Caodaism – Experience Through the Eyes of TravelersFeb 22, 10 | Tâm Duyên | 12,583 views | 3 Comments
Welcome to the world of Caodaism, an extraordinary indigenous religion that has captured the belief of over two million Vietnamese and the whimsy of everyone. Compared with other religions that have existed for millennia, this little-known religion is a visual and theological spectacular that could have been created only in the 20th century.
Caodaism is the 1926 invention of Ngo Minh Chieu, a civil servant with a strong belief in mysticism. For years, Chieu conducted seances in which he received revelations from spirits of prominent figures who seemed determined to continue their teachings despite their deaths. After four years of personal enlightenment through these spiritual encounters, Chieu presented the messages of his revelations to the public as tenets of a new religion.
Caodaism considers itself to be the “Third Alliance between God and Man.” This epithet appears everywhere in the Caodaist temples. According to Chieu, the alliance represented in Caodaism is God’s third attempt to reveal his truth to humanity. Both the first attempt consisting of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism and the second wave centering on Moses, Jesus and the middle Buddha failed to impart pure and eternal truths. Chieu believes that the messages of God were distorted due to the frailty of such human messengers. Caodaism has no such prophets. It theoretically overcomes the problems witnessed in other religions by cutting out the middleman, so to speak. The messages go directly from divine spirits to monks. Cao dai literally translates as “high tower.” Figuratively, this phrase means God.
Although derived from mysticism, the religion is an eclectic synthesis of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. Caodaist ethics are based on the Buddhist ideal of becoming a good person with a veneer of traditional Vietnamese taboos. Basic parameters–such as avoiding killing, lying, opulent living, sensuality, stealing and eating meat–facilitate the soul’s progress through the cycles of reincarnation.
The Caodai consider vegetarianism to be of service to humanity as it doesn’t involve harming other creatures during the process of their spiritual evolution. They follow several different vegetarian regimenss, the least rigorous of which is to eat vegetarian meals six days a month. Priests are required to be full-time vegetarians.
Intensifying its distinct if somewhat contradictory nature, Caodaism simultaneously embraces monotheism and ancestor worship, proselytizing and praying for acceptance. And although they believe in only one God, Caodaists also recognize another principal deity–the Mother Goddess. A popular debate among the Caodaists focuses on which deity was the primary source of creation. The acknowledgement of both genders pervades the religion. The celibate clergy consists of both men and women. In a hierarchical structure similar to the Roman Catholic Church, female priests occupy all but the highest levels. However, when male and female clergy of the same rank work together, the men function as leaders.
By definition, spirits play a central and starring role in Caodaism. Democratically including everyone from national leaders to village people, warriors to poets, the spirits who commune from the grave impart their wisdom to Caodai followers through seances. Due to proliferation of purported revelations prior to 1927, only official and regulated seances held at the central cathedral in Tay Ninh are considered legitimate. To accommodate the international nature of the spirits, astral communications are conducted in Vietnamese, Chinese, French and English. Revelations are sometimes divined through pneumatographie, in which a priest seals a blank slip of paper above the altar. When the priest takes down the piece of paper, a message has appeared on it. More typically, the medium transcribes a séance with the help of a long quill pen while in a trance.
Like the religion, Caodai saints are a select group. Beatified for their contribution to culture, they include prominent figures in the western world such as Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Descartes, Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur and Lenin. Victor Hugo appeared so frequently to Caodai mediums at the Phnom Penh mission that he was named the posthumous chief spirit of foreign missionary work.
The “Vatican” of Caodaism resides in Tay Ninh; a province 58 miles northwest of Saigon at an ornate cathedral called The Holy See. Built between 1933 and 1955, The Holy See has been described as a rococo extravaganza and the Disneyland of religious centers. The architectural combination of a church, pagoda and shopping center creates an idiosyncratic place of worship. The garish central hall has nine levels that represent the nine steps to heaven. The colonnade consists of bright pink columns encircled by thick enameled dragons with stylized scales. The dome is filled with a low hanging blue globe decorated with the “divine eye” gazing down at the worshippers. Merely entering the building is a powerful experience. This eye is the official symbol of the church, representative of the visions that created this religion. (Americans often remark that it resembles the back of a US$1.)
With brightly robed priests and colorfully painted temples, Caodaist ceremonies are visually spectacular. They occur four times each day: 6 AM, noon, 6 PM and midnight. Women enter the temple from the left, walk clockwise around the hall, then congregate on the left side for worship. Conversely, men enter from the right and walk counter-clockwise. Both genders give offerings that range from the conventional incense, fruit and flowers to more unusual gifts of tea and alcohol. Tourist and Caodaists alike usually crowd the ceremonies.
With its historical and ceremonial pageantry, Caodaism is a fascinating addition to Vietnamese religious sects. In its effort to create an ideal religion by fusing secular and sacred philosophies of both East and West, Caodaism has succeeded in being unarguably unique.
Source: Things Asian: Experience Asia Through the Eyes of Travelers