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Hum Dac Bui,M.D. and Hong Dang Bui,M.D.

The Course on Caodai:



1-History of the Construction of the Holy See

2-Significance of the structures of the Holy See

3- Organization of the Sacerdoce


      1- Understand the mystic conditions at the construction of the Holy See.

      2- Understand the spiritual significance of the structures of the Holy See.

      3- Learn about the Organizational Structure of the Sacerdoce.

      4- Know the Female College of the Clergy, side by side with the Male College.

The sight of the Holy See in Tay Ninh, although part of my daily childhood landscape, offered to me a feeling of mysterious vibrations of veneration and indescribable warm happiness of belonging. It represented the main attraction as well as something comforting and miraculous amid the common poverty of the small city of Long Hoa (Dragon Flower) nearby. As I grew up, I learned with joy the symbols that the Holy See harbors. The Holy See offers not only a major touristic experience and is part in the itinerary of many sightseeing tours, but it is” The place of worship and pilgrimage, The source of renewal, of pride, for the CaoDai disciple”. To the reader, I am excited to offer this chapter which combines the explanation of the architectural structures of the Holy See with the sacerdotal organization and the mystic spiritual significance as a unique aspect of CaoDai theology.


The CaoDai Holy See was referred to as a Disney World rococo edifice in the middle of Vietnam, the war-torn country, by Graham Greene in his novel “The Quiet American.”

To the astonishment of the tourists and adding to the faith of the CaoDaist, the CaoDai Holy See was constructed without any architectural engineering, by the hands of volunteers under the instruction of the spiritual Giáo Tông Lý Thái Bạch transmitted to the Hộ Pháp Phạm Công Tắc.  The construction took 12 years from 1936 to 1948. 

It includes architectural styles of many religions. The two front towers are of Christian style, the dome shape on top of the main body has the Islamic style, and the octagonal structure has Buddhist style, with the three ancient Hindu Buddhas on top. Already at its origin, pluralism manifested in the CaoDai Holy See structure, in the inspiration from spiritualism received by the Hộ Pháp  (Fig. 12).

The Holy See architecture represents the three gems of the universe which are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity, corresponding also to the three gems of humans: spirit, physical body and mind.

The three gems reflected in the structure of the Holy See consist of the Bát Quái Đài (Octagonal Palace, spiritual body), Cửu Trùng Đài (Nine Spheres Palace, executive body, corresponding to the visible physical aspect of the sacerdoce) and Hiệp Thiên Đài (Heavenly Union Palace, legislative body, corresponding to the semi-visible aspect). The three gems of humans - body, mind and spirit - or Tinh, Khí, Thầnrespectively, are the three essential components indispensable for the spiritual cultivation to reach unification with God or enlightenment as follow:

Luyện Tinh hoá Khí,             Transforming physical energy into Chi, vital energy

Luyện Khí hoá Thần,            Transforming Chi into spiritual energy

Luyện Thần hườn Hư,          Transforming spiritual energy into invisible energy

Luyện Hư hườn Vô               Transforming invisible energy into nil


                         The Holy See in Tay Ninh, Viet Nam

In 1926, the opening ceremony of the CaoDai faith was celebrated at the Từ Lâm Buddhist temple. However, some time later, monk Như Nhãn, the owner, decided to take his pagoda back and the Sacerdotal Council promised to return the temple in three months.

They received the order from the spiritual Giáo Tông Lý Thái Bạch to go look for land for the future temple. The deadline was close and the Sacerdotal Council had not yet found the land.   Lý Thái Bạch then instructed them to follow the auto route to a natural lake. Cao Quỳnh Cư discovered a large area with the name Cao Văn Điện on the sign. Cao Quỳnh Cư recognized that name as one of his old classmates. Cao Quỳnh Cư went to meet Cao Văn Điện, who told him that the land belonged to Mr. Aspar, a forest administrator. In the evening, Giáo Tông Lý Thái Bạch came to the séance and said: "Yes, that is the land you are looking for. Let me explain why this land is to be the Holy land. The center is 30 meters deep and is the intersection of six streams (six dragons).” The six streams represent six dragons escorting the divine seal and the land is destined to be the sacred place for the Holy See.

Giáo Tông Lý Thái Bạch instructed about the design of the temple: "The temporary sanctuary should be on vacant land. The Hiệp Thiên Đài should be in front of the sanctuary. You are to demolish the forest, put one stake about 3.5m from the vacant land. Put another stake 50m from the Ca Na pond. The Holy See will be between the two stakes."

Thereafter, the group continued to receive regular specific instructions on how to build the temple; how to arrange the thrones for the Giáo Tông, Legist Cardinals, Cardinals; how to prepare the universal globe with stars and the Divine Eye.

From the above it appears that the realization of the Holy See has its mystical origin and mystical significance together with the relationship with body, mind and spirit of the human constitution. In those early stages of establishment of the faith, spiritual instructions came readily to guide step by step. Following is a more detailed account of the Holy See structure corresponding to human structure, and its cultivation, to the organizational structure of the Sacerdoce and its function for a democratic society.


1-    The gates of the Holy See

The Holy See occupies one square kilometer and is surrounded by a total of twelve gates numbered from one to twelve. 

Gate number one is the principal one. The logo of the three main Eastern religions forms the top center with the Buddhist bowl of alms in yellow, the Confucian book of Spring and Autumn in red and the Taoist whisk in blue. The logo sits on the lotus flower and is adorned on both sides by dragons delicately sculptured and vibrant in colors. The person coming through the gate is greeted by large characters engraved transversely and reading Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ - Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh (The Third Universal Salvation of the Great Tao – Holy See of TayNinh) 


                      Gate number 1 of the Holy See

No less important, a couplet engraved in two vertical columns affirms the democratic value of the faith: 

“Cao Thượng Chí Tôn Đại Đạo Hoà Bình Dân Chủ Mục

Đài Tiền Sùng Bái Tam Kỳ Cộng Hưởng Tự Do Quyền.”

“Peace and Democracy from the Great Tao of the Supreme Being

People venerating the Third Salvation and enjoying Freedom”.

Besides dragons and lotus flowers, grape vines and fruits entice the gate.

2-    Ông Thiện and Ông Ác – The Good and the Bad Personifications.

On both sides of the entrance to the Holy See, one can appreciate two standing statues: one on the right, the side of the Bạch Ngọc Chung Đài or the white jade bell tower, with a mild, kind face standing on a lotus flower, representing the personification of the Good. The one on the left, the side of the Lôi Âm Cổ Đài, the thundering drum tower, with a cruel, intimidating glare, standing on fire, representing the personification of the Bad.

 These two statues illustrate the story of the two sons, Tỳ Văn and Tỳ Vũ of King Tỳ Kheo who lived in the far past, contemporary to the age of the Dipankara Buddha.

 Tỳ Văn was known for his kindness and mild manner while Tỳ Vũ was famous for his strong character of fierceness. The king wanted Tỳ Văn to succeed him for a benevolent 

reign, as he wished to renounce the kingdom for a spiritually cultivating life in a pagoda. For that, he sent Tỳ Vũ away to travel in the search of talented persons for the kingdom. At home, he made Tỳ Văn king. Tỳ Vũ, upon his return to the kingdom, told to Tỳ Văn: “You are too kind to govern, nobody will listen to you. Let me take care of the throne.” Tỳ Văn, afraid of breaking the promise to his father, ran with the kingdom’s seal to the pagoda to inform King Tỳ Kheo of the matter. Upon reaching the pagoda, Tỳ Văn fell and died and was liberated with enlightenment. Tỳ Vũ, chasing his brother, soon came to the pagoda to find his brother’s dead body. Full of remorse, Tỳ Vũ realized that in the end, nobody can take wealth or honor along into the grave. He decided to stay at the pagoda and cultivate self along with his father. And thus, Tỳ Vũ himself reached enlightenment.

 The story underscores that even if we were evil at one time, we can repent and lead a loving life to reach liberation.


    The Good and the Bad Personifications


3-    The main sanctuary 

stands out with its nine steps and nine vaulted ceilings; its dragon columns; its seven thrones; and its roof with the Nghinh Phong Đài.

The nine steps, spanning the length of the Holy See, illustrate the Cửu Trùng Đài, the Nine Spheres Palace which is the organization corresponding to the physical body of the sacerdoce with its executive power. The number nine represents the nine celestial dimensions that a person is to progress through his/her spiritual journey Looking above, one can appreciate nine vaulted blue ceilings with shining stars. Each section displays six dragons’ heads, the role of which is to travel the universe spreading news of the Tao, as mentioned in the prayers dedicated to the Supreme Being: “Thời thừa lục long du hành bất tức” (the six dragons travel incessantly).

At the end of the long, nine step hallway, seven thrones are erected; one for the Giáo Tông, three for the Chưởng Pháp (legist cardinals) from the three main Eastern religions, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian (Thái, Thượng and Ngọc), and three for the Đầu Sư (cardinals) again from the three branches.


                                               The Main Sanctuary

4-    The long mã dragon-horse. 

A dragon-horse running to the West with his head turning backwards to the East adorns the “Nghinh Phong Đài,” which is a cylindrical edifice topped with a half globe, on the middle of the roof of the nine spheres palace. The dragon horse symbolizes the association of the Yang dragon and the Yin horse. It receives the mission from the Supreme Being to spread the Tao to all, while his head turning backwards means that we always need to remind ourselves of the origin of the Tao. 


                                      The Dragon-Horse

5-    The Bát Quái Đài-Octagonal Palace.

This edifice represents the spiritual body, with its eight-sided figure reminding us of the origin of the universe from the monad, to the dyad, tetrad, and octagonal Bát Quái. From this Bát Quái sprang everything in the universe. The Octagonal Palace displays three levels, the first level at 15m high, the second level at 10m and the top at 5m.

On the top, three statues (collectively called the Trimurti in Sanskrit), of Brahma, Shiva, and Krishna/Vishnu, joined at their backs, look out upon three directions, respectively the West, the North and the South.

Brahma governed the saintly era or era of good and peace looking to the West, the direction of the sunset, seeming to say that the era of the good was fading away. Brahma rode the miraculous heron (huyền nga) to survey the wide world. 

In CaoDai lore, Shiva reigns over an era of struggle for humanity. Shiva rides a serpent with seven heads representing the fight of humans to overcome the seven adverse emotions. Shiva turns to the North, to Đức Chí Tôn the Supreme Being, imploring for 

grace to redeem humanity. (Đức Chí Tôn resides at the North Star.)  The statue shows Shiva playing the Divine Sound via a flute, its uplifting vibration to revive humanity, guide them to re-spiritualization and loving-kindness so they can return to the original sublime position.

Krishna/Vishnu Is the CaoDai “Buddha of the era of restoration.” He rides the dragon (giao long) toward the South, to bring humanity back to a peaceful, holy era. The Dharma Protector taught that the “Krishna/Vishnu Buddha'' would direct all good, selflessly serving souls to Nirvana, wherever those souls might be. Divine justice is thus realized. (It is not the prayers after death that would save a soul, but it is the kind deeds and efforts of the person that brings about Nirvana through the merits of Karma.) 


The Octagonal Palace with the Statues of

         Brahma, Shiva, Krishna

6-   The globe with the Divine Eye.

At the Bát Quái Đài, a huge globe symbolizes the unification of all faith traditions during this universal salvation of the Great Dao. Stars stud the globe, with the Northern star shining brightly under the majestic Divine Eye. The Divine Eye represents the Supreme Being as described in a message received on February 25, 1926 (CSCDHM, 2015, p. 32):

“ Nhãn thị chủ tâm,

Lưỡng quang chủ tể.

Quang thị thần.

Thần thị Thiên.

Thiên giả ngã giả.”

“The heart manifests at the eye.

Presiding over All things are twin sources of light.

Light is spirit.

Spirit is God.

God is Me.”

Two sources of light signify the Yin and the Yang energies. From that Great Sacred Light of the Divine, comes the Little Sacred Light granted to each being in the universe. Everyone carries that light of God,and we are sisters and brothers of the same spiritual family. Once we realize that the Light is within us, it will light up,and once it’s lit, it is all Love. Once Light and Love are together, there is no more you and I. It’s We all as One.


                                     The Globe with the Divine Eye

7-The painting of the Three Saints.

As one enters any CaoDai temple, one is greeted at the center of the entrance wall with the majestic painting of the Three CaoDai Saints. The Saints express a treaty with God to abide to love and justice, expressed by the words in Chinese characters and in French: 

“Dieu et L'humanité (God and Humanity), and Amour et Justice (Love and Justice).”c76yzkNDfo54r_t4ew4Zh9I5ESFi9f1ZhtyK46fFSDhe49XKQtFGYwfqnZjDn5F070T_amHcVBMPR5KdAFSEzltSHuUbaunXx89o3CsZRKQe8Ly2xOXr3wuFKgCTXyinNU2cH9yy

The Three Saints

8-   The dragon-decorated columns.

A total of 28dragon-decorated columns are erected at the Holy See. 

At the entrance to the Holy See on each side, we can appreciate a majestic red dragon column erected together with a lotus flower column, symbolizing the “Dragon–Flower Convention”at the end of time.

All along the sides of the inner main hall with the nine steps, blue dragons adorn the Nine-Sphere Palace. There are nine such columns on each side,giving a total of eighteen.

At the Bát Quái Đài, eight golden dragon columns surround the globe which is itself supported by eight white lying dragons.

The 28 columns are painted red, blue and golden for the colors representing Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, the three basic Eastern religions

Another independent explanation for the colors is also recorded in the scriptures.They recall the three periods of salvation of the Dao.

9-   The Dragon Flower Convention (Hội Long Hoa) 

The dragons together with the lotus flowers decorating the Holy See symbolize the “Hội Long Hoa” or “Dragon-Flower Convention,” the ultimate judgement time of the Third Universal Salvation of the Great Tao. The dragon is one of the four sacred animals “Long, Lân, Qui, Phụng” (dragon, unicorn, tortoise, phoenix). The lotus represents the purity of Buddhahood. 

The universe and humans all progress. Life on this earth is just an enormous school with all variety of lessons from easy to difficult, from bad to good, from wrong to right, from suffering to happiness; all for humans to learn. The final examination will be the Dragon – Flower Convention presided over by the Maitreya Buddha. People and the Earth will experience tremendous changes from wars to natural disasters. The last era, or Era of Destruction, will leave only one out of ten humans alive. The Supreme Being has founded the Third Universal Salvation of the Great Tao to save humanity. 

At this Dragon-Flower Convention, all souls receive divine justice according to how they carried out both their secular and spiritual lives. Maitreya Buddha selects the souls of virtuous people to rebuild the world, making a place to live with peace, compassion and harmony, realizing again the era of saintly peace.


     The Dragon and Lotus Columns

10-    The statue of Maitreya Buddha riding a tiger 

On top of the Hiệp Thiên Đài – Heavenly Union Palace, one can appreciate the statue of Maitreya Buddha riding a tiger. The tiger is to express that the Third Universal Salvation of the Great Dao is founded in the year Bính Dần 1926, the year of the tiger. Maitreya Buddha is believed to be the future Buddha, succeeding the current Buddha, Sakya Muni or Gautama Buddha. When in the future, the Dharma taught by Gautama Buddha will be forgotten or misunderstood on earth, Maitreya Buddha will appear as a bodhisattva who will achieve complete enlightenment and teach the pure dharma.

The Supreme Being founded the Third Universal Salvation as a school of service and Maitreya Buddha will be the chief examiner. Maitreya Buddha shall modify the dharma to bring the three main religions back to their origin and to unify the five ways of the Tao.

On the roof of the Holy See and temples, the statue of Maitreya Buddha riding a tiger reminds that He observes and records all services of human souls to select them into the Bạch Ngọc Kinh (White Jade Palace) for the Hội Long Hoa (Dragon-Flower Convention).


    Maitreya Buddha riding the Tiger

11-    The Divine Eye Windows with the Lotuses

Besides the Divine Eye at the entrance of the Holy See, overseeing the Hiệp Thiên Đài, we can appreciate nine windows bearing images of the Divine Eye on each side of the Cửư Trùng Đài for a total of 18, and five around the Bát Quái Đài, thus we have altogether 23 Divine Eyes peering from the windows of the Holy See.

A triangle encases the Divine Eye in each window, with the number three meaning the three basic Eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism). This number three may also mean the three gems of human beings-- the corporeal body, the mind, and the spirit. It represents also the three gems of the universe--the sky, the earth and humans. The triangle may also represent the scale of divine justice. 

Emanating from the triangle, the nine upper rays represent the nine celestial dimensions, and the seven lower rays, the seven human emotions which need to be conquered. The nine celestial dimensions constitute the stages of cultivation and progression of the soul. 

Each window is decorated with lotus flowers and appendages surrounding the Divine Eye. Lotuses reflect the purity and happiness of Nirvana, as their flowers arise straight and pure from the mud of the swamp. 


    Window with Divine Eye and Lotus Flowers


CaoDai teaches that we are composed of three parts: the visible physical body; the semi-visible mind and emotions; and the invisible spirit. The Mother Goddess builds the first two parts, and Father God grants the spirit. The organizational structure of the Sacerdoce reflects those three elements and offers a democratic approach to governance.

CaoDai is managed by two powers:

The spiritual power:seated at the Bát Quái Đài(Octagonal Palace) headed by God who gives orders and messages to the Earth via mediums. The Supreme Being is assisted by the three lords representing the way of Buddhas, the way of Immortals, and the way of Humanity: Bodhisattva Quan (Kwan) Yin represents the way of Buddhas;Lý Thái Bạch represents the way of Immortals;Kwan Kung represents the way of Humanity. 

The Earthly powers consists of the Cửu Trùng Đài(Nine Sphere Palace) or the executive body headed by the Giáo Tông (Pope), and the Hiệp Thiên Đài(Heavenly Union Palace), or the legislative body, headed by the Hộ Pháp (Dharma Protector).

The three structures Cửu Trùng Đài, Hiệp Thiên Đài, and Bát Quái Đài, denote the three components of our constitution:

-      physical with the Cửu Trùng Đài, the Nine Sphere Palace.

-      mind with the Hiệp Thiên Đài, the Heavenly Union Palace which bridges the physical and the spiritual realm.

-      Spirit with the Bát Quái Đài, Octagonal Palace reigned by God.

This organization promotes democratic values as the branches offer mutual control and balance.

The Hierarchy in the Male Clergy include:

  Student-Priest, Priest, Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal, Censor Cardinal, Pope which are respectively in Vietnamese: Lễ Sanh, Giao Hữu, Giáo Sư, Phối Sư, Chánh Phối Sư, Đầu Sư, Chưỡng Pháp, Giáo Tông. The positions of Censor or Legist Cardinal and Pope are to be held by male dignitaries.

The Female College in the Clergy 

Moreover, CaoDai is unique in its respect for the female, as reflected by the Female College that God ordered to establish right at the beginning of the founding of the CaoDai faith. However, the faith culture suggests that the Yang (male) needs to be a tad superior to the Yin (female). Hence, the Pope and the Legist-cardinals are male; any other functions can be freely and equally entrusted to the female dignitaries.

Right at the beginning of the founding of the CaoDai faith, the Supreme Being gave this following message to female disciples:

"Lady Đường, I, your Master, assign you to establish the Female College. Your gender alone does not condemn you to the kitchen. At this 3rd Salvation, there will be much hard work for everyone. Male and female are of equal number. Not only males work to become Immortals and Buddhas.

 As I have said, at the Bạch Ngọc Kinh (White Jade Palace), there are both males and females, and frequently, females are predominant. Therefore, follow My order to establish the Female College. Listen and obey! I will always be with you. Don't worry."

(CSCDHM, 2015, p. 55).

At that time, women had a very limited role in the community, had only responsibility in their own family, and most of the time had to follow all the orders of their husband. And yet the Divine ordered the establishment of the Female College. About the power of the Female College, the spiritual Giáo Tông said: “The dignitaries, male or female of the same level in the hierarchy hold the same power. The Giáo Hữu (priests)of the Male College are placed under the order of the Giáo Sư (bishops) of the Female College. The Giáo Sư of the  Male College must obey the Phối Sư (archbishops) of the Female College. Equality is for everyone; however, the powers differ according to the grades in the Sacerdotal Council.”

(The Religious Constitution of CaoDai Faith, translated by Hum Dac Bui, MD, 1992, p. 100).

In the Female College, the hierarchy includes Lễ Sanh (Student-Priest), Giáo Hữu (priest), Giáo Sư (bishop), Phối Sư (archbishop), and Đầu Sư (cardinal). However, the female Đầu Sư is under the order of the Chưởng Pháp (Legist-cardinal) and Giáo Tông ( Pope), the two highest dignitaries being exclusively male. There is no female Chưởng Pháp or Giáo Tông. 

The woman is well respected among CaoDai families. She holds the role in the stabilization of the family, participates in the education of the children in giving a role model as she is proud to perform her feminine duties. The woman is also encouraged to participate in the clergy and to hold all the duties in local temples. 


The Holy See structure correlates with the three gems of humanity:

- physical body with the Cưữ Trùng Đài or the NIne Spheres Palace ;

- mind with the Hiệp Thiên Đài or the Heavenly Union Palace which connects the physical with the spiritual; 

- Spirit with the Bát Quái Đài or Octagonal Palace reigned by God

 CaoDai clergy includes both male and female dignitaries.

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