Suddenly I was about to behold Master Li. After a frustrating year researching the Falun Gong movement, at last a breakthrough. It was Saturday, May 19, and I was standing outside the hall of the Ottawa Congress Centre, where a thousand Falun Gong practitioners - overwhelmingly Chinese - sat in silk suits listening to fellow practitioners give their testimonials.
This was an Experience-Sharing Conference, the third I had attended. I'd given up on ever seeing Master Li. He disappeared from public view shortly after the crackdown began in July 1999, and had surfaced only twice - unexpectedly at Falundafa conferences - to deliver short speeches.
I realized something unusual was up when two of the conference organizers, normally dignified women, started behaving oddly - clutching at each other, bumping into people and giggling.
« What"s going on? » I asked.
« Master Li is coming! » they told me. « He will be here in 10 minutes! » We were told to wait. There was a murmur, and - there he was, the Master, standing on the podium right in front of his 8-foot photograph.
Definitely the same man, very tall, wearing a business suit, his black hair combed neatly to one side. He spoke in Chinese in authoritative but sensitive tones.
I held on to my headphones, but the woman who was translating his speech got so choked up she kept correcting herself, so it was hard to follow.
He spoke for 20 minutes, saluted his disciples, then left through a door behind the podium.
This was a breakthrough. When I first decided to embark on studying Falun Gong, I hoped to crack the surface within a month and expected to find an efficient core group behind the scenes, masterminding the missionary programs. I had researched other new religions whose leaders were in seclusion. David Berg, prophet-founder of the Children of God, had been in hiding since the mid-1970s, but sent me a note via his secretary, Peter Amsterdam, who later became his successor. Even Rael, messianic leader of the largest UFO religion in the world, had taken time out from his media blitzes for the occasional tete a tete.
But Falun Gong does not behave like other new religions. For one thing, its organization - if one can even call it that - is quite nebulous.
There are no church buildings, rented spaces, no priests or administrators. At first I assumed this was defensive, that they had established guerrilla-style cells to fend off an intolerant Communist Party.
By now, I'm beginning to think that what you see is exactly what you get - Master Li's letters on the Net on the one hand and a global network of practitioners on the other. Traveling through North America, all I dug up was a handful of volunteer contact persons. The local membership (they vehemently reject that word) is whoever happens to show up at the park on a particular Saturday morning to do qigong.
But what did Master Li say? It seemed inappropriate at the time to whip out my notebook, but what I recall is he announced that we were living a unique period of history, so it was important to « eliminate the evil. » Then my translation device went static.
The Ottawa Citizen, on May 21, reported: « Mr. Li devoted most of his time to talking about the main principles behind Falun Gong: truth, compassion and forbearance. » This is simply not true.
What Master Li actually did say was amazing, fascinating. His speech marked a dramatic strategic shift in the group's burgeoning resistance movement. Falun Gong's protest demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the grisly repercussions are well-documented in the international news media, but the esoteric philosophy that fuels their civil disobedience has been virtually ignored.
His message was apocalyptic. I read it on the Internet (www.
clearwisdom.net) a few days later. Master Li makes three statements that suggest Falun Gong's protest movement is revising its strategy. First, he says the aim of « cultivation » is no longer individual improvement or even enlightenment (consummation). Second, he announces that we are living in the « Fa-rectification » period (when the Fa, or divine law, triumphs over evil). Therefore, the role of all disciples is to continue to engage in the collective work of activist protest against the « evil » of Jiang Zemin's persecution of the Falun Gong (« disciples ... have been entrusted with a great historic mission ... to safeguard the Fa ...
expose the evil »).
Finally, toward the end of his speech, he offered his disciples a new five-minute ritual. He instructed them to hold their hands in the Jieyin position and « think about eliminating evil in the Three Realms. » What we had just witnessed was a new bend in the spiritual underpinnings of a Chinese resistance movement that shows signs of making a cultural impact as significant as Gandhi's « force of truth. » Beneath the rational pursuit of human rights and the familiar rhetoric of religious liberty there is a rapidly evolving apocalyptic theology fueling Falun Gong's civil disobedience in China.
But the most novel aspect of this event was that Master Li was urging his disciples to stop being victimized, and to participate in a cosmic war that is being waged on many planes.
The content and tone of Master Li's articles that appear intermittently on the Net had subtly shifted since the initial crackdown. From the beginning, he has insisted Falun Gong was not political, and urged practitioners to remain loyal citizens. They should respond to even the most brutal persecution with forbearance. More recently, in an important letter « Beyond the Limits of Forbearance, » he identified Jiang and his minions as « demons » and urged his students to stop co-operating with « evil. » Now he was showing them how to fight back - using psychic powers.
The experience-sharing speeches I heard just a year ago tended to focus on miraculous healings, on resolving conflicts at home or at work, on moral reform through upgrading. Now, the overriding concern was to « suffocate the evil. » This is understandable, considering the extraordinary cruelty and violence perpetrated against these sincere and upright people, their families and friends. There is a heroic, inspiring aspect to Falun Gong's brave struggle for justice.
And yet - I find something appalling in the fact that more than 200 people have chosen to place themselves in a situation where they have died horrible, painful deaths.
In May 2000, on hearing some of the testimonials of practitioners who had just returned from China where they had flown to « stand up for the Fa, » I had had an uneasy feeling. At that point, there were only 20-odd deaths. If they continued on this course, I wondered, were they moving into a holocaust? The Chinese government was obviously not going to change its barbaric methods of social control.
I asked two Westerners, contact people for the New York area, where they saw their movement heading, considering more and more practitioners were being tortured and killed without making a dent on the government's anti-cult agenda.
« Why not ask what"s the point of Martin Luther King"s civil-rights movement? » Sterling, a black rock star who plays drums for David Bowie, rejoined.
« Why did Gandhi organize nonviolent dissent in India? It worked, didn"t it? » added Gail Rachlin.
They had a point. Still, it is hard to predict where the movement is heading. Will the Chinese government seize this new opportunity to discredit and frame the Falun Gong by staging a violent episode claiming Master Li told them to « eliminate the evil » in a manner similar to the (quite possibly) faked suicide attempts by immolation in Tiananmen Square last February? Will potential martyrs continue to gravitate toward Tiananmen Square, testing their qigong magical defences against the Evil, reminiscent of the Taiping rebellion? Or will Master Li encourage his students to continue to lobby for religious freedom and justice, but to avoid public demonstrations in the land of Mighty Virtue and to wage their psychic battles in the Three Realms from the safety and privacy of their own homes
Susan J. Palmer, a teacher at Dawson College and Concordia University, studies new religions.
What Is Falun Gong? See "Falun Gong 101", by Massimo Introvigne
"Falun Gong 101. Introduzione al Falun Gong e alla sua presenza in Italia" (in italiano), di Massimo Introvigne
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