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 are the crystallization of knowledge from different sources. Go to a Caodai Temple and you’ll see statues of Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Louis Pasteur, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, and Victor Hugo to name but a few. 

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), or the Supreme Being, existed before everything, created everything, and is part of everything. Man and God are linked together through the sacred light which is ‘love’.

Caodaism believes that there’s only one race— the human race— regardless of ethnicity, skin color, or sexual orientation. God is the father of all, and all living beings are sisters and brothers. 

The religion places emphasis on universal human rights and adoration for those who contribute to peace, harmony, freedom, and liberty. Their doctrine declares:

“CAO THƯỢNG CHÍ TÔN ĐẠI ĐẠO HOÀ BÌNH DÂN CHỦ MỤC
ĐÀI TIỀN SÙNG BÁI TAM KỲ CỘNG HƯỞNG TỰ DO QUYỀN”

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 emanating from the same source, namely God. The most important manuscript includes the Doctrine of New Code, the Religious Constitution (Tân Luật – Pháp Chánh Truyền), and 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. They believe in a trinity of the spirit, the soul, and karma. 

The Great Way of The Third Amnesty Era (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ)

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) or The Great Way for Salvation in the Third Revelation Period is the mission of present-day Caodaists. Caodaism divides religious history into 3 revelation periods.

First revelation period: In the early days of human society, God revealed Himself and His teachings to the world. This is the time of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva with Hinduism in India; as well as Abraham and Moses of Judaism in the Middle East.

Second revelation period: According to Caodaism beliefs, after thousands of years, God’s teachings became more and more misinterpreted. That was why 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 in India. Jesus was the inspiration of universal Christianity, and Muhamad founded Islam in Arabia to revamp Judaism.

Third revelation period – Third Amnesty Era: Caodaism believes this is the era where religions unify and accept each other under God. Caodaists also accept that believers can receive direct communication from God through a ceremony called fuji (cơ bút) or spirit-writing.

The Three Teachings and The Hierarchical Structure (Tam Giáo Qui Nguyên, Ngũ Chi Hiệp Nhất)

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. They stand side by side to the different branches (Ngũ Chi) of self-development. 

According to Cao Dai, universal self-development comes in a hierarchical structure relating to the way of humans (Confucianism), the way of gods (ethnic religions such as Shinto and Paganism), the way of saints (Christianity and Islam), the way of immortals (Taoism), the way of the Buddha (Buddhism and Hinduism), and finally the way of the Heaven (Theosophy).

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

Caodaists and Their Customs

Caodai outfit
Caodai outfit
[ by loilamtan from Pixabay ]

Caodai practitioners wear a white ao dai (áo dài) when attending ceremonies. There are optional weekly masses and annual important ceremonies. Self-conducted prayers can be done at home 4 times a day at 6 AM, 12 PM, 6 PM, and 12 AM. Caodai followers may adopt a strictly vegan diet of six or ten days a month based on the Lunar Calendar.

History of Caodaism

Caodai history is deeply connected with the popularization of Fuji, an ancient Chinese spirit-writing introduced to Vietnam by the French in the early 20th century. It’s the foundation of everything from recruiting followers, appointing executives, organizing ceremonies, and designing buildings.

Foundation

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

The first follower of Caodaism was Ngô Văn Chiêu. He was an officer under French Cochinchina who laid the foundations of Caodaism within a small group between 1921 and 1924. Around the same time, another group of officers of Tay Ninh origin formed their own doctrines regarding Caodaism.

Founding

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

These two factions and others later united, and in February 1926, a spirit writing poem cited thirteen names. These people became the First 13 Disciples and Ngô Văn Chiêu was the Eldest. The first Cau Kho Holy See (Thánh thất Cầu Kho) was established on a street within present-day District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.

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

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

War and Turbulence

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 and it spread across South, Central, to North Vietnam, and even Cambodia. In June 1941, French colonialists launched attacks against Caodaism and took over Tay Ninh Holy See.

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

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

When the French returned to Southern Vietnam again, armed forces of the Tay Ninh Holy See joined different anti-colonial fronts in Saigon. However, these collapsed due to French power and Cao Dai forces retreated to defend the Tay Ninh Holy See. 

Viet Minh extremists accused this behavior of treason and conflict exploded. The French took advantage of this and tried to make a deal with the Tay Ninh Holy See. Some executives and followers joined the Cao Dai Patriots and were thus expelled from the Tay Ninh Holy See.

After 1954, the Cao Dai 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, with the help of the French, became the representative organization for the religion. Seen as a threat to South Vietnam under President Ngo Dinh Diem, the organization was attacked from within as well as with a  military force.

In 1965, the Council of the Tay Ninh Holy See was recognized again under Diem’s successor, President Nguyen Van Thieu, as 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 under the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to represent the Tay Ninh Holy See organization.

Nowadays

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 other European countries.

Things to See in Caodai Temples: Spiritual Symbols of Caodaism

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

Worshippable Figures and Sacred Objects

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

The Divine Eye (Thiên Nhãn) is the representation of Duc Cao Dai. There are various designs for the Eye to fit the purpose of the architecture. The Universal Globe (Quả Càn Khôn) has a specific Divine Eye together with the Big Dipper Constellation and 3072 stars representing Caodaism’s cosmology.

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

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 thought 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.

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).

On the front wall inside the building, across the top from left to right, are Lao Tzu (Lão Tử), Sakya Muni Buddha (Phật Thích Ca Mầu Ni), and Confucius (Khổng Tử). Along the next row down, from left to right, are Guanyin (Quan Âm), Li Bai (Lý Thái Bạch)— one of the most famous Chinese poets to date from the Tang Dynasty, and Guan Yu (Quan Vũ or Quan Công)— a historical and mythological general in the story of The 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.

Architecture

Architecture Caodai
[ by Sam Boswell from Flickr ]

Caodai flags always have three colors, yellow for Buddhism, blue for Taoism, and red 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.

The Bagua Palace (Bát Quái Đài) or Eight Trigrams Palace is the Caodai Council. The Nine-story Palace (Cửu Trùng Đài) is the Executive Body. 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 ]
  • Follow the instructions of the caretaker of the temple.
  • Wear clothes covering knees and shoulders.
  • Leave your shoes on the shelves outside.
  • Men must enter through the door on the right, women through the left.
  • 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 most popular Caodai Temple in Vietnam – Tay Ninh Holy See (Thánh thất Tây Ninh). It’s a national landmark that has been attracting more and more visitors.

The Tay Ninh Holy See is a vast sacred ground with an extravagant temple in the center. There are also smaller versions of this temple in different towns of Vietnam and foreign cities like Texas, California, Louisiana, Australia, and Canada. Check out our article on ‘25 Best Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City’ for more ideas on how to enjoy your stay.

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