Brief Outline of History and Philosophy of Caodaism

Updated 2012-08-21 07:38:49

It was often said that few phenomena in Asia have been so completely misinterpreted by the West as the Vietnamese religion known as "Caodaism".  Given its firm roots of Caodaism in Vietnamese culture, and the adherence of millions of followers, it is surprising that only recently have serious studies of the Cao Dai been undertaken. 

Caodaism encompasses many world religions but is also extraordinarily unique in its belief system and practices. The term Cao Dai literally means "High Tower or Palace", that is, the place where God reigns over the Universe. “Cao Dai” refers to God the Father (The Supreme Being, the Creator). The Cao Dai Religion's (or Caodaism's) official name is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do. Translated directly it means: The Third Great Universal Religious Amnesty. This Third Amnesty establishes a new Great Way for salvation. Its fundamental objective is the unity of all religions. Throughout human history God the Father has revealed His Truth many times. His Divine Message has been translated through the mouths of many great prophets, but always these messages have relied on human frailty. The Age has now come where He speaks to humanity directly.

The Caodaists believe they are the first religious community so far that enables its adepts to have direct communication with the transcendental world - via spiritist messages. Scholars argue that both Western and Asian spiritism has been influential in the development of Caodaist seance rites. Caodaists used the Smaller and Larger Planchette, called the Beaked Basket or Corbeille-a-bec. In total more than 70 different spirits have been acknowledged as sending communications to Caodaist groups.  

The previous two Religious Amnesties saw the rise of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. Caodaism as the embodiment of The Third Amnesty comes to unite the traditions of these two periods. It was so guided directly by Duc Cao Dai (God the Father) and the Divine Beings. It was through this special direct link that God granted His Third Amnesty. Though it was announced to the humble nation of Vietnam, The Third Amnesty is a gift to all. As a spiritist religion, Caodaism believes all to be prophesied beforehand. 

Caodaists believe that their doctrine provides the synthesis of five  great teachings of the past: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, cult of ancestors and Western religions. According to Caodaism, the teaching shows the way for overcoming the religious intolerance of earlier salvations. The full name of Cao Dai religion - "The Great Way of the Third Era of Salvation" signifies universalistic and ecumenical essence of the doctrine. The "First Era of Salvation", according to Caodaist doctrine, chronologically associates with Moses, Buddha Dipankara, and Chinese deities Fu Hsi and T'ai Shan Dao Guan. The "Second Era of Salvation" is believed to be represented by Buddha Shakyamuni, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Jesus Christ and Mohammed.

Caodaism has been seen as a synthesis amalgamation of the Vietnamese Three-Religion system,  which stresses the merger of  Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Three colors of the Caodaist religious banner - yellow, blue, and red - are viewed as a symbol of the unity of the Three Religions.  The symbolism of the Caodaist banner - Confucianism associated with red, Buddhism with yellow, and Taoism with blue - was revealed in early years of the movement. 

From a moral point of view Caodaism reminds people of their duties towards themselves, their family, their society (our broader family), and humanity (the universal family). From a spiritual point of view, Caodaism confirms, in harmony with all religions, the existence of our souls and the spirit world. Furthermore Caodaism offers a step-by-step path that leads to full spiritual completeness. 

Caodaism is a highly institutionalized religion. The Phap-Chanh-Truyen (The Religious Constitution of Caodaism) was delivered to the Religion as a series of Divine Messages. The Tan-Luat (The New Canonical Codes), was corrected and approved by the Spiritual Realm. The Sacred Sayings, Thanh Ngon, Caodaist canonical scripture, is the key revelation of the new religion, being a collection of spirits' messages, which became the cornerstone of Caodaist doctrine and its cult.

It is widely believed that Caodaists borrowed their hierarchical structures from the Catholic Church.  However, the Caodaist church also has the hierarchy of the legislative branch, which has no parallels in the Catholic Church. The Heavenly Alliance Palace  is the legislative body, which has the duty of communicating with the transcendental world to receive spiritist messages, as well as to uphold the religious laws.

The Hiep-Thien-Dai is the medium's branch of the religion and the Legislative Body. Headed by the Ho-Phap (Protector of the laws and of justice), this body communicates with the spiritual realm directly in order to receive Divine Messages. The Executive Body, is called the Cuu-Trung-Dai which takes charge of the administration of the Religion and its missionary activities. This branch is headed by the Giao-Tong or Pope. 

There is one Giao-Tong (Pope) who leads the Cuu Trung Dai executive body. There are three Chuong Phap (Legistlative Cardinals), one belonging to each of the three legislative branches: Nho (Confucianist), Thich (Buddhist), and Dao (Taoist). There are three Dau-Su (Cardinals): again, one for each branch. There are 36 Phoi-Su (Archbishops), 12 for each branch, with three Chanh Phoi-Su (Principle Archbishops). These are the next in the line of command and power. There are 72 Giao-Su (Bishops), 24 for each branch, responsible for education of the disciples. The 3000 Giao-Huu (Priests) are also split evenly among the branches, presiding over ritual ceremonies in the province temples. The Giao-Huu are in charge of propagating the Religion. There are an unlimited amount of Le-Sanh (Student Priests). They are drawn from the most virtuous of the Sub-dignitaries. There are also an unlimited number of Sub-dignitaries (Chuc Viec). The Chanh-Tri-Su (Religious Village Chief) look after the adepts in the villages. There are also Pho-Tri-Su (Deputy Religious Village Chief) and Thong-Su (Religious Village Administrators). Caodaism is a very organized and planned religion with many other laws, offices, and divisions included. To discuss them here would take too long time.

There are two orders of CaoDai believers. First is the secular order. This order consists of non-married and married people who earn their living as "ordinary" folks. Their religious duties consist of a few different practices. First, they must observe a vegetarian diet of six days a month for the first six months after they become a believer. After that, each month they must do this ten days. The second order is the Thuong Thua (Superior Order). This order ranges from simple believers to dignitaries of the Giao-Huu (priestly) ranking. To become a member of the Superior Order, they must have practiced full-time vegetarianism (which is used as a spiritual cleansing). They must also not have their beard or hair cut and wear only ordinary, plain colored garments (either white or the color relating to their branch).

Caodaism was officially founded through a medium session. In April 1921, the first adept of Caodaism, Ngo Van Chieu (1878-1932), also known by his religious alias Ngo Minh Chieu, had the vision that led him to adopt the Celestial Eye  as a symbol of the Cao Dai spirit. In December 1925 Ngo Minh Chieu was approached by Pho Loan spiritist group, established in July 1925 by Pham Cong Tac (1890-1959) and former colonial Counselor Le Van Trung (1875-1934). On September 29, 1926, the faithful agreed to disclose the new religion to the French colonial authorities and signed a petition. The leaders of Caodaism made this request because official authorization was needed for establishment of a new religious community. 

The time of mass adherence was not long in coming - Caodaism gained more than 20,000 adepts in less than two months and 500,000 by 1930. In an astonishingly short period Caodaism emerged as a mass movement. By 1941 more than 2 million people in Southern Vietnam became adepts of Caodaism.

In June 1940 France surrendered to Germany. Three months later Japan, Germany's ally, moved in and seized economic control of Indochina, but the French rule was not finished. Administration, however, was left to the French. Facing growing anti-French sentiments, Admiral Decoux, the pro-Vichy governor of the French Indochina, closed down a number of Caodaist temples. On July 27, 1941 Cao Dai leaders, including Pham Cong Tac, were arrested. The Holy See was occupied by French troops on September 27, allowing Caodaists just 24 hours to vacate the area. Decoux exiled the Cao Dai leaders to Madagascar. 

According to Caodaist historians, after the Communist takeover in 1945 thousands of Caodaists were killed by the Viet Minh, some of them buried alive. Whole villages were reportedly wiped out - more than 40,000 Caodaist dignitaries and adepts were massacred in Southern and Central Vietnam from 1945 to 1954. Communist sources conceded that "during 1946-1947 some provinces carried out an erroneous policy towards Caodaism."  Another report put it more explicitly: "the gravest mistake was the cleansing of Tay Ninh Caodaists" in 1947. Caodaist leaders at the time had to set up an Armed Forces of their own for survival. Through the 1960s and early 1970s Caodaism have been engaged in sustaining its institutions.

In fact, Caodaism did hardly reach the outside world, notably the United States, until the Vietnamese community began to seek refuge from their own country after the Communist take-over in 1975. The highest rates of Caodaism in the world still tend to be where there is a largely Vietnamese community.

Thank you very much.

(Presentation by Canh Tran, President, Cao Dai Overseas Missionary, at IARF 31st WORLD CONGRESS in Budapest, Hungary, August 2nd, 2002)