Ho Chi Minh

Caodaism: A Uniquely Vietnamese Religion and Its Most Famous Temple

Caodaism (Vietnamese spelling: đạo Cao Đài) is a uniquely Vietnamese religion with millions of followers worldwide. It was established in Tay Ninh Province (tỉnh Tây Ninh), Southern Vietnam, in 1926. 

Its teachings amalgamate knowledge from different sources. For example, go to a Caodai Temple and you’ll see statues of Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius together. There, Louis Pasteur, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, and Victor Hugo are also worshipable figures.

Getting to Know Caodaism

Caodaism, much like other religions, has many complex and distinctive aspects. Some basic knowledge, however, will put you right for a fascinating day of exploration.

 Caodaism in a Nutshell

Caodaism in a Nutshell
[ by Tommy Japan 79 from Flickr ]

The basic doctrine of Caodaism is that Duc Cao Dai (Đức Cao Đài) is the Supreme Being. He existed before everything, created everything, and is part of everything. Man and God are linked together through the sacred light which is ‘love’.

The full title of Duc Cao Dai or the Supreme Being is Cao Đài Tiên Ông Đại Bồ Tát Ma Ha Tát. This can be roughly translated into Mahasattva Bodhisattva Immortal Caodaist.

Caodaism emphasizes the oneness of humanity above ethnicity, skin color, or sexual orientation. Ultimately, God is the father of all, and all living beings are sisters and brothers. 

The religion places emphasis on universal human rights. As such, it adorates those who contribute to peace, harmony, freedom, and liberty. Their doctrine states:



Which can roughly be translated as:

“The Supreme Being created the Grand Religion for all,

Worship and share liberty in the Third Amnesty Era”

 Basic Theological Tenets of Caodaism

The Three Saints of Caodaism
The Three Saints of Caodaism
[ by Tun Tun Win from Flickr ]

Caodaism respects all religions as emanations from the same divine source. One of the most important manuscripts is the Doctrine of New Code – Religious Constitution (Tân Luật – Pháp Chánh Truyền). The other is the Divine Messages (Thánh Ngôn Hiệp Tuyển).

From a moral point of view, Caodai promotes love of all and personal responsibility for everything around you. Philosophically, Caodaism preaches not to overly identify with peripheral beliefs and to avoid conflict. Also, they believe in a trinity of the spirit, the soul, and karma.

The Great Way of The Current Third Amnesty

Brahma Buddha, Shiva Buddha, and Krishna Buddha
Brahma Buddha, Shiva Buddha, and Krishna Buddha
[ by Christine und Hagen Graf from Flickr ]

The Great Way of The Third Amnesty Era (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ) is the mission of present-day Caodaists. This is also the Great Way for Salvation in the Third Revelation Period. In this regard, Caodaism divides religious history into three revelation periods.

First revelation period: At the dawn of civilization, God revealed Himself and His teachings to the world. This is the time of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva with Hinduism in India. The same goes for Abraham and Moses of Judaism in the Middle East.

Second revelation period: According to Caodaism, after thousands of years, the essence of God’s teachings became lost. Therefore, He sent His messengers to set things right.

They comprised Gautama Buddha, Laozi (Lao Tzu), and Confucius. Also, Mahavira created Jainism to straighten up Hinduism, and Jesus set a new path for Christianity. Meanwhile, Muhamad founded Islam in Arabia to revamp Judaism.

Third revelation period – Third Amnesty Era: Caodaism believes this current era is when all religions unify under the one God.

The Three Teachings and the Six Hierarchies

Figures from many religions
Figures from many religions
[ by Anne and David from Flickr ]

The Three Teachings (Tam Giáo) refer to Theravada Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Moreover, they stand together alongside the six branches of self-development.

According to Caodaism, universal self-development comes in a six-level hierarchical structure. First and foremost is the way of humans (Confucianism). Second is the way of gods (ethnic religions such as Shinto and Paganism).

Third comes the way of saints (Christianity and Islam). The fourth way is the way of immortals (Taoism). Fifth is the way of the Buddha and lastly is the way of Heaven (Theosophy).

Caodaists and Their Customs

Caodai outfit
Caodai outfit
[ by loilamtan from Pixabay ]

When attending services, Caodai practitioners wear a white ao dai (áo dài). There are optional weekly masses and annual important ceremonies.

In addition, they can self-conduct prayers at home 4 times a day at 6 AM, 12 PM, 6 PM, and 12 AM. Furthermore, Caodai followers may adopt a strictly vegan diet of six or ten days a month based on the Lunar Calendar.

History of Caodaism

Tay Ninh Holy See 1930
Tay Ninh Holy See 1930
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

Caodai history is deeply connected with the popularization of Fuji (cơ bút). It’s an ancient Chinese spirit-writing introduced to Vietnam by the French in the early 20th century.

Fuji is accepted as a direct communication from God. From recruiting followers, appointing executives, organizing ceremonies, and designing buildings, it’s the foundation of everything.

Foundation and Founding

Tay Ninh Holy See 1930s
Tay Ninh Holy See 1930
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

One of the first Caodaists was Ngô Văn Chiêu — an officer under French Cochinchina. Between 1921 and 1924, he laid the foundations of Caodaism within a small group. Around the same time, another group of officers from Tay Ninh formed their own doctrines regarding Caodaism.

These two factions and others later united. Subsequently, in February 1926, a spirit writing poem cited thirteen names. These people became the First 13 Disciples and Ngô Văn Chiêu was the Eldest.

Then, the first Cau Kho Holy See (Thánh thất Cầu Kho) was established. It used to be on a street within present-day District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.

In April 1926, followers elected Ngô Văn Chiêu to become the leader. However, he declined due to disagreements in forming the religious society and withdrew from any further involvement.

In July 1926, influential followers achieved formal registration of Caodaism by the hand of the Governor of South Vietnam. In November, the official founding ceremony was held in a pagoda in Tay Ninh Province. Also, guests were both French and Vietnamese officers as well as followers of other religions.

Turbulence and Partition

Armed Force of Tay Ninh Holy See 1950
Armed Force of Tay Ninh Holy See 1950
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

Due to various disagreements, different factions once again formed. There was a prophecy that Caodaism would be separated into twelve branches. However, the religion eventually formed over thirty factions.

These divisions actually increased the pace of development for Caodaism. In particular, it spread across South, Central, to North Vietnam, and even into Cambodia. In June 1941, French colonialists attacked Caodaism due to its growing influence and took over Tay Ninh Holy See.

During the First Indochina War

The Japanese and Viet Minh assisted Caodaism during World War II. Some Caodai factions formed the Caodai Patriots (Hội Cao Đài Cứu Quốc) to operate in Southern Vietnam. The Japanese helped to reopen the Tay Ninh Holy See in return for an alliance with the paramilitary force.

In March 1945, the armed force of Tay Ninh Holy See, in turn, assisted the Japanese. They joined a coup d’etat against the French in Saigon. Moreover, many Caodai armed forces joined the August Revolution in Southern Vietnam. After the victory, many Caodai executives were invited by the Viet Minh to join their government.

After the war, the French returned to southern Vietnam again. Reacting against this, the armed forces of the Tay Ninh Holy See joined different anti-colonial fronts in Saigon. However, these collapsed due to French power. The Caodai forces then retreated to defend the Tay Ninh Holy See.

However, Viet Minh extremists saw this as an act of treason and conflict exploded. The French took advantage of this to make a deal with the Tay Ninh Holy See. Some executives and followers, however, joined the Caodai Patriots and were thus expelled from the Tay Ninh Holy See.

During the Second Indochina War

After 1954, the Caodai Patriots disbanded. Some evacuated to the North and formed an organization solely for religious purposes under the Communist Party of Vietnam.

In the South, the Tay Ninh Holy See became the representative organization for the religion. However, this was with the help of the French. In turn, this led to the organization being seen as a threat to the ambitions of President Ngô Đình Diệm. Hence, the Tay Ninh Holy See was attacked from within as well as with a military force.

In 1965, Diem’s successor — Nguyễn Văn Thiệu — once again recognized the Council of the Tay Ninh Holy See. This time, it was a purely religious organization.

In 1979, the Council for The Great Way of The Third Amnesty Era (Hội đồng Chưởng quản Hội Thánh Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ) was established. It represented the Tay Ninh Holy See organization under the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Caodaism in the Present Day

Tay Ninh Holy See 1961
Tay Ninh Holy See 1961
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

From 1995 to 2011, the government gradually granted legal recognition to Caodai organizations thanks to the Open Religious Policy. The Tay Ninh Holy Sea once again became operative and started gaining popular support.

There are now approximately three million followers in the country, mostly in Southern Vietnam. In addition, there are around 30 000 practitioners living in the US, Canada, Cambodia, Australia, and European countries.

Things to See in Caodai Temples: Spiritual Symbols of Caodaism

In Caodai temples, the worshippable figures, sacred objects, and architecture are representative of the faith. Also, all of them originate from various traditions.

The Divine Eye

Worshippable Figures and Sacred Objects
[ by Trans World Productions from Flickr ]

The Divine Eye (Thiên Nhãn) is the representation of Duc Cao Dai. In addition, there are various designs for the Eye to fit the purpose of the architecture.

For example, the Universal Globe (Quả Càn Khôn) has a specific Divine Eye. Together with the Big Dipper Constellation and 3072 stars, it represents Caodaism’s cosmology.

Maitreya (the future Buddha) sitting on a Tiger (Phật Di Lặc cưỡi cọp) stands out for a different reason. He signifies the Year of the Tiger (1926) when Caodaism was born.

The Three Saints

The Three Saints (Biểu tượng Tam Thánh) of Caodaism are Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen, and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm:

  • Victor Hugo, the great French philosopher and writer, is the representative icon of Western thinking and ideation.
  • Sun Yat Sen (Tôn Trung Sơn), the first president of the Republic of China, represents Eastern values.
  • Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm or Trạng Trình, a famous writer, physiognomist, and prophet, is symbolic of Vietnamese mores.

The Three Buddhas

Brahma Buddha, Shiva Buddha, and Krishna Buddha on the temples’ roof symbolize the Three Life Cycles:

  • Brahma faces West and represents the First Cycle of Creation (tạo hoá) and Innocence (thánh đức).
  • Shiva faces North for the Second Cycle of Growing, Aging, and Death (trưởng thành, già nua, và diệt vong). 
  • Krishna symbolizes the Third Cycle of Conservation (bảo tồn) and Reproduction (tái tạo).

The Three Teachings

On the front wall inside the building, across the top from left to right, are three figures. They are Lao Tzu (Lão Tử), Sakya Muni Buddha (Phật Thích Ca Mầu Ni), and Confucius (Khổng Tử).

Along the next row down, the first one on the left is Guanyin (Quan Âm). Next, Li Bai (Lý Thái Bạch) is one of the most famous Chinese poets to date from the Tang Dynasty. Lastly, Guan Yu (Quan Vũ or Quan Công) is a historical and mythological general in the story of ‘Three Kingdoms’.

On the next row down is Jesus Christ (Chúa Giêsu Kitô). At the bottom center is Jiang Taigong or Jiang Ziya (Khương Tử Nha)— a historical and mythological Chinese military strategist. On the two sides of the altars are the Custodians. The Custodian of Good (Ông Thiện) is on the left and the Custodian of Evil (Ông Ác) is on the right.

Caodaism Architecture

Architecture Caodai
[ by Sam Boswell from Flickr ]

Caodai flags always have three colors. Yellow is for Buddhism, blue is for Taoism, and red is for Confucianism.

The twenty-eight Dragon Columns symbolize the worshippable figures of the religion. Only they have the power, prestige, and strength to support the place where the Supreme Being resides.

A Caodai temple comprises three main structural levels representing three governing bodies. First, the Bagua Palace (Bát Quái Đài) or Eight Trigrams Palace represents the Caodai Council. Second, the Nine-story Palace (Cửu Trùng Đài) is the Executive Body. Lastly, the Divine Alliance Palace (Hiệp Thiên Đài) represents the Legislative Body.

Tips for Visiting Caodai Temples

Worshippable figures with an English explanation.
Worshippable figures with an English explanation.
[ by Colin Cameron from Flickr ]

Here are a few customs to observe when you visit or enter a Caodai Temple:

1. Follow the instructions of the caretaker of the temple.

2. Wear clothes covering knees and shoulders.

3. Leave your shoes on the shelves outside.

4. Men must enter through the door on the right, women through the left.

5. Don’t take photos of people next to the Divine Eye.

Tay Ninh Holy See — The Most Famous Caodai Temple

Tay Ninh Holy See— The Most Famous Caodai Temple
[ by Andhika Padmawan from Flickr ]

Tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels usually include a visit to the Tay Ninh Holy See (Thánh thất Tây Ninh). It’s a vast sacred ground with the most popular Caodai temple in Vietnam. In addition, it’s a national landmark that attracts many visitors.There are also smaller replicas of the Tay Ninh Holy See in different towns of Vietnam. Furthermore, foreign locations like Texas, California, Louisiana, Australia, and Canada also have temples of Caodaism.

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