Cao Dai (Cao Đài) or Caodaisme is a relatively new syncretistic and monotheistic religion, officially established in Tay Ninh, South Vietnam in 1926. Đạo Đài Cao is the short name, full name is Đại Đạo Tam Ky Pho DJO. It is an attempt to create the ideal religion of the North and South Vietnamese religions for reunification. The result is a colorful mix of Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Vietnamese spiritualism and Christianity. "Cao Dai" literally means "high tower" in this way is there reference to God. In Tay Ninh province and the Mekong Delta, this belief most strongly represented. There are early 2006 about 3 million followers of the Caodaïsme. The ultimate goal of a follower of the Caodaïsme to escape from the cycle of reincarnation. In terms of doctrine in this religion are many elements from the various Asian religions, but the shape and the names of the clergy and the Christian churches is rather inspired.
The area to the west of the Temple is a large parade ground with small viewing stands on either side. Parades and dances take place out here during some of the most important religious days like the Feast Day for the Supreme Being - 9th Day of the First Lunar Month, just after Tet - or Hoi Yen Dien Tri, the religious feast for the Great Mother and the Nine Goddesses - 15th Day of the Eighth Lunar Month, coinciding with the Mid-Autumn Festival.
At the western end of the grounds is the Tomb of Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac who is one of the most important organizing figures in Cao Dai history. He died in exile in Cambodia in 1959, but the government allowed the return of his body here in late 2006. While he never was the pope - Giao Tong - as Ho Phap he had been the leader of the legislative branch of the church and served as a de facto pope following the death of Le Van Trung in 1934.
Cao Dai is like a lot of other organizations, one can work his/her way up a ladder of different positions, each with different responsibilities and different uniforms. Basic acolytes wear flowing white - white being pure and combining all colors within - robes. Priests divide into three branches: Confucianists get red, Buddhists saffron and Taoists are blue. Cao Dai is a lay religion for the most part. Acolytes serve ten day periods of service at the Temple - living in adjacent dormitories - and then return home afterwards to their normal life.
Up above - where the organ in a Christian church sits - and behind the faithful in the Prayer Hall at the opposite end from the Altar of the Eye sit a small orchestra. The music provided adds greatly to the mysticism of the Cao Dai service. The musicians are good too. So good, in fact, that they are not allowed to take part in folk music contests held in the country because the government considers them not to be amateur musicians since they get so much practice playing for four services a day.
Every six hours there is a service in the Temple’s Prayer Hall: Midnight, 6 AM, Noon and 6 PM. Tour companies and tourists show up to the noon service - remember the admonition of Graham Greene: “It always seems hotter in Tanyin than anywhere else in the Southern Delta; perhaps it was the absence of water, perhaps it was the sense of interminable ceremonies which made one sweat vicariously …” Visitors are welcome to any of the services. The services last 30-45 minutes and are a complex mixture of Tao and Buddhism. Men and women followers separate themselves - men on the right and women on the left - with priests lined up in front of the many. A musical band above adds to the mystical along with the appropriate gongs. To see the Temple without attending a service is to miss out on a vibrant, dazzling stimulation.
At the entrance to the Prayer Hall is a mural showing three Cao Dai saints - Chinese nationalist Sun Yat Sen, French author Victor Hugo, and Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem - a Vietnamese Nostradamus able to predict the future. The three are depicted as the human “signatories of the Third Alliance between God and Mankind.”
Cao Dai celebrates many other saints besides these three. It is these three who get top billing, however.
The all-seeing Divine Eye is the symbol of the Cao Dai, The eye is prominently displayed above the Temple entrance. Each window features an eye centrally. At the east end of the Temple, the Altar of the Eye dominates. Sitting atop a octagonal dais is a huge star-studded dark blue globe with the Divine Eye peering out representing supreme knowledge and wisdom. Above the altar, supported by eight dragon entwined columns is a cloudy star-filled dome representing the heavens.
Near the huge altar at the front of the Temple are a series of seven chairs. The chair at the head with dragon encrusted arms is for the pope. The six below in two rows of three - with eagles and lions - are for the cardinals. Women are equal to men in Cao Dai except they cannot become either the pope or the legislative leader - Ho Phap - and men rule if both have the same rank. This is done to keep the Yin and Yang in its proper balance. Cao Dai religious authorities are selected through séances which have been proscribed by the government. As a result, the remaining authorities are well up there in age, but as is noted on an online Cao Dai FAQ: “But the Cao Dai adepts do not worry about this situation, for all the past and current events have been predicted beforehand.”
The theme of universality of religion is continued inside the Temple. From the entrance - males enter from the right and females from the left - looking forward down the long Prayer Hall, note the nine different levels - taken from the Tao - representing the Nine Steps to be taken as one tries to achieve nirvana. Walking barefoot - shoes are left outside - around the outside of the main hall past the dragon and snakes that wind their way up the many columns, you are reminded by white-clothed acolytes to not stray into the main Prayer Hall.
Built between 1933 and 1955 at the direction of Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac, the Great Divine Temple is the exotic centerpiece for the Cao Dai religion. The building represents the mixture of religion that makes up Cao Dai. Pagoda roofs reflect Tao and Confucian influence; twin towers at the front are not unlike those found on a Christian church; Buddha sits atop the central entrance tower; the central tower brings in an Islamic motif and on the eastern end of the building is a tower of Hindu design. The figures in the flanking entrance towers are Le Van Trung on the right/male side - who is Cao Dai’s first and only pope - while on the left/female side is Lam Huong Thanh, Cao Dai’s first female cardinal.
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 but it's a little obscured as you can see in the photos.
The capital of the same-named province, Tay Ninh is situated 95km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and is the original home of the Cao Dai religion which has around 3 million adherents in Southern Vietnam. Tay Ninh is home to the Cao Dai Great Temple, built between 1933 and 1955, which sits a few kilometres outside of the town.
A rather garish meld of styles and influences, the temple is dominated by the divine eye which is the religion's representation of God - for those who are curious, it's a left eye. The temple is done out in hues of pink and baby blues, with a brilliant interior bedecked with eight grandiose pillars wrapped with writhing dragons, and a clouded pastel blue sky that wouldn't be out of place in a Vegas casino - you really have to see the place to believe it! The faith has built temples all over the region, especially in the Mekong Delta, but this is the biggest, brightest and the best. I went on a tour with the Sinh Cafe whose offices are in the Pham Ngu Lao backpackers area of Ho Chi Minh City and it cost me 136,000 VND (about $8) which also included a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels in the afternoon. The tour visits the temple in order to witness the mid-day mass.
The headquarters for one of Vietnam's most interesting religions.
The most beautiful, colourful religious structure that I have ever seen. If you remove your shoes and enter the building at around 12 mid-day you can go up the stairs and watch the daily service
The Cao Dai religion is restricted almost entirely to Vietnamese, including some who live outside the country. It is the ultimate in an eclectic faith, having embraced precepts from all the world's major religions -- and having canonized an array of semi-historical and actual figures ranging from St Jesus St Joan of Arc to St Victor Hugo and St Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Though its belief-system is derived mostly from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, its structure traces to Vietnam's decades-long French colonial occupation: Cao Dai is headed by a 'pope' and 'cardinals' (including female cardinals who are, however, subordinate and not eligible for election to the papacy).
All Cao Dai temples, or churches, are colorful. Even most Roman cathedrals and rites pale in comparison with those of Cao Dai -- in color if not in artistic merit.
Cao Dai's 'mother church' is set in a large, enclosed area with several other buildings worth looking at.