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Falun Gong: Ancient Wisdom or Mere Scientology?

first learned of the Falun Gong sect during the summer of 1999. I had been working for a magazine in Beijing, and the city’s ancient parks, places with names like “Temple of heaven park” were daily playing host to groups of practitioners standing in quiet circles moving to the music of the sect’s home grown new age music and their own inner chi.

Then the crackdown hit — the groups rising popularity disturbed the elders of the Mao Tse-tung hair club for men, especially in light of their own sagging esteem among their own 1.2 billion reluctant constituents,. Popular movements have always made despots nervous.

The history drenched parks of the capital now played stage to a new scene as Public Safety thugs, plain clothed and uniformed swarmed in en-masse, rounding up the usual suspects – defenseless Chinese people – checking ID cards and asking “Are you Falun Gong?” An affirmative answer won the speaker a free trip in the “people’s safety school bus.” Official Chinese media fell in line, demonizing the sect and praising the government’s swift bud-nipping. Thanks to the party’s resolution, the people of China were safe from the threat of stationary mobs of peaceful chi-gong practitioners.

So why, six months later, is the group are still alive in the face of ongoing brutality that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) usually reserves for Tibetan nuns? What sort of belief system could be powerful enough to keep it’s members going under such a heavy test of fire? Back from China for a few months, I decided to find out. Falun Gong is as popular with overseas Chinese as it is back in the home country, with the added bonus of not being considered a major felony anywhere outside of China. The group has an enviable web presence, giving it a wider demographical reach than the People’s Daily enjoys.

I did a search on the internet, and quickly linked up with some Chinese university students in my area. They invited me out to a meditation practice in a local park, where I practiced their brand of Chi Gong for about three quarters of an hour while listening to a tape of music and motion commands in Mandarin.

As I was leaving, one of the members offered to sell me an English translation of one of Master Li’s books for six bucks. I didn’t have any cash, so they gave it to me and told me to pay them next time. He invited me to come to a meeting in the evening during the week. “You must read the whole book before the meeting” he told me. Always the dutiful student, I took the book into a bar, and read about half of it over a few pints of hard cider. Only after the third pint did it even begin to make any sense to me.

China Falun Gong is a 175-page soft back with surprisingly few photos of actual chi gong practice. Most of the book is filled with transcripts of Li Hongzi’s wacky theories on subjects from the big bang (there were actually nine of them, according to Li) to demonic interference. This confused me, so I skipped to the fifth chapter, which was devoted to Q&A.

I generally understood the Q part, but the A’s often stumped me. The first set was

Q What is Falun composed of? 

AFalun is an intelligent entity composed of matter of high energy. It can transform matter into cultivation energy. It does not exist in our space.

And it just got weirder from there on in.

Q Can I let myself go to sleep when sitting cross legged? 

AHow can you sleep when in practice? Sleeping in practice is a kind of demonic interference. As for coma, this should not occur.

Official Chinese media has a knack for exaggeration, and as such their claims about the sect need to be taken with a big dose of skepticism. But baseless they aren’t: Falun Gong is serious, supernatural, and more than a little weird. The stories of ill practitioners refusing medical treatment that daily grace the People’s Daily seemed more plausible after reading selections from Li Hongzhi’s chapter “Treating Disease by Qigong and treating disease in hospitals,” where he writes of a hypothetical patient:

“The root cause of his disease is an evil spirit found in another space. … curing a disease in our Falun cultivation system aims to remove the evil spirit and pull out the root of the disease”

Master Li refers to illness throughout the text as being “a tribulation which the practitioner must pass through” and says that those who follow his way would never need to see a doctor again. Being uninsured, I found this an excellent selling point, and was looking forward to their meeting.

Having acquainted myself with Li Hongzhi’s Sino-Scientological mysticism, I was gearing myself up for an evening of exciting cult indoctrination at the meeting. Sadly this was not to be. The meeting was held in the apartment of a young couple from Mainland China. I showed up a few minutes early to find them listening to one of Master Li’s many tape recorded lectures. Enough of the terminology overshot my Mandarin ability by just enough to really confuse me, but the voice coming through the speaker didn’t sound that much more threatening than Anthony Robbins. The “study session” was a two hour reading session of Master Li’s “intermediate text,” partially in Chinese and partially in English. There was no stop for discussion or reflection, just straight rote method reading. It was duller than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Utah.

Where was the fire breathing, pulpit thumping anti government rhetoric I had read about in the People’s Daily? Where were the nubile young devotee chicks handpicked by the master to lure horny sheep into the fold? The Hare Krishna’s have beautiful (and celibate, but they only tell you that after you’ve joined) women, and they feed you before wearing down the ego through boredom. That’s the hallmark of a real cult — implied orgies and drugged food. Master Li has a bit of homework to do if he wants my soul. If Falun Gong is a cult, it’s a damned dull one.

Of course, Falun Gong does preach something that does seem to make the ruling party of this single party dictatorship a bit anxious, namely self-empowerment. The CCP tends to get a bit reactionary whenever it gets wind of any large-scale movements of independence, whether of the personal or political variety. Much has been said about practitioner’s claims of being able to heal disease through practice of Falun Gong. China once enjoyed a comparatively high level of the one thing that any self respecting People’s Democracy should have: Nearly free universal medical coverage. As China has moved towards a less socialized economy, such programs get privatized into oblivion, making a religion that offers health unlimited an attractive prospect. While the messenger may have a creative way of discussing the message, the exercises themselves seem to be based on solidly ancient chi gong principle.

So is Master Li a savior or a charlatan? Perhaps some from column “a” but more from column “b”. On that basis alone, Americans should deplore the CCP’s reactionary handling of Falun Gong. America generally holds religious charlatans in high esteem. If Li Hongzhi were an American religious leader with the same following, he’d be contributing enough to both parties to be assured of bi-yearly white house sleepover prayer sessions.

Another reason to shame the CCP into a policy change is that they just aren’t very sporting. Unable to go after the Shepard (Li Hongzhi has sensibly built his residence on Manhattan bedrock,) they have chosen instead to go after the sheep with automatic weaponry. It makes a regime look bad when they make the persecution of fringe kooks a national priority. We have no accurate way to gauge just how the average Chinese person feels about the tremendous amount of attention and resources being spent by their government to crush Falun Gong. Images of Clinton announcing nationwide martial law so that the national guard can wipe out the Society for Creative Anachronism comes to mind.

Regardless of Li Hongzhi’s true intentions, Falun Gong hasn’t yet been linked to any groovy sex and death orgies, the sort we have in our American cults. Punishing people who haven’t done anything wrong or expressed any sort of coherent political belief is bad publicity for any regime That the CCP is taking such a hard line against Falun Gong, despite the obviously bad public relations, is yet another indication that the powers-that-be are operating under some great fatalistic desperation, the sort of last gasp struggle for survival that tends to bring out only the ugliest lashings of primal survival instinct in people.

Perhaps the old men in Beijing are hearing the ghosts of another spiritual sect with somewhat peculiar self-improvement goals. The Boxers of China’s last turn of the century were decidedly militant, and one of the goals of their exercises was to render the body immune to bullets so that they could rid the land of corrupting influences. Shortly after they came around, the Ch’ing dynasty fell and fell hard. These subtle coincidences are not lost on the Chinese leaders of today.

But the main reason to shame the CCP is that they are totally uncool. Like a corrupt cop six months before retirement, they’ve stopped caring about maintaining a respectable fa’ade. Mass arrests, lengthy prison sentences and dubious suicides are the order of the day, world opinion be damned. The recipients of these delightful civil programs are regular people whose biggest crime is nerdiness.

The CCP might do well to take a page from the Roman’s strategy for dealing with popular cults. Why not? The old men in Beijing have never been hampered by either rationality or public opinion, and are no strangers to the art of rapid political about-face. Don’t be surprised to hear Jiang Zhemin announce a total conversion to Falun Gong, China’s official state religion, sometime in the summer of 2000.