Cao Dai Church Visit

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist. Caodaiism is a strange and fascinating religion that only recently got its start in 1926. It now has some 2 to 3 million adherents.

Cao Dai literally means "high place" but it figuratively refers to the highest place where God reigns. Caodaiism is a synchretist religion that blends elements of Confucianism, the worship of Genii (or geniuses), Catholicism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Caodaiist believe that the multiplicity of religions causes disharmony in our modern world.  They claim that God has called them unify religions in order to bring man primordial unity.

Caodaiists are monotheistic, believing in one god. However, in order to form a balanced universe, God created the Goddess. He controls yang while she maintains yin. This Goddess is referred to as Mother Buddha, who interestingly is always considered male. He is the mother of all things in the universe, yet he is not female. He is the mistress over the feminine entity of yin, but he is not part of it.

God is symbolized by the divine eye, a central icon in the Caodaiist faith.
Jesus takes his place as the son of God and is also considered to be a buddha.

There are three teachings within Caodaiism: Buddha, Sage, and Saint. These three teachings represent spiritual enlightenment, with Buddha as the highest level of attainment. Caodaiist believe in reincarnation. Only those who achieve the level of Buddha are free from the cycle of death and rebirth.

The church is organized much like the Roman Catholic hierarchy. There are ranks similar to the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests. They have some unusual criteria for sainthood though. Figures such as Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables), Charlie Chaplin, and Sir Winston Churchill have been named saints by the Caodaiist officials.

Cao Dai ethical practices include prayer, ancestor veneration, nonviolence, equality, and vegetarianism.

They hold 4 services a day, every six hours, but only priests and nuns (and those still higher up) are expected to attend them all.

Our tour was scheduled so that we could view the noon service. Caodaiist followers are very open and hospitable to guests. They welcome visitors (even camera-happy tourists) into their church and are eager to answer any questions and discuss their doctrine. One nun, a sweet little old lady, took me by the hand and walked me around the church, pointing out various statues and informing me of their meaning. I didn't understand most of it, but I enjoyed the experience all the same.

The service was incredible to see. The priests and nuns filed in like a procession. Then they organized themselves into rows and kneeled down on the floor. They sang hymns to strange, high-pitched instrumental music. It reminded me of the flute the snake charmer plays when enticing his serpent out of its basket in cartoons. Occasionally a bell would ring out in a deep and resonating tone, and the priests and nuns would bow in unison to each dong. I uploaded a video of the bowing, but my camera doesn't record sound, so you'll have to insert the donging bell and music by way of your imagination.
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