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

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.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons