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Religion, Spiritual Sect or Cult: What is Falun Gong?

2015-12-10 Source:kaiwind Author:Daniel Brosnan

Unsurprisingly, Xi Jinping’s  visit to the UK last month placed the issue of China’s human rights record back into the Western news cycle. In the UK, the press was primarily interested in whether the British Government was ignoring the issue in favour of progress on economic agreements or if it would be right for the leader of the opposition to bring up the topic during a state function at Buckingham Palace. Most discussion of human rights was restricted to name checking groups who planned to protest during Xi Jinping’s visit. Most of those present at the protests might suggest that a debate over political decorum rather missed the heart of the issue. One such, little known, group was Falun Gong.

Falun Gong is a curious group that claims membership in the millions and appears to be present at every major foreign event involving the Chinese leadership, but isn’t well known in the West outside of certain political and activist circles. A recent report on the website of a national British newspaper described Falun Gong as a religious group and as a “spiritual sect banned by China in 1999 as a cult and severely repressed ever since,”[1] in an article which asked who would press President Xi on human rights. The article doesn’t provide any further insight into what exactly Falun Gong is, but that’s understandable as there doesn’t appear to be much agreement on that matter in the wider scholarship related to the group or in the propaganda war raging around it.

Falun Gong was originally founded as a qigong group by Li Hongzhi in May 1992.[2] Qigong was essentially a term used to describe exercise and meditation groups that used slow movements inspired by traditional practices and saw a surge in popularity in China during the late 1980s. Charismatic leaders of qigong groups often promoted themselves as being able to ensure good health and even claimed that their method could grant practitioners special powers. Li Hongzhi was no different in this regard but he went even further than most by providing moral and spiritual teachings, which contained the central tenants of “Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance.” The peaceful meditation movements and three word slogan have been powerful PR tools for Falun Gong. Why would the Chinese Government want to close down a benign meditation group who preach peace and compassion? It is this simple image and question that is most often used by sympathetic journalists and bloggers to portray Falun Gong, and it is an image that they are happy to embrace[3]. It doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, however.

On the surface, the group seems to be as described. Practitioners can be found sitting almost motionless in parks across the world and friendly volunteers, often pretty young ladies, hand out promotional leaflets. Falun Gong also offer free meditation classes to attract new members, letting them feel the benefits of Falun Gong’s exercises before moving introducing Li Hongzhi’s more controversial teachings - the parallels with Scientology’s alleged recruitment methods are not unsubstantial. It’s with Li Hongzhi’s teachings, shared through books such as Zhuan Falun as well as international lectures, that the real face of Falun Gong is revealed.

Falun Gong is often categorized as being a blend of Buddhism and Taoism mixed with Li Hongzhi’s own spiritual teachings[4], which emphasize morality and the cultivation of virtue. Put like this, Falun Gong seems to follow from ancient traditions and can be placed in a wider religious context. In reality, Falun Gong is not a blend of religions mixed with other teachings but simply a group created around Li Hongzhi’s teachings which are very loosely inspired by other religions. Li Hongzhi claims to be the only person in history to have fully understood Buddhism and as such his interpretation can’t be questioned and he is the only authority to follow. His broad teachings borrow heavily from ideas of karma, reincarnation and the need to cultivate oneself morally while giving up material attachments, but these ideas are twisted to his own purposes. In Li Hongzhi’s teachings, karma is a black substance that builds inside of people throughout their lives due to their misdeeds and needs to be expelled through cultivating Falun Gong (meditating) and practicing Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance. On the surface it is a good moral code and system designed to encourage moral behaviour, but it becomes problematic in the way that expelling karma is supposed to manifest itself and in the acts that are deemed to be immoral in Li Hongzhi’s eyes.

Li Hongzhi claims that when karma is expelled from the body, it manifests itself in discomfort or illness. Li insists that Falun Gong practitioners are not like normal people and don’t suffer from the same diseases. He says that if a Flaun Gong follower is ill it means that they are paying off a karmic debt and that they must give up their medicine and desire to be healed. He tells his followers that:

If you can truly cultivate, when you can truly let go of your attachment to living or your fear of death—and not just act that way for others to see while constantly thinking about it inside—then no matter what kind of illness you have, it will be cured.[5]

This sort of teaching is incredibly dangerous to people who truly believe in Li Hongzhi and there is little doubt that the reliance on cultivation to cure illness has directly contributed to the deaths of members. It is claimed that more that 1400 Falun Gong practitioners in China have lost their lives because they followed Li Hongzhi’s instructions and refused medical treatment. He often talks about the link between karma and illness, claiming that illness is a test that a Falun Gong follower must face (forbearance) and that anyone who seeks medical treatment is not a true believer. In this way, he impresses upon his followers his own personal power over their wellbeing, reinforces the need to practice Falun Gong diligently and gives himself an escape route when his healing powers fail to materialize: anyone who doesn’t recover or is saved by medicine wasn’t a true believer or wasn’t diligent enough. These teachings which are catastrophic to the health of his followers is justification enough for the Chinese government to ban Falun Gong, but it is not the only troubling aspect of the group. Li Hongzhi’s own brand of morality and causes of the degradation of society, as he sees it, are also problematic.

On several occasions in his books and during his lecture tours, Li Hongzhi has discussed how people’s morals have dropped to the lowest levels in history and that such behaviour will inevitably lead to the end of society. On example he uses to illustrate how low society has fallen is the acceptance of homosexuality in the West. In the second volume of Zhuan Falun, Li Hongzhi states that “Repulsive homosexual behavior… bespeaks of a filthy, deviant state of mind that lacks rationality.”[6] He goes on to state that Gods regard homosexuals as no longer human and that a homosexual can only become a practitioner if they give up their behaviour. While Falun Gong’s views on homosexuality are not unique to their group, they are disturbing and only form a small part of Falun Gong’s distasteful morality. In addition to homosexuality, Li Hongzhi condemns mixed-race relationships which he blames on sexual freedom and deems equal to organized crime on his moral scale.[7] At a conference in Houston, Li Hongzhi said:

White people are white people, black people are black people, and people of the yellow race are people of the yellow race. Any ethnicity in the world is a race that corresponds with the heavens. After mixing blood people no longer have their correspondence to the gods in the heavens. And then it is possible that none of the gods that created humans will take care of them. Then with regard to these people, they are very pitiable.[8]

Li Hongzhi’s opinions on homosexuality and the division of the races reflect an ultra-conservative moral code that deems undesirable elements as less than human and a sign that the human race has reached a very dangerous stage that it can only be saved from by Falun Gong. He even goes as far as to suggest that depraved behaviour and the mixing of races is an alien conspiracy designed to take over the world.[9]

Despite some academics claiming that Falun Gong passes the smell test[10] and shouldn’t be considered a dangerous cult, the beliefs outlined above suggest that Falun Gong has many attributes one would associate with a cult. Teachings as those just described serve to make sure that Falun Gong practitioners have a sense that they are separate and superior to the rest of society. Li Hongzhi is able to use his books and lectures to effectively separate his followers morally, if not physically, from “others” without the need for compounds or bunkers. Falun Gong followers also believe that they be saved from the coming catastrophe because they know things the rest of society doesn’t and they are morally superior. Li Hongzhi has convinced them that they can only be saved by him personally when it comes to their health and by his lessons when it comes to the Dharma Ending Period (end of the world). In addition to their beliefs, Falun Gong’s recruitment practices mirror those of other cults and cult members often harass their critics.[11]

About the author: Daniel Brosnan

I graduated from university with a BA in Ancient History & History in 2008. I studied a wide range of Historical subjects and periods, including the importance of religion in Irish politics, but my main interest was in contemporary Chinese history. After spending a year travelling and working in the USA, I returned to university and obtained a MA degree in History 2011. My main area of study was Contemporary History with a particular interest in the conflict between religion and rationalism in the 19th century and China’s international relations in the 50s and 60s.

Since completing my Masters Degree, I have moved to China to teach and research topics of interest to me. I have most recently focused my research on the emergence of cults and their impact in the PRC.

I would like to request that I am able to use a pen-name, rather than my real name as I don’t want to put my family at risk of attack or harassment by cult members.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/16/xi-jinping-in-uk-human-rights-china

[2] http://www.dailynews.com/general-news/20140714/why-china-fears-the-falun-gong

[3] http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-faith-column/2008/08/falun-gong-party-chinese

[4] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, &  Labor, U.S. Dep’t  of  State, International Religious Freedom Report 2004: China, available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2004/35396.htm  (last  visited  Oct. 31,  2015)

[5] Li Hongzhi - Teaching the Fa at the 2004 International Fa Conference in New York (November 21, 2004)

[6] Li Hongzhi “Zhuan Falun, Volume II”

[7] Li Hongzhi, Teaching the Fa at the Conference in Europe (May 30 to 31, 1998)

[8] Teaching the Fa at the Conference in Houston (October 12, 1996)

[9] Teaching the Fa at the Conference in Switzerland (September 4–5, 1998)

10] http://www.dailynews.com/general-news/20140714/why-china-fears-the-falun-gong

[11] http://www.facts.org.cn/Data/aboutfg/200712/06/t20071206_780619.htm