The Falun Gong exercise "Penetrating the Two Cosmic Extremes" is supposed to make me a better person, channel the energy of the cosmos through me, and improve the appearance of my crow's feet. I would like all these things to happen; I have actually spent a lot of time and money in pursuit of Item 3. But as I glide my arms up and down along my body, I find that instead of freeing myself of "mind-intent," the exercise is focusing me on this thought: What silly business Falun Gong seems, yet on the other side of the world people are tortured and killed for doing it.
Falun Gong is, depending on who's defining it, a self-improvement practice (according to the movement itself), an evil cult (according to the Chinese government), or a religion (according to the Wall Street Journal). The Journal's Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his reporting on the Chinese government's campaign of detention and death for Falun Gong followers.
Falun Gong began in 1992 in northern China when a former soldier and grain clerk named Li Hongzhi realized he was actually Master Li Hongzhi, possessor of divine powers. Besides having clairvoyance, the ability to prevent illness, and eternal youth, Li also understood the Universal Way of Marketing. He assembled a program that promised anyone could obtain perfect health and supernatural powers quickly and easily. Within a few years of Li's first lecture, tens of millions of Chinese, including high-ranking members of the Communist Party, were gathering in parks for group exercises. (Falun Gong means Law Wheel Cultivation Energy; the movement is interchangeably called Falun Dafa, or The Great Way of the Law Wheel.)
Then on April 25, 1999, 10,000 practitioners descended on Beijing to protest disparaging references in some state-run media calling Falun Gong a superstitious, unscientific cult. Until then, the central government had taken minimal interest in the movement. But the central government takes a dim view of movements it doesn't control, even harmless ones, and so banned Falun Gong, then turned its well-oiled human-rights-abuse machinery on it. The "protective shield around the practitioner's body to keep him or her unharmed" that Li had promised all his followers turned out to be easily penetrated by the truncheons and cattle prods of Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his followers. Since the crackdown began, the government has jailed and tortured thousands of Falun Gong members and, according to the group, killed more than 200. (See thisWashington Post article for details on the Chinese government's methods.) Recently, Li told his followers not to buckle to government pressure, even calling those who do "depraved." That's easy for Master Li to say. For several years he himself has been voluntarily living in a depraved state—New York, to be exact. With Falun Gong being exterminated in China, adherents are now looking to the West both to pressure the Chinese government to stop its campaign and to recruit new members.
Last month, while riding the Washington, D.C., subway, I was handed a pamphlet by a Falun Gong member inviting people to join their daily protest in front of the Chinese Embassy and learn Falun Gong. I had seen the news photos of members being dragged off and beaten and wondered about the beliefs of the peaceful movement that had aroused the government's frenzy. I showed up at the little patch of park in front of the embassy at the hour listed for free instruction. It was midafternoon, and about 75 people, 60 of them Asian, were sitting in the lotus position on small plastic mats following along in their copies of one of Li's books, as someone up front read aloud in Chinese and taped flute music played. Falun Gong stir-fries Buddhism, Taoism, and "qigong" (more on that later) into one easily consumed Eastern philosophy. Learning Falun Gong requires that you study the several volumes—three available in English—of Li's teachings and perform the five sets of exercises that take about an hour to complete.
Almost everyone at the park wore a yellow T-shirt with blue writing in both Chinese and English stating the Falun Gong guiding principles on the back, "Truthfulness Compassion Tolerance," and a protest statement on the front, "China: Free the Jailed Falun Gong Practitioners." Across the street was the large, bland, brick embassy. No faces appeared in the windows, no cars came up or down the driveway. A police squad car idled nearby.
I wandered around in search of the person assigned to corral new members and offer instruction, but there wasn't one. Finally, a cheerful young Chinese woman, in the United States on a student visa, approached me and asked if she could help. She explained that there actually was no formal instruction—that anyone could teach me.
If Falun Gong is actively recruiting, they have an uncoercive attitude toward it. During the two days I hung around the park, no one asked my full name, address, or phone number. No one was selling books or tapes—I had to make special arrangements to get a set. Eventually, the woman introduced me to a man I'll call Brendan. Brendan, who had only been doing Falun Gong for 2 1/2 months, had come to Washington from Ireland to participate in a Falun Gong march and conference. Brendan, who was also extremely cheerful, told me that for the past four years he had been deeply depressed, trying all sorts of medication to no effect. A Chinese friend suggested he attend a Falun Gong lecture. At the lecture he felt his depression start to lift. After two weeks of the exercises, he threw away his pills.
Brendan patiently took me and a man in shorts who had just stopped by through the five slow-motion Falun Gong movements. The movements, which consist primarily of flowing arm actions and have evocative names such as "Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands" and "Golden Monkey Splitting Its Body," are supposed to cultivate one's "qi" (pronounced "chee"), the vital energy that runs through all things. The pamphlet promised that Falun Gong exercises are easier than tai chi or yoga and that, "Most people find the energy field stronger when they practice this, and results come much more quickly."
Despite a lifetime of disillusionment, I remain a sucker for the idea of big results with little effort, and the results guaranteed in Li's book Falun Gong dwarf those promised in your average e-mail spam. "[P]ractitioners have come to have noticeably fewer wrinkles on their faces, which now have a rosy, healthy glow thanks to cultivation. … Through performing the exercises one's original-body undergoes transformation … the human body is converted into a body made of matter from other dimensions. As a result one will stay young forever." So, I swung my arms awaiting this cosmic liposuction. As I did, a woman in a yellow T-shirt came and videotaped us. I wondered if I would someday appear in a Chinese government documentary titled Corrupt Westerners Duped by Cult.
As promised, the exercises were annoyingly easy. This, I was disturbed to find out, is one of the Chinese government's many critiques of Falun Gong: It's not physically challenging. (Yet another reason to be grateful to be an American—your government isn't trying to kill you because your exercise program is too lax.)
This encouraged me to think of Falun Gong as more of a mental exercise, but that proved to be a bigger problem, because I read the entire text of Falun Gong. New self-improvement courses, or cults, or religions—take your pick—tend to be composed of a mixture of common sense, moral guidance, and lunacy. But Falun Gong, Li's introductory text, is predominately lunacy. You know you're in trouble by Page 4 when Li explains that qigong—the cultivation of qi—is not exclusive to the Chinese; there are Westerners who are experts, too. One is the magician David Copperfield, "a master of supernormal abilities who once performed the feat of walking through the Great Wall of China."
Then there is the matter of the Falun, the circular emblem of the movement, decorated with yin-yang symbols and swastikas. (No, not those swastikas. Long before the Nazis came along, the swastika was an ancient symbol, particularly in Asia, of good fortune. And the Falun Gong swastika arms point counterclockwise, the opposite of Nazi swastikas.) But in Li's universe, the Falun is no mere symbol. At his lectures, Li "places" a Falun in the abdomen of each attendee. According to Li, "Falun is an intelligent rotating entity composed of high-energy matter. The Falun that I plant in a practitioner's lower abdomen rotates constantly, twenty-four hours a day." Though this sounds like what happens after eating a bad oyster, Li says it is a great innovation. The Falun allows followers to hold down jobs and go about their lives, while at the same time cultivating their supernatural abilities. Alternate sources of Faluns include reading Li's books, watching his videotapes, or studying with other practitioners—who are only allowed to repeat the words of the Master. They may not suddenly discover their own secrets of the cosmos.
Despite my desire to keep my rabbi from learning about rotating swastikas in my abdomen, I took the exercise tape home and completed a full five-exercise cycle daily. My annoyance at the static quality of the exercises persisted, but it was soothing to simply take time to put aside my daily life and quietly run through the set of movements. Given the extravagance of Li's claims, however, feeling merely relaxed would have to be considered a failure. I could also understand, though, the power his followers feel—people who have been denied the luxury of being able to believe in anything absurd except communism—in collectively removing themselves from this world and visualizing themselves in another dimension.
One night, after doing a Falun Gong cycle, I made a blackberry crumble for dessert. As I opened the oven door to bake it, I dropped the crumble on the kitchen floor, sending crushed blackberries and streusel everywhere. Normally, this would have upset me. But with my Falun whirring away, I had to admit I was … very upset. Then something occurred that can only be described as a moment of harmonic, levitating, cosmic streusel. As I stared at the mess, my husband came in, looked at it, and said, "I'll clean that up for you."
Though I contemplated devoting myself full-time to the practice of Falun Gong after that miracle, I found that the static and repetitive exercises made my back ache. Since I've taken yoga for about three years, I knew there were some twisting stretches that could fix that. But Li discourages the combination of Falun Gong with other practices. "Falun will become deformed and lose its effectiveness." I did the stretches anyway. Since then my life has been streusel-less and my crow's feet deeper.
I did get something out of Falun Gong that had nothing to do with the teachings of Falun Gong. That was the reminder that living in a free society allows you to search for bliss in whatever crackpot way you like. And living under totalitarianism means you can be crushed not only for directly challenging the regime, as were the pursuers of democracy at Tiananmen Square, but for seeking rosy skin in a manner unacceptable to the state.