Having the opportunity to visit a sanctuary of the Cao Dai religion in Viet Nam’s Phu Quoc Island last month, I became aware that this now one hundred years old movement has the earnest aim to combine five important world religions under one hat.
Formerly called “Reformed Buddhism” in French colonial times, Caodaism was founded by Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant in the Department of Criminal Investigation, being a bureau of the colonial government in Cochin-China of today’s southern part of Viet Nam.
Actually, during a spiritual séance held in 1919 while serving at the District Headquarters in Duong Dong on the Island of Phu Quoc, Ngo Van Chieu made his first contact with the being of “Cao Dai” or High Throne, later identifying it as the “supreme” being. After his transfer to Saigon he continued séances in communication with “Cao Dai” and organized a new religion, in which an all-seeing eye became the most important symbol. It was in Cholon that he met Le Van Trung, a well-to-do businessman to join the religious movement and even became its leader in 1926. By March of the next year the Cao Daists had acquired a tract of land in Tay Ninh and established their “Holy See” near the sacred Black Lady Mountain close to the Cambodian border. Much of the Cao Dai doctrine is drawn from Mahayana Buddhism and mixed with it are concepts of Taoist and Confucian origin, not forgetting to include the native ancestor worship of the Vietnamese. Having appeared at a later date, Jesus Christ was added too as well as Quang Am, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Also in the pantheon were eventually Sun Yat Sen, Jeanne d’Arc and Victor Hugo among others, while a hierarchical structure emerged, which is very similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, including a pope, cardinals, bishops and priests, having even their own army.
After the initial period of expansion came dissension. Personal differences happened and an exodus from Tay Ninh followed. New sects were established in Can Tho, Ben Tre, Rach Gia and My Tho within the Mekong Delta. Altogether there are more than 2 million Cao Daists in Viet Nam, but because of the political developments during the so-called “Indo-China Wars” the exact numbers are very difficult to estimate. What can be said is that Cao Daists believe in incarnation and a cyclic course of the world. Prayers and sacrifices are very complex and will be done four times a day, namely at 6.00, 12.00, 18.00 and 24.00. Men and women, dressed in white clothes, are separated when entering the church according to yin and yang. Gongs are beaten and offered sacrifices are flowers, wine and tea. Five joss sticks are burnt. Priests appear in ceremonial clothes: in yellow for Buddhism, blue for Taoism and red for Confucianism, what also appears in three rings as important symbol. It seems normal that Cao Daists don’t eat any meat and try to eat only fruits and vegetables.
There are not many scientific explorations written about the syncretic Caodaism religion and literature is very difficult to obtain. The important standard work is the translation of French Gabriel Gobron “History and Philosophy of Caodaism” published in Paris 1948.
Written by : Reinhard Hohler