Everybody's doing it, from Beijing to Brooklyn and beyond. It has more adherents -- 100 million, if its founder is to be believed -- than the Chinese Communist Party. And though it promises happiness and fulfillment, its popularity has led to its condemnation as a doomsday cult and made it the target of a massive government crackdown.
Falun Gong is a quasi-religious "cultivation system" introduced seven and a half years ago by Li Hongzhi, the 47-year-old son of two doctors from a remote city in northeastern China. Since making his teachings public, Master Li, as he bills himself, has seen his following grow into what could now be the fifth-largest organized religion in the world. Even if the Chinese government estimate of a mere 2 million "practitioners" is more accurate, Falun Gong, in less than a decade, has managed to outstrip rival start-up Scientology by more than two to one.
What accounts for such widespread appeal? Most of Li's followers come to his teachings through two books, "Zhuan Falun" ("Rotating the Law Wheel"), and "China Falun Gong" -- tracts that set established religious tradition on its ear by dispensing with concerns of reincarnation and the afterlife and promising salvation to individuals while they're still walking this earth (a journey, by the way, that Li promises to prolong).
Loosely based on an ancient Eastern school of breath control and Tai-Chi-like exercise known as qigong, Falun Gong combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern philosophies with a strikingly Western sensibility that requires believers to do little more than simply lead conscientious lives and turn the other cheek. By "cultivating" truth, compassion and forbearance, practitioners are told, they may increase their "cultivation energy" (a measure of enlightenment), reap physical benefits like long life and a reversal of the aging process and begin to open their Celestial Eye, through which they will be able to see into other planes of being.
Though "China Falun Gong" describes a set of exercises associated with the faith, Li makes clear that there are few requirements as to how often these must be performed, if at all. "We do not pay attention to the time necessary for practice," he writes. Instead, Li seems to require only an attitude adjustment from his flock. "True cultivation entails the cultivation of your heart, which is called the cultivation of Xinxing," he tells us. And while there is a system of "energy mechanisms" and other trappings that help define Falun Gong, all of that takes a back seat to the cultivation of one's Xinxing, without which none of the faith's benefits can be derived.
The well-developed Xinxing requires a willingness to endure suffering (common to faiths of both East and West), the embracing of humility and virtue and the surrender of all but the most modest earthly ambitions. The faithful need not don sackcloth and ashes, though, as Li makes clear ("All of our practitioners should always remember never to behave abnormally among ordinary people"), the desire for worldly gain must be left behind. "In human society," Li says, "one vies with the other, tries to cheat or outwit the other, and hurts the other for a bit of personal interests. All these attachments must be done away with."
In other words, all you have to do is lead a good life, be willing to endure the tribulations that will pay off your karmic debt and keep yourself free of most material ambitions, and peace and increased "cultivation energy" are granted you.
This peace is bestowed upon your "Main Consciousness," keep in mind, not the "Paraconsciousness" that enjoys the benefits of Buddhism (and that can't really take advantage of them in this world). And that's peace right now, let's be clear -- not in the next life or the one after. The method for achieving all this has been kept secret for thousands of years, Li writes. ("It took us a lot of trouble to have the permission to tell you about this issue.") Here lies the kernel of Falun Gong's appeal. I'd take cultivation energy in this life over enlightenment in the next one any day, wouldn't you? Especially if I didn't have to alter my lifestyle much in order to get it.
"I am the only person genuinely teaching the gong in high dimensions," Li tells us in the series of lectures that make up "Zhaun Falun." Of course, it is not uncommon for ambitious men and women of whatever stripe to claim possession of the one true line on happiness -- whether they're trying to sell enlightenment or eyeliner. And as religions go, Falun Gong has all the hallmarks of a faith designed to sell, sell, sell. "We are offering salvation to all sentient beings," Li says. (Bad credit? No credit? No problem.)
Falun Gong also hews closely enough to religious schools of both East and West to make it attractive on any continent. Besides the yoga-like movements, the Celestial Eye and an "energy yardstick" that grows atop followers' heads, Li speaks of humanity's fall from grace and briefly mentions "the last days of Last Havoc," elements that have their analog in traditional Western religions. Li's teachings also offer a simple morality, with Zhen Shan Ren (truth, compassion and forbearance) as "the sole criterion used to judge a good person from a bad one."
Though Falun Gong, like most Eastern teachings, includes no mention of an omnipotent god, Li's messianic requirement that his followers put their faith in him and only in him harks back to Christianity's early days. Also reminiscent of Western religion are Li's accounts of his own miracles -- though much of "Zhuan Falun" is devoted to why such things cannot be displayed to the faithful, and why the "supernatural powers" that can be achieved through high-level cultivation are never to be used.
"Zhuan Falun" opens with an endearing disclaimer as to its style, which remains plain and largely comprehensible throughout, if a bit idiosyncratic. (The lectures were composed originally in Chinese.) "Zhuan Falun is not flowery in its language and even does not conform to modern grammar," Li writes. "If I try to use modern grammar to polish this book of the Great Law, there would arise a serious problem: the language and grammatical structure of the writing might be standard and beautiful, but they will not be able to impart deeper and higher implications, because it is completely beyond the capability of contemporary standard vocabulary to express the Great Law."
"Zhuan Falun" is also filled with quirky -- if not always decipherable, even in context -- turns of phrase ("the gigantic dye vat of ordinary human society," for instance). And some of the concepts with which Li illustrates Falun Gong may sound at bit outlandish to Western readers (well, and to Eastern ones, too, probably). One of the first steps required of the faithful is that their bodies be "purified" by Li so they may receive Falun, a Buddhist swastika of energy transformation that rotates constantly within a disciple's abdomen. We are told of Yinghai, or "subtle babies," that appear all over the bodies of high-level Falun Gong practitioners; of ancient cities on ocean floors; of a 2-billion-year-old nuclear reactor in Gabon, Africa; and of the fact that civilization has been left "in complete destruction" 81 times in its history -- a fact Li discovered only after "a meticulous check which I once did."
But despite Li's own bold claims, he is not one to tolerate any rival theories that might come down the pike. "Do not read those heterodox qigong books," he warns. "Do not even open them at all." And despite the role the Internet has played in spreading Falun Gong, he isn't likely to argue that information wants to be free. "Zhuan Falun" is filled with demur explanations of why acolytes may not be told of this or that aspect of what lies behind his teachings.
Concerned with the sect's growing popularity, the Chinese government recently revoked Li's status as a qigong master, inspiring thousands of Falun Gong practitioners to show up in Beijing toting copies of "Zhuan Falun" in protest. The protests led to the largest government crackdown in China since Tiananmen Square, and resulted in the detention of more than 10,000 people across the country.
Why are the leaders of China -- some of whom, at the lower levels of government, are also Falun Gong practitioners -- so concerned? Other quasi-religious movements in China have nearly toppled governments in the past. But a closer reading of "Zhuan Falun" and "China Falun Gong" reveals that there is little in Li's teaching that seems likely to encourage his followers to threaten established political leadership. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
"Anything that seriously disturbs human society is absolutely not allowed to exist," Li says. Beijing, in fact, might be better served by embracing the young faith than by excoriating Li in its official press, where daily denunciations describe him as "virtually a Living King of Hell" and accuse him of harboring "wicked political ambitions;" they even dug up a former teacher of Li's to discuss his lackluster early academic career: "We had never found that he was a person of extraordinary caliber."
Judging by "Zhuan Falun," Li is no political firebrand. By combining a noble complacency with a practice that seeks to maintain the societal status quo, Falun Gong is all set to serve up a following that is almost Orwellian in its malleability. It is hard to know, of course, whether this is what Master Li had in mind. The Chinese government alternately accuses him of being a CIA agent and of having only his personal gain at heart. More likely, it is an overweening desire for adulation that drives him. And it's just possible that he has, in his studies, discovered the secret of eternal youth and supernatural powers. In any case, he has managed to design an apparently benign religious system that appeals to millions of people around the world. And if that's the case, more power to him.