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Vietnam photo gallery

Blast Vietnam Bureau

When we were in Saigon last July, the tropical heat was so unbearable in the city that we had to take an excursion to the nearby province, Tay Ninh. Located north-west of Saigon, this province is bordered by Cambodia on three sides and serves as headquarter to one of Vietnam's most interesting indigenous religion, Caodaism.

The Caodai Great Temple is one of the most striking structures in Vietnam. Built between 1933 and 1955, it is the biggest shrine to most Caodai followers who live in Tay Ninh province. Caodaism is the product of an attempt to create the ideal religion through the fusion of the secular and religious philosophies of the East and West. The result is a colorful and eclectic blend that includes bits and pieces of most of the religious philosophies known in Vietnam during the 20th Century: Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spiritism, Christianity and Islam.

The term "Caodai" means "high tower or palace," and is used to refer to God. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam, Caodaism was founded in 1926 by a mystic man named Ngo Minh Chieu, who widely read Western and Eastern religious works. Around 1919 he began to receive a series of revelations from Caodai in which the tenets of Caodai doctrine were set forth.

Much of the Caodai doctrine is drawn from Mahayana Buddhism mixed with Taoist and Confucian elements. Although its main tenets include believing in one god, and practicing priestly celibacy, vegetarianism, reverence for the dead, and communications with the spirits through seances, perhaps Caodaism's most interesting and quirky aspect is its own debate over which deity was the primary source of creation.

According to Caodaism, history is divided into three major periods of divine revelation. During the first period, God's truth was revealed to humanity through Laotse and figures associated with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The human agents of revelation during the second period were Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Jesus and Moses. The Caodai believe that their messages were corrupted because of the human frailty of the messengers and their disciples. They also believe that these revelations were limited in scope, intended to be applicable to only during a specific age to the people of the area in which the messengers lived.

Caodaism sees itself as the product of the "Third Alliance Between God and Man," the third and final revelation. Disciples believe that Caodaism avoids the failures of the first two periods because it is based on divine truth as communicated through spirits, which serve as messengers of salvation and instructors of doctrine. Spirits who have been in touch with the Caodai included deceased Caodai leaders, heroes, philosophers, poets, political leaders, as well as ordinary people. Among the contacted spirits who lived are Joan of Arc, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur and Vladimir Illyich Lenin. It is said that Shakespeare hasn't been heard from since 1935.

A mural in the front entry hall depicts the three signatories of the "Third Alliance Between God and Man." The Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yatsen (1866-1925) holds and inkstone while Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem (1492-1587) and French author Victor Hugo (1802-85) write "God and Humanity" and "Love and Justice" in Chinese and French.

Above the front portico of the Great Temple, and around the temple's walls, is the ominous "divine eye," the supreme symbol of Caodaism. All altars also have above them the "divine eye," after Ngo Minh Chieu saw it in a vision he had and made it the religion's official symbol.

Coming next week: More pictures of Vietnam!