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.

"The main goal, my parents' goal, is they want to let people know about Cao Dai, and that's why they came to Texas," says the 26-year-old Le, who is president of the Cao Dai youth group at this temple. Le, a student at UT-Arlington and an occasional computer technician, is somewhat of a caretaker of the compound. His mother is the Mountain View priestess. His father is an adept.

But while Loc Le has returned to Vietnam three times in the last few years working as a translator for Mission Peace, a medical and humanitarian organization, his parents appear to have no desire to return to their home. Loc's father, Huu Le, who served as a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, has little more than bitter memories of his homeland. Following the fall of Saigon, he was arrested, incarcerated and bounced from prison to prison for more than seven years. He describes his struggles to eat, how each prisoner was forced to grow food and then relinquish it to prison officials once it was harvested; how most of his fellow prisoners survived on the meager provisions family members could bring on prison visits. Those without family usually starved, he says.

The last time Loc's mother made the journey to the Holy See, in 1995, she was detained for two weeks by Vietnamese authorities as she attempted to return to the United States. Her infraction? She was in possession of a book of Cao Dai doctrine not sanctioned by the Communist Party of Vietnam, she says. She swears she will never return.

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.

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But this Mountain View temple may be a slowly simmering Cao Dai schism in the city of Dallas. Just a couple of miles north is the Cao Dai Dallas temple, which was established in 1988. This tiny temple is overseen by Nguyen Thanh Than, who is in charge of all of the handful of Cao Dai priests in the area. Born in 1943, Than served as an officer in the South Vietnamese secret service. After the fall of Saigon, he fled to the jungles of South Vietnam where he remained for five years, fighting as an insurgent. After most of his compatriots were killed, he left Vietnam for Malaysia. Today the mild-mannered Cao Dai priest bakes bread, a task he has been doing for 17 years.

Donald Doan, the general secretary of the Dallas temple, walks the property behind the tiny white house that serves as the temple proper. He says they have been planning construction of a replica of the Holy See for several years. But the city of Dallas has so far put a crimp in their ambitions because a corner of the property is designated as a floodplain. "We're hoping for some kind of miracle that can help us," says Doan, a one-time petty officer in the South Vietnamese Navy who is now a manufacturing engineer at Alcatel. These delays in temple construction proved too insurmountable for Loc Le, his parents and a small group of congregants. They decamped to Oak Cliff.

Le says the reason they splintered was charity. "We would like to do charity, and they don't have charity there," he says. Le maintains that a physical temple is a prerequisite for community charity work in Cao Dai (the Mountain View temple raised $2,000 for the 9-11 victims). And the Dallas temple is mired in zoning restrictions. So, impatient with a Byzantine city permitting process, Le and his group split with the intention of building a Holy See-type temple in Mountain View within three years.

Doan acknowledges that there were disagreements, but he dismisses them, stating that the move was actually a good thing. "The main reason is Cao Dai--we would like to spread out," concedes Doan. "We would like to have temples that are more convenient for the members."

Later, Doan discusses the splintering with irritation. He speaks of jealousies, mistrust and disputes with the Mountain View group over who should occupy slots in the temple hierarchy. Le denies his charges.

Does this cleavage portend a dawn of vigorous fertility in Dallas for this tiny Vietnamese sect hungrily seeking converts? Or is it a premonition of doom?

Many in the Vietnamese Cao Dai community saw the refugee flood in the wake of Saigon's collapse as a sowing process that would spread and invigorate Cao Dai. Some, like Ngasha Beck, feel Cao Dai holds the same appeal to many Americans that can be found in New Age sects and believe it will be embraced by those weary of traditional religions.

But Leatham dismisses the prospect of Cao Dai taking hold in the United States much beyond its current cadre of believers. "Cao Dai has a central body of doctrine," he points out. "That may not appeal to a New Age mentality. New Age tends to reject this notion of absolute central doctrine."

Still, Leatham marvels at the resilience of the Cao Dai movement, how it has survived the ruptures of war, the asphyxiation of government persecution and the dislocation brought by refugee flight, all the while maintaining its grip on a single grandiloquent principle. "The Cao Dai claim is a sweeping claim," he says. "We're not talking about a religion that claims to be good just for Vietnamese. This is a tradition whose claims are no less than that we are the summation of all the world's religions. We've got 'em all here. This is your one-stop shop." He pauses and ponders. "Not many religions in the 20th century have actually claimed that and survived this long."

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