Author: Pierre de Villiers Publisher: The Neural Surfer Publication date: June 1996
E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at email@example.com
I want to go back to the home base now.
The following article is a point-by-point reply by Pierre de Villiers on an article by Rafer Guzman in the San Jose Metro concerning the spiritual teacher, Suma Ching Hai. It is the first installment of Pierre de Villiers' ongoing research concerning the life and work of Suma Ching Hai. Please send any further comments or information directly to Pierre de Villiers at his e-mail address or contact the Neural Surfer directly. Thank you.
This is a critique on an article written on Suma Ching Hai ("Immaterial Girl") by Rafer Guzman of the San Jose Metro.
The initial motivation for this critique arose when I read the article on the Net and decided that it was necessary to point out where I felt that views expressed in the article were subjective, off the mark, non-factual, or uninformed.
In the critique I take the Sant Mat movement as exemplified in the Beas Satsang (Sawan Singh - Charan Singh lineage) as a traditionally accepted movement. Where Suma Ching Hai actually just duplicates the Sant Mat/Shabd Yoga practice and teaching as elucidated in Sar Bachan: Prose (a Sant Mat book published by Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Dera Baba Jaimal Singh), I point this out as not actually being a point of critique, as it is a teaching of a traditional "bona fide" Sant Mat movement.
I might after a while seem to be repeating myself, but I found this unavoidable, in order to correct what I felt were some inaccurate perceptions reflected in the article. I also used the term Surat Shabd Yoga often, as this is the documented traditional spiritual path that Suma Ching Hai actually teaches.
The purpose of this critique is also to generate a purposeful and well-reasoned discussion, and I am from my side open to any comments, as long as they are well-founded and factual. Also, it is hoped that this may generate inputs from people who might be able to shed light on facts where they are not entirely clear.
The original article's text is indicated with quotation marks and italics.
I must emphasise that the views expressed in the comments have not been checked with the organisation and are entirely my own words, although within my understanding are factually correct and completely in agreement with the teachings of Suma Ching Hai and the views of the organisation. Any errors, again, are to be attributed to me and not to Suma Ching Hai or the Quan Yin Meditation Association.
Pierre de Villiers
PS: the best introductory book to read on Sant Mat/Surat Shabd Yoga as far as I know is "Path of the Masters" by Julian P. Johnson, generally available from Sant Mat centers, if you are interested. David Lane also has extensive pieces on the path on his home page at The Neural Surfer (Point 2: Surat Shabd Yoga).
I have actually used the term right from the start without defining it; for an excellent introduction, see David Lane's "The Enchanted Land".
The Quan Yin home page can be found at http://fiber.ieo.nctu.edu.tw:5000/
Related Quan Yin links are http://futures.phys.cmu.edu/homegb.html and http://www.cs.utoronto.ca/~juxuan/home.html.
"Fallacies are pitfalls into which any of us may tumble in our reasoning. Just as danger signals are erected to warn travelers away from dangerous places, so the labels for fallacies presented in this chapter may be regarded as so many danger signals posted to keep us away from the bogland of incorrect argument. Familiarity with these errors and the ability to name and analyze them may well keep us from being deceived by them.
There is no sure way to avoid fallacies. To avoid the fallacies of relevance requires constant vigilance and awareness of the many ways in which irrelevance can intrude. Our study of the different uses of language should be helpful in this connection. A realization of the flexibility of language and the multiplicity of its uses will keep us from mistaking an exhortation to accept and approve a conclusion for an argument designed to prove that conclusion true.
The fallacies of ambiguity are subtle things. Words are slippery, and most of them have a variety of different senses or meanings. Where these different meanings are confused in the formulation of an argument, the reasoning is fallacious. To avoid the various fallacies of ambiguity, we must have and keep the meanings of our terms clearly in mind. One way to accomplish this is by defining the key terms that are used. Since shifts in the meanings of terms can make arguments fallacious, and since ambiguity can be avoided by careful definition of the terms involved, definition is an important matter for the student of logic." (p. 84)
"Clearly, when we are trying to "get at the facts", to follow an argument, or to learn the truth about something, anything which distracts us from that goal tends to frustrate us. It is a commonplace that the passions tend to cloud the reason, and this view is reflected in the usage of "dispassionate" and "objective" as near synonyms. It follows that when we are attempting to reason about facts in a cool and objective fashion, referring to them in strongly emotive language is a hindrance rather than a help." (p. 55)
"In seeking to discover people's views, interviewers must be careful not to prejudice the issue by phrasing their questions in such a way as to influence the answers." (p. 56)
"In the course of our investigations we shall come across certain highly emotive phraseology, as in the text of the statement by Dr. Elmer L. Henderson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association, on President Truman's proposed national compulsory health insurance program. Dr. Henderson states that:
"There is a great deal of double talk in the President's message, but what he actually proposes is a national compulsory health insurance system which would regiment doctors and patients alike under a vast bureaucracy of political administrators, clerks, bookkeepers and lay committees."
Now, can this passage be translated into more nearly neutral language without doing violence to the informative content? No more information is presented by Dr. Henderson in the passage cited than the following:
"There is some ambiguity in the President's message, but its intended meaning is the proposal to set up a national compulsory health insurance system in which contact between doctors and patients will be regulated by an administrative agency of large size, which would employ government officials, clerks and bookkeepers, and committees not composed entirely of M.D.'s."
These are the facts as Dr. Henderson sees them, and his information may well be correct. But when it is formulated with such a liberal sprinkling of emotively explosive words, like "double talk," "regimentation," "vast bureaucracy," "political administrators," and when there is the hint that "doctors and patients alike" would be under clerks and bookkeepers (as though no doctor ever employed a clerk or bookkeeper to keep his own records straight), then it requires a disproportionate amount of effort to cut through to the actual information presented.
Emotive language is not in itself bad, but when it is information we are after, we shall do well to choose words whose emotive meaning do not distract and hinder us from dealing successfully with what they describe." (p. 57)
An Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi, Third edition, Collier-Macmillan Limited (1969)
"Caption to Photo: Suma Ching Hai"
"By Rafer Guzman"
"Photographs by Christopher Gardner"
"As flight 717 circles the sky on a recent Wednesday evening, a group of about 150 people sit meditating on the floor of a waiting area at San Jose International Airport. Dozens of Asian men in dark suits, each wearing a yellow ribbon on his lapel, walk the airport halls and direct wanderers to the group. Men outside wave cars into the short-term parking lot, which is piling up fast."
"Suddenly, the meditators rise to their feet and storm Gate A8, which is already swarming with bodies. American Airlines Flight 717 is pulling in. With some persuasion, the admirers line up on either side of the gate's walkway, and the yellow- ribboned officials link hands to form barriers against the masses, whose numbers continue to grow. Chinese, Vietnamese and broken English combine to make a rising din. An elderly Chinese woman thrusts her arms into the crowd, trying to pry open a place for herself. Gate A8 is a parted sea of ecstatic faces, all of them waiting for the appearance of the Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai."
"Ching Hai is many things: painter, poet, Buddhist nun and spiritual leader. She is also a fashion designer, beauty makeover consultant and restaurateur. According to most of her followers, Ching Hai is not only a saintly philanthropist who took the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong under her wing, she is also the living reincarnation of the Buddha and Jesus Christ."
"According to her critics--and they are few--she operates one of the largest and fastest-growing religious cults in the world."
It is also not true that Suma Ching Hai is elevated to a "God" level as a person; it is more the accepted practice in Shabd Yoga that the fully realised master is viewed as being one with God and, as said in Sar Bachan (Prose) (a publication of the words of the founder of current extant Sant Mat movements, Soami Ji, published by the Dera Baba Jaimal Singh), is to be viewed as God incarnate if spiritual progress is to be assured and effective. Viewing the master as a divine person, or rather as a meeting and mediating point between the divine and the human levels of existence is not peculiar to Suma Ching Hai. It is also a fairly natural and generally applied way of viewing both the founder and in many cases the current leader of most spiritual movements (usually a devotee would consider his/her master to be the one of highest attainment - this view of "faith" is generally accepted as a prerequisite for spiritual progress, from Ramana Maharshi to Jesus Christ); the point would be to not become intolerant of other bona fide spiritual movements in the process.
"Is Ching Hai truly the Messiah?"
Suma Ching Hai often refers to initiates as fellow practitioners rather than disciples, and actually is a very accessible and normal person in her daily dealings with initiates; rather than assuming an exalted, distanced role she, more than any other master in the recent history of Surat Shabd Yoga, freely mingles with practitioners and is in the process not only an excellent example of somebody living the teachings of the path but is, as other masters before her on the same path, an extremely hardworking person (rather than sitting back an basking in adulation). When there is work to do she would be often seen working with the initiates, and is always the one with practical and effective solutions to problems; in this she is if nothing else an example to others. This can be verified first-hand by asking any monastic practitioner who is a full- time resident of the main centre in Taiwan.
Though her interaction with practitioners is very normal and relaxed, practitioners do tend to have an attitude of veneration (actually, a feeling of intense love and kinship) for the master, There is also a very understandable (and usual with all Surat Shabd Yoga masters) venerational atmosphere visible amongst the initiates when she specifically acts in the role of master, as when she gives discourses (in public or in residence).
"Of the several hundred assembled worshippers here tonight, only I will later be fortunate enough to sit just inches from the Supreme Master and ask her this very question. For if she is the Messiah, she has inexplicably chosen to manifest herself as the owner of 56 vegetarian restaurants which cover the globe from Taipei to Melbourne to San Jose."
"On the corner of Twelfth Street and East Santa Clara Street, once the site of Paolo's, the posh Italian restaurant that was for decades the hangout of the Valley's agricultural and political elite, Ching Hai's establishment now serves a stunning, if overly ambitious, variety of vegetarian dishes ranging from spring rolls and faux swordfish to pasta marinara."
"It also doubles as a library and museum containing hundreds of Ching Hai magazines, books and videotapes. On posters and laminated photographs, the Master's face smiles beatifically, though her slightly paralyzed left cheek gives her the appearance of wearing a sort of foxy grin."
"Mannequins stand adorned in her own haute couture outfits, which seem to draw from the fashions of both Star Trek and Dallas. On the walls hang her simple paintings of flowers, trees and landscapes. Above the tables of the dining patrons looms a gigantic TV screen which broadcasts the Master's teachings and, occasionally, her music video, which features her singing in dance-club duds and vogueing like Madonna."
Faqir Chand, a "heretic" master in the Sant Mat tradition had made it publicly known that some of the so-called masters have
1) not really had the experiences that they talk about and
2) are not the source of or are not aware of the miraculous events reported by their disciples as coming from their masters (see the entries on Faqir Chand under Point 2 on David Lane's The Neural Surfer page, specifically The Faqir Chand Library: Issue One and Faqir Chand: The Unknowing Sage.
Suma Ching Hai seems to indicate a similar awareness of this fact but at the same time hints that she has found the answer to the questions that Faqir Chand raised, and it is very plausible that her "innovative" behaviour as master is part of her answer to this dilemma - effectively changing the role and behaviour of the physical master as it is traditionally understood. This is very effective as it forces one to contact the inner master as Surat Shabd Yoga tirelessly advocates while she is still available to provide outer guidance as is necessary; with a traditional master one often tends to become so attached to and entranced by the physical form of the master that it becomes easy to put off the effort to "go inside"; it is for this reason that Sant Mat masters often say that the physical death of the master has this very required effect of "encouraging" inner progress on the part of the initiate. Suma Ching Hai's behaviour as a "normal person" has very much the same effect, and might herald something new in spiritual terms.
This is not necessarily the only or even main reason for her unique approach, but this point will be more fully discussed in a forthcoming article.
"Though Ching Hai may appear to have come from another planet,"
"she was actually born in Vietnam and spent much of her adult life in Taiwan. Though she refers to the two countries by their respective colonial names of "Au Lac" and "Formosa," she has a strong affinity for both, and reportedly has her largest followings there. Here in America, almost all of Ching Hai's followers are new arrivals from Vietnam and China."
"There seems to be something about the five-foot-tall leader which strongly appeals to these immigrant groups. She avoids overtly authoritarian cliches and instead cultivates the image of a wise old aunt."
"Rather than preach fire and brimstone, she frames her lectures in a Q&A format vaguely reminiscent of Confucius and his students."
"(In the transcript of one lecture, when a disciple asks if he would be justified in killing a murderer to prevent future bloodshed, Ching Hai sagely advises him to go to the police instead.)"
"In addition, the title of her new book, I Have Come to Take You Home, may resonate strongly with new arrivals to the States."
"But perhaps more significantly, Ching Hai seems to offer ancient religion's comfortable familiarity and America's crass but coveted commercialism."
"Both a religious idol and a Third World aristocrat,"
"Ching Hai bears more than a passing resemblance to Imelda Marcos,"
Again, the conscious choice to change her appearance from that of a traditional master has a rationale behind it which is not immediately obvious, especially to an assessment based on limited observation.
"adorned in her self-styled "fairy clothes," which models have paraded down runways in the world's fashion capitals. A Buddhist nun who preaches asceticism,"
It is also important to understand that she teaches Surat Shabd Yoga to an audience with a mainly Buddhist background; she would therefore often use Buddhist terminology and stories to illustrate, explain and make her teachings understandable to them. In addition to this, she has also had a partially Buddhist (also Catholic) upbringing and background and this also features in the presentation of her teachings (although I feel this is a less important motivation for doing so). The exact same situation has occurred in India with the northern Saints, who come from (and have a large audience with) a basically Sikh environment and background.
"Ching Hai can nevertheless be seen in her magazine, Suma Ching Hai News, giving makeovers and fashion tips to female followers."
Suma Ching Hai tries to teach the growth of both self- confidence and compassion as part of spiritual practice, and in many cases laudably succeeds.
""A listless-looking and middle-aged fellow sister, after being made up by Master, turned into a totally new person in five minutes," reads the article next to a full-color photo spread. "Everyone exclaimed: `Even the not-so-great ones become beautiful!' " And though Ching Hai claims that one has no need of anything on earth except the truth,"
I think (in my personal opinion) that the Surat Shabd Yoga path is proving itself as a powerful and safe spiritual practice, with measurable effects within a practitioner's life.
Within this context, the loving care and tireless attention to detail that is a trademark of Suma Ching Hai for those who know her is only made more visible in scenes as described above.
"she freely admits that selling her merchandising creations supports her worldwide organization."
"The Hai Life"
"Like many Eastern belief systems, Ching Hai's centers around meditation,"
"but her own method, called Quan Yin,"
"contains "The Key of Immediate Enlightenment"--no waiting necessary."
To summarise, what is seen in other yogic paths as the final goal or at least being close to the final goal, is provided in Sant Mat as the starting point at initiation.
""Quan means 'contemplation,' and Yin means 'inner vibration,'" explains Pamela Millar, a Ching Hai representative living in Palo Alto. "It's kind of the light and the sound. It's basically a silent meditation.""
"This is about all the information one can coax from the Ching Hai group about the Quan Yin method, which they guard like a secret recipe."
This method is kept "hidden" by all masters in the path, for very valid spiritual reasons which can be explained if necessary. It forms an integral part of the theory of the method taught, and is not a unique feature of Suma Ching Hai. Rather, if she did not teach the method as she did, or taught it in the way as is done by certain movements originating in America, I would be the first to severely criticise her for doing so. Fortunately, she has not compromised the purity of the teaching or the method for imparting it.
""I will explain everything during initiation," Ching Hai says in public."
"Initiations take place at the 40-acre Ching Hai Meditation Center in Morgan Hill, to which actual visits are discouraged. Almost all that is known about the group's actual methods"
Also, as explained earlier, as much of this method is known as is made known by other Sant Mat movements; it is not peculiar to Suma Ching Hai and there are very valid reasons for this being so.
"is that it requires keeping a strict vegetarian diet and meditating a minimum of two and a half hours per day"
"while chanting the Master's name."
"Ching Hai also teaches what she calls the Convenient Method-- a sort of Quan Yin Lite for new initiates--which requires meditating only half an hour per day, and eating vegetarian for 10 days per month. "When children are 6 years old, if they are with initiated parents, they can be half-initiated," Ching Hai rather arbitrarily mandates. "When they are 12, if they have parents who also practice, they can be initiated fully.""
Update: a question was raised by a fellow initiate as to the actual requirements and application of the Convenient Method and full initiation, as compared to that described in the articles previous paragraph. I find it not that relevant to my point of critique but for those interested, complete information should be available at the Quan Yin Home Page
"Food for Thought"
"At the restaurant, a smiling volunteer serves a dish of simulated chicken to Millar. A Ching Hai "liaison" and one of the organization's few Caucasian members, Millar possesses none of the zombie-like qualities one tends to attribute to cultists."
"Millar calls herself a "skeptic" and says she's "not big on authority." She grew up in Oregon near a small town that was once called Antelope before the followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh successfully changed its name to Rajneeshpuram. Millar says she has looked into various religious organizations, but found them all to be scams. "It seemed like they wanted to give you something, but they always wanted something back," she says."
"Traveling in Taiwan on a business trip, Millar discovered Ching Hai's teachings through the niece of a business contact. Her skeptical nature, she claims, made her unreceptive at first. "I thought, 'I'll wait and see.' " But before long, she began to feel that Ching Hai was different from other leaders."
I also get the distinct impression that she knows about the "Chandian effect" (see my earlier comment about Faqir Chand and David Lane's postings about the same) and that she knows that the Surat Shabd Yoga path as traditionally taught might be a(n) (essential and necessary) stepping stone to something else unnameable transcending it.
""She won't accept any contributions," Millar says. "We can't give her gifts." The Master does not charge for teaching her meditation methods, she adds, "but it requires a commitment.""
"Seven years after her introduction to the Ching Hai group, Millar has risen to become a high-level member responsible for tasks such as putting together the Master's books, arranging ceremonies and talking to the press. But she insists that the organization is very "laissez-faire." "We change the rules all the time," she laughs. "We don't have a hierarchy. ... I like it, it's really formless. It's a formless teaching, too.""
"As to the Master's role in all this, Miller cannot quite say. "I don't know--she's like a guide. She teaches us a lot. This role is both inside and outside.""
"For Millar, all the proof of the Master's divine nature comes from the Quan Yin method. "It's not just the videos, the books," she says. "She comes to me during meditation sometimes.""
"I found that Millar, a high-level member of the group, and the "not so great ones" seem equally enraptured with this new religion."
""No, no, it's not a religion," said one young Vietnamese girl. "It's more like, just finding out about you, who you are." Every follower answered the same question with almost the same words: "No, it's about finding yourself.""
"Their religion, they proudly say, is Buddhist, Christian, Catholic or Hindu--it just so happens that they also worship the Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai."
"In fact, they worship her so much that anything she touches becomes a prized possession. Ching Hai's new book features a picture of the Master about to engage in one of her favorite activities: scattering handfuls of candy to her disciples. The caption reads, "Master offers her love and blessing by sharing candies with the gathered initiates.""
"Indeed, after a recent Ching Hai lecture, one follower offered me a handful of Jolly Ranchers and Fun-Size Hershey bars, saying, "Here is Master candy! We love the candy Master gives us. You know, it's different from other candy. We love going around to get it, it's like being little kids.""
"Trance With Me"
"Ching Hai's name is new to most cult experts, but her behavior, and that of her followers, is not. The Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network provides lists and definitions of common cult practices."
In my experience, Suma Ching Hai's movement is much closer in nature to the Sant Mat movements than to the other "real cults" mentioned throughout the article (various criteria could be used to make as objective a judgement as possible).
"Under "Techniques of mind-control," one finds a description of "thought-stopping techniques" such as "meditating, chanting and repetitious activities which, when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility.""
To the contrary, I (and many others who have studied this path) have come to the conclusion that it is one of the most comprehensive, safest and beneficial spiritual practices around.
Also relevant is the amount of stress that Suma Ching Hai and other Shabd Yoga masters place on empowering the individual; that she/he as physical master should be seen as a fellow practitioner who is able to provide comment and guidance on the spiritual practices of others; that the individual should realise the truth within her/himself and not be dependent on anyone else; up to that point the master is only essential as an experienced and knowledgeable guide.
"Also noted is the concept of "love-bombing," which "discourages doubts and reinforces the need to belong through use of child-like games."
"Joe Kelly, an exit counselor in Philadelphia, once belonged to the infamous Transcendental Meditation movement begun by the Beatles' guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi promises to teach his members Yogic Flying, a levitation-like ability achieved through meditation."
"Without condemning meditation, Kelly posits that "the result of being in a trance state is that it unhooks your critical thinking skills." Furthermore, Kelly says, a trance state can result in what he calls "an internal experience.""
The matter mentioned would be applicable to all Surat Shabd Yoga movements if it were true; this subject (of inner experiences) is one that has not yet been explained sufficiently by research.
""It's context-dependent," he explains. "A Christian might experience Jesus, a Buddhist might experience Nirvana." It's no stretch to imagine, then, that a Ching Hai follower might experience Ching Hai. "When teaching comes after we have an internal experience," Kelly says, "we tend to be more receptive to it.""
Secondly, the "Ching Hai meditation technique" (Surat Shabd Yoga), as practiced in the traditionally correct way (of which hers is one; Sant Mat as taught by Soami Ji and successors another) does not have the taints associated apparently with the TM method - it has historically been understood to be far more beneficial and without negative side-effects.
Thirdly, the nature and source of inner visions have been the cause for the formulation of many theories, but no definite answer has yet been found (although strong indications might exist). Even if the master only acts as a stimulus for such experiences in being a focus point for the generation of "faith" (single-minded attention) and concentration needed to induce such experiences, I would still condone the master's role.
"Kelly also says that cults encourage members to "become dependent, like a child.""
"Kelly scoffs at Ching Hai's candy-tossing ritual. "This is something that's so typical," he says, recalling that the Maharishi did exactly the same thing. "Our Master would throw the candy, and we would dive for it because it had been blessed.""
"He adds, "That is not a Buddhist concept.""
I think that a thorough study of Suma Ching Hai's teachings and in parallel that of Surat Shabd Yoga would make this very clear.
"According to Kelly, even Ching Hai's strange line of fashion wear is not unheard of in the cult trade. "Yeah, TM did the same thing," he recalls. "They put out a line of these dowdy women's dresses that the Maharishi believed heightened female spirituality.""
"Kelly's strongest bit of advice in identifying cults is to look for "the subjective nature of the doctrine. That's the clincher with these meditation groups."
"They're always changing the rules so you can't get a handle on anything." Recalling the words "laissez-faire" and "formless" from Millar, I wonder if Kelly might not be prophetic himself."
The only "rules" are those explained before (in lectures) and during initiation, and besides being simple, are also constant, namely (summarising):
1. A pure moral life (no lying, killing, stealing, promiscuity,
gambling, use of intoxicants) - a fairly standard tenet of
2. a lacto-vegetarian diet (a harmless requirement);
3. two-and-a-half hours meditation per day (required as a basic component of Surat Shabd Yoga practice).
Group meditation is recommended but optional. The entire spiritual practice as taught by Suma Ching Hai (as is repeatedly stressed by her) is without any obligation and is a personal responsibility and commitment. No pressure is applied to members in any way regarding this.
The formlessness mentioned by Millar only makes sense if it is used in the sense of "a fluid encompassing" of other paths.
Also, as this spiritual method has a cosmology which can accommodate most other spiritual teachings, and also is a scientific method rather than an exclusive (blind) faith, it is possible and at times advised that one does not actually give up one's current "religion", but that one actually enhances the current religious context with practical and actual inner experience and progress, provided by the practice of this path.
"Janja Lalich, author of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, a book on post-cult recovery, provides a similar diagnosis. Her assertion that "66 percent of the people who join cults are recruited by friends or family members" seems borne out by the Asian members interviewed for this story, all of whom had been indoctrinated by relatives."
""It's not like the '60s, where we were scared of the Moonies standing on the street," Lalich says."
"She also advised me to "see how they're answering questions. Are they scripted?""
My experience in this path is also that, in providing a comprehensive cosmology and spiritual practice that actually encompasses the teachings of most world religions, the followers of this path often have a very good (intuitive) understanding of the scriptures of other religions, not to mention their own path.
If "scripted answers" are to be used as condemning evidence of a movement's "illegitimacy" or "unacceptability" as a spiritual path, I am afraid that the major religions in the world today will be the worst off.
A very well motivated logical reasoning is the strong structure on which the Surat Shabd Yoga path rests, in contrast to some other spiritual paths.
"I could only think of this passage from Ching Hai's literature: "Our path isn't a religion. ... I simply offer you a way to know yourself.""
""If anything is indicative of a cult, it's when people can't give you a straight answer," Lalich says. She adds, "They're very good at turning the questions back on you. That's a classic technique. Or they'll talk gobbledygook.""
"In her list of cult characteristics, Lalich includes a "hidden agenda," or what she calls a "double set of ethics. As a member, you can be open and honest. To outsiders, you can lie." Ching Hai's followers may or may not be consciously deceptive, but I did find that, despite their refusal to describe themselves as a religion, Ching Hai's San Jose and Los Angeles branches are registered with the IRS as tax-exempt organizations, with their principal activities noted as "religious" and "church/synagogue," respectively."
I have no problem with the refusal to be labeled as a new religion. Suma Ching Hai's path is a spiritual movement but not a religion (see my previous comment), and I unfortunately cannot comment on the tax registration, as I do not know what the usual practice and laws are - outside my area of knowledge...(but my gut-feel response is that it sounds quite acceptable to me - Suma Ching Hai's is very much a non-profit spiritual organisation that, if anything, has repeatedly provided documented aid in world disasters without any profit and with everything that was donated and distributed well documented and accounted for, often being published in the organisation's magazine)
I also take exception to this very laborious and clumsy attempt at trying to prove "lying" within the movement. It is way off the mark, because if there is any "deception" extant it would be on a totally different level, which is the main goal of my research and which will be verified or not in due time (I am confident that a plausible explanation exists for this point of concern).
"Till Cult Do Us Part"
""It looks to me like one of the fastest-growing cults in the world," says Dr. Margaret Singer, perhaps the country's first and foremost cult expert. Dr. Singer, who has been following modern cults since their appearance in the late 1950s (she cites the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas and the TM movement as the earliest examples), gained national fame for her work with the defense team of heiress Patty Hearst, who killed a man in a bank robbery while under the influence of a revolutionary cult."
"Singer, who keeps extensive files on cultic groups around the world, considers Ching Hai unusual only in that most large, far-reaching organizations are led by men. Female cult leaders, says Singer, usually control small, local groups of anywhere from five to 50 members. "And they keep a very tight hold on the group," she adds."
"Only within the last nine or ten months has she begun receiving calls from men and women--just over a dozen of them, and almost all from San Francisco and San Jose-- who have lost their spouses to the Ching Hai organization. "Almost everyone I talked to," she says, "had lost a partner--a girlfriend, a husband--because they had given up everything to go to work in a restaurant or join the group.""
It is also not my experience that people on this path give up their normal lives to pursue the path full-time; there are monastic practitioners but they are a drop in the bucket in terms of numbers compared to the rest of the movement. Also, the teaching of Suma Ching Hai is to realise this path while leading a normal life in the world - this is not idealised thinking on my part but her actual, constant teaching.
Even if this is true it could a localised effect occurring within a specific social context.
"Singer says that the callers also complained about the tremendous sums of money their spouses gave to the Ching Hai organization."
""Husbands and wives would be very distressed about the amount of money the spouse paid for trinkets," she says. From what she heard, she says, it seems the Ching Hai group pressures its members to buy merchandise."
""They would have meetings where they would sell these trinkets, and the asking price would be five dollars, but the group would urge people to pay more and more, like $50.""
Also, no money is solicited in any way. No donations are asked for. No "money seva" (donations) are accepted (as is done in similar spiritual movements), even when offered (my actual experience). Only the case of some disaster somewhere in the world, donations in the form of actual goods (food, clothing, etc.) or money are accepted and given to those affected. Bookkeeping of this is done and is published in the (free) magazine received by initiates.
The meetings are anyway not as implied in the above remark a time for buying and selling but is very simple a coming together by initiates to watch a video and meditate together. The actual reality is as simple as that.
"In her talks with these abandoned spouses, Singer says she has heard no evidence of physical or sexual abuse."
"Nor does she think Ching Hai's doctrines,"
"which include relatively few apocalyptic prophecies, point toward the sort of fiery endings met with by the self-immolated Branch Davidians or the self-poisoned followers of Jim Jones."
In my experience, no fault can be found with the movement from any of these perspectives. The only potential fault to be identified at all was denial of connections with Thakar Singh, and research on this is not yet conclusive.
While I am attempting to be as objective as is possible for an initiate to be I am confident that an acceptable explanation exists for this single point of critique, as the character and actions of both the master and initiates are exemplary and in the end has only beneficial results in terms of the spiritual development of the initiates, which is actually, in the final analysis, the main goal of spiritual practice.
""This one doesn't seem to be on that pathway," Singer says. "The way the group ends up is usually quite predictable based on the personality of the leader." Singer sees this group as dominated by its leader's personality and ego."
The "dominating/shaping" role of the leader could rather be interpreted as the role of example; if it turns out to be true that the master lives a pure moral life of selfless service to his/her followers, I think it should be commended rather than criticised.
This role of the master is in my mind true of most spiritual groups, including bona fide ones like Sant Mat.
""Ching Hai seems to have fantasies about being around lots of people, educated people, wearing fancy clothes and having a lot of power. But she doesn't seem to have fantasies about suicidal revolutions or apocalyptic endings.""
"Though Ching Hai may not pose any physical threat to her followers, she may nevertheless be doing them other forms of damage. "It was mostly just the money, and the breaking up of the family," Singer says of her callers' laments. "That's what was causing the greatest pain. Telling the spouse that if they don't join Ching Hai, they would have to leave them.""
(To my mind the critique could rather (if it is valid) be directed at some overzealous (Asian) followers themselves, who actually initiate the making and selling of such things, and secondly at those who buy them, at their own whim and not under direction of Suma Ching Hai.)
I myself have even bought some "trinkets" (sic) without spending a lot of money in the process; completely at my own discretion, without any pressure at all...
I also know of counterexamples to those stated, where one partner in a relationship is an initiate of Suma Ching Hai and the other is not, without any detrimental effect on the relationship.
"Spiritual Tug of War"
"San Jose resident Steve Krysiak, who was involved with a Vietnamese follower of Ching Hai, has his own story to tell. "I compare it with Manson," Krysiak says. "He imprinted them with LSD--I think Ching Hai uses meditation.""
"In 1990, Krysiak met Trang (not her real name), a Vietnamese immigrant who had been captured by the Communists in her homeland, but had escaped on the boats to America where she found work as a hairdresser. When the couple met in Fremont, Trang had three children and was already following Ching Hai."
"Krysiak says he cautioned Trang against Ching Hai, but took her in anyway. "We had a wonderful relationship," says Krysiak. "Highly sexual. She was the most highly sexual person I ever met.""
"That soon changed, however. "She just said, 'I have no sexual energy,'" Krysiak laments. "All my Vietnamese friends told me it would happen. The women die sexually with Ching Hai.""
I should however note that most of the significant and respected Sant Mat masters taught that in the long run sexual life should be contained, for the highest spiritual progress to be achieved. In this sense, if the above is true, it could actually validate the spiritual effect that Suma Ching Hai has on her initiates as very much essential Sant Mat...
"The relationship suffered, says Krysiak, as he and the Ching Hai group vied for Trang's affections. "Ching Hai wants them to meditate five hours a day, don't worry about the kids," says Krysiak."
She endorses a healthy family life - i.e. the path should make you a better person, parent, husband, or wife. This she repeatedly stresses.
"He claims he sometimes walked in upon Trang meditating with a blanket on her lap, which she had been instructed to throw over herself so as not to reveal the secret Quan Yin method."
""I'd see her doing it, and I'd say, 'You've been seeing that damn Ching Hai again!'"
"And she'd say, 'You've been spying on me!' ""
"Trang ran up $9,000 worth of credit card debt, which Krysiak assumed was going to Ching Hai. "You know, those videos are $10 for people who are into the cult, but they're $28 or $30 for actual members," he says.
I have confirmed with a monastic practitioner from Taiwan that this is definitely and most assuredly not the case. The only places where money might be accepted is in the two large centres, in Taiwan and Los Angeles, to cover bed and board for visiting initiates (on a voluntary basis).
"He adds that Trang charged a plane ticket to fly to New York for her initiation into the group,"
"bought a flute because Ching Hai played the instrument, decorated her room with Ching Hai posters, and got plastic surgery and breast implants because Ching Hai had supposedly undergone the same operations."
"Trang also became a "fanatic vegetarian," Krysiak says. "She tried to get the kids involved in it, but they hated it. It was lucky that they were so Americanized that they had to have their McDonald's.""
"Trang was not so lucky. "She got thyroid disease," says Krysiak. "The Vietnamese use coarse salt for cooking, with no iodine added, you know. And when Trang cut out her fish, she got thyroid disease. She had to go twice for radioactive thyroid treatment, and they killed a little bit too much thyroid. Now she has to take thyroid [medication] for the rest of her life.""
"Even after the illness, the Ching Hai group won the tug-of- war for Trang. "People told me that when they get them away from the Master, they might get away for a while, but the members will call them on the phone and try to pull them back." Trang left Krysiak in 1992."
"Krysiak moved to San Jose to get away from the memories of Trang only to see the Ching Hai restaurant open a few blocks from his house. "I'm calm about all this now," he says, "but I didn't used to be." Krysiak tells of the day he lost his temper and stormed down to the restaurant. "I was out front, screaming, 'Ching Hai is a fake!' Well, I went back later and apologized to the owner there, and you know what she told me? 'Don't worry--this happens to all our men.' ""
"Krysiak returned home to find he had locked himself out of his house. "I called a locksmith, a Vietnamese guy, and I told him all about it. He laughed. He said, 'In Vietnamese community, there are two causes for divorce: Bay 101, and Ching Hai.' ""
"Advertisements For Herself"
"Ching Hai may be a recognizable figure to some in the Asian community, but despite her restaurants, approximately 100,000 followers, and contact persons in 37 countries, the mainstream press seems almost completely unaware of her existence."
"Even most cult experts knew nothing or little about her."
"The only readily available material on Ching Hai comes from her own literature and the numerous sites that line the World Wide Web, which usually offer little more than color photos of the Master and suspiciously favorable interviews by foreign journalists."
"A tireless publicity seeker, Ching Hai never misses an opportunity to gain credibility and clout for her organization. She often claims to have been invited to the conspicuously prestigious locations for her lectures--Georgetown University, UCLA and the United Nations buildings in Geneva and New York-- but rarely says by whom. She also claims that seven United States governors proclaimed Feb. 22, 1994, as "Supreme Master Ching Hai Day." As it turns out, the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, actually did, in recognition of her $65,000 donation to relief efforts for victims of the Mississippi River flooding."
"Ching Hai's attempts in 1992 to help the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong remain a feather in the leader's cap, though they apparently failed."
"But the $200,000 she promised to the Laguna Beach Fire Relief Coalition after Southern California was ravaged by fires in 1993 reportedly never arrived."
"In Taiwan, the story goes, Ching Hai even set up two front organizations to bestow awards upon her in a public ceremony, and successfully persuaded a baffled United States official to pose as the president of one."
"Ching Hai's knack for self-promotion shines in her official biography, which reads more like a hagiography."
"In it, Ching Hai appears as a "rare and noble child" who taught herself philosophy at an early age and cried at the sight of slaughtered animals."
"The prophecies of clairvoyants back up Ching Hai's claims to gurudom: "She has come to this world, on the mission of Quan Yin, to save sentient beings from misery.""
"After Ching Hai learned the Quan Yin meditation method from a mysterious Master in the Himalayas, according to the biography, she relocated to Taiwan, where a group of students guided by their prayers found her and coaxed the reluctant woman into becoming their Master."
"The rest of the biography is a paean to the Master's humility, humanitarian efforts and impressive output of saleable products."
"Entertaining though this mishmash of religious mythology, Eastern folklore and public- relations razzle-dazzle may be, it's rather less interesting than the story of Ching Hai revealed in the thesis of UC-Berkeley graduate Eric Lai."
"According to Lai's research, the Supreme Master was born Hue Dang Trinh on May 12, 1950, in a small village in Vietnam, in the same province which later saw the My Lai massacre. The daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an ethnic Chinese father, Trinh reportedly hung out with American soldiers as a teenager, and bore one a daughter."
"At 19, during the height of the Vietnam War, Trinh left home with a German doctor working for an international relief organization. Trinh's daughter later killed herself at 20. Trinh married the doctor, and the couple moved first to Britain and then to Germany."
"There, in 1979, she met a Buddhist monk whom she followed for three years until she was denied entrance to his monastery on the basis of gender."
"Trinh then moved to India to study Buddhism. It was here that she became a prize pupil of Thakar Singh,"
Update: confirmation of her visit to the Dalai Lama has been received.
"who had just splintered off"
"from a Buddhist order, Radhasoami, to form his own sect, Kirpal Light Satsang."
(Suma Ching Hai therefore studied, and Radhasoami is, Surat Shabd Yoga, not Buddhism.)
""Thakar Singh turned out to be the most scandalous guru in the history of Radhasoami," writes David Christopher Lane, who while a graduate student at UC- Berkeley met Singh in India in 1978 and has since traced the guru's checkered career. According to Lane's findings: "By the mid-1980s reports circulated throughout the world about how Thakar had embezzled money, indulged in sexual affairs with numerous women, and had engaged in violent interactions with disciples." Some of the accusations included tying women up and beating them regularly."
"But by the time Singh's crimes came to light, Ching Hai had already learned from him the "light and sound" meditation technique, and had left for Taiwan."
"Lai's research revealed that in Taiwan, in 1983, Trinh studied with a Buddhist nun named Xing-jing. Unaware of her association with Singh, Xing-jing officially ordained Trinh in the order and gave her the religious name "Ching Hai," which translates from Mandarin as "pure ocean.""
"The next year, Ching Hai moved to a Buddhist temple in Queens, New York."
I am surprised at the different versions of her stay in the US. Apparently, someone is right and the other is wrong. Also, the fact that this does not seem to be clearly described in Lai's research, as it is not given in this article, is a subject which actually puts all facts known open to questioning, and it becomes very important to get a full and true picture of what actually transpired.
"She taught meditation, and meditated herself for up to four hours a day."
"One former colleague told Lai, "We were all impressed by her devotion and sincerity." But a year and a half later, Ching Hai began teaching the "light and sound" technique to her students, though few responded favorably."
"Returning to Taiwan in 1986, Ching Hai lured followers away from her former master, Xing-jing, and set up a makeshift temple in an apartment in the Taipei suburbs."
"Rumors about her prophetic abilities and unique meditation methods earned her a large following, and by 1987 posters of Ching Hai appeared all over Taipei."
"By the time the Taiwanese Buddhist community learned of Ching Hai's past connection to the disgraced Satsang cult, it was too late."
"The new Messiah had been born."
"Messiah: A Job Like Any Other"
"And now she is among us in San Jose. Her arrival is a rare and momentous occasion which her followers have been anticipating since her last appearance here in 1994. For new initiates (personally selected by Ching Hai through their written applications and photos) their only contact with the Master has been through the literature and videos available in the restaurant's library."
"Perhaps a fortunate few have been able to channel her as promised."
"Now, however, they will be able to see and hear her in person. Some may even be touched by her."
"Cries of adoration greet Ching Hai when she appears in the portals of Gate A8. As she walks, her path is strewn with flowers, prostrate bodies and outstretched hands."
"She smiles modestly."
"Once outside, she is escorted into the back seat of a black Isuzu Trooper. She waves to the undulating crowd as the car speeds away, heading for the nearby Red Lion Hotel. For the next hour, the short-term parking lot of the San Jose Airport is jammed with cars heading for the exit to follow her."
"The Fir Room of the Red Lion has been prepared for the Master's arrival. On the stage is an assortment of pillows on a white chair. Above it hangs a giant banner, decorated by stick- on gift bows, which reads, "Welcome SUMA CHING HAI to San Jose." Mylar party balloons float in the air, displaying Hallmark-style messages: "World's Greatest!" and "I Love You." A yellow microphone waits for its Master's voice. The 600- person audience chatters happily until an announcer approaches the microphone."
""Please meditate while waiting for Master," he scolds. Within two seconds, the room grows completely silent. Upon the request of a yellow-ribboned official, a fussing newborn is whisked through the doors by its mother. For the next hour, the only sounds in the Fir Room are the microphone tests and the setting up of several video cameras and klieg lights."
"When Ching Hai enters the room, the crowd stands and applauds. She walks under an arch of party balloons strung together by multicolored ribbons and down the center aisle toward the stage, stopping now and then to direct a smile at a lucky follower who inevitably convulses with delight."
"She takes the stage, soaking up the adoration and barely able to conceal her pleasure."
"She begins her talk with phrases that are alternately humble and self-congratulatory:"
""Thank you for your love. I don't know if I'm good enough for you." She sighs. "I just try to be ordinary citizen. Then someone must come along and remind me I am Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai!" All laugh heartily."
She also never tires of reminding the initiates that they are actually their own masters, and that they should strive hard to realise this; and that she is only a guide during this process.
"After a long and tortuous lecture, Ching Hai takes questions from the audience, even answering once or twice in Mandarin."
""I'm having trouble practicing the Quan Yin," laments a young Vietnamese man. "I'm okay with the sound and the light, but the Quan Yin is different." Ching Hai asks, "Why?" but the young man doesn't know. "Try to practice for one minute," Ching Hai responds patiently. "Then practice for two. Soon, it will get easier.""
"The young man's shoulders collapse with gratitude. "Oh, thank you, Master," he gushes. The crowd applauds."
"Later, Ching Hai gets flustered by a more difficult question. A young medical student wants to know if the Master condones euthanasia. "Are you trying to get me into trouble?" she snaps."
"She paces the stage. "What's that? What's that for?" The medical student hesitantly replies, "It's mercy killing," and begins to explain about comas and brain death, but Ching Hai talks over him."
""Is that a law in America?" she asks. Before the student can answer, she sighs crabbily."
""I don't know--I'm from Taiwan. Why am I responsible for all the countries?" She picks at the pillows where she was sitting: "Is that my hair?" Finally, she confronts the student. "Sometimes, people wake up. So it's hard for me to tell you which one to kill and which one not," she says. Laughter erupts from the crowd, and then applause."
""Is God a person or an idea?" someone asks, to which Ching Hai replies, "I have no idea." More delighted laughter from the audience. "Anyone here want to describe God?" From the front row comes the correct answer: "A loving master who doesn't eat meat!" Ching Hai chuckles. "Yes, something like that," she says."
"Ching Hai wraps up her talk well after midnight. She makes her last rounds through the audience, touching a head here, smiling beatifically there. A black man in African garb shrinks in his seat as she passes, his hands clasped together in worship, sobbing in great gasps, looking into the Master's face while tears stream down his."
"Ching Hai chortles as she passes him, and stops to poke her green umbrella at him, which he fondles gratefully."
"I have stayed only because I want to arrange for a private interview with the Master. When I find Millar, she says she will see about it--and within seconds, I find myself sitting in a chair face to face with the Supreme Master Ching Hai. Our knees are almost touching. Six hundred pairs of eyes are riveted to us, several men hold microphones less than an inch from my nose, and every video camera and flood light in the house bears down upon me and the Master."
"With sweat already soaking through my shirt, I begin asking questions. Ching Hai tells me her organization is "rather big," with "a lot of centers around the world--40 or 50 countries." (The number, if one assumes that every country listed in her book boasts not just a liaison but an entire center, is actually 37.)"
"My next question--about funding--is answered with much humility. Though she calmly explains that the sales of clothing and jewelry accounts for most of her money, she adds, "We don't really need that much.""
"She claims, as does Millar, that she and her followers sleep in plastic tents. "We don't have a temple. Use tents. Plastic cheap. $40, $50 and you have a temple of your own. We live very simple. We eat vegetarian.""
"Yet, one elderly woman I spoke with bragged that Ching Hai dwells in a beautiful house on top of a hill, and that she and other followers traveled there to camp out in tents around the house."
"Ching Hai talks briefly of her philanthropic work in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and here in the United States. "Where," I ask again, "does this money come from? Ching Hai shakes her head. "I don't know. God gives it to me." She laughs. Neither of us seem to take this answer seriously--but I write it down anyway."
1) sale of her goods (her own work);
2) donation requests for disaster situations.
Is any wrongful source or application of money implied?
"According to Millar, the Master's clothing and jewelry are "very expensive, but it's very high quality." In the same breath, Millar also tells me that when the Master wishes to donate money to charities, she establishes a bank account to which followers can contribute. God has certainly been kind to Ching Hai: in 1993, her Los Angeles branch alone took in $395,518."
"My last question to the Master concerns a woman who had earlier stood to proclaim to Ching Hai, "The world has waited thousands of years for you." I reminded Ching Hai of these words, and asked, "Do you think this is true?""
""It's true for her," Ching Hai replied."
""Do you consider yourself the Messiah?""
""Messiah not important," Ching Hai says, embarking upon a mini-monologue suggesting that being a messiah is a job like any other. I find it hard to concentrate on her words, and stop writing momentarily. "A messiah or a journalist," she says. "No difference.""
"The interview is done, and the Master and I shake hands. Long after she has retired to her room, groups of disciples hang around in the lobby to touch the arm of the journalist who shook hands with the Master. "You were so close, right next to her," a wide-eyed girl exclaims, stroking my shoulder."
"It occurs to me that I may now be seen on a videotape in the Ching Hai library: the American reporter conducting an interview with the Supreme Master. Our words may end up on a Web site, or in the Suma Ching Hai magazine, or condensed into an aphorism in a book. Against my will, I had become another prop in Ching Hai's magic show. Like the followers milling about me, I had stepped into the light and sound of the Master."
In the end, one of the tests for the validity of a spiritual path is "what effect does it have on the life and character of an individual on the path?" In this respect I must say that the question of Suma Ching Hai's mastership becomes less important, for, whatever the case may be, the effect on the lives of initiates that I know (and I include myself as well) is so positive and worthwhile as to be sufficient in itself. Even if Suma Ching Hai is not a master, her example and inspiration has meant so much for me in such a short time that I'm actually amazed at not being more amazed. This is the repeated comment I have heard from her followers, many of whom have followed other paths previously (with seemingly very powerful spiritual leaders), for many years, without any similar benefit.
"From the March 28- April 3, 1996 issue of Metro (San Jose Metro)"
I have up to now found arguments against Suma Ching Hai to be generally at least either emotional, non-factual or uninformed. (interestingly enough, the same types of arguments usually aired against vegetarianism, whereas the facts, if objectively and exhaustively researched, would reveal the truth of the matter).
I do not mind objective criticism (a respected Sant Mat master said that our critics are our best friends, for they show us where we can improve) but then it should be substantiated by facts.
I anyhow at least appreciate this as an opportunity to rectify some misconceptions that exist not only about Suma Ching Hai but also about the Surat Shabd Yoga spiritual path.
Pierre de Villiers
1. Article "Immaterial Girl from the March 28- April 3, 1996 issue of Metro (San Jose Metro)
2. Acknowledgements (and thanks) to David Lane for the use of terms such as The "Chandian Effect", for many ideas and general inspiration in being critical and objective. My apologies for where I appear to be subjective, but a following article will discuss all the issues in more depth.
3. Many references were made to the practice and philosophy of Surat Shabd Yoga as it is taught by the Sant Mat groups of the Dera Baba Jaimal Singh (Baba Jaimal Singh's) and of Sawan Singh Ashram (Kirpal Singh's). I apologise and take full responsibility for any errors in my comments and ask that I please be notified of any that may have occurred.
4. I also take full responsibility for the facts and views expressed in my comments - they have not been checked with the organisation and are entirely my own words, although within my understanding are factually correct and completely in agreement with the teachings of Suma Ching Hai and the views of the organisation. Any errors, again, are to be attributed to me and not to Suma Ching Hai or the Quan Yin Meditation Association.
(an aside: Suma Ching Hai actually cites Buddhist scriptures in support of her arguments, and recent research in Christian academic circles make the prospect of Christ being vegetarian a not unlikely possibility)
E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
I want to go back to the home base now.