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Spiritual CULTivation 

In China, Falun Gong practitioners are beaten and persecuted, so the U.S. is granting them asylum. But is this movement as harmless as it seems?

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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While Falun Gong members believe they will eventually return to the place from which they originated, not everyone is from the same universe. So Lian understands that at some point she will have to separate from her daughter and other loved ones she has met during her temporary stay on Earth. "Both of us feel so fortunate we came to this world and became mother and daughter, so we enjoy such a relationship and love and care for each other," Lian says. "But we also know the goal is to go back to our true homes, which are beyond this physical world. That's why we treasure our time together in this world now."

Lian does note that suicide is forbidden to speed up the journey "home." Falun Gong teaches that while there are many levels of existence, the human body is the only portal to paradise. Animals and trees, for instance, must wait until they are reincarnated as humans for their chances to go home. So to kill oneself would be to destroy the very vehicle required for the trip. "Our time as humans is our chance to go back," Lian says. "We know this time is precious, which is why we would never commit suicide or kill someone."

And Lian may be spending more time with Ella soon. U.S. asylum law allows refugees to petition for their spouses and minor children. Lian's lawyer says Ella (not her real name) and her father could be reunited with Lian by the end of the year. Lian's husband, an artist, does not practice Falun Gong, though he has read some of Master Li's books and supports his wife's beliefs. Lian says she will not insist her husband practice cultivation if he does not want to. "Master Li says to be a good wife, and that living a harmonic life with your family is also a requirement of Falun Gong."

In China, Lian's family doesn't agree on Falun Gong. Her mother practices, and her father doesn't. He has no opinion on it, but Lian's older brother and sister are adamantly opposed. "They say I am so young and naive, and how could I believe in such superstition. They couldn't understand. They just don't believe in anything," Lian says. "Actually, I feel pity for them, because their mind is blocked simply because of their own ignorance."

Lian's father is an old-time Mao atheist. Though he agrees with the principle of Falun Gong's "Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance" mantra, Lian says he finds the supernatural aspect hard to grasp. "He doesn't believe in any God, Buddha, or paradise, because he only believes in what he can see with his eyes." However, as a young adult, Lian wanted to believe in something beyond the Communist Party. In this, she is no different from millions of other Chinese who have felt a spiritual void ever since Mao died. His successors embraced capitalism while keeping the controlling party apparatus in place; the People's Republic lost its purpose and appeal as the Chinese were allowed to worship wealth, but not much of anything else. "To Get Rich Is Glorious" was the new party slogan. It was an empty existence for many, including Lian, who searched for greater meaning in life.

She experimented with Buddhism and Christianity, but those religions didn't make sense to her. "I was told if you regret the bad things you did and kept calling the name of Jesus, you would be saved. I found this statement suspicious. It sounds too easy," Lian says. The incessant chanting of the Buddhist monks didn't seem like a very effective way to gain knowledge, either. "Other religions give you so many rules, and Falun Gong gives you the ways," she notes.

Falun Gong's detractors might say Lian's beliefs are wacky, but she thinks her idea of an afterlife is no more outlandish than the Christian notion of a soul floating to heaven. In fact, she says Master Li is no different than Jesus Christ, in that Jesus was also a man who taught the masses a new way to enlightenment.

When Nancy Chen was pursuing her doctorate degree in medical anthropology at UC Berkeley and UCSF in the early 1990s, she spent a year in China researching how mental health care had changed during the post-Mao era. Following the doctors in the psychiatric wards of hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai, Chen hadn't been at her first post a week when she witnessed a curious development. Patients started coming in with unexplained psychotic reactions to qigong exercise. At first, doctors were unsure if the patients were already predisposed to their schizophrenic symptoms and just happened to be practicing qigong -- or if the qigong itself induced the episodes. Chen was intrigued. After studying many patients, doctors determined that the deep breathing techniques associated with qigong were causing some people to reach altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation.

"It's like that old schoolyard trick when you breathe into a paper bag to get a minihigh," Chen says. "Except the qigong breathing was much more intense in that people started to feel or hear things, and feel like they were being possessed."

Chen's work led to her forthcoming book, Breathing Spaces: Qigong Psychiatry and Body Politics of Late 20th Century China. Later, the Falun Gong phenomenon, with its roots in qigong, prompted Chen to expand her research: While Master Li removed most of the breathing elements in his version of qigong, Chen says his increased focus on meditation encourages trancelike states that can also lead to hallucinations.

The Chinese government has been saying the same thing, issuing reports that Falun Gong practitioners have jumped out of windows, attacked their families, and even disemboweled themselves trying to find the energy source Master Li says revolves in their bellies. Doctors, it asserts, have linked more than 1,400 deaths to Falun Gong activity, and many more deaths will result if Falun Gong followers who believe they are immune to diseases like cancer don't seek treatment.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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