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?

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.

Granted Refuge in the U.S.: Jenny Lian.
Wild Don Lewis
Granted Refuge in the U.S.: Jenny Lian.

"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.

Falun Gong followers vociferously deny the government's claims as propaganda. But Chen says she does not find the figure of 1,400 deaths baseless or necessarily inaccurate. Even Master Li's own writings address the possibility of demonic and animal possession during meditation, telling cultivators what to watch out for. "The phenomenon I saw presented itself in the clinics without any state intervention," Chen says. "The doctors weren't reading state propaganda. They were struggling to understand a new category of mental illness. Of course, the government would use the information as a platform, but that occurred much later."

Chen says she believes there are dangerous and manipulative aspects to Falun Gong -- and Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, tends to agree. She is an expert cult deprogrammer and the author of Cults in Our Midst. "Some will say it's not, but Falun Gong looks like a cult to me," she says. "My criteria is a self-appointed person with secret knowledge to share, who gets his followers convinced he is the pipeline to the eternal good life. Doesn't that sound like Master Li?"

But unlike other cults, Falun Gong does not compel its members to completely break away from the outside world, or sign over their material wealth to a leader. In fact, other than reading his books and looking at his picture, Falun Gong members have hardly any interaction with Master Li. Followers insist that Falun Gong cultivation is a voluntary act that they can pursue as much or as little as they desire.

"No structure, no donation, free will, on your own -- I hate to be cynical, but I've heard the same story so many times before," says Singer, who has interviewed more than 4,000 former cult members of various groups. "The manipulation is not overt; it is subtle, social, and psychological. But the bottom line reads: 'Give your life to us.'"

Falun Gong claims it is not a religion -- only a belief -- since it has no churches, scheduled services, or organized hierarchy. Li Hongzhi does, however, have a spokesperson in a New York public relations firm. Thousands of journalists from around the world have been denied interviews with Li, who has been in seclusion since last July. But faxed press releases about Falun Gong persecution continue to arrive from Rachlin Media Group in New York. There is also an official Falun Gong Web site that is filled with comprehensive content and updated daily. Though Master Li's books are free to read on the Internet, blue-covered paperbacks are sold in stores.

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