The Cao Dai religion combines Buddhism with Taoism and Christianity. Although peaceful coexistence is paramount, Vietnam's communist government is taking action against it.
From all directions, men and women in white robes flock to the saffron temple in Tay Ninh. On their heads, the men wear a black hat-like turban, the women a white headband. Before entering the imposing structure, they clean their bare feet on a bundle of colorful cloth rags. They all belong to Caodism. Tay Ninh is the Mecca of Caodaism, the third largest religion in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism.
Caodism was founded in 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu (1878-1932). It is to be held on 25. December 1925 to have experienced the revelation of the god Cao Dai. Since then, more and more Vietnamese have joined, especially in the south of the country. How many followers the religion now has worldwide is hard to say. Some sources speak of two million in Vietnam and four in other countries, others of four million in Vietnam alone.
All it takes to become a member is a signature. There is no baptism, but a small informal ceremony. "Most join in their teens," Binh Thanh Nguyen knows. The 22-year-old grew up with the religion. "Here around Tay Ninh, most of the inhabitants are Caodists," he said. Two dragons adorn the gate to the 100-hectare Caodaist compound, behind which stands the statue of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism.
Before the midday ceremony at 12 o'clock, the temple is bustling with activity. The men wait on the right side of the entrance area, the women on the left side. Green marble columns adorn the interior and tiles with orange and white patterns. One floor up, three men prepare musical instruments for the ceremony. For example, a Vietnamese instrument similar to a violin.
The eye in the center
The scent of incense fills the room. A gong sounds. Thereupon men in yellow, blue and red robes and with a kind of mitre stream into the temple. The women and other men in the white "Ao Dai" dresses typical of Vietnam follow.
An eye can be seen on the men's mitre. "In Caodaism, the eye represents enlightenment, energy and the will of God," says Thanh Nguyen. The eye is also the center of the temple, which is slightly smaller than Cologne Cathedral. It can be seen in the front behind the altar on a globe. From the outside, the three towers of the temple are reminiscent of the three religions Christianity, Taoism and Buddha. Their towers are each decorated in the architecture of the religions. On the middle tower is to be seen approximately a unicorn. It stands for Taoism. Thanh Nguyen explains that it took 22 years to build the temple, which was completed in 1955.
The fact that the religion gained so much popularity in the 1920s and 30s is also attributed to prere from the colonial power. During this time, the Cao Dai are also recruiting 20,000 people.000 people for their own army to protect their faith. The Caodaists are adept at finding the right allies in times of war. Today the communist state is not a friend of religion. Since 1975, the government has confiscated 250 Caodaist temples across the country.
At the same time, religion is very peace-loving. The Caodaists know five commandments, the observance of which helps to break the circle of rebirth: Believers must not use violence, steal, lie, indulge in sexual debauchery, or indulge in luxury. Priests are also forbidden to eat meat or other animal products.
Everything is based on voluntariness
Outside as inside the temple is pastel colored. Dark green dragons snake around pink columns. The ceiling is blue and decorated with silver twinkling stars. The colors have a meaning among the Cao Dai. Yellow comes from Buddhism and stands for love, blue stands for Taoism and symbolizes freedom, and red comes from Confucianism and stands for courage. The interior is divided into nine levels. "The closer you are to God, the higher you can sit," says Thanh Nguyen.
Now the men and women in the white robes move in behind the priests in yellow, red and blue robes. Arriving at the center, they kneel and bow down. There is a chant accompanied by the instruments. The highest bishop says a prayer for the ancestors. They have a special meaning, as in most Asian countries. The ceremony lasts half an hour. Again and again people bow.
Caodaists do not have to be present at each of these ceremonies, which take place daily at 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight. "Like us, many have a small altar in their home," says Thanh Nguyen. "In our family, we usually pray at 6 p.m. in the evening." Again and again he emphasizes how open the Caodaists are. Priests may marry and also have a family. Everything is voluntary.
After the ceremony, worshippers stream outside. The robes flutter in the wind. Some carry umbrellas to protect themselves from the stinging sun. With motorcycles and bicycles they swarm back to their normal lives.