A VIETNAM-CENTERED RELIGION
Dao Cao Dai (Caodaism in English) is the third largest religion in Viet Nam (after Buddhism and Roman Catholicism). “Cao” means “high”; “Dai” means “palace”. Caodai refers to the supreme palace where God reigns. The word is also used as God’s symbolic name.
Caodaism is a syncretistic religion which combines elements from many of the world’s main religions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, as well as Geniism, an indigenous religion of Viet Nam.
Their main centre is in Tay Ninh, about 60 miles (100 km) North West of Saigon. They currently have 7 to 8 million followers in Viet Nam and about 30,000 members elsewhere, primarily in Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States.
They regard the history of religion as being divided into three periods of revelation. The first was circa 2500 BCE, when God inspired selected religious leaders to found Judaism in the Middle East, Hinduism in India and Yi king (philosophy of transformation) in China. A few thousand years later, God led the Buddha to found Buddhism, Lao Tse to create Taoism, Confucius to start Confucianism, and Jesus Christ to found Christianity.
They believe that, due to the frailty of those religious leaders, the truth became distorted. A number of religions were formed, but most flourished only in or near their countries of origin. Religions became adapted to the needs of individual cultures. Limitations in communication and transportation prevented the formation of a single, true universal religion which all of humanity could embrace. Followers of Caodaism believe that God was concerned that the multiplicity of religions prevented people from living together in harmony. God decided to initiate a third revelation, in which he communicated Caodaism by spiritist means.
Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant of the Cochinchina government began to receive messages from a spirit called Duc Cao Dai (pronounced: Duk Kow Dye), whom he believed to be God. After three years of studying and worshipping God, he shared his spiritual discoveries with others in Saigon. At the end of the year At Suu (1926 CE), Cao Dai instructed a small group of mediums to found a new religion. One of the mediums, Le Van Trung was named by God to be acting Giao Tong (Pope). Caodaism was formally founded on 1926-SEP-26 by a group of 247 disciples.
Spiritism (called Spiritualism in England) is the method that God chose to transmit this new religion to humanity.
A mechanical device is commonly used as a means of communication between spirit beings and humans. e.g.:
1) a small movable platform on a Ouija board which is lightly touched by two or more mediums. During a séance, the platform is seen to move around the board and point to various letters, numbers and words.
2) a small table which the mediums touch lightly. During a séance, the table is observed to tip and tap on the floor. The number of taps would indicate a specific letter
3) a Ngoc co (basket with a beak), which consists of a wicker basket with a radiating stick about 26 inches long; a pen is attached near the end of the stick. In use, two mediums hold the basket; the apparatus moves and its pen writes out messages which are interpreted by a third person and written down by a secretary. This is a very efficient method of communication, because words are directly written. It is the preferred method used in Caodaism.
With the unification of Viet Nam in 1975, the Caodaists’ activities were been restricted by the Communist government. Their Cuu Trung Dai (executive body) and Hiep Thien Dai (legislative body) were been abolished and replaced with a Governing Council under the direct control of the government. Rituals and ceremonies continued without government interference. A new order dawned in mid-1997, when the religion received official sanction from the government.
In the beginning was God, formless, nameless, unchangeable and all powerful. God divided His spirit into many parts, and created the universe, world, and its plants, animals and material components; each contains a part of God’s spirit.
Animals and humans have two components:
a spirit (conscience) which is part of God’s spirit, and a soul (or perispirit) which is responsible for emotions and personality.
They believe in reincarnation where a person experiences a series of lives. One can break free of the reincarnation cycle by “cultivating self and finding God in self”. They believe in Karma in which one’s future lives are dependent upon deeds practiced in this life. If a person accumulates excessive Karma they will live another life after their death. Large amount of Karma debt will cause them to be reincarnated onto another planet which is much colder, darker and miserable. If they have purified themselves spiritually, and fulfilled all of their duties, they may reincarnate to another, happier life on earth. Or they might attain Heaven or Nirvana.
Members are instructed in their responsibilities to self, family, society and all of humanity. Separation from honors, riches and luxury are promoted.
Caodaists worship and adore God, venerate Superior spirits and worship ancestors.
Within Caodaism, there are two sects:
Exoterism: in which one’s duties (while conducting a normal family life) are to:
practice good and avoid evil
show kindness to humans, other species, plants and nature
follow the Confucian:
three duties: (between king and citizen, father and child, husband and wife), and
five virtues (humanity, obligation, civility, knowledge, reliability)
Esoterism, practiced by the Chieu-Minh Vo Vi sect which:
practice “eradication of the inferior self” and develop the divine element
At their altar, they worship:
God as symbolized by the Divine Eye
Sakyamuni who represents Buddha
Lao Tse who represents Taoism
Jesus Christ who represents Christianity
Confucius who represents Confucianism
Khuong Thai Cong who represents Geniism
They venerate statues of Li Tai Pe, (representing Taoism), Quan Am Bo Tat (representing Buddhism) and Quan Thanh De Quan (representing Confucianism). These are the three Lords of the Earth
They recognize three saints:
Sun-Yat-Sen (1866-1925), leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911
Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French poet
Trang Trinh (1492-1587), Vietnamese poet and prophet
Followers are expected to follow three rules:
Pray at least once per day, at 6 AM, noon, 6 PM, and/or midnight.
Eat a vegetarian diet at least ten days each month
Observe five interdictions:
Do not kill living beings
Do not be dishonest
Do not commit adultery
Do not get drunk
Do not sin by word
Caodaism recognizes 9 ranks of members: Pope, Censor Cardinal, Cardinal, Archbishop Bishop, Priest, Student Priest, Subdignitaries and Followers. Women are limited to the level of Cardinal and below.
An American contact group is the CAO DAI Association of Washington DC Metro Area, 14611 Country Creek Lane, North Potomac MD, 20878. Telephone is (301) 424-3326
The Sydney Centre for Studies in Caodaism maintains a home page at:
Hum Dac Bui, “Caodaism, A Novel Religion”, Hum Dac Bui, Redlands CA (1992)
Tourism Service of the Tayninh Holy See, “An Outline of Caodaism”, Chan Tam, Redlands CA (1994)
Copyright: 1997, 1999,2000 / Latest update: 2000-APR-16 / Author: B.A. Robinson
frans devriese foto_morgana 
|Cao Daism celebration in the Holy See||
Like the Cao Dai religion, the Great Divine Temple, centerpiece of the Holy See compound, is a vibrant and mesmerizing mix of different traditions and theologies. The immensity of the temple combined with the riotous colours and statuary creates an effect that is at once grand and gaudy.
A full appreciation of the temple requires some knowledge of the Cao Dai religion. While many other religions are insular, Caodaism trumpets its foundations in other faiths. Caodaists describe their religion as the unification of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism: these faiths are represented in Cao Dai theology through such concepts as reincarnation, vegetarianism and yin and yang and also on the Cao Dai banner – a tri-colour with one colour for each religion.
Cao Daism garners inspiration from farther afield as well: Striding a spire high on the temple’s roof is the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Krishna. A mural inside the temple commemorates French novelist Victor Hugo, Chinese Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat Sen and Vietnamese poet Trang Trinh as three saints, witnesses to the 3rd alliance between God and humanity. And while Cao Dai theology is largely Eastern, the hierarchy is clearly Western because the organizational structure closely mirrors the Catholic Church, with bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and even a Pope.
Services at the temple, held daily at noon, 6 pm, midnight and 6 am, offer another glimpse of this East-meets-West eclecticism. An orchestra of 10 musicians and a choir of 20 youths lead the congregation in prayer. The hymns are much closer to Christian spirituals than traditional Buddhist or Taoist chanting, but the music is unmistakably Vietnamese. During the forty-minute prayer session, a Cao Dai follower explains, the presence of God comes into the chapel and gazes out at the congregation through the Divine Eye.
Worshippers are separated by gender – men on the right and women on the left. In contrast to the vivid colours of the temple, lay followers and the forty-minute prayer session,. Men with the rank of priest and higher are robed in solid colours depending on their spiritual allegiance within Caodaism: yellow (symbolizing Buddhism and virtue), blue (Taoism and pacifism) or red (Confucianism and authority). Bishops and cardinals also have an eye emblazoned on their headpieces.
Published on 4/1/07
Where the Faithful Worship Among the Tourists
By KIT GILLET Published: May 11, 2012
Rows of Cao Dai believers bowed in prayer. More Photos »
The Cao Dai temple, near Tay Ninh in southern Vietnam.
JUST before midnight, the monks were still arriving. Dressed in long, flowing white robes, they resembled fireflies as they rode through the darkness on their motorbikes, descending on the towering temple at the heart of the Cao Dai holy land in southern Vietnam. Many were attending their fourth service of the day.
Removing his sandals and smoothing down his robes, Vo Huu Nghia, 60, who had befriended me that day last year, joined them. He silently entered the cavernous temple and, finding a spot, knelt down and began to chant his prayers. Above him were the serene faces of Jesus, Confucius and Buddha, while a giant all-seeing eye stared down at the few hundred worshipers.
“We are Vietnamese, this is our religion,” Mr. Vo told me later in halting English.
For 70 years this elaborate, dragon-adorned temple outside the small city of Tay Ninh, about 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) near the Cambodian border, has been the center of Cao Dai, which has five million adherents. While it is not the country’s dominant religion, it has the distinction of being its largest homegrown one.
Every year tens of thousands of visitors, pilgrims and tourists, visit the temple to worship or simply to gaze in awe at its vaulted ceilings, vibrant color schemes and praying masses. And then there’s its unusual collection of saints, prophets and religious iconography, which in range, kitsch and spectacle presents an impressive cross-section of religious and aesthetic styles. But that’s befitting a religion that aims to unite all of humanity through the common vision of an individual creator — the same God honored by most major religions. The protagonist of Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” (1955) described the temple like this: “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney Fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.”
I had been drawn to the temple after coming across a list of Cao Dai (pronounced gao-DIE) saints that included Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson, Sun Yat-sen (the revolutionary father of Chinese republicanism) and Victor Hugo. This diverse group was apparently drawn from those spirits who reached out to Cao Dai priests during séances to impart wisdom and guidance. Some, like Victor Hugo, were said to have regularly communicated with the Cao Dai from beyond the grave.
Visitors to the compound today won’t see a séance — the government banned the practice in 1970s — but there is more than enough to thrill and confuse even the most temple-weary tourist.
The compound has two ornate temples, and a pope’s office, in front of which believers subjugate themselves out of reverence for the first, and only, Cao Dai pope, Pham Cong Tac. (He died in 1959 in exile in Cambodia after running afoul of the South Vietnamese government.) The 188-acre grounds include dormitories and kitchens for the hundreds of resident priests, a high school, a hospital, forests and a large area for religious processions.
I decided to forgo the $6 daily tour buses from Ho Chi Minh City for a three-hour trip by crowded public transport to the nearby town, a journey that still afforded a view of the city’s vast sprawl giving way to miles upon miles of paddy fields. Tay Ninh is in a tropical, agricultural area, and besides the Cao Dai temple and the nearby Cu Chi tunnel system left over from the Vietnam War, there is little to draw tourists.
Checking into the nearest hotel in the small, ramshackle town that has grown around the outskirts of the temple complex, I quickly headed out for what would be the first of many Cao Dai services, which are held every six hours throughout the day and night.
Inside the main temple, worshipers and priests were already bowed, their heads planted firmly on the cool stone floor as they chanted words of praise, accompanied by a single drumbeat and a few stringed instruments.
Closest to the Divine Eye above the altar, several priests in bright red, yellow and blue robes adorned with a large eye and with elaborate headdresses led the worship. On the balconies above, foreign and Vietnamese tourists watched in silence, a concession made by the temple priests, who allow tour groups in exchange for much-needed dollars. (Every day, about a half-dozen busloads of visitors come to see the noon service before heading to the Cu Chi tunnels and then back to the city.)
Thirty minutes after the chanting had begun, it was over, and with that the worshipers stood up and quietly filed out. The priests and student priests remained, enjoying the cool temple air rather than braving the outdoor heat; some went to their rooms to rest.
Soon the tourists were gone too, and the only people left beside me were a handful of sun-worn priests occupying the temple, constructed to be the center of a holy land for a religion created from the vision of a civil servant in 1919.
Today’s striking multicolor, dragon-adorned temple was built from 1933 to 1955, and in architectural terms, is part church, part pagoda, crammed with ornate drums and gongs, haloed statues of saints and other holy figures, and lavish and colorful symbols of other religions. There’s also a sphere depicting the all-seeing Divine Eye — Cao Dai’s offering to the religious cornucopia.
Beyond the four daily services there is little for visitors to the temple complex to do but wander the well-kept grounds, talk to — or simply smile at — the priests and practitioners, and seek shelter from the scorching heat in one of the airy temple buildings. Despite this, I found that the hours drifted by in peaceful contemplation.
I also struck up conversations with a few of the faithful, aided by a translator. Most of the worshipers and temple leaders were long past retirement age, perhaps a sign of the decline of the religion or simply a natural byproduct of people raising families and working. It also seemed to be an egalitarian faith, with just as many of the priests and student priests older women.
“I was born into the faith but had a family life and raised six children,” said Ho Huong Pham, 82, a student priest. “When my husband died 20 years ago, my children were grown up and I came here to devote myself to the faith.”
On the final morning of my two-day stay in Tay Ninh — during which I had left the complex only to eat nearby street food or sleep — I was invited to drink tea with one of the temple’s bishops. A quiet, elderly man, he smiled and explained to me the importance of the various robes (yellow represents Buddhism, blue Taoism and red Confucianism). After a while we sat in silence until it was time for him to put on his yellow ceremonial robes to lead the midday service. As I got up to leave he shook my hand and invited me to come back, before slowly making his way toward the temple a hundred yards away.
On the cramped, un-air-conditioned bus that took me out of town, I remembered a conversation with a man at the temple worshiping with his granddaughter. “Cao Dai is a collection of the best parts of many religions,” the man, Huynh Van Hgoat, 53, had told me.
Despite this, he was doubtful about the future of the religion.
“Ninety percent of believers live in the Mekong,” he said. “Of course I hope the religion is growing, but I doubt it. One day there might be only tourists here.”
A History of Cao Dai
In 1919, Ngo Van Chieu, a lowly Vietnamese civil servant working for the French colonial administration, received a vision of God and, following the heavenly message, began preaching a credo based on the unity of world religions. According to his new doctrine this would be the third alliance between god and mankind, the first coming at the time of the founding of Judaism and Hinduism, and the second around the time that Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism began. Cao Dai would be the third and final alliance, the religion that would unite and prove the unified message of all of these earlier religions.
The new religion followed the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation, drew upon the ethical precepts of Confucianism, had an ecclesiastical hierarchy similar to that of the Roman Catholic church and yet preached the Taoist concept of yin-yang, of two balancing forces, good and bad.
Cao Dai spread quickly through Vietnam, and by the 1950s it was such a force that it was said to command an army of 25,000 in the Mekong region during the turbulent and uncertain days at the end of the French occupation and claim an eighth of the country’s population as believers.
This rapid growth wouldn’t last. After the Vietnam War — during which Cao Dai priests refused to side with the Vietcong, even after their military had been subdued by the South and their pope exiled — the religion had all of its land confiscated. The land around the temple was returned in 1985.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 13, 2012, on page TR11 of the New York edition with the headline: One Temple for All: Tourists and the Faithful.
Cao Dai Temple By Samantha Coomber
Saigon may well be an alluring city. But if you need a break – physically, mentally and spiritually – from this city’s frenetic pace during your stay, there are plenty of day trip options out of the city to choose from. Saigon in fact doubles up as great stepping-stone in the south of Vietnam.
Many of the traveller’s cafes and tour operators in the centre of town can organize these for you, as you’re probably smart enough to pass on the public transport. One such excursion and a real highlight for many travellers, is the Cao Dai Cathedral, or Great Temple of the Holy See. As its only 96kms out from Saigon – in Tay Ninh District – you can easily make the trip in one day.
The journey out to the cathedral, heading northwest out of Saigon on Highway One, is lined with pancake flat paddy fields and farmland. Its’ present day tranquillity belies the ferocious fighting experienced here during wars of previous decades. Tay Ninh District is virtually encompassed by the foreboding lands of Cambodia, and the imposing Nui Ba Den – Black Lady Mountain -holds its lofty head high above. But it is the Cao Dai Cathedral, which surely merits first prize for the most prolific feature here.
Cao Dai actually means “palace or high tower”, which is suitably apt. Built in 1927, the massive nine-story Cao Dai Temple is part cathedral and part pagoda. It is also a rude assault on your eyeballs. No signposts are required for this one, just a massive gateway signaling your arrival. Sunglasses may be obligatory not only for the brilliant mid-day light but also the outrageous mixtures of colours, icons and detail that greet you – and that’s before you have even stepped inside the temple. Fluorescent shades of pinks and yellows scream out from its exteriors and rococo walls and mosaic-mirrored tiles glint in the sun. A giant Divine Eye beams down sandwiched between two grand square towers. It appears like a Disneyland debacle constructed of sugary candyfloss. The buildings’ weird mixture of styles, colours and icons found both in the interior and exterior mirror the hot-potch of religious ideals. Indigenous to Vietnam, Cao Dai, is in fact a fusion of the best from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, with Christianity and Islam thrown in for good measure. Their hierarchy closely resembles the Roman Catholic Church and their colour scheme seems lifted straight from a Hindu Temple. Cao Daoism was founded in Vietnam only as recently as the 1920’s as the answer to the ultimate ideal religion and insists that its’ earth-based intermediaries or messengers include such luminaries as William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc and Napoleon Bonaparte!
Within what is in fact the sects’ main headquarters, males must enter on the right and females to the left and shoes have to be removed before entering the massive main hall. From the bustle, heat and dust of the outside world comes inside the Cathedral immediately a sense of calm, peace and light.
Ever-increasing numbers of international tourists silently pad around in sticky feet, politely inquiring whether they can take photos. Serene white-robed persons waft through as if on another planet. Mingling with the visitors and attending to offerings, they surprisingly do not seem to feel invaded and happily answer inane questions. The Divine Eye encased in a triangle is a recurring motif on both walls and ceilings. Gaudy pink pillars guarding the sacred inner nave are intertwined with snarling green dragons complete with elongated red tongues. Fluffy clouds, stars, bright pink lotus blooms and a huge glittery blue sphere above make this temple appear like a far-out hallucination seen through illegal substances. After extensively checking out the extraordinary murals and central altar – which is heavenly adorned with fruit, flowers – and curiously statues of storks – it’s time to observe the ceremonies. The sects’ services are held four times a day – the most convenient one and appropriately the most heavily attended is the midday service. Many tour buses schedule this into their day trips. Before the ceremony is about to commence, you are led up a narrow stairwell. Just behind the main balcony, a small string band accompanies the dozens of upwardly moving feet with weird and wonderful music. Once upstairs, you are then led onto the balcony, which runs the entire length of the cathedral. This holds a frightening amount of inquisitive on-lookers, who all peer down on the proceedings. There is hushed silence up in the gods and an air of growing anticipation The Cao Dai worshippers spill out from annexes below, adorned in either white, red, blue or yellow flowing robes, signifying the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements. Those with peculiar white pointy hats, emblazoned with that Omni-present eye, are in fact the priests of the sect. The sound of gongs now accompanies them as they take their positions on the vast floorspace below. Rows and rows of gracefully attired worshippers kneel down before the elevated altar. Gongs now beat time with the string instruments and harmonious voices chant like in some surreal dream. It almost seems sacrilegious to take photographs but amazingly, it’s allowed and is an awesome photographic opportunity not to be missed. Friends’ back home won’t believe the descriptions of this cosmic temple, so you may find it to be a necessity.
The increasingly bolder music, uplifted off-tone singing and swirling incense is almost hypnotic. But after a while, the excitement of the proceedings dies off a little. The stuffy air, crowds and repetitive hymns make the eyes glaze over the dozens of souls below and loose a sense of reality. The service can last about forty-five minutes so many voyeurs at this point politely take their leave. They may wonder outside or to go to side annexes to look at fascinating murals involving such disciples as French poet Victor Hugo (apparently highly praised as a busy intermediary spirit) and Chinese Nationalist Leader Sun Yat Sen.
Graham Greene, the acclaimed British author who wrote the classic The Quiet American had himself toyed with the idea of converting to Caodism. But back home in London, he wrote “What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long“. Still, three million Cao Dai followers across Vietnam can’t be wrong.
Published on 7/24/01