Earlier this year my buddy Adam and I took a weekend trip to Tay Ninh Province. Tay Ninh is one of my absolute favorite places to shoot, and not just because you can get loads of great rural and agricultural shots like the one above, usually without straying more than 50 meters from your motorbike. The real main attraction for myself, and I would guess just about any photographer, is Toa Thanh, the Holy See of the Cao Dai Church.
I supplied photos and wrote an article for East & West Magazine that was published in June, 2009, about the Cao Dai religion based in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam, and in the process shot one of my favorite series of photos. I was recently looking at their website, hoping to download the past issues that I had contributed to, only to discover that the company is going out of business and their back issues don’t seem to be accessible anymore.
So, in order to post a few more photos that I took both of the main temple in Tay Ninh town and some other smaller Cao Dai temples I found while wandering through Tay Ninh, and also to keep the article I wrote “alive”, I’ve decided to post the text here in it’s entirety. If you’ve already read the article, sorry for the rehash, and if you haven’t, well, I hope you enjoy it! Here we go…
Southern Vietnam has never been known as a destination for temple goers. The grandeur of the ruins at Angkor in Cambodia, the proliferation of glittering “wats” in Thailand, and the quaint, leafy temples in Laos all seem to take the lion’s share of credit for religious sanctuaries in the region. However, anybody who has traveled to Saigon, or even just perused the available tour packages available there is probably familiar with the sight of the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh Province. It’s definitely something that once seen up close is not easily forgotten.
In Graham Greene’s book “The Quiet American”, the view of the interior of the temple was described as “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.”
It can’t be denied that the site is gaudy, full of strange, contrasting imagery, all painted in day-glo colors. There’s nothing subtle about it. The architecture itself is a hodge-podge of styles, with French colonial influences, traditional Vietnamese Buddhist temple designs, Roman Catholic cathedrals, and even the designs of Islamic mosques all paid homage to. Add to this the fact that visitors are usually informed that sect members pray to Victor Hugo, who is, amongst an eclectic group of Western and Eastern historical figures, considered a saint, and the fact that the Cao Dai adherents pray to a huge 3-meter diameter globe with a picture of an eye painted on it, and the result is that most people write them off as a kooky cult.
Doing so without having a greater understanding of Cao Daist philosophy and history would be a mistake.
Cao Dai is a syncretistic religion, meaning that it is openly representative of other faiths – in Cao Dai’s case, all of them. The essential principle is that Cao Dai is not meant to be a separate religious institution, it is all religions in one, an acceptance and an understanding that all of man’s faiths are pathways to one single, primordial truth, and that each and every one of them all lead to the same place: God.
On one of their main websites, www.caodai.net, they state: “If Cao Dai is not only Cao Dai, but encompasses Buddhism, or Taoism, or Confucianism, or Christianity, or any path toward God, it is then truly Cao Dai. Cao Dai does not propound to convert the followers of any path, but wishes to unite all faiths in the understand that faiths all are of one same principle…”
On their altars, they simultaneously worship God, symbolized by an image of an eye, Sakyamuni, representing Buddhism, Lao Tse, a Taoist, Jesus Christ of Christianity, Confucius, for Confucianism of course, and Khuong Tai Cong who represents Geniism, another indigenous religion of Vietnam which is similar to Shintoism from Japan.
They are monotheists since they worship a single, all-encompassing God, but they pray to superior spirits, or saints, as well as engaging in ancestor worship. Cao Daists believe in Karma, and consequently in reincarnation as well.
Followers are expected to pray at least once a day at 6am, Noon, 6pm or Midnight, and are required to attend a temple service for prayer twice a month. The are also instructed to eat a vegetarian diet at least 10 days a month, and are highly encouraged to distance themselves from luxury or pursuit of wealth. They are forbidden to kill animals, to be dishonest or deceitful in any way, to commit adultery, to drink until they are drunk, or to “sin by word”.
The Cao Dai faith traces its roots back to the early 1920s, and a man name Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant for the French colonial government. Purportedly Ngo received visions in which he was ordered to begin worshipping “Duc Cao Dai”, or “The Great Lord in the High Place”. From this name, the shortened moniker for the religion was taken, “Cao Dai”, which by itself means “High Place”, or “High Tower”.
In 1925 Western spiritism was becoming extremely popular in Vietnam. Three spirit mediums in particular, Pham Cong Tac, Cao Quynh Cu, and Cao Hoai Sang, claimed that during a seance God revealed himself to them and ordered them to begin a new religion that would bring together all of the world’s cultures and faiths. Together with Ngo Van Chieu, on September 28, 1926 they drafted a statement to inaugurate the Cao Dai faith.
Popular acceptance of this new faith was overwhelming – within two years there were an estimated 200,000 people in Southern Vietnam practicing the faith, and by the early 1930s estimates of Cao Dai adherents range anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million believers.
In response to the French occupation of Indochina, an arm of the sect became militarized in the 1940s, eventually growing to a force of 25,000 troops. At first they resisted the French along with the Viet Minh Communists, but eventually turned against their partners and looked to the French for help. They were also strongly opposed to Ngo Dinh Diem’s southern regime, and when the French left they found themselves with few political friends. In 1956 Ngo Dinh Diem’s troops occupied the town of Tay Ninh, forcing Pham Cong Tac, then the sitting pope of the religion, into exile, and permanently bringing an end to the military activities of the Cao Dai Church.
With over 13% of the population of Southern Vietnam professing to be Cao Dai adherents, an institution that should have been a major political and social force found itself side-tracked. 19 years later when the Communist North took control of the region, their anti-Viet Minh activities were not forgotten, and the church and its leaders were even further ostracized and marginalized.
The church elders, however, were no longer interested in heading a resistance, and after nearly 20 years of being banned by the Vietnamese government, the church was officially recognized in 1997 as a legitimate and legal religion in Vietnam. Restrictions on public practice of the faith were removed, and large sums have been donated by the government to restore the Church’s main spiritual and administrative center in Tay Ninh to the state that it’s in today.
Many estimates now show that world-wide there are 8 million Cao Dai adherents, with populations in Cambodia, Japan, America and Europe. According to Tran Dong Tan, a Cao Daist historian since 1967, the percentage of people inside of Vietnam practicing the Cao Dai faith has remained roughly the same – but the overseas enclaves are growing. “I strongly believe,” he says, “that it is the next generations that will develop Cao Dai faith outside of Vietnam.”
Here’s a link to a gallery of photos that were taken on my trip to Tay Ninh in 2009 to photograph the Holy See and do research for my article. More coming soon folks!