Ching Hai, the self-styled "Supreme Master" of Zen whose disciples came up with massive contributions to President Clinton's legal defense fund, is no ordinary woman even if one discounts her claim she is the living reincarnation of Buddha and Jesus Christ.
Operating from her headquarters in Taiwan, she has organized what one expert describes as one of the fastest-growing religious cults, stretching from the Far East to the United States and claiming 100,000 followers in the United States and millions worldwide. The centerpiece of her 40-nation network of spiritual centers is her "inner sound" method of meditation, called Quan Yin, billed as the true path to peace and enlightenment. But Ching Hai also appears to be a marketing genius, selling paintings, jewelry, magazines, videos, and even her socks.
How this controversial sect leader fits into the latest fund-raising episode to embarrass the White House is not clear. The Presidential Legal Expense Trust announced Monday that it has returned $640,000 in donations, most if not all of it from sect members, because of suspicions about the source of funds. Ching Hai did not return phone calls left for her at meditation centers.
Despite the ascetic lifestyle that members of the Suma Ching Hai International Association are expected to follow, the Supreme Master clearly has money. Her flamboyant "celestial clothing" lines, as well as religious merchandise and other products, are reported to have swelled the coffers of her tax-exempt meditation centers and made her one of the richest religious cult leaders today. So have her 56 vegetarian restaurants, which operate from Taiwan to Australia to California.
Ching Hai also has entered the religious keepsake business, selling and auctioning off personal relics ranging from her discarded Volvo sedan to castoff personal items such as handkerchiefs.
The San Francisco Weekly quoted one disciple as saying she bought a pair of Ching Hai's sweat socks for $800 because "when the Master leaves the physical world, at least I will have her socks." The newspaper reported that ensembles from the "Celestial Clothing" collection can cost as much as $11,250.
An "Elevation of the Soul" catalogue published on one of the sect's Web sites on the Internet lists merchandise ranging from 400 videos of the master's public appearances to more than 50 books, including the Supreme Master Cookbook. Big-ticket items such as rice paper lamps can cost over $2,000. Also sold are photographs of Ching Hai, pins, pendants and even rosaries bearing her likeness.
One of Ching Hai's books features the Supreme Master scattering handfuls of candy to her disciples, who clamor after them as priceless relics.
Sect members are expected to meditate every day for 2 1/2 hours, adopt a vegetarian diet and give up alcohol and "sexual misconduct," according to sect literature. Some cult experts contend members are pressured to purchase Ching Hai's goods, and to sign up their spouses as sect members or leave them.
According to Ching Hai's glowing official biography, also available on a sect Web site, the Supreme Master was born as a "rare and noble child" in Vietnam.
While other children played, the biography recounts, Ching Hai could be found reading philosophy, attending Catholic church in the morning and a Buddhist temple in the afternoon, emptying bedpans as a hospital volunteer and taking wounded animals home to care for them.
After leaving home to become a Buddhist nun, she worked for a while in Germany as a translator, helping Vietnamese refugees while practicing meditation and moving increasingly toward enlightenment and the teachings of mystic leaders.
While in Germany, she was "happily married" to a German scientist, but eventually felt she needed to pursue her spiritual goals and left him with his full agreement. After traveling and searching for many years, she finally found a mysterious Himalayan master who initiated her into the Quan Yin method and gave her the "divine transmission" she had sought, according to the biography.
Eventually, after achieving "perfect enlightenment," she settled in Taiwan, where she was miraculously sought out during a typhoon by followers who said they had the divine inspiration that she was the "Great Master" who would lead them to liberation, the biography states.
Although she resisted their entreaties and even left Taiwan to live for a while in India and the United States as an unassuming Buddhist nun, Ching Lai was "discovered" again in Taiwan, and yielded to fate and began initiating disciples in her "Message of Truth."
Much of the remainder of the biography, rich in self-promotion and aggrandizement, is a paean to Ching Hai's humanitarian activities, her salvation of "countless numbers of people" and her "recognition" by governors, mayors and other political leaders in the United States and elsewhere.
Among the congratulatory messages she has received, according to the biography, are those from presidents Clinton, George Bush and Ronald Reagan.
Throughout the biography, the pronouns "she" and "her" are capitalized, to emphasize Ching Hai's status among followers as a deity. In recent years, according to the biography, Ching Hai has devoted herself to "creative expression," including paintings, fans, lamps, interior decorations, dress designs, poems and musical compositions, many of which are "made available for purposes of fund-raising."
An unofficial biography of Ching Hai written in 1995 by a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, Eric Lai, offers a less flattering portrayal of the Supreme Master.
Entitled "Spiritual Messiah Out of Taiwan," Lai's thesis says Ching Hai was born Hue Dang Trinh in Vietnam in 1950, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an ethnic Chinese father, according to a profile of the Supreme Master published by a San Jose weekly newspaper last March.
She reportedly gave birth to the child of an American soldier, a daughter who later committed suicide at age 20.
At the age of 19, Trinh left home with a German doctor who was working in Vietnam with a relief organization, married him and lived with him in Britain and then Germany.
But in 1979, while in Germany, she met a Buddhist monk whom she followed for three years until she was denied entrance to his monastery because she was a woman, according to Lai's research. Ching Hai is said then to have traveled to India, where she studied under the guru Thakar Singh, founder of the Kirpal Light Satsang Buddhist splinter group, who later gained notoriety for his purported sexual improprieties with his followers, questionable financial dealings and violent behavior.
After leaving India, Trinh was said to have moved to Taiwan, where she studied under a Buddhist nun who gave her a new name, Ching Hai, which in Mandarin means "pure ocean." CAPTION: How Ching Hai fits into the latest fund-raising episode to embarrass the White House is not clear.