In the Money Corner

How a Berkeley-based religious sect sold feng shui to the country

Such artifacts highlight one of the main differences between classical feng shui and Black Sect (or, as it's commonly called, Black Hat) feng shui. "Black Hat practitioners ask you to buy all this stuff," says Cate Bramble, a classically trained feng shui practitioner in Los Angeles and one of Lin Yun's most vocal critics.

Bramble, who likes to refer to Black Hat feng shui as "McFeng Shui," says, "I've been in people's houses who've had a Black Hat reading. They have so many crystals and mirrors it looks like a disco."

A consultation with a Black Hat practitioner generally costs about $100 in California -- more if it's a particularly large house, but still only a third what the average classical feng shui consultant charges.

It's not necessarily a bargain, though: Bramble says one former Black Hat told her he could easily make up the difference in feng shui merchandise sold out of the trunk of his car.

The practice of feng shui -- or geomancy -- has been around for several thousand years. It's founded in the idea that vital energy, or ch'i, flows through everything. Physicians in ancient China based acupuncture and other forms of traditional Chinese medicine on this principle, while tai ch'i, now a popular meditative discipline, takes its name from the same concept.

For the ancient Chinese, geomancy wasn't a trend or a do-it-yourself proposition, but a crucial discipline that required years of apprenticeship and study to master. "He who controls nature governs the Earth" was a maxim that the first Ming emperor, Chu Yuan-Chang, took seriously: After he came to power in 1368, he had all feng shui masters put to death as part of a political purge. He followed up by ordering fake feng shui books to be written and distributed throughout the kingdom, thus ensuring that he'd be the only person with a direct line to the power of geomancy.

He apparently forgot to let the third Ming emperor in on the secret, though, and legend has it that this unfortunate man based the original construction of the Forbidden City in Peking on the "false" feng shui information. Soon after his palaces were completed in 1441 they burned to the ground.

Even in this century, feng shui is politically charged enough that it has been officially suppressed in the People's Republic of China since 1949, on the grounds that it emphasizes class distinctions.

Traditional feng shui masters -- or geomancers -- consider external factors around a building first. The tenets of this "form school," the most ancient part of feng shui, developed from the concerns of an agrarian society whose people needed, for example, to have enough water to irrigate crops but to avoid floods -- or to secure good air circulation but not be subjected to devastating windstorms. Such natural phenomena were felt to be manifestations of ch'i itself, which is reflected in the literal translation of the term feng shui -- "wind, water."

Later geomancers began using a specially designed compass called a Lo Pan (or Luo Pan) to take readings, usually of the direction a building's main door faced. There are 24 directions on the Lo Pan, and once the geomancer has obtained a reading he or she checks the year in which the building was constructed to calculate an astrological chart for the structure.

This chart is divided into nine "palaces," each of which contains a combination of stars. Some stars are malign, while others are auspicious. Compass school practitioners also claim that by analyzing the placement of star combinations they can predict events as specific as a child breaking a leg, a house fire, or a good business partnership.

Other traditional systems of feng shui analysis include the Nine Star Ki method -- currently trendy in Britain -- and the Pa Kua Lo Shu formula, both of which focus on the interaction between the element (water, wood, fire, earth, or metal) ruling the front door of a building and the elements ruling the birth dates of its occupants. Each of these systems produces a different reading (see accompanying chart on Page 14), however, so the particularly credulous or those with plenty of disposable income may find themselves doing a lot of redecorating.

All that, though, was before Lin Yun revolutionized feng shui. "We replaced the old with a brand-new school of feng shui by using modern knowledge, techniques, and theories," he explains. Black Hat-style feng shui doesn't require you to use a compass, or to know the date a building was completed, or to worry about its occupants' birth dates.

All you need is Lin Yun's Bagua Map.
A one-size-fits-all proposition, the Bagua Map is the marketing genius at the heart of Black Hat feng shui. It's supposed to reveal which areas of a person's life need help -- or "enhancements" -- based on how his or her living space is shaped, its decor, and where clutter appears.

The octagonal map looks ancient, mysterious, and impressive, but in fact was invented by Lin Yun about a decade ago, enraging many classical feng shui practitioners. "It's just a stop sign with a bunch of ideas written on its edges," scoffs L.A. consultant Bramble. "It's been sold as feng shui to us dumb old Americans who'll buy anything that sounds reasonably exotic."

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