An older Ford SUV, a janky Honda and upscale hybrids rest in the lot of Au Lac Veggie, a vegan restaurant on Stockton Boulevard. All the cars brandish identical jumbo-sized bumper stickers. One reads, "Go Veg. Be Green. Save the Planet." Another directs people to http://godsdirectcontact.org, a New Age website that's part of a global network led by spiritual guru Ching Hai.
The cars' owners clearly are devout followers. But critics call the spiritual organization one of the world's fastest-growing cults.
Au Lac Veggie is the Sacramento-area headquarters for everything Ching Hai, whose movement preaches a vegan lifestyle devoid of drugs, alcohol and sexual misconduct-accompanied by a heavy dose of self-proclaimed nonreligious teachings that still mention God a lot. (Au Lac Veggie became a Loving Hut franchise days before publication of this article.) Ching Hai, whom followers refer to as the "Supreme Master," warns of an environmental apocalypse if her teachings are not followed.
Ching Hai followers practice the Quan Yin meditation method, which the supreme master developed, in addition to following five precepts. Over the years, Ching Hai has been a major donor to the Democratic Party and, in 2008, opened up the first of her wildly successful vegan fast-food chains, called Loving Hut. Since then, more than 170 Loving Huts have popped up, including one in Elk Grove and a potential forthcoming location in downtown Sacramento.
But while Ching Hai's eco-conscious, vegan-friendly, meditation-minded message seems harm free, VegNews recently published an explosive article on the supreme master, where writer Abigail Young revealed that Ching Hai lived a materialistic lifestyle, one that seemingly contradicts her teachings. It mentioned the jewelry sales on her organization's website, and the leader's wearing of furs and flamboyant clothing. The article also revealed alleged environmental violations.
Meanwhile, many other scribes, including SFist editor Brock Keeling and other Bay Area bloggers that monitor Ching Hai's growth in the region, have taken to referring to the movement as a cult.
Back inside what used to be Au Lac in south Sacramento, local Ching Hai devotees Eileen Binning and Lynn Yamat offer warm greetings. Both are glamorous women with eco-conscious agendas. They proudly display their Ching Hai membership pendants as prominent as their ornate jewelry.
The 24-hour Ching Hai channel plays on a nearby TV. Subtitles in some 43 different languages litter the bottom half of the screen; the other half boasts images of people cuddling with animals and running through euphoric meadows. TVs are strategically placed throughout the restaurant, so that no matter where you sit, one is always in view.
Both Binning and Yamat reject the idea that Ching Hai is a cult; they feel the supreme master has been of great assistance to them in their quest for enlightenment.
But Sacramento State anthropology professor Liam D. Murphy explains that Ching Hai is a textbook example of what social scientists call a charismatic prophet. He also warns that there's a risk involved when it comes to movements such as Ching Hai. "If anyone is in danger," he said, "it is usually their own members. It is usually the case that whenever a religious belief system is in the complete control of a single individual, followers are to a certain extent at the mercy of that prophet's moods, desires."
Devotees view Ching Hai as an honorable humanitarian, but many criticize her as a questionable businesswoman who rakes in millions each year. This split is evident in Ching Hai's own information booklet, where photos show the vegan wearing a white fur coat. And a few years back, critics accused her of causing millions in environmental destruction when she allegedly attempted to build an artificial island off the coast of Florida.
The supreme master herself claims to be "God's direct contact," but simultaneously runs a multimillion-dollar organization, including the Loving Hut chains.
Ching Hai herself gave Sacramentan Lynn Yamat her nickname, "The Filipino Nurse." Yamat is not only a friend, but also a committed follower of the supreme master going on 16 years. At Au Lac Veggie, she gives visitors a heavy, reusable bag full of informative literature and DVDs, as well as a 300-page book titled The Birds in My Life, with chapter after chapter of pictures of Ching Hai hanging out with her dozens of exotic birds. All of this is given as an introductory present to anyone seriously interested in joining the organization.
Admiring the newly painted gold walls, Yamat tells the waitress how pleased she is to see that Au Luc Veggie soon will convert into a Loving Hut franchise. Like most food chains, the restaurant must adhere to strict operating procedures in order to be able to run under the Loving Hut moniker. And every Loving Hut owner must be officially approved by Ching Hai herself. There are talks of a downtown location, as well, and Sacramento chapter leader Le Tuan is currently taking suggestions as to where to settle.
Eileen Binning is relatively new to Ching Hai's following. The fifth-grade teacher and mother "sought the guidance of a living master," she says, after the death of her brother. She'd set upon a Google quest to find answers. A few keywords later, Google presented a plethora of information on Ching Hai.
"It all just made sense," says Binning, adding that "the title ‘supreme master' makes Westerners nervous, but in foreign countries it is an earned honor."
Le Tuan says that there has been a steady increase of interest locally. Followers of the supreme master regularly set up tents and distribute information and delicious free vegan food at college campuses, farmers' markets and festivals.
"We have an inspiring group of 18- to 20-something-year-olds really embodying the green lifestyle that Ching Hai preaches," Yamat said. "They are noticeably much more calm than others their age."
But followers such as Yamat reject claims that Ching Hai leads an international cult. "It breaks my heart to hear such things," Yamat explained. "Supreme Master remains in hiding because she can feel all of your negative energy magnetizing toward her.
"All absolutely untrue. I know this because I know the master."
Sac State's Murphy also concedes that the proper term for her movement is not "cult," but more accurately a "new religious movement."
With multiple locations of her Loving Hut franchise in Sacramento already and more seemingly on the way, the presence of the supreme master is a growing one. "No matter how you feel about Ching Hai herself," Binning explains, "you cannot deny that lifestyle changes are essential for the greater good of one's self and planet.
"Supreme Master is the ultimate way to enlightenment. You wouldn't understand unless you were in it."