Cao Dai (pronounced "Cow Die") began in 1919 as an indigenous Vietnamese religion composed of "spiritism" or "spirit mediums" and a "ouija-board" type device called corbeille a bec (beaked-bag). It sought to form a synthesis of the fundamental doctrines of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and a Roman Catholic type church organization. It was formed in an attempt to create a universally acceptable religion in an area of the world where there is an intermingling of many religious beliefs often found in the same individual. A corollary goal was the promotion of harmonious human relationships by means of a common spiritual life devoid of any religious discrimination. Some Vietnamese religious leaders, who are not adherents of this faith, call it a "salad-religion" because of the bits of many religions which are blended together in it. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The Cao Dai have 1 or 2 million followers, mostly on in southern and central Vietnam. It is the older of the two large indigenous religions of Vietnam. Hoa Hao, a self-styled reformed Buddhist sect is the other. Cao Dai is strongest in the Mekong Delta, Tay Ninh province, the Cambodian border region and Saigon itself. Incorporating elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism and Spiritualism, the Cao Dai pantheon includes Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo and Jean Jaurès among others. Their clergy are modelled on the Roman Catholic hierachy, headed by a "pope" (Giao-Tong) and with a "Holy See" in Tay Ninh.[Source: indochine54]

The appeal which has made the Cao Dai faith so successful in South Vietnam may be traced to several factors: (a) pride in the fact that this is an indigenous religious faith; (b) the appeal of pomp, pageantry and ceremonies of the temple rituals; (c) the content of Cao Daism, which includes features and elements of the several religions of South Vietnam; (d) the claim of communication with the "world beyond" in a basically animistic culture; (e) the active missionary spirit and the sacrificial attitude which is encouraged; and (f) its organizational structure which provides methods, plans and techniques for a semi-unified working faith with some area in which every adherent may participate or make a contribution. ++

History of Cao Daism

Revathi Murugappan wrote in his blog: Cao Daism was founded by one Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant who read widely on eastern and western religions, and became active in séances. Apparently, he was contacted by a spirit called Cao Dai (high tower or position) who handed down a symbol — the all-seeing eye. The all-seeing eye is the symbol of Caodaism and is placed on all the windows of the temple. It told Ngo that it had propagated a belief structure appropriate to the varying world cultures, but was disenchanted by the intolerance and hatred between followers of the different creeds. The spirit attempted to fuse all the religions known to Vietnam during that period hence, Cao Daism is an amalgamation of three main religions — Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism — and a dash of Christianity and Vietnamese spiritualism. [Source: Revathi Murugappan]

The Cao Dao spirit t proposed to dispense with living envoys and see itself as the “Third Alliance between God and Man” — through intermediaries such as Chinese revolutionary leader Dr Sun Yat Sen, Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem, Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare and French author Victor Hugo. The wroter

Caodaism was officially recognised as a religion by the French in 1926 and by 1930, there were over half a million converts. It selected its first “Pope” in 1926 but since his demise in 1933, the position has been left vacant. Graham Greene was briefly a member. See Below.

Today many Western tourists visit the Cao Dai Temple in combination with a trip to the Chu Chu tunnels. Murugappan said his guide joked: “We have more than three million Cao Dai followers and you will notice that they look no different from you and me. If you’re not in the bus by 2pm, I will assume that you have chosen to become a follower. I respect your decision and would be more than happy to leave you here.”

“At one point, Caodaism was a powerful religion and devotees owned a lot of land and property. They even had a private army, which combined forces with the Viet Minh and helped fight the French. Eventually, they refused to support the Viet Cong (that fought the United States and South Vietnamese governments) during the American (Vietnam) War. “After the Communists won, the Cao Dai leaders were captured and the structure collapsed. It was revived about 20 years ago,” the guide said.

Cao Dai Beliefs

The Cao Dai believe there have been three major revelations of divinity to mankind. The First Revelation was given to several "missionary saints": Nhiem-dang Co-Phat for Buddhism, Thai Thuong Lao Quan for Taoism, the Emperor Phuc-Hy for Ancestor Worship, and Moses for Judeo-Christian religious concepts. The Second Revelation came later during the period of 500 B. C. to after 600 A.D.--through Lao Tse for Taoism, Confucius for Confucianism, Ca Kyamuni for Buddhism, Jesus Christ for Christianity, and the Prophet Mohammed for Islam. The crowning or Third Revelation of God, according to all Cao Daists, was given on Phu Quoc Island, South Vietnam, in 1919. The official title Cao Dai translated into English is doctrine of the Third Revelation. This Revelation was given by God to Ngo Van Chieu, the first Cao Dai apostle. The Third Revelation is updated from time to time through the spiritual mediums who utilize the corbeille a bec which spells out current revelations by pointing at letters of the alphabet lying on a board, as some in the Western world use the ouija-board. According to the Cao Dai, God first revealed himself in human form because the human spirit was not yet sufficiently advanced to receive God's teachings directly. At the present time, however, it is believed possible for divine messages to be given directly through spiritual mediums and the corbeille a bec. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Major Doctrines of the Cao Dai: The major doctrines of beliefs of the Cao Dai are: 1) That Cao Daism is the Third Revelation of Divinity to allow general redemption to all men and, as such, supercedes or corrects misunderstandings of previous teachings. 2) Cao Daism worships the Absolute Supreme God who is eternal without beginning or end, and who is the Creator of all, Supreme Father of all, and unique Master who created and creates all angels, buddhas and saints. ++

3) Cao Daists believe in the existence of three distinct categories of invisible beings. These are: A) the highest deities composed of buddhas, saints, and angels; B) the medium beings which include sanctified spirits and the great benefactors of mankind; C) the lower beings which include both phantoms and devils. This belief includes the concept that all three orders must pass through human existence in order to help humanity, and normally move from the lowest toward the highest forms. Of all living creatures, only man can become a devil or an angel because he has a special soul; and his position is determined by the effects of his works. ++

4) Cao Dai believe that the human soul may "go up" or "go down" the ladder of existence, and that man by his will and action determines the direction. 5) The ultimate goal of Cao Daism is the total deliverance of man from the endless cycle of existence in order to realize a life of supreme perfection. To them, man is created through the natural cycle of life and death, and possesses an immortal soul which is sacred. This soul must eventually obtain release from the cycle for complete victory. 6) The worship of ancestors is a means of communication between the visible and invisible worlds; between the living and the dead; and forms a means of expressing love, gratitude and affection for the ancestors. ++

7) Cao Daism also teaches, in its ethical concepts, equality and brotherhood of all races, the love of justice, the Buddhist Law of Karma, Buddha's Five Commandments, as well as the Buddhist Eightfold Path to Perfection and the Confucian doctrine of the Golden Mean. 8) Within Cao Daism is a pantheon of saints and deities. On the front of the Tay-Ninh temple, there are paintings representing Joan of Arc, Sun Yat Sen (the founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party), Victor Hugo (the 19th century poet and writer), and Trang-Trinh (famed Vietnamese prophet of the 18th century), etc. ++

9) Last, but no means least, is the doctrine that Divinity speaks to mankind through spiritual mediums utilizing the corbeille a bec, which is a bag which has a beak-like projection. When this beaked-bag is held by two members of the Law Protective Body of the Cao Dai over a board which holds the alphabet, divinity causes his spirit to move the bag so that the divine communication is spelled out by the beaked-bag tapping appropriate letters which sometimes take the form of verse. Only one beaked-bag exists. For such messages to be accepted as valid and official, the revelation must take place at the Tay Ninh Temple. Other revelations may occur at the main temple of each sect. ++

Organization and Clergy of the Cao Dai

The administrative tasks of the Church are conducted by three major bodies: the legislative, the law protective and the executive. The Legislative Body (Bat quai-Dai) is considered to be under the rule of the Supreme GOD who is regarded as the true and unique founder of Caodaism. The Law Protective Body (Hiep-Thien-Dai) has the Ho-phap as Chief. The Executive Body, or Cuu Trung-Dai, runs the temporal affairs of the Church, and has a titular head called Giao-Tong or Pope. The Pope is reputed to be the Spirit of the poet Li Tai Pe (Vietnamese, Ly-thai-Bach), who lived during the Tong Dynasty. Le-van-Trung was until 1934 the interim Pope (the living head of the Church), but following his death, differences of personality and opinion have precluded any others having this title or honor. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The Executive Body is composed of a Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Monks, Nuns and some laity. The Law Protective Body is composed of a 15-man college of spiritual mediums that regulates the use of the beaked-bag. They therefore act as the interpreters and receivers of divine messages to mankind spelled out by the alphabet board and the beaked-bag.The Executive Body is the third major body of the Cao Dai administration. This body has three agencies-the Administrative Agency, the Agency for the Propagation of the Faith and the Charity Agency. Each Agency has three institutes, each carrying on a specific task. The Charity Agency has the duty of caring for the sick by operating hospitals, aiding the needy, including orphans, the physically or mentally handicapped, and the aged. ++

Within the hierarchy of Caodaism are three major branches: the members of the Buddhist group (Phai Thai) who wear yellow robes as the symbol of the virtue of love; the Taoist group (Phai Chuong) who wear blue robes as the color of peace and the Confucian group (Phai Ngoc) who wear red robes as the symbol of authority. These vivid colors are normally worn only for special occasions and religious rites. Otherwise, the Cao Dai priestly ordered wear white robes, but the wearing of black robes has occasionally been observed. ++

In the 1960s Caodaism had the positions of Interim Pope, 3 Censor Cardinals, 3 Cardinals, 36 Archbishops, 72 Bishops, 3,000 Priests, an unlimited order of ritual priests, the order of ritual servers or temple servants, and the laity. Ordinary members of the Cao Dai clergy may marry and raise families, as do some of the members of the Eastern Orthodox and some of the Oriental Rites of the Catholic Church. Those above the rank of priest are not allowed to marry and must remain celibate in order to commit their total energies to the religious life. Nuns may occupy all positions up to Cardinal. Vegetarianism is required of all orders of the priesthood, but not for the laity. Currently there are several major sects or denominations of the Cao Dai whose existence dated from the time of the French occupation in Vietnam. But these have considerable interaction as all recognize the corbeille a bec which is kept at Tay Ninh Temple as the channel whereby dogma for the faithful adherents is pronounced for the first time. ++

Cao Dai Denominations and Area Where It Is Strong

The Cao Dai denominations and the locations of their headquarters are: 1) Chieu-Minh at Can-Tho; 2) Minh-Chon-Ly at My-Tho; 3) Tien-Thien at Cai-Lay and at Soc Sai Ben-tre; 4) Chinh-Dao at Ben-tre; 5) Minh-Chon-Dao at Bac-Lieu; 6) Hoi-Thanh Truyen-Giao Cao Dai Cao Daist Missionary Church) at Danang; and 7) the basic Cao Dai Church at Tay Ninh. In 1936 an association called the Lien-Hoa Tong-hoi was formed to unify all the Cao Dai denominations, and it does have some influence. In addition to the formal denominations, there are several other lesser divisions called Minh Ly, Minh Su, Minh Thien, Minh Tan, and Minh Duong. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The differences between the sects or denominations of the Cao Dai maybe much less than the differences which divide the "liberal" and "conservative" churches in America, and are certainly not nearly so large as those factors which separate the Cao Dai from the other religions in Vietnam. While Cao Daism has a number of essentially Buddhist elements, the Buddhists of Vietnam disclaim any relationship to them. This attitude may be modified from time to time due to the religio-political struggles, but does not infer an acceptance of the Cao Dai as a valid expression of Buddhism. The Cao Dai, however, with a multi-source religious concept and the conviction that all religions proceed from the same God, might view the matter quite differently. ++

Cai Dai Population in Vietnamese Provinces according to 1965-66 Cao Dai Figures (province, population, Cao Dai population, Cao Dai percentage of the population: A) Tay Ninh: 232,357, 91,000, 39; B) Long An: 373,512, 68,252, 18; C) Ding Tuong: 531,258, 54,353, 10; D) Kien Hoa: 537,323, 43,247, 8; E) Phong Dinh: 360,547, 40,370, 11; F) Vinh Binh: 541,834, 31,506, 6: G) Vinh Long: 547,556, 28,391, 5; H) Kien Phong: 291,116, 27,887, 10; I) Hau Nghai: 228,377, 23,739, 10; J) Chau Doc: 425,055, 18,337, 4; K) Bien Hoa: 251,039, 15,837, 6; L) Chuong Thien: 248,437, 14,554, 6; M) An Giang: 422,849, 13,919, 3; N) Ba Xuyen: 359,446, 6,897, 2; O) An Xuyen: 224,000, 4,958, 2; P) Kien Giang: 360,000, 4,451, 1; Q) Kien Tuong: 51,399, 3,647, 7; R) Binh Duong: 243,105, 3,350, 1; S) Go Cong: 171,051, 3,130, 2; T) Quang Nam: 474,950, 60,000, 2 ½. ++

Cao Dai Temple

The main Cao Dai Temple is in Tay Ninh, 100 kilometers northwest of Saigon and 25 kilometers from the Cambodian border) is the Holy See of Caodaism. The temple's interior, which Graham Greene described as "Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East," is garishly decorated with pink dragons and yellow and purple mythical beasts. Graham Greene was briefly a member of the sect. The Lonely Planet described it as “a rococo extravaganza combining the conflicting architectural idiosyncracies of a French church, a Chinese pagoda, Hong Kong’s Tiger Balm Gardens and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

Built between 1933 and 1955, the Cao Dai Great Temple is 140 meters long and 40 meters wide. It has four towers each with a different name: Tam Dai, Hiep Thien Dai, Cuu Trung Dai, and Bat Quai Dai. The interior of the temple consists of a colonnaded hall and a sanctuary. The 2 rows of columns are decorated with dragons and are coated in white, red, and blue paint. The domed ceiling is divided into nine parts similar to a night sky full of stars and symbolizing heaven. Under the dome is a giant star-speckled blue globe on which is painted the Divine Eye, the official symbol of Caodaism. Cao Dai followers worship Jesus Christ, Confucius, Taoism, and Buddha.

The Temple is built on the same pattern as other Cao Dai temples, but in a more grandiose style. Here in a large and an extremely well-ordered compound are found the Temple, a school, a hospital, an orphanage, a home for the aged, a residence for nuns, etc. The very order and neatness of this site, like that of other Cao Dai temple areas, is in stark contrast to the disorder and disarray of the Orient as seen by the "western eye". [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The Chinese-type ornamented temple at Tay Ninh, with its unusual architectural designs and features, has nine floor levels. These broad steps which start at the front door of the temple and rise toward the altar, represent the nine levels of spiritual ascension possible to the Cao Dai adherent; and also represent the nine orders or divisions of the hierarchy of Cao Daism. This is still true even though the position of the Pope within Cao Daism has been vacant since the death of Le Van Trung in 1934, who succeeded Ngo Van Chieu as the Interim Pope. The Cao Dai founder, Ngo Van Chieu, was the head of the church from 1919 until his death seven years later following an intensive practice of mysticism. Then Le Van Trung became its leader until his death. It was during Le Van Trung’s period that the Cao Dai developed a firm organization and had their greatest growth. ++

The main altar of the Cao Dai Temple is a huge globe of the world symbolizing the universe, and has a painted human eye on it, which symbolizes the all-seeing eye of Divinity and the source of universal life. Inside the globe is a spherical burning lamp which represents the universal monad (something which is absolutely indivisible). Lights on both sides of the globe represent the male and female elements of the world. The Supreme Eye is normally formed within a triangle, and serves to remind the Cao Dai worshipper that the Supreme Being witnesses everything, everywhere, all the time. Cao Daist believe the "sacred eye" on their altar observes, supports, helps, judges and impels them to the right course of action at all times. (Americans may be startled to discover the same triangle and eye on the back of the American dollar bill.) ++

Cao Dai Worship

The laity of the Cao Dai are to pray at least once each day, and may choose one of four set times each day at home or at the temple, at 0600, 1200, 1800, or 2400. Additionally, there are special occasions for services, such as the 9th of January, the anniversary of the First Cao Dai Revelation; and 15 August, which honors Tay Voung Mau, the "Holy Mother" of Ngo Van Chieu. A Cao Dai altar can be recognized by the picture of the all-seeing eye, which is often surrounded by painted cosmic beams which symbolize the Supreme Being's lightened glory. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The Cao Dai use Tea, Flowers and Alcohol as offerings, representing the three constitutive elements of human beings-intelligence, spirit and energy. Five joss sticks are used in worship and represent the five levels of initiation, which are purity, meditation, wisdom, superior knowledge, and freedom from Karma (the cycle of existence). Also seen in Cao Dai temples is their religious flag, a three section horizontal flag with the top one third yellow, the middle third blue, and the lower one third red. These colors represent the major elements of Cao Daism and also the virtues or qualities admired by the Cao Dai. The red is for Confucianism or courage and authority, the blue is for Taoism or freedom, and the yellow is for Buddhism or the virtues of peace and love. ++

The Cao Dai recognize education and cultural and social action as methods whereby good can come to Vietnam and to the Cao Dai. In Quang Tin City within I Corps, the Cao Dai operate a grammar school, a high school and an orphanage. Present plans in Danang include the erection of an orphanage, a socio-cultural center, and the first college in the Danang area. ++

Cao Dai Temple Ceremony

Every day at noon, members of the sect hold a ceremony, with processions of chanting followers in colorful costume, which visitors are encouraged to attend. Describing his visit to the Cao Dai Great Temple, Revathi Murugappan wrote in his blog: “Like Buddhist worshippers, we had to remove our shoes before trooping to the balcony upstairs to watch the service. The place is painted in a sea of bright colours, and reflects a very happy ambience. The temple is built over nine levels representing nine steps to heaven, and each level is marked by a pair of columns entwined with dragons. At the top is a dome representing heaven and below it is the “all-seeing eye”, which is also depicted on the walls and windows. [Source: Revathi Murugappan]

“Devotees were dressed in white robes while the coloured robes worn by senior devotees denote ranking and function, and indicate the different branches of Cao Daism. Robes come in a mix of yellow (Buddhism), red (Confucianism) and blue (Taoism) but everyone wears white pants. The top clergy also wear hats with a picture of the all-seeing eye in front while the rest wear various types of head gear.

“A bell rang and the children’s choir started singing in Vietnamese as the hundreds of devotees walked in with military precision, according to robe colour and gender. Men entered from the right and women, from the left. They took their positions silently, knelt and waited until another bell rang. “Don’t you feel that someone is watching you all the time?” a tourist whispered to me. “It’s creepy yet reassuring.” Once the choir stopped singing, the acolytes rang the bells again. No one gave sermons and there was no chanting but amazingly, the devotees were guided by the sounds of the bell although I couldn’t sense a rhythm. Seated, they would bow four times in intervals while touching the floor with their hands.

Our guide Sam told us later, “There’s no time limit for their prayers. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. The ultimate goal of the Cao Dai follower is to escape reincarnation and like all religions, you need to do good things in this life.” Hundreds attend prayer services every day, sitting in neat rows according to rank. Prayers are conducted at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. At every session, there are a few hundred priests and during festivals, thousands congregate here. Photography is permitted, but it’s polite not to subject the worshippers to a barrage of flashlights. And if you’re taking a picture of a highly ranked Cao Dai clergy (you can tell from their robe colours), it’s best to show them the picture once you’ve snapped it, for approval. They’ll smile and give you blessings.

Cao Dai Militancy

The Cao Dai have a short history which includes involvement in religious, political, and military activities. The Cao Dai largely control certain provinces where they constitute the major population; while in others they often form a strong part of the governmental force. The continuing struggle in Vietnam has witnessed a number of violent actions by the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong, that in general have turned the Cao Dai away from the communist way of life. Particularly offensive was the massacre of 2,791 Cao Dai priests and followers by the communist Viet-Minh in Quant-Ngai in August 1945.

During World War II the Japanese supported the Cao Dai sect, with more than one million members, including a military force of several battalions. In the 1950s Ngo Dinh Diem quickly consolidated power and outmaneuvered his rivals, defeating the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate and the private armies of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. The National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) was founded, with representatives on its Central Committee from all social classes, political parties, women's organizations, and religious groups, including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, the Buddhists, and the Catholics.

Cao Dai became increasingly nationalistic during the 1930s and organized its own militias until a crackdown in 1938 disbanded its forces and sent Pham Cong Tac, the current "pope" into exile in Madagascar. They were involved in revolts against the French before and during WW2, co-operated with the Japanese and were allies of the Viet Minh early in the conflict. While still largely anti-French, the precarious situation of the Viet Minh in Cochinchina made them side with Emperor Bao Dai, for the time being at least. Under the leadership of Tran Quang Vinh, the Cao Dai had been sponsored by the Japanese as a "counter-revolutionary" force during WW2, which resulted in a major expansion of their paramilitary forces (numbering some 4,500 by 1946). By the end of World War 2, they were in fact the main nationalist group in Cochinchina and, in order to play down their association with the Japanese, decided to side with the Viet Minh, then a weak force which they thought would be easily manipulated. They were heavily involved in the nationalist uprisings in Saigon in 1945, but their alliance with the Viet Minh was, however, an uneasy one. [Source: indochine54 ==]

In mid-1946, Tran Quang Vinh offered to side with the French and an agreement was reached in January 1947 by which they controlled Tay Ninh province (thus releasing CFEO troops for other purposes) while Pham Cong Tac returned from exile. In 1947-48, with French material support, the Cao Dai militia was raised to 3,300 troops organized in 55 "flying brigades", 1,500 men in "self-defense groups" plus another 2,500 "military partisans" in other areas of Cochinchina. These proved quite efficient and between January 1947 and December 1948, the Cao Dai militias had lost 400 killed and 500 wounded while inflicting serious losses on the Viet Minh and capturing 350 weapons. While the "flying brigades" had initially been recruited for use in Tay Ninh province, their effectiveness in pacifiying Viet Minh areas led the French High Command to send half of them throughout Cochinchina. The Cao Dai leadership encouraged this trend which allowed them to spread their influence for, of course, the population was presented with a simple condition : the protection of Cao Dai militias was only afforded to Cao Dai converts. ==

This spreading territorial base allowed the Cao Dai to entertain hopes of becoming the dominant political movement throughout Vietnam, if not Indochina, and their political party, the Viet Nam Phu Quoc Hoi, soon became the most active in Cochinchina. Their reliability, however, remained doubtful until the end and they constantly undermined efforts to strengthen the Vietnamese government's hold over its provinces. In June 1951, Cao Daist Colonel Trin Minh Te rebelled with 2,000 of his troops when General Minh, chief-of-staff of the Vietnamese army, proposed sending 15,000 Cao Dai troopsto Tonkin. The following month, one of Pham Cong Tac's lieutenants had General Chanson, commander-in-chief of French forces in southern Indochina, and a Vietnamese governor assassinated. As a French staff officer commented : "its dialectics, as specious as those of communism, will always allow [the sect] to perform the most audacious reversals without damage. The Cao Dai have no enemies and no permanent friends, but they have permanent interests which are those of the sect." ==

Graham Greene and Caodaism

Graham Greene was briefly a member of the Vietnamese homegrown Cao Dai religion. Some tourists have said he described the main Cao Dai temple as "Walt Disney on acid" but actually what he said was that Caodaism was a "prophecy of planchette" at the temple one sees: "Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolor."

The Quiet American narrator, an English journalist named Fowler, has seized the opportunity to get out of Saigon for a day, and drives to a religious festival in the countryside. The visit serves as an interlude to the novel’s romantic and political intrigues, and also as an opportunity for Greene to brief the reader on a colorful aspect of Vietnamese culture: a new religion, which purported to unite all faiths in the service of universal peace, but which, at the same time, possessed its own army, and turned its province, which Greene calls Tanyin (its actual name is Tay Ninh) into a Caodaist state within a state. ?

As Fowler listens to this strange Pope’s deputy pontificate, he reflects, "I was certain he knew that all of us were there to laugh at his movement; our air of respect was as corrupt as his phoney hierarchy, but we were less cunning. Our hypocrisy gained us nothing—not even a reliable ally, while theirs had procured arms, supplies, even cash down."

Hoa Hao Sect

Hoa Hao (pronounced "Wah How") is a neo-Buddhist sect which emphasizes home worship, and amalgamates Buddhism, animism, Confucian doctrine and other indigenous practices. Founded in 1939 by the "Mad Monk"Huyen Phu So, it is a Vietnamese development of Theravada Buddhism which emphasizes reforming and simplifying Buddhist doctrine and practice, and has a history of religious, political, and military organization and activity. Theravada Buddhism is that form of Buddhism prevalent in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, in contrast to the Mahayana Buddhism of Japan, Korea, China, and the major Buddhist group of South Vietnam. The fanatical Huynh Phu So eschewed temples and hierarchy and appealed to the poor and oppressed. The sect was persecuted by French colonial rulers before entering an uneasy alliance with Viet Minh guerrillas in 1945. Two years later the Viet Minh executed Hoa Hao founder, Prophet Huynh Phu So, on charges of treason.

Hoa Hao has between 3 million to 4 million followers. Unlike Cao Dai, it preserved a distinctive Buddhist coloration. Based mostly in the southernmost and westernmost areas of the Mekong Delta, it stresses individual prayer, simplicity, and social justice over icon veneration or elaborate ceremonies. The Hoa Hao sect is to some degree nationalistic and xenophobic, and is strongest in the south-west of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border, where they live in their own communities. [Source: indochine54 ==]

Hoa Hao (also known by the longer name Phat Giao Hoa Hao) has been described as a "puritanical, poor, peasant-based sect committed to a simplified and austere Buddhist doctrine." It t was founded in 1939 by Huyuh Phu So, the "Crazy Monk," after he had a shaman-like experience in 1939. He preached simplicity as a means of attaining nirvana. Huyynh Phu So was imprisoned and sent to a mental institution by the French and eventually assassinated by the Viet Minh.

Hoa Hao has major concentrations of followers in the provinces of Chau Doc, Kien Phong, An Giang, Kien Giang, Vinh Long, Phong Dinh, Chuong Thien, Bac Lieu, Ba Xugan, and Kien Tuong. They form a belt across the delta from Cambodia to the South China Sea, and include the southern portion of South Vietnam with the exception of the extreme southern province of An Xuyen and the island province of Phu Quoc. While there are Hoa Hao to be found scattered throughout other provinces of South Vietnam, their numbers give them neither political nor military significance on a par with the ten listed provinces. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The adherents of Hoa Hao are largely ethnic Vietnamese, even though the religion itself springs from Theravada Buddhism. Thus the customs and patterns of life are similar to the Vietnamese except where the tenets of faith cause differences. Normally, only the alert and informed observer can quickly distinguish between the Hoa Hao and other faiths in the delta. In this respect, it is well to know that the Hoa Hao are members of the sixteen member Unified Buddhist Association of Vietnam, in contrast to the Cao Dai who are not normally accepted by the Buddhists as belonging even faintly to Buddhism. ++

Hoa Hao population in Certain Vietnamese Provinces (percent according to figures from the 1960s): A) An Giang: 75 percent; B) Chau Doc: 53 percent; C) Kien Phong: 28 percent; D) Kien Tuong: 26 percent; E) Vinh Long: 20 percent; F) Chuong Thien: 2 to 3 percent; G) Phong Dinh: 10 percent; Bac Lieu:1 to 1.5 percent; H) Kien Giang: less than 1 percent; I) Ba Xuyen: less than 1 percent.

History of Hao Hoa

In 1939, a 20-year-old Buddhist wandering-priest- monk named Huynh Phu So began preaching against the "decadent" Buddhism then prevalent in Vietnam. Born in 1919 at Hoa Hao Village, in Chau Doc Province, he So had apparently suffered from a major illness for most of his teenage and early adult years. Following the "miraculous" healing in 1939, So began to proclaim his doctrines of Buddhist reform while claiming himself to be the apostle of Phat Tay. From the village of Hoa Hao his crusade grew rapidly. He formed a militant sect of Buddhists. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

So had learned of Phat Tay, or Nguyen Van Quyen, while a student of a Buddhist monk named Thay Xom of Nu Cam. Phat Tay had been a famous monk who preached and wrote in the Mekong Delta about a hundred years earlier, during the Minh Mang reign (1820-1841). Moreover, So's teacher Thay Xom had taught him acupuncture, hypnotism, Buddhist philosophy and some sorcery. With convincing zeal and eloquence, So proclaimed his doctrines, and later wrote them in his book "San Gian" GIAN (Translated: "Oracles and Prayers"). To help identify his teachings, he gave them the name of his village Hoa Hao, by which his religion is still known. His first converts were those who witnessed his "healing" and heard him preach. His apparent "gift of prophecy" which foretold the defeat of the French in World War II, the coming of the Japanese occupation, and the later arrival of Americans, added impetus to his appeal. His additional skills of healing by herbs and acupuncture made him appear almost supernatural to his audiences. His hypnotic stare caused them to call him Dao Khung or "Mad Monk". ++

In time, the Boa Had adherents began to think of So as Phat Song, or the Living Buddha. Because the French considered his preaching to be anti-French and strongly political, he was exiled to My Tho and Cai Be, where he gained many converts. The French then placed him in a mental institution in Cholon, only to have the director; a psychiatrist, become a convert. Declared sane and released, So was exiled to Vinh Loi in Bac Lieu Province, where he again converted many. In desperation the French administration exiled him to Laos, only to have the Japanese insist upon his return to Saigon as their protege in October, 1942. ++

Upon the surrender of the Japanese, So led the Hoa Hao into the National United Front, a Viet Minh organization. It was soon evident, however, that neither the Cao Dai nor the Hoa Had would accept the leadership of the Viet Minh, so the latter caused the United Front to be dissolved. So then entered politics as the anti- French, anti-communist leader of his adherents. Even so, the Viet Minh, hoping to use him, appointed him a Special Commissioner to the nine-member Executive Committee for South Vietnam, six of whom were communists. However, the differing opinions and ideological clashes between the Viet Minh and the Hoa Hao caused So to flee for his life to Duc Boa in December, 1946. ++

In April, 1947, while traveling to a conciliatory meeting sponsored by the Viet Minh, he was captured, tried and executed by the communists in Long Xuyen. While the Hoa Hao leaders tried to keep the murder "quiet", it turned their full wrath against the Viet Minh, although they informed the faithful that So had only temporarily withdrawn, but would return. After twenty years, the Hoa Hao still do not care to discuss the subject. Yet this is the basic reason that Hoa Hao are noted for their opposition to everything the Vietnamese Communists want or fight for, and the Hoa Hao do not hesitate to destroy communists who enter their strongholds. ++

Since the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975, communist authorities have confiscated thousands of Hoa Hao properties, abolished its management structure and banned its major celebrations, including the annual Founder's Day festival. International organizations and some foreign governments say Vietnam continues to limit religious freedom and imprisons people for the peaceful expression of religious or political beliefs -- charges rejected by Hanoi. An official with the OHHBA told Reuters his organization estimated at least seven Hoa Hao Buddhist clergy were in jail for crimes related to illegal religious activities. Mass public outpourings of faith are rare in Vietnam.[Source: Reuters, July 2, 1998]

Hoa Hao Beliefs

Religious Doctrines of the Hoa Hao: Four major precepts of this faith are: (a) honor parents; (b) love country; (c) respect Buddhism and its teachings; and (d) love fellow man. The Eight Points of Honesty form parts of the Hoa Hao ethical teaching as do the virtues which Huyen Phu So stressed. These virtues insist that marriage partners be faithful to each other, and that officials be just, honest, and faithful in behalf of their people even as parents care for their children. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The Hoa Hao are forbidden to drink alcohol, to smoke opium, or to kill either oxen or buffalo for food. In order to make such restrictions more acceptable to the adherents, the ban on killing oxen or buffalo does not preclude eating beef when it is offered by one's host. But even in this matter, the faithful Hoa Hao must not eat either meat or greasy food on the 1st, 14th, 15th, or 30th days of the lunar month, as these are days of abstinence. ++

The basic religion which gave rise to the Hoa Hao is Theravada Buddhism. The older form of Buddhism has encouraged repeated reforms, aimed at conserving the purity of the teachings of the elders, with this teaching being more correct or closer to Buddha's doctrines than Mahayana Buddhism. But stress is given to austerity and salvation by personal example. As in all forms of Buddhism, salvation is a result of personal achievement. ++

So taught the absence of statues, temples, monks, etc., provides a means whereby an individual worshipper may have a richer spiritual experience. So wrote, "The cult must stem more from internal faith than from a pompous appearance. It is better to pray with a pure heart before the family altar than to perform gaudy ceremonies in a pagoda, clad in the robes of a unworthy monk." Confucianism and Animism were included in So's "reform" Buddhism, but on a more restricted scale than found in other Vietnamese religions. Prayers and offerings might be offered to Buddha, to Vietnamese national heroes or to personal ancestors, but not other deities and spirits, except some small offerings of the various incenses used to frighten away the evil spirits who might be lurking nearby. ++

The natural consequence of such concepts taught by So was a de-emphasis of pagodas and other elaborate structures as well as increased value given to rituals, symbols, and the Songha, which is the Buddhist order of monks. So violently attacked the Vietnamese custom of elaborate and often expensive funerals also. This funeral custom has been brought from Tibet and China by the Chinese and absorbed into Vietnamese Buddhism and Confucianism so that it became a national custom. In So's words, "The body should be interred simply and without great ceremony so that its decomposition should not incommode the living. Why spend lots of money under the pretext of materializing feelings of filial piety, fidelity and friendship toward the dead, when it should have been greatly preferable to show them such feelings when they are alive...?" In accord with these views, the Hoa Hao have no Scriptures peculiar to themselves, and have little need of an extensive clergy or of large offerings. ++

While having doctrines based upon Theravada Buddhism which has a long history of semi-passiveness, the Hoa Hao are aggressive, and quite acceptable fighters when well-led. While giving allegiance to no religious figure as such, the fighting adherents of Hoa Hao seem to have an almost fanatical willingness to follow and obey their Hoa Hao immediate superiors without regard for personal loss. At the same time, neither does the Hoa had shrink from acquiring possessions or seeking to improve himself instead of resigning to fate. Non-adherents of Hoa Hao in areas of that faith often point out that Hoa Hao don't seem to follow the Eight Points of Honesty in their relations with non-members of the faith. ++

Hoa Hao Worship

Hoa Hao Village is undoubtedly the major stronghold of the religious faith which bears its name. The major pagoda of the BOA HAO is located here, and while elaborate in comparison with other Hoa Hao religious structures, it is quite simple when compared to the major churches of other religious organizations. The picture of Huyen Phu So has the position of honor within the pagoda, with pictures of other Hoa Hao personalities also about the structure. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Similar to the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao adherent is to pray four times a day. Normally the first prayer is for devotion to Buddha; the second is for the Reign of the Enlightened King; the third prayer is for all ancestors, both living and deceased; and the fourth prayer, according to So, is for "the mass of small people to whom I wish to have the will to improve themselves from the shackles of ignorance". ++

The small and simple altars, normally covered with a single red cloth, in either home or temple, may have one to three bowls of fruit or flowers as well as three bowls of water on them. The red cloth is a symbol of universal understandings, as Vietnamese think red to be the all-embracing color. Just as the ability of the Hoa Hao adherent to communicate directly with the supernatural removes the need of a large clergy, so the offering of water and flowers in place of wine and food reduces demands on the peasant worshipper. Undoubtedly, such factors tend to make this faith more acceptable and more solidly established among the Vietnamese delta peasantry where it had its origin and now has most of its current membership. Within the home of the Boa Hao, the picture of So is normally found hanging above the altar or table reserved for the practice and worship of the religion. ++

The Hoa Hao Flag: Like the other religious bodies in Vietnam, the Hoa Hao have a distinctive religious flag, rectangular in shape and solid maroon in color inasmuch as the Hoa Hao believe that maroon is the combination of all colors and thus signifies unity of all people, regardless of race, color, or language. ++

Founding Day Commemoration: Each year on the 18th day of the 5th lunar month, the Hoa Hao have ceremonies which celebrate the anniversary date of the Hoa Hao founding. To the fullest extent possible, the adherents gather to listen to sermons and speeches. ++

The Mother of Huyen Phu So, Mrs. Huyen Cong Bo, was still living in Hoa Hao Village in Chau Doc Province in the 1960s. The Hoa Hao celebrate her birthday each year, and she was reputed to have great influence in Hoa Hao ceremonial matters. Moreover, she was the recognized head of the To Dinh which is supposedly the non-political group of Boa Hao and which claims at least 60 percent of all the Boa Hao followers. ++

Hoa Hao Celebration

In July, 1998, Reuters reported: "About a million believers from a long-frowned upon Buddhist sect in Vietnam have flocked to a remote Mekong Delta township for their first permitted major festival in 24 years. Local officials said on Friday that Hoa Hao Buddhists had massed at Phu My town in An Giang province over the past five days for the 60th anniversary of the founding of their indigenous sect on July 1. "It was very crowded on (June 30 and July 1), there were 300,000 to 400,000 people each day,'' an official from the local district people's committee told Reuters. "This was the biggest ceremony here since before liberation day (April 30, 1975).'' Mass public outpourings of faith are rare in Vietnam.[Source: Reuters, July 2, 1998 |=|]

Permission for the gathering came after Hoa Hao was finally given official status in May and authorities appointed the 11-person so-called Hoa Hao Buddhism Representative Committee, which includes a number of communist party members but excluded Le Quang Liem, the sect's chosen leader. Information distributed by the U.S.-based Overseas Hoa Hao Buddhist Association (OHHBA) said the influx of Hoa Hao faithful to Phu My had reached a critical mass, and authorities were concerned about security and crowd control."To hinder the flow of devotees coming to the Hoa Hao Holy Land, the local authorities required all Hoa Hao followers to go through a long sign-in procedure,'' said the document, which was obtained by Reuters. |=|

The document added that many people had ignored the demand, and had flooded to To Dinh — the founder's birthplace — with truck- and boat-loads of food to help feed devotees. An official from the local Fatherland Front, the Communist Party's mass movement umbrella organization, said the festival had been peaceful and showed Vietnam's respect for religious freedom. "There was a lack of accommodation for the Hoa Hao, many of them were just hanging around on streets all night,'' he said. "There were many more people than we expected, we had anticipated around 100,000 people.''

Hoa Hao Organization

In 1964 an election among the Hoa Hao created a sixteen member Central Executive Committee; the members hold a two-year term. The elected chairman is Mr. Loung Trong Tuong; others are elected vice-chairman, advisors, secretary, assistant secretaries, etc. Moreover, this type of structure is duplicated in each level of organization down to the hamlet. While basically designed to function only in the area of religion, the influence and interest of this organization undoubtedly affects both political and military concepts inasmuch as the Hoa Hao have a history of religio-political-military involvement. But when it is recalled that this religion has never experienced a time of peace, its involvement in the religio-military scene may not be too strange. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Many observers say the Hoa Hao troop commander is the unquestioned leader of his religio-military unit, and that his troops will obey him to the extent that one observer has remarked: "They would follow him off the side of a cliff." This loyalty is not normally found in units of Hoa Hao where non-Hoa Hao are in command. According to some adherents, the Hoa Hao, like the Muslims of the Middle East under the influence of Islam, have sometimes exerted forceful persuasion in effecting conversion. Several Vietnamese have remarked on occasion that while sometimes divided among themselves, the Hoa had will more often be united together against non-adherents, and seem to prefer to have local government officials of their own faith. ++

Because of the political and military conditions under which it was founded in 1939, as well as the attitude of its founder, Huyen Phu So, the Hoa Hao is a religio-political-military organization. The death of So, with his prophetic gift of leadership, disrupted the movement and the Hoa Hao quickly demonstrated the splintering so typical of a people without firm goals, guidelines and leadership. Yet the fact of the survival of the Hoa Hao makes an understanding of the followers a necessity for all who serve in their area or make decisions affecting them. Created in violent stress, the Hoa Hao have been involved with and against the communists, with and against the French, also with and against the Japanese as well as with and against various Vietnamese governments. ++

While the Hoa Hao may be politically and militarily divided from time to time, the adherents seem to have a consistent loyalty to the religion itself. Since Hoa Hao originated in time of Vietnamese national crisis and stress, it has existed under threat of annihilation by one force or another, and so has been aggressively hostile itself. At least it has been able to convey this impression to the noninvolved Vietnamese peasant of the delta. ++

Since most of the Hoa Hao adherents are ethnic Vietnamese, the same courtesy and understanding extended to other Vietnamese is normally sufficient, particularly if one remains alert to their religious tenets. This includes discretion in comments or questions pertaining to Huyen Phu So's death or "current location", as some adherents believe that So is still alive and will return at the appropriate time. Such adherents tend to refer almost unconsciously to So as "My Master". ++

Hoa Hao Militancy

Although lacking the military force of the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao was also closely connected with the Japanese in World War II. In the 1950s Ngo Dinh Diem quickly consolidated power and outmaneuvered his rivals, defeating the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate and the private armies of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. The National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) was founded, with representatives on its Central Committee from all social classes, political parties, women's organizations, and religious groups, including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, the Buddhists, and the Catholics.

Careful not to put all its eggs in the same basket and anxious to check the growing influence of the Cao Dai sect, the French decided to support the Hoa Hao after World War II. The Hoa Hao sect is to some degree nationalistic and xenophobic, and is strongest in the south-west of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border, where they live in their own communities. The French became concerned at the spread of his religion during the early 1940s, and had him placed under house arrest in the village of Nhon Nghia (Can Tho Province), then transfered him to Cho-Quan Hospital under "surveillance". The Japanese also do not seem to have known what to do with him - they used the Hoa Hao as auxiliaries, but held Huynh Phu So under arrest at the Kampetai HQ in Saigon. [Source: indochine54 ==]

In 1945 So was active in the formation of the "National United Front" (a nationalist, anti-French body including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen and Viet Minh), but the Hoa Hao soon came to blows with the Viet Minh whose encroachment in western Cochinchina was becoming a threat to the sect. However, the sect did not side with the French until Huynh Phu So was ambushed by the Viet Minh at Doc Vang (in the Plain of Reeds) on April 16, 1947, on his way to preach in the western provinces. His followers are still waiting for his return. ==

There were about one million Hoa Hao in 1945, with a militia of some 2,000 men under the military command of Ba Cut (who was captured and publicly guillotined in 1956 by the Diem government of South Vietnam). The Hoa Hao militia may have numbered as many as 15,000 men at points but, after Huynh Phu So's execution the sect rapidly broke down into a myriad of clans headed by local warlords. None of these recognised the authority of the sect's nominal leader, self-proclaimed "General" Tran Van Soai (pictured right, incidentally he is said to have found his képi in the Saigon Municipal theater). As a result, Tran Van Soai power's didn't reach outside of his Caicon fief where his wife led a dai doi of 250 amazons tasked with guarding the sect's coffers. ==

Like the Cao Dai, the sect had its own political party, the Dan Xa, although it was never as powerful as the Viet Nam Phu Quoc Hoi and was soon in conflict with Tran Van Soai over the political leadership of the sect. Again, like its rival, the Hoa Hao were very concerned by the fact that the French were turning more and more provinces to the vietnamese government and "General" Tran Van Soai warned clearly that if the western provinces were turned over, the sect would have no choice but to rebel, either through a massive uprising or through guerrilla warfare. ==

In April and July 2011, two Hoa Hao activists, Nguyen Van Lia and Tran Hoai An, were arrested. Buddhist monk Vo Van Thanh Liem, who submitted written statements about government abuses committed against his Hoa Hao sect for a US congressional hearing, was given a nine-year prison term in September 2006 on the trumped up charges of "opposing public authorities".

Other Religious Cults

There are a number of small sects built around prophets and charismatic leaders in Vietnam. Many are regarded as illegal by the Vietnamese government. In November 1999, Reuters reported: "Communist Vietnam has 31 illegal religious cults that mainly exist in rural areas, official media reported. The Nong Thon Ngay Nay (Rural Today) newspaper, in a report seen on Tuesday, said the cults operated under a total of 51 different names and were headed by "eccentric people with low education and poor knowledge.'' [Source: Reuters, November 23, 1999 ]

"It said reports on the country's cults had recently been sent to the cabinet-level Government Committee on Religion in Hanoi, but it was unclear what action would be taken. Officials were not available to comment. Vietnam is intolerant of cults and has jailed some practitioners. The strangest cults originated from Taiwan, Japan, China, India and France, the newspaper said. It said 80 percent of cult followers lived in rural areas and had difficult family situations or suffered from poor health or mental illness.

Mother Worship (Tho Mau) is a sect in Vietnam with a fairly large following. Researchers have described it as a primitive religion. Mother, Me in the Vietnamese language, is pronounced Mau in Sino-―script. The mother worship cult might be originated from the cult of the Goddess in ancient ages. In the Middle Ages, the Mother was worshipped in temples and palaces. Due to the fact that it is a worshipping custom and not a religion, the Mother worshipping cult has not been organized as Buddhism and Catholicism have. As a result, the different affiliations of the cult have yet to be consistent and different places still have different customs. The custom of Mother worship originated from the north. In the south, the religion has integrated the local goddesses such as Thien Y A Na (Hue) and Linh Son (Tay Ninh). Mother worship has been influenced by other religions, mainly Taoism.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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