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.
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.
Priestess Muoi Huong Le burns an offering expressing the wish that all people might live as one. Below, incense is burned as an offering to recently deceased friends and family of the faithful, whose names are listed on a card lodged in the vase.
Mark Graham
Priestess Muoi Huong Le burns an offering expressing the wish that all people might live as one. Below, incense is burned as an offering to recently deceased friends and family of the faithful, whose names are listed on a card lodged in the vase.
Doanthuc Bui, left, beats nhip sanh sticks while Hien Nguyen prays during a temple service. During Cao Dai services, the sexes separate: men on the right, women on the left.
Mark Graham
Doanthuc Bui, left, beats nhip sanh sticks while Hien Nguyen prays during a temple service. During Cao Dai services, the sexes separate: men on the right, women on the left.
Dallas' first Cao Dai temple on Lapsley. The Dallas temple ruptured into two temples five years ago after disputes among the faithful over temple construction, who should occupy posts in the temple hierarchy and charity missions.
Mark Graham
Dallas' first Cao Dai temple on Lapsley. The Dallas temple ruptured into two temples five years ago after disputes among the faithful over temple construction, who should occupy posts in the temple hierarchy and charity missions.
Texas Christian University Professor Miguel Leatham, who specializes in religious sects, says he was smitten with the Cao Dai after he saw a photo of the garish Holy See temple. Today, he believes he is one of only two academicians in the world actively studying the faith.
Mark Graham
Texas Christian University Professor Miguel Leatham, who specializes in religious sects, says he was smitten with the Cao Dai after he saw a photo of the garish Holy See temple. Today, he believes he is one of only two academicians in the world actively studying the faith.

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.

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 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."

Beck says she had her first brush with Cao Dai in 1993 when, with no awareness of the existence of the religion, she experienced a vision of the divine eye during meditation. Around the same time, she says, she received a flurry of spiritual messages pertaining to Victor Hugo via television and other media. "I've never had any formal education, and I have never read any of Victor Hugo's works," admits Beck, who is a nurse and a college student. "I didn't really know who he was other than he was an author. But it seemed like everywhere I looked, I would hear the name Victor Hugo. I would see and hear this name constantly, all around that period of time I had that vision. So I felt like somehow they did go together." She said she discovered the link among the divine eye and Victor Hugo and Cao Dai two years later while doing Internet research on Buddhism, when she stumbled onto Dr. Hum Duc Bui's Cao Dai Web site and asked him for help interpreting her visions.

Beck says she was smitten by the religion because of its doctrine of religious unity. "We're not just 20 different religions worshiping 20 different gods; we're 20 different religions worshiping the same God," she says. "It's all one. It's the unified field...And eventually people, more and more, are going to realize that; that it's really the center teachings--that we're all children of God--that comes through."


In an article titled "Oh, Gods!" in the February 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, author Toby Lester challenges the notion that creeping secularization will eventually lay waste to the world's religions. "The assumption is that advances in the rational understanding of the world will inevitably diminish the influence of that last, vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture: religion," he writes. "Inconveniently, however, the world is today as awash in religious novelty, flux and dynamism as it has ever been."

To bolster his argument, Lester cites statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia, which attempts the none-to-modest quest of surveying and analyzing the religious makeup of the entire planet. Currently, states the WCE, some 10,000 distinct religions are scattered over the globe with two or three new religions cropping up every day.

Yet the WCE also lends credence to the argument that secularization has dealt serious blows to religion across the 20th century. In 1900 the WCE pegged the number of nonreligious peoples at 0.2 percent of the world's population. By 1970, that number had risen to 18.9 percent. It dropped back to 15.2 percent by 2000, thanks mostly, the editors say, to the collapse of communism in Europe.

The WCE classifies Cao Dai as a new religion, one that almost instantly caught on among the Vietnamese with ferocious enthusiasm. Formally established in South Vietnam in 1926, Cao Dai captured more adherents in its first year of existence than Catholic missionaries had managed to ensnare over the previous 300 years of proselytizing among the Vietnamese.

Cao Dai came into the world as a vision experienced by Ngo Van Chieu, a high-level bureaucrat for the French colonialists assigned to oversee Phu Quoc, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. It's hard to know precisely when Chieu experienced his vision; texts peg various dates between 1919 and 1921. But what is clear is that Chieu had a transformative vision he believed was sent by the "supreme being" (or was the supreme being), a specter of a huge eye surrounded by a bright halo.

"It was kind of a hellhole of an island," says Miguel Leatham, professor of anthropology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "Very tropical. Cockroach infested. Rat infested. The French used to hole up their political dissidents on this island."

Born in Idaho and educated at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Leatham has a fetish for religious sects. For his dissertation, he spent three years living among a millenarian sect of some 5,000 peasants in Western Mexico known as Nueva Jeruselen. Founded in 1973 after a peasant named Gabina Romero beheld an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who told her the world was about to end, Nueva Jeruselen is a traditionalist catholic apocalyptic movement, one similar to Jonestown, Leatham says.

Leatham has since turned his focus on Cao Dai. Yet his attraction to Cao Dai centers more on its cartoonish aspects than its theology. He says what snared him was the great Cao Dai temple, tucked in a compound of schools, a hospital and administrative buildings known as the Holy See in the Tay Ninh province near the Cambodian border. "As soon as I saw that Tay Ninh temple I said, 'My gosh, I've got to know more about this,'" he says. "This is the most syncretic building. I wanted to find out who had done this."

The dramatic temple is an amalgam of gothic spires, a Moorish dome and an octagonal minaret. It features triple-layered roofs and cantilevered arches in a dramatic stew of pastel yellow and pink plasterwork that blends Christian cathedral, Chinese pagoda and Hindu shrine. A huge "all-seeing" eye, measuring some 9 feet in diameter, dominates the interior. Constructed in 1933, the Holy See temple has drawn equal measures of awe and ire. "This cathedral must be the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent," scribbled British travel writer Norman Lewis. In his work Reflections, famed British writer Graham Greene describes the temple as a "fantastic Technicolor cathedral," one where the interior represents the "full Asiatic splendor of a Walt Disney fantasy."

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.


When Ngo Van Chieu received the first of his revelations that formed the basis of Cao Dai, mysticism and the spirit world were hugely popular, and people regularly held séances to communicate with spirits.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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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