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.
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.