Header photo: floor tiles in the Holy See
We took a slightly ‘alternative’ route as we were driving towards Tây Ninh, and found ourselves outside a Cao Đài temple. It wasn’t the large, famous, Holy See; it was a smaller, localised temple.
It was around noon, and there was chanting going on inside. We strolled around the perimeter for a few minutes, and then I got curious, removed my shoes, and popped in through a side door. Men and women were in the main hall standing and turning and sitting and bowing and repeating. They were all wearing white and looked very serious. The singing was coming from somewhere above, and this was performed along with music that would scare small children. I decided to explore further, and began to climb the rear stairs only to find myself amidst a group of chanting women. I made to leave, but one of them motioned for me to come all the way up. She put down a pillow for me to sit on. It was at the edge of a balcony that gave me a view of the worshipers below.
Caroline remained outside, unaware of what I was doing.
As I sat in the middle of the cacophony, trying to appear respectful although I was horribly out of place in my coloured clothes, the woman who’d thrown down the pillow grabbed my wrists from behind and manipulated my hands into the correct prayer position.
If you want to try this at home, look at the palm of your left hand and touch the tip of your thumb to the base of the ring finger. Then make a fist and rotate it so you’re looking at the base of your thumb. The right hand then clasps the left, and the right thumb is pushed into the fleshy part below the knuckle of the left index finger.
A gong sounded and she pushed gently on my back so that I’d bow. Everybody, including me, bowed three times following gong hits. Then we all stood, bowed, turned 180 degrees, bowed, then she pointed down the stairs, signalling that I should leave. Thinking it was over, I exited, but as I left the building the chanting began again and the ritual continued. It had been a very unexpected few minutes.
Cao Đài is practically a new religion. It was founded in Vietnam in 1926, then was forbidden by the new communist government in 1975, then was granted legal recognition again in 2007. Of course, during the down time it was still practiced, but by that time it had broken into a few sects. Some of those sects weren’t happy when the religion was officially reinstated, claiming that the government’s interference with the main branch in Tay Ninh (which is the birthplace and administrative centre of the religion) undermined the faith’s independence. Whether or not I sat with the the main branch of Caodaists or one of the offshoots is unknown.
Regardless of what sect you’re talking about, they all branch from the same seed and are similar at the root. That similarity ropes in other religions too; the Caodaists haven’t strictly made up their own, totally original religion, but instead proudly blend several other faiths: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. One of their primary beliefs is the unity of all religions coming together under one creator in a universal peace. This can only happen once the soon-to-be Pope of Cao Đài reaches enlightenment.
The highest guess for the amount of people practicing Cao Đài is 6 million.
I’ll drop a few photos below and try to explain what’s in them.
Okay. To describe why there are stars on the giant sphere, here’s an excerpt from a collection of Cao Dai Holy Messages, which were sent by God (full name – Cao Đài Tiên Ông Đại Bồ Tát Ma Ha Tát) to the founders of the religion.
Binh, you are assigned to make a universal globe. Do you not know what that is? (Laughter) It is a globe like the earth, understand? The diameter is 3.3 m. It is rather large because the miraculous mechanism of creation is represented in it. Paint it azure, draw the North Star and other stars on the globe. The thirty six heavens and the four great dimensions are not stars. Only 72 earths and three thousand worlds are considered stars, which make three thousand and seventy two stars in total. You must represent that number. Look in the Western books on Astronomy and imitate the pictures of the stars.
For the North Star, you are to draw both the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Above the North Star is the Divine Eye.
Yes, well, I think so. Let’s continue.
I recorded the music on our phone. If you’d like to have a really uncomfortable few minutes, press play.
Finally, there is an excellent website about all the symbolism of the Holy See. It was very helpful for me writing this post. Click HERE.
* February update: we found a far less garishly painted Cao Dai temple further north in Dien Minh, just outside Hoi An. See below.