Institutionalising Spiritism and The Esoteric: The Case of the Cao Dai

Chris Hartney , Doctoral candidate, University of Sidney, Australia
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania Preliminary version.© Chris Hartney, 1999 Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)

The centre of the Caodaist word is the Great Divine Temple in Tay Ninh. The apex of this building is undoubtedly the Great Eye that stares from the celestial globe above the altar, but from an earthly perspective the religion could not function without the "Cung Dao." This is the space directly in front of the great altar and it is within this space that official seance communication takes place. The rosette on the ceiling of this space symbolises the many different instruments of divine communication that have connected heaven and earth, some for many millennia. It is almost a representation of the genealogy of the various spiritualist traditions, both East and West, that have contributed to the spiritualist development of the Caodaist religion. I would like to speak a little about these instruments, the messages they delivered and the way in which they came to be the almost-centre of a vast institution that has spread throughout the world.

Ngo Minh Chieu was already well-versed in the Eastern traditions of Taoist and shamanistic medium techniques when he received the first revelations from Cao Dai. These included attendance at seances where the trance-like state of the medium would allow for the channeling of gods, and also the use of young children, prized for their innocence and purity, who would transmit messages by writing with sticks in sand or on paper. Victor Oliver, quoting Pham Xuan Tin, also describes the first Caodaist's familiarity with the "co but"...

The medium sat in the middle and held in his hand a scarlet Chinese writing brush. When the spirit appeared to the medium he gave prescriptions in Chinese characters and many people were healed. (Oliver 1976, 30)

The spiritualist approach that first led Ngo Minh Chieu into mysticism is usually taken up to address concerns for health, longevity and good fortune. It is part of a Chinese tradition that goes back to oracle bones and beyond. The practical tools of this approach such as the I-Ching, divination sticks and yin-yang blocks (represented on the "Cung Dao" ceiling) can still be found in most Chinese temples where gods such as Guan di Gong and Ma Tzu will answer personal requests in the form of classical Chinese verses.

Traditional practices such as these were also being overlaid with the burgeoning information regarding spiritist and spiritualist trends in striking Europe at the time. Such trends reached the peak of their popularity in the aftermath the Great War when so many bereaved families were sought contact and solace for their loved ones so recently and tragically lost. The French language press in Cochinchina communicated recent developments regarding spiritism in Europe and so, at the time when Caodaism was about to bud, Eastern mystical practices were given a new lease of life through their validation by the Western spiritual traditions. What was, until this time, a process of personal spiritualism began to flourish into a significant institution transmitting Divine Revelations.

The "Pho Loan," a group of Vietnamese employees of the French bureaucracy in Saigon, which included the Catholic Pham Cong Tac and the Buddhist relatives Cao Quynh Cu and Cao Hoai Sang, came together to practice table tipping in June 1925. (a table is also represented on the rosette). They were soon asked by the spirits to change to corbeille a bec or "Ngoc Co." This is a basket held by two mediums. Connected to the basket is a long arm, often surmounted at the end by a phoenix and holding a pencil, brush or crayon. It is believed that the spiritual forces enter the basket and direct the pen. Often, and this was the certainly case in the "Cung Dao" many mediums would be on hand to write down the sometimes barely decipherable lines that would come to the end of the corbeille a bec.

This group followed a similar course in their spiritualist investigations, as did Ngo Minh Chieu, that is, a series of familiar spirits appeared first eventually revealing a strongly authoritative voice that would be identified as supreme. In the case of the "Pho Loan" this central voice wrote under the name AAA - the first three letters of the Vietnamese alphabet. And so commanding was this voice that "Pho Loan" members appeared on the streets of Saigon in public acts of attrition and calling on others to worship AAA.

When at the end of 1925 Ngo Minh Chieu and his associates, and the "Pho Loan" met, AAA was revealed as "Cao Dai." and the two groups worked together for a number of months. From this time on the new group, which soon included Le Van Trung - an eminent Indochinese businessman and politician - began to form into a double-headed institution. On one side the medium branch of the religion developed under the leadership of Pham Cong Tac. The administrative branch headed by the Giao Tong (Pope) was first offered to Ngo Minh Chieu to lead. He refused to accept, left the group, and was replaced by the acting pope Le Van Trung. Alexander Woodside notes that such double headed structures are reflective of many "White Lotus" Buddhists sects operating in China at the time. The institutionalisation of spiritism proceeded in stages. At first seances were held throughout the country, and we can attribute the astonishing early rise in numbers to these effective displays of the spirit world's endorsement of this new way. Miracles and the healing of the sick would accompany the calling of people by name to join the religion. Such direct demonstrations and appeals would have proved hard to resist for souls looking for certainty.

The early messages tried to redress many of the most imposing social questions of the time, provide relief from the trauma Vietnam and the world was suffering, and offer hope, comfort and certainty. One message has Cao Dai declare that the Vietnamese and French people together are his chosen races and this theme of compromise between the colonising culture and the Vietnamese is strongly apparent. Victor Hugo often communicates and was positioned by the Caodaists as the spiritual ambassador for the faith. He was a symbol of the mystical pursuit, but also a symbol of justice and high French culture. In one instance (1933) he predicts that Tay Ninh will become another Lourdes. Jeanne D'arc sometimes addresses the religion; Louis Pasteur talks of the health benefits of vegetarianism and the Chinese gods Guan Ti Gong and Li Po helped guide the administration. Li Po, as the Spiritual Pope of Caodaism also revealed to Pham Cong Tac both the mystical and engineering processes required for the completion of the Great Divine Temple.

While also being the religion's greatest asset, seance communication could be one of its great weaknesses. Seances held outside of the Holy See could allow for the transmission of messages that were not wholly acceptable to the developing hierarchy. This tendency away from organised spiritisualism was aided by long traditions of personal spiritualism in Asia that the new religion found hard to break. If these personal or sect communications went against the actions of the Tay Ninh leaders, they could prove damaging to the religion's infant life. In 1936 the decision was made to stop all official seances outside the Holy See. Of course the Great Divine Temple and papal residence provided the perfect location to receive messages as they were built to divine specifications and charged against evil forces. But other reasons for the ban was that the growing profusion of messages were leading the faithful away from the central organisation. Last June, I spoke with a Caodaist in Vietnam who assured me that the veracity of the religion lay in the clearly observable communications with Cao Dai. "So there is no place for faith in your religion." I retorted. He replied that although the existence of the spirit world is given, faith is required to know a good message from a corrupted one. Being part of the faithful is knowing what messages seem or feel true. Whatever is said in the "Cung Dao" is regarded, as true, it has to be, he stated. Outside the "Cung Dao", "Cao Dai" grants evil spirits the right to deliver erroneous messages in order to test us.

Seance communication revealed the way seance should be institutionalized as Caodaism. The Giao Ly, or book of ritual, the Phap Chanh Truyen or constitution of the religion and the Tan Luat or canonical code were also revealed and then checked through this process. However from almost the start this institutionalisation of spiritualism could never totally encompass the Caodaist experience because of the early break away of Ngo Minh Chieu who established a more esoteric or "Vo Vi" tradition of Caodaism alongside Tay Ninh's "Pho Do" or great salvation approach. The Caodaists in Tay Ninh went on to play a significant role in the troubled life of Vietnam this century, and as a result of their highly prominent role, the religion is now currently under the strict control of a Communist appointed management committee. The "Cung Dao" has not been officially used since 1975. This has very effectively stopped the religion in its tracks. And the Caodaist Diaspora is left with the onerous duty of doing what it thinks Tay Ninh would want if it were operatinal. Caodaists continue to worship in the various temples of the Holy See, but no official life is possible and this is evident when one visits the Holy See. Currently Caodaists have the ability to practice esoteric meditation and spirit communication on their own. Outside of the "Cung Dao" however, and outside of the guidance of the hierarchy, such practices for Tay-Ninh aligned Caodaists definitely remain unofficial, and mostly unspoken. This is because emanating out from the "Cung Dao" Caodaism has created a very effective spiritualist institution.



Chris Hartney has a BA Honors in Religious Studies from the University of Sydney where he is currently completing a Masters of Philosophy on the history of Caodaism in Australia. He tutors and is a part-time lecturer at the School of Studies in Religion and also works as a broadcaster for religious affairs for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

See also on Cao Dai:
Caodaism: Global Ambition vs Persecution, by Sergei Blagov

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]