Cao Dai FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - Part II
Updated 2012-05-14 13:40:20
1. Could you tell the story of the formation of the Caodai Army: the reasons it needed to be established, the role that your father played in negotiating with the French and also with the Japanese, and the ways in which Diem eventually moved to disband it.
It started in 1941 when our Pope (Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac) was arrested and jailed in Madagascar by the French authorities. The main reason was that French authorities were concerned about the growing mass of people converted into Caodaism and were afraid that Caodai was one of the many political movements which fought France in order to claim independence for Viet Nam. The Holy See was confiscated and was used as a parking spot for military vehicles. All the Caodai temples in the country were ordered to be shut down and many dignitaries were arrested and jailed. In that context my father, who was a dignitary in the rank of Giao Huu (Priest) and a few other dignitaries, started to fight back the French authorities in order to save the religion from extinction. At the time there were also the Japanese in Viet Nam trying to take power from the French, so they wanted to make Caodai as an ally, because both had the same goal. So my father collaborated with the Japanese and with their assistance started to assemble an army in order to fight back the French. To make a long story short, it ended up with the Japanese with the assistance of the Caodai army overthrowing the French authorities on 9 March 1945. Unfortunately, Japan was defeated a few months later and France came back to Viet Nam. So French authorities arrested and jailed my father right away, it was in May 1946. At the time, the political situation had changed, French authorities had to fight also the Communists, as well as many other armed groups, because all wanted to reclaim independence for Viet Nam. In that context, French authorities offered peace to Caodai, and my father, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Caodai army, had accepted it with a lot of conditions, one of which was to release our Pope (Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac) from jail in Madagascar and return him back home. August 1946, the Pope returned home and retook the reins of the Caodai religion. Between 1946 and 1954 (year of the Geneva Conference, where Viet Nam was divided into North and South), Caodai played a big role in the Vietnamese society. The Caodai population was high at the time, about 2 million followers, about one-fifth of South VietNam total population. But Ho Phap’ wishes was to transform the Caodai army into the national army and to return the religion to religious activities, leaving political problems to politicians. So by 1955, you can say that the Caodai army was disbanded, but in reality, it was rolled into the national army. Some people stayed with the army, others chose to quit and return to work for the religion.
In this story of the Caodai army, I would like to point out one important thing to consider. As you know, Caodai religion is a spiritist religion, which means that everything in Caodai comes from instructions from God and other Divinities. No exception with my father. Now, looking back to history, I can say that he received step-by-step instructions, thru spiritist messages, from Divinities such as Li-Tai-Pe, the spiritual Pope, Le Van Trung, the interim Pope, and Victor Hugo, the Spiritual Chief of Caodai Overseas, on how to deal with the Japanese, with the French, and so on. I don’t think that my father could do it by himself (creating an army) without the assistance from the other world. In brief, and in Caodai religious terms, we say that my father had a divine mission and he accomplished his mission successfully.
2. Could you talk a bit about the Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac; The role he played in the early years of the religion, his leadership of Tay Ninh, the ways he was viewed by Caodaists and his legacy to the religion today.
This question is too broad for me to explain in the short period of time Ho Phap’s biography. If anyone interested in doing research, I suggest that he/she should read a document titled “The Life and Work of His Holiness Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac” written by Professor Tran My-Van of the University of South Australia. That being said, Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac was born in 1890 and was one of the few first adepts who received messages from God to create a new religion, which is Caodaism. His activities throughout his life were both religious and political, because he believed that Caodai has the mission to bring peace to the world, and to accomplish that, first and foremost he must involve himself in national politics in order to bring independence to Viet Nam. His accomplishments are many, but his main legacy to the religion today is that when people look at the Holy See, which is the main temple in Tay Ninh, they must remember that Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac, who is neither an architect nor a builder, built this great temple to represent the doctrine and philosophy of the Caodai religion. Ho Phap was a super medium, he built the temple thru spiritist messages.
3. The problems that Caodaism faced during the years of American military intervention (1960-1975).
Most problems that we were facing were under President Ngo Dinh Diem regime, when Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac had to go into exile in Cambodia in 1956. After Diem was toppled from power in 1963, Caodaism seemed to come back to life, so between 1963 and 1975, we prospered a lot, and one of the many things that the Sacerdoce accomplished was to open a Caodai University. Even though there was a war going on, the Holy See seemed to be the place where both sides considered sacred and did not violate its territory.
4. The problems that Caodaism faced right after the fall of Saigon: how your father was sent to a re-education camp and eventually died there, how you happened to come to the US, news that you received from Vietnam in the years 1975-1995. (Here, being fairly personal is probably good, since this connects well with viewers and helps to humanize summaries of historical events).
After the fall of Saigon, it was a different story for Caodai. The Communist regime considered us Caodaists as purely political enemies to be eliminated because of the past: we collaborated with the Japanese, then with the French, where both forces were enemies of the Communists. So the first order of business under the Communist government was to arrest all Caodai leaders. My father, even though he was 78 years old at the time, was one of the many dignitaries who were arrested and jailed incommunicado.Until now, our family does not know when, where or how he died. The official story from the government was that he died of cardiac arrest in a prison. The unofficial story came from a French friend of my father who worked for the French government informing us in late 1975 that my father was executed. As for myself and my family, before 1975 I worked for the South Vietnamese government, I was lucky to get out of Viet Nam in one of the last helicopters taking off on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. My wife at that time worked for IBM, she and our 2 children got out a few days earlier. In the US, we started our life again from scratch, I and my wife worked as computer specialists with IBM until we retired 2 years ago.
5. The re-formation of Caodai Overseas Missionary as an organization with a large following in the US, Canada, Australia and France. Efforts to work with the Tay Ninh Governance Committee (Hoi Dong Chuong Quan).
In the 1980s, wherever there is a Vietnamese community, either in the US or in other foreign countries, Caodaists tend to find one another, form a congregation and build a place of worship to continue to practice their religion. To start, with my house converted into a place of worship, I and other Caodaists living in the Washington DC Metro area (which is comprised of Northern Virginia and Maryland) formed a Congregation. In 1998, all the congregations from around the world (US, Canada, Australia, France) got together under the banner Caodai World Conference. There we decided to form an organization called Caodai Overseas Missionary. Exactly this organization was not new at all. It existed a long time ago in Cambodia, where Victor Hugo was the divine Chief, and at one time, in 1937, my father was Head of that Mission. I just followed in my father’s footsteps, because in that World Conference, I was elected as President of the Mission. The Caodai Overseas Missionary has two main objectives: first, to propagate the Cao Dai religion overseas, and second, to assist our brethren in Viet Nam to gain religious freedom and to reestablish our Sacerdoce according to our TÂN LUẬT (New Canonical Codes) and PHÁP CHÁNH TRUYỀN (Religious Constitution), which were created by GOD Himself through spiritist messages.
In that context, our activities are two-fold: first, how to make Caodaism known to the world. Between 1998 and 2006, we attended many international religious conferences and seminars, where we made presentation of the doctrine and philosophy of Caodai, and second, we worked out with the United Nations, the US, Australian, Canadian, French governments, as well as with the Vietnamese government, and also with the current Management Committee on how to bring some religious freedom to our religion. One of our main goals is to request that the government religious policy toward Caodai must change, especially to reestablish our Sacerdoce according to the Phap Chanh Truyen (Religious Constitution).
6. How did the idea of returning the Ho Phap’s body in 2006 emerge? How did the process proceed? What will be its significance for the future of Caodaism?
As I explained above, Ho Phap went into exile in Cambodia in 1956, because he had different views to bring peace and independence to the country from President Ngo Dinh Diem at the time. Viet Nam was divided into North and South. So when Ho Phap died in 1959, he wrote a letter to Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia (we consider it as his last will) to keep his remains there until Viet Nam become unified and peace is restored to the homeland. Between 1959 and 1975, there were a few movements requesting to bring Ho Phap remains back to Tay Ninh, but none was successful. In 2004, the Popular Council in Tay Ninh brought this issue back to life, explaining that it had been a very long time now (45 years) that Ho Phap’s remains were in Cambodia. He should be brought back to Tay Ninh to be put into the Octagonal Tomb because Ho Phap’s wishes were fulfilled: Viet Nam is now one country and peaceful. So the administrative process goes on like this: the Governance Council (Hoi Dong Chuong Quan) requests approval from the Vietnamese government to bring Ho Phap’s remains from Phnom Penh back to Tay Ninh. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs then sends an official request letter to the Cambodian government. The Cambodian Prime Minister did not want to make a decision, so he forwarded this request to the current King Sihamoni, who in turn did not want to make a decision either because Ho Phap was a great friend of his father, Norodom Sihanouk. So King Sihamoni forwarded the request to Sihanouk. The request letter stayed there until last year September 2006. So, two years went by without any decision from the highest authority in Cambodia. For that reason, we, as Caodaists, believe in Ho Phap’s power from the Divine and explain that time was not ripe yet for him to return home in 2004, so instead Ho Phap returned home in 2006.
The fact that Ho Phap’s remains returning to Tay Ninh brings not only joy to the more than 5 million followers, but also benefits the Vietnamese government as well, because it demonstrates that the government policy toward Caodai can be generous,so there is religious freedom in Viet Nam, contrary to the perception of many people. History will decide on this issue of significance for the future of Caodai.
7. Can you describe the removal of the Ho Phap’s body from his 1959 tomb and its preparation to be transferred to Vietnam from Nam Vang?
Yes, I was there in Phnom Penh to attend this big event, the removal of Ho Phap’s body into a new coffin and the funeral procession from Phnom Penh to Tay Ninh. When Ho Phap died in 1959, he was buried the Caodai way, which means that the body must be buried sitting down when you reach the rank of Cardinal and above, and the tomb must be above ground. So his body was wrapped with silk material and was put in a sitting down way, in an octagonal coffin. The coffin has 3 layers: in the first layer, the body was enveloped with an octagonal small box made of thick aluminium, we sealed it very tight, then we stuffed with a lot of cotton and silk materials around this box, then in a second layer, it was the main octagonal coffin made of wood, and then when we put the coffin above the ground, we sealed it again with thick concrete, which was the third layer. When we opened his tomb last year (November 2006), which was 47 years after Ho Phap’s death, we had to cut through the top first, cut through concrete, then wood, then aluminium steel. We saw that the body was intact, his skull had a piece of hair still sticking out. We then cut through one side, we saw that there was a hole in the wood layer at the bottom of the coffin, a lot of cotton and silk material missing but the aluminium box was not touched. This explains the story and many rumors that Ho Phap’s body was destroyed or no more body in the coffin. We concluded that when the Communists took over Cambodia in 1975, some thieves thought that Ho Phap’s tomb contained gold and jewelry, so they cut a hole through the concrete, through the wood layer but took out only cotton and silk material, and threw them outside. When we opened the coffin, we knew that the thieves did not touch the aluminium box, which said that Ho Phap’s body was intact the whole time in the octagonal coffin. After cutting all sides, the morticians moved Ho Phap’s body, still wrapping in silk material, with the skull skeleton still on his body, which was not disintegrated nor fallen down, and put it on a new tray. They then wrapped the body again in more silk material, put back the body in a new aluminium box, in a new wood coffin, exactly the same way as it was buried 47 years ago. This time they sealed it very, very tight. We bring this new coffin back to Tay Ninh.
One note here : the transfer from the old to the new coffin started at 9:00pm (for security reason), lasted about 4 hours, but by the next morning, everything was cleaned perfectly as nothing happened, because Caodai adepts in Phnom Penh came and took everything (pieces of concrete, wood, cotton) to bring home as relics and put them on the family altar.
The question is: Can science explain why the body is still intact after 47 years? and why, after we open the coffin, with air, oxygen, dust getting in, how nothing is disintegrated ? There is one small factor that I want to mention to you: when Ho Phap died, he came back thru a spiritist séance and gave very detailed instructions on how to bury him and how to conduct his ceremony. One of the instructions was that he specifically asked the mortician that his coffin must be sealed very tight. So, Ho Phap knew ahead what will happen to his body in the future.
8. Can you describe the reception that the procession received in Tay Ninh?
It was unbelievable. Remember that the government of Cambodia did not want many Vietnamese to come to Phnom Penh for the funeral. So there were only a few dignitaries, security personnel from Tay Ninh to have permission to come to Cambodia. So the funeral procession from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese Cambodian border consisted mostly of Caodai followers from Cambodia, my estimate was about 500 people. But, after passing the Cambodian border, it was chaos on the Vietnamese side because there were thousand and thousand of Caodai followers from around the country waiting there to follow the funeral procession. To the government estimate, between the Cambodian border and Tay Ninh it is only 20 miles, but when the hearse reached the Holy See, the last car was still 15 miles away. I am sorry that nobody makes a count of how many cars following the hearse. One more thing: along the road, there were many Caodai temples and in front of each temple a special altar was set up and thousand of people lined up the street to bow at the hearse when the procession passed by. When we reached the Holy See, the estimate was at least 50 thousand people jammed the Holy See ground to watch the procession. The funeral ceremony took 5 days, and each day thousand and thousand of people came and pray in front of the octagonal coffin.
9. What new possibilities does this create for the normalization of relations between the Caodai religious hierarchy and the Vietnamese government?
The return of Ho Phap’s body from Phnom Penh to Tay Ninh has no hitches and is considered very successful. Caodai is happy. The government is happy. So the next step is: how to bring all Caodai (I mean Caodai Tay Ninh of course) together, united, no more antagonism against the Governance Committee nor the Vietnamese government. The main obstacle is that the Caodai Tay Ninh is not organized based on the Phap Chanh Truyen, which is the religious Constitution created by God Himself for the management of the religion. If we deviate from this sacred book, it will be chaos and Caodai cannot progress. The Vietnamese government knows that too. So, after petition and petition to the government to change its policy toward Caodai, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. This year, exactly in October 2007, there will be a Caodai Popular Council, and one of the priority items on the agenda for discussion will be changing the current Constitution to be in accordance with the Phap Chanh Truyen, which means that there will be no more Governance Committee as we know it today.
10. How do you see Caodaism developing and changing in the next decade?
Very optimistic. Indeed, everyday at the Holy See in Tay Ninh, we have about two to three hundred tourists. Outside Viet Nam, Caodai now spreads in many countries. Besides the US, we have Caodai temples in Canada, Australia, France, Germany. We spread the word Caodai thru international religious conferences, thru seminars in the University, and we see students, academic researchers wanting to do research on Caodaism, and most of all, the word Caodai or Caodaism is now in the dictionary and encyclopedia of Religions of the World. Since Caodai is a brand new religion and it is based on spiritism, I am very confident that in the next decade there will be a lot of research, as well as many books written on Caodaism. Why? because there are millions and millions of books on Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, etc…, so a new student is more than happy to find a new source for subjects with Caodai, a new and spiritist religion.
- Cao Dai FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) Part I (2012-05-14 13:40:20)