Cao Dai Understanding of God
Cao Dai Understanding of God
Written by Mohammad Jahangir Alam
About the author: Mohammad Jahangir Alam is a Lecturer at the Department of World Religions, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is in charge of the course in Caodaism there and is considered one of a few specialists in Caodaism in the Islamic world. Mr. Alam got his Ph. degree with the thesis paper “The Concept of Unity in Bahaism and Caodaism: a comparative study”. The following article is published in the research magazine “Philosophy and Progress”, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 2007 issue.
All through history people have longed to know the unknown to find immune happiness to life’s anxieties. It is religion that promises to fulfill this longing of human beings. In that case, we find some forms of religion existed everywhere in the world that map out a route to this end. There has always been a voice both in tribal religions as well as world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Bahai’ Faith, Caodaism etc. that point us beyond the temporal to the eternal. This voice may be considered to be the symbol of God. All of these symbols examine their common basis, the ultimate reality, God(1). Therefore every religion has their respective way of understanding of the same reality, God. As God does not supply physically sensible contents, no religion can detect and measure Him with a common standard. But in every religion, He is described in a special manner with reference to their respective religious scriptures. For this reason, no religion is less important in understanding God. And this is spiritual guidance that helps us to reach that ultimate goal or divine reality, God.
Furthermore, religion has provided spiritual guidance from very ancient times, as with Hinduism and Judaism up to more recent history with Islam, the Bahai’ Faith and Caodaism. In that case, like all other religions, Caodaism also expresses the essential code of conduct that preserves the spiritual guidance properly to reach the divine reality, Duc Cao-Dai(Cao-Dai God).
However, this article contains a single selection from the basic concepts of the unity of Caodaism (Unity of God, Unity of religion and Unity of mankind). This selection allows us to see how Caodaism investigates the divine reality, God, from its own perspective.
To help the readers have a clear understanding of Duc Cao-Dai, an abbreviated introduction entitled “Caodaism in a nutshell” is presented before the core discussion.
Caodaism in a Nutshell
Caodaism is the third largest religion in Vietnam (after Buddhism and Christianity). It is a relatively new, syncretistic and monotheistic religion, officially established in Tay Ninh, southern Vietnam, in 1926. It believes that there is only one God, first cause and principle of all that exist.
The term ‘Cao-Dai’ literally means “High Tower or Palace” that is the palace where God reigns over the Universe. The official name of Caodai religion is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do that means “The Third Great Universal Religious Amnesty”. It refers to a period of intense religious activity that aims at establishing a new Great Way for salvation. Thus the fundamental objective of the third amnesty is the unity of all religions(2). But this does not mean that all the different religions are expected to be supplanted by one religion.
Caodaists believe that God the Father has revealed His Truth many times throughout human history. His Divine Message has been translated through the mouths of many great prophets, but always these messages have relied on human frailty. The Age has now come where He speaks to humanity directly. Caodaism believes that the previous two Religious Amnesties saw the rise of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism etc. Caodaism comes to unite the traditions of these two periods. It was guided directly by Cao-Dai (God the Father).
In 1921, Ngo Van Chieu, a district head of the French administration in Cochinchina, began to receive messages fromDuc Cao-Dai and received a vision of the Divine Eye, which is now the symbol for Duc Cao-Dai. On Christmas Eve 1925, God identified Himself to the first group of Caodaist mediums, which included Ho Phap Pham Cong Tac, Cao Quynh Cu, and Cao Hoai Sang. These great souls were to play an essential role in the growing religion.
On 7 Oct 1926, His Excellency Le Van Trung and a leading group of 27 Caodaists, the first disciples of Cao-Dai, signed the “Declaration of the Founding of the Cao-Dai Religion” and presented it to the French Governor of Cochinchina. The declaration also contained a list of 147 believers. On Thursday 18 November 1926, an inauguration ceremony took place at Tu Lam Pagoda, Go Ken (Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam). From this auspicious beginning, Caodaism expanded and was welcomed with much ardor by the people of Vietnam. Today Caodaist community is spreading across Asia, North America, Europe, and Australia. Believers now number about seven million in Vietnam and more than thirty five thousand in Australia USA and Europe.
Lets now turn to the core discussion.
Caodai understanding of God
This article is not an attempt to give another proof of the monotheistic concept of Cao-Dai God. It rather presents the core understanding of God, no matter how vague it might be. I would like to start with the two basic concepts inCaodaist understanding that are: concept of spiritism and monotheism. The point of this article is to clarify how these two concepts work together to provide a general understanding of Cao-Dai God (strictly monotheistic understanding of God). In particular, it examines how Caodaism deals with this issue. That’s why Cao-Dai God will be discussed in relation to two components of the original nature of Cao-Dai God - spiritism and monotheism.
Divergent opinions concerning the essential nature and attributes of the Creator is found among the Caodaists. This is caused only because of the great impact of the ancient Chinese supposition of the Yin and Yang. They are considered to be two essential elements in the formation and harmonious balance of the Universe. Interestingly, the Yin and Yang duality is considered as two important deities, Dieu Tri Kim Mau or Duc Phat Mau (the Mother Goddess) and Cao-Dai(God). In particular the nature of the two major deities appear important to adherents of the Tay Ninh Church, the “mother” organization of Caodaism(3). And for this reason, a special temple is dedicated to the mother Goddess at the Tay Ninh Holy See (Caodaist Church). It is very interesting to say that female dignitaries conduct the daily worship ceremonies there. But there is debate among Caodaists as to which of these is the primary source of creation. Though some philosophical Caodaists of a particular Church believe that as the mother of the Universe, Phat Mau is responsible for creation; most consider Cao-Dai, the male principle as the primary source of creation. In this manner one prominent Caodaist explains : “The Universe in the beginning was black space... In the infinite there is a principle that is very mysterious and wonderful.....This was the throne of the eternal God. God had no name but used Cao-Dai to reveal Himself as the Savior of the Universe. The negative and positive principles of the Universe constitute the basic components of the Eternal Nature who has used them to create the Universe.”(4)
However, the primary concern of all caodaists is to worship both Cao-Dai and Phat Mau. But originally there is only a cosmic principle in the Universe and these male and female principles came from the ultimate principle. And this ultimate principle is called Duc Cao-Dai (Venerable God the Father).
Categories of Spirits:
In Caodaism, Duc Cao-Dai is believed to be the great Spirit and men who are spirits wrapped in the frame of material bodies, can communicate with Him. Thus most Caodaists believe that there are various categories of spirits: Phat (Buddhas), Tien (holy spirits), Thanh (Saints) and Than (lower-ranking spirits). And each of these categories may be divided into three grades; thien, nhan, and dia. This twelve fold categorization refers to the spirit hierarchy. Thus humans are part of spirit hierarchy. Not only humans but so are animals, and finally, plants(5)
According to Caodaism, all spirits evolve out of a material world and progressively attain higher rank based on the law ofKarma. Mentionably Caodaists have contacted numerous such spirits through séance communication. These include former deceased leaders of the Caodai Church, patriots, heroes, philosophers, poets, political leaders, military warriors, religious personalities, and ordinary individuals. Some Vietnamese names mentioned are Le Van Duyet, Phan Boi Chauand Ngo Minh Chieu.
Furthermore, some European and Chinese are also considered as spirits such as Allan Kardec, Descartes, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Pasteur, Shakespeare, Lenin, Sun Yat Sen and Li Tai Pe.
All the above spirits are not elevated to the position of the Supreme God (Duc Cao-Dai). This leads to proper monotheism rather than to pantheism. And in that case Caodaists are explicit in their belief that Duc Cao-Dai is the heart of the Universe. He is the common Father of all human beings.
Monotheistic Concept of Caodaism:
Two Vietnamese terms clearly refers to the oneness of God in Caodaism. The terms are as follows:
TAM = Let us worship three times God-One in Cao-Dai.
KY = God is eternal in all time and at all time. The present moment is always His time, the epoch of God(6).
Thus Caodaists believe in only one God. They call Him by the name of Cao-Dai. It’s a Vietnamese term. The term Cao-Dai literally means (mentioned before) “High Tower or Palace” that is the palace where God reigns over the Universe. But the word Cao-Dai is actually used in Caodaism as God’s symbolic name. So Caodaists think that in the beginning, God was formless, nameless, unchangeable and all-powerful. God divided His spirit into parts and created the Universe, world and its plants, animals and material components; each contains God’s spirit.
However, “Cao-Dai” refers to God the Father- the Supreme Being, the Creator, the Ultimate Reality of the Universe. InCaodaism, Cao-Dai serves as the name of God. It is one of numerous names of the One-God whose name can only be one of the aspects, while the Being is infinite. We find triple-sign in Caodaism where the tri-um God is always shown on the summits(7). The triple-sign informs us that God is higher than any summit, broader than any space, more enduring than all time.
Worship and Adoration of one Supreme Being:
Caodaists worship and adore a Divine Eye (Thien Nhan) as the symbolic representation of their God, Duc Cao-Dai. In this regards, a prayer to the Eye of God may be quoted that may give a perfect image of Cao-Dai God. The prayer is as follows:
Thou art the gold and the crystal of heaven.
Ethereal essence of all essence of all things, Thou seest in all.
Bodiless spirit expressed in a look (the wise never confuse the symbol with that which it represents). Thy vision is infinite.
Total intelligence, penetrating, enveloping: Zodiacal.
Life: Principle of life, life of all principles, which the regard of the sun develops and multiplies in the Gold of Heaven.
Night’s repose in the light of the moon.
Crystal of heaven.
Unique light in the eye of God.
Thou Three-in- One of the One-look.
Eye of God
Bathe my spirit in the light of crystal and gold(8).
The Divine Eye denotes vision and Omnipotence. There are different opinions among the Caodaists concerning the essential nature and attributes of the Creator. Therefore, all Caodaists believe that God has no name. The use of the word “God” is a divisive element among humanity. This is why they prefer such term as “the most high” and “the absolute” and it explains why they use the term Cao-Dai. In this manner, one Caodaist explains: “God had no name but used Cao-Dai to reveal Himself as the Savoir of the Universe. The negative and positive principles of the Universe constitute the basic components of the Eternal nature who has used them to create the Universe.”(9)
Therefore In Caodaism, God is believed to be the heart of the Universe. He is regarded as the common Father of all human beings. They consider themselves as the sons of the One Father (Supreme Being).
As Father of the Universe, Cao-Dai has communicated with human beings and revealed His will to men since the beginning of time. The will of God refers to all successful duties of human beings that must be performed by them on earth. And to achieve a heavenly union with Cao-Dai, firstly, it is essential that man perform successfully his duty on earth. Here Caodaists are emphasized to be the owner of good action, good knowledge and good devotion. A Caodaistmust observe the five interdictions against killing, lying, luxurious living, sensuality and stealing. Secondly, his duty is to show kindness to animals and to avoid any unnecessary destruction of plant life. Thirdly, he must serve society. This is the commitment of human beings with Cao-Dai. Caodaists must represent God’s image to the world. That informs us that another name of God is love. The expression of love of Cao-Dai is very apparently found in the following messages: “God is you and you are God.”
God’s love of life is immense and in the earthly life a disciple ought to manifest this virtue by concentrating all his actions and thoughts to one purpose of supporting and conserving all living creatures. In other words, a disciple has to serve all living beings(10).
Cao-Dai manifests Himself in the three periods of the past, present and future. He manifested Himself in the three periods with pardon and love to mankind.
In Caodaism, Cao-Dai is called the Savior and Benefactor. He is the Benefactor of all beings. He is the Master who gives food, consciousness, wisdom, intelligence, fame, beauty, wealth and honor. Caodaists call Him the Beneficient Lord. As there is no other Beneficient God, so He is worshipped alone(11).
Cao-Dai God is very kind. He destroys all pains, overcomes all sufferings and fills the hearts of mankind with His bliss because He is considered as the ocean of bliss. He is the True Creator who cuts off the fetters of His servants and by whom all anxieties and sorrows are departed. He is the Support of all hearts to whom human beings seek their refuse.
Cao-Dai God is very just who Himself administers justice. As a result, the corrupt are turned out of His Court. Only He can do full justice because His judgment is real, just and absolute. As God is a unique Justice, so He wants men to be just, equitable, true speaker, actors of absolute justice and so on.
As God is nameless and Cao-Dai is just a symbolic name, man has no power to comprehend God fully but it does not mean that he can have no knowledge of Him at all. Man can know Him partially and participate in His Being and becoming with knowledge, which is real and true.
It is true that God ever assists the seeker of truth to know Him, but the fullness of that knowledge varies from person to person. To the true Phat (buddhas), Tien (holy spirits), Thanh (saints) and Than (lower-ranking spirits) alone is His Light revealed with perfect clarity. They possess deeper insight into things divine than other people.
Cao-Dai God manifested His Omnipotence by calling the world into existence. His power is admired and glorified inCaodai scripture:
“There is only one God, first Cause, principle of all that exists.
There is one God worshipped, venerated, prayed to under diverse names at every point of the globe. There is only one God.
Cao-Dai, such is the name that the one and total God has taken to manifest Himself in Viet Nam and to indicate to the world the new religion in which men are certain to find Him.
Cao-Dai, such is the name of the unique God who is in all the present and past names man gave to God or under which God manifested himself to man.
Cao-Dai, such is the name.(12)
Here we find an explicit sketch of the monotheistic feature of Cao-Dai God and a perfect expression of the uniqueness, glory and admiration of Duc Cao-Dai. Cao-Dai God is fully free and free from spatial limitation. So He is Immense and Omnipresent. He is Omnipresent not only by knowledge and power but also by nature. His eternal spirits pervade all beings because God is eternal in all time and at all time. That is why the present moment is always His time, the epoch of God. And it is true that as the unique and eternal first cause of everything, God cannot be confined within the space-time of this world.
Caodaists are very much devoted to their God, the Lord, Duc Cao-Dai. They admit the highness and the greatness of their supreme God even in every sphere of their life. A bright picture of their common tendency to God is found in the following prayer:
“I ask of you, my Brethren, to pray and sing the praises of Him who gives life, strength, beauty and what is still better: wisdom that makes you like unto him. I ask of you, my brethren, to sing, pray and put yourselves in order.
Position of order standing in the station of motionless waiting . . . I ask you to await the benefactions of the spirit. Position of order standing in the gesture of the first step forward the Light . . . I ask you to walk toward the Light.
Position of order seated in waiting and inner meditation . . I ask you to meditate, pray and wait.
I ask you, my Brethren, to pray, inwardly singing the praises of Him who gives life. The life of the body to run to the help for those who have need of you.
The life of the heart to love all men, all beings, to love all life, all divine life, angelic, human, animal, vegetable, mineral and atomic life.
I ask you to love earth, water, fire, air, and the pebbles of the road and the stars of the heavens.
Position of order in repose that of rest, which must be an action of grace. Immobility is an order, a position of action, a prayer, a song toward Him who gives Life, Strength, Beauty and what is more, Wisdom.
My Brethrens, My Sisters, I ask you to pray and sing the praises of Him who gives life.” (13)
In Caodaism, God as Infinite Eternal, Absolute, Unique and the True - Human being could make endless efforts to define what is incapable of definition: the infinitely ONE BEING, which does not allow anything or anyone to contain it, the One which contains in itself everything and all those who are in whatever, form, intensity and greatness they may be, simply capable of a good thought, of a word of peace, a gesture of love. In this one are grouped all the