1921: Ngô Văn Chiêu had a vision on Phú Quốc island (now part of Vietnam) of the Left Eye of God (Thiên Nhãn) in the sky, with both the rising sun and the moon present.
1925: Séances began in July in Saigon (then the largest city in French Indochina) with the participation of the three founding mediums: Cao Quỳnh Cư, Cao Hoài Sang, and Phạm Công Tắc, plus Cư’s wife Hương Hiếu as scribe.
1925: In a séance on Christmas Eve (Cao Đài), previously known as the spirit A Ă Â, dictated messages that revealed his true identity as the Jade Emperor (who is also Jehovah).
1926: Tết or Vietnamese New Year séance occurred in which the spirit of the Jade Emperor founded “the Great Way of the Third Era of Redemption” (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ).
1926 (October 7): A “Declaration” signed by twenty-eight prominent Vietnamese leaders and 245 followers was submitted to the government of French Indochina. Lê Văn Trung headed the delegation and became the Interim Human Pope (Giáo Tông).
1926 (November 19): The founding was celebrated in a huge festival that lasted three months at a pagoda in Tây Ninh. This founding date has been commemorated every year since.
1934: New denominations were formed, establishing their own administrative hierarchies or Holy Sees after the death of Interim Pope Lê Văn Trung.
1935: Phạm Công Tắc assumed leadership of the Tây Ninh “Vatican,” but kept his original title of Hộ Pháp (Defender of the Dharma, head spirit medium).
1941: French forces arrested Phạm Công Tắc and sent him into exile at the colonial prison on islands near Madagascar.
1941: The Japanese invaded French Indochina, but left the French colonial administration in charge. Caodai dockworkers trained as an informal militia in the port.
1945 (March): Caodai militia members from Tây Ninh assisted the Japanese in overthrowing the French colonial presence in Saigon.
1945: The “August revolution” against the French was celebrated by Caodaists and Communists together. Massacres of Caodai civilians in Quang Ngải and elsewhere divided nationalist forces, and the informal Caodai militia became a “defensive army.”
1946: After the end of World War II, French forces tried to reconquer Indochina. Trần Quang Vinh negotiated for the return of Phạm Công Tắc, agreeing to use his troops as a “peace-keeping force” that would not attack the French.
1954: French forces surrendered after their defeat at Điên Biến Phú in the North.
The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel, a move that was condemned by Phạm Công Tắc, who attended the accords as an advisor to the former emperor Bảo Đài.
1955: Ngô Đình Diểm became president of the Republic of Vietnam and appointed Đỗ Vạn Lý as the head of diplomatic missions to Indonesia and India.
1957: The Caodai Armed Forces were disbanded, and Phạm Công Tắc escaped arrest by fleeing to Cambodia.
1959: Phạm Công Tắc died in Cambodia, asking the king to allow his body to remain there “until Vietnam is unified, peaceful, and neutral.”
1963: Ngô Đình Diểm was assassinated, and a series of short-term presidents served in the government, including Caodaist Phan Khấc Sửu (President from 1964–1965).
1964: The Saigon Teaching Agency (Cơ Quan Phỗ Thông Giạo Lý) was founded under the leadership of Trần Văn Que and Đỗ Vạn Lý. Đỗ Vạn Lý left in 1973 to serve as the South Vietnamese Ambassador to Japan.
1971: Cao Hoài Sang, the last of the founding mediums, died in Tây Ninh and was given an elaborate funeral. Hồ Tấn Khoa became the highest-ranking medium, or Bảo Đạo, until his retirement in 1983.
1975: Saigon fell and hundreds of thousands of people tried to escape after the Communist victory. A large percentage of Caodaists who remained in Vietnam served long terms in “reeducation camps,” or were required to attend “reeducation training” from their homes. Caodai religious property was “nationalized,” and most temples were closed down.
1978: The Temple of Celestial Reason (Thiên Lý Bửu Tòa) was established in San Jose, California, by spirit medium Bạch Diếu Hoa and archbishop Ngọc Tuyêt Thiên, both female religious leaders.
1979: Đỗ Vạn Lý headed the first congregation in Los Angeles, which met at his home.
1983: Caodai temples were established in Westminster, Garden Grove (what is now “Little Saigon”) and Anaheim, California.
1989: Đỗ Vạn Lý publisheed Understanding Caodaism in California for the overseas Vietnamese community, a Vietnamese-language manifesto of diasporic faith.
1992: The Roman Catholic Pope invited a delegation of Caodai leaders to travel to Rome to “pray for peace in Vietnam” and coordinate a strategy to keep religions alive and request the return of properties nationalized in 1975.
1995: The Reformed Religion (Ban Chỉnh Đạo), the second-largest Caodai group, and Celestial Unity (Tiên Thiên), both of Bến Tre, were recognized by the Vietnamese government, as well as the Transcendent Enlightenment (Chiéu Minh Long Châu) sect of Long Châu.
1998: The Caodai Overseas Mission was founded in the U.S. with Trần Quang Cảnh as its president, and nineteen affiliated temples were established in the United States, France, Canada, and Australia. The Mission was not connected to Caodai organizations in Vietnam.
1996: Central Vietnam’s Missionary Society (Hội Thánh Truyền Giáo), with its headquarters in Đa Nang, was recognized by the Vietnamese government, as well as the True Englistenment (Minh Chơn Đạo) sect of Cà Mau.
1997: The “Vatican” of Caodaism (Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh), the first and largest branch, was recognized by the Vietnamese government.
1998: The White Clothing Unification Group (Bạch Y Liên Đoàn Lý) of Kiên Giang was recognized by the Vietnamese government.
2000: The Caodai Teaching Agency (Cơ Quan Phỗ Thông Giạo Lý Đài Đạo) in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) was recognized by the government, as well as the Cẫu Kho Heartfelt Group (Cẫu Kho Tam Quan).
2000: Cao Dai Faith of Unity was published in English by Bùi Dấc Hum and Ngasha Beck.
2007: The “California” temple in Garden Grove replicated the distinctive architecture of Tây Ninh, as do new temples in New Orleans; Dallas; Houston; Seattle; and Wichita, Kansas (constructed from 2007–2017). Forty-four Tây Ninh overseas temples and twenty-five affiliated with other denominations form international networks. Caodai temples are also found in France (Alfortville, near Paris), Australia (Sydney), Canada (Montreal) and several other countries.
2011: Trần Quang Cảnh became the first American citizen to be admitted into the Tây Ninh administrative hierarchy. The official religious hierarchy becomes transnational.
Caodaism was formed in 1925-1926 by several groups that came together in response to spirit messages they believed came from the Supreme Being, the Jade Emperor, known as Cao Đài (“the highest power”). While it is a new religion, it builds on the foundation of the “three religions” (tam giáo) of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism which have been practiced together in Vietnam for over a thousand years. The implicit syncretism which allowed these different teachings to complement each other without contradictions was re-worked in a series of spirit messages into the more explicit syncretism of a new set of doctrines proclaiming the fundamental unity of all religions. This new set of doctrines explicitly included Jesus Christ, recognized as the son of the Jade Emperor, and mentioned both Moses and Mohammed as other important religious leaders. An elaborate religious hierarchy was established, with some of its titles borrowed from the older Confucian system and translated into French with ranks used by the Catholic Church (a Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, etc.).
Ngô Văn Chiêu is recognized as the “first disciple of Cao Đài,” (Image at right) since he had a 1921 vision on Phú Quốc island (now part of Vietnam) of the Left Eye of God (Thiên Nhãn) in the sky with both the rising sun and the moon present. Ngô Văn Chiêu was an ascetic mystic who had been trained to serve in the French colonial civil service, and was the district head of Phú Quốc when he had this vision. He interpreted it as a sign that he should worship this new entity, and seek further instruction through spirit seances (Oliver 1976; Smith 1970a; 1970b).
In early 1926, he was approached by three younger civil servants (Cao Quỳnh Cư, Cao Hoài Sang, and Phạm Công Tắc) who had received messages from a spirit initially called A Ă Â (the first three letters of the romanized Vietnamese alphabet) who revealed that he was actually Cao Đài (a name for the Jade Emperor) on Christmas Eve, 1925. This spirit told them that he had come to found a new religion which would fuse together the teachings of the great Masters of the East (Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu) with those of the West (Jesus, Moses and Mohammed). After many months of conversations with this spirit, they were instructed to prepare to inaugurate the new religion, formally called “the Great Way of the Third Era of Redemption” (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ) on the lunar New Year (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015).
Ngô Văn Chiêu was designated by the Jade Emperor to be the first Pope, but he decided to turn down this appointment, saying that he needed to cultivate himself though meditation and seclusion. He chose to return to his home and did not participate in any of the larger gatherings to celebrate this new fusion of religious practitioners (Oliver 1976; Smith 1970a, 1970b).
On October 7, 1926 a “Declaration” signed by twenty-eight prominent Vietnamese leaders and 245 followers was submitted to the government of French Indochina. It was a sort of “declaration of religious independence,” establishing a new faith born in Vietnam which would bring together five levels of spiritual attainment: the Buddhist path of enlightenment (Đao phật), the way of the immortals (Đạo Tiên), the way of the saints (Đạo thánh), the way of local spirits (Đạo thần), and finally the way of humanity and ancestor veneration (Đao nhơn).
Lê Văn Trung headed the delegation and became the Interim Human Pope (Giáo Tông), who would lead the executive body of the religion during his lifetime. A once successful businessman who served as the only Vietnamese member of the Superior Council of Indochine, Lê Văn Trung had found favor with the French colonial regime, which had rewarded him with French citizenship and the Legion d’Honneur. His leadership of this new religious organization may have helped it to be initially tolerated by the French government, despite fears of a growing nationalist movement (Jammes 2014; Werner 1981).
A huge ceremony was held at the formerly Buddhist Gò Kén Pagoda in Tây Ninh province starting on November 19, 1926, and continuing for several months. Cao Quỳnh Cư, Cao Hoài Sang, and Phạm Công Tắc became the three founding spirit mediums, (Image at right) forming the “legislative body” (Hiệp Thiên Đài, Uniting Heaven and Earth), also translated as the College of Spirit Mediums, who would “receive laws” from spirit messages sent by the Jade Emperor and many other spirits who communicated with them in séances. This was balanced by the “executive body” (Cửu Trùng Đài, Nine Level Palace), headed by the Interim Pope (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015; Werner 1981). Phạm Công Tắc was designated as the head spirit medium, the Hộ Pháp, which can be translated as “Defender of the Dharma” (Pháp is the word used by Buddhists for Dharma or religious law, but it also carries the sense of a method or spiritual technology). The title comes from popular Buddhism, the fierce general called the Dharmapala, who in Vietnam is one of the four Lokapalas or spatial guardians (Tư Đài Kin Cáng). He fights enemies from the east, west and south and after having converted them becomes their chief. (Image at right) As the Hộ Pháp, Phạm Công Tắc played the leading role in running séances to establish Caodai doctrine, and even in the earliest years he came to overshadow the influence of the Interim Pope Lê Văn Trung in religious matters. Séance transcripts show him conversing and occasionally even challenging the Jade Emperor, as he worked to craft a modernist religion which would grant equality to both sexes and have a centralized leadership (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015; Werner 1981).
After the death of Interim Pope Lê Văn Trung in 1934, a series of schisms broke apart the Tây Ninh “mother church,” as many prominent Caodaists from the Mekong Delta returned to their home provinces to run separate branches or denominations. At least four of these other denominations had their own Popes and administrative hierarchies.
Ban Chỉnh Đạo (The Reformed Way) was founded in 1934 in Bến Tre, Mekong Delta, by Pope Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, and became the second largest denomination, using statues on its altar instead of ancestor tablets. Tiên Thien (Primordial Heaven)was founded in 1932 by Pope Nguyễn Hưu Chinh, also in Bến Tre, with “meditation temples” (thanh tịnh) and all white robes and turbans worn during rituals Truyền Giáo Cao Đài (Mission to Central Vietnam) was formed in 1956 by a committee with its headquarters in Đa Nang. Minh Chơn Đạo (Enlightened Choice) was formed in 1935 in Cà Mau and led by Cao Triêu Phát, a resistance leader who died in Hanoi in 1955. Chơn Lý (The True Principle) was founded in 1930 by Pope Nguyễn Văn Cả at Mỹ Tho in Tiền Giang, using an image of the Left Eye inside the heart. These “Caodaists of the Sacred Heart” have a Holy See that resembles Sacré Coeur. Cầu Kho Tam Quan was formed in 1931 in Cầu Kho in the third district (Tam Quan), at a temple where the Saigon Teaching Center held séances in the 1960s and 1970s.
Chiếu Minh Long Châu was formed in 1956 in Long Châu, Kiên Gaing, by disciples of Ngô Văn Chiêu, following a demanding ascetic tradition. Bạch Y Liên Đoàn Chơn Lý (White Clothing, True Principles) was established in 1935 and reorganized in 1955 in Kiên Giang, following Tiên Thien practices. Chiếu Minh Tam Thanh Vô Vi (Esoteric Disciples of Ngô Văn Chiêu), was established in Cần Thơ around the tomb where Ngô Văn Chiêu is buried.
Several of them objected to the fact that Phạm Công Tắc, as the designated successor to Lê Văn Trung, combined the legislative and executive functions in one office. While Phạm Công Tắc never took on the title of “Pope” (Giáo Tông), he is commonly described as “the Caodai Pope” in many English language publications, and he did become the head administrator of the Tây Ninh organization from 1934 until his exile to Cambodia in 1956 (and death in 1959) (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015; Werner 1981).
Phạm Công Tắc, while not the actual founder of Caodaism, was certainly its most famous twentieth century leader, and his charismatic and controversial personality is still associated with Caodaism’s most notable innovations: He received a series of spirit communications from the deceased French writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who was eventually designated the “spiritual head of Caodaism’s overseas mission.” (Image at right) He also received spirit messages from Jeanne D’Arc, La Fountaine, Louis Pasteur and even Vladimir Lenin (all of them speaking in French, and Hugo breaking into alexandrine verse). Under his guidance, a new Religious Constitution (Pháp Chánh Truyền) and a new Set of Laws (Tân Luật) was compiled and published in both Vietnamese and French. And he directed the building of the splendid new Holy See in Tây Ninh (a “Vatican in Vietnam”) with an elaborate and eclectic architecture that provided a visual illustration of Caodai theology, combining a “European front” with Gothic arches and a nave, with nine ascending levels leading up to the gold plated “eight trigram tower” (Bát Quai Đài) where spirit seances are held under a huge globe inscribed with the “left eye of God” (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015; Werner 1981). (Image at right).
The French suspected Caodaism of harboring not only a religious nationalism, which glorified Vietnamese heritage and brought many of its rituals back to life, but also a political movement, which seemed at times to be inspired by the Japanese example. Caodai spirit messages received by Phạm Công Tắc prophesied the end of French colonial rule and the triumph of Asian self-determination. In 1941, French forces arrested Phạm Công Tắc and sent him into exile at the colonial prison on islands near Madagascar. Shortly afterward, the Japanese invaded French Indochina, but left the French colonial administration in charge. Caodai dockworkers were trained by the Japanese as an informal militia in the port, and in March 1945 Caodai militia members from Tây Ninh assisted the Japanese in overthrowing the French colonial presence in Saigon (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015; Werner 1981).
While the “August revolution” against the French was celebrated by Caodaists and Communists together, clashes soon developed between different factions of the revolution. Massacres of Caodai civilians in Quang Ngải and elsewhere divided nationalist forces, and the informal Caodai militia became a “defensive army” led by Trần Quang Vinh, the young Caodaist designated in spirit seances as Victor Hugo’s “spiritual son” (Blagov 2000; Hoskins 2015).
After the end of World War II, French forces tried to reconquer Indochina. Trần Quang Vinh negotiated for the return of Phạm Công Tắc, agreeing to use his troops as a “peace-keeping force” that would not attack the French. In return, Caodaists formed a “state within a state” in Tây Ninh, with their own police, tax-collectors, schools and local administrators, sheltered to a certain extent from the violence of the war against the French. Phạm Công Tắc declared that he was “following the path of Gandhi,” and seeking a non-violent pathway to full decolonization and independence (Blagov 2000; Hoskins 2015). (Image at right).
French forces surrendered after their defeat at Điên Biến Phú in 1954 in the North. The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel, a move that was condemned by Phạm Công Tắc, who attended the Geneva conference as an advisor to the former emperor Bảo Đài. When Ngô Đình Diểm became president of the Republic of Vietnam in 1954, he decided to disband the Caodai Army, and clashed with Phạm Công Tắc, who escaped arrest by fleeing to Cambodia in 1957. Phạm Công Tắc died in Phnom Penh two years later, asking the king of Cambodia to allow his body to remain there “until Vietnam is unified, peaceful, and neutral” (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015).
Ngô Đình Diểm himself fell from power after his regime was criticized for favoring Catholics over Buddhists. A series of short-term presidents served in the government, including Caodaist Phan Khấc Sửu (from 1964–1965), and a new organization emerged to try to unite different religious groups under the flag of Caodaism. The Saigon Teaching Agency (Cơ Quan Phỗ Thông Giạo Lý, literally Agency for Doctrinal Dissemination) was founded in 1964 under the leadership of Trần Văn Que and Đỗ Vạn Lý. Đỗ Vạn Lý had worked for Ngô Đình Diểm as a diplomat in India and Indonesia, and left in 1973 to serve as the South Vietnamese Ambassador to Japan. (Image at right) He was also the last ambassador to the U.S. appointed by Ngô Đình Diểm, although Diểm himself was assassinated before Đỗ Vạn Lý could assume his new position. This new organization managed to forge collaborations among several different denominations, and presented a modern, “rationalized” vision of Vietnamese autonomy during the period of the American war (1964-1975). Cao Hoài Sang, the last of the founding mediums, died in Tây Ninh in 1971 and was given an elaborate funeral. Hồ Tấn Khoa became the highest-ranking medium, or Bảo Đạo, and was the leader at the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975 (Blagov 2000; Hoskins 2015).
When Saigon fell, hundreds of thousands of people tried to escape after the Communist victory. A large percentage of Caodaists who remained in Vietnam served long terms in “re-education camps,” or were required to attend “reeducation training” from their homes. Caodai religious property was “nationalized,” and most temples were closed down. Several important Caodai leaders, like Trần Quang Vinh, died in re-education camps, and others were forced to settle in new economic zones far from religious centers. Spirit seances were declared illegal and condemned as superstition, so no new religious offices could be filled (Blagov 2000; Hoskins 2015).
Overseas, diasporic communities were formed to provide new places where seances could be held. The Temple of Celestial Reason (Thiên Lý Bửu Tòa) was established in 1979 in San Jose, California, by spirit medium Bạch Diếu Hoa (Image at right) and archbishop Ngọc Tuyêt Thiên, both female religious leaders. Several new volumes of spirit messages were published from seances in California. Đỗ Vạn Lý headed the first congregation in Los Angeles, which met at his home, and soon southern California became an area of growth and resettlement as Caodai temples were established in Westminster (what is now “Little Saigon”), Anaheim, Garden Grove, San Diego, Pomona, and San Bernardino. Đỗ Vạn Lý published Understanding Caodaism (1989) in California for the overseas Vietnamese community, a Vietnamese-language manifesto of diasporic faith. In 1992, the Catholic Pope invited a delegation of Caodai leaders to travel to Rome to “pray for peace in Vietnam,” coordinate a strategy to keep religions alive and request the return of properties nationalized in 1975. Caodai temples in Sydney, Australia, Montreal, Canada and Paris, France also sent representatives to the delegation. The Caodai Overseas Mission was founded in the U.S. in 1988. with Trần Quang Cảnh (the son of Trần Quang Vinh) as its president and nineteen affiliated temples in the United States, France, Canada, and Australia. It was not connected to Caodai organizations in Vietnam, and was initially anti-communist in orientation (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015).
In Vietnam, a new era of reform (Đổi Mới) initiated in 1986 came to include not only economic reforms but also a liberalization of constraints on formerly suppressed religous organizations. From 1995 to 2000, a series of different Caodai organizations were recognized by the Vietnamese government and permitted to hold larger religious gatherings, train a new generation of Caodaists, and run more of their own affairs (but not to hold séances) (Blagov 2000).
The number of Caodaists had been estimated at 2,500,000 in the 1960s, and for many decades these statistics seemed to have stagnated (since there were many disadvantages for younger people in Vietnam who had a religious affiliation). In 2014, however, new government statistics estimated that there were 4,400,000 Caodaists, and these numbers seem to be growing again each year. Caodaism has been recognized in official government publications as “Vietnam’s third largest religion,” and as its “largest indigenous religion.” The 1332 Caodai temples registered in the country are now almost all re-opened, and most of them have been renovated (often with diasporic funding) and are once again filled with worshippers (Hoskins 2015).
Overseas, Caodai scriptures originally published in Vietnamese and in French have now been translated into English, German and several other languages. Cao Dai Faith of Unity (2000) was published in English by Bùi Dấc Hum and Ngasha Beck to explain Caodai doctrine to a new generation of Vietnamese Americans and many non-Vietnamese as well. Since 2006, half a dozen new Caodai temples have been built replicating the distinctive architecture of Tây Ninh, including new temples in Garden Grove, California, New Orleans; Dallas; Houston; Seattle; and Wichita, Kansas. Forty-four Tây Ninh overseas temples and twenty-five affiliated with other denominations form international networks. Caodai temples are also found in France (Alfortville, near Paris), Australia (Sydney), Canada (Montreal) and several other countries. In 2011, Trần Quang Cảnh became the first American citizen to be admitted into the Tây Ninh administrative hierarchy (Hoskins 2015) (Image at right).
Caodaism is a modern, syncretistic religion which builds on the foundations of a thousand years of practicing a combination of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in Vietnam. It is monotheistic, in the sense that the Jade Emperior (Cao Đai) is seen as the creator of the universe, who sent all other religious teachers. He represents all that is positive, light, dynamic and forceful in the universe, qualities associated with the polarity of “yang” (dương), in Taoist principles. He is balanced by the Mother Goddess (Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu), the “mother of humanity,” who represents the darker, responsive and preserving forces of “yin” (âm). (Image at right) In the Taoist account of creation, which Caodaists share, these two opposing forces came together to create the universe and humanity, and continue to operate as influential polarities in all movement (Bui and Beck 2000).
Caodaism embraces the “three jewels” (matter, energy and soul) and the “five elements” (mineral, wood/plant, water, fire and earth) of Taoism, the “three duties” (ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife) and “five virtues” (love, justice, respect, wisdom, loyalty) of Confucianism, and the “three refuges” (Buddha, dharma, sangha) and “five prohibitions” (no killing, no stealing, no drunkenness, no extravagance, no lying) of Buddhism. Through leading moral lives, engaging in social service and practicing meditation, Caodai disciples hope to eventually be released from the cycle of reincarnation and be united with a higher reality.These doctrines and practices were deeply tied to Vietnamese history, and they remain the core of Caodai belief and practice (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2105; Werner 1981).
Caodai founders argued in 1926 that both Eastern and Western traditions had become morally bankrupt, and proposed to restore a lost social equilibrium through a new congregational discipline, which would rehabilitate the ancient Confucian virtues. The religious syncretism which existed implicitly in the Vietnamese combination of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism now needed to be defined explicitly against the pressures of European culture. This was done by casting it into newly marked institutional forms, in which the red robes of Confucian and Catholic dignitaries represented the administrative branch, the turquoise robes of Taoist occultists represented spiritual purity and tolerance, and the saffron robes of Buddhist dignitaries represented compassion and charity. (Image at right) The revival of the pomp and pageantry of the imperial past was conducted in an atmosphere of reverence for the past, which was nevertheless tied to a modernist defense of these practices as philosophically rational and complementary rather than contradictory (Hoskins 2015).
New scriptures were generated through spirit séances, which allowed the Jade Emperior and his deputies to explain how the beliefs and practices of Chrsitianity, Judaism and Islam could be incorporated into an encompassing East Asian spirituality. The most important deputy of the Jade Emperor was Lý Thái Bạch (also known as Li Bai), the spirit of a Tang dynasty Taoist poet, who is the “Invisible Pope” (Giáo Tông Vô Vi) and serves as sort of master of ceremonies to introduce other spirits at séances. While Phạm Công Tắc played an important role in leading, recording, translating and selecting the spirit messages that make up the first official collection of Caodai doctrine (Thánh Ngôn Hiệp Tuyền 1934), he was certainly not the only religious innovator who generated new spirit messages, and each of the other denominations also has its own corpus of spirit messages to guide them.
The doctrine that this is the “Great Way of the Third Era of Universal Redemption” (as reflected in the official name Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ) draws on millenarian elements common to both Buddhism and Christianity. Caodaists believe that there have been three major eras of spiritual revelation: The first era was led by the Dipankara Buddha, early Taoist philosophers and early mandarins in China who established the bases of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The second era was marked by the teachings of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni), Lao Tzu, Confucius and Jesus Christ. The third era began in 1926 when the Jade Emperor communicated directly with a new set of followers using the name of Cao Đài, which also refers to Jehovah, the father of Jesus. Establishing the “divine kinship” of East Asian religious leaders with Christian and Jewish figures should allow all followers to see the common origin of all spiritual teachings (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015).
Caodaism is a congregational religion which holds prayer ceremonies three times a day at its temples (at six in the morning, , noon, and midnight), with particularly large and important ceremonies on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month (corresponding to the new and the full moon), and on an extended series of religious holidays. The usual ceremony involves chanting the names of various spirits and deities as worshippers bow, then making offerings of incense, fruit and flowers, and spirit and holy water. Music composed in response to spirit messages in the 1920s combines drums, gongs, a one stringed lute and percussion instruments to tell the story of the creation of the world from the opposing forces of Yin and Yang (âm/dương), with cadences reminiscent of Buddhist liturgical services. A report of births and deaths in the congregation, plans for future celebrations and construction projects is prepared, chanted in front of the altar, and then burned so that its essence can travel up to heaven (Bui and Beck 2000; Hoskins 2015).
Major celebrations are held to commemorate the founding of the religion on November 19, 1926 (as reckoned by the lunar calendar), for the Mid-Autumn Fesitval of the Mother Goddess (Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu), for the birth of the Jade Emperor, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu, and for the birth of Jesus (Christmas), and of Victor Hugo (the latter two being the only celebrations linked to the solar calendar). Seances, once crucial to the generation of new doctrine and for offering guidance to the administrators of the religion, have been illegal in Vietnam since 1975. They have been conducted privately at some temples overseas (most notable at Thiên Lý Bửu Tòa, now in San Martin, California) and quarterly at other locations (Bui and Beck 2000; Hoskins 2015).
The Great Temple at Tây Ninh is the oldest and largest Caodai Holy See, and often referred to as the “mother church.” Eight hundred out of 1332 Caodai temples registered in Vietnam follow Tây Ninh, and this may represent a bit more than sixty percent of all Caodai followers. Roughly twelve more denominations exist in other regions, many of them in the Mekong Delta, but also in Central Vietnam. Hồ Tấn Khoa, the highest-ranking spirit medium or Bảo Đạo (translated “defender of the way,” a rank just below that of the Hộ Pháp) in Tây Ninh, died after the Fall of Saigon, and no one has replaced him as the head of the Tây Ninh College of Spirit Mediums, largely because of the ban on spirit seances. While no one has taken the title of “Pope” since 1934, the organization is now leaded by Cardinal Thánh Tam, who performs his responsibilities as head of the “executive branch”. For many years, the government did not allow new clergy to be appointed, but since 1995 they have allowed for secular appointments. In the past, a séance was required to confirm a “divine appointment” (thiên phong) and that has not been possible since 1975. Overseas organizations describe this as a de-legitimation of the religious hierarchy, but over the past two decades it does seem to have allowed the structure of administration to be reproduced (Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015).
Many Caodai overseas groups oppose the current government of Vietnam, and have not sought to be linked to organizations there since they see them as “contaminated” by these new regulations. The séance communications received in the U.S. or other places are not recognized in Vietnam, so the same arguments are made by the other side. Seeking reconciliation with the current religious administration in Tây Ninh, Trần Quang Cảnh became the first non-Vietnamese citizen (he was born in Vietnam, but is a naturalized American) to be formally accepted into the ranks of the religous hierarchy in 2011. Other denominations of Caodaism have not yet formally allowed their membership to become transnational, but many overseas Vietnamese do visit the Saigon Teaching Agency and other temples for meditation worskhops, spiritual instruction, and initiation into particular ritual lineages (Hoskins 2015).
Caodaists have pursued a pathway to religious normalization in the twenty-first century, but almost all of them would agree that they have not yet completely arrived. They are able to congregate, to build and rebuild their temples, and to recruit new members in Vietnam. But they are not allowed to administer their own organization according to its supposedly divinely revealed Religious Constitution. And they are not allowed to hold spirit séances, which were the engine to generate new doctrine and to receive divine guidance on how to run religious affairs (Hoskins 2015; Jammes 2014).
Some overseas Caodaists hope that a new transnational organization can eventually be fused with the different groups in Vietnam, but many are also skeptical that unity can be achieved in this new religion which makes the unity of all religions one of its most important principles. Bitterly aware of this apparent contradiction, but also committed to continuing to struggle to overcome a history of political separations and persecution, these leaders are now at least engaged in more dialogue with congregations in various countries. While the number of non-Vietnamese converts is still very small, the ambitions of this new “faith of unity” remain large (Bui and Beck 2000; Jammes 2014; Hoskins 2015).
Image #1: Ngô Văn Chiêu, the first disciple. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #2: Statues of the three founding mediums in Tây Ninh: Cao Quỳnh Cư, Phạm Công Tắc,Cao Hoài Sang. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #3: Phạm Công Tắc in ceremonial costume as the Defender of the Dharma. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #4: Victor Hugo, pictured with Sun-Yat Sen and Trang Trinh “signing an accord with heaven.” Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #5: Left eye on globe. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #6: Phạm Công Tắc meditating and “following the path of Gandhi.” Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #7: Do Van Ly. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #8: Bach Dieu Hoa, the female spirit medium who founded Thien Ly Buu Toa. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #9: Tran Quang Canh, the first non-Vietnamese citizen to be part of the heirarchy. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Image #10: Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu— the Mother Goddess and yin principle. Photo and copyright by Janet Alison Hoskins.
Bui, Hum Dac and Ngasha Beck. 2000. Cao Dai, Faith of Unity. Fayetteville, AR: Emerald Wave.
Blagov, Sergei. 2012. Caodaism: Vietnamese Traditionalism and Its Leap Into Modernity. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Hoskins, Janet Alison. 2015. The Divine Eye and the Diaspora: Vietnamese Syncretism Becomes Transpacific Caodaism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Jammes, Jeremy. 2014. Les Oracles du Cao Dai: Étude d’un mouvement religieux vietnamien et de ses réseaux. Paris: Les Indes Savantes.
Oliver, Victor L. 1976. Caodai Spiritism: A Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society. Leiden: E.J.Brill.
Smith, Ralph B. 1970a. “An Introduction to Caodaism 1: Origins and Early History.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 33:335-49.
Smith, Ralph B. 1970b. “An Introduction to Caodaism 2.: Beliefs and Organization.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 33:573-89.
Werner, Jayne S. 2015. “God and the Vietnamese Revolution: Religious Organizations in the Emergence of Today’s Vietnam” Pp. 29-53 in Atheist Secularism and its Discontents: A Comparative Study of Religion and Communism in Eurasia, edited by Tam Ngo. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Werner, Jayne. 1981. Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai in Vietnam. New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies.
10 August 2017