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Since he began studying the intricacies of Cao Dai, Leatham has been struck by the relative dearth of research he's been able to unearth on the religion. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are 2.8 million adherents in Vietnam spread across some eight different sects. Worldwide, Cao Dai is practiced by 3.2 million people in 50 countries, with most of those outside of Vietnam practicing in the United States, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France and Germany.
"It's an interesting fact that being such a significant religion in...Vietnam, that very few people have ever studied it academically," Leatham says. In fact, he says, the only academician whom Leatham has found currently studying the religion is Graeme Lang, a sociology professor at the City University of Hong Kong, with whom Leatham plans to collaborate. Like Leatham, Lang teaches a course on Cao Dai. "We may be the only two in the world to do that," Leatham says.
Messages from beyond sometimes came to Cao Dai mystics via Ouija boards, but more commonly a contraption known as "a basket and beak" facilitated the conversations. This appliance consists of a wooden stick roughly 26 inches long attached to a latticed bamboo basket, under which upturned hands of the mediums are placed. One end of the stick has the carved head of a phoenix, into which incense sticks are inserted. The other end, to which the basket is affixed, holds a pen. Two mediums hold the basket, and from their movements, messages are written.
At other times these messages were received via pneumatographie, a process that involves hanging blank sheets of paper sealed in envelopes above an altar. After a period of prayer and meditation, the paper is taken down and is said to reveal the scribbling of a divine hand.
One of the spirits a group of Vietnamese scholars had been communicating with in the 1920s signed under the pseudonym A a a , the first three vowels of the Vietnamese alphabet. On December 24, 1925, this triple-vowel spirit revealed himself as the "supreme being," going under the name Cao Dai, who had come to teach the truth to Vietnam.
Through these occultist rituals, much of the doctrine of the Cao Dai religion has been recorded. Séances elicited a collection of holy scriptures, a book of prayers and a religious constitution. These sacred writings emerged from a stream of recorded messages dispatched by spirits, including Cao Dai himself, Buddha, Chinese poet Li Bo and Hugo. But the Cao Dai pantheon includes an even wider eclectic assortment of writers, thinkers and leaders, including Leo Tolstoy, Napoleon, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson and Charlie Chaplin. In all, more than 70 spirits have been venerated in Cao Dai. But this prolific period of revelation through "spiritism" was relatively short, lasting roughly from 1925 through the early 1930s.
The most salient of these revealed teachings is that God is the creator of the universe and of all religions and that it is God's will that all religions become one. But Cao Dai is more than that. It extols the adoration of God, the veneration of spirit saints and the worship of ancestors. It preaches the evolution of the soul via successive reincarnations. It urges meditation and prayer. Its teachings spray a series of commandments including prohibitions against killing, dishonesty, stealing, theft, adultery, drunkenness, obscenity and rudeness.
Ngo Van Chieu and his followers believed that God granted mankind three distinct eras. The first is the era of creation where Taoism, Buddhism and Judaism figure prominently. The middle era is known as the era of progress, with Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam most prominent. The third era is the era of annihilation, or the Third Amnesty of God, and is dominated by the Cao Dai religion and God himself. "Thus, the Era of Annihilation is evinced by increased cataclysms--natural as well as contrived--such as widespread wars, natural disasters and strange diseases which pervade human society," says an introductory Cao Dai text. "Man has sinned so much and the doctrines have deviated so far from the essence that only a very few have escaped from the wheel of Karma and have found their way back to God."
From a superficial standpoint, Cao Dai resembles the Baha'i faith, a movement founded in 19th-century Persia that stresses universal brotherhood and the common ground found in all religions. But Leatham says Cao Dai, with its taste for annihilation doctrine, perhaps more closely resembles the Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age sect stressing mystical contact with "ascended masters" through contemplation and revelation. The sect was founded in 1957 and sunk roots in Malibu, California, before it packed it in for Montana near the gates of Yellowstone Park after the group purchased the 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch for $6 million in the early 1980s. Branded a doomsday cult, the sect built bomb shelters and stockpiled weapons in the late '80s and early '90s anticipating nuclear annihilation. When Armageddon failed to materialize, membership plunged and the church was forced to sell half of its Montana acreage.