The "Supreme Master Ching Hai" visited Ireland recently and gave a seminar entitled: "Immediate Enlightenment, Eternal Liberation". The event took place in the main hall of the Royal Dublin Society, venue for major sporting and cultural events. It was well publicized both through street posters and substantial ads in national newspapers, highlighting the news that "Heaven is here and now!" and inviting the Irish public to "see God while living". More than 1000 people turned up to hear and see the "Supreme Master", many of them conveyed to the hall in mini-buses chartered by the group, which had been cruising the streets of Dublin all afternoon offering free one-way transport. Ms. Ching Hai, a handsome Chinese-Vietnamese woman, appeared in evening dress on the flower-bedecked stage. She connected easily with her audience, even inviting those who were seatless to share her space and her cushions onstage. Her informality was in stark contrast to the dozens of mainly oriental-looking minders in business suits, who silently monitored the proceedings.
The content of Ching Hai’s address was part Buddhist, part Hindu, but given a New Age twist in, for example, her insistence that the term ‘Christ’ refers not to a person, but to a power that emanates from God and manifests the authority of God in exceptionally enlightened individuals. With a touch that seemed to owe something to Wordsworth’s poem Ode on the Intimations of Mortality, she explained that when we are born, we may remember past existences. As we grow, things crowd around, and we lose the vision of God which we had when we left heaven.
The relevant passage from this poem is:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Then, going far beyond Wordsworth, she reasoned that if God lives in here (pointing to her heart), logically one should be able to see him at any time – "we just have to know where to direct our attention. Seeing (the Light of God) is believing". Consequently, she declared: "I am offering proof of God’s existence". This proof however, is evident only to those who have been initiated into what she terms the "Quan Yin Method" of meditation.
"Quan Yin" is the name of a goddess, the most popular in China. Worshipped both by Buddhists and Taoists, Quan Yin is represented as a female figure with many arms to signify her generosity towards her devotees. She is particularly favoured by women who pray to her for the birth of a son. (See Kari Harbakk, "Kuan Yin Revisited" and "Goddess of a Thousand Eyes" in Areopagus [Hong Kong] II, 2 (Epiphany 1989), 35 - 37.)
However, the "Quan Yin Method" of meditation bears little relationship to the traditional simple prayers and offerings made to the goddess. While reluctant to explain the method to the uninitiated, Ching Hai did indicate in replies to questions from the audience that it involves turning our attention inwards to listen to God – something we have forgotten in the course of our busy lives. During meditation one will hear musical sounds, such as that of the bagpipe. Quan Yin meditation is practised with one’s attention focused on the ‘third eye’ centre, located in the middle of the forehead. This, she said, is the wisdom centre and the highest gateway for leaving one’s body. However, the technique should be learned properly and practised correctly. She warned of the danger of focusing on any chakras or centres of energy without proper guidance. That guidance is given during the process of initiation into the method. All present were invited to take initiation there and then. About 100 people took up the offer. Some underwent full initiation which involves a life-long commitment to a vegan diet and at least two hours meditation daily, as well as refraining from all alternative forms of meditation and other spiritual practices. Others received the "quick initiation" or "convenient method", requiring a half-hours meditation daily and abstinence from meat for ten days each month.
Ms. Ching Hai is portrayed as a talented and energetic woman - evident in the displays round the hall of paintings, jewelry, Chinese lanterns and fashion. All – we were told – were designed by herself and available for purchase. Also on sale were her videos, CDs, tapes and books. A magazine and a booklet of her talks were available for free. Proceeds of sales are used to fund charitable activities and disaster relief in various parts of the world. Ching Hai was brought up as a Catholic, but learnt the rudiments of Buddhism from her grandmother. However, in a brief autobiography she explains that her significant spiritual experience came about as a result of time spent in the Himalayas where she discovered "the Quan Yin Method and the Divine Transmission". ("A Brief Biography of the Supreme Master Ching Hai" in The Key of Immediate Enlightenment by the Supreme Master Ching Hai [Formosa, 27th edition, 1999], p.9.)
Nowhere in the movement’s literature is any mention made of how she came upon this enlightenment. An enquiry to one of her retinue as to who Ching Hai’s teacher was, yielded the vague reply: "Kutaji – he lives in a cave in the Himalayas – maybe has left his body now." Such reticence in regard to the identity of one’s initiating guru is quite unusual among Oriental religious teachers and begs the question as to the true origins of Ching Hai’s teaching. Some clues however, are to be found in the language that she uses in her writings and talks.
There are notable similarities between Ching Hai’s philosophy and that of the surat shabd or "sound and light" yogic tradition of Northern India. This tradition is represented at its best in the Radha Soami movements of Agra and Beas. Julian Johnson’s book, The Path of the Masters is the classical English language source for the philosophy and teachings of the Radha Soamis. The main features held in common both by the Radha Soamis and Ching Hai include: the requirement to practise long hours of meditation under the direction of the Master; focussing on the Master himself/herself as the object of meditation; the practice of meditation at the "third eye"; the idea of spiritual progression through ascending planes or levels of consciousness; the prediction that the meditator will see inner light and hear inner sounds, particularly musical sounds; the ability to leave the body at will during meditation and explore the astral world.
Former disciples of Ching Hai have alleged that disciples are taught to meditate with a blanket over their heads. This practice tends to induce hyper-ventilation which makes people more susceptible to mind-control. It has also been reported that disciples were strongly encouraged by Ching Hai herself to put together a six-figure donation towards U.S. President Clinton’s personal legal defence fund. (See Tom Fitton’s, "Brainwashed Clinton Donors" in Opinion Inc 08/05/97.)
And, as for the Dublin mission, several letters appeared subsquently in the "Irish Times" from some of those initiated. They complained that, though they attempted to practise the "Quan Yin Method", their efforts to see God ended in failure.
Ching Hai and Radhasoamis Compared
Apart from the various groups calling themselves "Radhasoamis" that have split off from the original movement based in Agra, there are a number of independent movements with their own names based on Radhasoami philosophy and spirituality. The most notable of these is the Ruhani Satsang established by Kirpal Singh, a disciple of Sawan Singh, former head of Radhasoami Beas. But apart from these, there are numerous movements using surat-shabd ideology and methods, which are shy about acknowledging the sources of their teaching.
The best known of these is Eckankar, established by Paul Twitchell, one-time disciple of Kirpal Singh. His movement consists mainly of plagiarized Radhasoami elements with a few added idiosyncratic twists. John-Roger Hinkins, a former disciple of Twitchell’s, in 1968 started his own movement M.S.I.A., which has plagiarized Eckankar! It has also suggested that the Divine Light Mission has a connection with the Radhasoami tradition. According to some accounts, the father of Guru Maharaj had been a follower of one or other branch of the Radhasoamis. (David Rife "Shabdism in North America", paper presented to the American Academy of Religion's Western Region Conference at Stanford University on March 26, 1982; downloaded from http://www.ex-premie.org/papers/shabd.htm. Rife quotes Mark Juergensmeyer’s "Radhasoami Reality" in support of this point. I am particularly indebted generally to this source in preparing this paper.)
Some of those who have not wished to acknowledge their indebtedness to the mainline Radhasoami tradition or to any other living tradition, have stated that they were enlightened or initiated by unidentified Masters at various undefined locations "in the Himalayas". An example of this was Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind, an initiate of Sawan Singh, who built his movement in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century. Another such example is, I believe, Ching Hai. However, at the moment it is not known to me where or from whom she received initiation.
Ching Hai’s teaching combines Radhasoami elements with bits and pieces from other religious traditions in a way that lacks coherence. For example, she speaks about the three bodies in Buddhism, which she terms respectively the ‘dharma body’, the ‘manifestation body’ and the ‘physical body’ and then she states: "Catholics speak of this as the Trinity." ("Trinity – spoken by Supreme Master Ching Hai, Chuongli, Formosa, February 25, 1989", published in The Supreme Master Ching Hai [News No. 105, September 1999], 9.)She is also heavily into New Age. Her speeches contain on occasion liberal dollops of astrology, ecology, alternative medicine and diet, use of ‘positive thinking’ and ‘positive energy’. Her movement also appears to be highly commercialized.