For two years Carol Wiebold has been a regular at Chinatown's Vegetarian House restaurant, enjoying its friendly service and generous helpings of fresh-cooked food.
But seated last week in the small dining room with hospital-green walls and fluorescent lights, the nurse from Oregon City didn't know the low-key eatery has a deeper purpose than feeding the meat-free masses.
Unbeknownst to Wiebold and many other Vegetarian House customers, the restaurant's owner founded the eatery five years ago to promote the teachings of Supreme Master Ching Hai-the elusive leader of a movement that promises its followers instant enlightenment through meditation, and a chance to save the world by going veggie.
"I'm not into meditation," says Wiebold, who otherwise dines happily at the restaurant about three times a month.
Ching Hai's Taiwan-based sect boasts thousands of followers worldwide and has built a global commercial empire, including a string of restaurants like the one at 22 NW 4th Ave. in Portland.
But even now, with the world's attention focused on the Beijing Olympics, few are aware that one of China's most bizarre and successful exports has set up shop locally-or that the sect is recruiting new members to join the several hundred followers already here.
Just a few steps past the guardian lions at the gates to Chinatown, the restaurant advertises its veggie platters in Chinese and English.
A poster in the window highlights the restaurant's real intent. The picture shows Supreme Master Ching Hai staring intently into the distance, her hair dyed blond and a cell phone cupped to her ear. For more than 20 years, she's taught an Eastern spiritual path-and promoted herself as an earthly vessel of divine wisdom.
Inside the restaurant, a small table holds fliers that describe her teachings. Chalk drawings etched by Ching Hai line the walls. Hand-held fans designed by the master are sold for $300. Her books, also on sale, fill a small shelf. And a big-screen TV plays her own 24-hour satellite channel-ironically, one of the few public TVs last week not tuned to the Olympics.
The restaurant's owner, Chao Ping, has been a devout follower of Ching Hai for 15 years. Originally from Taiwan, he opened the restaurant in 2003 to promote his master's lessons.
"Mostly they teach you compassion for people, to be humble, to open your heart to people," he says.
"It fits the classical definition of a destructive cult," says Rick Ross, a New Jersey-based expert on fringe religious movements. After talking with former members, Ross describes the sect as a personality cult that brainwashes followers, then takes their money.