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.

But time, cultural differences and political issues are working against their mission. Caodaists believe the world is sliding toward hell, but their faith is facing its own brand of chaos: The church's hierarchy has been dismantled by communist Vietnam; its scriptures and doctrines have few reliable English translations; and America, with its vast number of worldly distractions, is not a fertile ground to grow a religion among second- and third-generation immigrants. Already, the handful of faithful in Dallas have split between two competing temples. In America, doomsday may be coming for Cao Dai sooner than its followers think.


Cao Dai worshipers often begin their temple services with a visit to an altar next to the main hall. Upon this altar are pictures of recently deceased family members. The members light incense and pray to their spirits.

Founded in 1997, the Mountain View temple is a hodgepodge that includes an old workshop converted into a temple next to a small house. Between the house and the temple is a new addition: a concrete slab topped with a corrugated metal roof sheltering a stage where the followers hold celebrations and festivals.

The all-seeing eye was the essence of the powerful vision experienced by Ngo Van Chieu that ushered Cao Dai into the world in the early 1920s. Below, Cao Dai faithful bow down  in prayer before "God's Altar."
Mark Graham
The all-seeing eye was the essence of the powerful vision experienced by Ngo Van Chieu that ushered Cao Dai into the world in the early 1920s. Below, Cao Dai faithful bow down in prayer before "God's Altar."
Quan Phuoc Bui pours tea as an offering to God during a temple service in Mountain View.
Mark Graham
Quan Phuoc Bui pours tea as an offering to God during a temple service in Mountain View.

The interior of the temple is divided into two elongated cells: the left side representing the divine mother, the right the divine father. Women and men generally worship separately, but on those occasions when they do worship together (usually on the side of the divine father), the separation is maintained with women on the left and men on the right.

The tiny assembly hall is drenched in reds and yellows. Banners flaunting dragons are stretched across the width. As in virtually every Cao Dai temple, Mountain View displays a colorful painting of the three most prominent Cao Dai saints--Victor Hugo, Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen and Vietnamese poet-prophet Nguyen Binh Khiem--signing a Ten-Commandments-like tablet representing the third alliance between God and man. Followers believe this third alliance ushered Cao Dai into the world. These saints also are believed to give guidance and assistance to Caodaists in their quest to spread Cao Dai doctrine across the globe.

At the front of the temple is what is known as God's altar. Its focal point is the divine or "all-seeing" eye, an icon bearing a striking resemblance to the eye found on the back of a U.S. dollar bill (only with a decidedly Asian slant). This eye is the symbol of the religion. Various props surround the divine eye: flowers and bowls of fruit, which symbolize human reproductive cells; a pair of candles representing the yin and yang; and a row of five tiny cups. Three hold wine (representing vital energy) flanked by one holding tea (symbolizing the spirit tarnished with secular emotions), and the other holds water (pure spirit from God).

Between the candles is a vase containing five sticks of incense representing purification, meditation, wisdom, universal knowledge and karmic liberation. Spent incense sticks are plunged into vases everywhere--like great knots of arrows in a target--and smoldered scents constantly hang in the temple proper like cigarette smoke in a tavern.

Dressed in white tunics, the faithful stream into the temple. They assemble in front of the altar and salute one another with a single bow. Then they face the altar and bow three times showing respect to Cao Dai, Earth and humanity.

Throughout the service--all in Vietnamese--adherents spend most of their time prostrate on the floor, crouched on tiny pillows, chanting prayers to the clang of a Buddhist bell and the staccato pulses of wooden nhip sanh sticks. Their prayers sing the praises of the Supreme Being and the great religions of the world.

There is no sermon. Instead, the priest or priestess occupies a prominent position near the altar, leading the followers in prayers and chants. At the conclusion of the chanting, a high-ranking member sometimes faces the faithful and reads selections from Cao Dai scripture. The entire service generally lasts no more than 30 minutes.

And adherents enthusiastically welcome visitors, whom they subject to the same vigilant inquisition a serious creed shopper might direct toward them. "Do you believe in God?" "What is your religion?" "What do you think of Cao Dai?" "Do you like Cao Dai?" "Are you coming back?" And so on. Adherents openly wonder if a new visitor might be a flesh-and-blood fulfillment of the 1945 Cao Dai prophecy foretelling the religion would be cultivated globally by Americans.

But it doesn't appear these gentle missionary efforts are translating into much traction. Cao Dai is still almost exclusively a religion of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans born in Vietnam. Outside of spouses of Cao Dai practitioners and a few American Vietnam vets, instances of conversion of non-Vietnamese appear to be rare.

But they do exist. Ngasha Beck, an American of Eastern European descent, believes Cao Dai is poised to prosper in America. "[Cao Dai] offers almost anything that younger people are looking for when they're looking for a faith," says Beck, 43, who lives in Shreveport with her Cambodian husband and occasionally treks to Dallas for Cao Dai and Cambodian Buddhist religious events. "They're not...looking for a faith that is there to disparage other faiths, but want to work in community with other faiths. I think interfaith is the up-and-coming thing, the wave of the future."

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