One of the places I was most excited to witness during my three month travels across Vietnam was the colorful main Cao Dai temple near Saigon. My local guide, Hue, spent the afternoon explaining to me why Cao Dai is the most fascinating religion on earth.
The unique monotheistic religion began in Vietnam back in 1926 in the Tay Ninh Province. The principle of Cao Dai is simple–all religions have “common teachings of love and justice and are just different beautiful manifestations of the same truth” according to CaoDai.org.
Although the current communist regime in Vietnam has tried to suppress the religion Cao Dai is the 3rd largest religion in Vietnam. Astonishingly, there are 4-6 million adherents of this mostly unheard of religion still today. Around 2 million Cao Dai followers live overseas as far away as the United States and France due to the post-war diaspora.
Nearly a century later, the majority of Cao Dai disciples still live in the southern Vietnam province. There are a few Cao Dai temples in central Vietnam, most notably in Da Nang and Hue. I also saw one under construction in Hoi An but generally, Caodaism isn’t common in northern Vietnam. In fact, religion is not common at all in northern Vietnam where many citizens are communist and refer to themselves as ‘free thinkers’ rather than Buddhism, which is the most common religion in Vietnam. In Vietnam communication with the spirit world is outlawed. Due to this, the Cao Dai holy scripture is kept in the US.
Cao Dai means High Tower which is the Taoist epithet for the Supreme God. This symbolism has no gender. God is depicted through images of a left eye in a triangle which is known as the Divine Eye. The left eye is connected to the heart and represents Yang.
Cao Dai is the most inclusive religion in the world. The name of the religion represents that all religions are the same and that it’s humans duty to promote world peace. The fascinating religion encompasses beliefs and scripture from most major religions–virtues from Confucianism, Taoism spiritism, reincarnation and karma from Buddhism and Hinduism, and Catholic order, including a pope, cardinals, and archbishops.
The reason why so many religions play a part in Caodaism is that followers believe that God sent the religion to earth to remind us that all religion has the same principle of peace and goodness and that we should live in unity. A similar sentiment to The Buddha’s teaching of oneness. The beliefs of Caodaism are rooted in love, justice, and harmony. We could all learn a thing or two from Caodaist who promote tolerance across the world.
The Cao Dai religion also worships non-religious figures such as French warrior Joan of Arc, Roman emperor Julius Caesar, and the first president of China, Sun Yat-sen. Followers of the fascinating Cao Dai religion even worship Victor Hugo as a patron saint. You know, the French author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
I got to witness and participate in the daily high noon ceremony at the stunning Cao Dai temple. Worship involves group prayer to the Supreme Being in the temple every 6 hours starting from 6 AM to midnight and a daily ceremony at home. Throughout the day Cao Dai disciples must practice humanity, obligation, civility, knowledge, and reliability–the virtues of Confucianism. They also adhere to the five precepts of Buddhism–do not kill, do not steal, do not commit sexual misconduct, do not intoxicates, do not lie. I can get behind most of these clauses–especially that Caodaist must eat a vegetarian diet six days out of the month to purify the body.
Cao Dai nuns and followers wear white to symbolize purity. The pope, cardinals, and archbishops wear the vibrant primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. Red represents Taoism, yellow Buddhism, and blue Christianity. Pastel versions of these colors are used throughout the color scheme of the decor of the Cao Dai house of worship. There is intentionally 3 core color as the number is auspicious for Caodaist. The temples also have 3 sections.
The closer the parishioners are to the altar the higher they rank among the congressional, but all wear white. You may notice some men and women wearing headscarves, this symbolizes that they’re in mourning for the death of a loved one. A special ceremony is put on for the mourners and the whole congregation joins together to pray for their families in their time of loss.
I was overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude as I watched the noon ceremonial events take place from the second-floor terrace. The entire temple echoed the mesmerizing sounds of the readings of sacred text combined with the live music of traditional string and percussion instruments. The atmosphere was completely serene as Caodaist held their left fist with their right hand and sang hymns such as the Prayer to the Supreme Being.
Throughout the beautiful interior of the central home of the Cao Dai faith in Tay Ninh, Vietnam there are many fascinating motifs. The beasts circling around the pink marble pillars and stairs are actually heavenly, not evil as they appear, and prevent bad energy from entering the Cao Dai temple. Above the beasts is a baby blue sky twinkling with silver stars. The entrance to the prayer hall has 9 shallow steps, representing heaven, and the flag is designed to encompass all 7 human feelings. Lotuses are seen all around which is no surprise as they hold significant to many Southeast Asian cultures and represent purity.
If you don’t have time for a day trip out to the main Cao Dai temple you can visit the Cholon Cao Dai Temple (Google Maps) instead which is much closer to Saigon. Learn more about Cao Dai by reading Cao Dai Great Way:The Grand Cycle of Esoteric Teaching or Cao Dai: Faith of Unity by Hum Dac Bu.
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