Like the Cao Dai religion, the Great Divine Temple, centerpiece of the Holy See compound, is a vibrant and mesmerizing mix of different traditions and theologies. The immensity of the temple combined with the riotous colours and statuary creates an effect that is at once grand and gaudy.
A full appreciation of the temple requires some knowledge of the Cao Dai religion. While many other religions are insular, Caodaism trumpets its foundations in other faiths. Caodaists describe their religion as the unification of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism: these faiths are represented in Cao Dai theology through such concepts as reincarnation, vegetarianism and yin and yang and also on the Cao Dai banner - a tri-colour with one colour for each religion.
Cao Daism garners inspiration from farther afield as well: Striding a spire high on the temple’s roof is the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Krishna. A mural inside the temple commemorates French novelist Victor Hugo, Chinese Nationalist Party leader Sun Yat Sen and Vietnamese poet Trang Trinh as three saints, witnesses to the 3rd alliance between God and humanity. And while Cao Dai theology is largely Eastern, the hierarchy is clearly Western because the organizational structure closely mirrors the Catholic Church, with bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and even a Pope.
Services at the temple, held daily at noon, 6 pm, midnight and 6 am, offer another glimpse of this East-meets-West eclecticism. An orchestra of 10 musicians and a choir of 20 youths lead the congregation in prayer. The hymns are much closer to Christian spirituals than traditional Buddhist or Taoist chanting, but the music is unmistakably Vietnamese. During the forty-minute prayer session, a Cao Dai follower explains, the presence of God comes into the chapel and gazes out at the congregation through the Divine Eye. Worshippers are separated by gender - men on the right and women on the left. In contrast to the vivid colours of the temple, lay followers and the forty-minute prayer session,. Men with the rank of priest and higher are robed in solid colours depending on their spiritual allegiance within Caodaism: yellow (symbolizing Buddhism and virtue), blue (Taoism and pacifism) or red (Confucianism and authority). Bishops and cardinals also have an eye emblazoned on their headpieces.
Published on 4/1/07