By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
As a second course of hot-and-sour soup arrives, I ask Vo how long she's been associated with Ching Hai.
"Let me see. I came to America in 1984," she says. "I'm almost 30, and I got involved when I first enter my high school years."
Does she work for Ching Hai?
"No, I'm just . . ." She looks at Hudson. "I'm your assistant." And they both laugh, though I'm not sure why. I ask if they know how Ching Hai raises the millions she gives away.
Hudson says, "Through all her --"
"Through her artistic work!" Vo breaks in. "Yeah, through her artistic work. Basically, that's it. The people, the so-called disciples, if they want to pitch in and help with disaster relief, sometimes we gather a lump sum and give it to them."
So, if followers want to give money, they can?
"To Supreme Master Ching Hai International Organization?" asks Vo. "Yeah. Well, usually we don't accept donation, unless there is a critical disaster or whatnot happening. We have 501c3, tax-exempt, so we gather the whole thing and give it that way."
As something that looks like pork but is actually soy is placed before us, Vo explains how Ching Hai is able to amass and distribute money -- over $2 million since 1999, according to the press kit.
"See, the thing is, what we mean is, she doesn't accept donation, truly she doesn't, but whoever want to help out, okay. But she doesn't accept any donations, like personal, so she can build a house, no, there's no such thing as that. She's more than happy just living in a tent. She's very humble."
So, she lives in a tent?
"She can live anywhere!" says Vo. "She love nature!"
I tell Vo it must be hard for Ching Hai to live in a tent with her tremendous wardrobe. As evidenced by hundreds of photographs on the Web and in her magazines and videos, she rarely wears the same thing twice: Here she's in a fuchsia silk tunic, beatific at her easel; there in a saffron-colored monk's robe, with hair shorn; in a hot-pink velvet bodice and hair extensions, giggling at a Moon festival in Florida; in outrageously elaborate Siamese princess regalia, complete with golden headpiece.
"Actually, she start originally, she shave her head and put on the monk's robe," says Vo. "But people criticize her, they say she's not a true monk, not the true Buddhism -- there's always jealousy on the other end . . . So she started growing hair and putting on makeup and start design her own clothes, and everyone start loving that. They say, 'See, finding God means choose beauty and virtues, we don't have to renounce the world and look bald.'"
"What I'd really like you to get in the [paper], and I don't know if it's possible, are all the different looks that Supreme Master has," says Hudson. "I'm always amazed. There's Supreme Master the Lady, there's Supreme Master the Noblewoman who meets with world leaders, there's Supreme Master the Buddhist Monk, there's Supreme Master the Princess. And she does that to relate to all the different essences in each and every human being."
I mention that I'd had a hard time finding prices for her clothing designs online, though one site said the gowns go for up to $10,000.
"Really?" asks Vo.
"I also want to tell you that so much magic happens around here," interjects Hudson, as we're delivered a stew of tofu and eggplant. "Like I once looked at some of the jewelry, and it was a beautiful necklace with rubies and rhinestones, and I said, 'How much is it?' and it was under $100. They'll do that -- it's really not about the money."
I tell them I appreciate how nice it would be to give the stuff away, yet if Ching Hai is funding hundreds of relief efforts, the money has to come from somewhere.
"A lot of people donate their time, to help out, to create things," says Hudson, looking at Vo, who appears slightly impatient at my lack of understanding.
Where can one buy her designs?
"You have to order it through a catalog," says Vo.
When I ask if I can have a catalog, both Hudson and Vo are silent. Do they, perhaps, have a catalog I can lookat?
"I have some samples to show you," says Vo, as a non-chicken chicken dish arrives. "That's one of the things I want to emphasize, she doesn't accept donations . . . She believes God is love and God should give things to the children instead of taking things from the children."
"But the other thing is, Master appreciates all religions, okay?" says Hudson. "So it's not about 'ours is so great.' If you're Jewish, if you're Muslim, if you're Scientologist, whatever you are, you can practice the Quan Yin method."
Is Quan Yin what they'd call a religion?
"I don't think it's a religion," says Vo.
"There is no religion," says Hudson.
"Ah, we are having a feast!" says Vo, as cookies and Asian pears arrive. I mention that my daughter likes these pears, and ask if their non-religion is ever accused of being a cult.
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