Cao Đài (Vietnamese: Cao Đài (help·info)) is a relatively new, syncretist, monotheistic religion, officially established in Tây Ninh, southern Vietnam, in 1926. Đạo Cao Đài is the religion’s shortened name, the full name is Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ (Great Religion [of The] Third Period [of] Revelation [and] Salvation). The term Cao Đài literally means “high place.” Figuratively, it means that highest place where God reigns. It is also the abbreviated name for God, the creator of the universe, whose full title is Cao Đài Tiên Ông Đại Bồ Tát Ma-ha-tát (translation: Cao Dai [the] Ancient Sage [and] Great Bodhisattva Mahasattva). Within the title are representations of the Three Teachings: Saint, Sage and Buddha.
Caodaiists credit God as the religion’s founder. They believe the teachings, symbolism and organization were communicated directly from God. Even the construction of the Tây Ninh Holy See is claimed to have had divine guidance. Cao Đài’s first disciples, Ngô Văn Chiêu, Cao Quỳnh Cư, Phạm Công Tắc and Cao Hoài Sang, claimed to have received direct communications from God, who gave them explicit instructions for establishing a new religion that would commence the Third Era of Religious Amnesty.
Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the minimum goal of rejoining God the Father in Heaven and the ultimate goal of freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Estimates of the number of Cao Đài adherents in Vietnam vary, but most sources give two to three million. Some estimates are as high as eight million adherents in Vietnam. An additional 30,000 (primarily ethnic Vietnamese) live in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
Origin of God and the universe
According to Cao Dai, before God existed, there was the Tao, that nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. Then, a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born (emanationism). The universe could not yet be formed and to do so, God created yin and yang. He took control of yang and shed a part of himself, creating the Goddess to preside over yin. In the presence of yin and yang, the universe was materialized. The Goddess is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the Universe. Thus, Caodaiists worship not only God, the father, but also the Goddess, literally refer to as the Mother Buddha. Note that God’s importance and role is higher than that of the Mother Buddha. Also, the Mother Buddha is male, as are all buddhas. The Mother Buddha only oversees yin and is not a part of yin, which is female.
There are 36 levels of heaven and 72 planets harboring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to Hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.
The Tây Ninh Holy See recognizes three main scriptures:
1. Thánh Ngôn Hiệp Tuyển
2. Pháp Chánh Truyền (The Religious Constitution of Caodaiism)
3. Kinh Thiên Đạo Và Thế Đạo
Other sects have additional scriptures.
God is symbolized by the Divine Eye, specifically the left eye because Yang is the left side and God is the master of Yang.
A sphere depicting the Divine Eye inside the Tây Ninh Holy See
A sphere depicting the Divine Eye inside the Tây Ninh Holy See
The Three Teachings
In the order of most to least difficult, the Three Teachings within Caodaiism are:
The Three Teachings represent hierarchical levels of spiritual attainment, with buddha as the highest. Caodaiism’s various stages of spiritual development from human on up are: Thần (angel), Thánh (saint), Tiên (sage), and Phật (buddha). Angels, saints and sages may have, accordingly, extremely long lives in the realms of heaven, but only buddhas are free from the cycle of birth and death.
The three periods of revelation and salvation
1. The Teachings of Buddhas – Dipankara buddha
2. The Teachings of Sages
3. The Teachings of Saints
1. The Teachings of Buddhas – Shakyamuni buddha
2. The Teachings of Sages – Laozi
3. The Teachings of Saints – Confucius and Jesus
God is at the helm.
Jesus is regarded as a Buddha and true Son of God, shed directly from God.
Religious constitution and organization
Caodaiism’s organizational structure closely resembles that of many governments of democracies. Caodaiism’s governing body consists of three branches that are functionally equivalent to the U.S.’s legislative, executive and judicial branches: Cửu Trùng Đài, Hiệp Thiên Đài and Bát Quái Đài.
The head of the Executive Branch is called “Giáo Tông,” which means leader or head of a philosophical or religious organization. Similarities between the hierarchy of Caodaiism’s dignitaries and those of the Roman Catholic Church have led translators to borrow terminologies such as pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc. In practice, Caodaiism has more ranks and titles of which there are no official English translation as of yet. The actual Vietnamese term for Pope, as in the Catholic Pope, is “Giáo Hoàng.”
Caodaiism stresses equality among men and women in society. However, in the spiritual domain, ordained women may not attain the two highest positions: Legislative Cardinal and Pope. The church claims this is ordered by God, who declared that because Yang represents male and Yin corresponds to female, Yin cannot dominate Yang spiritually or else chaos would occur.
Caodaiism has also faced schisms like other religions. Some of the Cao Dai sects that have broken away from the Tây Ninh Holy See are Chiếu Minh, Bến Tre and Đà Nẵng. Ngô Văn Chiêu founded Chiếu Minh when he left the original church structure, refusing his appointment as Caodaiism’s first Pope. He was neither involved in the religion’s official establishment in 1926 nor the Tay Ninh Holy See; he accepted another entity as Đức Cao Đài and the Chiếu Minh sect of Caodaiism was formed.
Although various sects of Caodaiism claim to have received messages from numerous spiritual entities, the Tây Ninh Holy See acknowledges significantly fewer. Inside the Holy See is a painting depicting the Three Saints signing a covenant between God and humanity. From left to right, they are Tôn Dật Tiên (Sun Yat-sen), Victor Hugo and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm.