The province and eponymous capital of Tay Ninh, 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh city (aka Saigon), is the origin of the Cao Dai religion circa 1926. According to Wikipedia, “Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the minimum goal of rejoining God the Father in Heaven and the ultimate goal of freedom from the cycle of birth and death.” Its philosophies are a combination of many religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam and other religions are all combined into one religion to promote peace. It’s estimated that there are about 8 million practitioners located mostly in southern Vietnam. And the image of an eye, often seen in a circle or triangle, is an icon of Cao Dai.
With over 1,000 Cao Dai temples in Vietnam the Great Temple, or Holy See, located in Tay Ninh is the center of the sect. It was constructed between 1933 and 1955. The temple is the heart of a large compound that also contains an outdoor arena and gathering place, gardens and living quarters for several hundred Caodaists who choose to work, live and worship at the temple as nuns and monks.
Typically there are chanting ceremonies that occur four times a day. The ceremony that we were able to witness today was a prayer for the dead. In the Cao Dai religion it is believed that after death the deceased spirit is in purgatory and remains with the living before going towards either heaven or hell. It is a time of critical transition. During those 49 days of purgatory family and friends will pray that the spirit will go peacefully towards heaven. They perform these prayers and ceremonies every nine days for seven weeks. Caodaists can request the assistance of other members of the faith to assist in prayer for the deceased to ensure a transition to heaven.
Upon entering the temple everyone must remove their shoes.
These are the relatives and mourners of the deceased (usually the son or daughter) who have requested the prayerful assistance of the Cao Dai clergy. The mourners can be identified by the white headbands of cloth, which is a traditional Buddhist practice. These folks are seated upstairs in the temple balconies that overlook the clergy in formation below.
The main floor of the temple and prayer space for the clergy.
The clergy. Men on the left, women on the right.
There was an obvious hierarchy moving from the rear of the temple to the front.
This gentlemen was in the very front and solitary in his position.
Along with a dedicated choir, musicians playing classical Viet instruments accompanied the chanting ceremony from the loft of the balconies.
The chanting was lyrical and often melodic interrupted only by the smooth rhythmic bongs of a giant brass drum gong.
The atmosphere was positive and very peaceful. It was an exceptionally moving experience.