Bustling Mao Tse Tung Boulevard hardly seems like the place for religious reflection. Night or day it’s the picture of a gritty, urban thoroughfare. Packed with cars, bikes, businesses and pedestrians, it’s an unusual place to pursue inner peace.
But just meters off the main drag is the solemn, sacred courtyard of Phnom Penh’s Cao Dai temple. It’s not easy to locate, but as the wise man once said: “seek and you shall find.”
Actually, in this case, you might want to ask for directions.
Nestled between two multi-storied office buildings is a narrow alleyway made entirely of tile. What you’ve found is the path to a secret and long-lost world. Emerging at the other end, behind a behemoth of a business center is the Cambodian headquarters of the 80-year-old Cao Dai faith. Immediately, it’s an explosion of color: deep reds, bright yellows and swathes of emerald blue. The freshly painted woodwork and extravagant, well-kept gardens are reason enough to seek out the hidden temple.
Cao Dai is a religious movement that claims to capture the fundamental truths of all other creeds. It is a playfully honest admixture of many beliefs including vegetarianism, sexual equality, 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.
But it’s pantheon of gods and religious figures is straight from the history books. Buddha is in there, and so are Shakespeare and Joan of Arc. Jesus, and author Victor Hugo are revered in the same breath as Lao Tse, the presumed founder of Taoism.
The roots of Cao Dai stretch to French Indochina. Founded in 1926 in Vietnam, the philosophy and moral code of the Caodaists developed from a melding of 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.
Cao Dai reached Cambodia in 1927 with express permission from King Norodom to set up a temple.
Later, the Phnom Penh temple gained far larger significance when the body of one of the most famous and controversial figures in Cao Dai, Pham Cong Tac, was lain to rest here in an ornate tomb that can still be seen today.
Defenders of the Faith
Pham Cong Tac was the Ho Phap, or “Defender of the Faith,” and the medium who received the largest number of spirit messages that now constitute the Cao Dai scriptures, wrote expert 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 told the Phnom Penh Post in 2006. “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.”
Apart from persecution all religions suffered under the Khmer Rouge, 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 wrote. “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 to Mahatma Gandhi in the sense of being a nationalist leader who combined religious and political ideas. This praise, however, would prove his downfall in Vietnam, and explains why this key figure has been buried in Phnom Penh.
“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 take 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.”
In Cambodia, where over 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, Cao Dai is a flourishing minority religion with some ten temples spread across the country. Some 200 families attend the services at the Phnom Penh temple, which are held four times every day at 6 am, midday, 6 pm and midnight.
Cao Dai has gained some local support for charitable work it carries out in Phnom Penh. If people — of any faith — cannot afford coffins for their dead relatives, the Cao Dai temple will provide them. Since 1993, they have handed out more than 1,000 coffins, according to a temple official.