CAO DAI is a syncretistic modern Vietnamese religious movement founded in 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu (1878–1932; also known as Ngo Minh Chieu). An official of the French colonial administration, Chieu was widely read in both Eastern and Western religion, and had a particular interest in spiritism. The movement began during séances conducted by Chieu and a group of friends of similar background as Vietnamese intellectuals. An entity called Cao Dai (literally, "high tower," a Daoist epithet for the supreme god) appeared and delivered to the group the fundamental features of the religion: universalism, vegetarianism, the image of an eye in a circle (which became its central symbol), and various details of worship. On November 18, 1926 the movement was inaugurated in a dramatic ceremony that drew some fifty thousand people. Though resisted by Buddhists and French officials, who perceived its nationalistic potential, Cao Dai grew phenomenally. By 1930 it numbered a half million by conservative estimate, and soon had garnered over one million followers, embracing at least one-eighth of the population in what was to become South Vietnam. The remarkable appeal of the eclectic, spiritist faith undoubtedly reflected the yearning of an oppressed Vietnamese population for something new, immediate, indigenous, and idealistic in a situation in which Catholicism was the religion of the alien colonizers, Buddhism was moribund, and Confucianism was linked to a social order clearly passing away.
Cao Dai met those criteria. The substantial Chinese cultural influence in Vietnam is evidenced in the fundamental similarity of Cao Dai to religious Daoist sectarianism in its spiritism, political overtones, and colorful liturgy. Furthermore, like most Chinese religious movements of recent centuries, it also sought to unify the "three faiths," and so it incorporated Confucian morality, Buddhist doctrines such as karman and reincarnation, and Daoist occultism. Also like some of its Chinese counterparts, it further sought to unify the religions of the world, seeing them all as coming from the same source, and heralding a new age of world harmony. Its elaborate organizational structure, headed by a pope, cardinals, and archbishops, was patently inspired by Roman Catholicism. Besides the supreme god, Cao Dai, the faith also honored a great company of spirits, not only Eastern figures like the Buddha, Lao-tzu, Confucius, and Sun Yat-sen, but also such Westerners as Jesus, Muḥammad, Joan of Arc, and Victor Hugo.
Cao Dai worship centers on rituals performed in temples four times daily and celebrated with even greater elaborateness on festivals. The rituals consist of prayer, chants, and such simple offerings as incense, tea, and wine presented with highly stylized ceremony. Séances are held separately and are restricted to set occasions and to mediums appointed by the hierarchy. Despite these rules, Cao Dai has generated a number of sizable subsects, frequently inspired by fresh mediumistic communications.
Cao Dai is headquartered in a sacred city, Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon. Here it boasts a large main temple and many administrative and ritual offices. Before the unification of Vietnam under the communist Hanoi regime in 1975, the "Holy See" was responsible not only for spiritual and ecclesiastical matters, but also for managing the sect's considerable agricultural and business holdings. During the several decades of strife before 1975, Cao Dai exercised effective control of its headquarters province and, until its forces were disbanded by President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, fielded its own army. Although its alliances shifted among the contending groups, Cao Dai basically labored for an unaligned nationalism.
Accused by the new communist state of being both politically oriented and "superstitious," after 1975 Cao Dai was severely repressed A high proportion of its churches were confiscated, and clergy arrested or laicized. The Holy See became virtually inactive. However, a gradual liberalization of policy toward religion commenced in the late 1980s. In 1997, in a grand ceremony at Tay Ninh, the regime officially made Cao Dai a recognized religion, though its governance was placed firmly under state control; many believers resisted recognition at that price. Outside Vietnam, Cao Dai temples and worship centers flourish in Vietnamese immigrant communities. Estimates put the faith's worldwide numbers at between two and four million.
Blagov, Sergei. The Cao Dai: A New Religious Movement. Moscow, 1999.
Bui, Hum Dac, and Ngasha Beck. Cao Dai: Faith of Unity. Fayetteville, Ark., 2000.
Oliver, Victor L. Caodai Spiritism: A Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society. Leiden, 1976.
Werner, Jayne Susan. Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai in Viet Nam. New Haven, 1981.
Robert S. Ellwood (1987 and 2005)
Literally, "high tower" or "high altar," a Daoist expression for the Supreme One. Cao Dai is a syncretic and esoteric Vietnamese new religious movement that combines aspects of daoism, buddhism, confucianism and Roman Catholicism. It was founded by Ngo Van Chieu (1878–1926), a minor official in the French colonial civil service in Vietnam in 1919. In a traditional Daoist table-moving spirit séance, he claimed to have received the "Third Revelation" that would unite and complete the earlier two revelations that had produced Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Roman Catholicism. The founders and deities of these four religions (e.g., Sakyamuni Buddha, Laozi, Confucius, Moses, Jesus Christ) are clustered in the "upper" Cao Dai pantheon of deities that its adherents worship daily. Adherents also venerate an open-ended "lower" pantheon of "patron saints" that includes Pericles, Julius Caesar, St. Joan of Arc, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, J. Jaurès, Winston Churchill, Sun Yat-sen, Li Thai Po and Tranh Thinh.
From its Daoist roots, Cao Dai inherits the spirit séances and divination ceremonies. Its ethical vision, precepts of daily living and ancestor veneration ceremonies are taken from Confucianism. For its teachings on karma and reincarnation, it draws upon Buddhism. Its hierarchical leadership structure (i.e., the ordering of the movement as a "Holy See" with a "pope" as supreme leader, a college of "cardinals" as his advisers and "archbishops" as local leaders), its ideal of universal love and its colorful rituals are adapted from Roman Catholicism. The representation of the Supreme One as an eye in a triangle that appears in all its religious art and architecture is influenced by early 20th-century French theosophical esotericism.
The movement experienced much growth under the charismatic leadership of Le Van Trung, a former government
functionary who reorganized the movement along the hierarchical leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Van Trung created a "Holy See" in Tay Ninh, a southern provincial city by the banks of Vam Co Tay River, some 65 miles (105 km) northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). He was also responsible for building the landmark Cao Dai "cathedral" in Tay Ninh, a highly eclectic edifice patterned after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and fusing Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Roman Catholic architectural elements. The formal reorganization was completed in 1926, and Van Trung became the movement's first "pope."
Originally an urban movement of nationalist intellectuals in Saigon, it soon captured the imagination of Vietnamese peasants in the rural districts of the south and southwest. At its peak, Cao Dai counted some two million members, and had a strong political and military presence in the south. It espoused a militant and nationalist ideology in its anti-colonial insurrection against French rule. The sect operated a parallel government and had its own militia until the mid-1950s, when Ngo Dinh Diem disbanded its militia and forced its "pope," Pham Cong Tac, into exile. After the 1975 communist victory, Cao Dai's influence was curtailed, and attempts were made to integrate them within a reconstructed communist society. Although the communist authorities have allowed
the "Holy See" in Tay Ninh to operate, there are reports of sporadic harassment of the sect's adherents. Many adherents have fled abroad, establishing large overseas Cao Dai communities in Australia, France and the United States.
Bibliography: The Religious Constitution of Caodaism: Religious Constitutional Laws, explained and annotated by His Holiness Pope Hô-Pháp, l. davey, tr. (Wiley Park, New South Wales, Australia 1992). e. h. bÙi, Caodaism: A Novel Religion (San Jose, Calif. 1992). k. e. fields, "Culture and Politics in Vietnamese Caodàism," in s. a. arjomand, ed., The Political Dimensions of Religion (Albany, New York 1993) 205–18. g. gobron, History and Philosophy of Caodaism; Reformed Buddhism, Vietnamese Spiritism, New Religion in Eurasia, pham-xuÂn-thÁi, tr. (Saigon 1950). k. phan, Caodaism (London 2000). v. l. oliver, Caodai Spiritism: A Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society (Leiden 1976). j. s. werner, Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai (New Haven, Conn. 1981).
Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religion that began in 1925 with a vision of the Supreme Being given to Ngo Van Chieu. In the vision he was asked to spread the message of the unity of religion. God, as the source of all, began different religions at different times for different people. In the light of modern transportation and communication, however, it is time for all religions to unite around their common Source. Ngo was assured that other messages would be received from spiritual beings in God's service. Out of the original revelation, a new religion and hierarchy (somewhat modeled on Roman Catholicism) emerged. Integral to the structure has been a groups of mediums (some of whom practiced automatic writing ) who have continued communications with various spiritual beings. Some of the revelations were received by a practice similar to the planchette. Mediums would turn a basket upside down and insert a pencil through it in such a way that the moving basket left a written message behind. All officers in the church are approved by such a spiritualist message. Their presence is a primary sign of the influence of theosophy and French Spiritualism on the movement from its beginning.
Cao Dai developed as a synthesis of religions, trying to take universal truths and insights common to Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Genism (all present in Vietnam), as well as Theosophy and Spiritualism. It later included Islam, Zorastrianism and Hinduism in its research. Among the common beliefs that the Cao Dai have asserted is the belief in the One God, the ongoing connection of each religion to its source, and the principles of love and justice. It is the assertion of Cai Dao, that any believer following the esoteric practice of their present religion will lead them to the same ultimate goal.
The Cao Dai also teach a set of esoteric practices that attempt to transform matter into vital energy and then into spiritual energy. A basic meditation exercise utilizes the subtle body anatomy derived from Tantra, including activation of the energy centers known as chakras and the raising of kundalini energy.
The Cao Dai grew across Vietnam, but was profoundly effected by the Vietnamese War and the suppression of religion under the post-war government. During this time it spread quietly within the Vietnamese expatriate communities around the world. In the 1990s it has suddenly emerged into public notice as it has attempted to break out of it ethnic enclaves into the larger European and North American religious and spiritual community. The international center of Cao Dai remains in Vietnam, at the Tay Ninh Cao Dai cathedral located about 60 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. The government has considered the spiritualist practices of the group but superstition and banned their continuance. Cao Dai spiritists have had to operate in secret. The most recent government regulations allow it to operate, but under such a system many believe is designed to eradicate the religion in Vietnam in a generation.
International headquarters are in Vietnam, but overseas headquarters have been established at 1608 Smiley Heights Dr., Redlands, CA 92373. There are a number of Internet pages devoted to Cao Dai, including one supported by the Sydney Centre for Studies in Caodaism, http://pandora.nla.gov.au/nla/pandora/caodaism.html. The primary Internet site for the movement can be found at http://www.caodai.org/.
Sydney Centre for Studies in Caodaiism. http://pandora.nla.gov.au/nla/pandora/caodaism.html. April 20, 2000.
Cao Dai. http://www.caodai.org/. April 20, 2000.