Today’s guest post is by Dan Q. Tham. Dan is a Medill sophomore who identifies as Theravada. His post explores religion as identity and the possibility of projecting too much faith on charismatic leaders.

Somewhere in the endless conurbation of Southern California, my family sat down to a meatless meal. At this time, we had been vegetarian for about a year and, at the recommendation of my mom’s friend—a heavily made-up banshee named Co Hoa whose mischievous grandson Alex was always in tow—my mother, with her unflagging gusto for cruelty-free, had us eat at the Loving Hut. The campy name and the altar with lit incense at the door were the innocent hallmarks of a Buddhist food establishment. But I was to find out, much to my chagrin and at a time I hope against hope is not too late, that there is something sinister underpinning the rubbery fake meat, the ostentatious emphasis on Buddhism, and the caricaturized cows and chickens on the posters in the Loving Hut restaurant, word bubbles coming out of their smiling mouths saying things like “We Pray For Your Souls.”

All my life, I’ve been raised Buddhist. I never really knew what it meant. I still don’t, to a certain extent. For us, a family of Vietnamese immigrants, Buddhism was cultural. Buddhism was a tether, holding and sustaining us, connecting us with que huong, the motherland. Despite attending Catholic school for elementary school and growing up in a predominantly Mormon valley, I hung onto Buddhism, obstinately, because it made us unique in our suburban cookie cutter house. The incense sticks we solemnly stuck into our front lawn were our homage to our ancestors as well as a warning to wandering Mormon missionaries that implicitly said: not interested.

My mother was the force that championed Buddhism as a religion: worshipping a giant statue of Buddha at the local temple (a categorically un-Buddhist practice in my opinion) and muttering intonations at the family altar. My father was much more interested in Buddhism as a philosophy: acceptance that all of life is suffering and temporal, that nothing is permanent. Rather doom-and-gloom, but true nonetheless.

While my dad practiced daily meditation before dawn, sometimes in the form of Tai Chi on our driveway, no doubt scaring the neighbors, my mother went from spiritual practice to spiritual practice. First it was Feng Shui and she made us shift all of our beds to face more auspicious directions. Next it was a brand of Zen Buddhism, wherein she would practice an austere meditative routine. When that got boring, she ventured into a less static yogic practice. Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, an audience with the Dalai Lama, a pilgrimage to India and Nepal. My mother figured it would all connect somehow and create meaning in her life. My brother and I, boys after our father’s heart, knew these were just phases.

Now my mom is in a phase I’m afraid she won’t leave.

I asked her, “Mom, if you met Supreme Master Ching Hai, what would you say to her?”

“I love you,” my mom said without hesitation.

This Supreme Master Ching Hai is the overlord of the Loving Hut brand. She preaches a militant, elite brand of veganism, arguing that her followers are saving the world. She was born in northern Vietnam, trained as a Buddhist nun in Taiwan, and, for some unaccountable reason, she eventually shed the draconian garb, appearance and lifestyle. She grew out her hair (which she dyed a Lady Gaga yellow-blonde) and formed an empire of 20,000 (mostly Vietnamese immigrants), a cult, my dad thinks, based on a meditation method she “developed” called Quan Yin. It involves a strictly meatless diet and generous donations from her supporters. She has a luxurious mansion in Nice, Italy. She sells her paintings and jewelry for obscene amounts. She is alleged to have sold her own bathwater. One lucky Supreme Master Ching Hai follower got to drink it. She has my mom’s loyalty. And my utter disdain.

I don’t have much experience with cults, but I’m afraid I will get some if my mom keeps following this. Ching Hai claims to fuse Christianity with Buddhism with her own personal dogma of immediate enlightenment. “Say my name and you will be immediately enlightened” is more or less her platform.

I wonder what the line is between a religion and a cult. The discovery of my mom’s profound interest in the Supreme Master has led me to question why I am vegetarian, why I am Buddhist, and why my mom cried when my dad and I tried to have a discussion about her newfound beliefs. Unless it’s the tears that are concomitant with a departure for college or new places or a loss in the family, I never want to see my mom cry.

Sometimes I can understand where my mom is coming from. Everyone wants meaning in his or her life. Even atheists and agnostics. I don’t think religion is the only way that you can get that. But it’s a convenient and often rewarding way. With Buddhism being as amorphous as it is, in the sense that it is not so regimented or 100% ritual-based (so much of it requires one to reflect on oneself, a trying and tiring task), I can understand the appeal of a woman with a similar Vietnamese background now living a lavish lifestyle saying to you that you can achieve enlightenment right now by eating at my restaurant chain, buying my crafts, and hanging up a giant portrait of me in your home (a step my mother has thankfully not taken, yet).

I’m reminded of the old Catholic indulgences by all of this: buying your way out of purgatory, buying immediate enlightenment. We all want things to be easy, fast, and painless, especially our faith. But is drinking a cult leader’s bathwater really the price to pay? In some ways, I’m just like my mom and I could never be like my dad, utterly content with the teachings of Buddha. Like my mom did before she found Supreme Master Ching Hai, I’m still exploring different spiritual practices and it is that exploration that will give me greater appreciation of my own spiritual upbringing. I want my mom to start exploring again.