From her headquarters in Taiwan, the 46-year-old Ching Hai claims more than 100,000 believers in the hybrid of Buddhism, Christianity, and meditation that she ginned up more than a decade ago. For many of her disciples -- as they refer to themselves -- Ching Hai is God incarnate, the living Buddha. When she's not fulfilling her role as the Almighty, Ching Hai paints, makes jewelry, publishes a magazine, produces music videos, and designs a flamboyant clothing line that debuted last year on runways in Paris, New York, and London. Ching Hai's heavenly creations are a far cry from the hair shirts and drab cassocks often associated with re-ligious devotion. She's partial to flowing silks in bubble gum colors, elaborate hats, and custom-made umbrellas. It would take a miracle for most of her disciples to purchase this holy couture; ensembles from the "Celestial Clothing" collection can cost as much as $11,250.
Ching Hai may not be ready to challenge Yves Saint Laurent as a fashion luminary, but she is quickly establishing herself as major planet in the cult universe. That fact worries Dr. Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist who has studied cults since the 1950s. Singer warns that Ching Hai is well on her way to building a "gigantic empire."
"It appears to be one of the most well-organized and fastest-growing cults in the United States and the world," says Singer, a retired University of California at Berkeley professor who served as a court-appointed expert in the Patty Hearst trial. "It's growing faster than the militia movement, and there's a real concern that followers are getting taken."
A few dozen local disciples visit Ching Hai's San Francisco Center three times a week to watch the Master's video lectures and meditate using her special Quan Yin or "inner sound" method. Tucked away in a spare room at Peterson's Parts Warehouse on Cesar Chavez Street, the center is just one of Ching Hai's many outposts in nearly 40 countries. She also operates 56 vegetarian restaurants, including one in San Jose that doubles as an outlet for her religious merchandise.
Initiates agree to practice Quan Yin meditation 2 1/2 hours every day, as well as give up stealing, lying, intoxicants, meat, and sexual misconduct. If that seems too difficult, the "Convenient Method" is also an option: Meditation is cut to just 30 minutes a day, and a vegetarian diet is required only 10 days a month.
The initiation registration form makes it clear that a rival religious affiliation doesn't disqualify applicants.
"I do not belong to Buddhism or Catholicism," Ching Hai is quoted on one of her numerous World Wide Web pages. "I belong to the Truth and I preach the Truth. You may call it Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, or whatever you like. I welcome all."
Like most of those who take Ching Hai up on her offer, the San Francisco faithful are primarily Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants. Loc Petrus, a computer consultant who grew up in Vietnam and now lives in the Ocean View neighborhood, explains that Ching Hai offers stability to newcomers adjusting to life in the United States.
"Nothing lasts in this world," Petrus says. "Everything is impermanent, perishable, permeable. You can't count on anything in this world except the Master."
According to Ching Hai's glowing official biography, She (yes, pronouns referring to the Master are capitalized) "demonstrated a saintly nature" even as a child. She read "philosophical literatures" while the other kids were outside playing, and she wept at the sight of animals being slaughtered for food. It's no wonder an astrologer pronounced that the young Ching Hai possessed "supernoble character and morals." Ching Hai hit the road at an early age to seek knowledge and help others. Her marriage to a German physician ended in separation when she left him to "pursue Her spiritual goal." It wasn't long before Ching Hai achieved "perfect enlightenment." She was content to lead the life of a simple Buddhist nun, but she could not deny the followers who miraculously sought her out in Taiwan, where she had settled. She reluctantly agreed to be their Master and "save sentient beings from misery."
Contrast this radiant official bio with the unauthorized one, a graduate thesis in journalism at Berkeley written in 1995 by Eric Lai. In "Spiritual Messiah Out of Taiwan," Lai reveals that Ching Hai was born Hue Dang Trinh in 1950. She grew up in Vietnam, where she gave birth to the child of an American GI. She eventually migrated to India where she studied under Thakar Singh, the founder of a Buddhist splinter group who later gained notoriety for his financial improprieties, sexual liaisons with disciples, and violent behavior. She then traveled to Taiwan, picked up her new name -- "pure ocean" in Mandarin -- and headed for Queens, New York. It wasn't until she returned to Taiwan in 1986 that she began to gain a cult following.
Despite her checkered past, the 5-foot-tall Ching Hai has inspired an uncanny devotion among her followers. Petrus, who discovered the Master's teaching during an unscheduled lunch stop at her San Jose restaurant, says Ching Hai touches believers on a visceral level.
"You have to move beyond logic to connect with the Master," says a wide-eyed Petrus, who is very alert after an evening of meditation. "If you rely on your intellect, you end up doubting. You ask, 'Is she really a God? That little woman from Vietnam? Naaaah. No way.' "
He points emphatically at a laminated photo of Ching Hai that hangs on his kitchen wall. She is smiling beatifically beneath a gold-sequined chapeau. "But I don't care what anyone says! She's God!"
It's this sort of devotion that drives Ching Hai's organization. Although no initiation fees or tithing is collected from disciples, money makes its way into the Master's coffers. While the bulk of her financial support comes from Taiwan, Supreme Master Meditation Centers have incorporated in several states as religious organizations with tax-exempt status, including centers in Los Angeles and Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. The only California tax records available from the Internal Revenue Service revealed that the L.A. center took in more than $1 million between 1992 and 1994. After expenses for fund-raising, rent, and charitable contributions were deducted, the center still had a surplus of $237,288 during the same three-year period. There were no tax reports on file for the Morgan Hill center or more recent records for Los Angeles.
San Francisco's Mike Treacy was a devoted Ching Hai disciple for years, even traveling to Taiwan in 1990 to live at the Master's compound for six months. He broke away from the movement two years ago and now labels it a moneymaking sham.
"Ching Hai has basically got thousands of slaves and all the power and money she wants," says Treacy, who runs a service transporting the elderly and disabled. "The followers may be smiling and seem happy, but they're still getting ripped off."
Asked what it's like to interact with someone many place on par with Jesus Christ, Treacy is equally blunt: "She rules with an iron fist. She has tantrums; she screams; she yells. Basically, she's an asshole."
Just as pieces of the one true cross were a hot commodity among medieval Christians, Supreme Master's followers lust for a token of her. But unlike Jesus and the saints, whose ascetic lifestyles limited the number of possessions that could be marketed as relics, the Supreme Master has entered the religious keepsake business, auctioning everything from her Volvo sedan to her old hankies.
South Bay resident Anna Long owns such a piece of the Supreme Master's past. She learned about Ching Hai when she was working at a San Jose beauty college and suffering through a troubled time with her in-laws. She now runs Oakland's Bode Vegetarian House, which, while not an official Supreme Master eatery, is filled with photos of Ching Hai and literature related to the pint-size deity. Last year, Long outbid a throng of other disciples for a pair of the Master's sweat socks at a retreat in Taiwan. The price? $800.
"The socks are a memory of the Master, so they are priceless," says Long, who admits that she's not sure if the socks were washed before the auction. "When the Master leaves the physical world, at least I will have her socks."
The diminutive goddess also markets a line of merchandise that isn't pre-owned. The "Elevation of the Soul" catalog offers more than 400 videos of the Supreme Master's public appearances, everything from an $8 video of "Funny Non-Saint Stories" taped in Los Angeles to footage of "Master's Birthday Celebration" in Taiwan for $64. Some of the videos have the ring of a Zen koan -- "To Do Without Doing" -- while others are as unambiguous as "A Message From God." There are even pop music videos where the master shows she has more in common with those other Supremes than just a name. Who knew lip-syncing could be considered sacred?
The catalog lists more than 50 books, including a Supreme Master cookbook, a coffee-table book of photos, and a volume devoted to Ching Hai's song lyrics. There are six volumes of Immediate Enlightenment, a small hardback that offers the basics of Ching Hai's teaching. Enlightenment may be immediate, but it ain't cheap; each volume costs $16. Well aware that unauthorized reproduction would cut into profits, all books come with a warning: "No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior permission of Master or the publisher, so as to protect the pirate from committing bad karmic cause." Or getting sued for copyright infringement.
Images of the Master are a very big seller, according to a disciple in the San Jose restaurant. Ching Hai's expression is a permanent smirk, the result of surgery that partially paralyzed the left side of her face. Wallet-size photos move for a buck each, and a 25-by-45-inch poster retails for $25. Buttons featuring the Supreme Master are $3, and a Mr. T-style "Oval Gold Rimmed Pendant" with chain is double that amount. There's even a replica of a Catholic rosary with one minor adjustment -- the crucifix is replaced by a photo of the SM.
For the extremely well-off followers, the Supreme Master sells diamond-studded yin and yang cuff links designed by her for just $750.
In addition to her clothing line, the Master's other big-ticket items are her custom-made lamps and her oil paintings. One wood-and-rice-paper lamp titled "At One With All Creation" is a steal at just $2,160. Ching Hai's paintings can politely be described as interesting. But while her technique may be crude, the thought behind her work is anything but underdeveloped. The painting titled Stone Cave, for example, is described in detail on one of the many Ching Hai Websites that clog the Net: "The cave is our wisdom eye. This painting depicts that supra-worldly light that a bunch of 'big stones' like us perceive during meditation."
The cost of a Supreme Master original oil is as difficult to come by as the paintings themselves. Disciples simply wouldn't name a price. Apparently, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.