SIX months ago, a day after my 2nd border crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam, I decided to finally bite the bullet and do the touristy thing of visiting a well-treaded path to the weird world of religious cult – a congregation that others see as fanatical or, well, just plain weird.
Some 96 kilometers northwest from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, in the town of Tay Ninh, near the Khmer border, is home to Vietnam’s most indigenous religions – Caodaism! My bus traipsed along Highway One, lined with pancake flat paddies and farmlands. Along the way, we passed by the picturesque Black Lady Mountains (Nui Ba Den).
I was to witness a congregation that reveres a hodgepodge of popular historical personalities and considers them their saints, namely Sun Yat Sen (Father of Modern China) and Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) among a few. In fact, in one of the walls within their great temple is a painting of these saints supposedly signing a covenant between God and Humanity. Other popular people in their celebrated saints are - hold your breath! - Jesus, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore's 1st Prime Minister) and Joan of Arc (France's national heroine).
I signed up on a tour that was to take me to the Great Cao Dai Temple. In tours like these, you get to meet a bevy of nationalities. I was seated beside a Kiwi lady named Rachel who has moved to Australia and was on the crossroads of her career. There was also a group of Pinays who were “eager to please” our eloquence-challenged tour guide. While the latter annotated, you would see these ladies (aged 35 and above) raise their hands like they were in a classroom. I did get chummy with them, cracking occasional jokes with them. Like me, they were unforgiving photo hounds, but while I hardly take photos of myself, they had to be in every shot – even inside claustrophobic tunnels. One girl kept referring to kiwi Rachel as “my girlfriend” since I was in constant chat with her. She was after all, my seatmate. Naturally, when lunch time came, I sat beside Rachel while a couple of towering ausie ladies joined us. The latter were a pharmacist and a bank clerk on a short 5-day respite from Canberra.
Upon reaching the sleepy town of Tay Ninh, I jumped off the bus and started moved towards this massive 9-story hybrid of temple and pagoda, “ornately” painted with a rude mixture of lurid colours and icons; these were outrageous shades of fluorescent orange and yellows “screaming out from its rococo walls”. Each of the tourists in my bus began scampered towards the “church”. We saw locals decked in different colors of priest-like garbs and head gears. We deposited our shoes at the side of the building and saw ourselves inside the temple. You have to remember that this religion has tried to unify several religions into one – Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Confucianism, even spiritism - and stepping inside the temple was a thrill!
A whole community was already gathered inside, waiting for the ceremony to start. At the front altar, I saw a huge caricature of an EYE (eye in the sky, anyone?) facing the congregation. I couldn’t help feeling vestiges of the twilight zone. Tourists are then allowed to go up the 2nd floor through a winding stair at the back. We had better leverage to observe the rites.
The ceremony began with a parade of colors, but much of what transpires is lost on us since it was all in Vietnamese! It felt weird to be honest about it, but one should never judge how the faithful chooses to express himself. I could hear my pinay mates whispering, “cult…cult…” and I was shaking my head. After all, I wouldn't find it amusing if others saw Catholicism as mere ceremonial drivel, would I?
The ceremony – far removed from my comprehension - got boring after a while so I headed down while the rest observed the goings on. I gathered my shoes outside and saw Rachel busy taking photographs. I was looking for the john. I went to the back of the great temple and saw a row of rooms where I could ask where the toilet was. Ngi! There were ladies in white long uniforms intently staring at me! Haha. “Toilet? Toilet?” I was pointed to the adjacent lot outside the compound. I honestly didn’t wanna venture far. Pardon me if the place spooks me a bit! The imagination can be such an amusing companion sometimes.
The Divine Eye
The side of the temple where you leave your shoes.
A Little History
The philosophy and moral code of the CaoDaists developed from unification of the most influential school of thought of the day in Vietnam: Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Confucianism. It was in 1920, six years before the official founding of the CaoDai religion that Cao Dai the Supreme Being revealed to Ngo Van Chieu, the then governor of Phu Quoc, a beautiful island in the gulf of Siam. Ngo was leading a life of seclusion and wisdom. With the assistance of a mediumistic form of worship, he maintained contact with the spiritual realm. An apparition which revealed an identity of "Cao Dai" appeared.
From the beginning, the name Cao Dai, which literally means high abode, or roofless tower, was given as a symbolic name of the Supreme Being. The Supreme Being informed Ngo that all the world's religions should return to the One from which they originally sprang. This message was to be delivered to the world. Ngo asked CaoDai for permission to worship Him under a tangible form. He then had a vision of the All-Seeing Eye and was subsequently ordered to use it as the symbol of Cao Dai. Ngo returned to Saigon in 1924. To those interested in self-cultivation, he taught the philosophy and esoteric practice he had learned from Cao Dai during his stay in Phu Quoc.
In mid 1925, totally separated from Ngo Van Chieu, three minor civil officials in Saigon - Cao Quynh Cu, Pham Cong Tac, and Cao Hoai Sang - were together practicing spiritism. One spirit contacted was singled out for His wonderful virtues and outstanding knowledge. He introduced Himself as AĂÂ. (AĂÂ are the first three letters of the Vietnamese alphabet). As the session continued, under AĂÂ's advice, they replaced their rudimentary method of communication with a tool for writing called Ngoc co (basket with beak). On Christmas eve of 1925, AĂÂ finally revealed that He was the Supreme Being, coming under the name of Cao Dai, to teach the Way. He said:
"Rejoice this day, it is the anniversary of My coming to the West to teach the Way (God came to the Middle East in the form of Yeshua - Jesus - Christ to found Christianity). This house will be filled with blessings. You will see more miracles which will lead you to further belief. For some time, I have used the symbol AĂÂ to lead you to religious life. You soon are to found a unique religion under My instructions."
From that day on, CaoDai religion began as an organized form of worship.
This is the Eye in the Sky.