Coconut religion

The Coconut pagoda in Phoenix Island photographed in 1975. Author: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên
The Coconut pagoda in Phoenix Island photographed in 1975. Author: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên

Those who had the chance (and the courage) to joint last Sunday Bike Ride trip to My Tho and Phung (Phoenix) islet in Ben Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta, were able to learn a little more about one of the most peculiar religious movements in Vietnam: the coconut religion. A few weeks ago we were talking about how peculiar Caodaism is, but the Coconut religion (Dao Dua in Vietnamese) is even more surprising and eccentric. Although now officially extinct since it was banned after 1975, the futuristic looking shrine in Phung islet remains almost intact over an area of 1500 square meters and there are still many traces of this cult which at its peak during the sixties had more than 4,000 followers worldwide.

But what is (or was) exactly the coconut religion? Some say it is not really a religion, but a philosophy or a practice created by a Vietnamese intellectual educated in France, Nguyen Thanh Nam, who ran for the presidency of Southern Vietnam in 1968. Nam, who was opposed both to French colonialism and to Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime, was also known as the prophet of Concord or Uncle Hai. According to Quang Thi Lam’s account in his book The 25 Years Century, Nam was born in 1909 in a rich family from Ben Tre, he got a degree in chemistry engineering from a French University and after that he created a soap factory in his province using coconut as the only ingredient. His mastery of French with a Parisian accent helped him save his life during the Indochina war. The French executioners who were about to kill him let him go when he started speaking their language better than they actually did. This episode in his life changed him: after that he shaved his head and meditated for three years in the mountains of Chao Doc province.

Back to Ben Tre province and having studied the healthy properties of coconut, he decided to feed himself only on coconut ingredients and to remain silent. According to some accounts, this coconut fasting lasted for three years. This is when his religion or philosophy was created with the purpose of removing the three sources of human pain: body, thought and words. He became increasingly interested in Jesus, Buddha and… coconuts. His philosophy is a mix of buddhism, taoism, Christianity and a certain worship of coconuts. This was reflected in his clothes: he used to wear Buddhist robs and a crucifix around his neck. According to some accounts he spent three whole years eating only coconuts in Ben Tre, which is known for its coconut candies and sweets and is often referred to as coconut kingdom. His strong advocacy for pacifism gained him many followers, including the son of the great American writer John Steinbeck, and made the sanctuary of  Phoenix Island a symbol of peace and reconciliation. He tried to convince South Vietnam rulers of his pacifist points of view, but no politician took him seriously and he just stayed in his homeland until his death in 1990.

This video shows him and other “coconut monks” when the religion was at its peak.

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