Saturday, October 04, 2008

I Want Charlie Chaplin as my Patron Saint

Walt Disney Fantasia of the East meets Gaudi of Spain meets the Unitarian Church. Throw in the three major patron saints: Sun Yat-Sen, Victor Hugo, Trång Trình and and other patron saints like Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill and an all-seeing Divine Eye and what do you have? Cao Daism, the hippest religion ever.

The Cao Dai Holy See, the mecca of the Cao Dai faith, was the first stop on my trip to Tay Ninh. We arrived at noon, in time to watch one of four daily prayer services. A choir with bells and intruments sang on the top level and below, monks robed in mostly white but some in yellow, blue and red, entered in formation to pray. It was very uncomfortable and touristy because we were all ushered to the top balcony to watch the prayers and to take pictures. But, you know, I am a tourist, so I did it, too. These churches with the eyes are scattered all over the south, but this one is THE one. And, the photo of Kim Phuc...she is running from this temple, where she was when the napalm attack occurred.

Look under the divine eye, in the left-hand corner...see the monk's face? Here's a closer shot:

And below is one of him looking from the inside looking out. I am using to shed light on this very complex religion, and actually religion in Vietnam in general, because I barely understand it myself, so read on if you're interested, or just look at the pictures. I have to devote an entire post to this, then I will post about the Cu Chi Tunnels and my Uncle Rex's roads tomorrow. Here you go:
"The Vietnamese people and their culture have withstood centuries of domination by foreign powers. They have accepted only those cultural beliefs they saw as sensible and harmonious with their own beliefs and have remained strong in their resolution to maintain their own culture.

This can most readilv be seen through the many religious influences mixed in the Vietnamese culture. Many embraced Buddhism because it stressed endurance of misfortune based on the belief that life is suffering and suffering is caused by man's desire for material comfort and sensual pleasure; one's present life is only the result of ones' desire in previous lives. This belief helped the Vietnamese people face many difficulties during their occupation by invading forces. Many Vietnamese also accepted the beliefs of Taoism because it stresses closeness with nature. Taoism teaches that one should live in harmony with nature to ensure health, happiness and long life. Because the majority of Vietnamese people have a strong attachment to their land, this belief was also viewed as sensible. Confucianism has had the widest acceptance and greatest influence on Vietnamese culture because it is a source of high moral and social values. Confucianism stresses social responsibilities, social relations and social organization. Confucianism also stresses the importance of family structure which is where the root of the Vietnamese extended family comes from. Other religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam have also influenced Vietnamese culture to a lesser degree.

The ability of the Vietnamese people to take the best parts from other cultures has led to the formation of an unusual religious sect known as the Cao Dai. Cao Daism is a colorful mixture of bits and pieces of the many religions known to Vietnam during the early 20th century: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and native Vietnamese spiritism. Cao Daism is an attempt to create the perfect religion based on religious philosophies from both Eastern and Western cultures.

Cao Dai followers believe that divine truth is communicated through spirits who serve as messengers of salvation and instructors of doctrine. Communication with spirits is done in Vietnamese, Chinese, French and English through mediums using calligraphy brushes or pens and paper. Spirits who have been in touch with the Cao Dai include deceased Cao Dai leaders, patriots, philosophers, poets, political leaders and warriors as well as ordinary people. Among the many spirits who have been in contact with the Cao Dai are the founder of the Chinese Republic Sun Yat-sen, French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, Vietnamese prophet Trång Trình, Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The doctrine of Cao Daism is based on the Buddhist belief in self-development through life's cycle of reincarnation. The ultimate goal of the disciples of Cao Daism is to escape the cycle of reincarnation. Much like Buddhism, Cao Dai ethics profess this goal may only be reached be the good person who follows the prohibitions against killing, stealing, sensuality and luxurious living. Cao Dai priests practice celibacy and vegetarianism, while followers practice vegetarianism only six days a month as a cleansing process. The Cao Dai consider vegetarianism to be of service to human kind because it does not involve harming fellow beings during the process of their spiritual evolution. Other practices of the Cao Dai include maintenance of the cult of ancestors, reverence of the dead and self-cultivation through meditation.

The Cao Dai sect is structured in a hierarchical order based in large on the Roman Catholic Church. The head of the sect is the Pope, followed by cardinals, archbishops and priests. Members of the clergy dress in different colors, which is determined by the branch of faith concerned. The Confucianist branch concerned with temple rites wear purple robes; the symbol of authority. The Taoists wear azure gowns; the symbol of tolerance. The Buddhists wear saffron yellow robes; the symbol of virtue.

Women are welcome in all but the highest levels of the clergy. However, when male and female officials of the same rank are serving in the same area, male clergy are in charge.

The Supreme Being "God" is symbolized by a large eye emitting radiant light and is seen on the front of all Cao Dai Temples. In the temple of the Holy See, in Tây Ninh Province, the all seeing eye radiating light is emblazoned on a huge starspeckled sphere that takes up the largest portion of the main altar. Eight plaster columns, with multicolored dragons curled around them, support a giant dome above the sphere in representation of the heavens. The great temple is built on nine levels, which represent the nine steps to heaven. A mural in the front entry hall depicts the three main patron saints signing an alliance between god and man.
There. See why I couldn't summarize it myself? What a fascinating place. Stay tuned for the rest of the day~


Brian Bowker said...

Wow - that's really colorful. Is Walt Disney one of their patron saints?

The Norris Clan said...

I love the "find the monk" picture...