Cao Đài

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Cao Đài's left eye.
The "Holy See" temple in Tây Ninh is the centre of the main Caodaist church.
The altar of ta Caodaist temple in Mỹ Tho.

Caodaism or Caodaiism (Vietnamese: Đạo Cao Đài 道高臺, "Way of the Highest Power"; Chinese: 高台教; pinyin: Gāotáijiào) is a monotheistic religion, officially established in the city of Tây Ninh in southern Vietnam, in 1926.[1] The full name of the religion is Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ ("Great Way [of the] Third Time [of] Redemption").[1] Followers also call their religion Đạo Trời ("Way of God"). Caodaism has common roots and similarities with the Chinese Xiantiandao movement[2] and the Minh Đạo religions.[3]

Cao Đài (Vietnamese: [kāːw ɗâːj] ( ), literally the "Highest Lord" or "Highest Power")[1] is the utmost deity, originating the universe, worshipped by the Caodaists. He is the same as the Jade Emperor.[1][4] Caodaists often use the term Đức Cao Đài (Venerable High Lord) as the abbreviated name for the creator of the universe, whose full title is Cao Đài Tiên Ông Đại Bồ Tát Ma Ha Tát ("Highest Power [the] Ancient Wise [and] Great Enlightening Highest Being"). The symbol of the faith is the Left Eye of God, representing the dương (masculine, ordaining, positive and expansive) activity of the Lord.[5]

Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the goal of the union with God and freedom from saṃsāra[citation needed]. Estimates of the number of Caodaists in Vietnam vary; current government figures give 3.2 million for Caodaists affiliated to the Tây Ninh church, with numbers rising up to 4 to 6 million if other branches are added.[6][7] An additional number of adherents in the tens of thousands, primarily ethnic Vietnamese, live in the United States, Europe, and Australia. The design of Caodaist temples, shape and coloring, is quite standard around the world and includes the incorporation of sacred images, symbols, and colors.[8]

Caodaist temple in Dallas, Texas, serving a local large Vietnamese community.


Caodaism was formally established in the Vietnamese city of Tây Ninh in 1926.[1] It emerged as a public, mass movement that brought together a number of once underground sects into a new and vigorous national religion.[9] It was at the same time filled with nationalist spirit and oriented towards universal salvation.[9] Officially called the "Great Way of the Third Time of Redemption" (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ), it became enormously popular in its first few decades, gathering over a million members and converting a fifth to a fourth of the population of Cochinchina by 1940.[9]

In the 1930s the leader voiced an articulated critique of the hypocrisy of the French colonial regime, though emphasizing dialogue with the French.[9] This stance was controversial, and contrasted with the liturgy of dozens of "dissident" branches of Caodaism that followed a more Taoist model.[9]

During the First and [[Vietnam Wa r|Second Indochina Wars]], members of Caodaism (along with several other Vietnamese sects, such as Hòa Hảo) were active in political and military struggles against both French colonial forces and South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm.[10][11]

Their critique of the communist forces until 1975 was a factor in their repression after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the incoming communist government proscribed the practice of Caodaism.[12] In 1997, Caodaism was granted legal recognition and free practice once again.[10]

Beliefs and teachings[edit]


A sphere inside the Tây Ninh Holy See, representing the Left Eye of God.

Caodaists accept the idea of âm and dương duality constituting the harmonious balance of the universe.[13] Before the creation of the universe there was the Tao, the infinite, nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source.[13] From this mysterious and wonderful principle, the âm and dương gradually crystallised together becoming a source of ordaining light (Thái-Cực), the Highest Lord (Cao Đài).[13] The negative and positive principles of the universe are the components of the eternal nature.[13]

There are two main gods, the Cao Đài ("Highest Lord") and the Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu or Đức Phật Mẫu ("Enlightened Mother").[13] They represent respectively the dương and âm forces.[13] There is difference of opinion concerning the role and status of the two principal deities, though more often the Highest Lord is considered the most important.[13] Cao Đài is viewed as the heart of the universe, the common father of all beings.[13] Some recognise the Đức Phật Mẫu as the mother of the universe, responsible for giving birth to all life.[13] As an "enlightened" power she is also dương, comprehended in the masculine power of order.

Three-fold revelation[edit]

The father of the universe, Cao Đài, is believed to have communed with men since the beginning of times, revealing his will.[14] According to Caodaist doctrine, history is divided into three times (tam kỳ) of revelation.[14] In the first two periods there were teachings of Dipankara buddha, sages, Phục Hy, Shakyamuni buddha, Laozi, Confucius and Jesus, who received the will of the Highest Power, and served suffering humanity founding religions.[14] But due to the frailty of the messengers and the common men, the will of the Highest Power was misled into corrupted forms.[14] Caodaists also believe that former revelations were culture-bound, being applicable only for certain ethnicities, and primarily intended for specific ages.[14] The third and final form of revelation is disclosed through the teachings of Caodaism.[14]

Twelve-fold hierarchy[edit]

Caodaists believe that there are various ranks of spirits: thần ("angels"), thánh ("saints"), tiên ("immortal beings" or "wise beings"), and phật ("enlightened beings").[15] Each of these ranks can be further divided in the three grades of thien, nhan and dia, forming a twelve-fold hierarchy that reflects the twelve-fold earthly hierarchy of the Caodaist church.[15] Thus, humans are part of this spiritual hierarchy, and so are animals and finally plants.[15]

All spirits evolve out of matter and gradually attain higher rank based on present deeds.[15] Disembodied spirits fulfill a number of roles: they are benefactors of mankind, messengers and instructors of the truth.[15] Quan Âm is regarded as the anchor goddess of the enlightened beings, Lý Bạch that of the wise beings, and Quan Vũ that of the saints.

Holy scriptures[edit]

There are various Caodaist scriptures. Some of those of the Tây Ninh Holy See are: Kinh Thiên Đạo Và Thế Đạo ("Prayers of the Heavenly and the Earthly Way"), Pháp Chánh Truyền ("The Religious Constitution [of Caodaism]"), Tân Luật ("The Canonical Codes"), Thánh Ngôn Hiệp Tuyển ("Compilation of Divine Messages"), "The Sermons of His Holiness Phạm Công Tắc". Other sects have additional scriptures.

Organisational structure[edit]

Inner hall the Tây Ninh Holy See temple.
Caodaists worshipping in a temple. Priests are dressed in red, blue and yellow, followers in white.

The organisational structure of the Caodaist church has similarities with that of a state. It has legislative, executive and judicial departments, respectively the Cửu Trùng Đài, the Hiệp Thiên Đài, and the Bát Quái Đài. The head of the executive power is called Giáo Tông, which means leader or head of a philosophical or religious organisation, commonly translated as "pope". There are similarities between the hierarchy of the Caodaist clergy and that of the Catholic Church. Besides the pope, the Caodaist hierarchy has cardinals, bishops, priests, and further ranks.

Caodaism stresses equality among men and women in society. However, in the spiritual domain, ordained women may not attain the two highest positions: the legislative cardinal and the pope. The church claims this is ordered by the Highest Lord, who declared that because dương represents male and âm corresponds to female, âm cannot dominate dương spiritually or else chaos ensues.


In total, there are six different officially recognized branches of the Caodaist religion in southern Vietnam, as well as several others that remain unrecognized. These sects generally divide along geographic lines. The largest is based in Tây Ninh Province, where the religion was founded in 1926 and where the seat of the Caodaist authority is located.

The Caodaist Executive Council of Tây Ninh Province received official government recognition in 1997. Independent Caodaist groups allege that government interference has undermined the independence of the Tây Ninh group, and it no longer faithfully upholds Cao Đài's principles and traditions. Religious training takes place at individual temples rather than at centralized seminaries. Some Caodaist sects that have broken away from the Tây Ninh Holy See are Chiếu Minh, Bến Tre, and Đà Nẵng. Ngô Văn Chiêu founded Chiếu Minh when he left the original church structure, refusing his appointment as Caodaism's first pope.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Hoskins, 2012. p. 3
  2. ^ Goossaert, Palmer, 2011. pp. 100-102
  3. ^ Jammes, 2010.
  4. ^ Oliver, 1997. p. 7
  5. ^ Hoskins, 2012. pp. 3-4
  6. ^ Hoskins, 2012. p. 4, note 1
  7. ^ Janet Alison Hoskins. What Are Vietnam's Indigenous Religions?. Center for Southeast Asian Studies Kyoto University, 2012.
  8. ^ June/ July2013 Afar page 45
  9. ^ a b c d e Hoskins, 2012. p. 4
  10. ^ a b Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (30 June 2005). "Vietnam". International Religious Freedom Report 2005. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 19 May 2010. 
  11. ^ "Vietnam Timeline: 1955". Retrieved 16 January 2011. 
  12. ^ Cao Đài FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i Oliver, 1997. p. 8
  14. ^ a b c d e f Oliver, 1997. p. 9
  15. ^ a b c d e Oliver, 1997. p. 10


External links[edit]