- 1 This kind of spirit communication specialized into divination is named cơ bút or phò loan by Caodai (...)
- 2 Literally, “high tower”, an epithet for the Jade Emperor of the Chinese sectarianism.
- 3 Caodaist theology proposes the opening of a “Great Way” (Đại Đạo) or the third and last historical (...)
1Caodaism is a syncretic Vietnamese religious movement that appeared in the 1920’s in Cochinchina – then a colony of French Indochina. Through spirit-writing and spirit –mediumship1, a deity called Cao Đài2 appeared and delivered to the oppressed Cochinchinese population an indigenous, universalistic, millenarian3 and patriotic ideology, which reflected the frustrations and aspirations of the colonized population and the independence process in Vietnam. Since its public statement in November 1926, only mass-conversions can explain the multiple adhesions found amongst the colonized peasant population. Indeed mediums, businessmen and landowners recruited thousands in only ten years.
- 4 Chiếu Minh, Cầu Kho, Tiên Thiên, Tam Kỳ Nguyên Bản, Bạch Y Liên Ðoàn Chơn Lý, Tây Tông Vô Cực Cung, (...)
2At first flimsy, the political aims of Caodaism gradually gained substance and momentum reaching a point in the 1930s at which it was able to create a strict hierarchical organization and a unique disciplinary framework controlled by a group of mediums; hence transforming the religion as either a potential rival or an ally of anti-colonial nationalist forces. This religious movement was soon scattered into diverse branches or denominations because of theological or political disputations. The Tây Ninh Holy See, while it was the first and is usually considered the largest Cao Đài organization, has suffered from schisms and defections since the early 1930s. Nevertheless, various Caodaist denominations, specially the most politically or socially engaged one as Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh, Ban Chỉnh Đạo (“Reform Committee” located at Bến Tre) or Minh Chơn Lý (“Enlighten Truth Reason” at Bạc Liêu), for example, played a crucial social role in the region as necessary mediators in decolonizing Indochina4.
- 5 As the denomination Minh Chơn Lý founded by Cao Triều Phát (1889-1956).
3Because of its religious and political impact on the Vietnamese context, Caodaism has been subject to suspicion and censure different governments throughout the 20th century from the colonial period in the 1920’s to the present-day Socialist Republic. Also in 1975, the Holy See of Tây Ninh, and its followers throughout the country, were subjected to brutal repression by the Communist government, than other Holy Sees or Caodaist denominations. This disparity between Caodaist branches could be linked to Tây Ninh’s oppositional stance; one which exceed those of other branches; some of whom are even clearly pro-communist5. Prior to this, the creation of a Cao Đài Army (see below) which fought against Việt Minh as well as Ngô Đình Diệm troops in the 1950-1960s had provoked repressive measures from both North and South Vietnam powers against the Tây Ninh branch and its military ‘headquarters’. At the time, the Caodaists of Tây Ninh were physically oppressed and spirit-mediumship censored. Because of this stigmatization, a large number of the Tây Ninh Caodaists, both followers and dignitaries, fled Vietnam to settle overseas.
- 6 In Jammes (2005), I have study the implementation of this new electoral legislation and the respons (...)
4According to Decree No. 297, of 11 November 1977, all Caodaist organizations were placed under the control of the Vietnam Fatherland Front (Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc Việt Nam) and of the majority of religious properties were confiscated. Since then, any religious activity requires prior authorization by the authorities, and disobedience can lead to the arrest of clergy deemed counter-revolutionary. The Religious Committee (Ban Tôn Giáo) of the government established a Management Council (Hội Đồng Chưởng Quản) that controls the election of the dignitaries, i.e those with the rank of priest (giáo hữu) to cardinal đầu sư). The government had to approve the nomination, ordination, and the transfer of clergy and lay “specialists”. This new electoral legislation replaced the traditional inauguration of dignitaries during spirit-mediumship sessions, committing a major breach of religious rules. Furthermore, religious organizations and officials were required to report, and obtain when necessary the authorization of the Religious Affairs Committee for their interactions with foreign organizations and individuals, and their activities abroad. Finally, the Management Council sparked a controversy among adepts, as many Caodaists viewed it as a brainchild of government officials and their pawns within Tây Ninh – thus violation of their Caodaist teachings and religious constitution.6
- 7 Literally the “orthodox Dharma”, this term was translated by adepts as “the Caodaist Constitution”.
- 8 Tiên Thiên branch was the first Caodaist branch to have been received the official “juridical perso (...)
5On 5 May 1997, a new charter (bản Hiến chương) conflicted with the traditional charter or “Constitution” of Caodaism (Pháp Chánh Truyền)7, finalizing Hanoi’s official recognition of Tây Ninh church (on May 9)8. Two distinct groups are now associated with this church : a Management Council, comprising a few temples officials controlled by the authorities, and a majority of temples opposed to this political Committee, who denounced the interference of government in the internal affairs of the Cao Đài religion (Blagov 1999: 130-151).
- 9 Specially the medium Trần Thái Chân (alias Đồng Tân), living in Australia, and Trần Quang Cảnh, pre (...)
6Since 1975, few studies had undertaken to analyze the red-hot subject of Caodaism. Only one dissertation has appeared since that time, written in 1991 by S. Blagov and called History and Philosophy of Caodaism (Institute of Anthropology, Moscow). His recent book, published in 1999, analyzed both history and philosophy of Caodaism, devoted about twenty pages to the contemporary life of Caodaists, all branches concerned. Nevertheless, he did not write anything about overseas followers, although they helped him considerably in his research9. His point of view was often partisan, taking the Tây Ninh branch as the main and orthodox Caodaist organization. But another branch and another “Holy See”, that of Bân Tre (also called Ban Chỉnh Đạo, “Reform Committee”), may actually have the most followers and the highest dignitaries now in Vietnam with 1,098,000 adepts (against 900,000 for Tây Ninh and 630,000 for Tiên Thiên denomination). According the same national census (April 1999), there would be 3.2 millions of Caodaist in Vietnam.
- 10 The same resource provides data on others Caodaist branches: 41,607 followers of Tiên Thiên), 4,993 (...)
7Nevertheless, for the “ecumenical” Cơ Quan Phổ Thông Giáo Lý Đại Đạo (“Centre of diffusion of the Caodaist great way doctrine”) in Ho Chi Minh City, an internally published document from 2003 based on provincial and religious census, estimates the number of Tây Ninh followers in 2002 at 2,276,598 simple adepts, 3,631 high dignitaries, and 18,205 secondary dignitaries. Whereas the number of Ban Chỉnh Đạo followers is estimated at 788,592 adepts, 232 high dignitaries, and 6,972 secondary dignitaries (Ngô Bái Thiên 2003: 29 and 40). This would still be consistent with the overall figure of about 3.2 million, but it would give Tây Ninh a strong numerical plurality of members. The question of “partiality” of religious statistics is a really important one also for evaluating each group’s claims to numbers of followers and dignitaries, and this article will review the reasons, i.e. the religious and political agenda, of such partialities10.
- 11 Few Caodaists came from South Vietnam to France in the 1960s, mostly for professional reasons (scho (...)
- 12 In his PhD thesis, C. Hartney (2004) focused on a Caodaist community in Australia (specially the or (...)
8Overseas Caodaist communities present a space for ideological projections and for social protest and political action. Between two and four million Caodaists worship today in Vietnam, compared to 13,000-15,000 overseas. The largest group of overseas followers escaped as ‘boat-people’ in the period 1975-1985 and live in United States or in Australia11. Against all expectations, the international framework of these overseas Caodaist networks has only been recently studied (Hartney 2004; Hoskins 2005; Jammes 2006a and 2006b)12. Such an ‘absence’ contrasts with the numerous case studies in the countries welcoming the exiled Southeast Asian populations.
9This article strives to highlight current aspects of the religious networks in Vietnamese communities, including the overseas communities. Focused on the main Caodaist international association, its staff, its global modes of organization, and also its religious and political aims, this article provides an understanding of Cao Dai Overseas Missionary as means of expression, gaining recognition, channelling resources, legitimising conflicts, and as a sources of identity for Caodaist communities.
10The depiction and analysis of this overseas association has shown that global networks operate on many levels, inside and outside Vietnam. They play a critical role in determining the past, present and future issues are asked and solved. Above all, they show the way to which individuals try to achieve their goals, both political and religious in Vietnamese context. This approach proceeds from a ‘multi-sited ethnography’, by tracking multiple ethnographic contexts, which have restored the flow and content of information circulating within Caodaist and Vietnamese networks on an international scale.
- 13 In order to map the Cao ?ài overseas networks, I carried out research during ten years on different (...)
11I think necessary to ask what happened to the main actors of Tây Ninh denomination in overseas context, i.e. in Western countries as well as in Cambodia, how they revise and perform their traditional orthodox discourse, how they develop their utopia of independence. Based on long term research, this article analyses the delicate politics of expanding Cao Đài faith beyond the borders of Vietnam too13.
12There are many organizations, cultural as well as political, that appear in the sphere of overseas Caodaist networks. I will illustrate this complex situation by analyzing one association, named Cao Dai Overseas Missionary, which federates the largest number of overseas followers.
13The headquarters of this Overseas Missionary is located near Washington DC. It has developed an original strategy for negotiating its place in contemporary society, in particular the evolving relationship between the Vietnamese government, the sacred center or “Holy See” of Caodaism (“the Vietnamese Vatican” in Tây Ninh province) and its different establishments overseas. My ethnological approach describes how this missionary organization has developed a dynamic position in Vietnam and overseas through the choice of a current consensus with the local authorities.
- 14 I think important to underline that for all the Caodaist adepts, these historical and social charac (...)
- 15 Managing the ministries of Health, Agriculture, Education, Finances, Food, Enterprises, Internal Af (...)
14This organization belongs to the Tây Ninh branch, the first institutionalized, missionary and centralized Caodaist denomination14. Its Holy See (Tòa Thánh) is located in the province of Tây Ninh, which is about one hundred kilometers northwest of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. The Holy See of Tây Ninh actively promoted its power through a hierarchy in the South of Vietnam, and increasingly transformed its territory in a “Holy Land” (Thánh Địa). Management of the Tây Ninh is in the hands of an Executive Power (Cửu Trùng Đài or the “Temple of the Nine Degrees of Evolution”) and a Judiciary Power (Hiệp Thiên Đài or “Temple of the Celestial Alliance”). The first power is supposed to concern the temporal affairs15, while the second is responsible for organizing spirit-mediumship séances to receive oracles or orders from Spirits.
- 16 The patriotic and autonomous positions of this first Holy See have been described and analyzed by h (...)
15In fact, the hierarchical and centralized organization of Tây Ninh largely emulates the model of Vatican Holy See. When the “Caodaist pope” Lê Văn Trung used for the first time the term “Holy See of Tây Ninh” in the 1920s, it can be considered by the French colonial authorities as a political claim for a legal status and an equal rank between Caodaism and Catholicism16.
16To understand the overseas activities, it is necessary to first outline the two forms of spirit-mediumship of this Holy See, which provide us with a context to view the links between the Overseas Missionary and the hierarchy within Vietnam.
17First, all the Caodaists I met during ten years, whether from this branch or another, agree that the architectural plans of the Tây Ninh Holy See were drawn in the 1920s by the Cao Đài Master in spirit-mediumship séances, called cơ bút. More than simply an administrative center, this sanctuary is seen as a place which is highly symbolic, and powerful, like a charm (Đức Nguyên 1999; Jammes 2006b), conferring protection, longevity and a kind of aura to the instructions emanating from there and spreading to hundreds of Cao Đài Temples (thánh thất or “holy houses”).
- 17 The Caodaist flag is composed, until now, of three colors (yellow, blue and red, symbolizing Buddhi (...)
18Secondly, the Tây Ninh Holy See received the indelible print of one of the highest religious figures of Caodaism for the first part of the 20th century, that’s Phạm Công Tắc (1890-1959). In a spirit séance, the divine Cao Đài Master appointed him Hộ Pháp of the religion, that means the “Guard of the Dharma”, “elected by the Sky” (Thiện mạng). With this honorific and powerful function, he also became the Chief of the Mediums and of the Judiciary Power (Hiệp Thiên Đài) in the beginning of the religion. His political ambition was to give autonomy to his Holy See and an extra-national dimension to the religion at the same time. Such self-government was seen by Phạm Công Tắc and Tây Ninh adepts as a first step to set up a “national religion” (quốc đạo). In a posthumous book (1971), the Chief of Mediums called for a “national religion carried on by a southern wind” (Nam phong quốc đạo), meaning here the Vietnam (i.e. the South of China). The religious state Phạm Công Tắc wished would be supported by spirit séances organized in the Holy See of Tây Ninh, accepting the Caodaist Constitution, its flag (đạo kỳ)17, its rituals and so on.
19The charisma of this medium made Caodaism more popular among the Vietnamese people, becoming the emblematic figure of the institutional realm of Caodaism especially through the religious and political orientation of Tây Ninh branch. He is still venerated by all the Caodaists of Tây Ninh branch. After his death, in 1959, his body was been mummified and conserved in Phnom Penh. In November 2006, his body was brought back to Vietnam and the Tây Ninh Holy See. We can understand this current transfer observing the overseas communities of Tây Ninh branch.
- 18 According Trần Quang Cảnh’s estimation, which not includes Vietnamese tourists.
20Overseas Caodaists, like many other Việt kiều (the term often used by Caodaists I have met) or Việt hải ngoài (Vietnamese living abroad) go back in Vietnam to see members of their family. But they particularly return to Vietnam to go and visit the Holy See of Tây Ninh, sometimes for the first time. The non-official visits or pilgrimages of overseas followers are the main part of the contact of Overseas Missionary with Vietnam. Indeed, the excitement of a trip to Vietnam or the stories performed by pilgrims on their return, structure the time in exile, motivating all discussions. Until recently, this sacred act had nevertheless to be inserting into a tourist calendar very tightly. As any others Western or Vietnamese tourist, they couldn’t reach the Holy See freely. They had to leave Hô Chi Minh City by bus early in the morning, then visit the tunnels of Resistance fighters at Củ Chi. Lastly, they can attend a Caodaist ceremony, at twelve o’clock, just before lunch and returning to Hô Chi Minh City. About 200-300 foreign tourists still visit this place everyday according the same schedule18.
“Sometimes, because of a clinging guide, we have furtively the occasion to speak with true Caodaists of Tây Ninh”, told me an overseas Caodaist after his trip in Vietnam in 2000. “But, these brothers complained me about their social conditions, and asked me and Overseas Missionary for money or for helping. But we aren’t rarely meeting the true Caodaists”. One friend related me that he met some Caodaists but they were too afraid to speak with him and ran away. Another Caodaist brother told me that he only met and spoke with ‘authorized Caodaist’. He was so disappointed.”
21Although there are not any tourist hostels and accommodations yet, adepts can now visit the Holy See of Tây Ninh more freely, without using tour-operator intermediaries as a few years ago. This shift occurred during the years 2002-2006, especially with the growth of local tourism in Vietnam and the rush for investment. Thus the province of Tây Ninh became a significant tourist place in South Vietnam, because of the Caodaist Holy See, but also because of the Núi Bà Đen (Black Women Mountain), which is a Buddhist pilgrimage site and a week-end place of relaxation for Saigonese.
22Last but not the least, a Caodaist living in France, and belonging to the Tây Ninh branch, had recently toured Vietnam. He confided to me:
“Nowadays, in Vietnam, the true Caodaists aren’t over there. All the adepts you can see in the sanctuary are puppets or spies of government. They remain locked up in their homes, fearing to open their doors and their mouths. They do not worship publicly in Vietnam anymore. The true Caodaists are living abroad, or at home in Vietnam…”
23This interview subject chose to ignore other Caodaist branches in Vietnam, which sometimes can worship more freely. Nevertheless, this point of view raises again the question of the image of the Tây Ninh Holy See and its legitimacy. Before 1975, adepts of Tây Ninh claimed that they belonged to the main ‘Church’ of Caodaism, the only true guardian of religious orthodoxy (chánh đạo). But because of the high degree of surveillance and the suffocating tourist complex managed by government tourist agencies, the Holy See seems to be as flat and brightly colored as the post cards found in tourist shops. The Tây Ninh Holy See, supposedly the religious capital of a universal religion, is now reduced to a tourist attraction.
24These interviews, from some tourist pilgrims, reveal the repressive character of this tourist complex in Tây Ninh. During a short visit time, the behavior of tourists in this religious place is closely and necessarily organized and controlled. Both traveling to Vietnam and to the Holy Land of Tây Ninh constitute essential stages of a personal quest, which is tied to both personal and spiritual identity. In the case of the Caodaists of Tây Ninh, there is a specific overseas communitarian process.
25The 31 December 1994, the leadership of an International Caodaist Convention (Cao Đài Giáo Hải Ngoài or Cao Đài Overseas, signed in 1992) started the construction of a huge sanctuary at Riverside, in California (see site http:www.caodai.org).
26It was planned to include a meditation center, library, classroom, a “nutrition center for promoting longevity”, a clinic, and a shelter for the homeless. This project was inspired by the “social work and charity offices” (cơ quan phước thiên) in Tây Ninh, which were a true welfare and Social Agency as S. Blagov (1999: 96) has noted. The General Secretary who led this project named Doctor Bùi Đắc Hùm, who is the grandson of a high dignitary (phồi sư or archbishop) of Tây Ninh. He was himself a dignitary, as “historian-archivist” (hiền tài) of the Hiệp Thiên Đài (a hierarchic structure being involved in esoteric practice of spirit-mediumship).
27Although the US laws regarding the faith and the public worship were favorable to this building project, issues raised inside Caodaist community soon. At first, this ostentatious project was generously funded by all the overseas Cao Đài communities. But the funding gradually tapered off, because of a split in these communities. I interviewed many overseas leaders of Tây Ninh who thought this project was contesting the role, the image and the power of the true Holy See of Tây Ninh. In addition, this building project undermined the motivation to claim the legitimacy of overseas leaders and to go back one day to Vietnam.
28Since September 1998, a new generation of religious Vietnamese leaders has established trans-national religious federations, and it is one of the US manifestations of a most important international Caodaist organization: the Cao Dai Overseas Missionary (CDOM beneath). The global network of this association works rather differently from its predecessor.
29With followers spread over sixteen countries (more than three thousand of them in California (in 1998), according to Trần Quang Cảnh, the president, it has around two hundred adepts in France (according to my own observation). Since last year, the ‘head quarters’ – and not the ‘Holy See’ – was near Washington DC (in Virginia suburb). Trần Quang Cảnh now lives half-time in Westminster, California, in a retirement community in “Little Saigon”, half-time in Hô Chi Minh City. He is so supervising the actions of Tây Ninh Caodaists from these two places. Both Trần Quang Cảnh and Bùi Đắc Hùm were part of those Vietnamese refugees who were flown out of the country because of their ties to the American government or American companies. They were not re-educated or forced to spend time in refugee camps overseas as the so-called ‘boat-people’.
- 19 Cao Đài Overseas Missionary has eleven temples members in California, thirteen around United States (...)
- 20 With temples in Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto.
- 21 With five temple members in Queensland, Sidney, Wiley Park (New South Wales), Melbourne, Girrawheen (...)
30In short, we can notice that the main satellites of CDOM are in United-States19, Canada20 and Australia21. Caodaist churches or individuals whose became affiliated to this association send money by subscription. In Russia, Professor S. Blagov has set up local information and lectures for international conferences; in England, the Overseas Missionary is represented by an oratory in Feltham (Vương Quốc Anh). In France, Huỳnh Tâm, has replaced Gustave Meillon (a former police superintendent in Vietnam who was also a teacher at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations or INALCO, and responsible of a Vietnamese Youth association in Paris), to watch over the Caodaist library in France (thư viện Cao Đài).
- 22 The Persian “Bahai Faith” provides a synthesis of various religious teachings (Abraham, Moses, Zoro (...)
31Two main religious contacts were based in Hô Chi Minh City, Misters Lê Quang Tấn and Đức Nguyên. The first man is about eighty years old. His clear political involvement, particularly his struggle for the autonomy of the Tây Ninh branch, aroused the government’s suspicion. He was confined to worship in only one oratory in Hô Chi Minh City (thánh thất Đồ Thánh Tây Ninh), and compelled to spend the night under house arrest. Today, his actions are extremely limited. For example, in February 2002, the Vietnamese authorities accepted a trip by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, headed by Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, Senior Advisor for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais in the United States22. The US mission was allowed to meet some opposition-minded religious dignitaries, including Caodaist dignitary Lê Quang Tấn.
32The overseas leaders encouraged all his plans for political action in secret, as relating the ‘Golden Age’ of Caodaism during the era of Phạm Công Tắc. Until now, the name of Lê Quang Tấn calls to mind of each Caodaist his famous friendship with the Hộ Pháp Phạm Công Tắc. He had followed the Chief of Mediums to Cambodia in the 1950s, fleeing the repression ordered by the Catholic Ngô Đình Diệm against ‘political and religious sects’. This first link in Hô Chi Minh City gives the Overseas Missionary a certain notoriety and presents the specter of an activist and independent religion.
- 23 This name refers to the Gò Kén village in the province of Tây Ninh, where were settled the first Ca (...)
33The second contact in Vietnam of Overseas Missionary was also a “historian-archivist” (hiền tài), sixty years old: “Đức Nguyên” (an alias), who died in July 2005. His very scholarly Dictionary of Caodaism (2000, 3 volumes) was censored by the current government in Vietnam. Đức Nguyên published this Dictionary on the Internet through Overseas Missionary e-networks. Links with a Caodaist web site played a key role in a virtual but productive network between the overseas communities and those in Vietnam. For example, the Australian site http://www.ucs.soc.ystd.edu.au (or http://www.personal.usyd.edu.au) held by Đào Công Tâm has obvious partnership relations with two web sites in France (http://www.minht.free.fr, http://www.lecaodaisme.free.fr of Nguyên Thái Tùng, or www.goken.free.fr23 of Huỳnh Tâm).
- 24 Where he had founded the oratory Vùng Hoa Thịnh Đốn.
34Finally, the president of Overseas Missionary, Trần Quang Cảnh, sixty-four years old, lives between Washington DC24, California and Hô Chi Minh City. The Overseas Missionary has two vice-presidents: Mister Nguyên Chanh Giáo, a “historian-archivist” (hiền tài) in charge of the main oratory in Sydney (Australia), and Ms Nguyễn Ngọc Lan, the wife of a high dignitary in the oratory of Montreal (Canada).
35According to Ms Nguyễn Ngọc Lan, vice-president of this association, and many other adepts I met, Caodaism is not only a religious cult, but also a collective way to live and propagate Vietnamese identity. She said me:
“We [Overseas Missionary] must allow Vietnamese people and all religions to express their ideas and faith. We must promote Cao Đài proselytizing. At the same time, by this religious way, we are spreading the beautiful values of Vietnamese culture”.
In this interview, the focus on the so-called “Vietnamese identity” refers to cultural features considered essential: the Tam Giáo or Three Teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism); the literary splendour of spirit texts written in the traditional meters of Vietnamese poetry; the spirit of extreme religious tolerance of the Vietnamese people; and so on. We could multiply the examples of these culturalist discourses which enhance the national ambitions of Caodaism. We have to underline the fact that Cao Đài worship is seen here as the primordial link not only to all humanity, but especially to the Vietnamese nation. This interaction between universalism and nationalism seems less paradoxical than logical if we remind the missionary aim of Caodaism. In this missionary process, the Vietnamese people is explicitly described by Caodaist teachings as “chosen” by Master Cao Đài. This view of the genius of the Vietnamese people, arbitrarily described through a handful of cultural and essentialist features, guides the actors of Overseas Missionary during their conferences and social activities.
- 25 Trần Quang Cảnh has a BS degree in Political Sciences and Business Administration at the University (...)
36The position of the president of this organization, Trần Quang Cảnh, is significant. He is currently retired, leaving his work last year as a Senior Systems Analyst at Northrop-Grumman Information Technology (Virginia)25. He, and others, are suspected by the Holy See of being wholly manipulated by Communist authorities. That is his main reason in distancing himself from ideological production and orders of this Holy See of Tây Ninh for the moment. However, he knows that if he wants to spread Caodaism throughout Vietnam today, he must enter into a peaceful dialogue with the Vietnamese government.
- 26 Since the 1930s, Tây Ninh branch had trained a military force or a “celestial army” (thiên binh), w (...)
37This computer scientist is actually less famous than his father, the Caodaist Bishop Trần Quang Vinh who was the executive right hand man of Phạm Công Tắc, Chief of Mediums and Hộ Pháp. “Bishop Vinh” was himself the former head between 1928 and 1959 of the first overseas Caodaist mission in Cambodia. He also became the highest General of the Caodaist Army, dissolved by Ngô Đình Diệm between 1955 and 196326. Trần Quang Vinh was arrested and murdered between 1975 and 1977 in unknown conditions.
38Although the Caodaist Army and the Medium Organ had disappeared, such a leader has provided both emotion and reassurance to this Caodaist association until now. Indeed, the famous name of Trần Quang Vinh used to call to mind, for the Caodaists of this branch, the image of a Golden Age, a time when the Holy See of Tây Ninh provided a focal point and an autonomous place of decision.
39According to my PhD data, the projects of this organization are fostered not only by religious objectives, but also by political goals: to train new religious overseas leaders, to develop scout training for the young generation, to translate Cao Đài scriptures into English, to promote scientific and theological exchanges between disciples and scholars, and finally to forge stronger links with Vietnam by raising funds to build or restore Caodaist temples destroyed during the war.
40In addition, Trần Quang Cảnh, and other representative members of Overseas Missionary spend their time in airplanes, to speak in Caodaist oratories all around the world or in international conferences organized by foreign associations, such as the CESNUR (Center for Studies of the New Religions) or the IARF (International Association for Religious Freedom). These trips are funded by the association. Furthermore, every two years, the Overseas Missionary association also finances “study and solidarity” trips for younger people to go to the Cao Đài Youth International Conferences organized in USA, Canada or Australia. In the summer of 2002, one hundred and fifty young Caodaists came to California for example (Trần Quang Cảnh’s estimation). The organization of these groups is highly complex: they clearly follow a model developed in the scout movement, offering training and supervision, insignia and a military style of drill.
41“The activities of the Caodaist organization are completely different from those of my father”, Trần Quang Cảnh explains, “because, today, spirit-mediumship (cơ bút) practice doesn’t have a role in the religion’s activities of anymore, in contrast to my father’s day. Thanks to cơ bút divination, my father had received from Spirits, as Saint Victor Hugo, all the directives and support he needed to supervise the religion” (Jammes 2006a: 190-201). My main objective now is to find ways to convince the Vietnamese government to change its religious policy in order to restore more or less the religious freedom in Vietnam, as it existed before 1975” (interviewed in 2005).
42Recent events show the path of dialogue between government and Tây Ninh church. The name and the body of Hộ Pháp Phạm Công Tắc still play a role in this political process.
43In May 2003, CDOM published an unusual article in its Bản Tin Đại Đạo or “News Bulletin about the Great Way”. This magazine dedicated several pages to the trip of a ‘prestigious’ Overseas Missionary delegation in Bangladesh for an International Symposium on Caodaism at Dhaka University (in India). The five travellers were the president of Overseas Missionary, his wife (Võ Kim Thoàn, also in charge of the CDOM’s Internet diffusion), the two vice-presidents, the Cao Đài Youth Leader (Phạm Cao Công Khánh) and a Caodaist sympathizer, Christopher Hartney, a PhD Candidate in Religion studies in the University of Sydney at this time. In addition to the conference planed, the trip included a visit in Cambodia to Angkor Wat and to the tomb of the “Cao Đài Pope Đức Hộ Pháp” (Phạm Công Tắc) watched over by the oratory Kim Biên, also called Nam Vang (ancient Vietnamese name for ‘Cambodia’). This tomb (liên đài) was located in Phnom Penh temple since Phạm Công Tắc’s death, in 1959. This oratory was built in the 1930s on what is today Mao Tse Tung Street (Bernardini 1974). Until the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, near by 5,000 Caodaists, mainly half-blood (Khmer-Vietnamese) and overseas Vietnamese (Việt kiếu) and, were living in or around the Toul Svay Prey and Chamcar Mon districts. According to a recent fieldtrip there (March-June 2007), nearly 2,000 Caodaists worship in Cambodia, 500 of them located in Phnom Penh and between 200 or 300 near the Vietnamese border (at Prey Thom).
- 27 Phạm Công Tắc had also written such opinion on 26 March 1956 and sent his letter to Ngô Đình Diệm, (...)
44The News Bulletin related at length the misadventures of this tomb. It insisted on the old and hot question of its repatriation to Vietnam and Tây Ninh since the 1960s and not resolved or accepted by both Cambodian and Vietnamese governments. At the end of his life, Phạm Công Tắc was in exile in Phnom Penh, fleeing the repression of Ngô Đình Diệm. From Cambodia, he pretended to sponsor the “True path for the peace” (Con đường hòa bình chơn thực), based on the respect of Human Rights, democratic freedoms, and unity and neutrality for Vietnam and the Vietnamese27. Before his death the 17 May 1959, his last wish was to not come back to Vietnam until his homeland had entirely reached this “true path” i.e. “le jour où notre chère Patrie le Viêt-Nam sera unifié ou poursuivra la même politique de Paix et de Neutralité, objet de ma vie”. Supporting the repatriation or not of the Phạm Công Tắc’s remains became a way for Caodaists to evaluate or criticize the regime of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For example, Huỳnh Tâm’s web site named www.goken.free.fr was extremely virulent the last decade against the non-respect of the Human Rights or the democratic freedoms in Vietnam.
45The articles in the News Bulletin ask for the widening of the political spectrum in both countries, deploring the unjust stigmatization of Caodaism in their policy. Chris Hartney wrote in English:
“It was a shame to see the largest tract of land owned by the religion reduced in size by locals [he means the Cambodian authorities] who have seized the ground around the tomb. […] The tomb has been patched-up carefully, but it is also easy to see where members of the Khmer Rouge have broken into the sepulchral in order to check for any precious objects without realizing of course how precious the contents are to so many followers […] But I expect the same question came to my mind as to everyone who visits here: how long will it be until he is able to return to Tây Ninh? I know that the day he does so, it will be a day of exceptional rejoicing for all Tây Ninh Caodaists.” (C. Harthey in Collective 2003: 28.)
The oratory Kim Biên in Phnom Penh was not important ever under Pol Pot regime which had murdered worshippers, sacked the oratory, and confiscated the religious and Vietnamese lands. Beside, after 1979 and the arrival of the Vietnamese Communist government in Cambodia, Caodaists were not exactly the same as in 1975: at that time, they had to follow the orders of Tây Ninh which was involved in the war against the Communists; after 1979, Caodaist in Cambodia had to deal with the Religious Committee (Ban Tôn Giáo) of Tây Ninh (which names the dignitaries in Vietnam and Cambodia) and render allegiance to Hanoi.
46Perhaps the most important theme of Caodaist claims – through the voice of Chris Hartney – is not only the tomb, as a building, but also the return of the body of Phạm Công Tắc to Tây Ninh. Indeed, “because of its purity and the high degree of spiritual evolution of the Hộ Pháp Phạm, his body cannot putrefy”, explained the historian Đức Nguyên, who often returned to the issue of repatriation during my interviews with him. More than a tomb, it functioned as a talisman, or a human amulet, which was hidden in this repatriation project. This talisman could give return positive energy to the Holy See, keep out bad spirits (occult or human), expulse the false Caodaists from the Holy Land and protect the political and autonomous ambitions of the ‘true’ Tây Ninh adepts. This divine power could allow overseas Caodaist to come and pray freely in the sanctuary of Tây Ninh. It would be the end of their exile.
47Negotiations between overseas Caodaists leaders and the Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities allowed the mummified body to be transferred, attracting tens of thousands of followers from all over the country and the world. These negotiations showed the old relationships between the Prime-Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, and the Vietnamese communist authorities (Gottesman 2003). But it is also necessary to understand this political and religious advancement from the discourses of the US State Department decision in November 2006 to take Vietnam off its list of nations believed to violate religious freedom. According to Trần Quang Cảnh, interviewed in February 2007 in Hô Chi Minh City, “the aim of the Vietnamese government is to show to the world that Vietnam is now a land of religious freedom, able to attract the trust and the money of Overseas Vietnamese people”. Vietnamese government policy now encourages all Việt hải ngoài (Vietnamese living abroad) to come back to the homeland to invest and share their skills to develop the country (by renovating temples and supporting international activities), but also to ‘heal the breach’ of a painful wartime and exile.
48In November 2006, just few days before the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Hanoi, the US state department announced the decision to take Vietnam off a list of nations it believes severely violate religious freedom. About one month later, on November 30 2006, the tomb of the Head Spirit Medium Phạm Công Tắc was transferred from Phnom Penh to Tây Ninh. On November 28, political members of the Religious Committee (Ban Tôn Giáo) and dignitaries of the Management Council (Hội Đồng Chưởng Quản) crossed the Cambodian borders to go to the Caodaist temple of Phnom Penh, i.e. where the tomb of Phạm Công Tắc was located, and took out his mummified body. For the next two days, hundreds of Caodaists living in Cambodia accompanied the body of Phạm Công Tắc to the Vietnamese border, crossing it at the Mộc Bài checkpoint. Then, from December 1st to 5th, rituals were organized in the Holy See of Tây Ninh to put the body in a new sarcophagus (báo ân từ) and his new mausoleum or “jewelry stupa” (bửu tháp), in front the biggest gate of the Holy See (quảng trường), opened for the event for the first time in thirty years28. Near 200,000 adepts attended the five day ritual according to CDOM leaders.
- 29 Interviews with Trần Quang Cảnh in February 2007 in Hô Chi Minh City.
49During the two proceeding years, Trần Quang Cảnh often returned in Vietnam to meet government officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi and the State officials of the religious affairs in the Holy See29. His major aim was to repatriate the body of Phạm Công Tắc to Vietnam, and then to begin the process of revising the current Caodaist Charter (bản Hiến chương). This Charter, established by the government in 1975, should be reorganized back to be consistent with the Pháp Chánh Truyền, i.e. the religious Constitution written by the first Caodaists in the 1920s. The adepts believed that this original Constitution was written by the spirits during spirit-mediumship séances. In this revising process, there should be a chapter (Item 5) regarding on how to organize the Cao Dai Overseas Missionary from the Holy See of Tây Ninh. Trần Quang Cảnh, as chairman of the Overseas Missionary, is working on the reestablishment of the “Holy Assembly of the Overseas Missionary” (Hội Thánh Ngoài Giáo), which would follow the wishes of the spirits from the Holy See of Tây Ninh.
50Above all, the question of the restoration of spirit-mediumship seems to be at the heart of his claims. This president confines himself and his Overseas Missionary to study the corpus of spirit-medium texts produced before 1975. In that way, CDOM finances some publications, like overseas reviews, books and new editions of older Tây Ninh texts. His militant action should allow a free production and circulation of spirit-medium texts around Vietnam.
51In Trần Quang Cảnh’s view (email in 2007), “Cao Dai Overseas Missionary must be resuscitated and Victor Hugo [Spirit] should take over the reins of the organization, like in the beginning in Phnom Penh [i.e. in 1928, with Phạm Công Tắc as medium]. To me, the future members of the CDOM will be all foreigners (not Vietnamese), but in the beginning there should be an Advisory Group, composed of distinguished scholars. The activities for this Advisory group would be to write, translate Caodaist books in English, French, Japanese, German, Russian, Chinese, etc., to attend all religious conferences, to go to universities to talk about the religion, I even have the idea of organizing a World Religious or Spiritist Conference in Tây Ninh. Well, I have a lot of ideas, but I cannot do anything if I don’t have the Hội Thánh Ngoài Giáo [Overseas missionary with Holy See as headquarter] in Tây Ninh backing me up.”
- 30 Official census was delivered at that time concerning the Holy See of Tây Ninh in 2007: Executive P (...)
52On 25 May 2007, the Management Council (Hội Đồng Chưởng Quản) of the Holy See had officially announced through a communiqué (thông tri) that the evolution of the current Charter would be discussed during two councils or “great religious assemblies”, called the “Popular Council” (Đại Hội Nhơn Sanh) and the “Sacerdotal Council” (Đại Hội Hội Thánh). The first occurred in 3-5 November, the second in 3-5 December 200730. But paradoxically, the task of CDOM is not easy, not because of the local government (Ban Tôn Giáo) or Hanoi, but because the instability the evolution of the Charter would occur into the current hierarchy in the Holy See. Especially this legislative claim shed light on the dictatorship of the Caodaist Cardinal Thượng Tám Thanh, the head of the Holy See of Tây Ninh and the current political ‘impasse’ for the government.
- 31 He born at Thanh Vĩnh Đông (Bình Phước, Long An). Commonly, Caodaists used only the forename after (...)
53With the Management Council at the head of the Holy See, the authority rests in the hands of the “Hội Trường Hội Đồng Chưởng Quản” (President of the Management Council), i.e. Nguyễn Thành Tám (1936-) alias Cardinal Thượng Tám Thanh (Cardinal Tám beneath)31.
54Nguyễn Thành Tám was commissioned by Spirits to be deacon (lễ sanh) in 1957, then priest (giáo hữu) in 1965, and bishop (giáo sư) in 1973. Since 1975 and the communist government’s ban on spirit-mediumship, the latter practice doesn’t interfere in the appointment of dignitaries. At the legislative level, an important 1998 law regulates the statute of the religious confession, thus conceding a political legitimacy to all organization holding a “juridical personality” (pháp nhân) or a legal authorization to carry a religious worship. This personality was delivered to Tây Ninh in 1997 by the Office of the Religious Affairs. At the same time, bishop Tám was appointed as Vice-President of the Management Council in May 9th, 1997 (first term 1997-2002). Following elections, he was promoted to the rank of archbishop (phồi sư) in 1999, and became President of the same Council in 2002 (second term 2002-2007). In 2004, he was promoted to Cardinal (đầu sư). Nguyễn Thành Tám has had full authority since 10 years. For example, he can promote or fire dignitaries at will. He is also the solely in charge of the finance of the Tây Ninh branch (revenue, expanding, and investments), and he is responsible of the daily opening of the donation box at the Holy See.
55In 2007, after the successful return of Hộ Pháp’s remains, he decided to become a “member of the Vietnamese Congress” (dân biểu quốc hội) by signing on the election ballot in Tây Ninh, although he is a religious leader. However, he failed to be elected, receiving the second last fewest votes. Trần Quang Cảnh, who shared with me these last data, underlines that “Tây Ninh is considered as a province of Caodaists, and yet, Caodaists do not vote for their leader”.
56Abuse of power seems so acute today that the leadership of Cardinal Tám is compared by the Caodaist priest Ngọc Nhát Thanh (2007) to a “dictatorship mechanism”. The same author complains of the current situation and describes his own Tây Ninh branch as a “secret State” (“bí mật quốc gia”), i.e. a place where nobody can do or know something without the support of Cardinal Tám.
- 32 Whereas an utopian principle of democracy, my PhD data shed light on the nepotistic logic in the ma (...)
- 33 He has in fact the rank of cải trạng, “lawyer”, which is equivalent to the rank of bishop inside th (...)
57If the current Charter would insert the religious laws written in the Pháp Chánh Truyền book, there will be separation of power. That means that the Hội Thánh Cửu Trùng Đài (Executive Power) and the Hội Thánh Hiệp Thiên Đài (Judiciary Power) should be separated and in equal, each having its own functions, with two separate sets of leadership, controlling each other32. If the old religious Constitution Pháp Chánh Truyền would be restored, Cardinal Tám should share his power with others cardinals or even lost his monopoly for highest dignitaries as “principal cardinal” (chưởng pháp) or even pope. Beside, ‘bishop’ Lê Minh Khuyên33 would be also authorized to be the highest ranking of the Hiệp Thiên Đài, whereas he has now to follow the rules dictated by Cardinal Tám (of the Cửu Trùng Đài).
58For these reason Cardinal Tám wrote a revised Charter in December 2007, which of course does not follow up completely the Pháp Chánh Truyền and it does not show any separation of power (between the Cửu Trùng Đài and the Hiệp Thiên Đài). Instead, Cardinal Tám created a new organization, which is called Chưởng Quản Hội Thánh, on top of the hierarchy, exactly similar to the last Hội Đồng Chưởng Quản. The Popular Council or Sacerdotal Council approved this “Charter Project” (bản dự thảo Hiến chương) in December 2007. According to Trần Quang Cảnh (interviewed in 2007), these two assemblies should be considered as two “rubber-stamps”, two “toys” in the hands of Cardinal Tám to do whatever he wants (promote or fire dignitaries for example).
59The current situation of monopoly of Cardinal Tám remains one of Hộ Pháp Phạm Công Tắc in the 1930-1960s. Indeed, Cardinal Tám is able to control both the Cửu Trùng Đài and the Hiệp Thiên Đài, seemingly like a Hộ Pháp. At different time of the history, both leaders pretend that the management of their Tây Ninh branch still rests under the leadership of two separate powers (the Executive and the Judiciary Powers), following up a principle of democracy. But in fact, both leaderships can be compared to a kind of ‘dictatorship’. Nevertheless, the Hộ Pháp usually practiced spirit-mediumship cơ bút and shamanistic meditation to contact Spirits and receive their Teachings (Jammes 2006a, 2006b). This distinctive feature imprints a unique character onto the vicinity of Phạm Công Tắc and a spiritual legitimacy that Cardinal Tám does not have.
- 34 Because of persistent detention of individuals (Protestants, Catholics as well as Buddhists) advoca (...)
60For the moment, a dilemma faces today the government: if Hanoi approves the ‘revised’ Charter of Cardinal Tám, Trần Quang Cảnh (email 2008) thinks that “there would be dissents among the Caodaist adepts, like always. Of course, as for the Caodaists overseas, there would be no collaboration, no cooperation with Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh [Holy see of Tây Ninh], because the management is not in accordance with the Pháp Chánh Truyền [the religious “Constitution”]. Also, under Cardinal Tám, we know that he doesn’t care much about the Caodai overseas”. At the opposite, if the government turns down the Charter proposed by Cardinal Tám, the latter could proclaim to the world that the government is interfering in the internal affairs of the religion, arguing against the “freedom of religion”… and Vietnamese government has to continue to make improvements in religious freedom today, as the last annual US Commission on International Religious Freedom advises34.
Negotiations about the management of the Holy See of Tây Ninh in 2007-2008
- 35 Very detailed and interesting account of the new Charter and its consequences comes from my brainst (...)
61Finally, we have to wonder if there are many alternatives to this current situation. Has Cardinal Tám any rivals within the organization’s hierarchy? Are the other Cardinals any more popular or a particular ‘menace’ for the Cardinal Tám? Looking at the list of current high dignitaries (archbishop and cardinal), the Tây Ninh branch has only one Cardinal (Cardinal Tám) and five male archbishops. Only one is 65 years old, the rest are over 80. Regarding Hiệp Thiên Đài dignitaries, the highest rank is cải trạng, “lawyer”. Because the latter is equivalent to the rank of bishop, he is no match to Cardinal Tám. In sum, Cardinal Tám knows he has no rivals and the government cannot pick someone from the current hierarchy to replace him at the rank of archbishop because it would be a political interference in religious affairs35.
62Outside of Vietnam, Trần Quang Cảnh is not a dignitary, but a đạo hữu, an “adept”, so he does not have the authority to belong to the Management Council, nor to advise the highest dignitaries. He has to deal directly with the Vietnamese government, and he lobbies officials of the Religious Committee, reassuring the Vietnamese government of the religious, political and economical interests of overseas Caodaists.
63Since 1997, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has officially recognized the Cao Đài religion, under conditions of heavy government control and restrictions on religious expression. Organized during a phase of economic and political transition in Vietnam, CDOM’s leaders meet new challenges today. With the return of Phạm Công Tắc’s remains to Tây Ninh in 2006, CDOM members hope that the situation for the Holy See of Tây Ninh will change and a new page of history will be turned.
64Leaders of CDOM are largely responsible for this trans-national transfer and for being able to extend the political influence of their overseas association in establishing a dialogue with Communist Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities. The principle of democracy is relevant in this political process, as well as the religious path. In fact, while claiming the principles of democracy and self-determination, Trần Quang Cảnh hopes to live a complete religious life in a religious land. Explicitly, his territorial claims reveal his desire to return in Vietnam, belong to the board council of the Holy See of Tây Ninh sooner or later, and restore a kind of “holy land” within the Vietnamese State.
65As of April 2008, Cardinal Thượng Tám Thanh still has the control of the Management Council (Hội Đồng Chưởng Quản), even though the term of this council officially expired at the end of 2007. The new Charter was supposed to be approved by the Vietnamese government within the three months following December 2007. The revised Charter written by the current Cardinal was given to the officials of the Religious Committee (Ban Tôn Giáo), who submitted a report to the Prime Minister for guidance, but are still awaiting feedback. Both historical and ethnological approaches to religious phenomena offer an expanded perspective on the issue of overseas religious networks, and allow us to develop anthropological reflections on the continuous circulation of people, things and ideas. In short, an anthropological approach, broadening its field of investigation to new societies and new objects, in a global context, presents stepping stones that will lead to a better understanding of Caodaism and of its religious and political role within the contemporary Vietnamese context.