This article first appeared in the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 5 (2006).For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
At 8971 Orangewood Avenue in Garden Grove, California, stands a half-built temple with an eclectic design—a blend of Buddhist pagoda, Catholic cathedral, and Muslim mosque. Neighbors are curious about the temple, according to James Nguyen, a follower of a Vietnamese religion named CaoDai (pronounced “Cow Die”) who is living at the construction site. Nguyen told the Journal he has even seen people bowing toward the temple—“Hispanic people,” he added, with apparent pride at the cross-cultural interest. “We really welcome people here.”
The temple’s design reflects a syncretistic religion, whose pantheon includes Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and Joan of Arc. Little known among native Westerners, CaoDai is experiencing a resurgence in its home country and among Vietnamese immigrants, such as Nguyen, worldwide. This is due to growing acceptance of the religion by the Vietnamese government and increased missionary activity.
The $2 million temple—a miniature of the main temple in Tay Ninh, Vietnam—is the first official CaoDai temple to be built in the Americas, according to Dr. Janet Hoskins, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California, who is writing a book on CaoDai. Local CaoDai leaders expect over500 people to worship there, replacing many of their makeshift “temples” in detached garages and restaurants.
Fusion of Faiths. CaoDai (one word) is named after its god, Cao Dai (two words), which means, “roofless tower, abode on high where God reigns.” Founded in 1926, CaoDai claims to be a universal religion, and it combines the influential beliefs in Vietnam of that time, including Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Its main principle is that all religions share the same divine origin and message: love and justice. CaoDaists seek to unite all faiths in order to end religious strife and bring world peace. They compare their faith to those of Baha’i, Unitarian Universalism, and New Age groups.
CaoDai was started by Vietnamese civil officials when their country was under French rule. Adherents believe its teachings and temple design were given by spirits during séances, such as the spirit of French novelist Victor Hugo, who is said to guide CaoDai’s missionary activity.
The CaoDai symbol—a large eye encompassed by rays of light—is called the “Divine Eye” or “Left Eye of God,” signifying universal and individual consciousness. The religion’s ecclesiastical hierarchy resembles that of the Roman Catholic Church, including a pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests, and its main temple is called the “Holy See” (like the Vatican).
Converts take part in a “Gateway Ceremony,” which includes vowing that they will never change their new beliefs or else they “shall be exterminated by Heaven and Earth.” They do not reject their original religions, however, but incorporate their new faith into them, becoming, for example, “Hindi-CaoDai,” “Buddhist-CaoDai,” or “Christian-CaoDai,” according to Hum Dac Bui, a CaoDai scholar from Redlands, California, and author of CaoDai: Faith of Unity.
Most CaoDaists observe a vegetarian diet for 10 days a month, worship at a home altar at least once a day, and attend temple ceremonies twice a month, where they bow before the Divine Eye, chant, and meditate, according to CaoDai: Faith of Unity. The most dedicated CaoDaists observe a full-time vegetarian diet, live at a temple, take a vow of chastity, and meditate five hours a day, and some sleep in a sitting position, Hoskins told the Journal. If a CaoDaist dies with his or her left eye open, then he or she is believed to have reached transcendence. “Very few practice at this level of intensity unless they’re trying to achieve sainthood,” Hoskins said.
Spiritism. Most communication with spirits occurs through a traditional Chinese “divining basket,” an instrument that has been compared to a Ouija board. CaoDai teachings can only come through official séances, which have been forbidden by the Vietnamese government since 1975. Many CaoDaists, according to Hoskins, still hold unofficial séances for individual spiritual enlightenment, however. CaoDai disciples believe that, at some time in their lives, they will be able to communicate with the “Superior Spirits,” Bui told the Journal.
“If I’m really lucky, I’ll see [a spirit] in my life,” said Nguyen, who told the Journal that he was a Buddhist, but married a CaoDaist and converted in 1998.
Among the messages given by spirits is a prophecy that “the United States will be the fort where CaoDai will prosper,” according to CaoDai: Faith of Unity. CaoDaists believe the political upheaval in Vietnam has served a positive purpose of spreading the CaoDai message worldwide through Vietnamese refugees, such as those who settled in the United States.
Resurgence. CaoDai became a mass movement in Vietnam during the 1940s and 1950s, with as many as two to three million followers, according to Hoskins. Starting in 1975, however, the Communists sent CaoDaists to “reeducation camps,” believing they were trying to overthrow the government. A CaoDai militia existed from 1946 to 1954, but most CaoDaists distance themselves from political movements today, Hoskins said.
In 1995, however, the Vietnamese government began to grant CaoDaists more freedom, according to Hoskins. There are about 1,300 temples in Vietnam today (up from about 12 a decade ago), and there are between four and five million CaoDaists, she said. They take part in festivals and parades (though they are required to get permission first), and they hold temple services four times a day. The Tay Ninh (a province in Vietnam) temple, with its vast array of bright colors and designs, is a popular tourist site.
Hoskins estimates that, in the United States, there are 50,000 CaoDaists, about half of whom live in California. She said many of the refugees in the United States were sponsored by Christian churches. In gratitude, some of them converted to Christianity, but now some of them are being drawn to CaoDai to reaffirm their Vietnamese identity or reconnect with their family faith, she added.
Some immigrants who have been practicing CaoDai at home only recently have discovered CaoDai temples in the United States. This is due to increased advertising by local temples in newspapers and on Vietnamese television, Hoskins said.
CaoDaists like Bui are seeking to spread their faith among Westerners also. Bui has translated CaoDai scriptures into English, including The Religious Constitution of CaoDaism, and he runs a Web site in English (www.caodai.org). He also is overseeing the construction of another larger temple in Riverside, California. The $5 million project has been halted, however, due to lack of funds, which Bui continues to solicit from the CaoDai community. Bui is encouraged, however, by the recent ordination of the first non-Vietnamese CaoDai minister, Linda Blakeney Holverstott, an African American, who plans to lead a CaoDai congregation in New York City.
— Holly Pivec