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.

Like the Church Universal and Triumphant, Cao Dai is in the midst of a struggle for survival and is in danger of fragmentation. But unlike the Montana cult, this crisis has been brewing for almost 30 years.

"It's a very frightening period for some of them clearly," Leatham says. "There's a lot of concern that the fragmentation of the religion could occur and they could lose their traditions and people could lose the faith, or over time the body of revelations that is highly codified...could be ignored and fall by the wayside, thus leading to a loss of identity."

In the United States, the faithful worry the religion will stagnate because their children, buzzing in a lifestyle dominated by English, computers, MTV and American football, have a hard time relating to its traditions. Plus, Cao Dai suffers from a dearth of good English translations of its doctrine and principles.

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.

Then there is the complexion of its bizarre history in Vietnam. Unabashedly nationalist for much of the religion's early history, the Cao Dai leadership allied itself with the Japanese against the French colonialists during World War II. The Japanese even went so far as to establish a Cao Dai army 25,000 strong.

But after World War II, the picture became more complicated. The Cao Dai gradually forged alliances with the French against the communist Vietminh. They paid a dear price for this alliance. Caodaists claim that more than 40,000 noncombatant Cao Dai dignitaries and followers (including children) were massacred by the communists in South and Central Vietnam between 1945 and 1954. After communist forces defeated the French, the Cao Dai leadership maintained a policy of neutrality, but soon their sympathies fell in line with the Americans, and many Cao Dai served in the South Vietnamese military.

This history drew the wrath of the communists after Saigon fell in April 1975. Cao Dai property was seized and "converted into bars, gymnasiums, spas and other degrading facilities," according to a May 2001 letter sent to the U.S. Congress by Phung Van Phan of the Committee for the Preservation of Religious Freedom. Cao Dai religious leaders were arrested, imprisoned, sent to re-education camps or consigned to perish in labor camps. At least one was beheaded.

Thus began a decades-long communist chokehold on Cao Dai, one in which all Cao Dai religious leaders were sacked and replaced with communist cadres, and Cao Dai doctrines were rewritten to reflect Hanoi's views.

But perhaps the most debilitating blow from the communists was Hanoi's ban on spiritism. Traditionally, the selection and promotion of Cao Dai religious leaders is dependent on mediums working through séances and other rituals. These rituals feed a hierarchy that bears a striking resemblance to the Roman Catholic Church. At the top of the Cao Dai structure sits a pope, followed by six cardinals, 36 archbishops, 72 bishops and 3,000 priests (women can ascend to the rank of cardinal).

But the Cao Dai posts of pope and cardinals have not been filled since the 1950s, when Pham Cong Tac, the second Cao Dai pope, was driven into exile in Cambodia following disputes with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's regime. The pope died a few years later, and Cao Dai temples from Australia to Houston are dependent on these divinely selected leaders at the Holy See.

"[W]e all agreed to fade out spiritism (a means for those who use religion to entice the people and pervert the religion)," wrote the Communist Party commissar of Tay Ninh in 1996. "The system, which is like a nation within a nation, was wiped out, and the government has managed installations, used by the opponents, to establish a hold on the reactionaries, hoping to purify the religion so that religious followers may carry out their faith...Spirituality was obliterated, and political guidelines for this religion were determined."

"Cao Daism is no longer God's revelation," says Phung Van Phan in his letter to Congress. "It is a communist icon religion hidden under the name of Cao Dai."

Although Hanoi has relaxed its grip on Cao Dai over the last few years--returning much of the property it confiscated and officially recognizing the faith in 1997--the sect is reluctant to appoint new leaders, fearing the move will invite new persecution. This hierarchical and doctrinal sclerosis, Leatham says, could potentially obliterate the sect's traditions. "The opportunities for schism right now within the Cao Dai tradition are beyond belief because there is no regulating structure," he says. "The biggest powder keg of schism that you can have in any religion...is the recognition of legitimacy that comes through revelation."

Which means conceivably that any old clan of adepts can gather and claim to channel voices. Without leaders to guard the doctrine from new spirit voices, the religion can fracture, even collapse.


Loc Le strolls the grounds of The Cao Dai Tay Ninh Temples of Texas Mountain View compound in an industrial area in Oak Cliff on West Ledbetter. The 3.2-acre expanse not only contains a house and a temple, there is also a pair of trailer homes that store supplies for a planned new temple: a replica of the gaudily ornate sanctuary in the Holy See in Tay Ninh. Near the back of the property are a couple of cars on blocks and cultivated plots where vegetables and flowers are raised.
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