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Clinton's Buddhist Martha Stewart

Ching Hai

She's a merchandising mystic from Taiwan--and sees nothing wrong with giving Clinton a handout

By Howard Chua-Eoan

(TIME, January 20) -- To bring Suma Ching Hai into focus, imagine Martha Stewart as the Dalai Lama. The Supreme Master, 46, is an elegant hostess--and clever merchandiser. At a vegetarian dinner with a TIME correspondent last week in Alhambra, California, she wore a bright yellow dress that she designed herself--embroidered with the Supreme Master monogram (SM) and available to followers by catalog. When she gestured with her hands, she flashed gold and diamond rings with the SM design, part of her Celestial Jewelry collection--available by catalog as well. (Also for sale: Celestial purses, hats, gold dinnerware, chopsticks, inspirational videos, floor lamps.) A petite woman with long, dark brown hair that cascades past her shoulders, the Supreme Master is passionate, earthy (she says she needs a husband) and more fun than the average saint. "Of course I'm divine," she says, laughing. "But so are you."

At the moment, Suma Ching Hai is more than divine: she is controversial. Late last year, officials of Bill Clinton's legal-defense fund rather shamefacedly disclosed that they had returned a donation of more than $600,000 from the followers of the Taiwan-based mystic, adding to the President's "Asian money" scandal. Nevertheless, the Supreme Master remains a fervent Clintonite. "The poor man," she says, erupting in his defense. "You must respect his office. How can he solve America's problems if he is distracted? He's in debt. He's a suspect. This is terrible." She knows what it feels like to be investigated: the Taiwan government is looking into alleged "fund-raising improprieties" by her sect, including the transfer of $2 million out of the country.

Scandal-plagued politicians are not the only objects of Suma Ching Hai's charity. Whenever there is a natural disaster, she is there--with money. She says she has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to victims of the 1993 Mississippi River floods and to survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. "Before we enter the spiritual world, we are in the mundane world," she says. "If the Buddha isn't a helpful Buddha, he is a boring Buddha. He is a useless Buddha."

The core of Suma Ching Hai's teachings is what she calls Quan Yin meditation. It involves no chanting, no mantras, but a "contemplation of the inner sound stream," as her disciple and U.S. spokesperson Pamela Millar describes it. The Supreme Master's lectures are laced with Taoist, Buddhist and Christian references (she likes the Bible verse "In the beginning was the Word...and the Word was God.") She denies she is an incarnation of the Chinese goddess of mercy. Still, her publications and Website always capitalize pronouns that refer to her. Suma Ching Hai simply says she is enlightened and that "there are certain things that I know."

Raised a devout Roman Catholic in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, she left home at 22 to study in England, eventually becoming an interpreter for the Red Cross. At 30, she met and married a German doctor but left him, amicably she says, to become a Buddhist nun and pursue enlightenment in India. Her recognition as a spiritual leader came rather suddenly in 1982 when she tried to buy a copy of the Hindu sacred work the Bhagavad-Gita that she says she saw in a shop along the Ganges. The shopkeepers said there were none in stock; she insisted she had seen it. Then they discovered the book in a sealed box and began hailing her for the keenness of her third eye. She fled the sudden acclaim but eventually came to terms with her status. She claims her disciples number "maybe a million, maybe more."

In Taiwan she reportedly has 300,000 followers. However, when the government closed down her headquarters (it had been constructed without a license), the sect produced a membership list of only 804 names. That belies the 6,000 who appeared in Taiwan on Ching Hai Day in October 1995. At that ceremony, she wore queenly robes ("under orders from God," she says), riding a sedan chair carried by eight bearers to the cheers of "your royal majesty." Those followers are keeping faithfully silent as investigators go through the sect's records. One admitted, though, that "believers are not allowed to speak to outsiders without permission from above."

Other religious leaders in Taiwan are barely polite. The secretary-general of the Taoist Association says he has information that she has bought up vast tracts of land in Cambodia. Master Chinhsing, a Buddhist monk of Vietnamese origin who may have been Ching Hai's mentor, disapproves of her departure from the austere ways of Buddhist tradition. He has reportedly warned her never to identify herself as his former student.

The Supreme Master has been away from Taiwan for a while, traveling among disciples around the world. From that global perspective, the hubbub about the Clinton donation is rather pesky. "The Clinton money is nothing," she complains. "It's only $600,000, for God's sake!" Indeed, she says, "I'd forgotten all about it" until the press reported that the amount had been returned. And why shouldn't she help Clinton? "If I help a man who has some stress because of a flood, why would I not help a President who is stressed?" Says she: "If the American people would allow me, I would give him $2 million right now." Even so, Clinton couldn't touch it.

--Reported by Donald Shapiro/Taipei and James Willwerth/Alhambra


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