The Spirits Move Them

Followers of Cao Dai, a Vietnamese sect with frail tendrils in Dallas, say their time has come to spread the word. Just ask Victor Hugo.

In many respects, Son Nguyen is a typical practitioner of Cao Dai, a Vietnamese religion that bubbled up from the spirit world in 1926. His voice is gentle but firm. He is dignified, yet relaxed. He wears a bright white tunic and a pleated black headdress. He is a refugee.

What isn't so typical is how easily Nguyen seems to have absorbed American culture and mannerisms. While a little halting, his English is fluent. He has a typical family life. He drives a Honda. He has a good job. But he doesn't attribute his success to the kinds of things most Americans might imagine.

In 1975 as a young boy, Nguyen, 33, was caught in the chaos of the fall of Saigon to communist forces. Nguyen had a couple of black marks hovering over his head that made him a prime target for persecution: His two brothers were South Vietnamese military pilots.

Muoi Huong Le, priestess of the Cao Dai Tay Ninh Temples of Texas, Mountain View, stands in front of the faithful and prays during a temple service. Le vowed never to return to her homeland after Vietnamese officials detained her for possessing a book of Cao Dai doctrine not sanctioned by the communist government.
Mark Graham
Muoi Huong Le, priestess of the Cao Dai Tay Ninh Temples of Texas, Mountain View, stands in front of the faithful and prays during a temple service. Le vowed never to return to her homeland after Vietnamese officials detained her for possessing a book of Cao Dai doctrine not sanctioned by the communist government.
While Trung Han Kien prays, left, Minh Huynh carries an offering of tea during a service at the temple in Mountain View. Below, Minh Huynh carries flowers, representing human reproductive cells, to the altar.
Mark Graham
While Trung Han Kien prays, left, Minh Huynh carries an offering of tea during a service at the temple in Mountain View. Below, Minh Huynh carries flowers, representing human reproductive cells, to the altar.

Nguyen escaped by canoeing onto the ocean to an 18-foot boat overflowing with 36 other escapees. His voyage took him to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he struggled to survive for a year. Surprisingly, Nguyen seems almost grateful for this dark period. "It trained me at an early age," he says, "going through all of that harsh stuff. Because it was really tough...It helps." After that experience, he says, coming to the United States, struggling with English, acclimating to a foreign culture, entering school and training for a profession seemed like the child's play he had missed in the camps.

Nguyen also attributes his ease with making his way in the States to Cao Dai (pronounced kow dye). Though Cao Dai, which means high palace, is an indigenous Vietnamese religion, Nguyen says he didn't embrace it until he met his Caodaist wife in the United States. He was raised a Buddhist and practiced Christianity in the camps.

But he is an ardent practitioner of Cao Dai, a cocktail of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. "It involves all religions, so it fits my mentality," Nguyen says, relaxing at a picnic table just outside the Cao Dai Tay Ninh Temples of Texas, Mountain View temple in Oak Cliff after a recent service. "To me, Cao Dai practicing is helping your soul out."

Cao Dai is rich in traditions and doctrine that ring bizarre in many American ears. Its foundations are couched on the revelations church leaders accrued through conversations with spirits via séances, and early practitioners claim to have conferred with a motley collection of personages, including French writer Victor Hugo (the Cao Dai patron saint of foreign missions), Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, René Descartes, Joan of Arc, Mark Twain and Vladimir Lenin.

Central to Caodaist teachings is the tenant that all people are brothers and sisters and that all the world's religions contain the same kernel of truth. Cao Dai stresses a single moral code of mutual love, kindness, harmony and respect. Its purpose, say its practitioners, is to make the world a better place, to work for peace and against war.

But sometimes incongruities emerge. Through the starched white weave of Nguyen's tunic, a logo peeps. On the left breast of his T-shirt are the letters JSF. Nguyen is an electrical engineer at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, where he works on cockpit displays for the F-16 fighter. And he's proud of that JSF emblem. It symbolizes the victory Lockheed scored over rival Boeing to secure the lucrative contract for the Joint Strike Fighter.

When asked about wearing a shirt that essentially flaunts an instrument of war under his religious tunic, Nguyen shrugs. He also shrugs off the inconsistency of his life's work designing weapons. "I don't think it's against the religion," he says. "It's just a job. If I have a choice, I'm probably not going to work there. But the thing is, it's part of the daily job, my daily life."

Adherents to this Vietnamese sect have made numerous compromises to adapt to their secular life in the United States. Chief among them is abandoning the requirement they hold religious services daily every six hours beginning at 6 a.m. But such concessions seem easily digested.

In the United States, Cao Dai is far from a robust religion, limited almost exclusively to a tiny sliver of the 1.12 million strong Vietnamese population, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist. While there appear to be no hard numbers, experts agree probably no more than 3,000 adherents live in the United States, mostly in California and Texas. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 47,000 Vietnamese reside in the Dallas area.) A pair of small temples--with fewer than 200 members combined--has sprouted up in Dallas over the last few years. There are also two temples in Houston, one in San Antonio and a small group of practitioners in Austin.

While their numbers are diminutive, their religious charge is lofty. Presenting a 1945 Cao Dai prophecy typed in Vietnamese on yellowing paper, Nguyen confidently asserts that it will be Americans and the Chinese who will invigorate the religion and spread it across the globe. "We now realize that Cao Dai is totally paralyzed in Vietnam and would not most likely be able to fulfill its mission in Vietnam," says Dr. Hum Duc Bui, a physician in Southern California who operates a Cao Dai Web site. "The U.S. is the country where Cao Dai has its most important activities." And the meager faithful in Dallas embrace this belief with subdued zeal.

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