In the Money Corner

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

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).

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."

The literal meanings of the trigrams, or characters, around the edges of the Later Heaven Pa Kua (on which the Black Hat Bagua Map is based) are hum (water), ken (mountain), chen (thunder), sun (wind), li (fire), k'un (earth), tui (lake), and ch'ien (heaven).

On Lin Yun's Bagua Map these characters also symbolize (in the same order) career, self-knowledge, family, wealth, fame, marriage, creativity, and helpful people. And, breaking further with traditional feng shui systems, Black Hat discards the idea that actual compass directions are relevant: The side of the Bagua Map that contains the helpful people, career, and self-knowledge life stations is always aligned with the front door.

By superimposing the Bagua Map on a floor plan of a person's house, the Black Hat practitioner claims to be able to ascertain what areas of that person's life need attention. Someone living in an L-shaped apartment, for instance, may be missing the marriage corner on the Bagua Map, and thus be doomed to unsavory one-night stands. Clutter by the front door may indicate career trouble. Or, if the bathroom is in what's designated as the money corner of a house, the owner's money may be literally going down the drain.

Black Hat fixes for such conditions most commonly involve crystals and mirrors, both of which are scorned by many traditional feng shui practitioners. Cures may also include symbolic, New Agey redecoration recommendations.

In one Lin Yun feng shui video, for example, a woman is advised that she must move her exercise bike out of the marriage corner of her bedroom. "You're saying that your relationship is a workout!" the practitioner, Deborah Gee, exclaims merrily.

Though Lin Yun became feng shui's point man in the United States almost overnight, according to his official biography he was always destined for success.

Born in Taiwan, he moved with his family to Beijing as a child. When he was 6 years old, he was playing with friends on the grounds of a lamasery when one of the lamas approached them. The other boys ran away, but Lin Yun stayed and was invited to study under Learned Monk Ta-Teh, who immediately discerned that his young pupil had a spiritual calling.

In 1977, while teaching Chinese to private students in Hong Kong and practicing feng shui on the side, Lin Yun began instructing a young American journalist named Sarah Rossbach in Mandarin. Rossbach became interested in feng shui after accompanying Lin Yun on some of his consulting rounds, and her 1983 book Feng Shui: The Chinese Art of Placement introduced the subject to a Western audience.

But it is Rossbach's 1986 follow-up, Interior Design With Feng Shui, that is credited with beginning the feng shui craze in the U.S.

Lin Yun himself wrote the book's introduction. But more significantly, Interior Design With Feng Shui was the first volume to introduce his now-ubiquitous Bagua Map, along with a slew of suggestions for enhancing various areas of one's life by hanging, say, crystals and wind chimes in the areas of one's dwelling that correspond to the map's life stations.

Want a raise, a new lover, more energy, better grades in that night-school course, more friends? In short, want it all and want it now? Move your furniture around -- and buy some mirrors.

Needless to say, the book sold well.
The same year it came out, Lin Yun moved to the U.S., purchased his future temple property in Berkeley, and incorporated Black Sect Tantric Buddhism as a charitable organization in the state of California.

His workshops on feng shui were instantly popular, and publishing companies, eager to capitalize on the trend, were quick to hand book contracts to Lin Yun graduates. "People were taking a half-hour seminar, then hanging out a shingle [as a feng shui consultant], then writing a book," hyperbolizes one ex-disciple.

(According to Ray Langley, a former Lin Yun student who's now a classical feng shui practitioner in Sacramento, the Black Sect certifies students as masters after a six-day course, which cost $900 when he took it several years ago.)

By 1987 business was apparently so good that, along with the CEO of the temple -- an attractive young woman named Crystal Chu -- Lin Yun was able to purchase a mansion high above Claremont Canyon. The charming 1920s-vintage home was nestled back into the hillside and featured a beautiful reflecting pool.

Sadly, however, all the feng shui expertise at Lin Yun's disposal couldn't prevent the house from burning to its foundations in the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire.

"Actually, it was really strange," comments one neighbor. "The fire got to that side of the street and just stopped. This house and all these other ones were fine."

But at least the property's wealth corner wasn't affected by the fire: The bare lot recently sold for close to its asking price of $350,000 after just over a month on the market.

In 1992, Chu bought her own home less than a mile away on an exclusive Claremont cul-de-sac. Currently assessed by the county at just over $1 million, the large gray-green house is undergoing a complete kitchen remodel, presumably in accordance with Black Hat feng shui principles, which place the kitchen in Chu's marriage corner.

And the fire certainly didn't harm Lin Yun's credibility. He travels constantly to speaking engagements all over the world. He won't even be back in the Bay Area until October, according to temple staff.

Closer to home base, Lin Yun has consulted on projects like siting a park in Chinatown and a casino in Colma. He was also invited to bless the city of Santa Cruz and offer feng shui recommendations for the town -- one of which was to install spotlights at all four corners of the city's boundaries, aimed back toward the city center.

Lin Yun's church has acquired a second large Berkeley house -- again, worth more than a million dollars -- to serve as the Lin Yun University campus and promote Black Sect Tantric Buddhism. The church also bought an estate that once belonged to industrialist W.R. Grace on Long Island in New York -- a 50-plus-room house with a swimming pool, an indoor tennis court, a banquet hall that seats over 300 people, and well over an acre of landscaped grounds -- to serve as its East Coast temple.

Black Sect Tantric Buddhism is obviously doing well financially, though its income cannot be determined by outsiders because religions, unlike other nonprofit corporations, are not required to file tax returns.

But the lama of another Tibetan Buddhist sect with a temple in Berkeley is nonplussed. "I guess it just goes to show you can call yourselves whatever you want to," sighs Lama Pema Konchog Ghedun Zangpo, of the Ratna Shri Tibetan Buddhist Center. "They don't fit into the Tibetan tradition anywhere that I'm aware of." (There are four official branches of Tibetan Buddhism.)

In fact, Lama Pema has had no contact with the group. "They're pretty secretive," he says.

Repeated attempts to interview either Lin Yun or Crystal Chu met with failure. (Lin Yun won't return to the Bay Area until October, and an apparently perturbed Chu could never be reached at a time convenient for her to talk.) The temple's newsletter, however, boosts Lin Yun's reputation as a spiritual leader of stature, recording his travel itineraries (Taipei, Penang, Sydney, Munich, New York, Hong Kong, Bangkok, back to Taipei, and so on) in exhaustive detail, providing transcripts of his speeches, and printing photo after photo of the great man himself in the company of presidents of European universities, directors of Chinese missile factories, and such dazzling luminaries as Jean-Claude Van Damme.

"Just to see Professor Lin Yun again after so long a wait was like having one's thirst quenched after a very long, dry hot spell," burbles disciple Jenna Jackson in one issue.

An emphasis on total belief and devotion spills over into the Black Sect's feng shui. While Bramble claims, "Feng shui doesn't require that you believe in it. It's like gravity," the Black Sect stresses intention in its cures. Thus, even if you place a cure incorrectly, as long as you believe it will work, it will. "Which leads me to ask why you even need to call it feng shui in the first place," says Bramble. "Why not just call it magic?"

Of course, that's a question you could ask about feng shui in general. But Black Hat feng shui does have a central "transcendental" component, which consists of elaborate guided meditations, mudras (physical gestures meant to reinforce intention), chanting, and spells. For instance, someone hoping to win a lawsuit might be told to perform a ritual Cure for Litigation, which would require that he or she combine a teaspoon of Borneo camphor crystals with nine pieces of ice in a bowl of water and use the resulting mixture to clean the top of his or her stove for 15 minutes every day for nine days.

Then there's all the bad stuff that can happen if you don't follow Lin Yun's rules. The temple gift shop, for instance, sells a set of three Lin Yun videos for $300. But don't think you can split the cost with an interested friend or two; the spine of each tape displays a series of stiff warnings, each typed on a separate white mailing label.

Label 1: "MAKING COPIES OR LOANING TO OTHERS CAN PROVOKE UNLIMITED CALAMITIES."

Label 2: "DIVULGING HEAVEN'S SECRETS IS DONE AT YOUR OWN RISK."
Label 3: "MAINTAINING THE SECRECY OF TRANSCENDENTAL CURES IS BENEFICIAL TO OTHERS AND TO YOURSELF."

Label 4: "FAILURE TO MAINTAIN SUCH SECRECY CAN HARM OTHERS AS WELL AS YOURSELF."

Theological quibbles aside, Black Hat-style feng shui reigns unchallenged in North America. Visit a bookstore: Of the over 100 different feng shui titles currently in print, most are Black Hat-based.

"At least 90 percent of them," estimates Ray Langley.
"Ninety-five percent," says Bramble.
A new magazine, Feng Shui for Modern Living: Secrets of Health, Wealth, and Happiness, began publishing last autumn, offering articles like "Inspired Gardening: Water for Wealth," and "Career Success: 10 Top Tactics With Feng Shui." Clearly, the trend hasn't even begun to peak.

The self-help aspect of Black Hat feng shui is certainly responsible for much of its appeal. Popular titles include Feng Shui: Arranging Your Home to Change Your Life; Designing Your Happiness by Lin Yun disciple Nancilee Wydra; and Kirsten Lagatree's Feng Shui at Work: Arranging Your Work Space to Achieve Peak Performance and Maximum Profit.

Black Hat methods also seem to combine well with vaguer, more New Age interpretations of the tradition. The current feng shui best seller is Karen Kingston's Creating Sacred Space With Feng Shui, which unites the purportedly Balinese art of "space clearing" with use of Lin Yun's Bagua Map. Forthcoming books include The Feng Shui Cookbook, Celtic Feng Shui, and -- inevitably -- Feng Shui Astrology for Lovers.

Book sales alone would qualify Black Hat feng shui as a cultural phenomenon. Then there are the various accessories required to implement its "cures." The most complete source of these in North America is the Feng Shui Warehouse in San Diego, run by two men with close affiliations to the Black Sect, James Moser and Seann Xenja. Not that anyone needs to shop there, necessarily -- you can pick up a bagua mirror or a faceted crystal pendant in almost any New Age shop these days.

In general, classical feng shui masters seem to take the attitude that if moving some furniture around and hanging a crystal in the window makes people happy, there's no harm in it. And even his avowed enemies have to admit Lin Yun has done more to popularize feng shui than anyone else.

"I think for now it's OK because the flakier people kind of get siphoned off from the ones who really want to study it seriously," says one former disciple. "I couldn't say Lin Yun is motivated in any kind of negative way. I think the people who follow him genuinely get something out of it."

Black Sect Tantric Buddhist feng shui, she adds, very definitely emphasizes material gain. "As far as that religion goes, one of the things they're very open about is that there's nothing about being spiritual that precludes prosperity. And that's the way their feng shui is supposed to work too. For them, everything is to get money. I had problems with that because it's not what my life is about. But you know, it works for them."

And it's worked for Lin Yun, right?
"My God, he's the American Dream!" exclaims Cate Bramble.

I had been researching this story for several weeks when Bramble called to tell me a former Black Sect disciple was worried about my safety. On the phone, the ex-disciple nervously requested anonymity on the grounds that Lin Yun might otherwise put a curse on her. "I have to say I do think he knows some magic," she said, a little apologetically. "They have ways of knowing things. He's a pretty powerful guy and I wouldn't want to go toe to toe with him."

Should I be worried? "I don't know ...," she answered, hesitating.
The whole thing seemed just a little far-fetched to me. Or did, until I inexplicably broke out in weeping sores all over my right leg and developed a fever of 101.

Spooked, I considered performing some sort of tantric exorcism, or at least hanging a crystal in my health corner.

It was only after appointments with a succession of mystified doctors that I realized what must have happened: Climbing around the ruins of Lin Yun's burned-out Oakland Hills home, I'd gotten a severe case of poison oak.

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