Cao Dai (Great religion of the third period of revelation and salvation), Tay Ninh, Vietnam, 29th April 2011

Disciple outside ‘Holy See’

‘Mens natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.’ Confucius

Slim jim takes me there, in a bus with a bunch of other tourists from Ho Chi Min City.  To ‘Tay Ninh Holy See’, the centre for the Cao Daism religion in Vietnam.

It’s a tour.  I’m on a tour and it’s not so bad.  For $6.  Slim Jim (real name ‘Thong’) is a cockney slang expert, puts things in his ‘sky rocket’ and likes to get ‘pissed’.  Stick thin army vet from the Mekong Delta with a taste for Tiger beer and eyes that sparkle with youthful mischief from a 60-year-old body.  Some people never learn (age).

Its 25 years today since the Vietnamese Communists defeated the South and the Americans.  The streets are quieter than usual and a few men sip Saigon beer around street side tables, but generally there is no great party atmosphere.  After all, this is the south.  Many people have hung the communist flag (hammer and sickle) outside there houses and it’s a public holiday.  Theres no real sign of revelry or traffic, apart from two mangled bus wrecks.  One with a scooter hanging out of the front grille and the other with the majority of an iron fence smashed through the drivers side window.  Slim Jim chuckles and puts it down to the ‘too much Tiger’.

Four nurses from Liverpool sit around me, swapping stories of misdemeanors whilst under the influence of ‘buckets’ in Thailand.  Theres an American Soldier named Mark, who has just served 18 months in downtown Baghdad.  Its fascinating to get an inside view of Iraq and Mark has a great knowledge of history, war and politics.  Mark explains his daily life, regularly being shot at and his desire for a free and peaceful Iraq.  He seemed to care about the country and its people and gave me a refreshing, positive image of the military.

Driving through the town of Tay Ninh, 60 miles north of Saigon it is evident that something has shifted.  Many of the local people are scooting around on bikes and playing checkers wearing full white robes, some men wearing black skull caps.  The city looks fairly new as a result of almost being bombed off the map during the war.

I first read of the Cao Dai in an excellent Eland book (http://www.travelbooks.co.uk/) by Norman Lewis ‘A Dragon Apparent’.  Micheal Palin has also dropped by and many others.  All are fascinated by this religion and its inclusive take on spirituality.  Some call it a cult, but you cannot argue about the positive message of togetherness.  The restraint that they show to tourists interrupting their ceremony is admirable.  Also, how many other religions can count the author of the ‘Hunchback of Notre-damn’ as a saint.

We arrive at the ‘Holy See’ to an atmosphere of tension under a scorching sun.   Throngs of tourists are assembled with cameras the dimensions of high-tech military hardware.  Piles of their sandals and flip-flops lie under protective beach umbrellas.  They are anxious to get inside the one narrow entrance, the ceremony begins in five minutes and the public holiday means a full house.

There are groups of Japanese, Americans, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Koreans and a smattering of hairier traveller types.  Cao Dai certainly draws a crowd.  I opt for a plan B and slip around the other side and enter with the Cao Dai ladies.  This seems fine and nobody minds my presence.  I have the privilege of sitting close to the band as they begin clanging prayer bells and chanting in a falsetto wail.

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profundity. Kindness in giving creates love.” Lao Tse

The ‘Holy See’ is a large multi coloured building that is regularly touched up with fresh paint, therefore looking newer than in should.  The outside is surrounded by Chinese dragons wrapped around pillars and the walls are covered with murals of the all seeing eye (God) with a pronounced eyebrow in a pyramid.  It’s similar to the Masonic Lodge symbol but surrounded by bright pink lotus flowers entwined around Chinese patterns.  On the roof, I can see Jesus and some blue Hindu looking Gods, Chinese Sages and more fearsome dragons.

The building does not show a great deal of craftmanship, most of the ornation seems to be moulded from concrete and plaster and the colours used remind me of a little girls birthday cake, all frilly pink and electric blues.  It is impressive in scale, the same size as a large church, but not in detail.  For a centre of worship, for a religion, it seems little interest has been put into making ‘Holy See’ a depiction of worldly Nirvana.  I like this and more importantly, the Cao Dai seem very happy with it.

Inside the ceremony had begun with the deep chiming of a bell.  Nine shallow steps lead up the cavernous main hall towards a giant globe with a large blue eye painted in the centre.  The lowly, white-robed disciples, sit on these checkerboard steps towards the back, near the exits.  They gradually whittle down in numbers going forward, with notably less women.  A triangle of brightly coloured men in blue, red and yellow robes are sat on the fifth level.  They all sit crossed legged, facing the eye; praying and chanting quietly, occasionally bending their heads towards the ground in time with the chimes.

The whole ceremony is linked to the large bell,  which has a dull, hypnotic quality.  Towards the rear of the hall is a small band, playing assorted string instruments. They create a shrill accompaniment with no harmony.  A group of eight ladies sing along, maybe a prayer, all high-pitched.  Each disciple seems transfixed by concentration and revery.  This is especially impressive due to the gangs of tourists hanging off the higher terraces, flashing and clicking away.  Bustling and barging for the best vantage point for a photo, but not connecting at all with what is going on below.

‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him.
If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.’ Buddha

I’ve seen enough of the tag team tussle and sneak out early.  There are groups of elderly ladies and gents sitting around in robes, resting on small red pagodas.  The eye of god emblazoned on their chests.  Some of the men wear coloured hats very similar to that of a Catholic cardinal.  They all look over in a friendly way, but I imagine they are jaded by the number of tourists that are crammed into their ceremony each day.  I wish I could ask them what is going on?  My only point of reference is Slim Jim, who seems to know only three facts about the Cao Dai, which he proudly repeats at regular intervals (‘They are not Buddhists, they are not communists, they are Vietnamese’).

I jump back on the bus, the Liverpudlian nurses are chatting about Kenny Daglish, Slim Jims on the mike saying something about ‘apples and pears’ and ‘ruby merry’.  I left feeling like a voyeur.  Impossible to connect with the spiritual aspects of a religion, when all you are is cattle.  My first impressions of the spectacle that was Cao Dia can be best surmised by one of its saints, Monsieur Hugo.  ‘Religions pass away, but God remains.’

Cao Daism, as I understand it.

Established in Tay Ninh in 1926 by 247 disciples but not legally recognised in Vietnam until 1995.  Cao Daism incorporates Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism and Geniism (indigenous Vietnamese religion).  Meaning that Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Khuong Thai Kong (Genissm) and Confucious are particularly revered as Saints and worldly messengers from ‘the’ one God.

Cao Dai basically means high tower/ platform, or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, referring to the enlightenment of the divine being.  Ngô Văn ChiêuPhạm Công Tắc and Cao Hoài Sang, claimed to receive direct messages from God to start a new religion, a third way for religious amnesty.  The followers aim for liberation from the cycle of birth and death, by following strict rules honouring veneration of ancestors, prayer, non-violence and vegetarianism.  Cao Daism is the third largest religion in Vietnam with three million followers.

They follow five interdictions:

– Do not kill living beings

– Do not be dishonest

– Do not commit adultery

– Do not get drunk

– Do not sin by word

They believe that during the first period of revelation, God placed these Saints on earth to begin a huge wave of spiritual teaching over thousands of years.  Due to the frailty of these leaders, God realised that religion was not spreading as one.  He began a third period of revelation, namely Cao Dai, which is focused on combining all of the great teachings into one doctrine with an emphasis on universal harmony between all people.

According to Cao Daism, in simplified terms, there was the big bang and God was created, he then created Yin and Yang to create the universe.  ‘He’ became part with Yang and created the goddess to watch over Yin.  Holy father, Buddha Mother are both worshipped, the male is regarded as a higher being (why does God always speak to men?).   Buddha Mother is also part of Yang, meaning that Buddha Mother is actually male (not surprisingly really).  She (he) merely watches over Yin.  God is represented by a blue left (left = yang) eye, painted onto a giant globe, hanging at the end of the ‘Holy See’.

There are 36 levels of heaven and 72 planets harboring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to Hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth, even if you happen live in Milton Keynes.

Cao Dai prayer five times daily, but is dominated by elderly people who mainly live on the large compound that surrounds the ‘Holy See’.  Protected by giant walls, movements are restricted within.  Young people show little interest.

Spiritual attainment follows the Three Teachings from Saint, Sage to Buddha.  Prior to Saint there is an Angel level that may be attained in the body.  The teachers at different level ranging from Confuscius, Jesus, Buddha several Chinese saints Quan Yin, Li Po, Guan Yu, and Lao Tse.  However the three main earthly saints in the Tay Ninh Holy See are depicted as Victor Hugo (Hunchback of Notre Damn fame), Sun Yat Sen (Chinese doctor, poet and revolutionary) and Nguyen Binh Khiem (Vietnamese administrator, educator, poet, sage) who signed a covenant between God and Man.

Cao Daism’s organization structure resembles that of the Unites States government with a legislative executive and judicial branches.  The Giao Tong is the overall boss.  Cao Dai believe that the same God created Roman Catholicism and therefore have a similar heirarchy with Pope, Cardinals, Priests etc.

It is believed that God communicates through inanimate objects like Ouji boards, pens and tables.  All resulting in a code that can be translated into messages from the divine.  Regular seances are held.  They believe in Karma, that the actions of this life will affect future lives and vica-versa.  The actions of past lives are directly affecting current lives.

Cao Daism stresses equality between the sexes in the physical realm, but in the spiritual, women will never attain the highest two positions.  Yin cannot dominate Yang otherwise chaos will ensue.

The Cao Dai have opposed the North and South Vietnam and the French since its creation.  At times having their own army of sorts and engaging in military combat.  This lead to the South Vietnamese Government raiding Tay Ninh Holy See and forcing its pope at the time (Ngo Van Chieu) to flee to Cambodia, where he later died in exile.  This use of violence had meant that many Vietnamese see a hypocrisy within the Cao Dai.

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 18:25)”

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