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

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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.

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