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If true believers are made in the image and likeness of God, then the followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai should be wearing gold lame gowns and toting lavender parasols.
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.