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In 1986, Thomas Lin Yun founded his own religion.
Of course, in California, that's not particularly unusual. But Lin Yun has achieved an unusual degree of success.
Lin Yun's religion is Black Sect Tantric Buddhism -- a maverick American sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Its adherents regard Lin Yun as being on the same spiritual level as the Dalai Lama. In fact, some might place him even higher: Many of Lin Yun's followers have recently taken to calling him a Da Shi, or Living Buddha.
"I've seen a roomful of people prostrate themselves at his feet," confides one former Lin Yun disciple.
A chubby, shiny-faced little man with a bulbous nose, Lin Yun may be very spiritual indeed, but he's also renowned for his enjoyment of good food, fine wine, world travel, and the company of beautiful women. Actresses, models, pageant winners, Asian pop singers, and TV hostesses all flock around him. Another former disciple says that once, at a seminar, Lin Yun joked he was glad that in this life he hadn't been reincarnated as the pope -- because he gets to have a lot more fun this way. "Well, it is Tantric Buddhism," points out yet another disgruntled ex-student.
Black Sect Tantric Buddhism appears to have helped make Lin Yun lots of money -- enough that the church now owns several million-dollar-plus properties in the East Bay hills and recently purchased the 50-odd-room former W.R. Grace estate on Long Island to serve as its second temple. Even in California, though, a religion whose drift-net approach to theology incorporates everything from elements of Tibet's ancient Bon religion to modern color theory wouldn't appear to be anyone's ticket to this kind of lifestyle.
But Thomas Lin Yun is the man who brought feng shui to America.
The Yun Lin Temple, on a redwood-lined residential street in the lower Berkeley Hills, isn't open to the public. A visitor must petition for admission at the wrought-iron gate, tilting his or her head back to see the colonnaded entrance of the pale blue temple at the top of several steep flights of brick steps.
Inside, there's the smell of incense, the distant tinkling of wind chimes, and the dim gleam of gold from hundreds -- actually, thousands -- of Buddhas, thumb-sized to larger than life. Rows of Buddha clones lounge next to rotating stained-glass lamps, proffering gold bricks and grins or reclining on stylized lotus blossoms. Even the molding along the tops of the walls supports a line of hundreds of tiny identical Buddha statues.
"You are interested in ... the feng shui?" asks a temple volunteer, who explains that her name is "too complicated" to get into. "Professor is not only teaching the feng shui," she adds. (Everyone refers to Lin Yun simply as "Professor.") "He is mainly a philosopher."
Still, feng shui -- the Chinese rules of placement that are supposed to guarantee success to those who follow them -- is what has brought Lin Yun his fame, and the church its money.
The throng of Buddhas to the left of the entrance are denizens of the temple's shrine to the Buddha of Wealth, where a pair of illuminated, conical altars bearing multiple plastic windows, behind each of which is a tiny Buddha icon, are topped with wedding-cake-plastic pavilions housing still more Buddhas. Six-foot-high Buddhas with 21 heads lurk in the shadows. Huge, bloated, smiling Buddhas throne atop enormous tiered platforms, blessing plates of desiccated and slightly moldy oranges and a cellophane-wrapped box of Mauna Loa brand macadamia nuts left as offerings below.
To the right is the shrine of the Buddha of the Black Sect. More Buddhas crowd a red-draped table, busily blessing holy water. Others jostle each other on a tiered altar at the end of the room, presiding over burners thick with incense ash. Gold-embroidered tapestries depicting incidents from the life of the Buddha mingle with representations of the life of a manically beaming Lin Yun -- multiple photographs of his meetings with the Dalai Lama, the pope, and His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, supreme leader of Tibet's Bon religion. In most of the photographs, Lin Yun's fingers are curved into a sign called a mudra, which his followers consider a great blessing merely to view.
Why are there so many identical statues? "They can be ... acquired. For a donation," explains the temple volunteer.
Back rooms house two other shrines to avatars of the Buddha -- one to Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion, and one to Green Tara, a popular Indo-Tibetan goddess said to intercede on behalf of the oppressed.
Besides Buddhas, the main theme of the temple's decor is, of course, feng shui, Black Sect-style.
There are feng shui "cures" positioned all over the temple -- a smoked-mirror wall facing the entrance, red-tasseled bamboo flutes hung at angles over door frames, dusty plastic plants twined around ceiling beams and staircase balusters, and red cutouts of the Chinese characters for longevity and "double happiness" taped to walls and doors.
Conveniently, the Yun Lin Temple also has a gift shop, which offers, along with books and videos, a selection of cures. These include faceted crystal balls of various diameters ($20-110, depending on size), bamboo flutes ($75), bagua mirrors ($20 for a small round mirror inside a cheap plywood and cardboard frame decorated with the I-Ching trigrams), wind chimes ($20-40), 10 Chinese coins on a red string ($300), and a Five Buddha firecracker ($50).