Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cao Dai

When I was in Vietnam I had had several sad and frustrating trips to Tay Ninh, all alone. I had decided not to visit anymore, though I was fascinated by Cao Dai. But just before I left I finally relented and accepted a standing invitation from a friend to re-visit Tay Ninh. I had had such an unpleasant time there before that I was really reluctant to, but he was a devout believer in Cao Dai and he had his own motorcycle, so it was too good an opportunity to miss.
I am so glad I did it - I really had an opportunity to explore Tay Ninh, which is such an intriguing city with such an extraordinary past. And doing it with someone who was a follower of Cao Dai really opened up the religious world of Tay Ninh to me. About 80% of the residents of Tay Ninh belong to the Cao Dai faith, and most of those are observant and manage to get along to temple at least once a week. Most tourists are familiar with the Cathedral there (one of the most popular day trios from Saigon, the midday prayers can become dangerously packed with tourists looking for a colourful photo opportunity), but the Holy City itself is actually a vast complex containing many different chapels and lecture halls. It is slowly being renovated and restored to its former glory, and this resurgence of the Cao Dai spirit reminds one of what a force it used to be in South Vietnam, back in the day when it could boast of its own army.
Cao Dai as a concept is almost impossible to resist. An attempt to fuse the ideas of the great religions and philosophies of the world, Cao Dai is just so colourful and so wacky and so entirely Vietnamese that it can't help but be completely charming.
And the prayer sessions themselves are quite moving, filled as they are with pomp and ritual. There is a moment of complete stillness at the end of prayers that is absolutely transcendent, and makes one think that just possibly there is a meeting point between heaven and humanity, between God (represented by the all-seeing eye) and Her creation.

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