Those who study the Cao Đài Religion may find an intriguing fact that two Popes seemed to be taking the same role at the start. This arrangement was an exception rather than the norm. The Divine Pope Li Po would like to have a visible presence on earth and to be assisted with matters in the visible realm. An Acting Pope was therefore selected among the first high dignitaries. Since then, no other soul has been deemed deserving of the lofty role.
The One and Only Acting Pope
This section was based on the accounts of three authors - the former Sacerdotal Council (1973), Tran (1974), and Huynh (2016).
Lê Văn Trung was born into a farmer family in Chợ Lớn (Sài Gòn) in 1875. His father passed away a few months after his birth, leaving the widow to care for him. His upbringing was steeped in both traditional customs and Western civilization. Later, he graduated from Chassloup Laubat College and started working as a clerk in the government office at the age of 18. Due to his low income, he had to resign to start a business. When it took off, he ran in an election for the role of Head of a Regional Council (Conseil Colonial de Cochinchine).
"The allure of political ambitions was unusually strong. With only a little money and no power at all, I still ran in the election. We were political creatures." He was driven by both ambition and care for the commoners. Lê won and took office in 1906.
His very first task was to review the draft tax policy for six types of farmlands, a top-down command by the colonial governor. The policy aimed to raise taxes on farmers. Lê persuaded five other regional heads to reject it. The local council members were far outnumbered by their French counterparts. The six heads were therefore often called 'oui' council or yes-men. When the policy came into effect, all six resigned from their roles. Five of them including Lê were re-elected in the next term.
He was soon known as an unyielding man for his fearless debates in service of the nation. Even when disagreements with his superiors resulted in mistreatment, his focus was unrelenting. In the face of his continual efforts to protect the rights of the lowly, the colonial government knew that they could not take him lightly.
Another major area of his focus was education. At the time when gender disparity was largely considered the norm and parents frowned upon education for girls, he initiated the idea of a school for them. The Collège Des Jeunes Filles was soon built in Sai Gon for which the government did not provide a penny. Instead, a fund was raised among supporters.
Lê was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and elected into the Senate in 1914 (i.e. Conseil du Gouvernement de l’Indochine) - the most honorable government role for Annamites at the time. This honor did not last long for any Annamite. His career and business soon declined (probably during or after World War I). His eyesight was also gradually lost as he took to opium and drinking.
His relative who was a religious man frequented a seance temple in the suburb. The man brought Lê there for treatment by the Divine. Suddenly, the Immortal Li Po delivered a message telling him to start religious practices. He resigned from office in 1925, a few months before God's summon.
Early in 1926, God sent three Cao Đài disciples to Lê's home where he and his son were often engaged in spirit writing. God delivered him the following message:
A new Home endowed by Heaven and Earth
Guide mankind to their new good birth
Follow Divine Will to save this world
Only (devotion to) the Tao paves your way to Heaven
His eyesight was restored by God's blessing. Along with other disciples, they promulgated the new faith across the South of Vietnam. In around one year, the number of followers reached almost one million. On a rainy day shielded from the watch of detectives, 247 disciples convened to draft the Declaration of the Cao Đài Religion to announce to the government.
The inaugural ceremony was held in the province of Tay Ninh in 1926 under the spiritual guidance of God and the temporal guidance of Lê who was ordained a Cardinal. Foundational laws were also instituted during this time. After a location was identified for the Holy City and the first worship houses were built, Lê was ordained the Acting Pope in 1930 to share responsibilities with the Divine Pope Li Po.
Like his Divine superior, the Acting Pope led the one-million-member congregation with impartiality, decisiveness, piety, and unspoken love. While being exemplary, these very characteristics brought him many troubles. Those who were disciplined turned against him by denigrating, slandering, and finding faults with his deeds. They even enticed disciples to betray and prosecute him in secular courts. Being afraid that he and the dignitaries would start a revolution, the colonial government spied on and repeatedly plotted against them. He calmly attended court trials on a continual basis. On a New Year's Day before the Supreme Being's ceremony, the provincial police arrested him because a disciple rode an ox cart at night without a lamp. The Pope of God's new faith was detained in prison for two days. After being released, he returned the medal to the government, stating that it no longer carried any meaning.
The core foundations of the new faith being established for both male and female colleges, His Holiness Thượng Trung Nhựt was disincarnated in 1934. He was summoned back to the Eternal Realm to guide spirits in both Heaven and Earth.
Looking after the universe at the Divine Court
Pained by the unjust suffering on this earth
I borrowed this body to clean its dust
A messenger who uplifted its spirits
My holy gourd extinguishes its suffering
My iron crutch dashes to guide its beings
Heaven gate opens from far up high
On the way back, sorrows weigh heavy on my mind.
Divine Messages revealed that His Holiness was an incarnation of the Immortal Li Tieguai - one of the legendary Eight Immortals.
Key contributions and accomplishments:
Overall guidance to faith members of all levels
Promulgation of the new religion across the South of Vietnam and beyond
Diplomacy with the Indochina colonial rulers
Supervision of the composition of the New Canonical Code, the Religious Constitution, and other foundational laws and rules
Establishment of the Tao Te school
Compilation of the Book of Rites and the Book of Sutras
Formation of the nine administrative functions
Composition of the Holy See Code
Plans for comprehensive development of the faith organization and congregation
Issuance of the Cao Dai proclamation to the world
Cao Dai Proclamation Tay Ninh Holy See, 1 December 1931 Addressed to Kings, Heads of States, and Religious leaders
Dear Your Eminence, With great respect, we would like to proclaim that our Almighty God - the Great Father of mankind - has founded a New Religion in the Tay Ninh province of Vietnam. The New Religion can transform the world by its lofty ideal: Love for All Beings. Under Divine Providence, nations will join minds and efforts to nurture universal fraternity through which world peace will emerge. Wars! Sinful wars in which brothers kill each other abhorrently - a disgusting disease of the 20th century or the age of 'civilization' - can be avoided. We consider them FRATRICIDE because all nations or races on this planet are children of the same Father God who governs their lives. When they wage wars with each other, it is no different from brothers killing each other. Under the guidance of our Supreme God - the Merciful Father of mankind, we shoulder the mission of spreading His Faith across the entire world. We can provide evidence of His coming through such miracles as those blessed by Lord Jesus in Lourdes and other places. With our passionate belief in the potential of the New Religion and in our goodwill, we have sent a hand-written letter to the French Colonial Governor, vowing only to perform religious practices and not to disturb public security and order. In return, we called for help and support from France to spread the New Religion to the world. Unfortunately, the French government has not responded to our call and respect. Some appear tolerant of us, while others try by all means to pre-empt our promulgation. God guided us to spread His Holy teachings far and wide on this planet. We are absolutely determined that there is no mistake in this mission. We would like to beseech you to declare our mission to mankind all over the world so they will understand that the AMNESTY of GOD has been pronounced and that the unification of His children is to bring peace rather than domination. In order to realize the mission, we all must love each other and preserve moral virtues in accordance with God's guidance. We believe that as Kings, Heads of States, and Leaders, you all wish for your people and followers to live free from the incessant fears of an imminent world war. Modern weapons will cause abhorrent and unimaginable destruction. Moreover, you want them to live in peace, happiness, and forever free from the nightmares of a looming war. We would like to entreat you to dispatch officials here to learn about what we have built. God taught us that if we are late for one day in spreading His Faith, hundreds of thousands of souls will be lost in this world of suffering. Now that our call has reached all nations, we have probably fulfilled our responsibility. When we have appropriate means, we will travel the world to spread these new teachings to every nation. Please grant us your favor in response to our deep respect.
THƯỢNG TRUNG NHỰT THE ACTING POPE OF THE GREAT FAITH OF THE THIRD UNIVERSAL AMNESTY
Grieving Speech by His Holiness Hộ Pháp (Head of the Legislative Body)
As our faith was founded in an age of materialism, it must have an absolutely captivating vision and mission to reconcile materialism and spiritualism. It must be in tune with the times to win the hearts of the people. Unless it brings about reformation to keep up with the evolution of mankind, God does not need to create a new faith because the Tao has existed since the creation of Heaven and Earth. Many religions were already established prior to today. These conditions require the presence of talented and virtuous leaders to grasp its directions and guide humanity on the right path. These leaders must have great courage and capability to shoulder the mission of the Great Faith. When the Supreme Being came, our Eldest Brother was called and entrusted with God's New Religion.
In the beginning, only a few followed the faith with differing minds and vague ideas about its future. As a virtuous and idealistic man, he did not hesitate to devote himself and his life entirely to its formation. His dedication and accomplishment merit the Eldest Brother's role of mankind.
Why did the Supreme Being choose him for the role and not anyone else? Our vision and mission show clearly that they can be fulfilled not by esoteric meditative practice but by the moral virtues of those who excel in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Our Eldest Brother met the requirements of both contemporary evolution and traditional customs. Therefore, the Supreme Being chose him as a role model to exemplify a part of the main teachings of the Great Faith.
In an age when science is developing rapidly, spreading extreme spiritualism will be perceived as being outdated. On the contrary, a sole focus on materialism will drive societies towards perdition due to competition. For these reasons, the two ideologies must be reconciled to both utilize scientific development and preserve moral virtues. Understanding this profound teaching, our Eldest Brother was not skewed towards any extreme in all circumstances. We still remember his earnest statement as follows:
"As long as humanity is still mired in suffering, I will not live in leisure. If I attain the Tao and am disincarnated too soon, I vow to be reincarnated and save humanity."
Our religious teachings mandate that one must be courageous but not ferocious, and harmonious but not feeble. Our faith can only exist until today because our Eldest Brother grasped and practiced this mandate. Above all, he was patient enough to deal with counter-forces both internally and externally. Conflicting ideologies exist both inside and outside the faith organization due to different mindsets. When they fight against each other, we stand in the middle of their battle and are faced with many challenges. Consequently, our Eldest Brother went through a lot of pain.
His love outlived suffering and enmity
His piety outlasted vicissitudes
Life waves never changed his heart
Time flow hardly eroded his will
Decades witnessed his devout soul
A lifetime spent shielding our roots
Defying evil schemes without fear
Rowing the mercy boat without fail
Through how many ups and downs
When life hung but by a thread.
Questions for Contemplation
How did the Acting Pope live up to the expectations of God and the Sacerdotal Council? Why has no one deserved to succeed him?
Why did world leaders ignore the proclamation?
Compare secular governments with God's Sacerdotal Council. If you are to choose one, what is your choice?
How does the contemporary Vietnamese government resemble the former colonial regime in its treatment of Cao Đài? What will be the consequences of going against God's will?
What is required to rebuild the religion of the future? Who can reach this goal - temporal or spiritual leaders? When should they start?
Hội Thánh Cao Đài. Tiểu Sử Ðức Quyền Giáo Tông Thượng Trung Nhựt. Ðại Ðạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Ðộ, 1973.
Trần, Văn Rạng. Chân Dung Quyền Giáo Tông Lê Văn Trung. Viện Đại Học Cao Đài, 1974.
Huỳnh, Tâm. Tiểu sử Ðức Quyền Giáo Tông. Center for Studies in Caodaism, 2016.