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Vietnam, Theosophy in

The Vietnamese Theosophical Section was founded in 1952 and active for the next 23 years; after the change of government regime in 1975, its activities were severely restricted by the new regime and finally banned in 1983, when the headquarters was confiscated by the new government in Việt Nam.  

Mr Phạm Ngọc Đa was the first Vietnamese member of the TS, having joined the French Section in 1925. At that time Viet Nam was a colony of France.  Therefore, most, if not all, theosophical literature was available mainly in French; because of this, only the educated people who could study French books were exposed to theosophical principles. This means that in the beginning lodges were composed mainly of French members and Vietnamese intellectuals; however, when the leaders started to write books to expound and spread Theosophy, these books quickly became very popular.  People gathered to the Section to learn more about Theosophy and in many cases ended up to join the TS.

Theosophy officially came to Viet Nam in 1928 when the lodge Cochinchine was formed in Sài Gòn (Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City), attached to the French Section with Mr Georges Raimond as president. In 1929, the lodge received a visit from Mr Charles W. Leadbeater. However, in 1930 Mr Georges Raimond had to return to France and the first lodge in Viet Nam ceased its activities.

Theosophy revived in Viet Nam in 1934 thanks to enthusiastic members who, drawing inspiration from Mr Leadbeater, formed another lodge bearing his name, with Mr Soubrier and later Mr Timmerans as the first and the second president, respectively. On the occasion of the Jubilee of the International Theosophical Society at Adyar on 24 Dec 1935, the lodge sent Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai as its representative to attend the celebration and the Annual General Meeting.

In 1936 Mr C. Jinarājadāsa visited Viet Nam on 1 April, he would return again in later years for more visits as it seemed there was a special bond between Mr Jinarājadāsa and Việt Nam. On this first occasion he  also went to the province Bạc Liêu, where the lodge The Server was formed on 4 March 1936, no doubt due to his  influence. In 1937, both on his way to Japan and on the way back, Mr Jinarājadāsa stopped at Sài Gòn four days to teach.  Every night he was at number 48 Vassoigne street  to conduct classes for members. World War II occurred soon after that, and the lodge The Server ceased all works in 1940; on the other hand, although the lodge Leadbeater had to temporarily stop functioning that same year, after the war it resumed activities in 1947. In 1949 the lodge Leadbeater changed its name to Việt Nam with Mr Phạm Ngọc Đa as president, and was attached to Adyar, not the French Section as before. The period from 1928 to 1951 can be seen as the preparatory time, which in due course led to the formation of the Vietnamese TS.

In 1952, at last with 7 lodges and 160 members, a charter was granted by the International headquarters at Adyar and the Vietnamese Section was born. If, from 1928 to 1952, the pioneers put in a great effort to clear the land to plant the seed, the next stage from 1952 to 1975 was the growing time. The Theosophical Movement became active in Việt Nam as the young Section started working. Theosophy spread quickly in the society, for Việt Nam was a small country, and also because Buddhist teachings had prepared people ready to accept theosophical concepts.

The Section Headquarters at 466 Võ Di Nguy Boulevard, Phú Nhuận, Sài Gòn was designed meticulously by architect Nguyễn Mạnh Bảo, a member of the board, based on the mystical number seven. He personally supervised all stages of construction. The land and a large part of the construction cost came from a donation from Mr and Mrs Nguyễn văn Lượng. The building consisted of an auditorium with a capacity of 500 seats, a library, a meditation room, all surrounded by a large garden. Mrs Rukmini Devi Arundale from Adyar came to Việt Nam to ceremoniously inaugurate the Headquarters on Easter 1952. This became the tradition and from then on, members celebrated the anniversary of the Vietnamese Section on Easter.  

One particular feature of the headquarters that leaves strong impressions on its members and visitors is the giant bodhi tree grown in the middle of the very large front garden. The tree has a glorious pedigree, for it was planted from the seed of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha had meditated and achieved enlightenment. In 1950 on the occasion of the 75th Annual Convention of the TS at Adyar, Mr C. Jinarājadāsa had taken the sapling from Bodhi Gaya and given it to Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai to bring back to Sài Gòn. The young tree had grown into a giant tree but there was more to that. After 1975, two saplings from this tree were brought to the West, one at present is at the Manor in Sydney, Australia, and one is at Ojai, California, America. It seems the trees are determined to accompany the Vietnamese members wherever they are in the world.

The Vietnamese TS started to operate at the newly built headquarters in 1952; by 1975 it had 19 lodges and about 1422 members, with 8 lodges in the capital city of Sài Gòn and 11 lodges in the provinces.  The lodges in the city were the most active due to favourable circumstances, they were conveniently located for members and the public to attend lectures, and more importantly, it was relatively safe for them to do so when the war broke out in the early 1960s. As a result, there wasn't lack of interest in the lodges' works. The lodge Kiêm Ái was the largest and most active, as its members were committed and led by hard working presidents like Mr Phan văn Hiện, Nguyễn văn Minh and others. Not only did the lodge conduct weekly meetings, meditation and discussion sessions, study groups and other activities also took place at the lodge’s premises, such as serving vegetarian meals after the meetings and publishing its well known magazine Ánh Đạo. Other lodges had programs for Sunday school for the little ones, a Scout movement for the young members, and Round Table. In particular the Youth lodge was very fortunate in having Mr François Mylne as leader, guiding its young members through more than 23 years of selfless service to the cause of Theosophy. The youths revered him and would, between themselves, refer to him affectionately as Papa.

On the other hand, the lodges in the provinces progressed less well despite the good intentions and hard work that the members had put in for decades. From 1960 onwards, the war intensified (after Viet Nam was divided into the North and the South in 1954, the communists in the North started to infiltrate the South in the late 1950s and began the war, which ended with the South conquered by the North in 1975) and movement in areas far from the provincial centres became unsafe; members found it difficult to meet and the lodges activities suffered as a result. At some point, the fact that few members could come to the meetings had caused four lodges to close as lack of members made them no longer viable; in these cases the board advised members to study at home.

To compensate for their disadvantages and to maintain the link with the lodges in the provinces, the board had the initiatives of visiting these lodges to show solidarity, learn of their difficulties, and suggest support in practical ways like lending books for study materials. Weekly lectures at the headquarters were recorded and the tapes were sent to the lodges for loan; this was made possible thanks to members volunteering their time and expertise in preparing the tapes. Active lodges were very busy, lodges Bác Ái, An Giang, Long Xuyên conducted busy programs of public lectures, translation, and preparing pamphlets and booklets for free distribution.  All had yearly magazines or bulletins with each issue having 600 copies printed.

Lodge Chơn Lý in Huế was particularly isolated as it was located much farther from the capital Sài Gòn than any other lodge, and it was also right in the middle of much terrible fighting.  Still, it steadily carried out numerous works year after year led by Mr Hòa Giai and assisted by Mr Lê văn Mừng: regular meetings, lectures, research, monthly bulletins, publications, operating an elementary school for children of less fortunate families, and rendering assisting to war orphans. Almost all lodges presented Theosophy to the public and had their own publications in one form or another as a means of communication with members who lived far from the lodges. The lodges had monthly newsletters, and most had yearly magazines.  The larger lodges in the capital city owned libraries with Vietnamese, English, and French theosophical books.

Two directions were pursued regarding ways of disseminating Theosophical truths: for members more abstract materials were studied like The Secret Doctrine classes on Sundays at the Headquarters, and evening classes on weekdays studying The Voice of Silence, and A Study of Consciousness. For the public, there were Saturday lectures on popular topics like reincarnation, karma, evolution, and comparative religious studies. All these activities took place when the national situation was getting from bad to worse as the war spread, causing great suffering. One effect of death and losses in war time was that they made people turn to any available sources for spiritual support, and as such, meetings at the lodges gained attendants with time.

Publications The Vietnamese Section was blessed with its three General Secretaries from 1952 to 1975, Mr Phạm Ngọc Đa, Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai and Miss Lưu thị Dậu. Whether it was a coincidence or not, all three were professional educators with the first two being skilled teachers and the third one specialising in childhood education. Both Mr Phạm Ngọc Đa and Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai were prolific authors of theosophical books, and both Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai and Miss Lưu thị Dậu were  fine lecturers. Together they expounded and taught Theosophy all through the short life of the Section.

When the Section first started, most theosophical books were in French. Mr Phạm Ngọc Đa blazed the trail by writing the first books on Theosophy in Vietnamese; soon, others joined his efforts and contributed to the task by either translating from French / English books or writing Vietnamese books. This was a sustained effort, for it lasted throughout the Section’s existence and  went on with no sign of slowing down.  It only stopped because it was banned under the  new regime after 1975.

Most classic theosophical books by authors like Mme Blavatsky, C.W.Leadbeater, A.Besant, C.Jinarājadāsa were translated and enthusiastically received by members and the public, in particular the three books The Voice of Silence, The Light on the Path and At the Feet of the Master. The last two were reprinted many times with at least 5,000 copies each time for free distribution. First Principles of Theosophy, The Masters and the Path and other well known classic titles were translated and sold at very low prices; they became so popular that not only members of the TS but also the general public at large were familiar with the contents.  The books gained friends for the TS and people became well disposed to the Section's works and theosophical concepts.

This was a society in war time with almost everyone experiencing either death, loss, or sufferings;  under these circumstances theosophical messages offered hope and peace of mind and were much sought after. This demand is reflected in the large number of publications by the Section. An issue of 10,000 copies of the booklet After Death (64 pages) written by Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai was made for the first edition in 1973. After one month of sale, only a few thousand copies have remained. To Those Who Mourn by C.W.Leadbeater was also another favorite when translated.

One project the Section pursued in the late 1960s was to train lecturers to popularise Theosophy. The plan was carried out in earnest in the last years of the war, from 1970 to 1975; promising members were selected and trained at the Headquarters. The situation looked very good because the Youth lodge had a large number of bright, enthusiastic university students, yet when the program was in full swing, the idealistic war ended and in the wake of the disasters that had happened to the country after 1975, everything was lost. With the war in the background, in 1968 the Youth lodge launched a project called Seven Year Program, and aimed at preparing its members for the Centenary of the TS in 1975. The project consisted of a meditation program based on the book Meditations by Katherine Beechey, evening classes on H.P.B.'s writings like The Voice of Silence, Sunday meetings and more classes on various topics. Members were school and university students and yet, perhaps because the young had inexhaustible sources of energy, they found time to attend all these activities. Miss Phan Thi Nga, one of the presidents of the lodge, staged a musical play on Mme Blavatsky in 1971, adapted from the book Reminiscences by Countess Watchmeister. Two years later, the committee of the Youth lodge enthusiastically drew members in the capital city to participate in a lively seminar with the topic Unity in Diversity; everybody had gained some enlightenment in that memorable weekend. Optimism and the innocence of youth helped to lighten the worries and anxieties of a country at war. Finally, on the occasion of the White Lotus Day in 1974, there was a great exhibition of H.P.B's works at the headquarters. More than 40 titles were on display from various sources like TPH-Adyar, Point Loma, TUP-Pasadena, which introduced members to the treasures which were H.P.B.'s legacy to the world. In hindsight, this seems like the swan song of the Theosophy in Viet Nam, because a year later almost to the day, nothing was left of the forlorn hope.

At Đà Lạt a hilly region the 'Djwal Kul Spiritual Centre' was established in 1964; several houses were built for members' families around a proposed central meditation temple. It was planned that the centre would serve as headquarters of a lodge hoping to form in this town. Along with Mr Nguyễn văn Huấn, Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai personally invested in the development of the centre, but passed away in 1973. In 1977 the new regime asked the Section and members who were owners of houses at the centre to donate all the facilities to the government. As there was no choice other than compliance, perhaps it was fortunate that Mrs Nguyễn thị Hai didn't live to witness the loss of a dream.

In 1967, some members of Kiêm Ái lodge founded the Thanh Tâm Centre at Vũng Tầu, a seaside resort. Situated on a hill, the centre served a similar purpose for members who sought relaxation and spiritual recharge.  The first summer school was held at this centre in 1968 and the event has repeated annually, much to the delight of the young people.

Library The Vietnamese Section received a great deal of assistance from other TS’s in the world, such as books from Holland, England, and Australia. Miss Edith Gray, President of the Theosophical Book Gift Institute in America, donated valuable theosophical books to the library.

Visits Many prominent theosophists had come to Việt Nam: Mr Charles W. Leadbeater in 1929, Mr C. Jinarājadāsa in 1936 and again a few times in later years, Mrs Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1952 and 1980, Mr N. Sri Ram in 1955, but in particular one must mention Mr and Mrs Geoffrey Hodson. Not only did they visit Viet Nam many times, but Mr and Mrs Hodson also stayed long periods in order to train workers for the TS and teach Theosophy to members of the young Section. Miss Helen Zahara from Australia was also a welcome guest, as well as friends from the French Section and others.

Social Work. The Section operated an orphanage as early as 1954; over the years it received financial aid from the public, the government, and other TS’s in the world. It started to care for 30 children, later in the 1960s this increased to about 60. It received much help from the Theosophical Order of Service in Australia and the U.S.A. In 1970 it received a microbus as a donation from the TS in Australia. The children were cared for by doctors and staff, all of whom were TS members, and were given toys, milk, and necessary materials from UNICEF.

The Vietnamese Section died young, but in its short life it had accomplished many things. It left behind a strong legacy in the form of a substantial body of theosophical literature, theosophical concepts well known in the society, and best of all, devoted workers. After 1975, members were scattered to places all over the world. They spent the first few years to settle in countries like U.S.A., France, Canada, and Australia, but soon attempts were made to continue the Section’s mission. The magazine Phụng Sự Theosophia was created on Easter 1978 and will celebrate 30 years in circulation in 2008, the Santa Ana study group was formed in California in 1983; in 1988 another group in  Long Beach, Cali., was created; a Summer School was held in California, and lodge Chơn Lý was formed, attached to the American Section, also in 1988; once up and running, this lodge has started a much needed project of reprinting for free distribution Vietnamese theosophical books.  This project is still working. Three websites were created which offer Theosophical books on-line, and more books are planned to be written or translated on these websites. Thanks to the Internet, people in Việt Nam now can access and study theosophical principles.

More than 30 years have passed since the Section was closed, and yet members are active and Theosophy alive in Vietnamese despite both the Section and the headquarters no longer existing. Their activities are a sign of great hope for the future of Theosophy in Việt Nam.


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