BUSAN, South Korea - Being that I am a vegan, I was excited the first time I went to eat at the Loving Hut vegetarian restaurant. It was pretty straight forward veggie grub and I didn’t really pick up on any cultish vibes until I noticed the images broadcasting from the “Supreme Master TV” hanging on the wall. I paid it little mind, but then, on my way out, the waitress handed me a hardback book filled with pictures of a blonde-haired Vietnamese woman frolicking with a bunch of cats, dogs, and a cockatiel or two. Maybe they were parrots.
Vegan food is good food, so I let all the supreme-master-possibly-a-cult business slide. I returned many times to enjoy the food, thinking little about her or her pets. That was until the third, and then the fourth Loving Huts opened in Busan. Then I became more than curious. A little Internet research revealed that along with the four restaurants in Busan there were 31 more in Korea and over one-hundred world-wide and expanding fast.
I also learned that the name of the station comes from the blonde haired Vietnamese-born woman named Hue Dan Trinh. Sometime in the eighties she changed her name to Supreme Master Ching Hai.
The story goes that in the early eighties Ching Hai (which means ‘pure ocean’ in Mandarin) was in India and tried to buy a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita. The bookstore said they had no copies, but she insisted that they did and that she had “seen it.” Sure enough, they found one hidden in a sealed box. Word quickly spread that she had an unusually developed third eye. It seemed that there was more to my veggie burger than soybeans and a bun.
The Supreme Master began to attract followers and in 1986 founded the Immeasurable Light Meditation. She adapted the Sant Mat style developed by Thakar Singh known as the Inner Light and Sound method and renamed it the Quan Yin Method. Word is that she studied under the famed Thakar Singh, then changed the name of what she learned and started dispersing it as her own. Is nothing sacred sacred?
I myself briefly studied the Inner Light and Sound meditation practice while living in Venice Beach.
Information on how “Suma” Ching Hai (yes, even the self-proclaimed enlightened get to give themselves nicknames), built her following to the estimated 20,000 lost souls is sketchy at best. If seems that both www.suprememastertv.com and www.theedenrules.com probably have something to do with it. Through these websites the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association sells all kinds of stuff from books, cds, audiobooks, food, dvds of the Master’s birthday parties, and now even Loving Hut neck pillows. There is even jewelry and clothing designed by Ching Hai herself.
Supreme Master TV: "Broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a variety of engaging programs in English with over 42 subtitles and 60 languages. Being the ideal television channel that brings to your life Nobility and Spirituality."
The internet was quite helpful in learning more about her and her mass of followers, but I was still curious. So, I emailed the Loving Hut franchise headquarters inquiring about opening my own franchise. Afterall, they advertise themselves as the world’s fastest growing and number one vegan fast food chain. Figured if they have thirty-five in Korea and one hundred in the world, it must be a good business model, reasonably priced and a good investment to boot.
Turns out that the Hut is not your typical franchise. Only initiated members of the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association are eligible to own and operate one. On top of that, all locations are operated on a non-profit basis. Since when does a franchised restaurant become a non-profit? At this time there are no initiations scheduled, but they are going to get back to me with more information. If you see me walking around with dyed-blonde hair, inform the authorities.
I am curious as to where the profits go. I want to learn more about the group, but it looks like I might have to join them before I get enlightened on any level. Regardless, the stated mission of the Loving Hut restaurants seems to be spreading the news about the benefits of a vegan diet. That is not such a bad thing.
Knowing that at the head of the quasi-religious, slightly odd soy-filled organization sits a Vietnamese woman looking a bit like the older sister in an eighties sitcom with bleach blond hair who dresses like a princess in clothes of her own design, while claiming to be enlightened does not really bother me. I guess.