Although various sects of Caodaiism claim to have received messages from numerous spiritual entities, the Tay Ninh Holy See acknowledges significantly fewer. Inside the Holy See is this painting depicting the Three Saints signing a covenant between God and humanity. From left to right, they are Sun Yat-sen (Chinese revolutionary and political leader and foremost pioneer of Republican China), Victor Hugo (French poet, playwright and novelist) and Nguyen Binh Khiêm (16th century Vietnamese administrator, educator and poet). A rather strange combination to have as saints!
The Cao Dai beliefs are a curious mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with a decent dash of home-grown remedies thrown into the mix. The religion came out of activities of the Vietnamese public officer and mystic, Ngo Minh Chieu, who was on the receiving end of revelations from 1919 onwards, culminating in the founding of the religion in 1926. These revelations are believed to have come directly from God. For a belief which once had a standing army of over 20,000 the practices laid out in these revelations are decidedly non-violent with frequent prayer, veneration of ancestors, non-violence and vegetarianism are all centrepieces.
According to the Cao Dai, before God existed, there was the Tao, the nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. Then, a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born. The universe could not yet be formed and to do so, God created yin and yang. He took control of yang and shed a part of himself, creating the Goddess to preside over yin. In the presence of yin and yang, the universe was materialised. The Goddess is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the Universe. Thus, Caodaiists worship not only God, the father, but also the Goddess, literally referred to as the Mother Buddha. Note that God's importance and role is higher than that of the Mother Buddha. Also, the Mother Buddha, as are all Buddha’s, is a part of Yang, and therefore, is male. Yin is the female side, and the Mother Buddha only oversees Yin, but is not a part of Yin. God is symbolised by the Divine Eye, specifically the left eye because Yang is the left side and God is the master of Yang. You'll see this right at the far end of the temple.
There are 36 levels of heaven and 72 planets harbouring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to Hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.
It's the Cao Dai prayers that form the key attraction at the Holy See from a tourist's perspective. Ritual prayers are held four times daily with the midday session the most likely one you'll see if you visit as a part of a tour from Saigon. Be aware that while you're permitted to photograph the prayers from the upstairs terrace (where all the tourists are herded) you're not permitted to take pictures of individuals without first asking permission.
The Cao Dai religion is very colourful what with the pink and sky blue colours of the temple and the red, yellow and blue robes that you'll see worn by the worshippers. But what do these colours mean? Well there's yellow (for Buddhism), blue (for Taoism), and red (for Christianity). The priests are easily identified by their pointy hats decorated with the holy eye. I don't know what the white robes represent but there are more of them than their more colourful counterparts.
Caodaiism's organisational structure closely resembles that of many governments of democracies. Caodaiism's governing body consists of three branches that are functionally equivalent to the U.S.'s legislative, executive and judicial branches.
The head of the Executive Branch is called "Giáo Tông," which means leader or head of a philosophical or religious organisation. Similarities between the hierarchy of Caodaiism's dignitaries and those of the Catholic Church have led translators to borrow terminologies such as pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc. In practice, Caodaiism has more ranks and titles of which there are no official English translation as of yet. The actual Vietnamese term for Pope, as in the Catholic Pope, is "Giáo Hoàng."
Caodaiism stresses equality among men and women in society. However, in the spiritual domain, ordained women may not attain the two highest positions: Legislative Cardinal and Pope. The church claims this is ordered by God, who declared that because Yang represents male and Yin corresponds to female, Yin cannot dominate Yang spiritually or else chaos.