Vegetarian or Movementarian?
January 31, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Looking for info on Loving Hut vegetarian restaurants. AKA, "Did my friend join a cult?"

My mother informed me a few days ago that the daughter of her friend, who has recently quit her athletics career and been floundering a bit, has "shaved her head and joined a cult" in Toronto.

This girl was in Africa for a while, presumably doing aid work, and was supposed to return home to Victoria. Instead, she went to Toronto and has been working for and living above this vegetarian restaurant, Loving Hut. She's shaved her head (which is not in itself too weird, I suppose) and spends hours meditating. She is still in contact with her family, but they get the sense she's not telling them the whole story.

From my googling, I have learned it is some sort of international chain, with a serious promotion of vegetarian & vegan rhetoric. The leader, a Chinese divorcee named Supreme Master Ching Hai, is making millions selling flamboyant jewellery, fashion (think Ghaddafi's robes but for ladies), and books to her legions of rabid followers. Or so it seems. There are rumours of her having magical powers and her followers drinking her bathwater to achieve enlightenment. There is definitely religious overtones to her campaign, though on the surface it's mostly about how eating vegetarian will save the planet (which I totally agree with).

I'm having a hard time finding information on the actual experience of those followers. The beliefs seem positive and benign, but an organization led by such a flamboyant personality with such devoted followers, who are pouring money into her enterprise while living in presumed squalor and doing a ton of possibly unpaid labour sounds a lot like a cult to me. Has anyone heard of this phenomenon or have a little more first-hand information for me?
posted by custard heart to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Did you see this thread?
posted by headnsouth at 2:42 PM on January 31, 2012

I think these also go by "Green Earth" in Canada. Your Askme reminded me of a restaurant in Ottawa I once went to so I googled it and found something interesting among the reviews...if you go to the page with all the reviews, the 6th one down is intriguing..
posted by costanza at 4:48 PM on January 31, 2012

I don't have direct experience, but it looks like she uses pseudonyms and engages in illegal construction in national parks.

I used to go to one of the restaurants once a week or so, when my office was nearby. The food is delicious and cheap, but the constantly-playing videos scream CRAZY SCAM LADY!
posted by b1tr0t at 4:59 PM on January 31, 2012

Go to the library's book sale store. There's a little corner of the store pretty much devoted to selling unwanted donated Supreme Master books. Flip through one; you won't get more than five pages without your brain screaming "CULT! CULT!".

It is what you think it is.
posted by scruss at 5:06 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

...with a serious promotion of vegetarian & vegan rhetoric.

Honest question: what does that mean?

Also this sounds a lot like what the Hare Krishnas do. Have you skimmed the Bhagavad Gītā? It's completely mental. That said, vegetarianism is a very good way to save the world, though obviously the Supreme Master is just a knob taking advantage of people who are trying to do the right thing. So, yeah, it's culty and weird but only as culty and weird as some kind of productivity philosophy like Get Things Done.

While perhaps not dangerous, it's certainly a gross misdirection of this girl's energy and apparent good heart. She is certainly being taken advantage of, but, really, we all are.

Apparently the Quan Yin Method (which Ching Hai came up with) is founded on the following five precepts:

- Refrain from taking the life of sentient beings.
- Refrain from speaking what is not true.
- Refrain from taking what is not offered.
- Refrain from sexual misconduct.
- Refrain from the use of intoxicants.

The first three are solid moral policies regardless of where you're coming from, whereas the last two are either meaningless or extremely compelling depending on your perspective. Certainly much more meaningful and useful than the Christian Ten Commandments.

If she wants to take some time with other people of the same mindset to get to grips with those things, then certainly she can't be begrudged her choice to spend a part of her life in this manner, but the likelihood of permanent culty craziness does seem potentially quite high.

Resources thus:

Their crazy website.
Phoenix Times article.
Some other big article I didn't read.
Cult Help page.

Disclaimer: I find stuff like this hilarious, but I can be smug because I'm an ex-Catholic.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:14 PM on January 31, 2012

Ching Hai has definitely attracted concern that it is exploitative of its followers. Here's a roundup of articles.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:38 PM on January 31, 2012

I have no idea about this lady or the restaurant but the precepts mentioned above are straight up Buddhism and Quan Yin is the goddess of compassion. If you consider Buddhism a cult well I don't know what to tell you, but she didn't invent that part.
posted by desjardins at 5:53 PM on January 31, 2012

it's not what she preaches that weirds me out, it's what the place seems to practice. So far all I know is that besides cooking up some mean TVP, my family friend has been separated from her family and friends and is likely being paid too little to leave if she so desired.

Thanks everybody, this has been very interesting. I had no idea two places could operate out of Toronto without anyone noticing!
posted by custard heart at 5:59 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is fascinating: yes, I stumbled on the Loving Hut on Richmond when I was running around downtown and had no time to go anywhere else. Yes, it was creepy and set off my weirdness bells, but by the time I'd sat down it seemed rude to leave. Very friendly and solicitous waitress.

She probably doesn't want to leave. But that doesn't mean she shouldn't.
posted by jrochest at 8:39 PM on January 31, 2012

I have no idea about this lady or the restaurant but the precepts mentioned above are straight up Buddhism and Quan Yin is the goddess of compassion. If you consider Buddhism a cult well I don't know what to tell you, but she didn't invent that part.
Seconding that those precepts are basic Buddhism, but Loving Hut / Chang Hai is, at the very least, the televangelist variety of Buddhism. The woman is a megalomaniac, wrapping herself in the robes of a Buddhist holy woman. The problem here isn't the Buddhism, the vegetarianism, or the veganism.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seriously, custard heart, you should be concerned about your friend. Not because of the specific doctrines of Ching Hai, but because of the well-documented ways the group exploits its followers.

I don't know what you can do for your friend other than be there for her, but pretending this is just a different spiritual path rather than an exploitative organization isn't going to help.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:53 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been to a Loving Hut in Atlanta, and it set off my personal cult alarms too. There were signs up saying the employees were volunteers, which considering the price of their food seemed very strange.
posted by JHarris at 6:10 PM on February 1, 2012

(Thinking about it, it might not have been signs but a friend of mine who claimed they were volunteers. Let's get this as accurate as I can make it.)
posted by JHarris at 6:11 PM on February 1, 2012

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