“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh
As part of my tour of the Củ Chi tunnels outside Vietnam, we stopped at the Cao Đài Temple 60 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City. As I searched for tours to take outside the city, I came across this relatively new religion with a rather interesting temple. I had never heard of Caodaism before I checked out day-trips from Saigon, but I found the concept of it intriguing.
The history of Cao Đài only dates back to the early 20th century when Ngo Van Chieu had a vision and began the religion. Caodaism was formally established in 1926, incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. Caodaists created their own army that fought against Japanese occupation in 1943. The religion was repressed by the Vietnamese government in 1975, but regained legal status in 1985. Today, the religion claims to have about 6 million adherents worldwide.
To add to the inclusiveness of Cao Đài, the religion’s saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. I can’t really argue with a religion that accepts a literary figure as a saint, though I could think of other writers more deserving of sainthood.
The extravagant temple resembles a cathedral with elements of Buddhist and Taoist temples, particularly in the design of the pillars.
While walking around the open space around the temple that provided little shade from the heat of southern Vietnam in winter, we entered the colorful temple with the large crowd of tourists before the Caodaists entered for their prayer service.
Tourists were pushed to a gallery area above the main floor of the Cao Dai temple to watch the midday prayer — traditional Vietnamese music playing as the practitioners walked into the temple in their white, red, yellow, and blue robes. The yellow represents Buddhism, the red Christianity, the blue Taoism, and the white is for the ordinary adherents.
It feels awkward taking photos of religious ceremonies — I usually ask before I take pictures at any religious site — but after seeing everyone else taking photos, and more or less encouraged to do so, I snapped a few. I still avoided taking photos that could identify specific people inside the temple as it might be offensive.
Because Cao Đài Temple is such a large tourist destination, it seems that Caodaists just accept the gawking hordes as a way to promote the religion.