Cao Dai's eclectic pantheon
photos, Ken Opprann
Vo Quang Minh, temple chief, second from left, leads prayers in the Cao Dai temple off Mao Tse Tung Boulevard in Phnom Penh. The temple is where the body of Pham Cong Tac, Defender of the Faith, remains, waiting for the day when the political climate in Vietnam allows its return to Tay Ninh. Below, a young worshiper lights incense.
Tucked between two glitzy five-story glass-fronted shops on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard
is a narrow lane with faded-orange walls. Slip along the neatly tiled path between
these temples of consumerism and the noise of the city swiftly fades.
Saffron, turquoise and cardinal-red flags mark the entrance to a different kind of
temple: in the midst of Phnom Penh's materialist mayhem is the secret, near-forgotten
world of Cao Dai - an 80-year-old religious movement that claims to enshrine the
fundamental truths of all creeds.
Espousing vegetarianism, equality of the sexes, meditation and tolerance of all the
world's religions, Cao Dai's teachings are said to come from divine messages, often
written in verse, received in séances by spiritual mediums.
It seems the ultimate product of Western New-Age pick-and-mix spirituality: in its
delightfully disparate pantheon of gods, Buddha hovers next to Shakespeare, Joan
of Arc is revered as much Jesus, and Victor Hugo is worshiped alongside Lao Tse,
the presumed founder of Taoism. But this superlatively syncretic religion is no newfangled
spiritual concoction; its roots lie in 1920s French Indochina.
And the tiny Cao Dai temple in Phnom Penh has a far larger significance than its
size indicates. The body of one of the most famous and controversial figures in Cao
Dai, Pham Cong Tac, lies here in an ornate tomb bedecked with colorful plastic flowers.
Pham Cong Tac was the Ho Phap, or "Defender of the Faith," and the medium
who received the largest number of the spirit messages that now constitute the Cao
Dai scriptures, said Dr Janet Hoskins of the University of Southern California.
"Pham Cong Tac led the Tay Ninh church [the first and main temple of Cao Dai]
in a dramatic expansion that converted several million people [in southern Vietnam]
between 1926 and 1956, [then] about 20 percent of the population," she said.
"He held séances both in Tay Ninh and in Cambodia, and it was at the
Phnom Penh temple that the spirit of Victor Hugo first spoke to Caodaists; for this
reason Hugo is the head of the overseas mission."
Founded in 1926 in Vietnam, the philosophy and moral code of the Caodaists developed
from a melding of the influential schools of thought of the day: Buddhism, Taoism,
Christianity, and Confucianism. The name Cao Dai, which means High Abode, or Roofless
Tower, was given as a symbolic name of the Supreme Being.
A year after its official establishment in Vietnam, Cao Dai reached Cambodia. In
1927 Pham Cong Tac received permission from King Norodom to set up a Cao Dai temple
in Cambodia. Initially based in Chamkar Morn district in Phnom Penh, they moved to
the more centrally located plot of land off Mao Tse Tung Boulevard where they remain,
said the director of the temple, Vo Quang Minh.
"In 1934 the government gave us a 60 by 180 meter plot of land for our temple,"
he said. "But when the Khmer Rouge came we, like everyone else, were forced
to evacuate the city. By the time we got back, the land around the temple had been
claimed by others - now we only have a 25 by 25 meter plot of land."
Apart from persecution under the Khmer Rouge - a period during which observance of
any religion was banned - Cao Dai has fared better in Cambodia than in Vietnam, where
both the movement and its leaders have been subject to government repression.
"Pham Cong Tac was a political figure in Vietnam, very involved in the struggle
against the French for independence," Hoskins said. "He was arrested and
deported in 1941, and spent five years on the Comoro Islands off Madagascar. His
associates managed to 'cut a deal' with the French, promising not to attack French
forces any more if Pham Cong Tac and five other religious leaders were freed and
returned to Vietnam."
Once free, he attended the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference as the head of a group of
non-communist nationalists, and was compared by some, including the American writer
Virginia Thompson, to Mahatma Gandhi in the sense of being a nationalist leader who
combined religious ideas with political ones. This praise was, however, to prove
his downfall in Vietnam, and explains why this key figure has been buried in Phnom
"The US-supported Diem government did not want a neutral political figure on
the scene, and in 1956 they tried to arrest Pham Cong Tac and took over the Cao Dai
militia which had defended the Holy See in Tay Ninh," Hoskins said. "Tac
fled to Phnom Penh, and stayed there until he died in 1959."
At the Cao Dai temple in Phnom Penh there remains a copy of Tac's letter to Prince
Norodom Sihanouk, in French, in which he explains he wishes to remain in Cambodia
until Vietnam is "united, peaceful and neutral."
Although Vietnam is now united and peaceful, as a communist state it is not yet considered
"neutral," Hoskins said.
"There is a lot of controversy about when, if ever, Pham Cong Tac's body can
be returned to Vietnam," she said. "The Vietnamese government is opening
up a lot about religion now, but most Caodaists do not feel that they have religious
However, the sect's most important temple, in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, is an active center
for Caodaists, where adherents attend religious services regularly. Thousands of
tourists also visit the temple annually to admire its ornate architecture.
In Cambodia, where over 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, Cao Dai is a small
yet flourishing minority religion with about ten temples spread across the country.
Just 200 families, all but ten Vietnamese, regularly attend the services at the Phnom
Penh temple, held four times every day at 6am, midday, 6pm and midnight, Minh said.
He said they have never suffered any anti-Vietnamese discrimination, and the government
has been nothing but supportive.
"The Cambodian government protects Cao Dai," he said. "If we need
help we ask them - our religion is legal here, we have discussed it with the government."
Cao Dai has gained some local support on account of the charitable work it carries
out in Phnom Penh. If people cannot afford coffins for their dead relatives, the
Cao Dai temple will provide one: since 1993, they have handed out more than 1,000
of their plain wooden coffins.
Despite an eclectic pantheon of gods and a reliance on spiritual mediums for the
revelation of their core texts, Cao Dai followers at the Phnom Penh temple do not
participate in seances, Minh said. Seances are not illegal in Cambodia, but they
are in Vietnam.
"The government of Cambodia is supposedly more 'open' about some things [like
spirit seances] than the government of Vietnam, which has forbidden them," Hoskins
said. "They do occur secretly, of course, and are an essential part of Caodaist
Cao Dai's ability to operate freely in Cambodia reflects the government's commitment
to religious toleration, said Sun Kim Hun, Secretary of State at the Ministry of
Cults and Religious Affairs.
"There are very many different religions in Cambodia," he said. "This
is not a problem as we have no religious discrimination at all - if people want to
be Buddhist, fine; Islamist, fine; Christian, fine - it is all ok with us."