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    Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    Cao Dai and Tay Ninh (Video Post)

    About a month ago I went to Tay Ninh, a rural province to the northwest of Saigon, to see the Cao Dai Holy See Temple and learn about the religion. I uploaded a video at that time, but have not had time to describe the experience. It was very enlightening.

    I love going out to the countryside, because my family has roots in the country, and wherever I am, whatever country I'm in, I seem to feel at home--even though I grew up in the big city. Along the road you can see rice, and animals, bamboo huts and rubber farms.
    The Cao Dai Holy See Temple is really a large temple within a large religious complex in the Tay Ninh province. Traveling by motorbike, I entered the southern gate (not the main gate), and traveled up a road past a rubber tree grove, some temples, and some houses, to reach the main plaza and temple.
    The main plaza looks like the circus maximus of ancient Rome. In the middle is a plaza with two large columns. People mill around, talking with each other, on the grass between the columns. Surrounding the middle, is the road, which conveniently forms an oval as it passes on all sides. Finally, on both of the long sides of the oval are two huge bleacher stands, covered, where people must watch some really large and special festivals. When I went a few families were sitting under its shade and talking. The smaller ends of the oval have the main gate, and the main temple.

    The main temple, like all things Cao Dai, is extremely intricately detailed and colorful--almost to the point of gaudy. Everything has a meaning. The front door is painted like clouds to symbolize heaven, but nobody enters through them. Instead, during ceremonies, men enter through a side door on the right and women through a side door on the left. During normal hours men and women may enter either door and mingle freely, but during the ceremony the sexes are segregated.
    The outside of the temple has mainy freezes. Some depict Ong Phat or Phat Ba (male and female versions of Buddha), but others are a single eye in a triangle. The eye represents Ong Troi, or God, who oversees all. A follower of Cao Dai believes in the relative truthfulness to all religions, overseen by a formless God which they depict as the eye.
    Upon entering, the visitor or worshipper is treated to a view beyond gaudy and oppulent. Guarding the front door are statues of three people--Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the Chinese Revolution, Victor Hugo, the French writer, and Nguyen Binh Khiem, the mystic who started CaoDai-ism. These three people are revered as saints by the Cao Dai, because as the sign says,
    "Being entrusted with the mission of realizing the 3rd alliance between God and mankind (the first realized by Moses and the second by Jesus Christ) these saints give spiritual guidance and assist the CaoDaists in spreading the new holy doctrine."
    It's interesting--read the whole thing.
    Inside the temple is basically one huge room, with a balcony to look down upon the first floor. Columns with dragons wrapped around them span the whole length of the temple. The ceiling is painted like the sky--and reminded me of the Alladin in Las Vegas without the fake lightning and rain. On the outside of the columns is a walk area for people to move up the room to the huge eye at the end. The middle area is for people to kneel and worship.
    The ground raises slowly by steps as you work your way towards the huge globe that contains the eye. Nine steps in all, representing the nine separations of man from God. This is highlighted right at the globe which is set upon nine steps around it. Also, between the worshipper and the globe (as you walk forward) is a group of chairs sitting empty. These chairs are for the Pope and Cardinals and signify the encompassing of Catholicism in the CaoDai doctrine.
    Beyond the thrones are altars where food is given and incence burned to Buddha. Finally you reach the altar to God, in front of a huge sphere that signifies the universe. It has over 30,000 distinct constellations and stars--each representing a specific reincarnation of mankind. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the exact number, or I would better explain what the stars represent. As it is, I don't want to preach false doctrine.
    All along the way are reliefs of angels and fairies, men and women, who depict the major deities or founders of the world's religions. You look above you and see Confucious, Buddha, Christ, and Moses, because the CaoDai doctrine is that all religions are good, and all teach truth. [on a personal note, this made teaching a CaoDai believer about Christianity very interesting and frustrating. Everything you taught them would be believed without question, but, as CaoDai, the importance of believing that Christ is "the way, the truth, and the life" is lost on them. A believer can pick and choose any truths or rules from any religion when he/she lives his/her life because they are all correct.]

    During the noon ceremony, those people who have recently lost loved ones go up to the second floor balcony, and sing and pray in the traditional Vietnamese-Buddhist fashion. On the floor, worshipers are divided with men on the right and women on the left. They incrementally move up towards the eye and stop and kneel and pray at each level. The first time is for the people that have died, then they will return to the beginning and pray again to God for themselves and mankind. An observer can see the strong influence of Vietnamese ancestor worship in this ceremony--not the least of which is the preeminence given praying to ancestors first over God. As the worshippers move up towards the eye, the singers stay on the top balcony along with a boy who plays an instrument similar to a guitar, and move with them.
    Everyone in the ceremony wears white to signify purity with the exception of a few leaders. these leaders where red to signify Catholicism and Confucianism, Yellow to signify Buddhism, and Blue to signify Deism.
    The Cao Dai religion is "home grown" in Vietnam, and currently boasts a couple million members. During the Indochine Wars, the CaoDaists trusted no side and fielded their own standing army. This incurred the distaste of the eventual Communist government, which only recently has looked kindly on the religion. For anybody who travels to South Vietnam, the trip to Tay Ninh is well worth the time, and probably better than anything you can see in Saigon. Go take a look at this amazing religion for yourself, but if you can't, check out my video of part of the ceremony.
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    shutterbug said...

    What a wonderful blog. I love how you organized your pictures. How did you do that? Mine are all over the place.

    Triet said...

    I used flickr for this post. I've found that if you have a pro account, flickr is great. I don't, yet...

    I've used blogger hosting, and it's ok, but the sizes are not as flexible without resizing in the composer mode.

    What I did on this post was upload all my photos to flikr, and post the thumbnail version here. Then I used the composer style of editing the post to place the photos where I wanted them.

    As you can see from my later posts, my flickr bandwidth ended for the month, and I've been using blogger hosting since. But I'm thinking of buying a pro account to get back to flickr.