In 1926, the Buddha pronounced that His original teachings had been lost for almost two millennia. This message was first delivered to a well-known Buddhist master in Southern Vietnam (the Ven. Nhu Nhan or Thich Giac Hai) as well as the first Cao Đài dignitaries. The Buddhist master was ordained the Censor Cardinal of the Buddhist branch in the Cao Đài religious hierarchy but soon withdrew from the role due to persuasion by the sangha. He even drove away dignitaries from his temple, forcing them to find another place to worship. (Tran, 88-93) Such a lack of faith and attachment to diversion have continued plaguing disciples of the Buddha and the larger world for many decades.
The Buddha stated clearly: "All bhikkhus/ bhikkhunis and living beings who are blessed to be in this Third Amnesty should try their best to cultivate themselves rather than follow misleading laws. Liberation depends on your religious practice (rather than misleading laws). The current Buddhist practices seem entirely wrong... You monks and nuns have no idea what leads you astray, following the false doctrine of Shenxiu only to find the door to the Pure Land completely closed." (The Collection of Divine Messages - Volume I, 28)
Letting Go of Old Rafts
Many modern-day Buddhists and scholars tend to go back to the Pali Canon or the Tripitaka to find the Buddha's original teachings. This Canon continues to be the foundation for practices in different Buddhist schools. The Way of the Elders has been elevated to great heights partly because its Vinaya laws and Sutta practices stretch far beyond the ability of most human beings. In fact, these laws seem to apply mostly to those who have reached a high level of wisdom and discipline or of holiness. For novices, immediate adherence to them all is rather impossible. That may be why the school merits such a name.
In declaring the Third Amnesty, God revealed: "Since the Way was blocked, its dharma has become outdated albeit still authentic. While the Way has always been unceasing, the laws have become too old. Because the Jade Court reject them and the Temple of Buddhas (also called the Temple of Thunder in Sukhavati) abolish ancient practices, only a few out of many monks and nuns can reach enlightenment. Just look back on the past two thousand years; how many in Asia have become enlightened?" (The Collection of Divine Messages - Volume I, 49)
These words let us know that ancient laws and practices are no longer accepted by Heaven, not to mention that they have been altered in various ways (Brox and Williams-Oerberg, 2020; Nguyen, 2019). Scholars and practitioners in the other hemisphere may rejoice in this fact, thinking that they now wear the crown of wisdom from the Tathagata. No ancient text has ever applauded pure scholarship. Neither has any bhikkhu/ bhikkhuni been known as a pure scholar. The original teachings of the Buddha were transmitted to the Sangha almost only orally. In the case of master Huineng, an illiterate inherited the treasure. Imagine their reaction to the Buddhology "industry" of today (BDG, 2021; Brox and Williams-Oerberg, 2020).
New Ropes to Bind a New Raft
With the advent of Cao Đài or the Great Way, new laws and practices have been established by the Divine to replace the old ones. The New Canonical Codes along with other constitutional laws detail rules, obligations, and practices for different levels of discipleship from lay members to the Giáo Tông (i.e. the equivalent of the Pope and also Buddhahood). How these Codes and laws were drafted and enacted can be found in the Divine messages (1926) and historical accounts recorded by Tran (1970). These facts mean that new dharma and practices have been put in place for all beings to cultivate themselves and reach high levels of perfect enlightenment.
Three main paths or routes of cultivation have been laid out by former Cao Đài faith leaders:
Public religious service in the Executive Body (aka the Nine-Divine-Plane Body) or the Legislative Body (aka the Heaven Union Body)
Public religious service in the Charity Body which performs various types of social work
(His Holiness Hộ Pháp, 12-13)
Many may question if these paths still exist now that Cao Đài has been demolished and thwarted by the Vietnamese government and its puppets. Although the original center in Tay Ninh is caught in this trap, Cao Đài can be sustained and rebuilt by its faithful adepts anywhere in the world. These members are now scattered across the globe. "Good and evil will be segregated in due course." (The Collection of Divine Messages - Vol I, 1926)
The Path of the Cửu Trùng Ðài (The Executive Body/ Nine-Divine-Plane Body)
The Cửu Trùng Ðài is responsible for religious administrative tasks, such as guidance of and care for adherents, organizing programs, and promulgation. For dignitaries in the College of Men, the Body is divided into three branches corresponding to the three main Religions. Each of these branches has its own name and a symbolic color [Buddhist branch/ Phái Thái (yellow), Taoist branch/ Phái Thượng (blue), and Confucian branch/ Phái Ngọc (red)]. The Cửu Trùng Ðài's hierarchy is ranked in nine levels, and the number of dignitaries in most ranks is limited.
Giáo-Tông/ Pope: There is only one Giáo-Tông who is the Head of the Cửu Trùng Đài. He is elected as the most revered figure in the hierarchy for his holiness, virtue, wisdom, contribution, etc. As the most exemplary in the Way of God, he is considered to have attained Buddhahood. Only such a person is worthy enough to be the eldest brother of humanity.
The papal throne is currently taken by the Divine spirit of Li Taibai. Since the beginning of the religion, the late Lê-Văn-Trung is the only human being who received the title of Quyền Giáo-Tông (Acting Pope).
Chưởng-Pháp/ Censor Cardinal: The number of Chưởng-Pháp is limited to three. Each of them belongs to one of three branches: Nho (Confucian), Thích (Buddhist), and Đạo (Taoist). They are responsible for examining religious laws before their adoption/ amendment, whether they come from the Pope (Giáo-Tông), or proposed by the Cardinals (Đầu-Sư).
Đầu-Sư/ Cardinal: The number of Đầu-Sư/ Cardinals is limited to three - one for each branch. They are responsible for guiding the disciples of God both spiritually and temporally. They have the right to propose new laws and must submit them for the approval of the Pope.
Phối-Sư/ Archbishop: The number of Phối-Sư/ Archbishops is limited to thirty-six - twelve for each branch. As representatives of the faithful, they have to exemplify adherence to religious laws. They can ask the Đầu-Sư for certain improvements in the laws but do not have the right to propose new ones.
Giáo-Sư/ Bishop: The number of Giáo-Sư/ Bishops is limited to seventy-two, divided into three branches of twenty-four each. They are responsible for the spiritual and temporal guidance of the disciples. They are to care for disciples the way elder brothers care for younger ones.
Giáo-Hữu/ Priest: The number of Giáo-Hữu/ Priests is limited to 3,000, i.e. a thousand for each branch. They watch over ritual ceremonies in the province temples. The Priests have the mission of promulgating the religion.
Lễ-Sanh/ Student Priest: The number of Lễ-Sanh/ Student Priests is unlimited. The Student Priests are selected from the most virtuous of the Sub-dignitaries. The Student Priests must often visit and look after disciples, and perform the rites in both temples and disciples' homes.
Chức Việc/ Sub-dignitaries: The number of Sub-dignitaries is unlimited. They are to look after disciples in the villages. They should consider disciples as their younger sisters/ brothers. They should follow the guidance of the Priests and Student Priests who are the heads of the parishes.
(Hartney and Đào)
Female dignitaries reach the rank of Cardinal only. There is no branch for female dignitaries. According to God's teachings, if Yin/ women rival or dominate over Yang/ men, the order and balance of the universe are disrupted. This disruption results in the discontinuation of life and reproduction. When the night is longer than the day, vitality is reduced. When the moon or the clouds block out sunlight, life will wither and even die like the mass extinction. Similarly, this phenomenon also applies to human relationships. When men and women rival each other, either marriage will not happen or families will fall apart.
"The above path requires dignitaries to use their talents and abilities to contribute to the Religion (and thus to humanity) as a path to attain the Way. It leads from a Đạo Hữu (disciple) to Lễ Sanh (Student-Priest), and from Giáo Hữu (Priest) to Giáo Sư (Bishop) and so on. On this path, one must serve from Tiểu Thừa (Lower-order) to Trung Thừa (Mid-order), and then to Đại Thừa (Higher-order)... One must cultivate the way firstly within oneself, then within the family and the country, and finally for all humanity. This is what makes the Cao-Đài Religion different from others. You must save yourself, your family, people outside your family, and all humanity. One must study to understand the Way. When you understand, you must teach your family and not just your family; you must teach the entire humanity." (His Holiness Hộ Pháp, 12)
This path is paved for those who are progressively learned and skilled in religious wisdom and cultivation. The hierarchy only serves administration purposes and discerns their levels of wisdom and cultivation. Those who wish to be part of a less hierarchical or knowledge-intensive organization can follow another path.
To be continued...
BDG. Buddhistdoor View: Scholarship Heals the World: Self-Reflection for Buddhist Studies. Buddhistdoor Global (BDG), 2021.
Brox, Trine and Williams-Oerberg, Elizabeth. Buddhism and Business: Merit, Material Wealth, and Morality in the Global market economy. University of Hawaii Press, 2020.
Gobron, Gabriel. History and Philosophy of Caodaism. Worldwide Press, 2008.
Hartney, Christopher and Đào, C. Tâm. The Structure of the Cao Dai Religion. Center for Studies in Caodaism. Accessed May 14, 2022.
His Holiness Hộ Pháp. The Divine Path to Eternal Life. Translated by T. C. Đào and C. Hartney. Center for Studies in Caodaism, 2005.
Nguyễn, Lễ. Phật giáo Viêt Nam biến đổi nhanh nhưng đang phát triển hay suy thoái? BBC News, 2019.
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