THE COCONUT MONK
A Eccentric Religion Based on Coconuts and Space Exploration
ON A SLIVER OF ISLAND IN THE
WASH of the Mekong, just outside of My Tho, sits the obscure remains of one of the more bizarre chapters in Vietnamese history. The island is Con Phung, Phoenix Island, and the man at the center of our story is one Nguyen Thanh Nam, otherwise known as “Ong Dao Dua” (Coconut Monk).
In the war days, with the country locked in the midst of bloodshed and turmoil, a cult sprang up on this island, founded by the idiosyncratic and French-educated figurehead. A cult centered around three simple precepts: peace, harmony, and of course, coconuts.
Like Gandhi and Uncle Ho, the Coconut Monk’s origin story begins humbly enough, with a Western education. The young Nguyen studied chemistry in France, a period where he also developed an interest in religion, architecture, and the Apollo space program. Presumably fairgrounds and theme parks also, judging by what was later to come.
The turning point came after his return to the homeland, and a prolonged meditation in solitude atop Sam Mountain, just outside the city of Chau Doc in the Mekong. Nguyen took a vow of monastic silence and for three years meditated alone on his mountaintop, at the end of which he had formulated his bizarre new religion, a blend of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, space exploration, and an abiding love for the coconut.
With his newfound followers, he set up residence on the tiny Phoenix Island, and became, in a sense, the Walt Disney of his very own Disneyland. His temple, like a floating theme park in miniature, has been described as a “pop-art maze of towers, pennants, crucifixes, swastikas and colorful ornaments.” There were ornamental dragon pillars supporting giant sculptures of blossoming lotus flowers, pink minaret towers, painted globes, even a hand-wrought replica of Apollo 11, scaled down to the size of a dodgem car, all of it emblazoned in riotous colors. And at the center of this bizarre amalgamation of symbols and artifacts was constructed a man-made grotto fashioned after Sam Mountain, a papier-mâché peak from which he lorded over his coconut kingdom.
But although founded by a hermit, it was no hermit kingdom. All were welcomed to the island, regardless of faith or creed: pacifists, draft dodgers, and the simply curious alike. The floating temple became a sanctuary from the war and perhaps the only arms-free zone in a country torn apart by conflict. Throughout the war years the government maintained a hands-off policy and mostly left the island to itself. The Coconut Monk and his followers were permitted complete autonomy, provided the monk remained on his island and kept his meddling in affairs off the mainland.
At the height of his influence, the Coconut Monk could count more than 4,000 disciples amongst his ranks, Vietnamese and foreigners alike, from both sides of the conflict. And among those drawn to his coconut philosophy were some surprising personalities, including the off-