As we have Iearned, the Vietnamese people and their culture have withstood centuries of domination by foreign powers. Both China and France have tried to conquer not only the land but the spirit of its people by attempting to impose their cultural standards and beliefs on the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese people accepted only those cultural beliefs they saw as sensible and harmonious with their own beliefs in the ways of life. Throughout all this, the Vietnamese people have remained strong in their resolution to maintain their own culture. They have endured many hardships and grown culturally due to their ability to take only the best from their invaders while retaining their own core culture.
This can most readilv be seen through the many religious influences mixed in the Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese people accepted many religious philosophies into their culture because they viewed them as natular and sensible additions to society. Many embraced Buddhism because it stressed endurance of misfortune based on the belief that life is suffering and suffering is caused by man's desire for material comfort and sensual pleasure; one's present life is only the result of ones' desire in previous lives. This belief helped the Vietnamese people face many difficulties during their occupation by invading forces. Many Vietnamese also accepted the beliefs of Taoism because it stresses closeness with nature. Taoism teaches that one should live in harmony with nature to ensure health, happiness and long life. Because the majority of Vietnamese people have a strong attachment to their land, this belief was also viewed as sensible. Confucianism has had the widest acceptance and greatest influence on Vietnamese culture because it is a source of high moral and social values. Confucianism stresses social responsibilities, social relations and social organization. Confucianism also stresses the importance of family structure which is where the root of the Vietnamese extended family comes from. Other religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam have also influenced Vietnamese culture to a lesser degree.
The ability of the Vietnamese people to take the best parts from other cultures and religions and blend them with their own culture has led to the formation of an unusual religious sect known as the Cao Dai. "Cao Daism is a colorful mixture of bits and pieces of the many religions known to Vietnam during the early 20th century: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and native Vietnamese spiritism" (Robinson). Cao Daism is an attempt to create the perfect religion based on religious philosophies from both Eastern and Western cultures (Robinson).
"Cao Daism was founded by Ngo Minh Chieu (also known as Ngo Van Chieu; born 1878), a civil servant who once served as district chief of Phú QuÓc Island". Ngo Minh Chieu was well versed in both Eastern and Western religious philosophies. He was also known to be an active participant in seances, at which it was said his presence greatly improved communication with the spirit world. In 1919, during a seance, "he began to receive a series of revelations from Cao Dai," which means literally high tower or palace, in which the tenets of Cao Dai doctrine were set of the soul and the use of mediums to communicate with the spiritual world (Robinson). In 1926. in South Vietnam's Tây Ninh Province, Cao Daism was officially proclaimed a religion and the temple known as the "Holy See" was built.
Within one year, Cao Daism had over 26,000 followers; by 1990 there were an estimated three million Cao Dai foIlowers (Robinson).
Followers of Cao Dai believe history is divided into three significant periods of divine revelation. The first began when "God's truth was revealed to humanity through Moses and figure associated with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (Robinson).
The second period of revelation came through Buddha, Lao Tze, Confucius, Jesus and Mohammed. The Cao Dai believe God's messages were limited in scope to the specific period in time and the area the messengers lived in. They also believe God's "messages were corrupted because of the human frailty of the messengers and their disciples." Cao Daism sees itself as the product of the "Third Alliance Between God and Man", the third and final revelation. (Robinson).
Cao Dai followers believe the failures of the first two periods, due to human frailty, are avoided because divine truth is communicated through spirits, "who serve as messengers of salvation and instructors of doctrine" (Robinson). Communication with spirits is done in Vietnamese, Chinese, French and English through mediums using calligraphy brushes or pens and paper. "Spirits who have been in touch with the Cao Dai incIude deceased Cao Dai leaders, patriots, philosophers, poets, political leaders and warriors as well as ordinary people" (Jones). Among the many spirits who have been in contact with the Cao Dai are the founder of the Chinese Republic Sun Yat-sen, French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, Vietnamese prophet Trång Trình, Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
The doctrine of Cao Daism is based on the Buddhist belief in self-development through life's cycle of reincarnation. "The ultimate goal of the disciples of Cao Daism is to escape the cycle of reincarnation" (Robinson). Only through the performance of certain human duties can the cycle of suffering through reincarnation be broken. Much like Buddhism, Cao Dai ethics profess this goal may only be reached be the good person who follows the prohibitions against killing, stealing, sensuality and luxurious living (Robinson). Cao Dai priests practice celibacy and vegetarianism, while followers practice vegetarianism only six days a month as a cleansing process (Jones). The Cao Dai consider vegetarianism to be of service to human kind because it does not involve harming fellow beings during the process of their spiritual evolution. Other practices of the Cao Dai include maintenance of the cult of ancestors, reverence of the dead and self-cultivation through meditation (Robinson).
The Cao Dai sect is structured in a hierarchical order based in large on the Roman Catholic Church (Jones). The head of the sect is the Pope, followed by cardinals, archbishops and priests. Members of the clergy dress in different colors, which is determined by the branch of faith concerned. "The Confucianist branch concerned with temple rites wear purple robes; the symbol of authority. The Taoists wear azure gowns; the symbol of tolerance. The Buddhists wear saffron yellow robes; the symbol of virtue" (Jones).
Women are welcome in all but the highest levels of the clergy. However, when male and female officials of the same rank are serving in the same area, male clergy are in charge (Robinson).
The Supreme Being "God" is symbolized by a large eye emitting radiant light and is seen on the front of all Cao Dai Temples (Jones). In the temple of the Holy See, in Tây Ninh Province, the all seeing eye radiating light is emblazoned on a huge starspeckled sphere that takes up the largest portion of the main altar. Eight plaster columns, with multicolored dragons curled around them, support a giant dome above the sphere in representation of the heavens (Robinson). The great temple is built on nine levels, which represent the nine steps to heaven. "A mural in the front entry hall depicts the three signatories of The Third Alliance Between God and Man. The Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen holds an ink stone while Vietnamese poet NguyÍn BÌnh Khiem and French poet Victor Hugo write 'God and Humanity' and 'Love and Justice' in Chinese and French" (Robinson). Prayers are conducted at 6 am, noon; 6 pm and midnight of each day. Following the Taoist duality of Yin and Yang, there are two principal deities, the Mother Goddess, who is female, and God, who is male (Robinson). There is an ongoing debate among the Cao Dai as to which deity was the source of creation.
Throughout the history of Vietnam, the Vietnamese people have been able to take the best aspects of other culture and combine them with aspects with their own culture. This ability has enable the Vietnamese people to grow culturally where other countries have failed. The Cao Dai religious sect is a good example of this ability. While other countries arold the world wage wars based on differences of religious belief, the Cao Dai have successfully combined religious philosophies from around the world to create a colorful new religion. A religion built on the strengths and beliefs of both Eastern and Western philosophies. The Cao Dai efforts to bring differences together, to create one strong whole based on pieces of all, is the culmination of the Vietnamese ability to accomplish the unexpected.