CAO DAI IN BANGLADESH
By Christopher Hartney
During the course of taking Caodaism to the international community, the Caodai Overseas Missionary has been making some interesting contacts. Friends are appearing from the four corners of the world. It was nevertheless surprising to hear that interested parties had organized an international symposium on Caodaism at Dhaka University, Bangladesh. Moreover, I was personally surprised and flattered that the Missionary generously invited me to provide some academic gravitas at Dhaka and I was delighted to be able to go. As well as travelling to Bangladesh the trip would also include visits to the tomb of the Cao Dai Pope Duc Ho Phap in Cambodia and a side trip to the famous ruins of Angkor in Cambodia. As it turned out the trip became a surprising success and demonstrated the openness of the world to the unifying message of Dao Cao Dai. Last year the Caodai Overseas Missionary attended the conference of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) held in Budapest, Hungary. It was here that Professor Kazi Islam, a noted Bangladeshi Academic and Chairman of the Department of World Religions at Dhaka University sought out Mr. Tran Quang Canh, President of the Missionary, to ask him about Caodaism. Eager to know all that he could about the new faith of Caodaism and hoping to teach a series of lectures on this faith, Professor Kazi invited a delegation of Caodaists to attend the proposed symposium at Dhaka University, the nation’s leading learning institution.
Leaving Sydney on 9 March 2003, a large group of excited Caodaists, came to see Nguyen Chanh Giao and Mme Nguyen Ngoc Lan, both Vice-President of the Missionary, and myself on our way. After 9 hours our plane landed at Bangkok where we were joined by Tran Quang Canh and his wife Kim who had flown the arduous journey from Washington via Korea. Two and a half hours more and we landed in Dhaka on Monday the 10th of March. This city has such an edge of friendly chaos about it that all of us likened it to the atmosphere of Saigon. Bangladesh is one of the poorer nations of the world and, like Vietnam, had a painful history, but the people are as friendly, though perhaps not as curious as the Vietnamese. Dhaka has about 20 million inhabitants.
The main language of the nation is Bangladeshi, or "Bangla", sometimes also referred to as Bengali, it is a relative of the great religious language of Sanskrit, the language of the ancient texts of Hinduism. It is an extremely subtle language joyously reinvigorated in recent decades by the national poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. However this region of the Indian sub-continent, previously named Bengal, has been conquered by many foreign forces, each leaving their own linguistic influences. The arrival of Turkish and Mogul conquerors from the 1200s brought Islam, and so today the Arabic language hold both a religious and scholarly significance. It was the presence of the British in the second half of the 1800s however that has made English a vitally important language for all educated Bangladeshis. Lectures at the University of Dhaka are often given in English which suited our presentation well.
As a result of this history, over 80% of the population is Muslim, however Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism also feature. In 1947 when the British ended their rule over the sub-continent, Muslims were apprehensive that a Hindu-led India would deny them a political voice. They argued that Muslim Indians required their own homelands. As a result of this agitation, the British, taking a map and a pen divided the vast sub-continent into three regions. The central part, mainly Hindu, is India as we know it today. To the West the Muslim homeland of Pakistan was established and its correlative in the East was originally named East Pakistan. This situation lasted from 1947-1971. Bangladeshis were unhappy as East Pakistanis and regretted political interference from their Urdu-speaking overlords. During 9 months of 1971 civil war broke out. Over 3 million Bangladeshis were killed. The modern democratic state we had just landed in was built on the blood of those rebels.
Dhaka University was built in 1921 by the British. Its centre is a former governor’s residence which is now the house of the Vice-Chancellor, the administrative head of the University. Other parts of the University make up a vast tract of tranquillity in the heart of a very frenetic city. The tranquillity is not historical however, for many parts of the campus are marked by reminders of the rebellion of 1971. The University was a major centre for independence. It is no wonder then that one sees the national flag flying proudly everywhere. It is a blood-red circle centred on a field of green. The red, all visitors are told, represents the blood of national martyrs spilt upon the luxuriously green fields of the nation, but as one drives out of the city and chances to see the smouldering orange disk of the sun as it sinks over rich green rice paddy then the national flag also reflects a more tranquil, but not less intense dimension of this nation.
Professor Kazi Islam is a small but well-built, curious and jocular man with a genius for putting all kinds of people at their immediate ease. Originally a student, then professor in the department of philosophy, Dr Kazi worked relentlessly for decades to establish a department of comparative religion, a rare thing in this region. This department, founded in 2002 now runs a masters degree program whose extensiveness is a reflection of the wide compass of its creator’s learning. Comparative religion studies are often viewed with suspicion by both the religious fundamentalist and the atheist crank and departments in this field are not often a normal part of a university’s fare. That the powers that be at Dhaka sought to aid Dr Kazi in the founding of such a department demonstrates a real concern for religious understanding that must also be reflected in the community. Students at the department are relentlessly eager to learn and were quite excited at hearing of the work carried out at Sydney University’s department of studies in religion. So much so that they regularly attended the small talks that we planned either side of our main presentation and a large group of students even appeared on Friday afternoon for a small question and answer session, Friday being to the Muslim week what Sunday is for the Christian. This concern for world peace and understanding was certainly to be found in the enthusiasm of both students and other members of the university staff as well. In fact the support for this department was demonstrated by the number of learned academics who, at very short notice, arrived to hear the deliberations of the international symposium on Caodaism.
Come the morning of 12th March 2003, I was quite astonished to see sitting amongst the sea of eminent scholars, the Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor S.M.A. Faiz. For this man, the actual governor of the whole university, to be present demonstrated how strongly the subject of the presentation was appreciated. Per my quick head count, we have about a dozen Professors and faculty staff, as well as about 60 students in the audience.
The international symposium began with the plethora of introductions necessary in such circumstances. Tran Quang Canh then provided a short but pithy statement concerning the goals of Caodaism. He was aided by Khanh Pham on the overhead projector and slide machine. (In fact when members of the missionary discovered that the Department would have difficulty securing a slide projector, they purchased one and donated it to the university). Next I provided a brief historical overview of Caodaism and explained how the religion provided a synthesis of much of the religious quest of various religions. My main aim was to show how Caodaism welded together the cosmological beliefs of Hindu and Chinese cosmologies on one hand and connected these to a strong sense of monotheism on the other. My motive for doing this was primarily because of the background of the audience; Bangladesh is a nation that holds in its collective heritage a strong influence of Indian cosmology, yet the country is also strongly influenced by one of the strongest kinds of Western monotheism: Islam.
Academic replies to the presentation came thick and fast including a kind and considered response from Professor Joseph T O’Connell, Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto who was visiting professor at the Department. Professor Kazi himself, who also chaired the session admirably, spoke well of the enlightening aspects of the presentation and several other esteemed academics agreed that the message of religious tolerance preached by Caodaists, a message many of them averred, could also be found at the heart of Islam, was exactly what the world needed at the present moment. These sentiments were most aptly summed up by the Vice Chancellor who said, "…there can be no religion without peace, and no peace without religion."
After the session was complete, our delegation was a little exhausted and also overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response. Many illustrious Bangladeshi academics swapped cards with us and many others continued asking questions. As there was no time for all the questions we agreed to return and meet with anyone who had further queries later in the week.
The initial results of the conference were clear. Caodaism would be taught as part of the department’s curriculum. Also, members of the Missionary agreed to consider special seed-funding for gifted students to continue advanced studies into Caodaism. Thirdly, numerous links between the World Religions’ department and my own department at the University of Sydney would flourish due to the initial support of the Caodai Overseas Missionary. When one student, as Professor Kazi reported, said that he was too excited that he forgot to eat lunch, I know what the student meant! Imagine my surprise when, after the symposium was concluded, we were told that the delegation was about to be invited to meet with the number one man in Bangladesh - the President!
As we concluded our symposium on the 12th of March detailing the history and theology of Caodaism, we enjoyed chatting with staff and students. A number of students in fact took us to their favourite eating place and we were happy once again to taste the plain wholesome rice and curry of Bangladesh. We were surprised that our presentation had come to the attention of the President of the Nation. We therefore kept Thursday free as we waited for the call from the Presidential Palace. Once we learned that we would be meeting His Excellency Professor Iajuddin Ahmed, the 18th to hold this position since independence in 1971.
On the afternoon of the 13th March (Thursday), a kind student directed us to the national martyrs memorial on the outskirts of Dhaka. Here some of the 3 million who died rebelling against the Pakistani presence in Bangladesh are buried. The place is a sombre evocation of peace with the focal point being seven large slabs of concrete hewn with various sized doors reflecting perhaps the confusion of the rebellion period and the general incomprehensibility of war. As we drove to and from the monument we saw the green fields alive not only with rice production but also dotted with the smoking furnaces of the nation’s brick kilns highlighting again Bangladesh’s fecund beauty.
The next morning, Friday March 14, we woke early, all of us are excited and we made a rendezvous in our best clothes at the Vice-Chancellor’s house. The Caodaists on the delegation looked splendid in their white ceremonial dresses, joined by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Kazi Islam and visiting Professor O’Connell. We travelled in convoy the short distance to the presidential palace set right in the heart of Dhaka. Once we were cleared by security, we drove through the spacious ground to the President’s official residence. As it was Friday he received us as personal rather than official visitors "at home" so to speak. Our hosts for the week Professor Islam and Vice-Chancellor Faiz, were kind enough to step into the background as we entered the large but cosy reception room. This allowed Mr Tran Quang Canh to sit to the immediate right of the President with myself and Nguyen Chanh Giao close by. Both the Vice Chancellor and Professor Islam have a very strong relationship with the President, yet it is friendship that regrettably is put at a distance by the protocol that surrounds their former colleague as he acts in his current position.
The President entered soon after we arrived and greeted all of us cordially. A gracious, friendly and strongly inquisitive man, by dint of his election he holds a particularly unique constitutional position. Elected by members of the Bangladeshi parliament, rather than by universal suffrage, the President must, through years of building a solid reputation, impress his stable personality upon the machinery of state. He holds reserve powers to suspend parliament, declare state of emergency and direct the military. The day-to-day running of the government is left to the Prime Minister as leader of the parliamentary majority, but it is the President, above party politics, that truly represents the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people.
Most of the 60 minutes of our meeting moved between Tran Quang Canh’s explanations of Caodaism and more general matters relating to the university and the benefits of the study of comparative religion. Nguyen Chanh Giao was able to make several interesting points relating to Caodaist theology. The Vice Chancellor, Professor Islam and professor O’Connell also contributed to an enjoyable conversation. A number of staff members appeared to serve a delightful morning tea. After some time, the President’s wife arrived, much to the pleasure of Professor Islam’s wife, herself a Professor at Dhaka University. Madam Nguyen Ngoc Lan and Kim also enjoyed speaking with her. Well into the second hour someone suggested we make time for photographs. The President kindly assented to being photographed with the delegation and it was time to make our goodbyes. He was insistent that each of us should return to Bangladesh as often as we could and overall the experience did nothing less than make each of us feel that the entire nation had done its utmost to make all of us feel welcome.
That evening, after one last question and answer session at the University, the Missionary hosted its last dinner in Bangladesh, of which the honored guests were the Vice-Chancellor and his family, as well as Dr. Islam and his family. In parallel, Caodaist Youth leader Pham Khanh hosted a similar dinner for all the students whom we met. So, my heart was torn wanting to be at both groups simultaneously, but unfortunately I could only be at one place and it was expected that I show up at the official dinner rather than the student’s bash. Nevertheless, students, staff and friends impressed upon me the need to contact them often and repeatedly by email once I returned to Australia. At the airport the next day I was embarrassed at the number of students who appeared and the gifts they brought which included some very sophisticated books about the history of Islam in Bangladesh, a beautiful Qu’ran and a rather amazing wall hanging which I shall cherish.
Our plane departed on Saturday 15th of March and we made our way to Bangkok where we said goodbye to Khanh. We took a short plane trip to Phnom Penh and we all were excited by the prospect of visiting the tomb of our late Pope Duc Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac. After settling into our hotel, we made a visit the very next day. It is a shame to see the large tract of land owned by the religion reduced in size by locals who have seized the ground around the tomb of Duc Ho Phap. It was interesting to see his modest tomb, but I expect the same question came to my mind as to everyone who visits here: how long will it be until he is able to return to Tay Ninh? I know that the day he does so, it will be a day of exceptional rejoicing for all Tay Ninh Caodaists. The tomb has been patched-up carefully, but it is also easy to see where members of the Khmer Rouge have broken in to the sepulchre in order to check for any precious objects without realizing of course how precious the contents are to so many followers. As the Caodaists travelling with me settled down to meet with local Caodaists, I spent time investigating Phnom Penh. It is a beautiful city redolent of Saigon’s atmosphere, but without the hectic nature of that city. Given the number of Vietnamese in the city, one discovers that the food is exceptional and it was good to have a very well prepared bowl of “pho”.
On the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of that week, we were lucky enough to get the chance to travel to Angkor Wat, one of the ten marvels of the world. This side trip, taking almost 10 hours on the road is worth every bump and ditch. Angkor Wat is a vast religious complex of temples built between 900 and 1400. The reason for its abandonment by the Royal Court of Cambodia in the 1400s is a bit of a mystery, but the impressive nature of the complex is phenomenal. The rooms, halls, stairs, colonnades and shrines make it a must see if anyone ever chances to visit the region. The walls are covered by religious writings, mostly Buddhist, and the whole makes for an amazing religious complex. I was pleased to be so lucky enough to see it.
Its impressiveness was partly matched by our trip to visit Thailand’s Dhammakaya foundation. The centre for this great temple lies one hour outside of Bangkok. In only 30 years, by providing practical meditation for a large number of Thai, this foundation has grown to become one of the greatest Theravada Buddhist movements in the region. It possesses a meditation hall that can seat about 300 000 people (with kitchens to match such a capacity). The meditation focus of the hall is focused into the distance where a grand stupa (or burial mound) is covered by 300 000 small gold-plated Buddha images. Inside this great man-made mountain another 700 000 buddhas will be placed, making a million in total. We were very lucky to see all this, and even meet with the engineer in change of these great religious building projects. What was even more impressive were the people who guided us through and who made us so welcome. In particular Bhikku the Venerable Nicholas made us extremely welcome and answered many of our questions relating to the history of this particular Buddhist movement and the reasons behind the success of how the Dhammakaya foundation has promoted the message of Buddha.
Then it was time to return home. What was most impressive about the trip were the friends and contacts we made in Bangladesh amongst the staff and students there. It was also a great honour and pleasure to meet and talk with the President of that country and eminent scholars such as Professors Faiz, O’Connell and Islam. Next, it was also fascinating to at last see the resting place of Duc Ho Phap. I hope that issues relating to the confiscated land of the Phnom Penh temple can easily be resolved. I enjoyed promoting scholarship in Caodaism wherever we went and know that many good outcomes will arise from this particular episode in the Missionary’s international travels.
Christopher Humphrey Hartney
Studies in Religion.
University of Sydney, Australia
LỜI DẠY CỦA ĐỨC HỘ PHÁP
TRONG VẤN ĐỀ TRUYỀN GIÁO ĐẠO CAO ĐÀI
Đạo Cao-Đài để cho hàng trí-thức họ t́m hiểu mà đến, chớ không dụ-dỗ hay là cám-dỗ cho người biết nó. Để hết trí-năo t́m hiểu, con người nhận thấy trí-thức cao-siêu và nhận-định chơn-lư của nó. Tiếng Pháp nói đức-tin là sự nhận-thức chơn-lư (Foi raisonnée) do nơi đức-tin ấy mà định quyết cái tinh-thần đạo-đức của ḿnh, chớ không phải do nơi sự cám-dỗ nhồi-sọ, tạo thành mê-tín.
Đạo Cao-Đài truyền-bá là lấy ngôn-ngữ để chỉ hơn, chỉ thiệt, v́ cớ nên đối với các Tôn-Giáo, Đạo Cao-Đài thường bị trích-điểm là vậy. Cái đức-tin của Đạo Cao-Đài không cần cầu-chứng nơi ai, nó chỉ cầu-chứng với trí-thức tinh-thần của nó, về việc truyền-giáo Đạo Cao-Đài đi từ từ bước một, Chức-Sắc trong hàng Thánh-Thể Đức Chí-Tôn cầm quyền mối Đạo là phát ngôn-viên của Đức Chí-Tôn từ từ tiến bước chớ không cần chi phải giục tấn.
Trích lời thuyết minh của Đức Hộ Pháp trong lễ khai mạc Hội Nhơn Sanh của Quyền Vạn Linh tại Nữ Đầu Sư Đường ngày 30-08 năm Tân Măo (1952).
(April 9th, 2003)
"Bản dịch bài nầy của Cơ Quan Truyền Giáo Hải Ngoại sẽ được in trong Đường Về Đại Đạo tháng 5/2003 và trong Bản Tin Đại Đạo do CQTGHN và Thánh Thất Washington DC xuất bản tháng 5 năm 2003".