On the Trail of a New World Religion

A USC College professor and student trace the roots of a global religion from the outskirts of Saigon to suburban Pomona. The belief system seeks to unite East and West in a universal faith.
By Eva Emerson
Anthropologist Janet Hoskins, left, and USC College alumna Vy-Uyen "Judy" Cao traveled to Vietnam to study the origins of the Caodai religion.

Photo/Janet Hoskins
In many ways, the little known religion of Caodai (pronounced cow-dye) seems the ultimate product of California’s New Age movement.

In a painting of its official pantheon, Buddha hovers over Lao Tse, Jesus Christ and Confucius, with the Chinese goddess of mercy, Quan Am, sitting to the left.

Caodai espouses vegetarianism, meditation, gender equality and tolerance of all the world’s religions. Its teachings come from divine messages, often written in verse, received in séances by spiritual mediums.

But this inclusive religion is actually a product of a completely different cultural and historical milieu – that of 1920s French Indochina. And while Caodai wasn’t born in California, like the Vietnamese immigrants who first brought its teachings to the United States, it is starting to prosper.

Janet Hoskins, professor of anthropology and Southeast Asian scholar in USC College, and her former student Vy-Uyen “Judy” Cao (’04) have studied Caodai, its growth in California and the contrasts in how it’s practiced here and in Vietnam.

The research project literally has taken them around the world, from suburban Pomona and the Silicon Valley to southern Vietnam.

From its inception, Caodai envisioned itself as a global religion, Hoskins said. Created in 1926, the religion seeks to unite East and West in a universal faith. Its tenets blend the Asian philosophies and religious traditions of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism with Roman Catholicism, humanism and other European ideals.

Among the best-known saints are Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen, Vietnamese poet and prophet Trang Trinh and French author and humanist Victor Hugo.

“In some ways it was a concept ahead of its time,” Hoskins said. “Now the leaders believe the world may be more receptive to their message of unity."

There are now 26 Caodai temples in California, with the largest congregations in Orange County and near San Jose. The community has started building a replica of Caodai’s most important temple in Riverside and has hopes to build meditation and study centers to attract more interest from the English-speaking community.

Hoskins discovered the resurgence of the Caodai movement in California by chance. She saw what looked like a small temple in a converted suburban house in Pomona, about “five minutes from the house I grew up in,” she said.

Hoskins approached Cao, then a senior psychology major, to take part in her new study because she needed someone who could speak and translate Vietnamese for her interviews of Caodaists.

Through these interviews, Hoskins and Cao began to gather a better view of the religion from its own followers, including temple elders, younger members and a few American converts, most notably a Vietnam War veteran.

“We’re trying to come up with a personal view of a religion that has been in America for more than 20 years, but that few know about outside of the Vietnamese community,” Cao said.

In July of last year, Hoskins and Cao flew to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, to visit the major temples of Caodai.

Despite repression by the Vietnamese socialist government, Caodai is the third largest religion in the country, with an estimated 5 million followers and some 1,300 temples in South Vietnam alone.

From Saigon, they traveled to Tay Ninh, the town where Caodai was founded and home of the largest and most important Caodai temple.

Brightly painted – it’s been called “the kind of temple Walt Disney might have built for Fantasyland” by The Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam and “a congregation of kitsch” by journalist Ron Gluckman – and a growing tourist attraction, the Tay Ninh temple is comparable to the Vatican in its importance to followers.

On the trip, the pair interviewed 20 Caodaists. Many people told them that Caodai had survived a difficult time since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Hoskins said, but that new temples now are being built and the older ones renovated.

“Interest in religion is increasing all over Vietnam, and tourism has helped Caodai because the Tay Ninh temple is the second-largest tourist attraction in South Vietnam,” she said.

“One of the most interesting things was to see the different sects of Caodai, which had branched off from the original over the last 80 years,” said Hoskins.

“The California community is so much smaller that they tend to emphasize the similarities between the branches. In Vietnam, the differences are much clearer,” she said.

On the negative side, spiritism and séances are illegal in Vietnam, and new regulations that took effect last November make it illegal for people to discuss religion on the Internet, Hoskins said.

Hoskins, Cao and USC sophomore Bao-Viet Nguyen, who is now working with Hoskins, are preparing a paper on their work for a February conference on “Religion, Immigration and Social Justice” organized by USC’s Center for Civic and Religious Culture.

In April, they will present their research at a UC Riverside conference marking 30 years since the fall of Saigon.