Hoskins, Janet & Susan Hoskins
2008 The Left Eye of God: Caodaism Travels from Vietnam to California. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD, 58 minutes
Reviewed 24 May 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Vietnamese-Americans - Religion
Vietnam - Religion
ABSTRACT: This very informative film discusses the origin and spread of a new “world religion” from its roots in colonial Vietnam, raising some important issues about new religious movements, syncretism, globalization, and diaspora cultures.
In 1967 Neill McFarland published The Rush Hour of the Gods, a wonderfully-named study of the proliferation of new religions in post-war Japan. It was hardly the first text to bring attention to religious creativity in the non-Western world, nor were the religions in the discussion the first to arise from the cultural contact and disruption following from colonialism. For instance, the famous ‘cargo cults’ were analyzed by Peter Lawrence a few years earlier (1964) and by Peter Worsley one year after (1968), and the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion (e.g. Spence 1996) had proven long ago that Eastern religion was not a static field in contrast to the dynamism of the West.
All of these new religious movements display the characteristic syncretism or hybridity of post-contact culture, and none more so—and more self-consciously so—than Cao Dai, a lesser-known but very successful and living religion emanating from Vietnam. “The Left Eye of God” focuses on Cao Dai in the Vietnamese diaspora in California but also offers a useful background history and doctrinal explanation of the religion, which even members themselves recognize as an “Asian synthesis of world religions.” For Cao Dai, the eye is the symbol of their god.
As the film describes, America received its first images of Cao Dai in 1958, in the movie “The Quiet American.” But few Americans today know anything about this religion which overtly hopes to unify all religions around or within itself as the true religion (but then don’t they all say that?). Cao Dai is a particularly eclectic blend of Eastern traditions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, with Western ones like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. What they all share, believers claim, is a central concern for love and justice. Cao Dai, like most Eastern and some Western ones, employs meditation to connect with its god, which, again, is symbolized by the omnipresent and all-seeing eye.
Like most new religious movements, Cao Dai began as a revelation or vision of one person, in this case Duc Ngo Minh Chieu, who saw a light in the sky and acquired a spiritual message. The symbolism of the left eye came even then, and it is shared, Cao Dai followers point out, with ancient Egyptian religion, Buddhism, and Mormons—and is even found on American currency! At any rate, the founder Duc Ngo Minh Chieu established contact with spirits and, believers contend, was chosen to set an example as a religious leader and as a human being (sort of a Vietnamese Muhammad), who would have contact with mystical world.
The film does well to link the rise of Cao Dai with the experience of French colonialism. In 1926 a Cao Dai temple was established and a message dispatched to the French administration bearing news of the religion which purported to unify Western and Eastern cultures (a sort of Vietnamese Our Lady of Guadalupe). There is no reason to think that the French welcomed this development. Still, Cao Dai held that all religions emanated from one source, the Jade Emperor, who had sent various emissaries including Jesus, Buddha, and Lao Tzu to the world’s various people. However, the effect had been to generate many different and competing religions, which Cao Dai would finally rectify and reunite.
The DVD also discusses some of the doctrines and practices of the religion. Importantly, women were allowed to hold important offices from the start. Among the everyday observances of the sect are vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, and a unique position for sleeping—sitting up with the left leg on top of the right and the left hand enclosing right. At death, the open left eye indicates the achievement of transcendence by the deceased. Cao Dai also has a remarkably Catholic organizational structure, including a “Pope” and a “Vatican.”
The issue of death raises the problem of succession, and after Chieu’s death in 1932 the religion developed new leadership and new doctrine, thanks to the continuing nature of spirit contact. During the 1930s members began to receive spirit messages from historical figures like Victor Hugo and Joan of Arc. In fact, the Three Saints of Cao Dai include a previous Vietnamese spiritual figure named Nguyen Bỉnh Khiem as well as Chinese nationalist hero Sun Yat-sen and Victor Hugo.
Predictably, the French saw Cao Dai as a threat to their colonial regime and arrested its leaders on the eve of the Japanese invasion. During the war, Cao Dai formed its own militia to defend country and religion and helped Japan overthrow the French. After the war, Cao Dai not only kept up anti-colonial pressure but evolved into a more fully-functioning community which built schools, hospitals, and the like. However, the Cold War impinged next, bringing the partition of Vietnam (which Cao Dai opposed) and the arrest of its leaders by the new government of South Vietnam.
The film asserts that there are 1,300 Cao Dai temples in Vietnam today, serving a membership of 7-8 million. The religion has developed a set of scriptures based on spirit messages and practices an ecumenical set of behaviors including meditation, divination, rituals concerning chi flow, and notion about the third eye. Tourists are allowed (by the Vietnamese government; leaders are ambivalent) to visit Cao Dai temples and are depicted arriving on their tour bus. The religion has an expanding theology, as new spirits can be added to the established pantheon. The Cao Dai center also offers instructional classes as well as a free clinic and a vegetarian restaurant. Members solicit dead saints for healing, fortunes, and assistance for the nation.
Finally, with the exodus from Vietnam at the fall of Saigon, Cao Dai was brought to the United States. During the 1960s and 1970s many spirit messages were received by young girl spirit mediums, but the unsuccessful attempts at training spirit mediums in California was interpreted as a sign that it was not the right time for Cao Dai spirit contact outside Vietnam: Cao Dai had not yet begun its Americanization stage.
Late in the program a Cao Dai member allows himself to be filmed performing and explaining his religious observances. Then the adaptation of the religion to America is portrayed. A spirit medium in San Jose named Bach Dieu Hoa received a spiritual order to establish a Cao Dai temple in the U.S. in the 1970s, which would receive and publish spirit messages. In 1982 a major ritual was conducted to stabilize the earth (in the face of earthquakes and climate change). Growth in Cao Dai during the 1980s actually led the Pope (the Catholic one) to invite Cao Dai leaders to the Vatican (the Catholic one) in 1984. The ultimate question for the keepers of Cao Dai is its role for the immigrant population. Elders note, as everywhere, that the young generation does not have the same culture and interests. One strategy is translation of Cao Dai literature into English. Meanwhile, the religion is growing beyond its Vietnamese origins: the first non-Vietnamese minister in the U.S. (a black woman) is mentioned briefly. The problem, then, is a familiar one: what is the relation between Vietnamese diaspora and Cao Dai as an originally-Vietnamese but aspirationally-global and actually-globalizing movement? How independent, for instance, can overseas temples be from the headquarters in the mother country?
“The Left Eye of God” is an interesting and important documentary on an under-appreciated religious movement, one which anthropologists could study profitably for its classic features of origin, syncretism, growth, modification, and globalization. Hopefully this film will bring more attention to it and more respect for the dynamism that is Eastern religion—and, in the end, more understanding of the dynamic and adaptive nature of religion in general. The DVD also includes extra short features on “The Afterlife,” “Architecture,” and “Spiritism.” More can be learned about Cao Dai at http://www.religioustolerance.org/caodaism.htm and the Cao Dai website http://www.caodai.org.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of religion and new religious movements, anthropological studies of colonialism and of immigration/diaspora communities, and Southeast Asian studies, as well as general audiences.
ReferencesLawrence, Peter. 1964. Road Belong Cargo: A Study of the Cargo Movement in the Southern Madang District New Guinea. Melbourne and Manchester: Melbourne University Press and Manchester University Press.
McFarland, H. Neill. 1967. The Rush Hour of the Gods: A Study of New Religious Movements in Japan. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Spence, Jonathan D. 1996. God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Worsley, Peter. 1968. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of “Cargo Cults” in Melanesia. New York: Shocken Books.