Why you should care
Because Scientology is just the tip of the fringe-faith iceberg.
The religious shrine floating near Phoenix Island on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is a hodgepodge of dragon-emblazoned columns, spaceship-like steeples and a decaying floating pagoda. Admittedly, it looks like the former shell of a once gaudy amusement park. But in its glory days, it was the holy ground for devout worshippers who paid their respects to the most hallowed and hollowed of fruits: the coconut. That sweet superfood we’ve been pummeling into massage oils, vitamin waters and Almond Joys holds a lot more power than just antioxidants.
More than 50 years ago, turban-clad disciples set up shop here, seeking salvation through a steady diet of coconut flesh and coconut water. By that time, the Vietnam War was already wreaking havoc on the country’s southern provinces, but the worshippers held group prayers and elaborate rituals amid the deafening blasts of cluster bombs and land mines. In fact, the conflict with the French and later the U.S. is what led many people to embrace eccentric faiths in the first place, says George Dutton, a professor of Vietnamese history at UCLA. The “growing dislocations and economic insecurities of warfare” pushed locals to seek out alternative religious paths during these tough times, Dutton notes. So, even in the chaos of an all-consuming war, their economic, physical and spiritual needs were met — thanks to the almighty coconut.
There isn’t a sense for orthodoxy; instead, there is an openness to trying different things.
George Dutton, professor of Vietnamese history at UCLA
And lest you think that the coconut religion was seen as a joke, it drew an impressive 4,000 followers whose membership included the son of Nobel Prize laureate John Steinbeck. The adventurous John Steinbeck IV became entranced with its spiritual head in 1970 during a war-reporting stint in Vietnam. And why not? The group’s even more adventurous leader, Thành Nam Nguyễn — known to his disciples as Ông Đạo Dừa, or the Coconut Monk — was a well-educated man who climbed trees and meditated on stone slabs after studying chemistry in France.
Having briefly flirted with the world of science, Nguyễn traded his lab coat for a saffron robe and took a vow of monastic silence under a tree in Vietnam’s far-flung mountain region. Meditating alone for three years, he cooked up the coconut religion — a bizarre blend of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism and, of course, a zealous love of coconuts. His devotees, who dared not kill animals, gleaned their calories from hearty coconut meat, milk, juice, oil and leaves they cultivated and foraged on the island. Meanwhile, Nguyễn himself ate and drank nothing but plain coconuts for three years, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pan-religion’s core mission was to remove the three sources of human pain: words, thoughts and the body. As far as religions go in Vietnam, “… there isn’t a sense for orthodoxy; instead, there is an openness to trying different things,” says Dutton.
To be fair, some historians say the coconut faith should be considered a lifestyle, not a religion — and there’s often a fine line between cult and church. But Nguyễn’s coconutship was regarded by many as a philosophy of peace that, in part, advocated for the reunification of Vietnam. Nguyễn even ran for president in 1971, hoping to join Hanoi and Saigon once again. But at the time, it was a radical move; the fissures between Vietnam’s bickering northern and southern halves were painfully deep. Ultimately, the ever-serene Coconut Monk succumbed to the thorny politics that entangled him. In 1975, the victorious Communist government disbanded the newly labeled “cult” coconut religion and spurned Nguyễn for his alleged anti-government activities. The wizened monk was jailed by the government, his flock dispersed and the short-lived coconut kingdom died.
The coconut religion plays second or third fiddle to the world’s larger fringe religions. Scientology has Tom Cruise, Jediism has the Force of the Jedi, but Nguyễn’s ramshackle religion has all but faded from memory. Vietnam’s younger generations are mostly unaware of the religion’s heyday or the greater purpose it served for their once war-torn country. “Most people don’t care about it anymore,” says 21-year-old Thị Huỳnh Như Nguyễn, who lives in nearby Bến Tre.
Nowadays, all that remains of the 4,000-strong following is a frail 79-year-old woman named Ten Nguyễn, who still tends to the quirky religious shrine. But even she confesses to being a bit more laid-back than her predecessor: She sprinkles chili, salt or pepper on her coconut meals. The fruit in its purest form, apparently, is no longer enough.