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?

Meeting Jenny Lian for the first time, Chung Phang was struck by her warm smile and gentle demeanor. The attorney wondered what had compelled his client to flee her home in China, leaving her parents, husband, and 10-year-old daughter behind. Perhaps she was a political dissident -- or maybe she'd been forced to have an abortion. As one of San Francisco's top lawyers specializing in Chinese asylum, Phang had successfully used China's one-child rule in a number of cases involving women before. If he could find a good reason, he'd probably be able to secure Lian's stay in the United States.

But all the 37-year-old mother would talk about were the meditation exercises she had done every morning in her neighborhood park in China, and continued to do in the Oakland jail cell in which the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had detained her. Lian also spoke of her spiritual master, a man named Li Hongzhi, who had taught her how to properly cultivate her mind and body so she would someday be able to journey far into outer space and live in a higher world. She told Phang the Chinese government disliked Li and what he taught, which was why he'd been forced to come to the U.S. -- and why she must, too. She wanted to be closer to him. It was her destiny.

Phang was perplexed. He had never heard anything so fantastical. He took another look at the papers filled out by the immigration officer who first encountered Lian at San Francisco International Airport when she got off a Northwest Airlines flight from Beijing and petitioned for asylum. "Member of Fa Lung Kung," the form read.

Granted Refuge in the U.S.: Jenny Lian.
Wild Don Lewis
Granted Refuge in the U.S.: Jenny Lian.
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Wild Don Lewis
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Wild Don Lewis
Heading for Another Universe: Cultivators at Caltech's recent Falun Gong conference.
Filling a Spiritual Void: Lian practices Falun Gong exercises.
Filling a Spiritual Void: Lian practices Falun Gong exercises.
The Master: Exiled Li Hongzhi still teaches at www.falundafa.org.
The Master: Exiled Li Hongzhi still teaches at www.falundafa.org.

"My first reaction was, 'What the hell is that?'" says Phang, who's handled hundreds of Chinese asylum cases over the past decade. "I figured this lady was cooking up a story."

Relying on Lian's broken English, the INS interviewer had phonetically written down Lian's mysterious affiliation. He was probably just as confused by Lian's claim as Phang was. Last June, hardly anyone had heard of Falun Gong.

But during the months in which Lian waited for her asylum hearing, China experienced its biggest government crackdown since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations against Communist Party corruption were squelched in 1989. There were mass arrests of Falun Gong followers who continued to practice their exercises in the parks. Resisters lost their jobs, were sent to labor camps for re-education, or were given long prison terms. Heavy media attention was given to the human rights abuses, including beatings and some deaths. The U.S. government denounced China's refusal to allow its citizens free choice in spiritual pursuits. "It was as if [Lian]'s words were prophetic," Phang says. "She said the government would be closing in on Falun Gong, and sure enough, trouble came in a big way."

But Lian was safe. On Nov. 3 last year, U.S. Immigration Judge Marilyn Teeter approved Lian's asylum request, making her one of the first Falun Gong members to be given refuge in the United States. Days after Lian won her case, Beijing's government-controlled newspaper People's Daily demanded the U.S. "correct this erroneous act" and respect China's "principled stand in handling the Falun Gong problem." The same issue carried the front-page headline: "Totally Expunge Evil, Pursue it to the End." Much to the chagrin of the Chinese government, Phang has since won asylum for six more Falun Gong followers.

To what, though, is the U.S. giving sanctuary? The Chinese government has tried to convince the world that Falun Gong is evil, that it is a dangerous, mind-altering cult masquerading as a popular exercise regimen. It argues it's addressing a public health threat, since Falun Gong's adherents shun medical treatment and the discipline's trancelike meditations can induce psychotic behavior. The government also says members detach from their families and society in order to devote their lives to the bizarre teachings of Falun Gong's founder and leader -- a man who left China and now lives comfortably in New York.

Most of the world has chosen to ignore China's latest propaganda effort, for good historical reasons. But as Falun Gong gains converts in the West, some anthropology, religion, and cult experts are taking a closer look at the allegations.

Whether it is a cult or not, Falun Gong has become China's greatest spiritual movement in a century. It is wildly popular, attracting converts by the millions. Before the crackdown began last summer, polls showed more people had joined Falun Gong than belonged to the entire Communist Party. And that's what has alarmed the Chinese government. A mass spiritual and social movement -- a revolution, really -- could threaten its control. After all, it's happened in China before.

But how menacing can Falun Gong possibly be, when its disciples are content to spend their mornings practicing tai chi- like moves and contemplating the peace- ful mantra "Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance"? Observers are baffled that the Chinese government is so obsessed with an exercise routine when it has much more important matters to worry about -- like its faltering economy. Everyone, including the New York Times, is left asking the obvious question: "Has it come to this: that the Chinese Communist Party is terrified of retirees in tennis shoes who follow a spiritual leader in Queens?"

Before Li Hongzhi -- "Master Li" to his millions of followers -- was exiled from China, new converts to his brand of meditation exercises filled Beijing's parks every morning. At dawn, large groups, mostly consisting of older women, gathered to practice the fluid body movements that promised to better channel the qi -- or energy -- through their bodies and promote well-being. Such qigong (energy movement) activity has a long history in China. Though once banned by Mao Zedong for its superstitious and unscientific nature, it was tolerated by the government after the Communist Party founder's death.

After all, a healthy citizenry was in the government's interest, and qigong got a lot of people exercising. The post-Mao government was less concerned with whether the notion of qi (pronounced "chee") had any merit, and qigong programs flourished, each one besting the others in its claims of healing disease and even delivering supernatural powers. During China's new market economy of the 1980s, qigong masters turned entrepreneurial and produced a number of best-selling books and videotapes. Each qigong method was touted as new, but they all involved various breathing techniques and tai chi-like moves.

"Some qigong masters became as popular as rock stars," says Nancy Chen, an anthropologist at UC Santa Cruz who's studied the qigong phenomenon for 10 years. "And some became swindlers. There were a lot of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers around."

Quack qigong masters traveled the country, drawing large crowds and promising to heal desperate and uneducated people for a price. Many believers were foregoing medical treatment and getting sick. Clearly, qigong had gotten out of control. So the government decided to regulate the qigong industry. "The government saw it as a public health issue, saying, 'Let's get these practitioners licensed,'" Chen says. "Not everyone welcomed it. Certain masters felt targeted or singled out. But the government felt it was justified in its regulation of qigong, though some have claimed it went too far."

Master Li began offering his version of qigong in 1992. His Falun Gong program stood out, because besides promoting good health, it also taught an ideology. Though Li streamlined the movements and eliminated the breathing component of qigong, he added a belief system that blended Buddhist and Taoist ideas with a few of his own. Falun Gong transcended all religious and political views, he claimed, and would allow practitioners to maximize their human existence by understanding their greater roles in the universe.

Master Li made qigong uniquely spiritual, and the Chinese government would soon come to regret it. Falun Gong became a national craze. Thousands packed auditoriums in every city where Master Li delivered his lectures, raptly listening to his admonitions against immorality and his revelations of an exciting destiny beyond this world. Soon, Master Li's popularity eclipsed that of any qigong master peddling a now-passé exercise-only routine.

Nervous that Li had so much mass appeal, qigong regulators gave him a hard time. Eventually, the government pressured him to leave the country. Master Li could expose Chinese-Americans to his movement from his new home in New York, but Chinese citizens on the mainland would be free from his influence.

Or so officials thought. They had no idea what a stronghold Falun Gong already had in China. And by the time Li was exiled in 1997, the Internet had grown and adherents were already using it to spread his message. Master Li made few public appearances after moving to the U.S.; he didn't have to. His followers maintained a grass-roots network of Web sites from which converts could download his teachings. Local workshops were organized all over the world as people met and talked via e-mail.

In Li's absence, Falun Gong exercises were at first tolerated in China's parks along with all the other approved types of qigong. "Initially, the government treated Falun Gong as a qigong organization that needed to be regulated," Chen says. "But then they changed their tune, and decided it was a cult." When the government realized how large Master Li's following in China really was, any Falun Gong activity was abruptly stopped. At first the tactics were subtle -- for instance, propaganda portraying Master Li as a swindler and his Falun Gong a phony version of qigong. But when 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners massed in Tiananmen Square last April to protest the smear campaign, the Communist Party's crackdown was swift. The giant demonstration -- seemingly both spontaneous and leaderless -- caught the police state by surprise. Paranoid it could so easily lose control of its citizens, the Chinese government has spent the past year scrambling to eradicate Falun Gong's hold over China's people. But, Chen says, "the resilience of this group is breathtaking."

Communist Party leaders are paying attention to history. Falun Gong reminds them too much of past spiritual movements that were big enough to destabilize the country and even lead to the fall of empires. In the mid-1800s, the Taiping Rebellion severely weakened China's last imperial dynasty when a man claiming to be Jesus' younger brother won over millions of followers and sparked a bloody civil war. At the turn of the 20th century, the failed Boxer Uprising was a final blow to the Qing dynasty. Members of the Fists of Righteousness and Harmony rioted fearlessly, believing their qigonglike exercises made them bulletproof.

Falun Gong is especially worrisome to the government because of its broad appeal. Peasants, city dwellers, students, and elite party members alike have been converted by Master Li's teachings. Many high-ranking military and government officials were forced to publicly denounce their participation in Falun Gong, which is why the movement has been treated as a bigger threat than 1989's Tiananmen Square sit-in. "To party leaders, 1989 was just students, just discontented youth they could put in jail and straighten out," Chen says. "But Falun Gong strikes closer to home. Now it's about people like them in government, their peers, their generation."

Meanwhile, economies throughout Asia have floundered, and China is struggling to keep its own afloat. The social despair resulting from an economic collapse only gives people more reason to forsake the government and put their hopes in a movement like Falun Gong. "Right now, all China wants to do is make sure nothing gets in the way of keeping the economy on track," Chen says. "The government is mindful of history, and is taking Falun Gong very seriously."

When Jenny Lian was granted asylum and released from INS detention with a work permit, she left San Francisco for Los Angeles, where a distant cousin lives. Lian found a job pushing a cart in a dim sum restaurant and moved in with her relative. But she didn't stay long. After finding a Falun Gong club at California Technical Institute that serves as the movement's Southern California base, she quickly made friends, started working in a video rental store, and moved in with another Falun Gong member who lives near Caltech's Pasadena campus.

She devotes much of her time to Falun Gong, and last month helped organize a Falun Gong conference at Caltech to mark the one-year anniversary of Master Li's rare public appearance at the university. Though Master Li didn't visit Caltech this year, the Chinese government was upset by the event. In fact, adamant that Falun Gong activity anywhere poses a threat to China's welfare, the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles asked Caltech to cancel the "illegal" gathering. The school refused, politely reminding the consulate that in the United States, the right to free speech supersedes Chinese law. Caltech even ended up sending police officers to protect the Falun Gong conference from any Beijing-orchestrated disruptions. Rumors spread that Communist Party sympathizers would be dispatched to protest the event and spies from the consulate were expected, too.

Lian wasn't intimidated. She believes Master Li protects her, which is why she has found safe haven in the U.S. to continue her Falun Gong cultivation. Her mood was happy and carefree at the conference. She joked with her friends, recounting a story she had just read in one of Master Li's books:

A woman who practices Falun Gong in China was in a serious car accident and the doctor said she would never walk again. But the next day, the doctor found the woman gone from her bed. "Impossible!" the doctor said. So the doctor went to the woman's house to investigate. He asked the son if his mother could walk. "No," the son replied. "Ha! I told you she would never walk!" the doctor exclaimed. "That's right," the son said. "She doesn't walk anymore, because she's running all the time -- in her high heel shoes!"

Everyone laughed loudly. But Lian's joke illustrated Falun Gong's deeply held beliefs. "Master Li tells this story to show how most people won't understand the miracle, because it is difficult to break most people's conventional thinking," Lian says.

Li teaches that his followers will avoid disease and misfortune through earnest self-cultivation. Falun Gong is aimed at stripping away human attachments like greed and sentiment in order to purify the body for its ultimate purpose of traveling back to its true home in a distant universe. In the process, people at advanced levels of cultivation will gain supernatural abilities such as levitation and immunity to sickness. But if someone only practices Falun Gong to acquire those powers, that is considered an attachment, and his or her efforts will certainly fail.

The focus on moral betterment and the letting go of attachments -- cultivating one's xin-xing -- is key to Falun Gong's success, Lian explains. Otherwise, the program would be no different than any other version of qigong exercise that promises healing powers. Ordinary qigong cannot deliver true results because it focuses on the body while ignoring the mind and spirit. Likewise, only practicing Falun Gong's arm and body movements is not enough. Attention to xin-xing and the improvement of one's virtue is essential.

"Master Li helps us remove karma we created in our past life, and remove the disease we have, and the dirty thoughts in our mind, to get our soul purified," Lian says. "Master Li came to our world to let people know what the requirements of the universe are, and he is protecting us on our way back to where we came from. We are so thankful to him."

In Lian's home, pictures of Master Li are everywhere. The middle-aged man's pudgy, baby-faced image hangs on every wall. In Lian's bedroom, a shrine to the master sits on her dresser. In fact, there is little décor other than Falun Gong paraphernalia. There is, however, one small photo of Lian's daughter that peeks out from a bookshelf. Ella has turned 11 since her mother has been away.

Lian is proud of her only child. "She listened to the lectures of Master Li with me at a very young age," she says. "My daughter is very interested in Falun Gong." Once, when Ella was bullied by other kids at school, she came home and asked her mother to help her remove karma and gain virtue. "And she was only in the first grade," Lian notes.

When Lian speaks of Ella, it is in relation to Falun Gong and the hope that her daughter, too, will become a cultivator of xin-xing. "I put the picture of my daughter here because I miss her and love her very much," Lian says. "But I am not really attached to this sentiment anymore. I know it is very difficult for people to understand."

Falun Gong teaches that attachments to human wants -- things like love, money, sex, even eating meat -- hold one back from being able to journey to paradise. But members are not required to give up everything right away. Master Li writes that some will choose not to have sex or eat meat at all, while others may on occasion. The point is not to be so attached to something that you cannot function without it. That is why Lian says she can still love her daughter, but leave her behind to pursue Falun Gong.

"When I came to the U.S. people may feel I put myself as first priority, but I am not doing what I want to do. I am doing what I am required to do by the universe. And my better understanding of Falun Gong will enable me to teach my daughter what she should do," Lian says. "Normally a good mother is a person who will provide a child's needs and ensure they will have a successful future. But as a Falun Gong practitioner, I have to provide more. I must consider not just her material life now, but her spiritual life to come."

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.

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.

Chen is dubious of Falun Gong's avowed lack of organization and financial obligation to members. "Somehow Master Li managed to get to the U.S. and live here," she says. "The hardest part is following the money because he profits in ways other than monetary donations. You can practice Falun Gong for free, but once you are hooked, you incur a lot of expenses donating time, labor, and material resources to expand the group." A lot of Master Li's earnings are in social capital, Chen says. With Web sites to maintain, books to publish, and numerous Falun Gong conferences to set up around the world, there seems to be a network of free goods and services provided by members.

In recent months, Singer says she has gotten calls from 45 Bay Area families concerned about relatives living in the U.S. who have converted to Falun Gong. "They are very worried, because it is not as if their mother or brother or daughter is only doing simple exercises in the park," Singer says. "There is a feeling of detachment, that attention to family has shifted to Falun Gong and Master Li. And I'm talking about Asian families, which normally keep very close and intense ties. I've listened to sisters weeping over their lost siblings."

The scenes at Falun Gong conferences at which converts are invited onstage to talk about how Master Li's teachings have changed their lives make Singer sigh. One after another, for hours on end, converts take turns telling their personal stories of spiritual renewal and physical healing. "I can feel the little faluns coursing through my body, cleansing me," 26-year-old Gina Sanchez told the crowd of mostly Chinese immigrants at the Caltech conference last month. "My thoughts and heart are being watched, and someone is guiding me. I am grateful Master Li is so merciful to do that for me. It is something I wanted my whole life."

Sanchez and others at Caltech, like 28-year-old Ed Aikens, represent a growing number of non-Chinese converts who have discovered Falun Gong and read the English-language versions of Master Li's books. "I know what Master Li talks about is true. It doesn't matter if others believe it, because I've seen it," Aikens said, as a translator repeated his words in Chinese for the audience. "I don't question we have these powers locked away in our brains. We just have to deprogram ourselves to unlock them."

The INS has had a difficult time classifying Falun Gong, especially when members deny the group is political or even a religion. But since China has clearly targeted and persecuted the group, the INS allows Falun Gong followers to file for asylum under three categories: religion, political opinion, and social group. "Blanket asylum for any Falun Gong member is not done," says INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. "They have to demonstrate persecution, or a well-founded fear, on an individual basis."

Getting asylum isn't easy, for any reason. Of more than 4,000 new Chinese applications filed last year, the INS approved fewer than 1,000. The INS does not keep a specific breakdown of Falun Gong cases, nor does the INS concern itself with what Falun Gong believes. "It doesn't matter so much whether it's a cult or not," Strassberger says. "We grant asylum based on how much a member of a particular group is being persecuted, without passing judgment on the group."

Chung Phang, the San Francisco lawyer who's won asylum for Lian and six other Falun Gong members, says he has mixed feelings about the group. He finds Falun Gong's basic principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance very noble. He also does not dismiss the Eastern idea that a connection between mind and body can relate to health, but says he would not practice Falun Gong cultivation himself.

"The reverence for Master Li could lend some credence to the allegation that Falun Gong is a cult," Phang says. "They revere him, without a doubt, but I don't think they do so uncritically. Depending on one's level of education and sophistication, I think people can and do differentiate between components of what Master Li teaches -- especially when he talks about extraterrestrial beings."

Phang says he knows Falun Gong members who are Silicon Valley software engineers, university professors, research scientists, and Ph.D. candidates. "I'm as suspicious of a cult as anyone," Phang says. "But these are people I respect. They are very intelligent, and hardly fools."

Indeed, the Falun Gong conference at Caltech was attended by many people who hold advanced degrees. Lili Feng, a biologist at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, spoke about her devotion to Falun Gong. Feng made international news last December when she was arrested by the Chinese government during a trip home. A permanent U.S. resident, but not yet a citizen, Feng had no protection in China. She was jailed for 13 days and forced to make hairbrushes, before Scripps scientists and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein helped orchestrate her release.

At last month's conference, Feng did not talk about her ordeal, but excitedly told the crowd about her plans to scientifically prove Master Li's theory that Falun Gong followers can see through a third eye that protects them. Feng says the brain's mysterious pineal gland serves as this celestial eye, and its production of the hormone melatonin is key. "I want to compare the levels of melatonin in practitioners and regular people," she says. "If the melatonin is more potent in us, and our pineal glands are more active, it might explain why we have better health and how Falun Gong can cure so many diseases."

Despite China's crackdown, Lian isn't concerned for her mother's safety back home. After all, Master Li is supposed to protect his practitioners. Stories circulate among Falun Gong followers about people in China who have walked away from police beatings unharmed. And if someone does die, that might be a sign he or she wasn't a true cultivator of Master Li's teachings.

To avoid that fate, Falun Gong's adherents must focus on their xin-xing or virtues, shedding the attachments of everyday existence while preparing for the promised trip "home." Already, Lian's entire life in China has become a distant memory in the 10 months since she fled to the U.S. "It feels like a thousand years ago," she says. "I am cultivating myself at a totally different stage now. What I was proud of in the past is not worth being mentioned anymore. I'm not interested in thinking about or remembering what I used to be. I am just interested in what I should do in the future, so I can keep going to higher levels."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.
Loading...