Call it coincidence or call it karma, but the sun came out for the Evolution Festival, shattering a string of weather-less grey days in central Bohemia. Hundreds of people spilled out of the trolleys and into the art nouveau Industrial Palace for the three-day expo, where visitors can get their palms or their cards read, receive a "stress test" from a scientologist, pick up a prescription for "successful sex" from a septuagenarian doctor of alternative medicine, and finally, break for a lunch from international vegan restaurant chain Loving Hut.
I’m in Prague, Czech Republic, the Loving Hut capital of the western world. There are more outposts of this franchise here in the Czech capital-nine-than in any other city in Europe or the Americas. It’s perhaps no surprise that a “festival which plants a seed in your mind” could take root here, in a post-communist country where the atheism runs deep, or that throngs of visitors would line up for tropical-fruit smoothies and Asian-inspired wraps and rolls. But it isn’t lunch I’m looking for-it’s enlightenment. And the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association is conspicuously absent.
Headquartered in Miaoli County, Taiwan, and San Jose, California, SMCHIA is the spiritual association named for the progenitor of the Loving Hut restaurant chain. The “Supreme Master” in question is Suma Ching Hai, née Hue Thi Thanh Wallenstatter, a native of Vietnam. Walk into one of the restaurants, and you may be able to get a feel for her: Soft-spoken and bottle-blonde, Ching Hai often appears on informational books and pamphlets or lecturing on Supreme Master TV, with simultaneous translation into dozens of languages flashing across the bottom of the screen. Loving Hut’s menu varies from city to country to continent, with 200 locations in 35 countries, including 38 outposts in the United States and counting.
That there's a movement, if not a cult, loosely affiliated with this vegan franchise is no secret; what its followers sacrifice for proximity to "God's direct contact," however, remains something of a mystery. Publicly, Suma Ching Hai maintains that her movement isn't religious in nature but, rather, founded on the practice of the Quan Yin method of meditation and the adoption of a vegan diet. Initiates of the Ching Hai group are promised "great joy, compassion, and heavenly bliss" as a result.
But some of those close to the group paint a less attractive picture. Rick Alan Ross, founder of the Cult Education Institute and author of the book Cults Inside Out, said that the CEI had received complaints from friends and loved ones of group members who said that they’d become so submersed in its activities that they had begun to neglect their families. (Ross told me unquestionably that he classified the group as a cult.) One such story appeared in the North Wales Daily Post under the provocative headline “Cult took my wife-now it’s funding a woodland in north Wales,” describing an elderly man who claimed his wife had left him and their 10-year-old son for the group. The man urged a local trust not to accept a sizeable donation from Ching Hai, which he said was given in order to “buy credibility.”
Large charitable donations such as these are a hallmark of Ching Hai. Most notably, Suma Ching Hai offered $600,000 towards Bill Clinton’s legal defense during the Whitewater scandal by way of Charles Yah Lin Trie, a central figure in the 1996 campaign finance or "Asian money" controversy-much of which had come from $1,000 donations by Ching Hai members.
The SMCHIA website states clearly (if rather defensively) on the front page of their website that the group neither asks for nor accepts donations, though a review of the IRS financial reporting Forms 990 tells a different story. Still, a sample of these documents reveal little in the way of improper spending. Chuck McLean, Senior Research Fellow at GuideStar, a public charity that acts as a database for information about organizations in the nonprofit sector, reviewed the 990s of two of the largest American chapters of the group: Los Angeles, which reports over $1.2 million in assets-more than any other chapter in the US-and San Jose, the parent organization of more than a dozen chapters across the country. “Taking their Forms 990 at face value, it seems unlikely that anyone is enriching themselves financially through these organizations,” McLean wrote. “I don’t know what the associated business interests are about, but it appears that they give almost all of their money to legitimate causes.” He also noted that the refusal to accept donations is “unusual, but not unheard of” for a public charity.
“Unusual” is a descriptor that trails Suma Ching Hai, now in her 60s. In 2004, the restaurateur was responsible for $1 million in damage to a mangrove forest in Miami-Dade County, where she appears in public records under the name Celestia De Lamour. And then there were the allegations, raised in the Senate during the 1996 campaign spending investigation, that Ching Hai members purchased their Supreme Master's bathwater, believing in its "curative properties."
Amos Barnett, an Australian living in Tokyo and a former member of the group, learned about Ching Hai from a pamphlet he picked up at a market in Canberra and later sought out the local meditation group leader. “Everything the guy said was straightforward and logical,” Barnett told me. “He didn’t try to persuade me of anything.” Barnett recalled that he was required to meditate for two and a half hours a day, to follow the Supreme Master’s five precepts, and to become a lacto-vegetarian (practitioners are now required to be vegan). “There was not an impression like you were joining a cult or anything. If you do it, you do it; you don’t do it, you don’t do it."
Even now, having parted ways with the group, Barnett speaks glowingly of Quan Yin. I found Barnett in the stomping ground of all great subcultures: the comments section. Years ago, he’d come to the defense the Supreme Master herself on an anti-Ching Hai Blogspot site, saying that it was her fanatical followers who were to blame for the group’s unsavory reputation. “All the trouble that’s been caused-it’s not been caused by Ching Hai. It’s been caused by her disciples,” Barnett reiterated when we spoke in March. He also noted that their devotion had, in some cases, led them to meditate for hours on end, neglecting their friends and families. And about the bathwater-drinking claim, Barnett said, without prompting: “I totally believe it would happen.”
If there’s a similar fanaticism to be found at Loving Hut, it’s largely tucked away, just as it was at Evolution. In the wake of his busy weekend at the festival, I spoke with Tuan Nguyen, the director of the local Ching Hai meditation center, at the restaurant he owns in Prague. “What we do in Loving Hut is we try to cook the best vegan meal [that] we can," Nguyen, who immigrated to the Czech Republic from Vietnam as a child, says matter-of-factly. "If [people] feel that we are trying to somehow manipulate them, it's not like that. Because some people think that we display Master's books here it's because we want to recruit. But it's not like that."
Nguyen tells me he’s been a Ching Hai member since he was 16, in 1998, after his mother discovered the group in Poland. He explains how the Master helped him look inside himself, to find a sense of purpose. How her teachings brought luck and happiness to his life. How they helped him to think positively. If the books provide customers with a point of introduction, then all the better.
It's just after 11 a.m., but the business crowd has already begun to spill in for a buffet lunch. I ask Nguyen if he's met the Master herself. "Of course," he tells me. "She's nice, she's wise, and just as a Master should be...teaching you the right things to do, what you should avoid."
"Sometimes one cannot tell what he is doing right or wrong," Nguyen adds. "It's good to have someone who is telling you what's right and what's wrong."