Supreme Mystery by Abigail Young
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by Abigail Young
"With more than 160 locations opened since 2008, Loving Hut is the world's fastest growing veg restaurant chain. Though the brand is more noticeable than ever, the woman behind it remains something of an enigma. Who is Supreme Master Ching Hai?
THE SUPREME MASTER CHING HAI INTERNATIONAL Association (SMCHIA), a non-religious spiritual group
headquartered in Taiwan, is in the throes of its latest mission: publicizing vegan food in the form of its mass-produced restaurant chain, Loving Hut. First opened in Taipei City, Taiwan, in April 2008, the East-meets-West eatery made its way to the US the same year, establishing itself in Milpitas, Calif. As of July 2010, more than 160 locations exist worldwide, with nearly 60 waiting in the pipeline, all thanks to the group’s enigmatic leader, Supreme Master Ching Hai. From conflicting reports of her ascension to “Supreme Master” status to an international vegan empire, the force behind Loving Hut’s explosive expansion might be the most controversial figure in veganism today.
Customers rave about the eatery’s fast-casual service, dishing out everything from barbecue skewers to fresh spring rolls, fried rice to flan, and even burgers and fries. Not only are prices comparable to meat-laden fast-food chains, but the streamlined expansion and similar design of each location imparts
a franchised feel, successfully achieving the approachable atmosphere that appeals to themass market. Vegetarians can enjoy a “typical” experience, and omnivores can explore new, meat-free options in a familiar setting. It’s a dream come true for most veg activists, with animal-free food in more mainstream locationsevery day. But curious diners are compelled to ask, who, or what, is the Supreme Master?
At most Loving Hut locations, a quick read of a strategically placed brochure will casually introduce the uninitiated to Supreme Master Ching Hai: a smiling, Chinese-Vietnamese woman with long, blonde hair and an impeccable, airbrushed complexion, dressed in bright colors. This is “god’s direct contact,” the self-proclaimed “chosen one” to millions of devout followers, and sole creator of the Loving Hut chain. To skeptics, she’s better known as the leader of the fastest growing cult in the world.
According to Ching Hai’s authorized biography, her story is simple, albeit vague. Growing up the daughter of a naturopathic doctor in Vietnam, Ching Hai read Chinese philosophy before she even started elementary school. She claims that at a young age, a clairvoyant predicted her noble path to save
all beings. While attending college in England, Ching Hai traveled, volunteering in Germany for the International Red Cross, where she married a German doctor. After a brief marriage, the two had an amicable separation when Ching Hai realized she needed to explore her spiritual path, eventually leading her to the Himalayas, where she learned the Quan Yin meditation method. Upon her return, followers
sought her out and begged for guidance, and the rest is history.
Her organization spans the globe, including more than 60 restaurants in addition to the Loving Hut chain, EcoVegan (a Taiwan-based vegan meat factory), 78 international meditation centers, and Supreme Master
Television, a 24-hour online station dedicated to all things vegan and Ching Hai. The channel also airs on 14 satellite networks worldwide and is translated into 42 languages. Her mission is simple: “promoting a vegetarian diet to be a compassionate and noble way of living.”
After embracing veganism in 2008, primarily due to concern for the environment, Ching Hai announced her new mission worldwide, asking all of her followers to focus solely on funding and operating her latest idea—the Loving Hut. Currently, only initiated practitioners—those who have joined SMCHIA and follow Ching Hai’s precepts—are permitted to run individual franchises, adhering to strict decor and operational guidelines.
Today, interested parties must maintain a vegan diet for a minimum of two months before formally applying to be accepted to SMCHIA. But before joining other followers, Ching Hai must approve all requests from her undisclosed location, according to a volunteer at the San Francisco center. Her “messengers,” specially trained disciples, instruct new initiates in the hours-long Quan Yin meditation
process, an integral element of her teachings.
In order to be eligible for initiation, practitioners must maintain a vegan lifestyle, one of Ching Hai’s five basic precepts: no taking of life, using intoxicants, lying, stealing, or adultery.With millions of estimated
followers (no formal records are kept), Ching Hai’s dream of disciple-funded ventures has come to fruition in two short years, and currently shows no sign of slowing. SMCHIA membership numbers are growing at pace, up from an estimated 100,000 in 1995.
San Francisco-based David Smugar is one of Ching Hai’s impassioned followers. He maintains three official positions for the association, spearheading the Loving Hut’s US public relations efforts, reporting for
Supreme Master Television, and marketing the new line of EcoVegan meat analogs. He lives in a small, humble room in one of the most expensive cities in the country and spends almost every waking hour working. He reports sleeping only two hours a night, meditates at least the requisite two and a half,
and travels extensively, all without monetary compensation. “Those of us who work with Supreme Master Ching Hai treasure it. This is a much better job than any job that pays money. I never felt so much satisfaction, or sense of timeliness or importance,” says Smugar. Currently, he is living on funds saved from
On May 1, downtown San Francisco welcomed its second Loving Hut location, smack dab in the middle of the behemoth Westfield Mall Shopping Centre food court. Westfield is the largest mall west of the
Mississippi, attracting more than 25 million visitors each year—restaurateurs couldn’t ask for a better space. Smugar agrees, adding that such prime real estate doesn’t come easy, or cheap. “We didn’t know if we could, but we contacted everyone, had meetings, and asked, ‘Can people contribute money?’ and we were pleasantly surprised that yes, we did have enough money to open in Westfield Mall,” says Smugar.
The “we” Smugar refers to are 20 members of San Francisco’s local association meditation center, where he and approximately 50 other practitioners of the Quan Yin method congregate. The money needed to open the restaurant came from their savings accounts and retirement funds, among other sources. While it’s against the organization’s policy to ask for donations, eager followers are often more than willing to help Ching Hai on her mission.
While securing and opening the location was strictly business, Smugar and his associates aren’t in it for the money. Following the example of Ching Hai’s own humanitarian efforts, he predicts that if needed, profits will be donated. “A group decision would be made based on the state of the world… The main
focus is the mission of getting the world to wake up as quickly as possible,” says Smugar.”
According to Ching Hai’s website, in addition to natural-disaster relief efforts, she also donates thousands of dollars to organizations and causes around the globe including a number of animal-protection organizations. In 2008, SMCHIA donated a total of $2.4 million, including grants aiding animal sanctuaries and shelters, earthquake disaster relief, vegetarian school lunches, the World Wildlife Fund, and dozens of others. Online records date back to 1989, totaling 1,017 individual contributions since her arrival in
A walking, talking catalog of the association’s information-heavy website, Smugar’s Ching Hai-inspired 10-minute tangents on melting ice caps, methane, and a grim future of fabricated housing pepper his conversation. These are not scare tactics, he says, but simply facts. This wealth of knowledge comes straight from Ching Hai, whose compassion for all living creatures makes her “the most radiant,
the most beautiful being inside and out,” Smugar says.
Fear, however, is no stranger in Ching Hai’s role as a leader. According to UC Berkeley graduate Eric Lai, whose thesis detailed the workings of SMCHIA, Ching Hai’s apocalyptic message in 1995 paralleled other fringe groups. Playing on Y2K fears and foreshadowing the end of the world, predicting that if humans didn’t change their ways, she warned the earth faced an untimely end as early as 1997. Thirteen years later, a familiar message echoes in her literature, updated for timeliness: “If we human beings don’t take steps to halt global warming within the next two years, after that, it will be too late and we could see all of life vanish from this planet by the year 2012.”
As with many controversial spiritual groups, followers don’t view Ching Hai as manipulative. Those who have met her tear up when talking about the experience, feeling blessed to have been touched by her, physically and spiritually. “She’s spent all of her life teaching others so they can also become enlightened and learn how to overcome the physical challenges of life, which would include attachments to physical things such as homes, cars, husbands, wives—none of those things last forever,” says Smugar.
Ching Hai lectures on her website, “Everything I tell you is the age-old essence of a practitioner who wants to get away from all the traps of this materialism and rise above this mind-matter controlling power so that he can realize there is something greater than his own body and his own machine brain.”
In contrast to her denouncement of materialism, the $2.4 million Ching Hai donated to humanitarian efforts in 2008 is reported to come from selling her creative projects—paintings, home decor, jewelry,
books, and more. A $15 locket with her photo, a $250 painting of a clown, or a $1,000 “longevity lamp,” among other seemingly random arts, are available to anyone willing to invest in material attachments from their master. And, more surprisingly, the reported multi-million dollar retail purchases occurred the same year Ching Hai was mobilizing practitioners to spend their savings on the Loving Hut expansion.
In addition to the $2.4 million donated by Ching Hai, the association’s Los Angeles-based center collected $3.1 million dollars in 2008, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), claimed as contributions and
grants. Nearly all of the revenue was spent on Supreme Master Television, whose studios are based in LA. Ching Hai is said to solely fund SMTV without outside help from contributors (minus free labor), bringing her yearly income, save personal living and housing costs, to $5.5 million.
Referencing Ching Hai’s 1990 records, the spiritual leader donated more than $500,000 to charitable causes. Impressive, yes, but critics question how this hefty sum materialized without the existence of her retail products.
Association members stand by the statement that their master does not accept donations, denying speculation that enlightenment comes at a price.
As for her personal lifestyle, little is revealed today due to her “safety,” which followers believe is jeopardized by the US meat and dairy industries, and constrictive governments in countries such as China. The latest rumors include Ching Hai seeking shelter in a cave or a trailer—dwellings that purportedly prove her distaste for ostentatious living. The last report of a US home base was in 2004 when, in an odd sequence of events, Miami-Dade officials in Florida discovered an illegal compound being constructed on a man-made island near Biscayne Bay National Park.
The future meditation retreat, registered under Ching Hai’s then-alias Celestia De Lamour (“star of love”), included a 50-foot aviary, a 350-foot boardwalk whose construction demolished coastal mangroves, and a small 50-foot island built from boulders. Construction was still underway when authorities discovered the operation, and workers quickly vanished. Another Miami property also owned by Lamour was seized and sold, and cost for repairs to the South Florida coastline reached the $1 million mark. Attempts to locate Lamour, aka Ching Hai, for questioning and financial restitution were unsuccessful. Who was this woman, and where did she come from?
In comparison to Ching Hai’s published biography, Eric Lai’s research turned up an entirely different story. Born Hue Dang Trinh on May 12, 1950, Hue completed 9th grade before becoming a nurse and spent most of her time socializing with American soldiers stationed in Vietnam. By 19, she had given birth to a baby whom she left in her mother’s care, leaving home with the German doctor she later married.
Hue began pursuing Buddhism in 1979. She became a vegetarian and studied with Master Thich Nhu Dien, a Buddhist monk, before being rejected from the monastery based on her gender. Later, traveling to India, Hue didn’t learn meditation from an anonymous man in the Himalayas, but in fact studied under controversial Sikh leader Thakar Singh, whose own laundry list of indiscretions includes sexual assault and violence.
Moving to Taiwan in 1983, Hue was given the name Ching Hai (“pure ocean”) by Jing-xing, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun. After her confirmation as a nun, Ching Hai traveled to Queens, NY, to volunteer at the Institute of Chung-hua Buddhist Culture. There, she began promoting her Quan Yin method of meditation,
which received a lukewarm response. Returning to Taiwan in 1986, Ching Hai began accumulating followers, many pulled from her former mentor, Jing-xing, which created hostility between the up-and-coming guru and her former colleagues. Rumors of her supposed “otherworldliness” spread, and the Supreme Master Ching Hai was born.
Today, Ching Hai rarely makes public appearances. Smugar last saw the spiritual leader in 2006 and feels grateful to have been able to meet her at all. Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t as difficult to meet the “master” given the proper time and place. While studying in Taiwan in 1994, Lai attended a Supreme Master retreat and sat front-row alongside 6,000 followers at her lecture, which he describes as “a rambling, hour-long talk sprinkled with motherly advice and jokes.”
Unlike today’s restricted access to her meditation centers, there was little issue with Lai attending the retreat. “They were definitely more open, because it’s a totally different media environment now,” says Lai. “It was very charismatic and revivalistic. She was a tiny woman who commands all this respect; it
was kind of absurd. I think she might’ve even touched my forehead, a blessing or something,” he comments matter-of-factly, hardly convinced of her status as god’s direct contact.
As for Lai’s unaffected reaction, it seems that people either fall in love with Ching Hai’s philosophy, or they don’t. One man claims Ching Hai saved his life after a car accident, while Smugar believes her power has kept him alive despite his congenital heart condition. “People did seem inordinately passionate about it. You definitely didn’t have people like, ‘My parents are into it, so I’m just along for the ride,’” Lai says. When it comes to the association, it's all or nothing.
A San Jose man reported his wife's devotion to Ching Hai as the cause for extreme behavioral changes. Taking Ching Hai’s adultery precept literally (a single partner is, in fact, permitted), she withdrew all physical contact from her husband. “She became strange, always upset with me, and screaming at the children,” he said. The anger escalated to her reportedly beating their two sons if they didn’t participate in daily meditation.
Other anecdotes surfaced about women leaving their husbands for their new family— the association. It’s this, Ching Hai has said, which motivated her to move away from the modest look of her Buddhist days. Now, she claims, wearing clothes that cost hundreds of dollars, dyeing her hair, and adorning herself
with handmade jewelry are necessary to not only gain respect from those who may not see her as a worthy “master,” but prevent women from becoming celibate. By showing women that you can dress beautifully, she says, she’s lessening their desire to become nuns.
Despite the main message of Ching Hai’s being one of compassion and love, select practitioners take their devotion too far, including using scare tactics toward the media. Critical journalists and curious Buddhist
monks received bomb threats and promises of violent acts, including execution and “eternal hell.” These actions don’t exactly align with the smiling, love-all-beings image, nor do reports of Ching Hai’s own temper tantrums and explosive episodes toward disciples.
Ching Hai considers herself to be the living Buddha, a god for those in spiritual need, but are her actions and emotions anything but human? The difficulty lies in distinguishing between a successful, fast-growing vegan food business aiming to save thousands of animals and help humankind, and extremely questionable behaviors of a powerful, mysterious woman in control of millions. Anyone concerned with the state of the planet and well-being of animals would be happy to have a Loving Hut in town, and the spiritually bankrupt find solace in her methods. But is this intense growth sustainable, and what will happen to the hundreds of investors if the market can’t support the restaurant chain’s exponential growth?
For now, more locations are opening monthly, adding to Ching Hai’s long list of disciple-run restaurants. Her followers maintain faith in their leader and her business plan. “Master Ching Hai is strictly about compassion for every sentient being,” says Smugar. “It’s a model for the world.”
(Abigail Young is associate and web editor of VegNews)
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 04/10/2011 10:11AM by The Anticult.