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

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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."

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