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Vietnamese Religion Cao Dai Embraces World's Great Faiths

07/14/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2013

"We are descendants of Mr. Lam Quang Ty," my sister Nancy tells the group of dark skinned old men in white pajamas. They are sitting on the tile floor at the entrance of the famous and colorful Holy See, better known as Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh province, bordering Cambodia. We're here to look for his grave and to pay tribute," Nancy continues.

Behind us a small American film crew working for PBS records our every move. They have followed me back to Vietnam as part of the documentary, My Journey Home.

It is Saturday and the place is packed with worshipers and, relegated to the upstairs balcony, camera-toting foreign tourists. Men and women in red, white, yellow and blue robes streamed in and out the Holy See's vast hall. At its far end, the round, nine-foot diameter All-Seeing Eye, the temple's sacred symbol, looks impassionedly down from its pedestal at its kneeling faithful. Somewhere on the second floor, a band composed of monochord zithers, bamboo xylophones, lutes and gongs, is playing a doleful tune. There are dozens of disciples sitting around on the cool floor at the side entrance talking and drinking tea.

Saying Great Grandfather's name out loud to them during recess is a shot in the dark. I follow my sister's declaration with a lengthy explanation as to how we are related to him and who he was. A wealthy Vietnamese living under French colonial rule in the 1930s, Great Grandfather Ty contributed money and land to the Cao Dai religion as it was being founded. I remember, when I was a child in Saigon, I used to look at a faded black and white photo of him in a linen suit and hat standing next to his sleek Citroen, smiling brightly.

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Even when exiled to backward Tay Ninh by the French for speaking up against colonial rule, he continued to throw lavish parties many foreign dignitaries drove up from Saigon to attend. But when the French found out he'd been supporting not only the Cao Dai sect but also the underground nationalist movement, he fled to Siam, now Thailand, where he died. Members of the Holy See smuggled his body back to Tay Ninh province soon after for a secret burial in the rubber plantation he once owned.

My father, in his own memoir, The Twenty-Five Year Century, recounted a rainy trip to the province for his grandfather's belated funeral, going by horse cart at night in stealth, pretending to be peasants for fear of being caught by the French. Father must have been seven or eight years old. "As I clung to the corner of the seat, listening to the singsong of the small bells that danced under the horse's neck and watching the dim lights of the small petroleum lamp that swung under the roof eave of the carriage," he wrote, "I panicked at the thought of some tiger suddenly surging from the roadside bush."

That was a long, long time ago. There are no tigers left in Vietnam and much of the jungle of old have all been slashed and burned. I had doubted anyone would remember Great Grandfather Ty some seven decades later. My sister and I and the film crew had expected at least a day of searching for the right people, if we were lucky.

But there is a commotion among the older men the moment my great-grandfather's name is mentioned and while I am still trying to explain to them who Great Grandfather was, one man, in white pajamas and very dark skin, stands up rather abruptly. "We were told about your trip," he says without much fanfare, "so we knew you were coming. Follow me."

I'm taken aback. We seem to hit the jackpot at first try! Cao Dai's All-Seeing Eye aside, its global ear, I come to realize at that moment, is to be reckoned with. He tells us a certain Mr. Long, an old friend of our father's and a devout member of Cao Dai, had sent a letter from Los Angeles to tell temple members that we were coming.

What happens next happens so fast it feels like we're all in a trance. We get into our air-conditioned van with the film crew and, under the old man's instruction, our chauffeur drives a few kilometers away from the main temple complex, passing smaller temples and hamlets until we reach a rubber plantation. The man, about 70, gets out. He moves like a teenager, jumping over small puddles, wading through muddy patches, and climbing small knolls without pause. He treks barefoot. Dressed in simple white pajamas, he seems like an apparition among the rubber trees.

We keep going, deeper into the plantation with no apparent markers. It is quiet all around, except for the occasional bird and constant humming of cicadas and mosquitoes. Behind me and my sister, the cameraman, who is from Spain, the director, a Mexican, and the soundman, a Brazilian, struggle to follow us while recording it all. Looking at them I am thinking: How apropos it is that an international crew is following two very well-traveled Vietnamese Americans who are searching for the grave of a man who helped spur a religion that in turn embraced the entire world.

The majority of Vietnamese practice Tam Giao - or Three Religions-- Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Accepting all three and making them work without too much conflict is a Vietnamese tendency and impulse. Taoism is part of our cosmology, its men-cosmos correspondence seeps in the way we cook, build our houses, take our medicine, exercise, and explain the weather. Buddhism provides solace and peace and spiritual guidance. Confucianism insures social orders and familial harmony, imparts rituals and filial piety within the family and clan.

But Caodaism, in comparison with Vietnam's many other religions, is a newcomer, and syncretistic and monotheistic in nature. It goes a step further than Tam Giao. Cao Dai - literally means high tower - attempts to integrate and reconcile disparate major world religions. Graham Greene, in his classic "The Quiet American," called Cao Dai "prophecy of planchette," as its spiritualists receive messages of wisdom from various saints through means of séance. "Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East," he writes, "dragons and snakes in technicolor."

Great grandfather was an acquaintance of one of Cao Dai's co-founders, Pham Cong Tac, who was a French educated civil servant, but who quit his post in the French government to construct the Holy See. Great Grandfather reportedly loved the concept of integrated world religions, which is the tenet of Caodaism, a realization that all religions have one same origin, and therefore not to discriminate against each other but to love. Cao Dai seems to be the Vietnamese spiritual effort to embrace globalization long before the term existed, reconciling Christianity, Islam, with Eastern thoughts.

In its cosmos it perceives Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam are all human efforts to worship and communicate with the one Supreme Being. It is why on top of the Holy See's spires there's a Buddhist swastika, a Christian cross, an Islam's crescent moon and a Hindu's Om symbol. The temple counts Moses, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Vietnamese poet and prophet Trang Trinh, Sun Yat-Sen, Victor Hugo, and Jesus among its many saints.

We keep on trekking. Finally, there, lying at an oblique angle against the well-lined rubber trees, far from the main road, I see it: a large grave covered with lichen and surrounded by a miniscule curved wall. Great Grandfather's grave is the only grave in the middle of the plantation, and well hidden. That it lies at an odd angle with the trees, the old man says, "has to do with Fengshui. We want to make sure his descendants do well, and he is facing this direction toward the mountain." That mountain would be Nui Ba Den - another story of Vietnamese spirituality in itself - and considered the most holy mountain in the South, if not all of Vietnam.

We proceed to light incense and place flowers and fruits at its tombstone. The old man, too, prays along with us while the film crew films. It is an extraordinary image: his arms raised high above his head, a bundle of joss sticks streaming and billowing smoke between bony, clutching fingers, his eyes solemn, the sunlight turning his white tunic golden.

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As I stand in front of the lonely grave. I find a kind of kinship not just through blood, but ideas. I could almost tell Great Grandfather's conflicted story: Steeped in French culture, he nevertheless wanted independence for Vietnam. He was against French rules but he otherwise embraced French culture as part of his own. And was it not that effort to reconcile between East and West that made him support Cao Dai? My story is not that different: I was French educated as a child in Saigon, but I fled Vietnam and, and despite the fact that the United States waged a bloody war in my homeland, embraced America wholeheartedly. Now an American writer, am I not constantly trying to find that middle path between East and West, searching and defining my place in a world where the various traditions commingle? So I too light incense to great grandfather's spirit and for his blessings.

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After the documentary aired, I got this email from professor Janet Hoskins, who teaches anthropology at University of Southern California. "I was intrigued to see your discussion of Caodaism on the Web site of the PBS program 'My Journey Home,'" she wrote. "You might be interested to know that ... there was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Caodaist temple to be built in Garden Grove, California. Although there are about 20 small Caodai temples in California now, most of them are remodeled detached garages, former churches or homes, and this will be the first one to be specially built as a temple, showing the flamboyant and colorful architecture of the Great Temple at Tay Ninh which you visited."

Hoskins has been doing research on Caodaism, including a summer of fieldwork in Vietnam and Cambodia as well as visits to Caodai temples in Paris and vicinity. "Am documenting the rebirth of this unusual and idealistic religion in California," she wrote. There are also Cao Dai temples in Sydney and Melbourne and Toronto.

In recent years, a number of Caodai leaders have begun into English and reaching out to an English reading public. The vision of expansion goes something like this: The fall of Saigon in 1975 was part of a grander plan to send Vietnamese all over the world so that they could provide spiritual leadership, which would ultimately help members of all religions to live in harmony together. It is a positive, idealistic vision for an event otherwise perceived by many Vietnamese overseas who fled as refugees as an ignominious end.

Surprised at first that Cao Dai, so specific to Tay Ninh province, has not only revived but become a global religion, with strong footholds in America's West, I, on second thought, changed my mind. I think of California's dynamic highly diverse religious reality - where neighborhoods overlap one another, and where over a hundred languages are spoken and temples and mosques exist side by side - and I realized that, well - Great Grandfather's religion fits right in.


Andrew Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," where the above essay is excerpted. His latest book, published in March 2013, is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees struggling to rebuild themselves in the West Coast.