|Illustration by Jason Holley|
I FIND THE LOCAL OFFICES OF THE INTERNAtional association of the Supreme Master of the Universe in a squat warehouse in a rather sad-looking industrial section of El Monte.
"We're honored to have you here," says Kathryn Hudson, in a honeyed voice. An attractive blond on the far side of 40, she deposits me in a conference room amid blown-up photographs of Supreme Master Ching Hai with Martin Sheen and Swoosie Kurtz, another with Debbie Reynolds, taken at a "One World . . . of Peace Through Music" event her followers put on at the Shrine Auditorium. After several minutes, Hudson and a small Vietnamese woman join me.
"You in luck," says Trang Vo, inviting me to sit. "We have special chef here today, she fix you a six-course vegetarian lunch." This, though it is 10:30 in the morning.
I ask Hudson about the press kit she'd sent promoting Ching Hai's works. Her cover letter, on letterhead from something called Ocean of Love Entertainment, detailed the association's post-9/11 donations to the Red Cross and Salvation Army (in excess of $300,000) and went on to explain that Ching Hai has funded hundreds of philanthropic efforts (floods in Cincinnati, refugees in Afghanistan, earthquakes in Kobe) solely through the sale of artwork, jewelry and clothing of her own design. "Glamorous and eye-catching, this collection of graceful evening gowns will be the focus of everyone's attention," read the copy on glossy shots of models in mirror-encrusted silk sheaths, swirling capes and pagoda-shaped tiaras. It looked like an evening line for Far East Barbie.
"Oh, no, no, I don't want you to get confused," Vo says, before Hudson can respond. "Ocean of Love Entertainment is not under the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association. That's part of World Peace Media."
"It's my company," says Hudson, whose wide eyes transmit serenity and sincerity. "I promote world peace, and Supreme Master is world peace in action, so I really, of course, want to promote her."
"There are disciples, they are called students, who own companies," says Vo. "So whatever is needed, they say, okay, they can help to send it out."
A young Asian woman enters with jasmine tea.
"Thank you, Linda," says Vo, dismissing the girl.
Does Linda work for Ching Hai?
"Oh, no, she just help out," says Vo.
Does Hudson work here?
"No, no, no, I just help out, because I really love Master," she says. "It's not required that you come in here, it's just that you feel so much love and light that you want to."
So . . . how often does she come here?
"I live up north, near Monterey," says Hudson, adding that she's come down today to meet me, to share her experience.
"I met some of Supreme Master's disciples in Hawaii in 1994," she says, as Linda obsequiously delivers a platter of the makings of spring rolls. "Someone handed me this little green pamphlet, and I was staring at this face and feeling this energy coming off it that was so powerful. I was like, 'Oh my god, she is so enlightened.'"
"Can I do that for you?" asks Vo, reaching for my plate. I tell her I can roll it, thanks.
"Oh, you're good," she says, her gaze both merry and intense. As Hudson goes on to say that she studied world religions for 21 years but did not find "inner peace" until she began practicing Quan Yin meditation for two and a half hours a day, as she compares Ching Hai to Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, Vo continues to stare at me. I get the distinct feeling that, while Hudson has invited me here, it's Vo who understands what's behind the curtain, and is waiting to decide how much I need to know and how I will learn it.
Not that I haven't already learned a little. A quick online search yields more than 30,000 sites mentioning Ching Hai. Her many official sites, such as Godsimmediatecontact.com, include bios that read like hagiographies: Born in Vietnam in 1950, from girlhood she helped the poor and needy, actuating her higher calling with a years-long mission in the Himalayas, where she studied under a "great master" and learned the meditation technique called Quan Yin, which focuses on light and sound. Having found enlightenment, she has for two decades ministered to the crises of the world, accepting absolutely not one penny from her followers, who are mostly from Asia, and who are said to number in the millions.