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Published: June 13th 2009
Temple and Grounds
Arriving at the temple
During our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, Joe and I visited the Cao Dai (pronounced “cow dye”) Great Temple in the city of Tay Ninh, located about 2 hours northwest of HCMC on the Cambodian border. The temple was an extraordinary experience of architecture, sculpture, color, sound, and spirit. Our small tour bus arrived at the Cao Dai Holy See (the complex which houses the temple, administrative offices, residences, and a well known hospital of traditional Vietnamese herbal medicine) around 11:30 a.m., just in time for us to observe the noon prayer session - one of 4 daily ceremonies that all devotees attend (the others are at 6am, 6pm and midnight).
Cao Daism is a fusion of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spirituality, Christianity, Islam, and “a dash of secular enlightenment.” The term “Cao Dai” literally means high tower or palace and is a reference to God. The tenets of the religion were revealed to the mystic Ngo Minh Chieu during séances, which are still practiced by contemporary Cao Dai followers. In a nutshell, God told Chieu that all of the other religions had pretty much screwed things up, so he should start a new religion that is guided
The Third Eye
Cao Dai Trademark
by the spirits of those who have died so that future generations can learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. He founded the religion in 1926 and today there are 2-3 million followers throughout the world. The guiding principles are based around living a good life - refraining from lying, killing, excessive consumption, promiscuity, stealing, etc, - in hopes of escaping the cycle of reincarnation. Devotees follow a path of celibacy, vegetarianism, and meditation.
The Cao Dai community is interesting because it grew it so large in the several decades after its founding that it gained a lot of political power and pretty much controlled the Tay Ninh province like an independent state, including having its own army numbering 25,000 at its height. However, because the Cao Dai refused to support the North Vietnamese during the “American War,” it was stripped of all of its land and temples, and several of its leaders were killed. In 1985, after making sure that the Cao Dai weren’t going to cause any more trouble, the government relinquished control of the Holy See and some 400 temples were given back to the community.
Today, the Holy See is a major tourist attraction
for both Vietnamese and foreign people. Every day, bus loads of visitors come to see the temple and observe the prayer rituals, which are attended by about 100 worshippers (priests and priestesses). We could see that some people in the community had grown weary of the tourists, who were perpetually going in the wrong entrance, talking when they weren’t supposed to be, or otherwise violating some sacred custom. Others seemed to tolerate the visitors better, and even appreciate their interest in the temple. One of the worshippers, an older man named Nghia (he spelled his name in chalk on the sidewalk for me and had me spell out mine), stopped me as he was waiting for the ritual to begin, and wanted to know everything about me - where I came from, if I was married, where my husband was, how many children I have, how old I am, if I have a lot of temples in my country, how many times a day I pray, and so on!
Joe and I observed the prayers from an upstairs balcony. It was an extremely moving experience for both of us. Musical instruments, singing, and chanting filled the temple during the
I totally want those lamps!
ritual. Worshippers wear white ceremonial dress and enter on the ground floor in procession. Women enter from the left and men from the right. All sit cross-legged on the floor in rows and chant in unison, as music emanates from the second floor. Periodically the gong is struck and everyone bows in namaste. It was a beautiful ritual and an overwhelmingly peaceful experience. We were sad to leave.
By the way, everyone has a website - and so do the Cao Dai. You can read more at www.caodai.org!
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