The Eye – CaoDaism and The Holy See, Vietnam Trip #6

March 24, 2008 at 11:16 pm | Posted in itchy backside | 2 Comments
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No lah, we are not talking about Jessica Alba’s remake of the Eye nor the original Pang Brothers’ version starring Angelica Lee. We are talking about an unique religion in Vietnam, what I would call the “Mix mix” religion. :p

When we first took the cab from the airport to Ho Chi Minh city, we passed by a special temple that made me think that my eyes were playing tricks on me. Gotta confirmed with Tisu Boy to make sure he saw the same thing. Why leh? Because the building was obviously a Chinese temple but it also had a huge painting done on its facade with scenes depicting Christianity. By the time we got affirmation from each other of what we saw, the driver had already gone quite a distance.

Back in the hotel we flipped through Lonely Planet and read that indeed, in Vietnam, there exists such an unique religion. It is called Cao Dai or CaoDaism in English. Cao Dai is “the outcome of an attempt to create the ideal religion through the fusion of secular and religious philosophies of the East and the West.”

Har? So what does it mean?

Well, it is said that “history was divided into three period of revelation. The first period, around 2500 BC, was when God inspired the establishment of Judaism, Hinduism and early Chinese religion. The second period coincided with the emergence of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. These divinely inspired religion became corrupted because they came to be associated with their founders rather than being recognized as truly universal religion. The third period which is the present period, is one in which divine revelation occurs through inspired medium.”

Profound stuff huh? In short, the message of Cao Dai is that all religions are in fact one even though they have different names. Hence, Cao Dai is the result of a potpourri that includes aspects of most of the religious philosophies known in Vietnam during the early 20th century – Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam.

Er, so does Cao Dai have a God, an icon or symbol for worshiping?

eye on window
The Eye

Yes! The Divine Eye. And not just any eye but always the left eye. It is said that the left eye is the Divine Eye cos Yang is the left and God is the master of Yang. Some people said it is because the left eye is nearer to the heart.

Cao Dai was officially founded by a civil servant named Ngo Minh Chieu in 1926, who was well read in eastern and western religion works. Through him, communication with the spirits improved… Er, sounds a bit like our Chinese medium :p Within a year, there were 26,000 followers. Cao Dai has the strongest followers in Tay Ninh province, 90 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City. It was there that we witnessed the daily religious ceremony, when a trip was made to the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, 4km east of Tay Ninh.

The Cao Dai Holy See Temple, an interesting work of architecture.
This was a different temple from the one we saw on the cab, but definitely
more impressive!

The guide said within the one kilometre compound, there were administration offices, residences for officials, hospital of traditional Vietnamese herbal medicine etc. Indeed the place was HUGE, we had to walk a distance after alighting from the bus to get to the great temple.

The Eye was everywhere…

The whole stretch of the corridor had The Eye on its windows

Prayers were conducted four times daily, at 6am; 12noon; 6pm and 12 mid night, except on Tet, the equivalent of the Chinese New Year. Like many religious buildings, shoes and hats must be removed before entering. But they had separate entrances for men and women. I think for tourists they were a bit relaxed on the rule, cos our group all went in by the right entrance. Not too sure of other groups though…too engrossed with the architecture to take notice..:p

Ok, boys to your right and girls to your left. Once inside, boys
gotta walk in an anticlockwise direction and girls clockwise

There was supposed to be a mural in the front entry hall depicting the three signatories of the “Third Alliances Between God and Man”, which both of us missed somehow. 😦

The three signatories – Chinese statesman and revolutionary leader
Dr Sun Yat Sen (1866- 1925) holding the ink stone; Vietnamese poet
Nguyen Binh Khiem (1492 – 1587) and French poet and auther Victor Hugo
(1802 – 85) writting “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice” in Chinese
and French

The hall was huge. We weren’t allow to walk on the central passageway of the hall as it was reserved for the Cao Dai priests.

Built over nine levels, representing nine levels to heaven, each level
was marked by a pair of day-glow pink columns with enormous, finely-
detailed enamel dragons slithering around them

Taking a nap while waiting for the noon time praying session

Celestial lights on the ceiling

eye on globe
At the far end under the dome-shaped ceiling was a giant star-speckled
blue globe with the Divine Eye, which symbolised the presence of God

Can you see something interesting on top of the altar?

various figures
These were important figures to Cao Dai, but I couldn’t figure out some
of them even after some research. From left: Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy),
the one in blue should be Jiang Taigong (the fishing guy with rod above water);
middle top: Sakyamuni (Buddha); middle centre: Jesus Christ; far right: Guang Gong
(Chinese god of war). The others were supposed to be Lao Zi (founder of Taoism);
Confucius (founder of Confucianism) and Li Tai Bai (Tang Poet)

Interesting hor? Near the altar, at the left, there were painted figures of the Eight Immortals too. 😀

It was almost noon time and all the tourists were ushered to the top level gallery to view the prayer session. Everyone started to wait in anticipation.

Arriving on time before the priests

Waiting…boys on the right, girls on the left

priest arrival
One of the many priests

Waiting for the auspicious time

Finally at exactly noon, devotees and priests walked and assembled in the hall

Priesthood of Cao Dai is modeled after Roman Catholicism – with nine levels
in the hierarchy including a pope, cardinal and archbishops

Blue, red and yellow were symbolics colours of CaoDaism. Notice
the Eye on the hats?

Even on the back…if not for time constraints, it would be fun to
count the numbers of eyes in the temple! :p

Bow in unison

There was a choir and even a live band of traditional instruments accompanying the prayer

It was heartening to see that everyone in the audience kept noise level low during the prayer session. It not only reduced disturbance but more importantly it was a form of respect to others’ religion and culture. It was truly an eye opener for me cos I had never heard of the existence of such a religion prior to my visit. Much of the doctrine of Cao Dai were drawn from Mahayana Buddhism, mixed with Taoism and Confucian elements. Cao Dai encourages the practice of good and avoid evil. Devotees practice vegetarianism at least 10 days a month to purify one’s body and spirit and to avoid killing living beings. “The noble effort of Cao Dai is to unite all human through a common vision of the Supreme Being, whatever our minor differences, in order to promote peace and understanding throughout the world.” I guess whichever religion one chooses to follow, ultimately all religion teach people to do good. And if only everyone can be more tolerant towards one another’s beliefs, the world would be a much better place to live in. Hor? :p

Also see related posts:
> Metamorphosis – Hoi An, Vietnam Trip #5
> Raise the Red Lantern – Hoi An, Vietnam Trip #4
> The Way of Life – Hoi An, Vietnam Trip #3
> Idyllic Ancient Town – Hoi An, Vietnam Trip #2
> Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Hoi An, Vietnam Trip #1



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  1. I’m still confused about the identity of the votive figures. From the left, I think they are Guanyin, Taishang Laojun (the divinized Laozi), Sakyamuni Buddha, Confucius, Guangong. And then coming down from the Buddha we have Jesus in between two guys I’m not sure about. Did somebody tell you one of these was Li Bai? And the other was that fishing god? (Somebody told me they thought the one above Jesus was Cai Shen, the god of wealth, but they were Taiwanese, not Caodai.)

    • Hi,

      Itchyfingers did a search online on the identities of the figures but none of the sites gave specific details as to which is who. We half-guessed some of them and did mention that we weren’t too sure of the identities of some. Our day trip guide was no where to be found when we were in the temple hall, so couldn’t verify with him. Do get back to us if you managed to find out more. Thank you.

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