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Immaterial Girl

Suma Ching Hai
Lionized: Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai holds court at the Red Lion Hotel during her recent visit

Part Buddha, part Madonna, Supreme Master Ching Hai promises immediate enlightenment to San Jose's Asian immigrants

By Rafer Guzmán

Photographs by Christopher Gardner

As flight 717 circles the sky on a recent Wednesday evening, a group of about 150 people sit meditating on the þoor of a waiting area at San Jose International Airport. Dozens of Asian men in dark suits, each wearing a yellow ribbon on his lapel, walk the airport halls and direct wanderers to the group. Men outside wave cars into the short-term parking lot, which is Þlling up fast.

Suddenly, the meditators rise to their feet and storm Gate A8, which is already swarming with bodies. American Airlines Flight 717 is pulling in. With some persuasion, the admirers line up on either side of the gate's walkway, and the yellow- ribboned officials link hands to form barriers against the masses, whose numbers continue to grow. Chinese, Vietnamese and broken English combine to make a rising din. An elderly Chinese woman thrusts her arms into the crowd, trying to pry open a place for herself. Gate A8 is a parted sea of ecstatic faces, all of them waiting for the appearance of the Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai.

Ching Hai is many things: painter, poet, Buddhist nun and spiritual leader. She is also a fashion designer, beauty makeover consultant and restaurateur. According to most of her followers, Ching Hai is not only a saintly philanthropist who took the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong under her wing, she is also the living reincarnation of the Buddha and Jesus Christ. According to her critics--and they are few--she operates one of the largest and fastest-growing religious cults in the world.

The Supreme Master is on the Web:

The Inner Light and Sound: A complete library of information about Ching Hai and her teachings. Available in English, Chinese and Vietnamese.

The Quan Yin Method: Everything you need to know about Ching Hai's Key of Immediate Enlightenment.

Is Ching Hai truly the Messiah? Of the several hundred assembled worshippers here tonight, only I will later be fortunate enough to sit just inches from the Supreme Master and ask her this very question. For if she is the Messiah, she has inexplicably chosen to manifest herself as the owner of 56 vegetarian restaurants which cover the globe from Taipei to Melbourne to San Jose. On the corner of Twelfth Street and East Santa Clara Street, once the site of Paolo's, the posh Italian restaurant that was for decades the hangout of the Valley's agricultural and political elite, Ching Hai's establishment now serves a stunning, if overly ambitious, variety of vegetarian dishes ranging from spring rolls and faux swordfish to pasta marinara.

It also doubles as a library and museum containing hundreds of Ching Hai magazines, books and videotapes. On posters and laminated photographs, the Master's face smiles beatifically, though her slightly paralyzed left cheek gives her the appearance of wearing a sort of foxy grin. Mannequins stand adorned in her own haute couture outfits, which seem to draw from the fashions of both Star Trek and Dallas. On the walls hang her simple paintings of flowers, trees and landscapes. Above the tables of the dining patrons looms a gigantic TV screen which broadcasts the Master's teachings and, occasionally, her music video, which features her singing in dance-club duds and vogueing like Madonna.

Though Ching Hai may appear to have come from another planet, she was actually born in Vietnam and spent much of her adult life in Taiwan. Though she refers to the two countries by their respective colonial names of "Au Lac" and "Formosa," she has a strong affinity for both, and reportedly has her largest followings there. Here in America, almost all of Ching Hai's followers are new arrivals from Vietnam and China.

There seems to be something about the five-foot-tall leader which strongly appeals to these immigrant groups. She avoids overtly authoritarian cliches and instead cultivates the image of a wise old aunt. Rather than preach fire and brimstone, she frames her lectures in a Q&A format vaguely reminiscent of Confucius and his students. (In the transcript of one lecture, when a disciple asks if he would be justified in killing a murderer to prevent future bloodshed, Ching Hai sagely advises him to go to the police instead.) In addition, the title of her new book, I Have Come to Take You Home, may resonate strongly with new arrivals to the States. But perhaps more significantly, Ching Hai seems to offer ancient religion's comfortable familiarity and America's crass but coveted commercialism.

Both a religious idol and a Third World aristocrat, Ching Hai bears more than a passing resemblance to Imelda Marcos, adorned in her self-styled "fairy clothes," which models have paraded down runways in the world's fashion capitals. A Buddhist nun who preaches asceticism, Ching Hai can nevertheless be seen in her magazine, Suma Ching Hai News, giving makeovers and fashion tips to female followers. "A listless-looking and middle-aged fellow sister, after being made up by Master, turned into a totally new person in five minutes," reads the article next to a full-color photo spread. "Everyone exclaimed:'Even the not-so-great ones become beautiful!' " And though Ching Hai claims that one has no need of anything on earth except the truth, she freely admits that selling her merchandising creations supports her worldwide organization.

The Hai Life

Like many Eastern belief systems, Ching Hai's centers around meditation, but her own method, called Quan Yin, contains "The Key of Immediate Enlightenment"--no waiting necessary. "Quan means 'contemplation,' and Yin means 'inner vibration,'" explains Pam-ela Millar, a Ching Hai representative living in Palo Alto. "It's kind of the light and the sound. It's basically a silent meditation."

This is about all the information one can coax from the Ching Hai group about the Quan Yin method, which they guard like a secret recipe. "I will explain everything during initiation," Ching Hai says in public. Initiations take place at the 40-acre Ching Hai Meditation Center in Morgan Hill, to which actual visits are discouraged. Almost all that is known about the group's actual methods is that it requires keeping a strict vegetarian diet and meditating a minimum of two and a half hours per day while chanting the Master's name.

Ching Hai also teaches what she calls the Convenient Method--a sort of Quan Yin Lite for new initiates--which requires meditating only half an hour per day, and eating vegetarian for 10 days per month. "When children are 6 years old, if they are with initiated parents, they can be half-initiated," Ching Hai rather arbitrarily mandates. "When they are 12, if they have parents who also practice, they can be initiated fully."

Food for Thought

At the restaurant, a smiling volunteer serves a dish of simulated chicken to Millar. A Ching Hai "liaison" and one of the organization's few Caucasian members, Millar possesses none of the zombie-like qualities one tends to attribute to cultists. Millar calls herself a "skeptic" and says she's "not big on authority." She grew up in Oregon near a small town that was once called Antelope before the followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh successfully changed its name to Rajneeshpuram. Millar says she has looked into various religious organizations, but found them all to be scams. "It seemed like they wanted to give you something, but they always wanted something back," she says.

Traveling in Taiwan on a business trip, Millar discovered Ching Hai's teachings through the niece of a business contact. Her skeptical nature, she claims, made her unreceptive at first. "I thought, 'I'll wait and see.' " But before long, she began to feel that Ching Hai was different from other leaders.

"She won't accept any contributions," Millar says. "We can't give her gifts." The Master does not charge for teaching her meditation methods, she adds, "but it requires a commitment."

Seven years after her introduction to the Ching Hai group, Millar has risen to become a high-level member responsible for tasks such as putting together the Master's books, arranging ceremonies and talking to the press. But she insists that the organization is very "laissez-faire." "We change the rules all the time," she laughs. "We don't have a hierarchy. ... I like it, it's really formless. It's a formless teaching, too."

As to the Master's role in all this, Miller cannot quite say. "I don't know--she's like a guide. She teaches us a lot. This role is both inside and outside."

For Millar, all the proof of the Master's divine nature comes from the Quan Yin method. "It's not just the videos, the books," she says. "She comes to me during meditation sometimes."

I found that Millar, a high-level member of the group, and the "not so great ones" seem equally enraptured with this new religion.

"No, no, it's not a religion," said one young Vietnamese girl. "It's more like, just finding out about you, who you are." Every follower answered the same question with almost the same words: "No, it's about finding yourself." Their religion, they proudly say, is Buddhist, Christian, Catholic or Hindu--it just so happens that they also worship the Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai.

In fact, they worship her so much that anything she touches becomes a prized possession. Ching Hai's new book features a picture of the Master about to engage in one of her favorite activities: scattering handfuls of candy to her disciples. The caption reads, "Master offers her love and blessing by sharing candies with the gathered initiates." Indeed, after a recent Ching Hai lecture, one follower offered me a handful of Jolly Ranchers and Fun-Size Hershey bars, saying, "Here is Master candy! We love the candy Master gives us. You know, it's different from other candy. We love going around to get it, it's like being little kids."

Trance With Me

Ching Hai's name is new to most cult experts, but her behavior, and that of her followers, is not. The Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network provides lists and definitions of common cult practices. Under "Techniques of mind-control," one finds a description of "thought-stopping techniques" such as "meditating, chanting and repetitious activities which, when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility." Also noted is the concept of "love-bombing," which "discourages doubts and reinforces the need to belong through use of child-like games.

Joe Kelly, an exit counselor in Philadelphia, once belonged to the infamous Transcendental Meditation movement begun by the Beatles' guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi promises to teach his members Yogic Flying, a levitation-like ability achieved through meditation.

Without condemning meditation, Kelly posits that "the result of being in a trance state is that it unhooks your critical thinking skills." Furthermore, Kelly says, a trance state can result in what he calls "an internal experience."

"It's context-dependent," he explains. "A Christian might experience Jesus, a Buddhist might experience Nirvana." It's no stretch to imagine, then, that a Ching Hai follower might experience Ching Hai. "When teaching comes after we have an internal experience," Kelly says, "we tend to be more receptive to it."

Kelly also says that cults encourage members to "become dependent, like a child." Kelly scoffs at Ching Hai's candy-tossing ritual. "This is something that's so typical," he says, recalling that the Maharishi did exactly the same thing. "Our Master would throw the candy, and we would dive for it because it had been blessed." He adds, "That is not a Buddhist concept."

According to Kelly, even Ching Hai's strange line of fashion wear is not unheard of in the cult trade. "Yeah, TM did the same thing," he recalls. "They put out a line of these dowdy women's dresses that the Maharishi believed heightened female spirituality."

Kelly's strongest bit of advice in identifying cults is to look for "the subjective nature of the doctrine. That's the clincher with these meditation groups. They're always changing the rules so you can't get a handle on anything." Recalling the words "laissez-faire" and "formless" from Millar, I wonder if Kelly might not be prophetic himself.

Janja Lalich, author of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, a book on post-cult recovery, provides a similar diagnosis. Her assertion that "66 percent of the people who join cults are recruited by friends or family members" seems borne out by the Asian members interviewed for this story, all of whom had been indoctrinated by relatives. "It's not like the '60s, where we were scared of the Moonies standing on the street," Lalich says.

She also advised me to "see how they're answering questions. Are they scripted?" I could only think of this passage from Ching Hai's literature: "Our path isn't a religion. ... I simply offer you a way to know yourself."

"If anything is indicative of a cult, it's when people can't give you a straight answer," Lalich says. She adds, "They're very good at turning the questions back on you. That's a classic technique. Or they'll talk gobbledygook."

In her list of cult characteristics, Lalich includes a "hidden agenda," or what she calls a "double set of ethics. As a member, you can be open and honest. To outsiders, you can lie." Ching Hai's followers may or may not be consciously deceptive, but I did find that, despite their refusal to describe themselves as a religion, Ching Hai's San Jose and Los Angeles branches are registered with the IRS as tax-exempt organizations, with their principal activities noted as "religious" and "church/synagogue," respectively.

Till Cult Do Us Part

"It looks to me like one of the fastest-growing cults in the world," says Dr. Margaret Singer, perhaps the country's first and foremost cult expert. Dr. Singer, who has been following modern cults since their appearance in the late 1950s (she cites the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas and the TM movement as the earliest examples), gained national fame for her work with the defense team of heiress Patty Hearst, who killed a man in a bank robbery while under the influence of a revolutionary cult. Singer, who keeps extensive files on cultic groups around the world, considers Ching Hai unusual only in that most large, far-reaching organizations are led by men. Female cult leaders, says Singer, usually control small, local groups of anywhere from five to 50 members. "And they keep a very tight hold on the group," she adds.

Only within the last nine or ten months has she begun receiving calls from men and women--just over a dozen of them, and almost all from San Francisco and San Jose-- who have lost their spouses to the Ching Hai organization. "Almost everyone I talked to," she says, "had lost a partner--a girlfriend, a husband--because they had given up everything to go to work in a restaurant or join the group."

Singer says that the callers also complained about the tremendous sums of money their spouses gave to the Ching Hai organization. "Husbands and wives would be very distressed about the amount of money the spouse paid for trinkets," she says. From what she heard, she says, it seems the Ching Hai group pressures its members to buy merchandise. "They would have meetings where they would sell these trinkets, and the asking price would be five dollars, but the group would urge people to pay more and more, like $50."

pictures
Pendantic: The Supreme Master's image graces Web pages, newsletters, the walls of her restaurants and the homes of her supporters.

In her talks with these abandoned spouses, Singer says she has heard no evidence of physical or sexual abuse. Nor does she think Ching Hai's doctrines, which include relatively few apocalyptic prophecies, point toward the sort of fiery endings met with by the self-immolated Branch Davidians or the self-poisoned followers of Jim Jones.

"This one doesn't seem to be on that pathway," Singer says. "The way the group ends up is usually quite predictable based on the personality of the leader." Singer sees this group as dominated by its leader's personality and ego. "Ching Hai seems to have fantasies about being around lots of people, educated people, wearing fancy clothes and having a lot of power. But she doesn't seem to have fantasies about suicidal revolutions or apocalyptic endings."

Though Ching Hai may not pose any physical threat to her followers, she may nevertheless be doing them other forms of damage. "It was mostly just the money, and the breaking up of the family," Singer says of her callers' laments. "That's what was causing the greatest pain. Telling the spouse that if they don't join Ching Hai, they would have to leave them."

Spiritual Tug of War

San Jose resident Steve Krysiak, who was involved with a Vietnamese follower of Ching Hai, has his own story to tell. "I compare it with Manson," Krysiak says. "He imprinted them with LSD--I think Ching Hai uses meditation."

In 1990, Krysiak met Trang (not her real name), a Vietnamese immigrant who had been captured by the Communists in her homeland, but had escaped on the boats to America where she found work as a hairdresser. When the couple met in Fremont, Trang had three children and was already following Ching Hai. Krysiak says he cautioned Trang against Ching Hai, but took her in anyway. "We had a wonderful relationship," says Krysiak. "Highly sexual. She was the most highly sexual person I ever met."

That soon changed, however. "She just said, 'I have no sexual energy,'" Krysiak laments. "All my Vietnamese friends told me it would happen. The women die sexually with Ching Hai."

The relationship suffered, says Krysiak, as he and the Ching Hai group vied for Trang's affections. "Ching Hai wants them to meditate five hours a day, don't worry about the kids," says Krysiak. He claims he sometimes walked in upon Trang meditating with a blanket on her lap, which she had been instructed to throw over herself so as not to reveal the secret Quan Yin method. "I'd see her doing it, and I'd say, 'You've been seeing that damn Ching Hai again!' And she'd say, 'You've been spying on me!' "

Trang ran up $9,000 worth of credit card debt, which Krysiak assumed was going to Ching Hai. "You know, those videos are $10 for people who are into the cult, but they're $28 or $30 for actual members," he says. He adds that Trang charged a plane ticket to fly to New York for her initiation into the group, bought a flute because Ching Hai played the instrument, decorated her room with Ching Hai posters, and got plastic surgery and breast implants because Ching Hai had supposedly undergone the same operations.

Trang also became a "fanatic vegetarian," Krysiak says. "She tried to get the kids involved in it, but they hated it. It was lucky that they were so Americanized that they had to have their McDonald's."

Trang was not so lucky. "She got thyroid disease," says Krysiak. "The Vietnamese use coarse salt for cooking, with no iodine added, you know. And when Trang cut out her fish, she got thyroid disease. She had to go twice for radioactive thyroid treatment, and they killed a little bit too much thyroid. Now she has to take thyroid [medication] for the rest of her life."

Even after the illness, the Ching Hai group won the tug-of-war for Trang. "People told me that when they get them away from the Master, they might get away for a while, but the members will call them on the phone and try to pull them back." Trang left Krysiak in 1992.

Krysiak moved to San Jose to get away from the memories of Trang only to see the Ching Hai restaurant open a few blocks from his house. "I'm calm about all this now," he says, "but I didn't used to be." Krysiak tells of the day he lost his temper and stormed down to the restaurant. "I was out front, screaming, 'Ching Hai is a fake!' Well, I went back later and apologized to the owner there, and you know what she told me? 'Don't worry--this happens to all our men.' "

Krysiak returned home to find he had locked himself out of his house. "I called a locksmith, a Vietnamese guy, and I told him all about it. He laughed. He said, 'In Vietnamese community, there are two causes for divorce: Bay 101, and Ching Hai.' "

locket

Advertisements For Herself

Ching Hai may be a recognizable figure to some in the Asian community, but despite her restaurants, approximately 100,000 followers, and contact persons in 37 countries, the mainstream press seems almost completely unaware of her existence. Even most cult experts knew nothing or little about her. The only readily available material on Ching Hai comes from her own literature and the numerous sites that line the World Wide Web, which usually offer little more than color photos of the Master and suspiciously favorable interviews by foreign journalists.

A tireless publicity seeker, Ching Hai never misses an opportunity to gain credibility and clout for her organization. She often claims to have been invited to the conspicuously prestigious locations for her lectures--Georgetown University, UCLA and the United Nations buildings in Geneva and New York--but rarely says by whom. She also claims that seven United States governors proclaimed Feb. 22, 1994, as "Supreme Master Ching Hai Day." As it turns out, the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, actually did, in recognition of her $65,000 donation to relief efforts for victims of the Mississippi River flooding.

Ching Hai's attempts in 1992 to help the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong remain a feather in the leader's cap, though they apparently failed. But the $200,000 she promised to the Laguna Beach Fire Relief Coalition after Southern California was ravaged by fires in 1993 reportedly never arrived. In Taiwan, the story goes, Ching Hai even set up two front organizations to bestow awards upon her in a public ceremony, and successfully persuaded a baffled United States official to pose as the president of one.

Reality Check

Ching Hai's knack for self-promotion shines in her official biography, which reads more like a hagiography. In it, Ching Hai appears as a "rare and noble child" who taught herself philosophy at an early age and cried at the sight of slaughtered animals. The prophecies of clairvoyants back up Ching Hai's claims to gurudom: "She has come to this world, on the mission of Quan Yin, to save sentient beings from misery." After Ching Hai learned the Quan Yin meditation method from a mysterious Master in the Himalayas, according to the biography, she relocated to Taiwan, where a group of students guided by their prayers found her and coaxed the reluctant woman into becoming their Master. The rest of the biography is a paean to the Master's humility, humanitarian efforts and impressive output of saleable products.

Entertaining though this mishmash of religious mythology, Eastern folklore and public- relations razzle-dazzle may be, it's rather less interesting than the story of Ching Hai revealed in the thesis of UC-Berkeley graduate Eric Lai.

According to Lai's research, the Supreme Master was born Hue Dang Trinh on May 12, 1950, in a small village in Vietnam, in the same province which later saw the My Lai massacre. The daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an ethnic Chinese father, Trinh reportedly hung out with American soldiers as a teenager, and bore one a daughter. At 19, during the height of the Vietnam War, Trinh left home with a German doctor working for an international relief organization. Trinh's daughter later killed herself at 20. Trinh married the doctor, and the couple moved first to Britain and then to Germany.

There, in 1979, she met a Buddhist monk whom she followed for three years until she was denied entrance to his monastery on the basis of gender. Trinh then moved to India to study Buddhism. It was here that she became a prize pupil of Thakar Singh, who had just splintered off from a Buddhist order, Radhasoami, to form his own sect, Kirpal Light Satsang.

"Thakar Singh turned out to be the most scandalous guru in the history of Radhasoami," writes David Christopher Lane, who while a graduate student at UC- Berkeley met Singh in India in 1978 and has since traced the guru's checkered career. According to Lane's findings: "By the mid-1980s reports circulated throughout the world about how Thakar had embezzled money, indulged in sexual affairs with numerous women, and had engaged in violent interactions with disciples." Some of the accusations included tying women up and beating them regularly. But by the time Singh's crimes came to light, Ching Hai had already learned from him the "light and sound" meditation technique, and had left for Taiwan.

Lai's research revealed that in Taiwan, in 1983, Trinh studied with a Buddhist nun named Xing-jing. Unaware of her association with Singh, Xing-jing officially ordained Trinh in the order and gave her the religious name "Ching Hai," which translates from Mandarin as "pure ocean."

The next year, Ching Hai moved to a Buddhist temple in Queens, New York. She taught meditation, and meditated herself for up to four hours a day. One former colleague told Lai, "We were all impressed by her devotion and sincerity." But a year and a half later, Ching Hai began teaching the "light and sound" technique to her students, though few responded favorably. Returning to Taiwan in 1986, Ching Hai lured followers away from her former master, Xing-jing, and set up a makeshift temple in an apartment in the Taipei suburbs. Rumors about her prophetic abilities and unique meditation methods earned her a large following, and by 1987 posters of Ching Hai appeared all over Taipei. By the time the Taiwanese Buddhist community learned of Ching Hai's past connection to the disgraced Satsang cult, it was too late. The new Messiah had been born.

Messiah: A Job Like Any Other

And now she is among us in San Jose. Her arrival is a rare and momentous occasion which her followers have been anticipating since her last appearance here in 1994. For new initiates (personally selected by Ching Hai through their written applications and photos) their only contact with the Master has been through the literature and videos available in the restaurant's library. Perhaps a fortunate few have been able to channel her as promised. Now, however, they will be able to see and hear her in person. Some may even be touched by her.

Cries of adoration greet Ching Hai when she appears in the portals of Gate A8. As she walks, her path is strewn with flowers, prostrate bodies and outstretched hands. She smiles modestly. Once outside, she is escorted into the back seat of a black Isuzu Trooper. She waves to the undulating crowd as the car speeds away, heading for the nearby Red Lion Hotel. For the next hour, the short-term parking lot of the San Jose Airport is jammed with cars heading for the exit to follow her.

The Fir Room of the Red Lion has been prepared for the Master's arrival. On the stage is an assortment of pillows on a white chair. Above it hangs a giant banner, decorated by stick-on gift bows, which reads, "Welcome SUMA CHING HAI to San Jose." Mylar party balloons float in the air, displaying Hallmark-style messages: "World's Greatest!" and "I Love You." A yellow microphone waits for its Master's voice. The 600-person audience chatters happily until an announcer approaches the microphone.

"Please meditate while waiting for Master," he scolds. Within two seconds, the room grows completely silent. Upon the request of a yellow-ribboned official, a fussing newborn is whisked through the doors by its mother. For the next hour, the only sounds in the Fir Room are the microphone tests and the setting up of several video cameras and klieg lights.

When Ching Hai enters the room, the crowd stands and applauds. She walks under an arch of party balloons strung together by multicolored ribbons and down the center aisle toward the stage, stopping now and then to direct a smile at a lucky follower who inevitably convulses with delight. She takes the stage, soaking up the adoration and barely able to conceal her pleasure. She begins her talk with phrases that are alternately humble and self-congratulatory: "Thank you for your love. I don't know if I'm good enough for you." She sighs. "I just try to be ordinary citizen. Then someone must come along and remind me I am Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai!" All laugh heartily.

After a long and tortuous lecture, Ching Hai takes questions from the audience, even answering once or twice in Mandarin.

"I'm having trouble practicing the Quan Yin," laments a young Vietnamese man. "I'm okay with the sound and the light, but the Quan Yin is different." Ching Hai asks, "Why?" but the young man doesn't know. "Try to practice for one minute," Ching Hai responds patiently. "Then practice for two. Soon, it will get easier." The young man's shoulders collapse with gratitude. "Oh, thank you, Master," he gushes. The crowd applauds.

Later, Ching Hai gets flustered by a more difficult question. A young medical student wants to know if the Master condones euthanasia. "Are you trying to get me into trouble?" she snaps. She paces the stage. "What's that? What's that for?" The medical student hesitantly replies, "It's mercy killing," and begins to explain about comas and brain death, but Ching Hai talks over him. "Is that a law in America?" she asks. Before the student can answer, she sighs crabbily. "I don't know--I'm from Taiwan. Why am I responsible for all the countries?" She picks at the pillows where she was sitting: "Is that my hair?" Finally, she confronts the student. "Sometimes, people wake up. So it's hard for me to tell you which one to kill and which one not," she says. Laughter erupts from the crowd, and then applause.

"Is God a person or an idea?" someone asks, to which Ching Hai replies, "I have no idea." More delighted laughter from the audience. "Anyone here want to describe God?" From the front row comes the correct answer: "A loving master who doesn't eat meat!" Ching Hai chuckles. "Yes, something like that," she says.

Ching Hai wraps up her talk well after midnight. She makes her last rounds through the audience, touching a head here, smiling beatifically there. A black man in African garb shrinks in his seat as she passes, his hands clasped together in worship, sobbing in great gasps, looking into the Master's face while tears stream down his. Ching Hai chortles as she passes him, and stops to poke her green umbrella at him, which he fondles gratefully.

I have stayed only because I want to arrange for a private interview with the Master. When I find Millar, she says she will see about it--and within seconds, I find myself sitting in a chair face to face with the Supreme Master Ching Hai. Our knees are almost touching. Six hundred pairs of eyes are riveted to us, several men hold microphones less than an inch from my nose, and every video camera and flood light in the house bears down upon me and the Master.

With sweat already soaking through my shirt, I begin asking questions. Ching Hai tells me her organization is "rather big," with "a lot of centers around the world--40 or 50 countries." (The number, if one assumes that every country listed in her book boasts not just a liaison but an entire center, is actually 37.)

My next question--about funding--is answered with much humility. Though she calmly explains that the sales of clothing and jewelry accounts for most of her money, she adds, "We don't really need that much."

She claims, as does Millar, that she and her followers sleep in plastic tents. "We don't have a temple. Use tents. Plastic cheap. $40, $50 and you have a temple of your own. We live very simple. We eat vegetarian." Yet, one elderly woman I spoke with bragged that Ching Hai dwells in a beautiful house on top of a hill, and that she and other followers traveled there to camp out in tents around the house.

Ching Hai talks briefly of her philanthropic work in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and here in the United States. "Where," I ask again, "does this money come from? Ching Hai shakes her head. "I don't know. God gives it to me." She laughs. Neither of us seem to take this answer seriously--but I write it down anyway.

According to Millar, the Master's clothing and jewelry are "very expensive, but it's very high quality." In the same breath, Millar also tells me that when the Master wishes to donate money to charities, she establishes a bank account to which followers can contribute. God has certainly been kind to Ching Hai: in 1993, her Los Angeles branch alone took in $395,518.

My last question to the Master concerns a woman who had earlier stood to proclaim to Ching Hai, "The world has waited thousands of years for you." I reminded Ching Hai of these words, and asked, "Do you think this is true?"

"It's true for her," Ching Hai replied.

"Do you consider yourself the Messiah?"

"Messiah not important," Ching Hai says, embarking upon a mini-monologue suggesting that being a messiah is a job like any other. I find it hard to concentrate on her words, and stop writing momentarily. "A messiah or a journalist," she says. "No difference."

The interview is done, and the Master and I shake hands. Long after she has retired to her room, groups of disciples hang around in the lobby to touch the arm of the journalist who shook hands with the Master. "You were so close, right next to her," a wide-eyed girl exclaims, stroking my shoulder.

It occurs to me that I may now be seen on a videotape in the Ching Hai library: the American reporter conducting an interview with the Supreme Master. Our words may end up on a Web site, or in the Suma Ching Hai magazine, or condensed into an aphorism in a book. Against my will, I had become another prop in Ching Hai's magic show. Like the followers milling about me, I had stepped into the light and sound of the Master.

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From the March 28- April 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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