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Critics Claim Supreme Master Ching Hai's Followers' Restaurants Featuring Tasty Vegan Fare Front For an Exploitive Movement.

Scott Anderson

Other than a simple slate-rock sign before it that reads "Quan Yin Family," there's little to distinguish the one-story house from any other in this rural patch of Buckeye, where horseback riders and children on motorized mini-bikes share the area's unpaved roads.

"Quan Yin" refers to the Quan Yin method of meditation taught by Supreme Master Ching Hai (also called "Suma Ching Hai"), the spiritual leader of tens of thousands worldwide who regard her as an enlightened being, along the lines of Jesus Christ or Buddha.

But Quan Yin can also refer to the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion, often depicted swathed in flowing robes while standing atop a lotus flower.

So it's probably no coincidence that Ching Hai, 61, born Hue Dang Trinh in Vietnam, often dons robes and headpieces mimicking the deity, for photos and videos purchased by her adherents.

Portraits of Ching Hai adorn the center's walls. Some followers wear medallions depicting the supreme master's visage. The rear of the property includes a garden and an outside meditation area beneath an awning with wooden pallets to sit on.

Inside a trailer on the property is an air-conditioned meditation room with a bare, wooden floor. The room is dominated by a shrine, with a large picture of Ching Hai in white, surrounded by sparkly Christmas decorations. Below the photo is a stuffed chair covered in a bright yellow cloth.

"It's kind of a reminder, like we're meditating with the master," said Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association member Dr. Elie Firzli, a Phoenix pediatrician.

Firzli, a Christian originally from Lebanon, explained that the Association is open to individuals of all faiths and that people do not have to abandon their beliefs to be initiated into the Quan Yin method

Sunday is the day local Association members gather for group meditation, a vegan meal, and fellowship. Members are supposed to meditate for 2 1/2 hours a day, but on Sunday, the meditation sessions can stretch to five hours or more.

Initiates are expected to follow a strict vegan diet, which means no dairy, as well as no eggs, meat, poultry, or fish.

There are also five precepts to follow: Do no harm to other living beings. No lying. No stealing. No sexual "misconduct." And no intoxicants, defined in Association literature as alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs.

Adherents exude a calm, friendly aura. Their community in Arizona is small and humble, with about 40 active members in the state. Tiny compared with much larger Ching Hai centers across the globe.

The house and the property have been donated for the group's use by Ngan Tran, owner of the Loving Hut vegan restaurant in Glendale. There's another Loving Hut on Indian School Road with different owners. Both are part of a franchise that boasts 219 locations worldwide.

Over a meal of Vietnamese pho (noodles in a broth with slices of faux beef, cashews, and ping-pong-ball-size dumplings made of mushrooms), Tran, an engineer at Honeywell originally from Vietnam, explained how Ching Hai's message inspired her to become first a vegetarian, then a vegan, and finally proprietor of the first Loving Hut in Arizona.

"When people suffer, everything's from the killing [of animals]," said Tran, a small, excitable woman with dark, flickering eyes. "When you stop the killing, the suffering stops. So easy!"

Tran had no experience in the restaurant business. But when Ching Hai created the concept of the Loving Hut franchise a few years ago, encouraging her followers to spread the gospel of veganism through tasty, meatless meals in a fast-casual setting, Tran opened the Glendale location in 2009 with the assistance of fellow initiates.

Now, future Loving Hut franchise owners come to her restaurant to learn how to prepare meals and run a business.

The success of her Glendale eatery mirrors the global proliferation of Loving Huts, which are riding a wave of interest in veganism by the health-conscious and those concerned with global warming. Some medical experts now believe veganism can reverse such maladies as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Scientists warn that meat eating and livestock farming are speeding the process of climate change.

All of which, along with the moral problem of slaughtering animals, is part of Ching Hai's message, which Loving Hut franchises soft-peddle through free literature, DVDs of Hai's lectures, and the presence of TV screens fixed to the Supreme Master TV satellite channel in every restaurant. The hook for that message is Loving Hut's menu, which offers a sumptuous array of dishes using fake meat, chicken, and seafood that can convert committed carnivores, if only some of the time.

Yet detractors depict the Loving Huts as a recruiting mechanism for a cult with a dictatorial leader who exploits her followers and has grown rich from selling them such merchandise as books, videos, and jewelry.

 

Hai's devotees counter that their goal is the greater good of changing people's minds about veganism, and if that's accomplished, where's the harm?


"If we want people to be vegan," Tran said, "then we have to have a sample, so we can say, 'Here's how delicious vegan food can be.'"

Indeed, there's little argument when it comes to Loving Hut's preparations or the concept itself, which have earned plaudits from restaurant writers, customers, and even competitors.

Damon Brasch, the chef behind the popular vegetarian restaurant Green in Tempe told New Times he frequents the Glendale location and is not put off by the affection the owners have for Ching Hai, though he does not follow the guru.

"I go to their place," Brasch said of the eatery. "And I send people over there. There are a lot worse things you can pick on than the message they're spreading."

VegNews, the bimonthly Bible of the vegetarian community, recently awarded Loving Hut USA with its Readers Pick award for Restaurant of the Year.

Its editors concurred with the results of the reader survey, writing that the concept's branding and mainstream appeal have helped it "spread like wildfire into 39 countries" after the opening of the first Loving Hut in Taiwan in 2008.

Joseph Connelly, VegNews' publisher, expressed to New Times that the attitude of the vegan and vegetarian community toward Loving Hut has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We love Loving Hut, no pun intended," he said. "It's great to be in a place and see there's a Loving Hut there, and know that if you're vegan or vegetarian, you can go and eat and not have to worry about what's in the food."

Connelly's praise is notable given that the magazine also recently ran a profile of Ching Hai and the Loving Hut franchise by writer Abigail Young that recounted some of the troubling issues surrounding Hai's Association, and debated whether or not Hai's organization is a cult.

Though the article "Supreme Mystery" was unbiased by journalism standards, followers of Ching Hai took great exception to the discussion of the Association's alleged cult status and flooded VegNews with angry responses.

Vegan author Will Tuttle, a Hai ally, denounced the piece in a shrill, over-the-top online essay that called the article "an act of unprovoked violence" against fellow vegans by those in the same movement.

"The feedback generally fell into two different categories," Connelly said of responses to Young's piece. "Those that felt the article was even-handed, almost neutral. And feedback coming almost exclusively from within the Loving Hut organization that was critical of us."

Such controversies have not dampened enthusiasm for Loving Hut's product. Even longtime meat-lovers have taken to the eateries. Former New Times restaurant critic Michele Laudig, calling herself an "open-minded omnivore," gave the Glendale location high marks, labeling its use of faux animal flesh "deceptively delicious."

Not that Loving Hut is anything but transparent about its recipes. General ingredients are mentioned on the menus, and the fake meats that have become Loving Hut's calling cards can be purchased for home preparation.

The yam-based faux shrimp could fool a fisherman, even in their frozen state, when they resemble giant prawns. Fried golden in a tempura batter, the texture and the taste, given a kind of fishiness through the use of seaweed, is tantalizingly close to the real thing. These fake crustaceans are the basis for one of the restaurant's most popular items, dubbed Spicy Cha-Cha.

Another customer favorite is the faux beef of the Mongolian Wonder (also Mongolian Delight), which comes as dry as potato chips and is hydrated for cooking. When warm, the thin slices of compacted, brown-black soy approximate closely the taste of cow flesh.

There's even a faux fillet of fish called Seaweed Ocean, also molded from soy protein. A partial seaweed crust adds a briny quality. This one won't trick seafood lovers, but it's tasty all the same.

The ersatz "chicken" of several dishes is less successful, and the soy patty of the eatery's Hawaiian burger is no match for an In-N-Out double-double.

But most of the Asian-inspired cuisine is successful, largely because of the spices employed — and the preparation. Indian-style curries and bowls of pho brimming with savory broth are already palate pleasers, with or without the addition of tofu or phony animal flesh.

Because each Loving Hut is individually owned, the menus and preparations can vary. The faux meats are supplied by various sources, such as the San Francisco-based company ecoVegan, the main provider of vegan "meats" to Loving Hut restaurants, and the Canadian company gardein, as well as others.

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and other outlets offer pre-packaged faux animal flesh, too. But there is a certain convenience in being able to purchase it at a Loving Hut, after sampling the product in one of Loving Hut's recipes.

 

The Glendale location, for example, offers a vegan take on a Vietnamese-style pâté chaud, a flaky pastry stuffed with a mixture of soy protein, shredded carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and onions, flavored with Loving Hut's proprietary spice mixture.

Each site offers a variety of mock cocktails, appetizers, and desserts. Loving Hut's vegan carrot cake is lighter than traditional carrot cake and is made without milk, butter, or eggs. Loving Hut's slightly chewy, tofu-y take on cheesecake (using "soy cream cheese") won't hoodwink fans of the postprandial classic, but for what it is, it's passable.

Loving Hut USA spokesman Jingwu Zhang told New Times that the company manufactures many of the products it uses in its company factory in Taiwan, allowing ecoVegan to be the exclusive distributor to Loving Hut restaurants, though ecoVegan distributes other companies' foods, as well.

"There are a lot of manufacturers of frozen food, but we're not sure they are purely vegan," Zhang said. "Also we want to use non-GMO ingredients, including the minor ingredients such as soy sauce, in the frozen food. That's why Loving Hut set up a factory in Taiwan to produce pure vegan food."

GMO, which stands for "genetically modified organism," means that the genetic material of the plant or animal has been scientifically altered. Use of GMOs is widespread in the food industry — and controversial, particularly in the vegan/vegetarian world.

Zhang also said Loving Hut operates more like a "homeowners association" than a traditional franchise. There is no standard operating manual and no franchise fee, though the logo and the color scheme is the same in each location.

Owners retain the freedom to alter the menu, as long as it remains vegan. For example, the proprietors of the Indian School Road location in Phoenix owned Vegetarian House restaurant, which preceded Loving Hut in the same space. And certain dishes from the Vegetarian House days still are served.

Vegetarian House "upgraded" to the vegan-style Loving Hut last July, according to Jane Pham, the location's hostess, who acts as a spokeswoman and translator for the owners, sisters Michelle and Darlene Nguyen.

The sisters have been followers of Ching Hai for more than two decades. When Hai announced a new push to turn the planet's inhabitants vegan, they signed on to the project and converted their restaurant into a Loving Hut.

All Loving Hut owners are members of Hai's Association, though Zhang noted that this may not always be the case in the future.

This convergence of spiritual belief with capitalism seems to guarantee a loyal and enthusiastic workforce. Pham, a longtime Association member, said she traveled to Arizona from California to help with the opening of the Glendale Loving Hut before moving on to the Phoenix location.

Another Association member let drop that he sometimes "helps out" when things get busy at the Phoenix restaurant, though he currently has a full-time job. Online, Loving Hut critics maintain that Association members are forced to "volunteer" without remuneration.

But when asked about what seems to be a gray line between religious devotion and labor, Dr. Firzli, a sort-of coordinator within the Phoenix chapter, insisted that everyone who "helps out" at the restaurants gets paid.


There are a few other common characteristics of this non-franchise franchise. The restaurants themselves are well lit and invariably spotless, with a color scheme of white, yellow, and red. Workers often wear shirts or other clothing bearing Hai's unique red SM symbol. Hai's amateurish, impressionistic still-lifes often dot the walls.

Supreme master merchandise is displayed either for sale or perusal, everything from ladies' wallets and Hai-designed lamps to poorly shot photo books by Hai, such as The Birds in My Life or The Dogs in My Life, in which the supreme master's pets express their innermost thoughts on life, love, and grooming.

One such book, The Love of Centuries, offers the supreme master's poetry, sometimes written from the point of view of cows, hens, or pigs headed for slaughter. In "Imagine It's You," one animal victim cries out to humanity in a passage that skirts self-parody.

Oh, if you don't know there is hell

Come and see right here nowhere else!

Dear Human friends, how can this be?

Why, why must you torture and eat me?

But if Hai's no Emily Dickinson, she scores points as a woman with more looks than Lady Gaga and Björk combined.

In the coffee table book Celestial Art, which spotlights her myriad creative endeavors, the diminutive guru's guises change with nearly every turned page, from that of a boyish-looking initiate in starched white pajamas to a bauble-wearing princess in an ornate gold headdress more elaborate than Queen Amidala's in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Only a squint in Hai's right eye, the result of some paralysis, remains consistent throughout her numerous incarnations.

 

The many moods, the many faces of Ching Hai also are part of another feature of the restaurants: large, flat-screen TV sets, permanently tuned to Supreme Master TV, a 24-7 satellite broadcast beamed across the globe from the station's headquarters in Los Angeles.

The restaurants keep the sound low, but if customers are so inclined, they can follow the eclectic and sometimes bizarre content by reading the flickering subtitles, which appear in several languages, including Vietnamese, English, Arabic, and Hungarian.

Viewers are fed a nonstop New Age smorgasbord of topics: vegan cooking shows, "uplifting" news segments, and interviews with relatively famous individuals, such as Ching Hai admirer and Beach Boy Al Jardine, or ex-NBA player and erstwhile talk show host John Salley.

The channel runs continuously online at SupremeMasterTV.com, where Hai often appears via teleconference with an audience of adoring supporters who hang on her every word and ooh and ah as she answers questions about meditation, world peace, or the paranormal.

In one such setting, Hai informed her supporters that crop circles are a kind of alien road sign through which extraterrestrials leave messages for each other. In another, she contended that the pyramids are meant to act as lighthouses for UFOs, showing them where to land safely.

SMTV also has regular segments on "breatharians," people who claim they can survive on air alone. There are shows about the horrors and costs of war and famine, and there are constant reminders that the supreme master's organization engages in disaster relief and philanthropy.

Association members often participate as unpaid stringers, reporting on local topics or traveling to other cities to present cash awards to deserving recipients.

Victoria White, an area representative for the Association who lives in Tucson, recently did a segment where she presented the supreme master's Shining World Honesty Award to Dave Tally, the formerly homeless Tempe man who found $3,300 in an abandoned backpack and turned it in, rather than pocket it.

The award included a trophy and a check for $1,500.

For a yet-to-be-aired segment, White and fellow Ching Hai follower and Tucsonan Nina Schatz journeyed to Mexico to present the Shining World Compassion Award to Guadalupe de la Vega, founder of a hospital in Juárez that serves the poor. De la Vega's foundation received a $30,000 donation from Ching Hai that will benefit a new nursing school in the city.

White said she's not paid to do such reports, and that she and Schatz, who helped with the camera work on the latest assignment, split the cost of travel to Juárez. Schatz, who is originally from Taiwan, works as a contracts officer with Pima County's procurement department.

White owns her own business, one that she says came about because of her involvement with the Association and SMTV. Assigned to report on a man doing charitable work in Africa, she asked him how he could afford to be so generous. He told her that he made his money growing moringa trees, a medicinal plant high in protein and chock-full of amino acids and essential vitamins.

She now raises the trees on property she owns near Tucson and sells moringa seeds, plants, and growing kits online at moringatreeoflife.com. The subject of her SMTV story presented White with her first seeds.

"I'm really grateful to have been inspired to start growing it because of my association with Supreme Master Television," White enthused in an interview with New Times.

Both White and Schatz say they enjoy their SMTV side jobs and do not believe they are exploited. Each woman keeps vegan and meditates 2 1/2 hours a day, either all at once or broken up throughout. White described this as a kind of spiritual "tithing."

The women say they discovered Ching Hai's teachings years ago, before Supreme Master TV began broadcasting from Los Angeles in 2006. They already were vegetarian before getting initiated into the Association and have been profoundly influenced by the Quan Yin method of meditation, which involves focusing on a "third eye" and purportedly experiencing inner light and sound.

Details of the full method are not explained to non-initiates, though Hai does have a "convenient" method for starters that she relates in a video on SupremeMasterTV.com. Aspiring initiates have to be vegan for a full year before a designated Association representative can instruct them. Hai advises non-vegans who wish to meditate using her method or another method to do so only for short periods, like a half-hour at a time.

SMTV and Association websites, such as godsdirectcontact.org, sometimes act as recruitment tools. Dr. Firzli, for instance, said he first began getting interested in Ching Hai's teachings after seeing Supreme Master TV on a local public-access channel that no longer exists.

But more than anything, SMTV proselytizes a vegan lifestyle, one summed up by Hai's motto, which is repeated incessantly in SMTV's programming and graces the walls and menus of the Loving Hut chain: "Be Veg! Go Green! Save the Planet."

 


"Supreme Master TV aligns really well with the vision of Loving Hut," spokesman Zhang said of channel's presence in almost all Loving Huts worldwide. That vision, he added, "is to promote vegan food to the public."

The Association's zeal for veganism screams from Ching Hai's books, from tabloid-y literature and DVDs offered free at Loving Hut franchises, from SMTV itself, and from the Associations' websites.

These media offer three basic rationales for veganism. There is the traditional argument proffered by several spiritual, ethical, and religious schools of thought that killing in any form is immoral and, therefore, slaughtering animals for food or clothing should be shunned.

Physical well-being is another prong of the Association's message, which argues that a plant-based diet is healthier and superior to those involving the consumption of animal products.

The last, and most important in Hai's teachings, is that factory animal farming contributes to global warming, which scientists warn will lead to cataclysmic changes in Earth's climate, if not reversed.

One need not have seen An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary featuring former Vice President Al Gore's slideshow presentation on global warming, to be familiar with scientific pronouncements on the effects of a rise in Earth's temperature.

Dire warnings about melting glaciers, elevated sea levels, extreme weather, ocean acidity, and other fallouts from global climate change have seeped into the popular consciousness — the rebuttals of reactionary pundits such as Glenn Beck aside.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, has declared global warming to be the result of the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere via the use of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other forms of pollution.

Scientists caution that the world is getting hotter faster and that without drastic intervention, the process could reach a point of no return.

Ching Hai's Association uses such apocalyptic scenarios to bolster its emphasis on a vegan lifestyle. It cites a 2006 report from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, Livestock's Long Shadow, which says the livestock industry accounts for "18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent," a higher share than caused by transportation.

Livestock flatulence and excrement produce large amounts of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, according to the report. Forests are leveled and burned so the land can be converted to grazing areas. Herds of cattle can degrade the land they use.

The FAO also asserts that pollution of precious water resources results from "animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray crops."

For Ching Hai and her followers, such scientific evidence allows them to portray going vegan as a kind of silver bullet for the threat of global warming. In her book From Crisis to Peace: The Organic Vegan Way Is the Answer, Hai argues that eating meat is not only bad karma, it will lead to the destruction of the planet if it's not curbed.

"If meat eating is not banned or not limited, then the whole planet will be gone," she writes.

A plant-based diet will end world hunger and quickly cool the planet, she promises. She advocates "banning meat as smoking was banned," going to organic farming, and introducing vegan school lunches.

If mankind follows her dictates, she says it will achieve "Eden on Earth," world peace and harmony, an advance in human evolution, and a "leap into the golden era."

The consequence of ignoring Hai's edicts will be that Earth will end up like Mars or Venus, which she contends once had "water, life, and people similar to us." That is, until the Martians and Venusians "raised too much livestock," triggering an "irreversible greenhouse gas effect."

She even posits that there were at one time "four Venuses," two of which went bad from global warming.

Naturally, the FAO report does not indulge in such goofy sci-fi fantasies. Nor does it advocate banning meat. Rather the FAO report recognizes the economic and social complexity of the issue, without minimizing the risks of inaction.

The FAO study does note the influence of consumer demand for organic products and a "tendency toward vegetarianism in developed countries" as having an important role to play.

But its most significant suggestions are structural: improving the diets of the animals involved, more efficient production techniques, the realistic pricing of water, and other ways to mitigate the impact of global livestock farming.

The FAO report also recognizes the importance to the world economy of raising livestock, and it refers to livestock products as a "welcome addition to the diets of many poor and under- or malnourished people," for whom meat is a source of much-needed protein, vitamins, and minerals.

 

Hai's advocacy for some sort of worldwide meat prohibition is extreme, but hers is not the only voice encouraging the adoption of a plant-based diet and the reduction of livestock consumption.

Rajenedra Pachuari, chair of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has urged people to reduce their meat intake to help assuage global warming.

"Give up meat for one day [per week] initially, and decrease it from there," he told the Guardian's weekly Observer magazine in 2008.

Pachuari also stated, "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, [eating less meat] clearly is the most attractive opportunity."

A growing movement urging people to embrace "meatless Mondays," has emerged over the past decade, backed by celebrities and politicians such as Oprah Winfrey, Yoko Ono, Gore, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chef Mario Batali, ex-American Idol judge Simon Cowell, and Paul McCartney, a longtime advocate of vegetarianism.

Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Greenpeace also espouse vegetarianism for environmental and ethical reasons. PETA has urged a tax on meat to curb deleterious effects on the environment.

In addition to concerns over global warming, there's also increasing interest in the long-term health benefits of a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle.

The findings of biochemist and nutritionist T. Colin Campbell have been particularly influential, popularized by the documentary Forks Over Knives, which examines his findings that most "diseases of affluence" — such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer — are the result of a diet high in animal protein.

In his groundbreaking book The China Study, Campbell discusses the results of a 20-year investigation into the diets and mortality rates of thousands of Chinese. He and his fellow researchers conclude that a plant-based diet is the best prevention against various diseases that are relatively rare in developing countries where meat eating is not as widespread as it is in the West.

Campbell also concludes that people can actually reverse chronic diseases by switching to a vegan diet, and Forks Over Knives follows individuals who, by eschewing meat, dairy, and processed foods, are able to, essentially, heal themselves of ailments such as breast cancer and high blood pressure.

Former President Bill Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2004, revealed that he adopted a plant-based diet after doctors discovered that part of the bypass graft was blocked and required the use of stents to maintain blood flow.

"I'm trying to be one of those experimenters," the onetime McDonald's addict told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in a 2010 interview. "Since 1986, several hundred people who have tried essentially a plant-based diet — not ingesting any cholesterol from any source — have seen their bodies start to heal themselves; break up the arterial blockage, break up the calcium deposits around the heart."

He continued, "82 percent of the people who have done this have had this result, so I want to see if I can be one of them."

Clinton told Blitzer that he occasionally eats fish, but otherwise relies on a morning protein shake to supplement his vegan diet.

Clinton cited the China study project in his interview, and SupremeMasterTV.com was elated with Clinton's move toward veganism.

"Your Excellency," reads an item to Clinton on Ching Hai's website about the CNN interview, "we laud your life-sustaining food choices! Blessed be such changes as yours in motivating many others toward the humane and health-restoring plant-based lifestyle."


Ironically, that statement is not the first time the supreme master has "blessed" the former president. In fact, Hai once tried to bless Clinton to the tune of $640,000.

In late 1996, the legal-defense fund established to pay Clinton's bills resulting from various scandals revealed that it returned more than $600,000 in contributions from Hai and her followers.

Both CNN and Time later reported that the money had been solicited by Clinton associate and fundraiser Charlie Trie, who traveled to Taiwan to meet with the supreme master and ask for her assistance.

Clinton's legal-defense fund believed the donations to be questionable and gave them back. Trie ended up pleading guilty in 1998 to going awry of federal campaign-finance laws as part of the Clinton administration's larger Asian finance flap.

But when Time caught up with the woman it called "the Buddhist Martha [Stewart]," she was unapologetic.

"It's only $600,000, for God's sake!" she told a Time correspondent, adding, "If the American people would allow me, I would give [Clinton] $2 million right now."

Other controversies have assailed Hai and her Association, which more than one observer labels a cult.

In 2004, the Miami Herald reported on a manmade island allegedly created by Hai's followers in Florida's Biscayne Bay National Park. Adjacent property owned by one "Celestia de Lamour" (or "Star of Love") was seized by local authorities, who said the name was a Hai alias.

 

Federal officials were forced to repair damage done by a 330-foot boardwalk that the Herald described as having been "illegally hacked through a federally protected mangrove forest."

The 32-by-42-foot island, created by workers hauling boulders in wheelbarrows, was later dismantled, and the seized property turned into a park and library.

The Herald also reported, "The lot's caretaker, who only spoke Mandarin Chinese, said the island was built for [Hai] to look out at the bay."

The Ching Hai island affair once more reared its head when the United Kingdom's Woodland Trust, a tree- and forest-preservation nonprofit, came under fire for accepting £100,000 from the guru.

The charity kept the money even though it was urged to return it by a man in London who blamed his divorce on his wife's obsession with the organization.


Liverpool's Daily Post quoted the anonymous man as saying that his wife, an academic, would disappear for months whenever the supreme master ordered. He claimed she lost a well-paying job because of it and ended up wasting money "buying the cult's jewelry, at £7,000 to £8,000 per item."

Similar tales are rife on the online message board for the New Jersey-based Rick Ross Institute, dedicated to monitoring cult activity.

Family members of Ching Hai adherents assert under online pseudonyms that the Association brainwashes its members through prolonged meditation and a diet that keeps them weak and compliant. They say Hai's followers end up devoting all their time to the cult and force their families into debt spending money on Hai merchandise.

News articles archived on the site complain of Hai's lavish personal lifestyle, repeating stories about Hai fanatics willing to drink her bathwater, or about one devotee who supposedly purchased her dirty sweat socks for $800.

Various news sources cite the work of Eric Lai, once a journalism grad student at the University of California-Berkeley, whose thesis, "Spiritual Messiah Out of Taiwan," relates that the Vietnamese-born Hai came into the world in 1950 as Hue Dang Trinh, the offspring of a Chinese father and a Vietnamese mother.

After growing up in Vietnam and, according to Lai, giving birth to the child of an American serviceman, she traveled the world, studied under gurus in India and Taiwan, and ultimately changed her name to Ching Hai, Mandarin for "pure ocean."

Hai's own hagiography, found on godsdirectcontact.org, suggests that she was reading works of philosophy as a child and was raised Catholic, though she maintained Buddhist leanings and was referred to as "the living Buddha" while still a kid.

An astrologer, according to the website, predicted that she would become enlightened. While praying at a temple to the bodhisattva Quan Yin, Hai's mother was told the young master was essentially on a mission from God "to save sentient beings from misery."

Her bio states that Hai worked in Germany for the Red Cross and married a German scientist, eventually leaving him to pursue enlightenment. She is said to have found it in the Himalayas, where a mysterious, unnamed master "initiated Her into the Quan Yin method and gave Her the Divine Transmission that She had sought for so many years." (Note: Hai's personal pronouns are always capitalized in Association literature.)

After Hai scored that "Divine Transmission," she descended from the mountaintops and traveled to Taiwan, where the people declared her "Quan Yin Bodhisattva, Goddess of Mercy." Different sources peg 1986 as the beginning of Hai's Association.

As unremarkable as Hai may seem to the uninitiated, as banal as many of her pronouncements may be, Hai's followers sincerely revere her. At the Buckeye center, one Vietnamese-American man told New Times how he had felt lost after high school — until someone handed him a flier about the supreme master.

When the supreme master visited Phoenix in the 1990s for the first and apparently only time, the man was able to meet the master. In her presence, he said, he wept tears of joy.

Asked about the titles "Supreme Master" and "God's Direct Contact," a representative for SMTV compared such honorifics to those enjoyed by the Dalai Lama.

All the local Hai worshippers told New Times that they are not required to donate any money to the Association. Nor are they required to purchase any Ching Hai merchandise, they said.

But on the Rick Ross Institute's message board, there are accusations that followers are encouraged to purchase Hai's books so that the tomes achieve a number-one status on Amazon.com.

As far as donations go, the Los Angeles Center for the Association is registered with the federal government as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt entity, as are many other Hai Associations, though the Los Angeles center seems the largest.

 

The L.A. center reported total revenue to the IRS for 2009 of nearly $3.7 million. "Public support" accounted for 99.8 percent of that total. The center had no paid employees, and it funneled the majority of its revenue into expenses for Supreme Master TV.

The Association's naysayers pooh-pooh the group's charitable contributions as mere PR stunts. But according to paperwork on file with the IRS, the L.A. center donated 17 percent of its income, or $639,066 to a plethora of charitable organizations.

Beyond the occasional blip on an Association website or on Supreme Master TV, such monetary gestures of goodwill receive scant attention in the mainstream press.

Ross is not impressed. He contends the Association meets the three requirements laid down by noted cult researcher Robert Jay Lifton for classification as a cult: a charismatic, authoritarian leader who becomes the object of worship; "coercive persuasion" or "thought reform"; and "exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie."

Even if the product of the cult — in this case, the meals produced by Loving Huts — are arguably good, Ross said he would never patronize such an establishment.

"I would not go to a [business] run by a purported cult leader," Ross said, "one [that] exploits or harms members. I would have an ethical problem and feel quite conflicted . . . putting money into the till that ultimately benefits Suma Ching Hai."

Ross said he regards Loving Hut restaurants as recruitment tools for Ching Hai, whom he views as a nefarious figure.

Another cult-like aspect of SMTV is a doomsday clock that suggests there are less than two years left to rescue Earth. The clock ticks off days so the reader knows how many there are to go.

"That's kind of like the countdown day, where it might be too late to turn around and fix this planetary problem," Kris Greene, a spokeswoman for SMTV in Los Angeles told New Times.

"It's not like one day where everything shuts off and the world ends," Greene said. "But it's kind of like the point of no return."

Ross likened Hai's clock to predictions by Christian radio nut Harold Camping that "The Rapture" would happen on May 21, plunging the world into catastrophe.

"Claims about the end of the world and about impending doom create a kind of crisis mentality," he said. "Within that construct, people look for a sense of safety and surety so it can engender more dependence on the leader and the group to define that."

The threat of disaster brought on by global warming thereby becomes the "organizational glue" that keeps the cult together, according to Ross. So Hai offers the specter of a threat, then presents the road to salvation — which is veganism, meditation, and affiliation with the Association.

Yet there is truth to Hai's sometimes-bizarre theology.

Global warming is a fact, and veganism is one indirect way to combat it. Plus, the food is delicious at Loving Huts.

Perhaps that's why a writer for the pro-animal, pro-vegan blog OurHenHouse.org described Loving Hut as "a cult I can live with."

Green's Damon Brasch concurs.

"What they're doing over there really isn't hurting anybody," he said. "You can look at the [National Football League], and it's somewhat of a cult, as well."

Only no member of the pro football "cult" would proclaim that consuming a platter of nachos and a six-pack of Budweiser while watching games on TV leads to a longer life.

As Supreme Master Ching Hai's followers do about the veganism at the core of her alleged cult. And on that point, they're probably right.

The success of the Glendale Loving Hut (there's another in central Phoenix) mirrors the global proliferation of the restaurants, which are riding a wave of interest in veganism by the health-conscious and those concerned with global warming.

Loving Huts offer faux meat dishes that deliciously mimic the real thing. The yam-based "shrimp" could fool a fisherman in taste and texture. They're fried golden in a tempura-based batter. A fishy taste is achieved through the use of seaweed.

Ching Hai's initiates are expected to follow a strict vegan diet. Then, there are five precepts to follow: Do no harm to other living beings. No lying. No stealing. No sexual "misconduct." And no intoxicants.

Detractors depict the Loving Hut franchise as a recruiting mechanism for a cult with a dictatorial leader who exploits her followers and has grown rich from selling them such merchandise as books, videos, and jewelry.


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