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Bài viết được cập nhật lần cuối vào ngày 11/04/2008

An introduction to Caodaism-Part II




The religion of Cao-Dai is fundamentally, and deliberately, syncretic. Since it includes Christ and Moses (but for some reason, not Muhammad) in its pantheon, the Western student might be tempted to see it as essentially an attempt to bridge the gulf between East and West by finding a sort of middle way between Christianity and Buddhism. It is possible that some Caodaists who have acquired a thorough Western education in France but maintained their religious belief do in fact see it in those terms, but most of the Caodaist literature indicates that the real basis of the syncretism is an attempt to bring together the three religions of the Sino-Vietnamese tradition. In this attempt, Christianity has only a peripheral position, and nothing has been adopted from Christian teachings that would seriously clash with the underlying doctrinal tolerance of East Asian religions. The most important feature of Caodaist syncretism is that it brings together elements of Taoist spirit-mediumship with a concept of salvation that was originally Buddhist. If any one of the three Sino-Vietnamese religions may be said to be dominant in Caodaism it is religious Taoism; but since the Caodaists themselves frequently refer to their religion as ‘reformed Buddhism’, that is a point which must be demonstrated rather than taken for granted. I propose to analyse some of the most obvious elements of Caodaism under four headings: spirit-mediumship; the Cao-Đài and other spirits; salvation and the apocalyptic aspect; and hierarchy and organization. A concluding section will deal briefly with the possible relationship between Caodaism and certain religious sects in China.[2]


It is hardly surprising that in the account of Caodaism compiled by Gabriel Gobron, the spiritist element stands out very sharply, since he himself appears to have become aware of the Vietnamese religion through his interest in French spiritism.[3]Probably the same was true of Paul Monet and other Frenchmen who attended séances in Saigon and agreed to propagate the religion in France. This being so, neither is it surprising to find occasional references in Vietnamese writing to the European spiritist movement. French spiritism, as an organized movement, had come into being at the same period as the French moved into Cochinchina. Its founder, L. H. D. Rivail (1804-69), better known from 1856 till his death by the pseudonym Allan Kardec, was the proprietor of a school in Paris and a proponent of the ideas of Pestalozzi, at whose Swiss school he had been educated. He fell in with the fashion of playing with tables tournantes which developed in France about the years 1854-5; but he took it more seriously than most and in 1856 published a book, Le livre des esprits, consisting of answers to his questions about philosophy and ethics received at a number of séances.[4]It was followed in 1861 by his Livre des mediums, and in the meantime he launched the Revue Spirite at the beginning of 1858. By his death, he had created an organization capable of surviving him, which still existed in France in the 1920’s. It was a distinctive feature of the spiritism of Allan Kardec (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon ‘spiritualism’) that messages from the beyond were always received in written form, by means of the table tournante, the ‘ouija-board’, or the corbeille à bec. Caodaism too accepted only this form of communication with spirits, and it would seem that these European methods were sometimes used at Vietnamese séances. In particular it is noted that the Phò-Loan group of Phạm Công Tắc, when it began to hold séances in 1925, practised the ‘European method’; and it is worth recalling in this connexion that the ouija-board was perfectly suitable for the Vietnamese language, once it had begun to be written in the roman script of quốc-ngữ instead of in characters.

However, it would be a serious mistake to conclude from the evidence of this connexion with French spiritism that the Caodaists, or any other Vietnamese, owed either the idea or their techniques of spirit-mediumship to the mission civilisatrice. The practice of spiritism can be traced far back into the past of the Vietnamese and Chinese traditions; and whereas in the West the orthodoxy of Christianity was thoroughly opposed to spirit-mediumship, as a black art, in China the Confucian orthodoxy never attempted to stamp out spiritism as such. De Groot, one of the few Western writers to be interested in the practice and not merely the texts of Chinese religion, was able to supplement his own observation of spirit practices in nineteenth-century Fu-kien by reference to several textual accounts of earlier times. A document relating to the Tang period describes how ‘it was customary for the people to take a wicker rice-tray and dress it with clothes, and insert a chop-stick into it by way of beak, which they caused to write on a platter covered with flour in order to divine’.[5]An early form, indeed, of the beaked basket. Further evidence of Chinese mediumship by means of ‘automatic writing’ is found in Mr. A. J. A. Elliott’s account of spirit cults in Singapore, based on observations made in the years 1950-1; he emphasizes that it is quite separate from the ‘speaking-kind’ of mediumship, in which the medium talks while possessed by a spirit, which is the main subject of his book. He describes a technique in which a Y-shaped stick is held by two people, one of them a medium, and writes out messages on a tray of sand, one character after another. It is necessary, of course, to have an interpreter to identify the characters at great speed.[6]Sometimes, he says, this kind of mediumship leads to the formation of associations of people willing to follow the injunctions received by way of spirit-writing. Very often, however, the invocation of spirits has no deeper motive than the simple desire of those attending to ask questions about their own future. In China, under the Ch'ing (and doubtless earlier), scholars would consult the spirits in this way to find out whether they would pass the examinations: an example occurs in Wu Ching-tzu's The scholars, where the spirit of Kuan Yuš, ‘conqueror of the devils’, foretold the future of one of the characters in the novel.[7]Another description of a Chinese spirit séance worth mentioning is one by W. A. Grootaers, who attended a Buddhist séance in Peking in 1948, when messages were received from three Buddhist deities of the Western Paradise.[8]It is clear that spirit-mediumship was not the monopoly of any one of China's three religions but was judged compatible with all of them.

There are no detailed accounts of Caodaist séances by outside observers  like de Groot or Grootaers, and so no comparison can be made on that level. But it seems clear from the vocabulary of Vietnamese writings on Caodaism that they fit into the Sino-Vietnamese tradition. Two phrases occur noticeably often: cầu-tiên (Chinese ch'iu-hsien), meaning to ‘invoke the spirits’ (literally, ‘immortals’); and đàn-cơ (Chinese t'an-chi), meaning the place at which the séance took place, or perhaps more specifically the tray on which the spirits wrote their messages. The Caodaists appear to have used the word cơ where the Vietnamese dictionaries (related most closely to the North Vietnamese dialect) would give kê; it seems to indicate a traditional Sino-Vietnamese technique of spirit-writing, but it is possible that the same word was used also for the European type of planchette as well. The use of the term đàn in this context, may have some significance; it is also the term used for the altar on which the imperial sacrifices to Heaven and Earth were made, and it is not inconceivable that spirit-mediumship originally partook of the nature of a sacrifice to spirits as well as communication with them. The terms cầu-cơ• and cầu-đàn also occur in the Caodaist literature.[9]

It would seem that there were certain places in Cochinchina that were especially noted as important đàn (or đàn-tiên) where communication with spirits could be most effectively made. One of these was at Cái-Khế (Cần-Thơ), and was where Ngô Minh Chiêu held some of his early séances in the period 1917-20; several đàn are mentioned there in the period 1907-37, notably the đàn Quang-Xuân, which appears to have been subsequently renamed the đàn Hiệp-Minh. About 1931, Ngô Minh Chiêu established another, the đàn Chiếu-Minh.[10] Another famous centre of mediumship was Cao-Lãnh; at the đàn there, established early this century, it was well known that Lý Thái Bạch came to write verses.[11] There is no reference, in the documents used for the present study, to Caodaist séances being held there; but that possibility can certainly not be ruled out. Nor should it be forgotten that Cao-Lãnh was an important centre of unrest in 1930, in which Caodaists were accused of being involved. Indeed spirit-mediumship of this kind may well have been more wide-spread than any of the source material on Cochinchinese history before 1920 indicates. Phan Trường Mạnh mentions a séance at Cao-Lãnh in 1908, when Thủ-khoa Huân communicated a. message.[12] Is it not possible that spirit-mediumship was also an element in the secret society activity of 1912-16, about which we have only French source material? Was there, for example, any connexion between spirit-communication and the making of the amulets which Coulet regarded as so important? There is one small clue pointing in that direction in Đồng-Tân’s account of Ngô Minh Chiêu's early career: after he had sought a cure for his mother by invoking spirits, about 1917, Chiêu and a number of friends used a technique of spirit-writing in order to obtain amulets to be used for medicinal purposes.[13] The curious composition of some of the amulets illustrated by Coulet might be explained more easily, if they were actually produced at séances; but at present this can be no more than a speculative suggestion.


[1]For part I see BSOAS, XXXIII, 2, 1970, 335-49.

[2]I am very much indebted to conversations with Dr. Marjorie Topley and Mr. Michael Saso for several of the ideas followed up in the present article; neither of them, however, should be held responsible for any particular statement herein, save where directly acknowledged; still less for any errors.

[3]The word spiritism will be used here merely because it was preferred by the French spiritists, with whom the Caodaists had much closer contacts (and more in common) than with AngloSagon ‘spiritualists’.

[4]cf. Allan Kardec (L. H. D. Rivail), Oeuvres posthumes, Paris, 1912, which includes a biographical memoir reprinted from Revue Spirite, mai 1869; and Allan Kardec (L. H. D. Rivail), The spirits' book, translated with an introduction by Anna Blackwell, London, 1875.

[5]J. J. M. de Groot, The religious system of China, repr., Taipei, 1964, VI, 1310.

[6]A. J. A. Elliott, Chinese spirit-medium cults in Singapore, London, 1955, 140-5.

[7]Wu Ching-tzu, The scholars, English translation, Peking, 1964, 126 ff.

[8]W. A. Grootaers, ‘Une séance de spiritisme dans une religion secrète à Péking en 1948’ Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, IX, 1948-51, 92-8.

[9]For all these Vietnamese terms, see, e.g. Đồng-Tân, Lịch-sử Cao-Đài, I. Phần Vô-vi, Saigon, 1967, referred to subsequently as Lịch-sử, 53 ff.

[10]ibid., 53, 129 ff.

[11]Huỳnh-Minh, Cần-Thơ xưa và nay, Gia-Định, 1966, 222.

[12]Phan Trường Mạnh, La voie du salut caodaðque, Saigon, 1950, 48.

[13]Lịch-sử, 57.

Cảnh khổ mà lòng vẫn phải vui,
Có vui mới thấy đạo say mùi,
Say mùi đạo hãy xa phàm tục,
Cho lặng lòng trần đắc vị ngôi.

Đức Chí Tôn, Thiên Lý Đàn, 30-10 Mậu Thân, 19-12-1968

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