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Religious fusion in Vietnam

Oct 21st 2015 at 9:30 PM

Religious fusion in Vietnam
Devotees of the Cao Dai in the Great Temple at Tay Ninh, (photo by Peter Stuckings)

Vietnamese culture has long been influenced by its powerful neighbours and, more recently, colonial powers – a process which has produced some unusual hybrid religions.
Vietnam is often regarded as a Buddhist country. The reality is rather more complex. Although up to 85 percent of the population regularly visits Buddhist pagodas, only 16 percent would be considered strictly Buddhist if you go by the book. Vietnam travel guide

Over the centuries, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism have become simplified, intertwined and Vietnamised to constitute – along with other indigenous animistic beliefs – a core religion that is shared to some extent by all Vietnamese. This religion is sometimes referred to as tam giao (triple religion). There is no sense of contradiction for a Vietnamese person to make offerings to Buddha at a pagoda, a national saint at a temple and a deceased grandparent at the family altar. Even some church-going Christians practise ancestor worship at home, while Vietnamese who regard themselves as non-religious routinely visit temples on festival days. The everyday behaviour and attitude of the typical Vietnamese is shaped by a complex synthesis of Asian religious traditions. Signatures Halong

Religious fusion in Vietnam


The Cao Dai cult

In 1921 a former civil servant of the French colonial administration called Ngo Minh Chieu received a message from a “superior spirit” called Cao Dai, meaning High Spirit or Supreme Being. Disillusioned by existing religions, Ngo was urged to create a new religion that meshed the world’s main creeds together.

Today, the Cao Dai religion has an estimated 3 million followers in Vietnam. Cao Dai incorporates the teachings and philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Before God existed, there was the Tao, that nameless, formless, unchanging and eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. Then a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born. 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 as Mother Buddha.

The religion’s three original prophets were a disparate bunch of people: French novelist Victor Hugo, Chinese Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat-sen and Vietnamese poet Trang Trinh, while the extensive list of Cao Dai saints includes William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, René Descartes and Thomas Jefferson. British author Graham Greene described the Cao Dai faith as “a game that had gone on too long”.

The fantastical Cao Dai Great Temple is found in Tay Ninh, 100km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

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