Caodaism

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 07/02/2020

Last modified: 29/10/2020

Caodaism emerged in Vietnam during the 1920s and based its structure on that of the Roman Catholic Church, but drew its principles and practices from Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Confucianism.

Traditions

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Introduction

At less than a century old, the Cao Dai religion (also known as Caodaism) is arguably a New Religious Movement. It emerged in Vietnam during the 1920s and based its structure on that of the Roman Catholic Church, but drew its principles and practices from Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Confucianism (religious systems all alive in Vietnam at that time).

The tradition is traced back to Ngô Văn Chiêu, a Vietnamese official in the French colonial administration, who was particularly interested in religion and spiritualism (contact with the dead). During a séance in the 1920s he encountered an entity referred to as Cao Dai (variously translated as High Tower, Highest Lord, or Great Palace), which instructed him in how to worship it. Ngô Văn Chiêu went on to share this knowledge with followers in Saigon.

Later, a group of Ngô Văn Chiêu’s friends were conducting their own séance when they encountered the same entity, which inspired them to develop the religion and place Ngô Văn Chiêu at the head as Giáo Tông (‘Pope’). He declined, preferring to stay in solitude, and so instead this title was given to another member of the group, Lê Văn Trung.

In 1926 the religion attained formal recognition by the French colonial authorities via the signing of the Declaration of the Founding of the Cao Dai Religion, the official name for the new religion was Great Way of the Third Time of Redemption. Rather than existing as an offshoot of Daoism, Christianity, or Buddhism – this act helped to solidify the identity of Caodaism as its own, separate religion.

The primary message from Cao Dai is unification and universalism – God (Cao Dai) has come to provide one unifying message for all humanity, after previously providing messages for specific ethnic and national groups. This means that there is a strong sense of bringing together elements from different religious traditions, an approach also known as syncretism. Despite this attitude, the religion is embedded in Vietnamese culture, and has only a small following outside of the country – mostly among expatriates.

New religious movements often claim that they are providing the true or original message of an existing tradition, but Caodaists accept the previous revelations of religions like Christianity and Buddhism as they were; the twist is that these earlier messages have been contextualised within a larger dialogue between humanity and God – which has now found its highest point in Cao Dai.

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