(Presentation by Christopher Hartney, Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia, at the Department of World Religions, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2003)



As a religion that encompasses a vast range of religious ideas from many different cultures and cosmologies, there is much that I could say about Caodaism. As I am speaking in Bangladesh however, there are a few areas I would like to highlight as they are issues that also concern the Muslim world and cultures that are infused with Hindu cosmological assumptions. Initially, I would like to provide a brief historical account of Caodaism leaving to one side issues of morality, ethics and lifestyle which are better explained by my travelling companions. Secondly I would like to speak of Caodaism as a manifestation of monotheism in the East and explain methods of revelation as a way of contrasting this faith with that of the prophetic tradition of the West. Thirdly I would like to speak of Caodaist cosmological assumptions and how they adapt and develop a cosmology strongly influenced by Indian ideas of time and of cosmos. Ending with a summary of how these disparate aspects develop together into a unified approach to the religious life of Vietnam and the world.


History of Caodaism

Dao Cao Dai (Caodaism) is a religion that, having manifested in Vietnam, is spreading across the planet with currently up to six million followers. Caodaists believe their faith ushers in a new period of religious activity which is called Tam Ky Pho Do or the Third Period of Salvation, a period marked by direct revelation between heaven and earth. Caodaism is the Dai Dao or great religion of this period. Looking through its Scriptures, one sees that Caodaism offers many answers to the major questions that have beset humanity throughout the ages and especially throughout the twentieth century. Moreover, Caodaism is an answer proffered to a nation that has suffered some of the most profoundly disturbing wars and unrest of recent times. This section hopes to provide a brief explanation of the religion.


Dao Cao Dai which has been rendered in English as 'Caodaism' means the Way of 'Cao Dai'. This is the most important, but not only term, the religion uses to address what Western monotheists might call Yahweh, God or Allah. It is a term that avoids attributing gender, personality or other earthly traits to this Supreme Reality. 'Cao' and 'Dai' are the Vietnamese pronunciations of two Chinese characters 'Gao' and 'Tai' literally meaning 'high tower' or more metaphorically: the place in the heavens where the Supreme Being resides. Caodaism was officially inaugurated as a religion in 1926 having been announced through séance communications received, so it is said, from heaven on Christmas Eve 1925. Thus one might think of Caodaism as a new religious movement. These dates however, often obscure the fact that as a syncretic religion, the origins of Caodaism span the centuries.


Vietnam and its Chinese Heritage

Over the last three thousand years, Vietnam has been significantly influenced by China. Central to Chinese civilisation is Confucianism. Known in China as Ru Jia, or in Vietnamese as nho giao/khong giao, this moral and ethical system of governance is based on the writings of Master Kong. Daoism the shadowy counter-part to Confucianism that celebrates the natural over the educated. Also at the start of Chinese occupation in Vietnam, Buddhism also began to spread into the nation from both India and China. In addition to these three major influences, time and again Vietnam was open to the influence of Chinese popular religious movements, many of them secretive. It is these that perhaps play the largest role in the immediate commencement of Caodaism.


Indigenous Beliefs

Just as the coming of Buddhism to Vietnam did not challenge Confucianism or Taoism, neither did the introduction of these Chinese and Indian religious systems overshadow many of the indigenous religious practices held by the Vietnamese prior to Chinese occupation. Vietnamese myths hold that the land is full of benign, malignant and mystical spirits. The ideal that these spirits embody, the myths about them, and the altars built to celebrate them, stretch back well before recorded history. Another significant feature of the life of Vietnam is the religious veneration of significant historical figures, mystical poets and great patriotic souls such as the Trung sisters who, in the first century CE, led a force against the occupying Chinese. Their myth reveals two characteristics of the Vietnamese people, characteristics that the Chinese could not suppress - a strong sense of rebellious individualism and a high regard for the status of women in society.


Similarly the practices of Hau Bong or spirit mediums taken by trance in a shamanic fashion, pervaded Vietnam as they did in China and Korea. It is no surprise to learn that when the French invaded and colonised the nation in the late 19th Century, bringing with them new European trends for seance and spiritism, that these indigenous mediumistic traditions would connect with and reinforce the more recent European trends. In fact these Eastern and Western traditions would, in time, seem to be the best grounds upon which a heavenly reconciliation between East and West could be effected. Caodaists see spiritism as a new religious technology, heaven sent to improve communication with the spirits and gods. Prophets and their messages are regarded as culture-bound. Now, as a Caodaist document puts it, 'heaven speaks directly to humanity'. It was to be the start of a new era of religiousness, one that would see the repair of a horribly bifurcated world.


Caodaism Made Manifest

By the start of the twentieth century, Vietnam was a nation that had proved  welcoming to a vast number of religious traditions and ideas. Its history had made it a crucible of Indian, Chinese and Indigenous traditions, philosophies and faiths. Apart from Christianity, each of those religions themselves had a long tradition of integration and mostly co-operative co-existence. But there was also now another Vietnam, one that was suffering oppression amidst the change and a clash of worlds. This was the background against which Caodaism began to coalesce.


Ngo Minh Chieu [1878-1932] was a mandarin out of place. He was born into a family that had been a part of the literati - his grandfather had served at the imperial court at Hue in high Confucian tradition, but the family fled the chaos brought about by the French. After this escape the family fell on hard times. Ngo Minh Chieu was well educated and would have been able to pass the hellish entrance exams that regulated admission to the Vietnamese civil service. If things had have been otherwise, he may have upheld the highest ideals of Confucius. But instead of working for his Emperor and nation, he worked for the French, he studied at the prestigious Collège Chasseloup-Laubat and commenced his first appointment in 1899. It was all that a young person could do to support his family. Whilst growing up, economic circumstances meant that he was required to live with his aunt. This woman was married to a wealthy Chinese herbalist. It has been suggested that this man encouraged the young boy's fascination with Taoist-based mediumship. With this sort of background and a mastery of French, Ngo Minh Chieu was able to read the works of French Spiritists, including the medium Flammarion, possibly as early as 1902. It has been said that he also read the works of Alan Kardec, Leon Denis and the writings of the then President of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant. His after-work activities included attendance upon the spirit voices summoned by spirit mediums in the Taoist-Shamanistic tradition. Sometimes these trance sessions were conducted by women, or sometimes by young children who were prized for their spiritual innocence. Mediums would reveal the voices of spirits, or the Cau Co or 'spirit pen' would be raised to heaven and from its tip, the ink would reveal heaven's will. Ngo Minh Chieu's enthusiasm for spiritism increased as he sought at first remedies, and later solace, for his dying mother. During these communications, he was put in contact with traditional Chinese deities including the great red-face demon slayer Guan di Gong. In time these spirits introduced him to an extremely authoritative voice, one which would only reveal itself through the mystical name Cao Dai Tien Ong Dai Bo Tat Ma-Ha-Tat. Finally his spiritual journey reached a high point when, on the island of Phu Quoc, which was a part of the jurisdiction he was administering, the Divine Eye (or Thien Nhan), was granted to him in a vision. Blagov dates this vision as occurring sometime during April 1921. From that point on, the spirit of Cao Dai began to dominate this humble administrator's life. In 1924 French authorities posted Ngo Minh Chieu back to Saigon and it was here that he started collecting disciples and developing methods by which he could worship Duc Cao Dai.


The Pho Loan

A slightly younger generation of the French-speaking administrative class also turned towards spiritism. They are referred to most often as the Pho Loan group. This group included the future Ho Phap (or guard of the religious laws) and acting pope Pham Cong Tac [1890-1959]. This group came together in 1925 at a time when many French-language newspapers in Saigon were carrying stories regarding trends in European spiritism. The Pho Loan group were not using ancient Chinese methods of mediumship but European and American methods of spirit communication, in particular table-tipping. This process involves a table that has one leg purposefully uneven. As the members of the seance place their hands on the table, the shortened leg taps out a morse-code style message. It is a very cumbersome system of divination. Following a similar pattern to Ngo Minh Chieu the members of the Pho Loan were led, after some false starts, to the familiar voice of Pho Loan member Cao Quynh Cu's deceased father. Eventually these lesser spirit voices introduced to the group a supremely profound and philosophical voice who revealed himself under the pseudonym of AAÊAÂ. These are the first three letters of the Romanised Vietnamese alphabet which are demarcated by additional diacritical marks. Along the way, voices instructed them in the use of the corbeille bec. This is an upturned basket held by a number of mediums. The stem extending from the basket is tipped with a crayon and held over paper. Other mediums stand by to take down the messages as they are revealed. It is a very communal way of receiving messages, and perhaps, one less inclined to individual manipulation. Soon AAÊAÂ demanded a public display of the group's commitment, and so on the 16 December 1925, the Pho Loan took to the streets of Saigon where, 'the three men, holding nine joss sticks, pray[ed] that AAÊAÂ would give them sufficient grace to reform their ways.’


Le Van Trung

Le Van Trung [1876-1934] had also attended the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat, graduating six years before Ngo Minh Chieu. He went into the French colonial service, but then pursued business interests. As a prominent businessman Le Van Trung was appointed to a number of quasi-democratic bodies in the colony, finally serving on the Superior Council of Indochina - an advisory body to the Governor General. Unfortunately, by the early twenties, as Duc Nguyen writes, '...the business of Le Van Trung faced ongoing difficulties and by 1924 he was nearly bankrupt and being depressed, became an opium addict.' After 1924, as his life continued to spiral downwards, a cousin invited Le Van Trung into a Minh Ly group where seances were held. These minh groups were semi-secret associations, syncretic in their nature and received prophetic and political messages from the spirit world. At a seance, the Chinese Tang Dynasty poet Li Po was said to explain to Le Van Trung his religious destiny. Hearing this he immediately reformed his life. He took up vegetarianism, his eyesight improved and he broke his opium habit.


Caodaism's development

On Christmas eve 1925 the Pho Loan group met to hear AAÊAÂ reveal the following message:


Be joyful tonight on this anniversary of my appearance to teach the religion in the West. Your allegiance brings much happiness to me... Soon you must help me establish the religion. Have you seen my humility? Imitate me so that you may genuinely claim to be religious men.


Soon AAÊAÂ would reveal himself as Ngoc Hoang Thuong De Viet Cao Dai Giao Dao Nam Phuong. So that it now seemed obvious that the Pho Loan members and Ngo Minh Chieu were worshipping the same Supreme Being and this was, it seemed, the same Being who had incarnated as Jesus Christ. In fact it was a declaration of a new period of religious activity on a scale that few messages had yet proposed. In this way the Third Amnesty between God and humanity commenced as a great new start.


Caodaist sources suggest that on 7 January 1926, the Pho Loan received a message instructing them to visit Le Van Trung. In Saigon, the French speaking administrative class would have made for a small world. Blagov suggests that a nephew of Le Van Trung was a follower of Ngo Minh Chieu. Thus there was an earthly link as well as a spiritual one between these two. Upon Le Van Trung's agreement, a seance was organised. It was at this meeting, say the Caodaist history books, that Le Van Trung was requested by (v: Duc Cao Dai) to join with the (v: Pho Loan) in the establishment of the new religion. Le Van Trung, realising that the prophecy he had received in 1924 from Li Po was coming true, dedicated himself full-time to the new religion. It was also at this time that both parties went to meet Ngo Minh Chieu and his disciples. Throughout January 1926 joint seances led to heaven instructing the new adepts on how to organise worship and install altars for a new religion.


Throughout the year the new faith continued to grow. On 7 October 1926, acting upon instructions through seance, the first adepts of Caodaism presented a petition to the French authorities informing them officially of the commencement of the new faith. There were 247 signatures on the petition, however Ngo Minh Chieu's name was not one of them. It has been suggested that as an intensely reserved man he had no intention of becoming involved with what was potentially a mass movement, preferring instead to guide a small band of enthusiastic followers. The petition offered to the French stated that present world misery was caused by the disunity that existed between religions and that Caodaism set out to perfect the Tam Giao of Vietnam. Tam Giao means 'three teachings', that is, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. This statement can also be taken as a metaphor for the bringing into balance of the religions of the world. So here at the official beginning of the faith, Caodaism declared its syncretistic intentions. Its syncretism was not only aimed at Eastern faiths but as a way of bringing the great traditions of the West out of their exclusivist tendencies to share in a universal acceptance of the religious development of the world. A pantheon of Western religious figures headed by Jesus were also included in the Caodaist pantheon and messages were received by many of them including, most prominently, that French spiritualist, who is of course better known for his literary rather than his religious life, Victor Hugo.


To carry out its unifying mission, heaven decreed that Caodaism be divided into three powers. The first would be called the Bat Quai Dai or Eight Sided Temple which was to be the council of spirits, headed by Duc Cao Dai. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Po would serve as spiritual pope to this body. The Hiep Thien Dai or 'Heavenly Union Temple,' would consist of the college of mediums - headed by Pham Cong Tac, and would act as the legislative branch, responsible for the transmission and ratification of the laws of the new religion and for juridical issues. The Cuu Trung Dai or 'Nine-sphered Temple', would be reflected by a nine-leveled hierarchy of the general body of the administration. This vertical division would include adepts, student priests, priests, bishops, archbishops, principal archbishops, cardinals, censor cardinals and the pope. This hierarchy would administer the laws as transmitted from heaven and be responsible for the day-to-day running of the faith. The office-holders of the Cuu Trung Dai would be divided horizontally into three branches representing the religions of the Tam Giao. In Vietnam there had previously been no religious system that utilised a hierarchy based on the Roman church, except for Catholicism itself. Caodaism set a new standard in Asian religious organization by adapting itself to the a sort of centralism that exists in the Vatican.   


With this complex hierarchical system, the new religion also needed to select a headquarters. Initial celebrations were held in the Tu Lam Buddhist temple in Go Ken, Tay Ninh, to the north-west of Saigon. The monk of this temple had been an early convert to Caodaism and was happy to let the new faith settle there. However some Buddhists in the congregation were not so happy and demanded the return of the temple that they had sponsored. The first members of the religion then spent a number of days finding appropriate land near the capital of Tay Ninh province. Spiritist messages confirmed that land that had been chosen was eminently suitable and over the next 20-odd years a vast holy city was constructed. This sacred capital would serve as an almost independent enclave during the decades of chaos and offer its adepts the chance of peace in a country ravaged by war.


With Le Van Trung at the forefront of the recruitment drive, seances were held all around the south of Vietnam and proved vital for the early rise in numbers. People looking on in interest would suddenly hear their names called from the spirit world and would turn from mere passers-by to devoted members. Recruitment soared, and one conservative estimate shows that by 1931, that is, in the fifth year of its existence, Caodaism could count 500 000 members.


Half a million people in five years was a lot of people. Too many perhaps, for in the early 1930s, a number of sects broke away from the main Tay Ninh branch. This process was not helped by the disincarnation in 1934 of Acting Pope Le Van Trung. In a move to stabilise the Tay Ninh branch, Pham Cong Tac, who had until this time been the Ho Phap or leader of the Hiep Thien Dai also assumed leadership of the administrative branch as Pope. His leadership proved a solid foundation for the faith right down to the year of his death in 1959, even though he was to be exiled from Vietnam for decades. His first period of exile was at the hands of the pro-Nazi (Vichy) French in 1940-1946 when he was sent to Madagascar. The second time he left Vietnam in the years before his death to escape the repressive measures of the United States-supported southern president Ngo Dinh Diem.


War Years

During World War II the dual occupation of Vietnam by the pro-Nazi Vichy French and the Japanese caused serious problems. But it was also during this period that the Japanese, who had styled themselves as the nation that would liberate Asia from Western colonisation, helped establish the Caodaist army. At the end of the war, this fighting force enabled the religion not only to protect its adepts, but also to play a leading part in the politics of the day. Caodaists were represented in the cabinet of the re-enthroned emperor Bao Dai. At peace talks between the nationalists, the French and the northern-based communists, Caodaists were often on hand. Pham Cong Tac did as much as he could on the international stage to promote peace between the warring parties, suggesting that both sides put aside capitalism and communism and think about the nation. Unfortunately, the plot of Vietnam's tragic century would be played out despite all forces of reason. President of the southern republic from 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem [1901-1963] and his prejudiced pro-Catholic family used subversion coupled with US resources to dismantle all Caodaist influence. Diem encouraged members of the Caodaist army to revolt and surround the Holy See. Pham Cong Tac sensibly left for Cambodia. From here he directed the religion until his death in 1959. His body remains in Cambodia to this day awaiting its return to Tay Ninh.


In the sixties and seventies the life of the south focused more and more on the war effort. Seance messages trickled to almost a halt, and seance was only used to ratify the regular elections to the hierarchy or clear up small matters of doctrinal dispute. Eventually the US withdrawal in 1973 led to the northern communist take-over of the south in 1975 and this in turn led to the muzzling of the religion and the prohibition of séance.


Under the communists

Communism had appeared in Vietnam at about the same time as Caodaism, and the two had shared a very antagonistic history despite the fact that at times the two groups appealed to each other for support. By 1975 the lines of division were clear, as Blagov writes, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, ...the Hanoi authorities were keen to reorganise all religious communities in Southern Vietnam in such a way as to destroy them as autonomous social organizations.


Several dignitaries were killed and a good deal of Caodaist property was seized by the state. Some temples were turned into factories or warehouses, while for a time the Great Divine Temple was closed. Caodaists who I spoke with in Tay Ninh told me of how they moved in and re-opened the Temple during these dark days. Despite the threat of arrest and even death, communists flags were repeatedly pulled off temples by brave adepts. One strange policy of the communists was to belittle and trivialise the religious life of Vietnam. Under this policy during the late seventies and eighties, religious areas were turned into fun parks. One such park was built within the grounds of the Holy See where the religion's library once stood. Here toy trains, slippery-dips and swings served as paltry thrills to tempt people away from the Temple on festival days. Those who persisted in worshipping were bombarded with popular music, for example, love songs which would blare out of huge speakers trained on the Great Divine Temple.


Perhaps the most destructive policy of the communists was their prohibition of official séance. Although Caodaism uses the ballot box to elect members to the Cuu Trung Dai, each name thus elected must be put beneath the divine pen in a seance to ensure holy ratification. Without a chance to do this, no new members can be elevated into positions of leadership. Because of this the number of pre-1975 office-holders are fast dying out. Already most of the high positions remain empty. For the day-to-day administration of the faith, the communists have appointed a management committee. This committee consists of a number of the faithful, but the majority of its members remain more faithful to the communists. In the last year or so it seems that small concessions are being made to the running of the religion. Members of the lower hierarchy are being elevated and new elections are being held, but the original constitution of the religion is still being overridden. The decisions of the management council continue to be widely recognised as illegitimate.


Right down to this year, communists see religious activity as a significant threat to its hegemony, although they try to argue that they are really looking after the best interests of the faith. One example proves how silly this can sometimes be. An attempt was made in 1999 by the Caodai Overseas Missionary to invite an archbishop to speak at a conference on religious freedom in Canada. The request was met with the official reply that the dignitary would not be allowed to leave Vietnam because Canada was too cold!  


It is no wonder that under such a regime many Caodaists tried to escape. We will take up their horrific but ultimately triumphal stories in the next chapter.


The Promise of on-going revelation

The centre of the Caodaist word is the Great Divine Temple in Tay Ninh. The apex of this building is undoubtedly the Great Eye that stares from the celestial globe above the altar, but from an earthly perspective the religion could not function without the “Cung Dao.” This is the space directly in front of the great altar and it is within this space that official seance communication takes place. The rosette on the ceiling of this space symbolises the many different instruments of divine communication that have connected heaven and earth, some for many millennia. It is almost a representation of the genealogy of the various spiritualist traditions, both East and West, that have contributed to the spiritualist development of the Caodaist religion. I would like to speak a little about these instruments, the messages they delivered and the way in which they came to be the almost-centre of a vast institution that has spread throughout the world.


Ngo Minh Chieu was already well-versed in the Eastern traditions of Daoist and shamanistic medium techniques when he received the first revelations from Cao Dai. These included attendance at seances where the trance-like state of the medium would allow for the channelling of gods, and also the use of young children, prized for their innocence and purity, who would transmit messages by writing with sticks in sand or on paper. Victor Oliver, quoting Pham Xuan Tin, also describes the first Caodaist’s familiarity with the “co but”...


The medium sat in the middle and held in his hand a scarlet Chinese writing brush. When the spirit appeared to the medium he gave prescriptions in Chinese characters and many people were healed. (Oliver 1976, 30)


The spiritualist approach that first led Ngo Minh Chieu into mysticism is usually taken up to address concerns for health, longevity and good fortune. It is part of a Chinese tradition that goes back to oracle bones and beyond. The practical tools of this approach such as the I-Ching, divination sticks and yin-yang blocks (represented on the “Cung Dao” ceiling) can still be found in most Chinese temples where gods such as Guan di Gong and Ma Tzu will answer personal requests in the form of classical Chinese verses.


Traditional practices such as these were also being overlaid with the burgeoning information regarding spiritist and spiritualist trends in striking Europe at the time. Such trends reached the peak of their popularity in the aftermath the Great War when so many bereaved families were sought contact and solace for their loved ones so recently and tragically lost. The French language press in Cochinchina communicated recent developments regarding spiritism in Europe and so, at the time when Caodaism was about to bud, Eastern mystical practices were given a new lease of life through their validation by the Western spiritual traditions. What was, until this time, a process of personal spiritualism began to flourish into a significant institution transmitting Divine Revelations.


The “Pho Loan,” a group of Vietnamese employees of the French bureaucracy in Saigon, which included the Catholic Pham Cong Tac and the Buddhist relatives Cao Quynh Cu and Cao Hoai Sang, came together to practice table tipping in June 1925. (a table is also represented on the rosette). They were soon asked by the spirits to change to corbeille a bec or “Ngoc Co.” This is a basket held by two mediums. Connected to the basket is a long arm, often surmounted at the end by a phoenix and holding a pencil, brush or crayon. It is believed that the spiritual forces enter the basket and direct the pen. Often, and this was the certainly case in the “Cung Dao” many mediums would be on hand to write down the sometimes barely decipherable lines that would come to the end of the corbeille a bec.


This group followed a similar course in their spiritualist investigations, as did Ngo Minh Chieu, that is, a series of familiar spirits appeared first eventually revealing a strongly authoritative voice that would be identified as supreme. In the case of the “Pho Loan” this central voice wrote under the name AAÊAÂ – the first three letters of the Vietnamese alphabet. And so commanding was this voice that “Pho Loan” members appeared on the streets of Saigon in public acts of attrition and calling on others to worship AAÊAÂ.


When at the end of 1925 Ngo Minh Chieu and his associates, and the “Pho Loan” met, AAÊAÂ was revealed as “Cao Dai.” and the two groups worked together for a number of months. From this time on the new group, which soon included Le Van Trung – an eminent Indochinese businessman and politician – began to form into a double-headed institution. On one side the medium branch of the religion developed under the leadership of Pham Cong Tac. The administrative branch headed by the Giao Tong (Pope) was first offered to Ngo Minh Chieu to lead. He refused to accept, left the group, and was replaced by the acting pope Le Van Trung. Alexander Woodside notes that such double headed structures are reflective of many “White Lotus” Buddhists sects operating in China at the time. The institutionalisation of spiritism proceeded in stages. At first seances were held throughout the country, and we can attribute the astonishing early rise in numbers to these effective displays of the spirit world’s endorsement of this new way. Miracles and the healing of the sick would accompany the calling of people by name to join the religion. Such direct demonstrations and appeals would have proved hard to resist for souls looking for certainty.


The early messages tried to redress many of the most imposing social questions of the time, provide relief from the trauma Vietnam and the world was suffering, and offer hope, comfort and certainty.  One message has Cao Dai declare that the Vietnamese and French people together are his chosen races and this theme of compromise between the colonising culture and the Vietnamese is strongly apparent. Victor Hugo often communicates and was positioned by the Caodaists as the spiritual ambassador for the faith. He was a symbol of the mystical pursuit, but also a symbol of justice and high French culture. In one instance (1933) he predicts that Tay Ninh will become another Lourdes. Jeanne D’arc sometimes addresses the religion; Louis Pasteur talks of the health benefits of vegetarianism and the Chinese gods Guan Ti Gong and Li Po helped guide the administration. Li Po, as the Spiritual Pope of Caodaism also revealed to Pham Cong Tac both the mystical and engineering processes required for the completion of the Great Divine Temple.


While also being the religion’s greatest asset, seance communication could be one of its great weaknesses. Seances held outside of the Holy See could allow for the transmission of messages that were not wholly acceptable to the developing hierarchy. This tendency away from organised spiritualism was aided by long traditions of personal spiritualism in Asia that the new religion found hard to break. If these personal or sect communications went against the actions of the Tay Ninh leaders, they could prove damaging to the religion’s infant life. In 1936 the decision was made to stop all official seances outside the Holy See. Of course the Great Divine Temple and papal residence provided the perfect location to receive messages as they were built to divine specifications and charged against evil forces. But other reasons for the ban was that the growing profusion of messages were leading the faithful away from the central organization. Last June, I spoke with a Caodaist in Vietnam who assured me that the veracity of the religion lay in the clearly observable communications with Cao Dai. “So there is no place for faith in your religion.” I retorted. He replied that although the existence of the spirit world is given, faith is required to know a good message from a corrupted one. Being part of the faithful is knowing what messages seem or feel true. Whatever is said in the “Cung Dao” is regarded, as true, it has to be, he stated. Outside the “Cung Dao”, “Cao Dai” grants evil spirits the right to deliver erroneous messages in order to test us. 


Seance communication revealed the way seance should be institutionalised as Caodaism. The Giao Ly, or book of ritual, the Phap Chanh Truyen or constitution of the religion and the Tan Luat or canonical code were also revealed and then checked through this process. However from almost the start this institutionalisation of spiritualism could never totally encompass the Caodaist experience because of the early break away of Ngo Minh Chieu who established a more esoteric or “Vo Vi” tradition of Caodaism alongside Tay Ninh’s “Pho Do” or great salvation approach.


The Caodaists in Tay Ninh went on to play a significant role in the troubled life of Vietnam this century, and as a result of their highly prominent role, the religion is now currently under the strict control of a Communist appointed management committee. The “Cung Dao” has not been officially used since 1975. This has very effectively stopped the religion in its tracks. And the Caodaist Diaspora is left with the onerous duty of doing what it thinks Tay Ninh would want if it were operational. Caodaists continue to worship in the various temples of the Holy See, but no official life is possible and this is evident when one visits the Holy See. Currently Caodaists have the ability to practice esoteric meditation and spirit communication on their own. Outside of the “Cung Dao” however, and outside of the guidance of the hierarchy, such practices for Tay-Ninh aligned Caodaists definitely remain unofficial, and mostly unspoken. This is because emanating out from the “Cung Dao” Caodaism has created a very effective spiritualist institution.



In terms of its cosmology, Caodaist doctrine struggles to unite the world’s two main competing ideas of time and heaven: the idea of reincarnation and cyclical time as we find it in Hindu cosmology and that of linear life as we find it in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The synthesis of these two ideas brings us to a very complex but fascinating path which the soul travels after death. Many of these details are derived not directly from séance, but from the sermons of Pham Cong Tac, delivered after World War Two and based on his astral travels into the heavens.


In Caodaism the immensity of the soul’s journey is encompassed in many numerical references, we are told there are 72 planets and that earth is number 68. It is the duty then of each of us to work our way, by means of the accumulation of good actions, towards the more superior planets, life after life. Unfortunately a king on planet earth barely matches the status of an average person on planet 67. As this linear path towards God is laid out, so too do Caodaists admit that living life again and again on different planetary levels leads us towards paradise. Short cuts can be made through a meditation system that trains the individual in ways to access the heavenly realm themselves by developing similar talents for astral travel. Most reassuringly the fastest route to accessing the meditation halls and thereby learning techniques for astral travel in the Caodaist religion is through charity works, and by taking a position in the earthly hierarchy of the religion.


Reflecting the governmental nature of imperial China and imperial Vietnam, paradise is not conceived of as a paradise of eternal bliss, but a vast bureaucracy for the management of the cosmos. The requirement of the elevated soul is to use its talents to increase the well being of the worlds and of lesser souls. Thus there is a second kind of soul in Caodaist cosmic conceptions – the one that has achieved a position in the heavenly hierarchy and who then accepts the duty to return to life to help “spread the way” a situation which again stresses the charity and spiritual dimensions of the cosmos, even for souls that attain paradise.


In terms of time, an interesting tension exists within Caodaism concerning its millenarian dimensions. A number of scholars have suggested  that Caodaism is millenarian because it looks forward to a “long hoa” meeting. This is a meeting of souls presided over by the great Buddha of the future Maitreya. Some have compared this to a judgement day. It is here that a great elevation of believers dedicated to spreading the Way will be elevated. Caodaism, however, also divides the world into a period of three covenants, the first at the time of Moses, the second at the times of Christ and Muhammad. The third covenant was granted in 1926 when the religion started. And in this way Caodaism is the fulfilment of a millenarian hope rather than simply a religion of millenarian expectations.


Returning to the theme of the immensity of the Caodaist cosmos, it is said that this third amnesty will last 700 000 years.



Caodaism is a new religious movement, but also a faith that effects a union and a summation of five thousand years of religious development in Asia with influences from the West. Caodaism as a social, sometimes political and military, but ultimately religious movement, has spoken in a profound way to millions of people in Vietnam. It has provided sanctuary and certainty in times of rebellion, world and civil war. And, as I have tried to demonstrate, Caodaism provides a way of effecting a synthesis between Eastern and Western modes of thinking, welding Eastern religious systems and a pantheon of Eastern spirits with Western religious saints, prophets and ideals. In this way Caodaism has worked to effect a unity between East and West and, as Caodaists fled Vietnam after 1975, they brought their religion to the West, hoping that the answers Caodaism offered to Vietnam in the twentieth century, will now provide solutions for the world in the twenty-first.



Further reading in English


Blagov, Sergei: The Cao Dai: A New Religious Movement, Moscow, The Institute of Oriental Studies, 1999.


Blagov, Sergei: Honest Mistakes: The Life and Death of Trinh Minh The (1922-1955): South Vietnam’s Alternative Leader, Huntington, New York, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2001.


Blagov, Sergei, and Christopher Hartney: “Vietnam” in Melton, J. Gordon and Marin Baumann, eds.  Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices. 4 vols.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2002.


Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do: Phap Chanh Truyen: The Religious Constitution of Caodaism, (trans from French by Lucy Davy) Sydney, Caodaist Association of Australia NSW Chapter, 1992.


Hartney, Christopher: “Syncretism and the end of religion(s)” in Carole M. Cusack and Peter Oldmeadow (eds) The End of Religions? Sydney, Sydney Studies in Religion 4, 2001, 233 – 248.


Hartney, Christopher: “Of Séance and Surrealism, Poetry and Crisis” in Conference Proceedings 2001, Society for the Study of Religion Literature and the Arts, RLA 2001, (ed. Colette Rayment, Mark Byrne) Conference Proceedings, Sydney, 2002, 355 – 369.


Jordan, David K. and Daniel l. Overmyer: The Flying Phoenix: Aspects of Chinese Sectarianism, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1986.


Marr, David G.: Vietnamese Anti-Colonialism 1885-1925, University of California Press, Berkeley, London, 1971.


My Van Tran: “Japan and Vietnam’s Caodaists: A Wartime Relationship,” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies no. 1, vol 27, March 1996, 179-183.


My Van Tran: “Japan Through Vietnamese Eyes 1905 – 1945” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies no. 1, vol. 30, 1999, 126-154,


Oliver, Victor, L.: Caodai Spiritism; A Study of Religion in Vietnamese Society, Leiden, E.J.Brill, 1976.


Park, O'Hyun: An Invitation to Dialogue between East and West, New York, Peter Lang, 1996.


Popkin, Samuel L.: The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam, Berkely, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 1979.


Slote, Walter H.: "Destiny and Determination: Psychocultural Reinforcement in Vietnam" in Confucianism and the Family, (ed Walter H. Slote and George A. DeVos) Albany, State University of New York, 1988, 311-328.


Smith, R.B.: 'An Introduction to Caodaism' Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London XXXIII vol ii and iii.


Tai, Hue-Tam Ho: Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England, Harvard University Press, 1983.


Thien-Ly Huong Do, Merdeka: Cao Daiism: An Introduction, California, Centre for Dai Dao Studies, 1994.


Unger, Ann Helen and Walter Unger: Pagodas, Gods and Spirits of Vietnam, Thames and Hudson,London 1997.


Werner, Jayne Susan: Peasant Politics and Religious Sectarianism: Peasant and Priest in the Cao Dai in Vietnam, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven 1981.


Woodside, Alexander Barton: Vietnam and the Chinese Model; A Comparative Study of Nguyen and Ch'ing  Civil Government in the First Half of the Nneteenth Century. Harvard University Press Cambridge Massachusetts 1971.