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.
"She used to stay in Taiwan," says Vo, "but because the amount of disciple all over grow each day, now she's constantly on the road."
There are also less reverent portraits, online and in print: Ching Hai was implicated in the Democratic National Committee's Asian soft-money scandal; a $600,000 donation she made was eventually returned. A "cult watch" site suggests that "Ching Hai evidently viewed the September 11 atrocity as an opportunity to legitimize herself, and soon had her devotees working the phones to various charities." (Hudson's letter was dated September 18.) She had a child by an American soldier before she was 19, a daughter who later committed suicide. She claims to be the reincarnated Buddha and Jesus Christ, and followers are said to be so obsessed with their leader that they drink her bath water.
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 look at?
"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.
"Oh, yeah," says Vo. "People say, 'Aren't you a cult?' They're confused. They say, 'How come I hear such and such?' But then when they come to us, they see we are very caring and loving."
"This is not like Scientology," says Hudson, becoming animated. "They get very controlling. This is really about the simplicity, because that's really where that happiness is . . . it's really about being humble, and Master is so that. I want to cry when I think of that, because that is what she taught me so much. I am very in awe, but I am . . . I want to be . . . I rule the world!"
"It's Queen Kathryn!" laughs Vo. "She has her own show!"
She has a show called Queen Kathryn?
"I do all that. I'm also the head of entertainment here," says Hudson. "It's not like I have a job job here. I'm a producer and a writer and an actress, I have my own companies, but I also do their weekly show."
"We have a TV show called A Journey Through Aesthetic Realms," says Vo. "It's on KSCI, Channel 18, as well as on ETTV in Taiwan, and international in Asia."
"The other thing we wanted to know," says Hudson, dabbing her lips with her napkin, "is if you'd like to come on our weekly show. We just want to ask you maybe a few questions, whatever."
I tell her I'd rather do a little more research before commenting on Ching Hai.
"No, no, just you, as a human being," she says, her voice again breathy and lulling.
"Yeah, you as you," says Vo.
"We're in the moment, in the now," says Hudson, leading me through the door Linda has come in and out of. "Master is about teaching people to be very spontaneous."
I find myself in a studio that is the opposite of spontaneous. There's a raised stage, with two chairs set up; cameramen and sound people; and a line of smiling, nodding Asian men pointing still cameras at me. The sound of mechanical chirping fills the room as Vo tries to get me to sit in the guest's chair.
"Are you ready?" she asks. "They really love and want you."
I decline, despite the encouragement of a dozen people, including the chef, Nancy, who Vo tells me has flown in from Texas, and who wears a locket holding a photo of Ching Hai. I ask her if she made it.
"No," says Nancy, in a thick Vietnamese accent. "Master have a . . ."
"They make it Taiwan," says Vo. "You can buy it online, and we have a store in Orange County, they have all kind of her stuff. We take you down there."
Vo plants me in front of a giant photo of a table laden with steam trays, below a banner that reads "SUMA CHING HAI RESCUE TEAM." It was taken at the World Trade Center site.
"This is at the Ground Zero, where the whole thing collapsed," says Vo.
"She was there," says Hudson.
"I flew there a few days later," says Vo. "The people there were very touched because everyone was exhausted, and to actually bring coffee to their location . . . They have never realized that some people have that much love and dedication to the work."
The men with still cameras motion for Vo and Hudson to stand close beside me, and then begin taking our pictures. I smile stiffly; I've been here over three hours. I tell Hudson and Vo I really need to leave.
"Wait, we have presents for you," says Vo, leading me back to the conference room, where Linda is waiting with two Tiffany-blue shopping bags, one filled with Ching Hai videotapes and books and magazines, the other with a large box of Almond Roca, a tin of tea and half a dozen Asian pears.
"Because you say your daughter like them," says Vo, smiling.
I thank them for the materials, but tell them I cannot accept the food, as it might be construed as their encouraging a positive write-up. Vo's face clouds over, either because she's truly wounded I would make such a supposition, or -- and to my eye -- because this is precisely what she's hoping for.
"But this is a gift," says Vo. "It is brought for you from China."
I move toward the exit, with Vo, Hudson and Linda pressing the bags on me and speaking at once.
"We can get you any materials you need," says Linda.
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"And if you want to go to the Orange County store, we can pick you up and drive you," says Hudson.
"We can also drive you to the Sunday meditation and meal at the center in Riverside," says Vo. The desire to flee trumps journalistic ethics, and I grab the bags and push open the door with my butt. The women follow me into the street. It may be paranoia, but I don't want them to know which car is mine, and make a show of jangling my keys next to someone else's beater station wagon. I thank them for their time, and after a protracted goodbye, they go back inside, though not before Hudson tells me to check out her own Web site.
"The Queen of World Peace" reads the caption beneath a harshly lit beauty-queen shot of Hudson at Queenkathryn.com. There are many items for sale, including several dozen boudoir shots of Hudson; an assortment of Queen Kathryn products, such as Fudge Fatale candy and Sacred perfume; and Queen Kathryn, the Movie, starring Hudson in a gold Xena-like outfit. The synopsis explains that Queen Kathryn hails from the planet Nebaron, is raised by the Yodecian tribe in the Himalayas, and opens Starshine Dance Studios in Los Angeles, from where she and a "harem of young girls" fight the evil force known as Gregorian Mansoon, whose "mission is to turn the people of L.A. into Reptilian Lizards." There are many testaments to how loving and giving Hudson is, and a single mention of Ching Hai, in a link to "Humanitarians of the 21st Century," a pantheon that includes Prince William, Julia Roberts, Anthony Robbins and "YOU."