CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Falun Gong 101

by Massimo Introvigne

[An entry in Odd Gods. New Religions & the Cult Controversy, edited by James R. Lewis and published by Prometheus Books ]

Qi Gong is the generic name of a complex of techniques for physical and spiritual well-being, with a tradition in China predating the Christian era. It is often referred to as Chinese yoga. Although spiritual and religious activities in general are viewed with suspicion in Communist China, Qi Gong has been tolerated as a traditional set of physical exercises. A semi-official National Qi Gong Federation has never been seriously disturbed by the regime. The situation is different, however, with respect to Qi Gong groups who strongly claim the primacy of the spiritual element, and who recognize a charismatic living leader.

The largest (but by no means the only) such Qi Gong group is Falun Gong. Its founder, Li Hongzi, was probably born in 1951 (the question of his precise birth date has been the source of controversy) and established his peculiar brand of Qi Gong in 1992, after having left the semi-official Federation. In 1998, Li moved permanently to New York City, from where he oversees the expansion of Falun Gong internationally. Small groups exist in the main metropolitan areas of the U.S. and Canada, and in some thirty other countries.

In 1999, the Chinese regime launched a new campaign against spiritual and religious groups, and Falun Gong was targeted as a superstitious and reactionary group by a press campaign. Unlike other groups, Falun Gong reacted with an unauthorised demonstration of more than 10,000 followers outside Beijing's Zhongnanhai, the residence of China's top leaders, the largest such demonstration in recent Chinese history.

The regime was particularly scared by the failure of its intelligence service to prevent the demonstration, and by membership in Falun Gong of some medium-level political and military leaders. The authorities started an unprecedented public campaign against the movement with the help of tracts and comics, and hundreds of local leaders and members were arrested. China also asked the U.S. to arrest and extradite Li, a request the U.S. quickly turned down, inviting the Chinese instead to stop what the outside world perceived as an obvious instance of religious persecution.

Although the persecution has scared many followers and driven them underground, millions remain in China and several thousand abroad. Exactly how many "members" Falun Gong has is a matter of dispute (the government uses a figure of 2 million; Li claims 100 million), and "membership" may not be an entirely applicable concept. In fact, although the movement recommends a nine-day introduction course and frequent contacts with local centers, it also states that everybody can simply start practising Falun Gong by following the instructions from one of the many books, cassettes and websites (the principal of the latter being http://falundafa.org/) quickly available in a variety of languages. The possibility of such a self-initiation, without a master and a lengthy discipline, is at the core of the criticism by other Qi Gong groups against Li and his movement.

Falun Gong is, basically, a form of Qi Gong. Its main differences with other Qi Gong groups are the unique authority of Master Li as the only living person authorized to define what exact techniques are to be used, and the claim that all previously secret teachings should now be disclosed. It also emphasizes, contrary to what groups tolerated by the Chinese regime claim, that it is essential to add to the practice of the exercises (the Xiu Lian), a spiritual discipline called "cultivation of the Xinxing." This is a simple path based on Buddhism and Confucianism, and aimed at promoting the three key values of Zhen (truthfulness), Shan (benevolence) and Rhen (forbearance), both at the individual and societal level. Falun Gong also teaches the law of karma and reincarnation, the need for "tribulations" in order to test the disciple and to pay off karmic debts, and the existence of both benign deities and demonic forces (the aliens interfering with Planet Earth in this century may be manifestations of the latter). The Xiu Lian practiced without the cultivation of the Xinxing, according to Master Li, will not generate any result and may even be counter- productive, if not "demonic."

Falun Gong emphasizes the Qi Gong concept of Falun, the center of spiritual and physical energy believed to be situated in the lower abdomen. Master Li describes the Falun in terms derived from both Buddhism and Taoism as a microcosm containing all the secrets of the universe. Its symbol, and the symbol of Falun Gong, is a (Buddhist) swastika in a disk, surrounded by four (Taoist) rotating yin-yang symbols. The aim of Xiu Lian is to awaken the universal energy of the Falun, so that it may flow harmoniously through the body, thus guaranteeing well-being and, at the end of the training, even supernatural powers.

Although Falun Gong does not reject all forms of modern medicine, it teaches that many ailments may be cured through its techniques. There are five key exercises--"Buddha showing the thousand hands"; "Standing stance exercise"; "Penetrating the two cosmic extremes"; "Falun heavenly circulation"; "Strengthening supernormal powers"--involving, in particular, movements of the hands, in ways reminiscent of certain yoga practices. Falun Gong is an easy way for the Chinese to connect with their spiritual roots through a basic set of simple ideas and exercises. It may also appeal to Westerners, increasingly fascinated by all things Chinese. While the Chinese regime may be able to eradicate, or at least drive underground, any Falun Gong "organization," Falun Gong as a diffuse and unorganized practice will probably remain popular despite opposition from the government.


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