Cao Dai – Tay Nihn, Vietnam

Cao Dai Elder Lights Candles at Temple Altar

Cao Dai Elder Lights Candles at Temple Altar

What is Cao Dai? Well, it is a religion and it’s a new one on me. They have a big, gaudy temple, about 3 million followers, and it’s Christmas Eve. What the heck…I’m down. Let me in!

And they did. I was given the royal treatment, toured around the grounds and through the temple, and had all my questions answered (even if I only understood about one word in five).  I was also invited to attend their mass at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Cao Dai Temple and Seat of the Holy See

Cao Dai Temple and Seat of the Holy See

Cao Dai isn’t just new to me, it’s relatively new to the world. And I happen to be here on a very special day. 89 years ago today, God spoke to directly to three men, who, ten months later, officially established the Cao Dai religion.

Elder Stern

Elder Stern

In it’s simplest form (and my simplistic understanding), Cao Dai is an amalgam of various established religions and beliefs systems. Take the ‘pretty parts’ of these faiths and put them in blender. It’s not unlike how the “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri unified the various languages of Italy.

Cao Dai Elders in Ceremonial Robes

Cao Dai Elders in Ceremonial Robes

Imagine if someone today started preaching that Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha were all life-long pals. Then they took the best parts of each of their teachings and mashed them together into a new story. This is my analogy for Cao Dai.   The main ingredients of the Cao Dai smoothie are Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and various other schools of thought such as cosmology. Their flag, and colors worn by the elders, are Red, Blue, and Yellow (representing Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism respectively).

Social anthropologists think, whether by design or happenstance, the marriage of familiar religions, stories, and traditions are responsible for unifying diverse and sometimes adversarial religious sects present in Vietnam in the early 1900s.

Buddha Sits Atop the Cao Dai Temple

Buddha Sits Atop the Cao Dai Temple

In one of (Cao Dai) God’s early messages to his disciples, he said, “Formerly people of the world lacked means of transportation; therefore they did not know each other… Nowadays, all parts of the world are explored: humanity, knowing itself better aspires to real peace. But because of the very multiplicity of religions, humanity does not always live in harmony. That is why I decided to unite all these religions into One, to bring them back to the primordial unity.” Not a bad message, really.

Sun Yat-Sen, Nguyen Binh Khiem, and........Victor Hugo..???

Sun Yat-Sen, Nguyen Binh Khiem, and……..Victor Hugo..???

The highest power in Cao Daism is God, yet Buddha sits atop the temple. Three ‘saints’ are featured in a painting in the entryway of every Cao Dai temple; they are: the founder of the Republic of China Sun Yat-Sen, the poet Victor Hugo and Vietnamese Professor Nguyen Binh Khiem. Someone, please, explain that one to me….

Dragon on Pillar at Cao Dai Temple

Dragon on Pillar at Cao Dai Temple

But that’s not the only mystery to me, in fact, everything about this place is a mystery to me. Men and women are equal in every way, except that they must enter through different doors, women cannot hold the highest positions, and Divine Eye is the left eye, representing the Yin, or the male – God’s eye (yes, God is a man). There are doors through which no person can enter, they are reserved for spirits to come and go as they please. There are dragons everywhere. They repeatedly referred to their temple as the Vietnamese Vatican. They embrace Buddhism as one of their three pillars, but strive to break free of reincarnation and reject the idea of suffering.

Frankly, I don’t understand any of it, but appreciate the ideal of unifying different beliefs in a peaceful manner. I won’t attempt to explain Cao Dai any more as I would only further expose my ignorance.  But I do thank the people of the Temple for their warm welcome, their generous hospitality in touring me around their property, and attempts to answer my inane questions.

More Colors Than Technicolor

More Colors Than Technicolor Imagined

The only other thing I will mention is their prolific use of colors and the vast array of imagery. It is impossible to sleep through one of their services, the dragons scare me and the colors make Disney seem monochromatic.

But I am left with one burning question: what happens to me when I (Cao) die? Well, there are 36 levels of heaven and ten of hell. There are various realms of each; there are 72 planets (Earth is number 68), 3.000 worlds, four great cosmic regions, and reincarnation (unless you can escape it by being super good, I suppose).

There, that clears it all up for me. How about you?

note:  before someone sends me a lengthy email telling me just how wrong I was on so many points, just send me a reading list.  I do not profess to be an expert and do not wish to make light of anyone’s beliefs.  Thanks.