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Cao Đài (Vietnamese: [kāw ɗâj] ( listen), also Caodaiism) is a syncretistic, monotheistic religion, officially established in the city of Tây Ninh, southern Vietnam in 1926. Đạo Cao Đài is the religion's shortened name; its full name is Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ (Great Religion [of The] Third Period [of] Revelation [and] Salvation).
Cao means "high" and Đài means "dais" (as in a platform or altar raised above the surrounding level to give prominence to the person on it). Figuratively, it means that highest spiritual place where God reigns. Caodaiists often use the term Đức Cao Đài (Venerable Cao Đài) as the abbreviated name for God, the creator of the universe, whose full title is Cao Đài Tiên Ông Đại Bồ Tát Ma-ha-tát (translation: Cao Đài [the] Ancient Sage [and] Great Bodhisattva Mahasattva). According to Caodaiists, the full title was purposefully chosen by God because within it are representations of the Three Teachings: Snt, Sage and Buddha. Caodaiists credit God as the religion's founder. They believe the teachings, symbolism and organization were communicated directly from God. Even the construction of the Tây Ninh Holy See is claimed to have had divine guidance. Cao Đài's first disciples, Ngô Văn Chiêu, Cao Quỳnh Cư, Phạm Công Tắc and Cao Hoài Sang, claimed to have received direct communications from God, who gave them explicit instructions for establishing a new religion that would commence the Third Era of Religious Amnesty.
Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the minimum goal of rejoining God the Father in Heaven and the ultimate goal of freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Estimates of Cao Đài adherents in Vietnam vary, but most sources give two to three million, according to other sources up to six million. An additional 30,000 (numbers may vary), primarily ethnic Vietnamese, live in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
According to the Cao Đài myth of creation, before God existed, there was the Tao, the nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. Then a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born (emanationism). The universe could not yet be formed and to do so, God created yin and yang. He took control of yang and shed a part of himself, creating the Goddess to preside over yin. In the presence of yin and yang, the universe was materialized. The Goddess is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the Universe. Caodaiists worship not only God the father, but also the Holy Mother, literally referred to as the Mother Buddha. Note that God's importance and role is higher than that of the Mother Buddha. Also, the Mother Buddha, like all buddhas, is a part of Yang, and therefore is male. Yin is the female side, and the Mother Buddha oversees Yin, but is not a part of Yin. God is symbolized by the Divine Eye, specifically the left eye because Yang is the left side and God is the master of Yang. There are 36 levels of Heaven and 72 planets harboring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to Hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.
In the order of most to least difficult, the Three Teachings within Caodaiism are:
The Three Teachings represent hierarchical levels of spiritual attainment, with buddha as the highest. Caodaiism's various stages of spiritual development from human on up are: Thần (angel), Thánh (saint), Tiên (sage), and Phật (buddha). Angels, saints and sages may have, accordingly, extremely long lives in the realms of heaven, but only buddhas are free from the cycle of birth and death.
God is at the helm. He will not take human form as in the past two periods. Instead, he sends his teachings via sacred seance ceremonies.
The Three Anchors, representatives of the Three Teachings are:
Note: Jesus is regarded as a Buddha and true Son of God, shed directly from God.
Although various sects of Caodaiism claim to have received messages from numerous spiritual entities, the Tây Ninh Holy See acknowledges significantly fewer. Inside the Holy See is a painting depicting the Three Saints signing a covenant between God and humanity. From left to right, they are Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm. Other saints are Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc and Napoleon Bonaparte. Around 70 holy spirits also exist including Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Lenin, Victor Hugo, Descartes, Louis Pasteur, Leon Tolstoy and Li Bo, among others.
These are some of the main Tây Ninh Holy See's scriptures:
Other sects have additional scriptures.
Caodaiism's organizational structure closely resembles that of many states. Its legislative, executive and judicial branches are the Cửu Trùng Đài, the Hiệp Thiên Đài, and the Bát Quái Đài. The head of the executive branch is called "Giáo Tông", which means leader or head of a philosophical or religious organization. It is no coincidence there are similarities between the hierarchy of Caodaiism's dignitaries and those of the Catholic Church because Caodaiists claim the same God created both religions. Cao Đài's hierarchy includes a pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc. and a few more ranks and titles of which there are no official English translation yet. Caodaiism stresses equality among men and women in society. However, in the spiritual domain, ordained women may not attain the two highest positions: Legislative Cardinal and Pope. The church claims this is ordered by God, who declared that because Yang represents male and Yin corresponds to female, Yin cannot dominate Yang spiritually or else chaos ensues.
In total, there are six different officially recognized branches of the Cao Đài church in southern Vietnam, as well as several others that remain unrecognized. These sects generally divide along geographic lines. The largest is based in Tây Ninh Province, where the religion was founded in 1926 and where the seat of Cao Đài authority is located. The Executive Council of Tây Ninh Province Cao Đài received official government recognition in 1997. Independent Cao Đài groups allege that government interference has undermined the independence of the Tây Ninh group, and it no longer faithfully upholds Cao Đài principles and traditions. Religious training takes place at individual temples rather than at centralized schools; Cao Đài officials have indicated they don't wish to open a seminary. Some Cao Đài sects that have broken away from the Tây Ninh Holy See are Chiếu Minh, Bến Tre, and Đà Nẵng. Ngô Văn Chiêu founded Chiếu Minh when he left the original church structure, refusing his appointment as Caodaiism's first Pope.
Cao Đài was established in the Vietnamese city of Tây Ninh in 1926. During the First and Second Indochina Wars, members of Cao Đài (along with several other Vietnamese sects, such as Hòa Hảo) were active in political and military struggles, both against French colonial forces and Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm of South Vietnam.
Their opposition to the communist forces until 1975 was a factor in their repression after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the incoming communist government proscribed the practice of Cao Đài. In 1997, the Cao Đài was granted legal recognition.
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