Friday, June 29, 2018

A Religion of Fusion—Vietnam’s Cao Đài Faith

                                            by Jim Goodman
noon prayers at the Cao Đài Cathedral in Toà Thánh
A popular day-trip for tourists out of H Ch Minh City takes them to Tây Ninh, 90 km northwest, to the Cao Đài Cathedral.  They will arrive just before the noon worship services, stay less than half an hour, leave for lunch in a roadside restaurant and then head for a walk through the C Chi Tunnels used in the American War.  The main impression they will have of their Tây Ninh excursion will be the unique architecture of the cathedral, with tall twin towers in front and an long vestibule, the rows of white clad devotees at prayer and, in particular, the great, All-Seeing Eye over the interior altar, on the windows and above the entrance.    
       This eye, the left eye of God (left being the yang side), the iconic symbol of the Cao Đài religion, first appeared in a vision of Ngô Văn Chiêu, a Vietnamese working as a colonial official on Phú Quc Island in 1921.  In his free time he studied about Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, as well as spiritism—the belief humans could contact the deceased and other spirits.  He attended séances and in one of these he claimed messages from Đức Cao Đài, Lord of the High Stage (or Tower), or God, according to his interpretation, that were instructions on the tenets of a new religion for a new epoch.
Cao Đài symbols on the cathedral ceiling
       Moving to Saigon soon after, he was joined by other séance practitioners with similar experiences, particularly Lê Văn Trung and Phm Công Tc.  By 1926 these men had molded the massages of the séances into a specific creed of principles and rules and applied to the French colonial government for recognition as a new religion.  The French approved.  Ngô Văn Chiêu having decided to retire to a life of meditation by then, Le Văn Trung became the first Giáo Tông, or Leader of a Religious Group. 
       The central Cao Đài tenet is that the current age is the Third Period of revelation and salvation.  In the First Period God transmitted his messages through Dipankara Buddha (a previous incarnation of Buddha dating back 100,000 years), Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism, and other ancient Chinese sages.   In the Second Period, God’s agents were Shakyamuni Buddha, Moses, Confucius, Jesus and Mohammed.  But these truths were limited to their historical periods and geographical conditions and have been distorted since their introduction.
the Left Eye of God, cathedral windows
Cao Đài pantheon
       The Cao Đài creed aims to become the Universal Religion of the Third Period and draws upon existing religions for its articles of faith.  From Buddhism it adopted the notion of reincarnation and the five taboos against killing, lying, licentious behavior, stealing and intoxication.  From Confucianism it incorporated its social order and code of behavior.  From Taoism it took the yin-yang concept and from Catholicism it got its organizational structure.
Cao Đài temple in Trà Vinh
       The Cao Đài religion assigns nearly equal importance to men and women.  They pray separately during the services, and women enter from the left side, while the men enter from the right.  But the women line up in ranks opposite the men and they can be members of the clergy.  Because the order of the clergy so resembles that of Catholicism, outsiders describe them as priest, bishop, cardinal and pope.  Actually, there are more ranks than these and more words used to identify them.  And the use of ’pope’ to identify the giáo tong is inaccurate, for the Vietnamese word for ‘pope’ in the Catholic sense is actually giáo hoàng. 
      The only position a woman cannot hold is giáo tông.  According to Taoism (or perhaps a Confucian prejudice), yin cannot rule over yang, lest chaos ensue.  Taoist influence also established the veneration of the Queen Mother of the West, a Chinese goddess, as the celestial representative of yin. 
       The binding element in this fusion of beliefs in the years of its formation and growth, distinguishing it from established religions, was spiritism.  The preferred method of contacting spirits was the séance, during which famous personalities, as various as Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, other Vietnamese personalities, Sun Yat-sen and even William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin.  They sent messages regarding finer points of doctrine and organization, sometimes transmitted via automatic writing.  And sometimes blank sheets of paper were locked up in a box and opened after some time, containing messages allegedly written by spirits.
Cao Đài priest
the Covenant with God
       Three of these personalities became important Cao Đài saints:  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen.  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm was a famous 16th century scholar and poet during the turbulent time of the usurping Mạc Dynasty, with a reputation as a political prophet.  Victor Hugo, the French novelist whose works Les Misérables and Toilers of the Sea expressed much sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, also was a believer in spiritism.  Sun Yat-sen founded the Chinese Republic in 1911, an event Cao Đài adherents believed helped set the stage for the Third Period.  A painting in a ground floor room of the cathedral in Toà Thánh, reproduced at other Cao Đài sites, shows the three of them signing a Covenant with God.  Nguyễn Bỉng Khiêm holds an ink stone, while Victor Hugo writes with a quill pen and Sun Yat-sen with a brush the words “God and Humanity, Love and Justice” in French and Chinese.
Cao Đài clergy leaving the cathedral
devotee at prayer
       The newly recognized religion set up its Holy See in Toà Thánh, a few kilometers east of Tây Ninh city.  Its membership grew quickly, especially among the peasantry.  But it also became troubled by doctrinal disputes.  Since the principles of the religion came from séances, some new adherents began searching for these messages through their own informal séances.  The leadership decided to officially restrict the practice to two recognized mediums, one male, one female, in the Holy See.  Eventually it published The Compilation of Divine Messages, as well as a Religious Constitution.
devotee with offerings
Cao Đài priest representing the Taoist element
In trying to restrict the séances, the Cao Đài leadership cited the problems of auto-suggestion, message manipulation and interference by evil spirits.  This was already a problem for a newly formed religious organization that promoted the idea of letting God speak to you in your heart.  By the time Lê Văn Trung died in 1934 (or according to the Cao Đài interpretation ‘became dis-incarnated’), eleven small splinter groups had set up their own organizations.  The government eventually banned séances, even in Tây Ninh.
Cao Đài Cathedral in Toà Thánh
       The Tây Ninh-run branch remained by far the largest Cao Đài organization.  Phạm Công Tắc assumed leadership, though not the office of giáo tong.  The Cao Đài message began evolving from then on, taking on a more nationalistic flavor.  Southwest Vietnam at that time witnessed several new Buddhist sects that emphasized temporal works more than spiritual; i.e. involving oneself in improving the world rather than withdrawing from it.  Cao Đài advocated self-cultivation, but also promoted equality and opposed exploitation, factors which spurred peasant conversion.
       Cao Đài had always opposed colonialism as a matter of religious doctrine, but tempered this by calling for increasing dialog with the colonial authorities.  Under Phạm Công Tắc the notion of dialog was all but muted and the religion took on a more openly nationalist stand as the messages revealed by the mediums started criticizing colonialism and its hardships.  At the same time he oversaw the construction of the great cathedral in Toà Thánh, which elevated the Cao Đài prestige and influence. 
cathedral interior
       In 1941 widespread revolts against French rule broke out over much of Vietnam.  In the course of the crackdown, French authorities seized the Holy See at Tây Ninh, temporarily forbade religious services and hustled Phạm Công Tắc and other Cao Đài dignitaries off to exile in Madagascar.  Cao Đài leaders then formed an army, which eventually grew to 25,000, to protect its believers and, hopefully, ally with the Japanese to overthrow French rule.  But the alliance never materialized, Japan lost the war and the French returned.
       However, the re-installed colonial government immediately faced a Việt Minh-led insurgency.  Seeking local allies, the French reversed their attitude about Cao Đài, brought the leaders back from exile and enlisted them as allies against the Việt Minh.  Phạm Công Tắc agreed, but others didn’t and the Cao Đài army was not an effective French ally. 
cathedral garden
       When the war ended and the country was split in two, Cao Đài leaders initially supported Ngô Đình Diệm, but in 1955, after a government raid on the Holy See, opposed him.  They remained just as opposed to the Communists, though, so after re-unification in 1975 the Hanoi government disbanded their army, confiscated their lands and closed their temples.  This was similar to what the government did to all private religious armies (Hòa Hào being another) and establishments—Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic and Protestant included.  Only in the late 80s did the government return the confiscated lands and in 1997, with a far more tolerant policy in place, lifted prohibitions on Cao Đài religious expression.
       In the 21st century religion in Vietnam began enjoying a period of rejuvenation.  Temples and churches drew crowds again and festivals revived.  How much religious sentiment influenced daily behavior again after decades of secular propaganda and the onset of the century’s materialism is debatable.  Yet the revival of piety and respect for tradition is certainly sincere.  For Cao Đài adherents, following the moral precepts and cultivating a personal relationship with God are still the essence of the faith.  As part of their reverence for all life, they are supposed to eat vegetarian food ten days a month and the clergy must abstain from meat entirely.
the other Cao Đài temple in Toà Thánh
       Today, estimates of the number of Cao Đài followers ranges from six to eight million, making it Vietnam’s third largest religion.  Most of them are in the Mekong Delta and travelers can spot Cao Đài temples in most Delta provinces, recognized by their tall twin front towers and the All-Seeing Eye mounted on the front façade.  They also exist further north, as far as Hội An, Đà Nẵng and Huế.  The congregations there are much smaller, though.  Basically the further southwest you go in Vietnam, the greater the number of Cao Đài devotees and temples.
       Tây Ninh is still the Cao Đài heartland and the ostentatious cathedral at Toà Thánh its most splendid house of worship and the model for most of the others in the Mekong Delta.  The front features two tall towers, the entrance between them leading to a long hallway, supported by thick, dragon-entwined pillars, at the end of which sits a huge globe with the Left Eye of God prominent in the center.  The same Eye, inside a triangle, is on the rows of window grilles at either side.  Smaller towers stand on the roof at the halfway point and at the rear.
       A large garden park, with a few towers and other buildings, lies adjacent and a path past statues of other Cao Đài saints and message-bearers leads to another Cao Đài temple in the same compound.  It has just one front tower, but an equally long hallway behind it and is used to accommodate the spillover from the cathedral during services.
Cao Đài priest representing the Confucian element
Cao Đài clergy at Toà Thánh
       Prayer time for Cao Đài devotees begins daily at 6:00 and 12:00, a.m. and p.m.  Services are the same each time, Sunday is no different and there are no special holy days or festivals.  Attendance is not mandatory, but on an ordinary day devotees fill the Tòa Thánh cathedral, at least at noon, dressed in white.  The clergy, who sit in front, wear robes of different colors, symbolizing the three main elements of the faith—yellow for Buddhism, Blue for Taoism, red for Confucianism.
       The offerings they might bring are simple—flowers, incense, candles and water.  Devotees pray while kneeling erect and kowtow at intervals while a priest raps a gong or a large bronze bowl at the altar.  The rituals, which altogether last about an hour, include music and singing, performed on the indoor balcony above the hallway. 
Cao Đài Cathedral services
leading the Cao Đài prayers at Đà Nẵng
       The ground floor is off-limits to non-worshipers during prayer sessions.  Tourists can watch the rituals, but only from the second floor balcony.  This prevents them from disturbing the devotees by coming in to take close-up photographs while people are trying to privately communicate with God. 
       As for the future, the question is how long can the revival of Cao Đài faith continue?  The attraction of religion is decreasing among each younger generation.  Yet a large percentage of the daily congregation at Toà Thánh is young, especially the females, who in any religion are more involved than the men.  Compared to other religions in Vietnam, Cao Đài is the only one with a strong nationalist identity.  It is uniquely Vietnamese and considers itself the universal religion of the future.  Cao Đài devotees associate keeping their faith with retaining their Vietnamese identity in a globalized world.  Perhaps these convictions will insure its survival in the ever more secular-minded times to come.

musicians and singers accompanying the Cao Đài prayers
                                                                               * * *    

No comments:

Post a Comment