c. 1999 Religion News Service
NEWARK, N.J. _ In a courtyard between twin downtown high-rise apartment buildings, two dozen Chinese immigrants sit in a deep meditative trance, rising periodically to stretch and relax. The ritual seems harmless enough here, but the same exercises are causing alarm in China.
Practitioners of a fast-growing spiritual movement called Falun Dafa, the group is one of a dozen meeting in New Jersey. No one knows for sure how many practitioners there are worldwide _ followers say 100 million _ but evidence of the popularity of Falun Dafa (also known as Falun Gong) emerged last month in China.
In the largest public demonstration since democracy sit-downs in Tiananmen Square a decade ago, 10,000 followers silently surrounded the offices of communist leaders on April 25 and spent a day meditating and conducting their exercises. The purpose was to seek legal recognition from the government and to protest recent condemnations in government-controlled media.
Practitioners here, who said they are concerned for their brothers and sisters in China, also voiced displeasure with coverage in Western media. Some articles and TV pieces referred to the movement as a cult.
“We practice freely, and people come and go freely,” said Keran Feng of Newark, who is studying for a doctorate in marketing at Rutgers University. “There is no membership. There is no church. There are no religious forms. The word cult is a word we do not like. It hurts the feelings of our practitioners.”
Gail Rachlin, a New York marketing executive who has practiced Falun Dafa _ Mandarin Chinese for “Law Wheel Great Law” _ for more than a year, put it more simply. “Would you call tai chi or yoga a cult?” she asked. “Would you call aerobics a cult? Why would you call this a cult?”
Falun Dafa is the creation of Master Li Hongzhi (pronounced Hongshee), a 47-year-old student of Buddhism, Taoism and another ancient Chinese system of meditation and martial arts exercises called qigong (pronounced cheegong).
Hongzhi moved to New York last year under growing pressure from the Chinese government, which has kept close tabs on emerging religions as it makes the transition to a free-market economy.
Hongzhi lives off the royalties from his bright blue books that are the bible of his followers. The most popular, “Zhuan Falun,” literally “Rotate the Law Wheel,” was published in 1996. It can be obtained free on the Internet but has reportedly sold millions of copies worldwide.
In the book, Hongzhi traces the history of qigong, a ritual of self-cultivation practiced by the Chinese for thousands of years, and its refinement by him into Falun Dafa. Practitioners say Falun Dafa helps them fight disease and, at its most advanced levels, perform supernatural acts, such as flying.
Adherents believe the system removes energy blockages from their bodies and that Hongzhi can plant a spinning energy “wheel” in their lower abdomen that wards off disease. They also believe he can help them open a cosmic eye behind their forehead that gives them deep spiritual insight.
Followers are told to abstain from alcohol and tobacco and to reduce their dependence on worldly things.
Despite the intense media interest in Hongzhi following the Beijing demonstration, he generally has been unavailable for comment.
However, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hongzhi compared himself to Jesus and Buddha, and said the teachings of the two religious leaders had been diluted. He claimed to be the only one in the world teaching the proper road to enlightenment.
“I exist in many bodies, in many dimensions, and I can cross dimensions,” he told followers at a New York convention in March. “I am the oldest original spirit in the universe.”
Rachlin, who said she handles media calls for Hongzhi voluntarily, said the supernatural side of Falun Dafa has been exaggerated and taken out of context by Western reporters who have difficulty absorbing and understanding Eastern spiritual practices.
“For me, it is hard to characterize (Hongzhi),” she said. “If someone gives you a gift of your life back and opens your heart to your true self, it’s hard to define. I look at him as a special human being. I don’t worship him. I honor and respect him. I do look at him as Buddha-like, but that is not coming from a religious perspective. Buddha to me was an enlightened human being.”
Jing Rong, a graduate student at Rutgers who practices Falun Dafa, said of Hongzhi: “He is my master. I respect him very much. He helped me too much, my mind and my body. He is not only a teacher. A teacher cannot tell you everything.”
She said she has only met Hongzhi three times at conferences and has never had a private audience with him. But, she said, since she started practicing Falun Dafa, she sleeps more deeply, feels energized, isn’t nervous and has become a better student.
The Chinese government estimates there are 70 million practitioners of Falun Dafa in that country, making it larger than the 55-million-member Communist Party.
Critics there have expressed concern that Hongzhi is manipulating practitioners. They also have attacked his claims of curing disease without medicine.
Rachlin said followers are specifically told by Hongzhi not to practice Falun Dafa with any “attachments,” or expectations.
Several Chinese immigrants interviewed said they are concerned that the situation in their homeland will escalate, with the government taking stronger steps to curtail the practice. Already it is difficult to publish Hongzhi’s books in China, and when practitioners held an earlier protest outside a TV station that had broadcast a critical piece on Falun Dafa, several were arrested.
While it is not uncommon in China to see hundreds, even thousands, of practitioners doing their exercises in public parks, groups in New Jersey remain small.
“I don’t know how many people we have in New Jersey, but I believe it is many more than we had one year ago,” said Sue Meng, a housewife and former engineer from Leonia. “We don’t have any hierarchy or anything like that. It just spreads word of mouth.”
Falun Dafa has spread rapidly since Hongzhi began writing about his methods in 1992. Practitioners insist there is no formal organization to promote the system, but volunteer practitioners have created a number of Web sites that explain the teachings and advise newcomers of group schedules.
“Anyone who finds something good wants to share it with relatives and friends,” said Kangang Xu, a computer software engineer from Edison who helps organize a Middlesex County group. “For me, this is very good and I want to share it. We cultivate truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance, and this is benevolence.”
IR END CHAMBERS