A female spiritual leader who claims to be a divinely chosen “supreme master” of two million followers is behind the world’s fastest growing vegan restaurant chain.
Loving Hut, which has Australian cafes in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, is the catering arm of the mysterious Supreme Master Ching Hai.
The now 67-year-old platinum blonde multi millionairess, who goes by the name Celestia De Lamour in America, runs a worldwide spiritual organisation which promotes concepts such as “master power” and time travel.
Ching Hai has a clothing and merchandise line with “SM” — for Supreme Master — monogrammed wear, sells her own paintings and “vegan fur” couture. She also owns a television network and has staged a musical in Hollywood based on her poetry.
Ching Hai’s movement was described as a cult in Time magazine and the Chicago Tribune after she donated $400,000 to then US president Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.
Humanewatch.org said Hai “inspires feverish adoration like a kind of deity-cum-rock star” and gets about in limousines to attend to her adoring faithful.
But according to one of her spiritual empire’s websites, Hai “selflessly circles the globe to give the gift all free of charge” of enlightenment.
Her global Loving Hut chain has restaurants in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States, Russia, South-East Asia, Africa and South America.
Her carefully constructed image includes a story of how she was “chosen” to lead the world with a number of mantras including “be vegan, make peace”.
Proprietors of Loving Hut franchise outlets in the Sydney suburbs of Bankstown and Cabramatta, Mt Gravatt in Queensland and Richmond in Victoria told news.com.au they were Ching Hai followers.
Based in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, where tens of thousands of followers donate to “The Master”, Ching Hai wears satin robes and elaborate headdresses.
She travels the world delivering lectures on subjects such as breatharianism, love and inner awakening.
However, there have been allegations of wrongdoing. The Taiwan government has investigated Hai’s organisation for alleged “fundraising improprieties”, which included a transfer of $2 million outside of the country.
In Florida, where she has been known as a wealthy property owner, Ching Hai was investigated for illegally installing an artificial island in the Biscayne Bay National Park, complete with decking and a 105m boardwalk.
Police believed the compound, adjacent to a property Ching Hai owned under the pseudonym Celestia De Lamour, was built by her followers to please her.
Born Hue Dang Trinh in 1950 to a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father, she grew up in a remote village in Vietnam.
According to her website biography, in her mid-30s Ching Hai was a “humble renunciate” discovered by visionaries and plucked from obscurity to lead the world.
“It was a rainy night in a remote town of Formosa ... in a tiny room behind a temple,” a video about her early years begins. “A young practitioner was deep in meditation ... suddenly a group of people knocked on the door.
“She tried to turn the visitors away but the seekers were sincere and after their repeated requests, she compassionately acquiesced.”
Ching Hai then went “to the remotest parts of the Himalayas” — dressed in the video in a fancy ruffled pink hat. “Supreme Master Ching Hai accepted her destiny of helping all who would come to her,” the video narration continued.
“Soon earnest disciples grew in numbers.
“Across continents one initiation followed another.”
Video of Hai from the early 1990s shows a plainly-dressed and short-haired woman in Vietnamese-style pants suits and caps.
Her style blossomed into headdresses and jewellery later in the same decade and the early 2000s.
In her sixties, a youthful-looking Hai has restyled herself as a blonde in patterned flowing gowns.
She preaches a form of meditation called Quan Yin “with a lifelong goal to end the suffering of the world through spiritual enlightenment” and has written several books including God’s Direct Contact, The Birds in My Life and The Key of Immediate Enlightenment.
In these she outlines her five precepts of no killing of sentient beings, no lying, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, and no drugs or alcohol.
In 2012, a musical based on her writings opened in Arizona, with Hollywood producers and actors, all vegetarian or vegan.
In lectures and in writings, Hai claims there was an “interdependence among all beings, including animals and plants, after we become enlightened”.
“Your brain has, for example, ten eye balls to see and know,” Hai writes.
“A person, when drunk, loses nine.
“The eye ball that doesn’t get broken will not see clearly and this drunk man may cause an accident if he is travelling in the street.
“When a person is depressed, his brain works in a different way. This is also true when somebody is exceptionally happy.”