What is Cao Dai?
Cao Dai (a.k.a. Dao Cao Dai or Caodaism) is a syncretist Vietnamese religious movement with a strongly nationalist political character. Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism. Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.
- Date founded: 1926
- Place founded: Vietnam
- Founder: Ngo Van Chieu
- Adherents: 2-6 million
In 1919 Ngo Van Chieu, an administrator for the French in Indochina, received a communication from the supreme deity during a table-moving séance. Chieu became the prophet of the new religion, which was formally established in 1926. Caodaists believe this ushered in Tam Ky Pho Do or the Third Period of Salvation, a period marked by direct revelation between heaven and earth. Caodaism is the Dai Dao or great religion of this period.
A Cao Dai army was established in 1943 during the Japanese occupation of Indochina. After the war the Cao Dai was an effective force in national politics; it first supported, then opposed, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1955–56 Diem disbanded the Cao Dai army and forced the sect's pope, Pham Cong Tac, into exile.
After the communist takeover in 1975, Cao Dai was reportedly repressed by the government. Centers of worship were established in Vietnamese refugee communities abroad, however, and by the early 1990s Cao Dai was reported to have some two million adherents in Vietnam, Cambodia, France, and the United States. 1
Today, Cao Dai adherents may number as high as 6 million, at least according to Cao Dai sources. 2 The headquarters of Cao Dai are at Tay Ninh, near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
In its beliefs, Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism and theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, with some influence from Catholicism. It is a very syncretistic faith, and proudly so. According to one Cao Dai follower and author:
"That's the reason God has founded Cao Dai, in order to bring harmony to different religions. And the principle of Cao Dai is that religions are not different and if we take enough time to study deep --deeply enough in each religion, we would see that they have one same principal, if not identical principal." 3
Similarly, a Cao Dai website describes the religion's worldview this way:
The noble effort of CaoDai is to unite all of humanity through a common vision of the Supreme Being, whatever our minor differences, in order to promote peace and understanding throughout the world. CaoDai does not seek to create a gray world, where all religions are exactly the same, only to create a more tolerant world, where all can see each other as sisters and brothers from a common divine source reaching out to a common divine destiny realizing peace within and without. 4
The supreme being is Cao Dai ("High Tower"), a Taoist epithet for the supreme god. Cao Dai is regarded as the same supreme being honored in all major world religions, but the term Cao Dai avoids gender, personality or other earthly attributes. God is represented as the Divine Eye, an eye in a triangle, which appears on the facades of the sect's temples and in followers' homes. It is a left eye, because God is Yang, and Yang is the left side.
Cao Dai's saints include such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. These are honored at Cao Dai temples, along with ancestors.
In Cao Dai, the purpose of life is peace within each individual and harmony in the world. Cao Dai followers also seek to gain religious merit and avoid bad karma.
Cao Dai beliefs about the afterlife are derived from Buddhism. Those who have gathered too much bad karma during their lifetime will be reincarnated in negative circumstances, which may include rebirth on a darker, colder planet than this one. Good karma leads to rebirth to a better life on earth.
Salvation is freedom from rebirth and the attainment of nirvana or heaven. "The ultimate goal of CaoDaists is to be reunified with The All That Is, to return home." 5
Cao Dai draws upon occult practices from Taoism and includes communication with the dead in séances. This has been outlawed by the Vietnamese government, but Cao Dai leaders also say that it is no longer necessary.
"We don't see the necessity to have séance any more because we have direct communication from the Supreme Being to people by returning inside to our heart to see the Supreme Being in there." 3
Cao Dai encourages obedience to the three duties (between king and citizen, father and child, husband and wife), and five virtues (humanity, obligation, civility, knowledge, reliability) of Confucianism.
Cao Dai's organization is patterned after that of Roman Catholicism, with nine levels of hierarchy including a pope, cardinals, and archbishops.
Worship involves group prayer in the temple, elaborate rituals and festivals.
Similar to the division in Theravada Buddhism between lay Buddhists and monks, Cao Dai offers two ways of practice its adherents. 6 Esoterism focuses on meditation, with the goal "to progressively eradicate the inferior self and develop the divine element within the self, reaching toward oneness with the Supreme Being." These are priests of Cao Dai, which can be men and women. Exoterism is the form available to laypersons living a normal family life. These are expected to:
- cultivate the Confucian duties and virtues (see above)
- practice good and avoid evil
- observe five Precepts: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not get drunk, do not sin by word.
- practice vegetarianism at least ten days per month, to purify one's body and spirit and to avoiding killing living beings
- participate in worship to the Supreme Being through four daily ceremonies, at 6:00 a.m., noon, 6:00 p.m., and midnight, with at least one ceremony per day at home
References & Sources
- "Cao Dai." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2005).
- Cao Dai. Adherents.com.
- "Cao Dai." PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Feature, July 4, 2003. The quote is from Dr. Hum Bui, a California doctor and co-author of Cao Dai: Faith of Unity.
- Home page, caodai.org.
- "How does one practice Cao Dai." caodai.org.
Cao Dai Websites
- caodai.org - lots of information on Cao Dai, including FAQ, prayers, spiritual messages, news, etc.
- Caodai Oversees Missionary - website of Cao Dai organization founded in 1973, with articles on Cao Dai
Other Web Resorces on Cao Dai
- Sydney Centre for Studies of Caodaism - "Gateway to understanding Caodaism"
- Caodaism - Univ of Virginia Religious Movements Homepage
- "Spirit in the Sky" - impressions of Cao Dai by Ron Gluckman, American reporter on Asia
- Hum Dac Bui, Cao Dai, Faith of Unity (Emerald Wave, 2000).
- V. L. Oliver, Caodai Spiritism: A Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society (Brill Academic, 1997).
- Jayne Werner, Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai in Vietnam.