of the authorities and
domestic scholars, and criticism in the media and from established religious
organisations.
2
My research has shown that the most popular new movement is the worship of
̀Chí Minh as the Jade Buddha.
3
Religious ideas and practices surrounding the wor-
ship of HồChí Minh are diverse and the scriptures (kinh) vary, however. In the 1990s,
Madam Lang from Hải Phòng was the first to spread the idea of the advent of HồChí
Minhs spirit in the form of the Jade Buddha.
4
That idea has since then been replayed,
reworked, and changed variously among many groups.
1 See Philip Taylor, Goddess on the rise: Pilgrimage and popular religion in Vietnam (Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 2004); Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity: Tran Hung Dao and the resur-
gence of popular religion in Vietnam (Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2009); Oscar Salemink, Embodying the
nation: Mediumship, ritual, and the national imagination,Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 3 (2008): 269.
On the spirit and ancestor world, see Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser, Introduction: Multivocal arenas
of modern enchantment in Southeast Asia,inEngaging the spirit world: Popular beliefs and practices in
modern Southeast Asia, ed. Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser (New York: Berghahn, 2011), p. 4; Kirsten
Endres, Engaging the spirits of the dead: Soul-calling rituals and the performative construction of effi-
cacy,Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, 4 (2008): 75573.
2 Chung Hoang, New religious movements in Vietnamese media discourse since 1986: A critical
approach,Journal of Australian Religion Studies Review 3 (2012): 293315; Chung Van Hoang,
Alternative pathways to heaven: Religious reconfiguration and new religious movements in contempor-
ary Vietnam(Ph.D. diss., La Trobe University, Melbourne, 2014), pp. 7078.
3 The term Ngọc Phật(the Jade Buddha) is not new and appeared in earlier HòaHa
̉o Buddhist proph-
ecies (
´m giảng). According to these prophecies, the Jade Emperor commanded that the Jade Buddha be
sent down to earth to save good people and punish evil-doers. However, the Jade Buddhahas a different
meaning in contemporary new religious groups where it is used to indicate HồChí Minhs spirit.
4 Pseudonyms are used for all the people that I interviewed and talked to for this article.
FOLLOWING UNCLE HÔ
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The popularity of new religions based on belief in the advent of the Jade Buddha
calls for further enquiry into their emergence and nature as a religious trend in the
post-Renovation period. In this article, I examine one of these movements, the
Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums (Đoàn đồng thiên Hòa Bình) in the northern
province of HảiDương. I first explore earlier studies of new religious groups and indi-
cate my contribution to this scholarship. The arguments and predictions provided by
Shaun Kingsley Malarney in 1996 and Pham Quynh Phuong in 2005 about the dei-
fication of HồChí Minh will be revisited.
5
This study, in a sense, extends their work.
Second, I analyse the Peace Societys key religious features. Third, I will focus on iden-
tifying elements that link this movement with current and broader religious argu-
ments and orientations in Vietnam. This article argues that the Peace Society is a
channel through which people can empower themselves, seek legitimacy, and pro-
mote nationalistic aspirations. The emergence of movements based on the belief
that the Jade Buddha will bring salvation to the nation demonstrates the ongoing mil-
lenarian dream of social transformation in the context of the challenges brought about
by Vietnams growing integration into the world economy, as well as recent Sino
Vietnamese tensions in BiểnĐông (East Sea; South China Sea).
New religious groups
An interest in the emergence of small religious groups in post-Renovation
Vietnam has been evident in studies conducted by researchers who are mainly
from the Party-States organisations and academic institutions. The early studies
were carried out in the 2000s when the phenomenon of these groups first came to
prominence. In general, such groups are treated by researchers as one of the novel
elements of post-Renovation Vietnamese religion, hence the major concern has
been to define, classify, and characterise these beliefs and practices, as well as to
explain their origin and popularity.
Most researchers use terms such as đạola
̣(strange religious pathway) or các
hiệntượng tôn giáo mới(new religious phenomena) to refer to these groups.
Typical definitions tend to focus on what are seen as their common traits. An edited
volume published by the Department for Religious Works at the Partys Central
Commission for Mass Mobilisation (Ban Dân vận Trung ương) in 2007 for the exclu-
sive use of officials defines đạola
̣as:
forms of unknown beliefs of recent origin. A number of followers gather around a person
whoclaimstohaveaheavenly quality(thiên tính) and to be chosen by spirits or deities to
establish a religious pathway. Such a pathway has its own tenets, which are blended and
mixed from many resources (from conventional religious doctrines and current folk-belief
practices). They do not have an organisation or are only loosely organised (̉chứclng le ̉
o);
they have specific regulations of rituals and ways of practising the scriptures.
6
5 Shaun Kingsley Malarney, The emerging cult of Ho Chi Minh? A report on religious innovation in
contemporary northern Vietnam,Asian Cultural Studies 22 (1996): 12131; Pham Quynh Phuong,
Hero and deity: Empowerment and contestation in the veneration of TrầnHưng Đạo in contemporary
Vietnam(Ph.D diss., La Trobe University, 2005), pp. 25263.
6 Ban Dân vận Trung ương [Central Commission for Mass Mobilisation], Hiđáp mộtsô
´
´nđề̀đạo
lạởnước ta hiệnnay[Q&A of some issues of strange religious pathways in our country at present]
(Hanoi: Religion Publishing House, 2007), p. 17.
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This definition inherits ideas from definitions previously proposed by some Institute
for Religious Studies researchers. It implies that these groups lack proper organisa-
tional structures and formal scriptures, and call into question the integrity of their
founders/leaders. This approach reinforces the dominant and official understanding
of legal religions as organised, with a well-established code of conduct and rituals, and
a complete doctrine.
7
At the same time, it tends to emphasise factors that make these
strange religious pathwaysbased on what is often deemed mê tín(superstitious)
8
rather than rational thinking.
9
A more neutral approach was only introduced in 2014 when the contributors to a
volume on postmodernism and new religious movements began to use concepts such
as tôn giáo mới(new religions) or phong trào tôn giáo mới(new religious move-
ment, NRM), referencing relevant Western literature. Trương Văn Chung uses tôn
giáo mớito refer to:
Forms of organisation, teachings, ritual and belief which are different to and independ-
ent of popular and conventional religions; they reflect great changes in terms of culture
and spirit (tinh thần) of the contemporary society and demands in shifting spiritual
practices (nhu cầu chuyể
nđổi tâm linh) in a specific socio-cultural context.
10
As can be seen, unlike previous studies, the authors in this book avoid making sub-
jective judgements on the validity of the new religious groups.
Other scholars have focused on ways to classify these groups. PhạmVăn Phóng
and Nguyê
˜nVănNhu
̣classify new religious groups into four types, depending on the
level of risk they are seen to pose to security and the Party-State.
11
Meanwhile, Đô
˜
Quang Hưng categorises new religious phenomenainto three types based on their
origins, namely: those that detach from, but are not recognised by, mainstream reli-
gions; those that are newly and domestically founded; and those that have been
recently imported from overseas.
12
These classifications attempt to explain the origin
and formation of these groups.
Scholars of these new religions have sought common features among them. Đô
˜
Quang Hưng writes that the following characteristics are shared by many groups:
7 See the definition of a legal religious organisation in the Government Committee for Religious Affairs,
The Party-States legal documents of religion and belief (Hanoi: Religion Publishing House, 2012), p. 32.
8 For the Partys official definition of superstitionsince 1975, see Barley Norton, The moon remem-
bers Uncle Ho: The politics of music and mediumship in northern Vietnam,British Journal of
Ethnomusicology 11, 1 (2002): 75.
9 The adjective mê tínis used to refer to someone who excessively and unconditionally believes in
supernatural symbols, imaginary beings and creations which do not conform to natural rules. This belief
causes him or her the loss of rational thinking and consciousness thus causes negative effects on indivi-
duals, families, and communities in terms of health, time, money and even on life and society. See Ban
Dân vận Trung ương, Hiđáp mộtsô
´
´nđề, pp. 1011.
10 Trương Văn Chung, ̀thuật ngu˜̛Tôn giáo mới”’ [Regarding the concept new religion], in
Postmodernism and new religious movements, ed. Trương Văn Chung (HồChí Minh City:
VNU-HCM Publishing House, 2014), p. 147.
11 PhạmVăn Phóng and Nguyê
˜nVăn Nhụ,Nhìn nhậnvê
̀đạola
̣ởnước ta trong nhu˜̛ng nămgâ
̀nđây
[A view of strange religious pathwaysin our country in recent years], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo
[Religious Studies Review] 10, 9 (2008): 49.
12 Đô
˜Quang Hưng, Hiệntượng tôn giáo mới: Mâ
´yvâ
´nđềlý luận và thực tiê
˜n[New religious phe-
nomena: Some theoretical and practical issues], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 5 (2001): 11.
FOLLOWING UNCLE HÔ
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Scriptures [] are unsophisticated, confused, and jumbled [unlike in established reli-
gions and folk beliefs] (bình dân, lộnxô
̣n và pha tạp); the method of conversion is
simple (thô sơ); and organisation and rituals are loose and simplified (đơn giản,
lng lẻ
ovàướclê
̣).
13
Võ Minh Tuâ
´n, on the other hand, indicates that these scriptures
can also be complex as some founders have tried to integrate modern scientific knowl-
edge and findings into their teachings, as in PhậtBàâ
̉n tích (the Hidden Bodhisattva)
and the Tô
´Dương School of Extrasensory Perception, both located in Hanoi. He fur-
ther suggests two features, namely that these groups often introduce Doomsday
prophecies, especially ones that foretell the end of the world in the twenty-first cen-
tury, and that these groups are characterised by instability
14
because of constant
changes in membership, location, and unpredictable development.
In Vietnam, the founders and followers of these new religious groups are mainly
female. In addition, they belong to highly-vulnerable social groups, including retired
officials, the poor who are living in urbanising areas, women who are old, living an
unlucky life, having illnesses, and with a low educational background.
15
These groups
attract persons who have failed in the market economy and struggle to cope with the
challenges of modern life which is increasingly dependent on technology.
16
Their rise can be seen as the responses of part of the population to social pro-
blems brought about by the post-Renovation market economy such as corruption,
bribery, family breakdowns, increasing criminality, land disputes, and a widening
gap between the rich and the poor. Some suggest that religion is a cover for the lea-
ders/foundersreal motivation, economic gain.
17
Recently, Nguyê
˜nTâ
´n Hùng links
reasons for the emergence of new religionswith changes in State policies which
have given more freedom of religion, the loss of prestige of conventional religions,
the increasing demand for a spiritual life, the sharing of feelings and ideas, and the
need to improve health and well-being.
18
The efflorescence of NRMs is also linked
to the cultural effects of Vietnams increasing economic and political international
integration which has exposed its people to foreign values and orientations such as
freedom of expression and individualism, including the freedom to choose ones reli-
gion. Nguyê
˜nQuô
´cTuâ
´n argues that the emergence and popularity of spiritual prac-
tices that are beyond mainstream religion, including extra sensory perception (soul
calling, mediating between the dead and the living, and finding the remains of
dead and missing war soldiers); astrology and fortune telling; as well as millenarian
ideas, provide fertile ground for creativity, which leads to the establishment of new
13 Đô
˜Quang Hưng, Hiệntượng tôn giáo mới:1112.
14 Võ Minh Tuâ
´n, Nhu˜̛ng hiệntượng tôn giáo mớio
̛̉Việt Nam[New religious phenomena in
Vietnam], in Tôn giáo ởHà Nội[Religion in Hanoi], ed. Đặng Nghiêm Vạn (Hanoi: Hà Nội
Publishing House, 2001), pp. 799801.
15 Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Hiđáp mộtsô
´
´nđề, pp. 334.
16 Đô
˜Quang Hưng, ̣tsô
´nhậnđịnh vềHiệntượng tôn giáo mớiởViệt Nam hiện nay[Some notes
on new religious phenomenain contemporary Vietnam], in Postmodernism and new religious move-
ments, p. 236.
17 Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Hiđáp mộtsô
´
´nđề, p. 36.
18 Nguyê
˜nTâ
´n Hùng, Chủnghĩahâ
̣u hiệnđại: Mộtsô
´quan đ̉m triê
´tho
̣c và triê
´t gia tiêu biểu
[Postmodernism: Some typical philosophies and philosophers], in Postmodernism and new religious
movements, p. 15.
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groups.
19
These discussions imply that greater religious options and individual free-
dom play a role in the popularity of such groups in Vietnam.
It should be noted, however, that many state-linked Vietnamese researchers have
also seen their task as reporting to the authorities on the validity of these groups and
suggesting how the state should respond. Contributors to the Ban Dân vận Trung
ương volume promote the removal of malignant(du
˜̛) new religious groups from
society. Đô
˜Quang Hưng, meanwhile, expresses his concern about groups that criticise
present society through their worship of HồChí Minh.
20
Some researchers have pro-
posed anti-cult solutions in order to close such groups, reduce their scope of activity,
or put them under strict surveillance.
There has not yet been a substantial study of a post-Renovation NRM in Vietnam
by international scholars. Most studies of Vietnamese new religions are of pre-1975
groups, such as Caodaism, Hòa Hảo Buddhism, and many other religious streams
founded and led by ông Đạo(male religious masters).
21
There are, of course, many
studies which explore religious changes since Renovation. Notably, many studies
are accounts of the vitality and innovativeness of the traditional model of deification
of great contributors to the nation. In his study of popular religion in southern
Vietnam, Philip Taylor indicates an emerging trend of embedding more identities
into familiar deities, historical figures and personages.
22
Benoît de Tréglodé points
out that the deification of HồChí Minh began decades before 1986.
23
Looking at cult-
like activities surrounding national heroes such as TrầnHưng Đạo and HồChí Minh
through an anthropological lens, Malarney and later Pham Quynh Phuong have also
uncovered the continuous deification of these figures in northern Vietnam.
In his ethnographic study in northern Vietnam after 1986, Malarney identifies
the emergence of local ideas and practices in the assertion of HồChí Minhs divinity.
He describes a process of deification of this communist leader and foresees that the
cult of HồChí Minh will continue to be constructedand transformbecause indi-
viduals and localities continue to seek supernatural benefit or protectionfrom the
spirit of HồChí Minh. He argues that the future coreof this cult would be based
on similar expressions of gratitude by worshippers towards their ancestors.
24
Later,
Pham Quynh Phuong observes that HồChí Minhs deification along with the already
deified older national hero TrầnHưng Đạo is a part of the ongoing creation of a
19 Nguyê
˜nQuô
´c Tuâ
´n, ̀Hiệntượng Tôn giáo mới[Regarding new religious phenomena], Tạp chí
Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 1 (2012): 1115.
20 Đô
˜Quang Hưng, New religious phenomena: 12.
21 See, for example, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); TạChí Đại Trường, Thần, Ngườivàđâ
´t Việt[Spirits, human
beings, and the Viet land] (Westminster, CA: Van Nghe, 1989); Sergei Blagov, Caodaism: Vietnamese
traditionalism and its leap into modernity (New York: Nova Science, 2001); Pascal Bourdeaux, Nhu˜̛ng
ghi chép tự̀t tài liệuđầu tiên bằng tiê
´ng Pháp thuậtla
̣isu
̛̣ra đờicu
̉amô
̣t giáo phái ởlàng Hòa
Hảo (1531940) [Notes from the first French text relating to the birth of a cult in Hòa Hảo village
(15 Mar. 1940)], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 6 (2005): 3642. Literally, ôngmeans an old man
and đạomeans a religious pathway. These men would speak to any person they met about their
own ethical and religious ideas.
22 Taylor, Goddess on the rise, pp. 2356.
23 Benoît de Tréglodé, Heroes and revolution in Vietnam: 19481964, trans. Claire Duiker (Singapore:
NUS Press in association with IRASEC, 2012), p. 307.
24 Malarney, The emerging cult of Ho Chi Minh?: 12930.
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national pantheon and tradition.
25
In a joint study, Pham Quynh Phuong and Chris
Eipper affirm that HồChí Minh is being popularly worshipped as a deity.
26
There are both State and popular dimensions to the deification of HồChí Minh.
The former refers to the Party-States political use and promotion of HồChí Minhs
posthumous image. Tréglodé convincingly analyses the Partys attempts to encourage
and direct the commemoration of Uncle Hồs contributions to the nation and in order
to transform the new herofrom a propaganda tool into the tutelary spirit of the
nation.
27
Hue-Tam Ho Tai argues that HồChí Minhs death gave the State a new
opportunity to raise him to semi-mythical status and to use him to present a unified
version of both Vietnams revolutionary past and of its glorious future.
28
In the same
vein, Malarney points out that the Party intended to create a personality cult around
̀Chí Minh
29
and this can be observed in its agenda of constructing his image to
emphasise his saint-like qualities.
30
Pham Quynh Phuong, meanwhile, demonstrates
that the Party-state seeks to promote the veneration of HồChí Minh among people in
a modern way which is less religiousand thus less superstitious. Such veneration of
̀Chí Minh was seen as following the traditional model of ancestor worship.
31
The Party-States political agenda has had some unexpected outcomes on the
popular veneration of HồChí Minh, as described by Malarney:
People did respond to the image of Hồ, but for reasons sometimes different from those
articulated by the Party. In Hồthey saw a leader who epitomised local ideas about the
modest, sympathetic, incorruptible, and effective leader who brought benefits to his com-
munity. In Hồthey also saw a standard by which political leaders and Party members
could be legitimately judged.
32
This contradiction is thus a challenge to the Party-States political agenda in promot-
ing the veneration of HồChí Minh. On the other hand, as indicated by Pham Quynh
Phuong, people are widely and publicly venerating him in public and private spaces in
much the same way as they worship indigenous spirits and deities and this is also hard
for the Party-State to control.
33
The Party-States endorsement of the veneration of
Uncle Hồand the peoples preference for his deification are not aligned.
In short, three main points arise from a review of studies of Vietnamese NRMs
and of the veneration of HồChí Minh in particular. First, Vietnamese studies seem to
be sceptical about the religious validity of these groups because many have proposed
25 Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity, p. 163.
26 PhạmQunh Phương and Chris Eipper, Mothering and fathering the Vietnamese: Religion, gender,
and national identity,Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4, 1 (2009): 73.
27 Ken Maclean, Book review: Benoît de Tréglodé, Heroes and revolution in Vietnam,Journal of
Southeast Asian Studies 45, 2 (2014): 308.
28 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Monumental ambiguity: The state commemoration of Ho Chi Minh,inEssays
into Vietnamese pasts, ed. Keith W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia
Program Publications, 1995), p. 278.
29 Shaun Kingsley Malarney, Culture, virtue, and political transformation in contemporary Northern
Viet Nam,Journal of Asian Studies 56, 4 (1997): 918.
30 Malarney, The emerging cult: 128.
31 Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity, p. 166.
32 Malarney, Culture, virtue, and political transformation: 918.
33 Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity: Empowerment and contestation, p. 261.
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that the authorities suppress or at least limit their influence on society. Second, two
different simultaneous processes can be observed in the veneration of the former
national leader: the top-down effort to make him an icon worthy of national vener-
ation and the bottom-up movement to turn him into some kind of guardian spirit,
deity or Buddha. For the latter process, previous scholars have analysed the first
stage whereby HồChí Minh has been elevated to the status of an ancestral spirit
or a tutelary god who is recipient of prayers and offerings. My article will demonstrate
the second stage of this process by which he is being shifted to a higher spiritual plane
as an entity who delivers messages and is apparently expected to intervene more
actively in human affairs. Third, studies of the deification of HồChí Minh by
international scholars often concern cultic activities which conform to the pre-
revolutionary model of the deification of national heroes found in Vietnamese
popular religion. Yet the connections between such deification and the formation
of a new religion have not been investigated. My research will highlight the signifi-
cance of the formation and development of a distinctive religious belief and commu-
nity, going beyond domestic criticism and suspicion of new religions and seeing their
foundation as a sign of creativity, not a lack of rationality. This article focuses on
examining and understanding this creative impulse and the agenda articulated by
the Peace Societys founder and followers.
The new religious groups mentioned in this article can be seen as NRMs in the
sense that they are animated by ideas concerning the ultimate meaning of life and
alternative philosophies on contemporary Vietnam. To assist with the selection of
this case study, I drew up a list of further criteria, namely, Vietnamese NRMs are
those that: emerged in the country after 1986 and are not one of the 34 officially
recognised religious organisations; exist in small and loosely organised communities
founded and led by a charismatic leader who attracts a permanent group of followers;
are seen as primarily Vietnamese and indigenous; promulgate new worldviews, unpre-
cedented prophecies and alternative pathways to salvation; introduce alternative ways
of worshipping existing or new supernatural objects; and attempt to change existing
popular religious beliefs.
The Jade Buddhaand his Heavenly Mediums
Madam Xoan founded ĐạoNgo
̣c PhậtHô
̀Chí Minh (the Way of HồChí Minh
as the Jade Buddha) also known as Đạo Bác Hồ(the Way of Uncle Hồ) at the đền
Hòa Bình (the Peace Temple) on 1 January 2001. Since the year 2001, hundreds of
spirit texts have been released by Madam Xoan. Here, I will selectively quote from
texts in the Peace Societys̛i Tâm linh: HồnTrời-Hồnnước. Quyể
n2(Words of
spirits: Heavenly soul and soul of the nation. Collection no. 2), self-published in
Hanoi in May 2010.
34
According to Collection no. 2, the year 2000 marked the begin-
ning of a new era in which spirituality rises and a new world will be formed on the
34 Spirit textshere refer to messages that a person claims to have received from spiritual beings
through dreams, their subconscious, or mediumistic practices. They are similar to texts received through
giáng bút(spirit writing) practices found in the South, especially in Caodaism and Hòa Hảo Buddhism,
in the first half of the twentieth century. Such messages are also found in Chinese shamanic movements
in Malaysia and China.
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basis of a perfect and dual combination of this-worldly and other-worldly elements.
35
A Jade Buddha appears as the main invisible actor in this transformation and is
actually the spirit of HồChí Minh. To complete his mission, he chose a number of
human assistants and Madam Xoan was the first.
Born in 1948, in the countryside of Nam Định province in the North, Madam
Xoan had an unfortunate and hard childhood. Her parents were poor and her father
was often away from home. When she was 14, her mother died of an illness. Soon
after, her father remarried a woman who treated Xoan and her younger sister
badly. She sometimes fought back and the relationship only got worse. She had to
move out of the house and live at a cousins place. To feed herself and her sister,
she left school and when she was 15 years old she began working. In despair, she
attempted suicide several times. At 16, she left her village to become a factory worker
(đi công nhân) far from home, in HảiDương province. At the age of 19 she married a
co-worker and they had four children.
Things changed when she began experiencing health problems in her mid-20s.
She fell unconscious on numerous occasions. She even had intense pain in one finger,
which she asked to have amputated. None of the many doctors consulted could
explain what kind of disease she had. One day, while waiting for treatment at a hos-
pital in Hanoi, she heard a strange voice, not very clear at first, coming out of thin air.
The voice said that she did not have a disease and that what she had endured were
challenges because she had been chosen to undertake duties assigned by spirits
(̀u việc thánh). Upon being told that she had a spirit root(căn), she decided to
retire early and became a small trader at the local market and earned a good income
by selling votive papers and other objects essential for religious rituals. Five years later,
guided by the voice that she could hear clearly by then, Madam Xoan gave up trading
to study the benediction of spirits (học phép thánh) at home.
In 1989, to her surprise, the voice told her that she had been chosen by the
Heavenly Palace (Tòa Thiên) to perform duties to save the nation. She began building
a small 10-square-metre shrine named the Peace Shrine (đ̣n Hòa Bình) on her own
land and started receiving donations from devotees. Over the next ten years, Madam
Xoan devoted all her time to taking different courses at home with the Jade Buddha at
ever more advanced levels. In 2000, the Peace Shrine was upgraded to the Peace
Temple (đền Hòa Bình) on the same site. This time, after fifteen years of training,
she could directly communicate with the Jade Buddha whenever she wanted. She
was also required to recruit mediums to work with her and she established the
Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums in the same year. She remembered that:
Often at night, as the Jade Buddha began calling I could do nothing but sit down with a
pen held ready on a blank sheet of paper. The pen then started moving, out of my con-
trol [], I could only read and understand the texts the next morning. [] In 2000, it
was revealed to me that Uncle [Hồ] had become the leader of the Heavenly Palace and
Bác (our Uncle) had been ordained with the title Jade Buddha. The reason was that he
was a person of great merit when alive. Soon after his death, he entered the Heaven
35 All of the translations are mine. It should be noted that Madam Xoan does not have official permis-
sion for these desktop-published booklets, hence they are technically illegal.
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Palace. []Jademeans the most precious thing on earth while Buddharefers to his
great care for the people. [Our] Uncle now ranks number one in the Heavenly realm.
The texts were either in modern Vietnamese script or in the Heavenly script(chữ
Thiên).
36
At that time, she was the only one who could translate the Heavenly scripts.
She told me that the Jade Buddha revealed to her that he wanted to remake the whole
world, beginning his quest in Vietnam first with some chosen helpers.
But Madam Xoan was very nervous about being the first to be chosen for these
duties. She recalled how shocked she was when the Jade Buddha ordered her to prom-
ulgate a new religion for the Vietnamese. But He assured her that she would be safe.
Since 2001, Madam Xoan has worked ceaselessly to boost the activities of the Way of
the Jade Buddha. Besides organising training sessions for selected mediums and con-
ducting sessions required by the Jade Buddha, she has managed the Peace Temple and
all its activities. She has organised key ceremonies, received guests and researchers
who are interested in communicating with HồChí Minhs spirit, and provided ser-
vices for followers and clients. The scriptures of the Jade Buddha (kinh) are still
being revealed in the form of spirit-texts through Madam Xoan, and there are over
sixty notebooks of verses.
37
The first spirit poems were typed and compiled in a col-
lection in 2001 and many additional collections have been released since then, such as
Kinh theo đạo Bác từđây cứuđời(Following the Uncles Way to save the nation from
now on) in 2001 and Luậtđạođâ
´t trờiViê
̣t Nam muôn thuở(Eternal heavenly laws
for Vietnam) in 2011.
Madam Xoan sees herself as a medium, but distances and differentiates herself
from traditional mediumsin other temples: she neither loses consciousness while
engaging with the Jade Buddha nor organises rituals to entertain spirits. She explains
this difference as characteristic of a heavenly medium(đồng thiên) not a saints
medium(đồng thánh) as seen in the Four Palaces belief.
38
Indeed, she asserts her dif-
ferences from ordinary spiritual masters (thày mo). During our conversations, she
sometimes spoke in plain language like an ordinary person and at other times in
verse, for hours. Yet, she would respond normally in prose to my questions. This
also occurred when she conducted ceremonies before a thousand followers. She
said she was regularly possessed by the Jade Buddha to transmit his messages, but
could still fully control the ceremony. In these ways Madam Xoans mediumship dif-
fered from more common forms of spirit possession in Vietnam that use music (chầu
văn) and costumes.
This ability adds greatly to the respect for, and confidence in, Madam Xoan. I
often witnessed followers solemnly addressing her as my Uncle(thưa Bác) or my
Jade Buddha(thưaĐứcNgo
̣c Phật) rather than by name. We did not know whether
it is actually her or the Jade Buddha [who is] speaking. Wed better accept her author-
ity (uy) and orders though she is not right all the time, one of her followers told me.
36 The script is written in ballpoint pen on ordinary notebook paper and is similar in form to
Sino-Vietnamese characters (Nôm). Yet only Madam Xoan can read or write this script.
37 Most of the Societys spirit poems are written in thơlục bát, a popular and much used Vietnamese
verse form.
38 This is the indigenous Vietnamese belief in the spirits who reside in four different palaces: Heaven,
Earth, Water, and Forest, which typically involves spirit possession.
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One aspect of this respect lies in their expectations of the potential benefits to be
obtained from Uncle Hồthrough Madam Xoan. I was told a story about one of
her clients: the man had become very rich after he had consulted the Jade Buddha
about his construction business. Out of gratitude, he contributed around VND 200
million (about US$10,000) to the planned upgrade of the temple, saying that his con-
tribution was given with sincerity (lòng thành) to thank Uncle Hồ. Madam Xoan is
rewarded for being a heavenly mediumnot only with respect, but also materially.
In other words, she has been empowered through establishing a special relationship
with the Jade Buddha.
Aspiritual revolutionto remake the world
The Way of the Jade Buddha at the Peace Temple is most widely known through
its 2001 self-published booklet Following Uncles Way to save the nation from now on,
which reveals the advent of the spirit of HồChí Minh and his plan for a spiritual
revolution(cách mạng tâm linh) to save the nation from all past and present foreign
enemies(giặctà). Ten years later, in 2010, Madam Xoan compiled Collection no. 2.
This spiritual revolutionmeant a major change in religious practices ushered in by
the new millennium and appeared repeatedly in spirit texts. The revolution is also
designed to perfect relationships among residentsof different but interrelated realms,
a process said to have already begun in Vietnam and which will eventually be achieved
worldwide.
First, the revolutionwas to be accompanied by a new order that would free peo-
ple and the nation from dependency on foreign ideological, religious, and political
influences. The following is an extract from a long spirit poem printed in
Collection no. 2:
̣t cuộc cách mạng thiên đàng tâm linh.
Thay cũđổimới thực tình,
cho dân, nướchê
´tca
̉nh mình làm tôi.
̛nay có thứcó ngôi,
theo lệnh luật trời, theo lệnh tổtông.
A spiritual revolution was initiated from Heaven.
Old things will be replaced by new things.
The nation and the people will no longer be servants.
From now on a new order has been established
according to the Heavenly laws
and the commands of the great ancestors.
A new order is needed because of a crisis that affects all the realms of heaven and
earth. According to Madam Xoan and members of the Peace Society, the Way of
the Jade Buddha affirms the existence of parallel worlds that influence human affairs.
There is the world of human beings and the world of spirit entities (cõi Tâm linh). In
the world of spirit entities, the heavenly realm (cõi Thiên) covers and governs
Buddhas realm (cõi Phật), the Yin realm (cõi Âm), and the earthly realm (cõi Trần).
But there has been a crisis in the Yin realm because of peoples inappropriate atti-
tudes and behaviour in the earthly realm. The crisis has been caused by residents of
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the earthly realm destroying the living environment. Besides, people have become too
materialistic and forgetful of their true ancestors. Specifically, spirit texts emphasise
the following eight problems: a mistaken understanding of the origins of the
Vietnamese people and an inadequate recognition of the primary ancestors; the over-
use of votive paper and objects; incorrect performance of traditional rituals to the
Mother Goddess; a mistake in dating the death anniversary of HồChí Minh; the
invalidity of rituals of spirit possession; the pervasive worship of foreign spirits and
gods (such as Sakyamuni of Indian Buddhism, Jesus, or Chinese religious figures);
inappropriate behaviour towards heroic soldiers who died in war; and the wrong diag-
nosis and treatment of illnesses caused by spirit entities. Because of these entrenched
problems, the spirits, ancestors and heroic soldiers became angry and began to cause
personal and social problems as punishments. The current situation has become
unacceptable and something has to be changed. Indeed, the presentation of these pro-
blemsand their solutions represent the framework of ideas underlying the Societys
creation, development, and challenges.
Second, the spirit texts of the Peace Society indicate that the earthly realm is in
chaos, requiring total transformation to regain balance and harmony with the world
of spiritual entities. Because of his great success in self-perfection after his physical
death, HồChí Minhs spirit was elected by the Heavenly Palace as the leader who
would bring about a revolutionin the earthly realm. Ultimately, the revolution
was to impose the Way of the Jade Buddha. The Jade Buddha would indicate clearly
which spiritual objects (Vietnamese Buddhas, saints, immortals, national heroes, and
deities) the Vietnamese must worship, and how to do this correctly.
Third, to implement such a revolution, the Jade Buddha needed human assis-
tants, thus the Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums was established. Headed by
Madam Xoan, many other mediums were also chosen by the Jade Buddha to perform
duties. It sees itself as an organised society within the broader community of worship-
pers of the Jade Buddha, one that works closely with the leadership of Madam Xoan
and under His command. Once a member joins the Society, he or she must commit
time and labour as required by the Jade Buddha. This is to be performed on a volun-
tary basis, as no member can expect income from working for the Society.
Throughout the spirit texts, the Jade Buddha reveals himself as an alternative
form of the Jade Emperor. He is now imagined as an entity with heavenly power
to transform the whole world. Yet the transformation may not necessarily be painful
since he also has the qualities of a Buddha love, tolerance, compassion, and care.
Followers of the Jade Buddha
The idea of the advent of the Jade Buddha linked to HồChí Minhs spirit is
appealing to various audiences. In 2007, it was estimated that around 11,000 people
worshipped the Jade Buddha throughout the North.
39
According to a recent study, by
May 2014, the Peace Society alone reported around 24,000 followers.
40
I witnessed
gatherings of over 1,300 people at the Peace Societys ceremonies. Followers can be
39 Ban Dân vận Trung ương, Ho ̉iđáp mộtsô
´
´nđề, p. 46.
40 Nguyê
˜n Ngọc Phương, Hiệntượng thờcúng HồChí Minh: Quá trình hình thành, đặcđ̉m thờcúng
và bản châ
´t tôn giáo[The cult of HồChí Minh: Formation, features and religious nature] (M.A. diss.,
College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Hanoi National University, 2014), p. 59.
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categorised into three groups. The first are core members, including 19 heavenly
mediums, both men and women, of the Society who regularly work at the Temple
and strongly support its leader. The second also the majority are regular mem-
bers who carry out rituals at home, practise the scriptures, and attend major cere-
monies at the Temple. The third are those who have no strong commitment to the
Way of the Jade Buddha or those who come for services at the Temple only when
in need. People in all three groups come from various walks of life: they include uni-
versity lecturers, students, school teachers, doctors, policewomen, small traders, busi-
nessmen, military veterans, retired cadres, and farmers.
These core members of the Society constitute the main force performing its pub-
lic services(việc công). Public servicesare explained as all works that benefit the
Vietnamese and the nation as a whole. The three main kinds of public works are:
to perform annual rituals for the ancestors, HồChí Minh, and dead soldiers; to
strengthen the nations power through installing amulets underground (trâ
´nyê
̉
m
và hàn long mạch) and through performing rituals to deport evil spirits (giảità);
and to report to the Jade Buddha issues faced by the nation (viê
´tsớ). In fact, the
Society dedicates most of its work and time to these activities. To its followers, the
Society emphasises that the most important activity is the ritual to deport evil spirits,
which features some aspects of exorcism.
According to a summary written by Trần Dinh, a member of the Peace Society,
evil spirits are the source of social problems, misbehaviour and bad health. These evil
spirits are the souls of dead foreign soldiers or demons created by foreign invaders a
long time ago. They remained in Vietnam and never gave up their plans to destroy the
nation and its peoples well-being. Therefore, exorcising evil spirits through rituals is
not only a matter of individual health but also of national security. These verses, for
example, implicitly refer to the Chinese army, during its historical invasions of
Vietnam:
Đừng nghe họ,đâ
´y tà tinh,
xưagiặcyê
̉
mla
̣ilừa mình hại ta.
Chúng yể
mhô
̀ngiặc yêu tà,
khi sang định cướpnướctalâ
̀nđầu.
Do not listen to them those true devils that
foreign invaders hid to deceive and harm us,
when they first intended to seize our nation.
To eliminate these forces, the Society organises working sessions, which are not open
to the public or ordinary followers, when the 19 heavenly mediums, as possessed by
relevant heavenly mandarins, will expel great numbers of evil spirits (truy quét giặctà).
The Society, however, does allow an audience during other kinds of services during
which it often reports what it considers urgent national issues to the Jade Buddha.
On 19 May 2014, for instance, the Society celebrated HồChí Minhs birthday and
the whole event was filmed and made into a VCD. Madam Xoan read the Societys
report to the Jade Buddha before an audience of 400 followers, in which she stressed
the request to get rid of ChinasHaiyang Shiyou 891 oil rig and stop Chinese activities
in BiểnĐông:
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̀u cha là Bác đổtrầnnước an.
[]chủquyê ̀n biể
nđảo ngòai khơi,
đãbi
̣xâm chiê
´mđâ
´t trời Việt Nam.
We are asking you, our Uncle,
to come down to secure the nation []
Vietnams sovereignty on the sea has just been violated.
Although these verses look traditional, chủquyền biể
nđảo(sovereignty at sea) is a
very modern term. It has been only used in popular discourse since the Vietnam
China conflicts at sea became heated in 2010. According to Madam Xoan, what
the Societys public services focus on rests mainly on the idea that its members are
fulfilling what is neglected by the State: taking care of the spiritual dimension of
the nation (lo liệu phần tâm linh củanước nhà). For years, these public services
have attracted followers to the Way of the Jade Buddha.
The followers of the Jade Buddha are those who act according to his teachings
through reading tenets and maintaining a close relationship with the Society. They
are encouraged to attend important events. Such attendance is considered not only
to be proof of their loyal affiliation to the Way, but also as a chance to be blessed
by the Jade Buddha. Followers also come to the Temple to obtain free booklets on
self-improvement and how to organise home rituals. The intensity of a followers rela-
tionship to the Peace Society can be measured by how often she or he visits the
Temple, either to give a donation, partake in services, or buy the latest spirit texts.
Devotees of the Jade Buddha are advised to worship HồChí Minh at home. They
are instructed to set up an altar with a national flag placed above a picture of HồChí
Minh and an incense burner. These objects should be placed on a higher shelf than
that for the ancestors. On important days people should prepare offerings to heaven
and earth, to the national Buddha, immortals, saints, deities, the earth god and to
their own ancestors. Everyday offerings of fresh flowers, cakes or fruit should be pre-
pared for the home earth god and ancestors. There are no special dietary require-
ments; however, the burning of votive paper is prohibited.
The revolutionary changes that the Jade Buddha seeks to bring about needs the
strong support of his followers. The spirit texts can be seen as an appeal to followers to
act in the interests of the future of the nation. Followers appear to be much inspired
by the ideal that they could, together with their Uncle Hồ, do something meaningful
for the country. Most followers relate to the idea of the return of HồChí Minh as
a spirit of a familiar person they once believed in, and still respect. Mr Danh, 72,
from Gia Lâm, Hanoi, described how he responded to Uncle Hồs appeal when he was
young, joined the army and took up a gun to liberate the homeland: Now because
I am told that He is back, I must follow Him to save the nation once again from falling
into evil hands.
41
People like Mr Danh who were faithful to HồChí Minh in the past
see themselves as acting responsibly by responding to his spirits appeal for the coun-
try at present.
41 Interview with Mr Danh from Hanoi, 26 July 2010, HảiDương.
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Millenarian expectations
The messages conveying prophecies from the Society and its annual rituals since
the year 2000 also reflect its expectation of a millenarian transformation. As discussed,
the prophecy is of a total transformation which will take place as result of a revolu-
tionbrought about by the Jade Buddha. The revolution will give birth to a new world
order in which Vietnam will hold a leading position. This can be seen as the continu-
ation of the millenarian dream of an ideal society and the anxieties over the fate of the
nation now fuelled by border conflicts with China.
In East and Southeast Asia, there exists a millenarian hope in world transform-
ation by the Maitreya (PhậtDiLặc). The Maitreya is seen as the future Buddha who
will bring about a new world without suffering, as seen in many indigenous religious
movements in Korea, China, and Vietnam.
42
New religious movements with millen-
arian expectations emerged in early-twentieth-century Vietnam. Hòa Hảo Buddhism,
for example, began as a peasant movement in the South with a belief in the advent of
Maitreya at the end of the age of decline(thờ
ima
̣t pháp). Hue-Tam Ho Tai and later
Sang Taek Lee discussed how Hòa Hảo Buddhism, during the 1950s, even sought vio-
lent solutions to foster change.
43
The Peace Society has furthered its ambition to win
over its peers and attract a wider audience by introducing a new world brought by the
Jade Buddha and by sending out prophecies of the nation since the year 2000. The
prophecies stress the nations opportunity to be blessed by the Jade Buddha, spirits
and ancestors. At the same time, the prophecies reveal threats of mass destruction
if messages demanding change and correction to popular religious practices are not
heeded. Nationalism is evoked from a religious perspective and national salvation is
seen to be responsive to both the spiritswill and followersefforts. Common concerns
here are Vietnams position in the world, the self-representation of the Vietnamese,
and the changes and sacrifices needed for the nations prosperity.
The Peace Societys scriptures feature these themes, and promote a somewhat
radical form of nationalism. The scriptures contain narratives of national origins, jus-
tifications for the current situation, and an imagined future for the nation. The
Societys narratives have titles such as SửTrờivàsu
̛̉nước(History of heaven and
of the nation) to reaffirm, with minor changes, popular legends stating that the pri-
mary ancestors of the Vietnamese were Lạc Long Quân (the Dragon) and Âu Cơ(the
Immortal). For Vietnam in the twenty-first century, the Society declares that Thê
´k
Hai mô
´t thay phiên. Có PhậtnướcViê
̣tđầu tiên ra đời(For the first time there will be
a Vietnamese Buddha). The notion of a specific Buddha for the Vietnamese to wor-
ship is developed in the Jade Buddhas teachings that further emphasise the exclusion
of all foreign religions:
Không thờPhật chúa ngoại bang.
Mà thờPhật Thánh rõ ràng nướcta.
Lets not worship foreign Buddhas or gods.
Lets worship our own true Buddhas and saints.
42 Sang Taek Lee, Religion and social formation in Korea: Minjung and millenarianism (New York:
Mouton de Gruyter 1996), pp. 948.
43 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam, p. 107; Sang Taek Lee, Religion
and social formation, p. 23.
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Here, the Way of the Jade Buddha reveals its intention to impose one religion for all
the Vietnamese. The Jade Buddhas teachings repeatedly stress the privileged position
of Vietnam and its people among all nations in the new world, as seen in this spirit
poem in Collection no. 2:
Việt Nam con cảthiên vương.
Trời sinh ra trướco
̛̉dương thê
´trần.
The Vietnamese are the first children of the Heavenly Emperor.
They were born on the earthly realm before all other races.
Followers believe that a unique heavenly soulalways comes down to Vietnam in the
form of a real person, a messiah, whenever the country faces a challenge. The first
incarnation of this soul was Lạc Long Quân as the first father of the Viet, followed
by the Hùng kings, TrầnHưng Đạo, and most recently HồChí Minh. To join the
Way of Uncle Hồis to join a great family, sharing not only a common ancestor,
but also one history and a bright future as the first chosen nation and people.
The Peace Society spreads information of the nations promising future once the
revolutionis completed peacefully. Its prophecies tell of a future when each nation
has its own ancestors, deities, Buddhas, and spiritsand there will be no antagonisms
among nations because each nation will take care of its own internal affairs. In the
imagined new order, there will be no more invasions, wars, and conflicts among
nations in the world and people will enjoy harmonious relationships with spiritual
forces.
This millenarian transformation comes with threats of punishments by the
Heaven Palace on actors that hinder the process. The spirit texts state that the
world is in an alarming situation because major problems have not been solved.
Saving the world means saving nations and peoples from spiritspunishments
(hình phạt tâm linh) and the burden of debts to spirits(nợtâm linh). The main rea-
sons for the spiritspunishmentare the bad karma that nations and peoples have
accrued in the past and at the same time their refusal to act according to the Jade
Buddhas new heavenly laws. Basically, these laws emphasise the nations sovereignty
in both Yang and Yin dimensions; the termination of the activities of foreign religions
and beliefs in Vietnam; and the recognition of HồChí Minh as the ultimate object of
worship. The Society through its texts insists that the Party-State has a crucial role in
fostering changes according to these laws. Recently, the Society has sought to speed up
the progress of the Jade Buddhasrevolutionthrough promulgating warnings of
heavier punishments. One follower, Mr Phạm Khiêm, asserted that these punish-
ments continue to happen at global, national and personal levels in the form of epi-
demics and natural catastrophes, social disorder, wars and conflicts, crime, and
illnesses.
44
Further, these punishmentsare strongly connected with the Jade
Buddhas message of a filtering process(lọc sàng), after which only a small percent-
age of human beings, mainly those who follow the Way of the Jade Buddha, will sur-
vive. The promised rewards for followers are clear: the chance to be free from
punishments, to be among the chosen ones, and to enjoy salvation.
44 Interview with Mr Phạm Khiêm, 1 Sept. 2010, Hanoi.
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The Peace Societys scriptures implicitly suggest the continuity of nationalistic
discourses which developed in Vietnam in the early twentieth century among some
new religions (mostly in the South) and Buddhist revival movements. Despite varia-
tions in names, teachings, practices, and size, many new and indigenous religious
groups shared a common feature during this period: they originated as patriotic
anti-French movements. The founders and followers of these movements used
magic to treat illnesses, to protect the physical body from the enemys bullets, or to
harm the foreign invaders.
45
Founders/leaders such as Đoàn Minh Huyên, Ngô Lợi
and TrầnVăn Thành encouraged their followers to stand up and fight for national
independence.
46
These movements mobilised great numbers of supporters by harnes-
sing sentiments of patriotism and love of the nation. They were able to put together
complete doctrines and organised themselves into churches or associations. Some
scholars speak of a cultural perspective in the ideology of movements that sought
to fight foreign conquest. They tend to view these movementsreligious ideologies,
particularly Hòa Hảo Buddhism and Caodaism, as part of the Vietnamese response
to Western cultural imposition and dominance at the time.
47
These studies suggest
the groupsantipathy to the imposition of foreign cultures, while at the same time
inspiring their followers to think and act nationalistically.
In modernising Southeast Asia, nationalism has often taken on a religious dimen-
sion as nations integrate with the capitalist world.
48
In the context of Renovation in
Vietnam, nationalist discourses created and promoted by the Party-State have both
developmental and cultural perspectives.
49
The Way of the Jade Buddha relies on
these nationalistic discourses to inspire and mobilise its supporters. It seeks to
reaffirm Vietnamese origins and identity and at the same time to appeal for action
and even sacrifice to protect national sovereignty. Specifically, it promulgates a direct-
ly anti-Chinese ideology. What the movement brings to these nationalistic discourses
is the promotion of a religious perspective. Interestingly, this orientation is in tandem
with the rise of ethnic and religious nationalism outside Vietnam.
50
However, the Peace Societys agenda in fostering a single, new religion for the
whole nation, radically excluding foreign elements and emphasising nationalism,
reflects the tensions and challenges within Vietnamese society and the changing
religious-cultural environment. Clearly, it also represents anti-Chinese and xenopho-
bic views amongst some of the population.
45 TạChí Đại Trường, Spirits, human beings, and the Viet land, p. 292.
46 Đô
˜Quang Hưng, Suy nghĩ̀Tôn giáo ởNam Bộthờicâ
̣nđại[Thinking about religion in the
South in the near modern times], Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Tôn giáo 1 (2000): 15.
47 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam, pp. 1567; Blagov, Caodaism, pp.
xixii.
48 Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann, Introduction,inNation and religion: perspectives on
Europe and Asia, ed. Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1999), p. 7.
49 Hy Van Luong, The restructuring of Vietnamese Nationalism, 19542006,Pacific Affairs 80, 3
(2007): 4457.
50 Willfried Spohn, Multiple modernity, nationalism and religion: A global perspective,Current
Sociology 51, 34 (2003): 265.
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Legitimating the belief in HồChí Minhs spirit
The Peace Society has an open agenda to legitimise the belief in the Jade Buddha.
The pairing of the notions of spiritual revolutionwith heavenly lawsreflects the
Way of the Jade Buddhas efforts to legitimise itself through fundamentally transform-
ing society. There have been efforts to mobilise support from followers and to obtain
official recognition. Madam Xoan wants her beliefs to be widely heard not only by
ordinary people, but also by the central and local authorities.
In this regard, Madam Xoan has approached the local authorities and sought to
register the Peace Society many times over the years without success. The answer she
usually receives from the local authorities is that they cannot make a decision but have
to wait for instructions from the government(chờNhà nước quyê
´tđịnh). In the
meantime, she has sought to raise the profile of the Peace Society. Madam Xoan con-
tinuously seeks acceptance and recognition from higher-level authorities. She looks
for support from state officials and from followers whom she believes can speak to
people in power. In 2011, she established a club of well-connected people who
were interested in HồChí Minhs spirit. About thirty people were invited to join,
including scientists, state officials, and intellectuals whom she knew supported the
legitimation of the faith in his spirit. Some active members of the Society hold import-
ant positions in ministries and government departments. By encouraging such con-
nections, the Society has sought to mobilise support from intellectuals who are
better placed and able to influence the States regulation of this new belief. Further,
in May 2011, Madam Xoan published two major collections of spirit-writing after
ten years, in the form of a desktop-published booklet. The booklet was sent directly
to the highest leaders of the Communist Party, and relevant ministries, as well as local
authorities. It directly asked the government to immediately recognise the Way of the
Jade Buddha. Madam Xoans persistent requests for acceptance exhibit no fear of
being suppressed by the authorities.
51
During a visit in August 2015, I was told
that she and the local authorities had just come to a verbal and unofficial agreement.
The local authorities promised to respect and not interfere in her cultic affairs. In
return, she was asked not to directly address ̀Chí Minhat any public ritual or
print his name in the Societys pamphlets. Such negotiations reflect that the Society
has obtained a certain unofficial legitimacy.
At the same time, the Peace Society stresses its contributions to the nation in its
investment of time, labour, and resources claims that further mobilise its followers
enthusiastic participation and support. On 27 July 2010, I was invited to an event held
by the Society to celebrate the National Day for Heroic War-Invalids and War-Dead
Soldiers (ngày Thương binh Liệtsĩ), one of the many ceremonies that the Society orga-
nises annually. By the time I arrived at 9.30 a.m., many private cars and buses were
parked outside and a crowd of participants occupied all the alleys leading to the tem-
ple. All six neighbouring premises were mobilised for the event. In the front yard of
the temple, hundreds of people were watching a large screen that showed previous
rituals. Centre-stage before the Peace Temple, Madam Xoan was surrounded by all
51 During the 1990s, some emerging religious groups were heavily suppressed or closely watched by the
local authorities and negatively reported by the media. For more details, see Chung Hoang, New reli-
gious movements: 298.
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members of the Society. Beside the screen, there was a large altar beneath the portrait
of HồChí Minh in the pose of greeting his people with his right hand raised. Above
the altar hung two large red banners: Towards the National Anniversary of Heroic
War-Dead Soldiers;We Forever Show Gratitude to Vietnamese Heroic War-dead
Soldiers. The anniversary celebrations began with simultaneous loud drumming
and the ringing of a bell. The crowd of over 1,300 people fell silent. Madam Xoan,
sitting in the Temple chamber, dressed in a bright yellow costume, read a votive
report and then the Jade Buddhas teachings in the form of poems. A cameraman cap-
tured her actions and voice and everything was transmitted to the screen outside so
that the crowd could clearly see and hear the proceedings.
In the middle of the ritual, Madam Xoans voice suddenly changed. It now
sounded similar to the voice of Uncle Hồ, with its familiar accent and rhythm.
Here comes Uncle Hồ(Bác vềđâ
´y), whispered someone joyfully. Everyone bowed
deeply at the end of each couplet spoken through Madam Xoan, and the crowd
chanted loudly, Please let me follow the Jade Buddha!Uncle Hồs main message
was to praise the soldierssacrifices for the nations independence. When the cere-
mony finished, I asked some attendants why it was important. A woman told me
that heroic Vietnamese soldiers who died in war deserved more than what the
Party-State had done for them. Thus, she agreed with Madam Xoan that their spirits
had to be worshipped with devotion, just as the Society was doing.
From a broader context, what we can see in the Peace Societys agenda of legit-
imation is a popular attempt to influence the Party-States political use of HồChí
Minh, as seen in annual nationwide government programs of commemoration and
campaigns to perpetuate his memory as a great leader. He is also commemorated
in the arts, literature, education and music.
52
However, the Party-State has no inten-
tion of institutionalising religious groups that worship HồChí Minh as a spirit, deity,
or Buddha.
The Party-State still runs many campaigns, strongly supported by the mass
media, to maintain HồChí Minh as a powerful symbol of national solidarity and
of morality a perfect example of personal sacrifice for national interests. His
thoughts and morality are said to be still valuable and relevant in contemporary
Vietnam. There have been numerous initiatives called social movementsencouraging
cadres and ordinary people to learn from his example. In 2007, the Politburo of the
Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam issued Directive No. 06
CT/TW to launch a nationwide campaign for Learning and following HồChí
Minhs moral example. Throughout the country, contests were organised to support
the campaign, attracting millions of participants.
Although the Party-State seeks to take the lead in the social commemoration of
the former national leader, people also choose to memorialise him in their own ways.
They have made home altars, home museums, built village shrines, and integrated
him into the altars of indigenous spirits at Buddhist temples. It has become popular
to bring images of Uncle Hồinto places for the worship of the Mother Goddesses and
national heroes in Buddhist temples or village communal houses.
52 See Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Monumental ambiguity; Norton, The moon remembers Uncle Ho; Pham
Quynh Phuong, Hero and deity.
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Strong criticism of state officials and Party members who fail to fulfil their duties
often has a parallel image in the absolute idealisation of HồChí Minhs personality
and achievements. Many new religious groups seek to develop the religious aspect
of this idealisation. The Peace Society proclaims that Uncle Hồwas a heaven-sent
hero, not an ordinary person. This can be seen as a catalyst for new religious groups
to reinvent and develop his deification. Indeed, they have actively sought to
further embed religious aspects into the State-led veneration of Uncle Hồ.
For NRMs that worship HồChí Minh, it could be said that seeking legitimacy is
not impossible. There are two reasons for this. First, the Party-State faces a dilemma
in regard to its promotion of the national veneration of HồChí Minh. There is a fine
line between the forms of veneration that are likely to be endorsed by the Party-State
and those which will be suppressed because they are considered to be superstitious.
While it is permissible for people to worship HồChí Minh at home or at
State-designated public spaces, setting up groups or communities to worship him
as a spirit is still not officially allowed and thus subject to suppression. Yet, as we
have seen in this study of the Peace Society, enforcement is actually uneven, revealing
local authoritiesinconsistency and confusion, which create spaces for NRMs to con-
tinue to strengthen their claims and gain greater social acceptance. Second, NRMs
may find a way to obtain recognition from the Party-State as its policies evolve.
Claire Trần ThịLiên has discussed the Party-States strategy to promote two forms
of legitimacy, internal and international. The former refers to its assertion of authority
through legal means to control religion and the latter has resulted in changes in reli-
gious policy for the purpose of Vietnams integration into the international econ-
omy.
53
This situation enables Vietnamese NRMs to request a legal and permanent
place in the religious sphere.
Conclusion
This article has provided an updated account of HồChí Minh worship in
Vietnam. While the State continues its political agenda associated with the national
commemoration of HồChí Minh, as discussed by Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Malarney,
Pham Quynh Phuong and Tréglodé, the people are taking his deification to a different
level. HồChí Minh remains a powerful symbol in the politics of Vietnamese nation-
building. Yet his deification and veneration as has been demonstrated in these new
religious groups reflect how he has become a similarly powerful symbol in the reli-
gious sphere. As I have demonstrated in this study, Madam Xoan and her Peace
Society have transformed the cult of HồChí Minh into a post-1986 new religious
movement. Its growth is taken to be a vindication of its chosen path and methods.
The Peace Societys success in creatively developing the idea of the advent of the
Jade Buddha has contributed to the expansion of religious notions and practices asso-
ciated with national heroes and ancestors.
The founding and popularity of the Way of the Jade Buddha have a number of
attributes and implications. First, the emergence of movements that believe that the
Jade Buddha will bring salvation to the nation demonstrates the ongoing millenarian
53 Claire Trần ThịLiên, Communist state and religious policy in Vietnam: A historical perspective,
Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 5, 2 (2013): 242.
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dream of social transformation in the context of the challenges of international inte-
gration and tensions with China. Second, the propagation of nationalism from a reli-
gious perspective and an ambitious agenda to foster the idea of one religion for the
Vietnameseare integral to the strategy of empowerment and seeking legitimacy. It is
a form of religious development that advocates indigenous values and radically
excludes foreign elements. Third, a corollary is the criticism of key cultural-religious
agendas and policies, and strong demands for the Party-States to change its regula-
tions on minority religions. The followers of such religions have sought to advance
their alternative worldview over that of the atheism once imposed upon them, and
to pursue not only autonomy, power, but also spiritual solace and to secure the
nations future in their own way.
The States reponses to minority religious groups that worship HồChí Minh as
the Jade Buddha have been ambiguous and inconsistent. First, it remains silent in the
face of these groupsrequests and applications to register their activities the initial
step for any religious group seeking official recognition in Vietnam, according to the
2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief. Second, in the meantime supression and strict
control are applied unevenly to different groups, depending on what kind of trouble
each group causes locally and how the local authorities intepret them. Third, however,
groups that worship HồChí Minh enjoy more freedom than those who worship other
subjects or have foreign origins. In a sense, showing gratitude and respect to HồChí
Minh also means supporting the Party-State. In contrast, groups that challenge the
Party-States legitimacy directly or indirectly, such as the Way of Supreme Master
Ching Hai and Falun Gong, are suppressed and controlled.
54
The popularity of the Way of HồChí Minh as the Jade Buddha and other
emerging groups represents some trends in grassroots religion in contemporary
Vietnam: the vitality of spirit worship and its adaptation to nationalistic discourses;
the continuity of millenarian themes in new beliefs; the quest for mystical experiences
of the unseen world; and the religious factor in effecting improvements in an indivi-
duals authority, social status, voice, and material interests. These trends reflect
attempts that the Vietnamese have made to reconnect themselves to their ancestors,
indigenous spirits, and deities, and to embed religious dynamics into their lives in the
context of regional and global integration.
54 Chung Hoang, New religious movements.
254 CHUNG VAN HOANG
... The U.S. State Department's Vietnam 2019 International Religious Freedom Report recorded the harassment of religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without official state recognition or certificates of registration. Specifically, there are reports on tensions and disputes over land and resources-with a link to religion-between Protestant ethnic minorities in the Highlands and the state authorities and between Catholics and the authorities (U.S. State In their desire to be recognized and registered as "religion" and thus to enjoy "religious freedom," loosely organized religious groups such as Ðạ o Mâũ (Mother Goddess Worship), the Way of Jade Buddha HồChí Minh or the Way of Hà Mòn, spirit possession-related practices, to mention just a few, continue to struggle with a "superstition" stigma and with suspicion of malpractice, swindle, and misappropriation of funds (Salemink 2020;Hoang Van Chung 2016;Hoang Van Chung 2017). ...
... They are socially embedded through collective rituals, narratives, and personal or community healing that come before personal faith, as Richard Madsen (2011, 252) also shows for China. If practiced out of sight of the authorities, they create alternative public spaces that sometimes complement and sometimes contradict the state (Taylor 2007;Salemink 2015a;Hoang Van Chung 2016; for China see Madsen 2011). China's 2014 installation of an oil rig within Vietnam's 200 miles zone is a good example of what such engagement in the public sphere looks like. ...
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