I am in front of a magnificent building in the town of Tây Ninh in southern Vietnam. It is the Holy See of the Cao Dài religion—a relatively new religion that started in 1926 right where I am standing. Like all religions, it began with a hallucination. Its disciples received instructions directly from God to establish Cao Dài.
I see a mixture of symbols on the outside of the temple—figures representative of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. I see dragons, a flying goose, and even Joan of Arc. There is a giant eye on the outer wall. It reminds me of the one on the US dollar, only colorful.
The front door is reserved for entry by the religion’s followers. It’s not quite noon; many disciples have already arrived. I walk to the side of the temple, leave my shoes on the street, and enter through the visitor’s door.
The disciples, all clothed in pure white robes, are seated in the back vestibule—the women on one side and the men on the other. They must wait there until the monks arrive. Then they can enter the main hall and sit in the area reserved for them.
As a visitor I am allowed to roam the outer aisles of the temple until it’s time to start the service. I am not allowed to walk into the center, nor am I allowed to take photos that include non disciples. Oddly enough, it is perfectly okay to take photos of the disciples and monks both before and during the service.
The place is colorful. Really colorful. The style of the carvings and the bright colors remind me of a carousel. I see eyes all over—they are the windows to the temple. I see dragons and stars and planets. The altar is so far back in the temple that it’s difficult to make out what it is when I first enter. When I walk closer, I see there a gigantic round planet with an eye painted on it. It is the eye that oversees the universe.
My guide says it is time for me to go upstairs to view the ceremony. The white-clad disciples file in and sit on the sides. The monks, dressed in primary colors, walk in next. Only a few walk past the midpoint of the temple. No one gets close to the altar. Where you sit is determined by the your level of mastery of the principles. All disciples must adopt ethical principles that include nonviolence, vegetarianism, prayer, and veneration of ancestors. But there are also many scriptures for them to study and learn.
In the back is a musicians’ loft. Five or six young women (all supposedly virgins) sing while a group of men sit and play traditional instruments. Then it’s silent and everyone sits, adopting a posture of meditation. It’s now very quiet in the temple. My guide says “They are going to stay that way for hours.” I still watch. Once in awhile a gong sounds, the musicians start up, then there is silence again. Sometimes the gong sounds once, sometimes several times in a row. Not knowing the religion, I don’t understand the ritual, but it is beautiful and restful.
After awhile I leave the disciples to their meditation.
The Cao Dài followers believe there are 72 planets that have intelligent life. Planet number 1 is closest to heaven and planet 72 is closest to Hell. Earth is number 68. I am thankful that Earth is considered one of the planets with intelligent life, because at times I wonder how intelligent we really are.
For more information on the practice of Cao Dài, see http://www.caodai.org/. Its full name is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, the Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation.