“All Religions are One”: at the Temple of Cao Dai in Cai Be, Vietnam

“All Religions are One”: at the Temple of Cao Dai in Cai Be, Vietnam

with 16 Comments

 

We were touring in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and heading south towards Cai Be. Although the weather was cloudy and murky, we vowed to see something once we arrived at the Floating Market. Our guide knew that a storm was coming… probably estimating how much time we still had until it started pouring. Then his face suddenly lightened up.

 

Have you ever heard of Cao Dai? We shook our heads. OK. First, what do you know of our beliefs here in Vietnam?

 

We suddenly felt like ignorant schoolgirls. Mei explained that she grew up as a practitioner of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – or something in between. But she had to admit that she never understood why her family practiced a mixture of these three religions or doctrines.

 

Oh, I see, he nodded. In Vietnam, this is called “Tam Giao” or the “Three Teachings”. It’s not one uniform religion, but many beliefs. Here, many people also practice the Three Teachings. We respect the Taoist doctrines when we cook and build our houses. We pray Buddha when we seek peace and enlightenment. And we use Confucianism to explain harmony and social order. But there is another religion here in Vietnam, which embraces more than just these three doctrines. It’s the religion of Cao Dai.

 

Cao Dai, he continued, is often said to be a monotheistic religion. But to me, it’s a global religion. It embraces Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam. The basic principle of Caodaism is “All Religions are One”.

 

Our guide paused to see the effect of his words. He had captured our attention, for sure. Yes, it is difficult to imagine how such a religion can exist nowadays. We live in an age of religious intolerance. But when Ngô Văn Chiêu founded Cao Dai in 1926, Vietnam was already struggling to find the right balance between the Western and Eastern worlds. Many syncretic movements were born at that period. Not all survived, but Caodaism did. Do you see this double tower on the horizon?

 

A post shared by Katarina (@kata292) on

 

We both gazed out of the car’s window. The first raindrops started falling. The skyline was populated with landmarks competing to stand out. Among them, we spotted two colorful towers.

 

If you want to, we can visit a temple of Cao Dai before heading to the Floating Market. And in this temple, I’ll show you the Vietnamese dream. A dream made of peace and love. We looked at him and smiled: You are quite the poet…

 

Five minutes later, we stopped in front of a colorful building that looked like a church built by a Mozarab in California, to feature in a spaghetti Western movie. Completely surreal!

 

Rain was pouring down now. We ran to take cover, and passed under the temple’s front portico where a Divine Eye looked down at us. We followed our guide along a dazzling display of eccentric architectural elements, and entered the building from the left. Inside, we discovered a mosque-like green marble-tiled floor. We walked with caution, to avoid stepping on the blue silk cushions placed in front of an altar. Above the altar hung an image of the Divine Eye in a large elaborate golden frame.

 

The interior of the Cao Dai Temple in Cai Be, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com
The interior of the Cao Dai Temple in Cai Be, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

Our guide must have noticed our puzzled look. He moved closer to the representation of the Eye, and explained that Cao Dai is to be translated as the “Highest Power” or “Highest Lord”. The symbol of the Divine Eye or All-Seeing Eye serves to remind the believers that the “Highest Lord” – or God – is everywhere.

 

As you can see, there are many colors in this temple, he said. Blue stands for Taoism, red for Confucianism, green for Islam, and yellow for Buddhism.

 

At the far end of the sanctuary, eight columns entwined with multi-colored dragons supported a dome representing the heaven. Above the altar of the Divine Eye, we found the portraits of several figures: Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, Li Taibai, a fairy from Chinese mythology, Jiang Taigong, a Chinese saint, Lao Tze, the founder of Taoism, Guangong, a Chinese God of War, and Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Further, we recognized Jesus and Moses. And on both sides, there were more figures…

 

Wait a minute! That fellow over there… is that…? Yes, that is Shakespeare. Over there is Victor Hugo – he’s holding a quill. They are holy spirits, like prophets. And there is another prophet in the Cao Dai pantheon that comes from Europe. She’s not pictured here, but you certainly know her too: it’s Joan of Arc.

 

The interior of the Cao Dai Temple in Cai Be, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com
The interior of the Cao Dai Temple in Cai Be, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

 

Standing in the middle of this temple, we both didn’t know what to say or think. We’ve visited many temples, churches, cathedrals, monasteries around the world, but no one has struck us as much as this one. What surprised us even more was the fact that there are between 4 and 6 million Caodaists in Vietnam alone. And there are tens of thousands more adherents of Caodaism outside of Asia.

 

Truth be told, Caodaism may be kitsch or pragmatic. But in a world where religious wars are an on-going reality, it doesn’t hurt to embrace diversity, does it? When we left the temple, we couldn’t help wondering why this idealistic religion never makes the headlines, while infamous fanatic groups are taking center stage in the daily news.

 

What about you, have you ever heard of Cao Dai, or visited a Cao Dai temple? And what is your take on a global religion that integrates all religions, and shares one common message of tolerance and love?

Pin this for later

All Religions are one: at the Temple of Cao Dai in Cai Be, Vietnam © Travelwithmk.com

Follow Mei and Kerstin:

Travelers - Storytellers

Travelers at heart, Mei and Kerstin have been roaming the world together since 2002. Expats for over a decade, they used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens, and San Francisco. They recently returned to their motherland to get married, and decided to stay to re-explore Luxembourg in depth. While they both have a full time job, they continue to feed their wanderlust by traveling the world whenever they can.

16 Responses

  1. kate and kris
    | Reply

    We went to this temple a long time ago on a joint trip to the Cu Chu Tunnels. It was fascinating and there was such an atmosphere. Loved the statues to ‘modern’ scientific and artistic ‘saints’

  2. Martina Hzb
    | Reply

    This temple looks so beautiful – definitely a place I would love to visit one day. Hopefully I can make it there one day, thanks for sharing this jewel with us!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh Martina, you need to visit Vietnam one day. And when you do, make sure to visit the many Buddhist temples, the Notre-Dame Church in Saigon, and this Cao Dai temple too! 🙂

  3. Sandy N Vyjay
    | Reply

    The Cao Dai temple looks so serene and mystical. Indeed an oasis of love and peace. The principles of Cao Dai is what is needed today in a world that is plagued by hate based on religion and ethnicity. A religion which is universal and embraces all religions is something the world needs. The pillars of peace and love that this religion fosters is indeed the need of the hour.

  4. Erica
    | Reply

    Fantastic photos! I’m longing to return to SE Asia and this has been an incredible inspiration, I loved this post!

  5. lukeandmeagan
    | Reply

    What an amazing place! I love the belief that all spiritual paths are valid roads to the divine – and Cao Dai looks and sounds incredible. Thank you for sharing – I’ll definitely have to put this place on our list!!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome Luke and Meagan. If you can’t make it to Cai Be to see this Cao Dai Temple, there are other Cao Dai temples around Saigon. Apparently, the architecture of all the Cao Dai temples are pretty similar.

  6. I’ve never been to Vietnam so am embarassingly ignorant about the culture, religion, and actually everything else. But it was fascinating to read about this temple and all the influences going into it – thanks for sharing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome Emma. Actually, about 70% of Vietnamese people believe in traditional folk religions (worship of ancestors, beliefs in ghosts, etc.) and are considered as non-adepts of a particular religion. And the remaining parts are either Buddhists, Christians or Caodaists.

  7. Jenia
    | Reply

    We’ve been to a Cao Dai temple. I think the fact that they consider Victor Hugo a saint of sorts is a most interesting part of it to me 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, right? Victor Hugo is one of our favorite writers. So it what such a surprise to see his image up there in the Cao Dai temple! 🙂

  8. whyyouwander
    | Reply

    Three teachings is a new concept, reading up about it now. Interesting that a part of population has beliefs of universality which does not seem to permeate the rest of the world. I am sure this temple would be an intellectual and spiritual education to most who visit. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, we were also very surprised to learn about Cao Dai, and the fact that it’s so less known in the world.

  9. Danila Caputo
    | Reply

    We never heard of Cao Dai before, but we also have to be honest: we felt ignorant as well! There’s a lot of fascinating story about religions and beliefs in this Country. Learning about this definitely gives it a good deal of useful knowledge!

  10. Danik
    | Reply

    Interesting read and love the look of the temple. Here are my answers to your quesitons (as the end of the post) –
    have you ever heard of Cao Dai – NO
    visited a Cao Dai temple? – NO (never been to Vietnam or that region of SE Asia).
    And what is your take on a global religion that integrates all religions – havent really thought about it. I am not a relgious person and dont see relgion high up on the list. But do respect people who have found faith and never judge them (if that makes sense).

  11. Md Arman
    | Reply

    best digital angle finder

    After reading this post only one words comes out from my mouth that is “WoW”. This post has helps me to acquire some new knowledge. So thanks for sharing your valuable ideas with us.

Share your thoughts!