The subject of the second post in my “Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food” series will be instantly recognizable to many vegans, Supreme Master Ching Hai.
Supreme Master Ching Hai (SMCH) presides over a multi-million dollar empire encompassing hundreds of meditation centers, her own fashion and jewelry lines, her own line of faux meats, and hundreds of vegetarian and vegan restaurants worldwide including the largest vegan chain, Loving Hut. A teacher of the Quan Yin Method of meditation who promotes veganism to her followers, Hai is more than a mere spiritual guide. She is billed as the “Supreme Master”, “god’s direct contact” who can show you how too release the master within. She is venerated by her many followers who eagerly buy up her photographs, artwork, spiritual paraphernalia and other merchandise. Her magical candy can reportedly even heal people. A controversial figure to say the least, her past is fraught with questions both over her purported origins¹ and her actions.
A VegNews article in the October 2010 issue titled Supreme Mystery suggested Hai to be a cult² leader. Hai’s followers responded quite vocally, tossing accusations of slander and bigotry on the author, Abigail Young, and the magazine. Some went so far as to allege that the article was a hit piece paid for by the meat industry or that it was an act of vengeance. Will Tuttle, author of The World Peace Diet, also jumped into the fray lending his support to Hai and calling the article an act of violence, but of course Tuttle is no stranger to Hai. VegNews defended their decision to run the article and published letters from both sides of the controversy in a subsequent issue. Joseph Connelly, publisher of VegNews, described the resulting flood of mail, “The feedback generally fell into two different categories, those that felt the article was even-handed, almost neutral. And feedback coming almost exclusively from within the Loving Hut organization that was critical of us.” I was personally not at all impressed with the content of the rebuttals offered by Tuttle or Hai’s followers, though I encourage my readers to read the original article and responses themselves and decide.
One of the more damning charges against Hai in the VegNews article is that her followers destroyed a swath of protected seagrass and coastal mangrove, encroaching upon the Biscayne Bay National Park when they illegally constructed an artificial island with a 350 foot board walk leading out to it. Three comfortably stocked RVs and a 50 foot aviary were found onsite at the future retreat as well. The adjacent property owned by Hai under the alias Celestia De Lamour, one of her numerous Florida waterfront properties, was seized and resold to help partially pay for the repairs. Officials estimated the damages to exceed a million dollars but Hai was nowhere to be found. One of the laborers who was also charged in the case went missing, believed to have fled the country. Hai’s followers and apologists claim that this was merely the result of a misunderstanding over property boundaries though a quick look at Florida law indicates that is likely still not an adequate defense for this illegal construction and environmental damage. If Hai did ever pay for the damages she would do herself a favor by publicizing it, perhaps a nice donation to Biscayne Bay National Park and Palmetto Bay Branch Library which now inhabits the property. This incident was not Hai’s only property troubles either.³
Hai’s followers like to call attention to the organizations charity work and generous donations. While admirable, such donations can often serve a double purpose as a form of advertisement for the group. Not all organizations have been so quick to accept Hai’s money, in 1996 President Clinton’s legal defense fund refused more than $600,000 in donations for the questionable, possibly fraudulent, way in which the funds were gathered. In 2001 UNICEF also turned down a $100,000 donation from Hai’s organization after looking into the organization.
Hai’s organization is adamant that it will not accept donations, claiming to fund her activities primarily through Hai’s artistic work, though this has been questioned as a mere matter of semantics and obfuscation4. The up-keep of local meditation centers is donation based and property is also sometimes donated. Follower also will donate to causes in Hai’s honor buying her further credibility. The inflated price of some of her merchandise and encouragements for member to buy books to donate to others can also be seen as back door donations. It should however be noted that there is no franchise fee for opening a Loving Hut instead groups of local devotees pooling together their savings to fund their own Loving Hut location. There are just some simple rules including that the food be vegan and about the decor, Ching Hai pictures appear to be mandatory. This may make it appear that she profits very little from the vast enterprise but critics claim that this is simply a tactic that shifts the economic and legal risk onto the backs of individual followers and still allow for locations to serve as points of first contact for potential initiates and some as retail outlets for her merchandise. Loving Hut locations are also encouraged to buy faux meats from EcoVegan, Hai’s own company, further sweetening the deal. A few former workers at Loving Hut have also levied various complaints including mismanagement, withholding tips, tax irregularities and utilizing underpaid and unpaid labor. In 2010 the Loving Hut in France was investigated for illegal and unethical business practices such as using undocumented & unpaid labor resulting in 9 arrests. Later that year Hai herself was arrested along with some of her followers at a posh villa in Italy. Investigators seized a luxury sports car, 40,000 euros, and at least 8 illegally imported Macaws and a veritable “Noah’s Ark” of animals. I wonder if those illegal Macaws were rescues?
Supreme Master Television (SMTV), Hai’s own 24/7 satellite and online network, is instantly recognizable to anyone who has eaten at one of her restaurants. Said to be funded by Hai herself, SMTV uses volunteer labor and there have even been accusations of marriage fraud to retain foreign workers. SMTV was broadcast & subtitled in over 40 languages, it went off the air this year but the video archives remain available. Programing included environmental politics, vegan cooking demonstrations, self-referential human interest stories, spiritual addresses and lectures, musings about “science” and occasional teleconferences with Ching Hai herself. I am no stranger to SMTV, I discovered it a number of years ago while eating at Golden Era in San Francisco, one of Hai’s many restaurants. It seems most locations associated with Hai have a TV set, often times a big screen, tuned to SMTV all day. I was first drawn in by a video demonstrating an egg-free “meringue” product that I had never seen. Imagine that, vegan baked Alaska! But after the cooking demonstration and a few feel-good stories I began to notice it getting weirder and weirder. I was already sketched out by the level of praise heaped upon this colorful guru, treating her as a god. Continuing to watch the occasional video at home over time only strengthened that feeling.
SMTV programming and Hai’s lectures often have a decidedly pseudo-scientific angle. One example is the credulous reporting of Dr. Hubers unsupported claims of a dangerous “micro fungus” in glyphosate-tolerant GE crops. Hai’s own lectures on genetic engineering also repeat many myths and falsehoods, for example that inserting animal derived genes into plants, setting aside the fact that no such products are on the market, will result in vegetables that cause obesity, heart disease, strokes and “have similar effects” to meat. Hai claims to have once been breatharian, though the the burdens of the world got to much for her, and also teaches her followers that living without eating or drinking is possible, saying “Everyone can be breatharian, I believe. Its not that difficult.” She has also promoted the breatharian author and obvious fraud Jasmuheen, among others, who’s teachings have been linked to at least three deaths. Hai’s channel has even gone so far as to promote the idea of breatharian pregnancies in its many hours spent on this dangerous nonsense. Other topics dealt with credulously include ancient astronauts, crop circles, Emoto’s “Message from Water“, cosmic alinements, 2012, Egyptian pyramids as lighthouses for UFOs, solar flare alarmism, hair analysis, animal communication, alternative medicine, and life on Venus. She also sometimes introduces her followers to seeming unique teachings of her own such as the existence of Spiritual Blessing Lines and portals to hell and “lower world” that may even be a cause of prolonged war.
In addition to SMTV, Hai’s organization has a large internet presence and is accused of operating very much like a cyber-sect, using the internet to gain greater exposure and more followers. Utilizing numerous websites Hai’s organization is able to flood search engines with positive mentions of the group. They have even branched out into smartphone apps. In addition to spreading propaganda Hai’s followers are also active in monitoring criticism. Hai’s Wiki page is under constant policing, erasing and diluting criticisms. It also appears her followers also have a habit of stacking Amazon reviews and getting followers to game the rating system.
Hai’s teachings also have an apocalyptic bent to them. Her warnings about cosmic disasters, climate change, and environmental collapse go so far as to make Al Gore appear moderate. I’m not suggesting that the scientific consensus on climate change is wrong or that it is not a dire issue but I fear that the alarmism, unfounded claims, and simplistic “solutions” Hai proposes do not actually help public understanding of this important issue and may in fact be counter productive in some areas.
So once again, why am I writing these posts? My purpose is not to be a cynic or to call for a boycott of all religiously associated restaurants, but in addition to simply finding such topics interesting I feel we need to be wary when our dollars may serve to enrich an abusive or unethical leader or perpetuate a manipulative organization. The ethics of consumption go beyond just animal flesh and byproducts. We can not simply brush legitimate criticism aside because “she does so much good” or because “at least she helps spreads veganism”. I can’t say that the above criticisms apply to all SMCH restaurants and there are many other concerns to consider so the decision to patronize SMCH-associated businesses is a choice your going to have to make for yourself. I encourage my readers to click on the provided hyperlinks, use them as a starting point for your own research.
Supreme Mystery in VegNews
Critics Claim Supreme Master Ching Hai’s Followers’ Restaurants Featuring Tasty Vegan Fare Front For an Exploitive Movement. by Stephen Lemons
Why Not to Write About a Supreme Master of the Universe: A day with the disciples of Ching Hai by Nancy Rommelmann
Immaterial Girl by Rafer Guzmán
God Inc. Inner peace isn’t the only thing Supreme Master Ching Hai is selling Bay Area disciples by Gordon Young
Supreme Master and the Breatharianists
Cult took my wife – now it’s funding a woodland in North Wales
Suma Ching Hai sect activities in Cambodia
A Cult I Can Live With? by Jasmin Singer
Vegan Chicago’s baloney detection guide
Global Unity: Together in Saving Lives, A collection of spiritual teachings by Supreme Master Ching Hai
The Truth about Merits: How to Gain or Lose Them by SMCH
“We sold our house and gave all the money to the Supreme Master…with what is coming in two years, you don’t need a house.”
1. Suma Ching Hai’s Spiritual Handbook is similar to Thakar Singh’s spiritual diary, which in turn is similar to Kirpal Singh’s diary. This is of note because some followers objected to Abigail Young writing that Hai is a spiritual decedent of controversial guru Thakar Singh. Further evidence appear to support this as well. Though personally I am less concerned with the genesis of her teachings and more with the content and effect, I think Hai’s claim that her Master in the Himalayas was 450 years old should be evidence enough of this farce.
2. in this post I use the term “cult”. It is important to remember there is a wide continuum of “cultishness”, not all groups fall on the Johnstown/Heavens Gate/Aum Shinrikyo extreme of the spectrum, there is no agreed upon universal definition and there are competing lists of characteristics but for this post the definition most in mind is that laid out by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. The three primary criteria are as follows:
a. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
b. a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform;
c. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
3. SMCH headquarters constructed without a license in Taiwan
2003 Delinquent Property Tax Statement for Regency Green Dr Northwest Harris, TX 77429
2003 Delinquent Property Tax Statement for 11420 CYPRESS NORTH H77429
2004 Delinquent Property Tax Statement Regency Green Dr Northwest Harris, TX 77429
4. A number of followers have openly admitted to giving Hai property and savings, one such example was published recently:
“We sold our house and gave all the money to the Supreme Master,” she said. ‘Don’t you need a house?’ I ask. “No no, no, with what is coming in two years, you don’t need a house.”