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At the Big Buddha statue on Hong Kong's Lantau Island, meditation groups have been gathering regularly this summer looking for the sign that will anoint their new spiritual leader, 37-year-old Belinda Peng, as the True Master and Lord of Buddhas. It will be a manifestation, they believe, to "shock and shake the universe."
Meanwhile, another master -- who says the French astrologer Nostradamus predicted his role in the world -- takes umbrage with the "vile and demonic" woman in Hong Kong he accuses of stealing his title.
"I am the principle being. It was me who taught the [law] to you," Li Hongzhi wrote in a recent letter to his disciples, posted on his Web site. "Nobody should pay attention to what that saboteur in Hong Kong has instigated or give her an audience."
Millions of followers worldwide -- including hundreds in the Bay Area -- are at stake in this fight over who will be True Master, which has put a wrinkle in what has so far been an impressive religious phenomenon: Falun Gong. Banned in China because its sheer number of adherents threatened Communist Party control, Falun Gong has experienced the greatest government crackdown there since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The movement founded by Master Li has flourished regardless, circumventing China's control by way of the Internet and winning sympathy -- and converts -- in the West. The U.S. officially views Falun Gong adherents as victims of religious oppression, even granting asylum to its members (see "Spiritual Cultivation," March 15).
But the mystical and controversial beliefs associated with the group's meditation exercises -- an unswerving allegiance to one leader, the shedding of human attachments such as money and sentiment, the promise of immunity to disease, and flights through outer space to a better world and life -- have raised some questions about whether there might be something to China's claim that Falun Gong is a cult. And as an internal struggle for control of the group begins, textbook cult dynamics appear to be in play.
"Someone will always see there is power and money to be had, and will try to get followers to break away to their own group, imitating how it was done by the original leader," says Margaret Singer, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, clinical psychologist, and author of Cults in Our Midst.
Li, 50, who left China and settled in New York in 1997, has spent the last year in seclusion. His presence had been felt by followers only on the Internet, and he did not post any new writings until Peng declared her intent to replace him as the True Master last May. Now Li has been vigorously defending the title he has held since creating Falun Gong -- a blend of Buddhist and Taoist ideas mixed with many of his own and practiced with tai chi-like exercises -- in 1992. "Recently a vile person in Hong Kong who lost her senses has severely interfered with [the Great Way] by saying absurd things -- due to demonic interference from her own mind -- about how a Law Body of mine was telling her what to do," Li wrote in last month's online letter to Falun Gong practitioners.
"Li has to re-establish his power base and get rid of the competition," Singer says.
While self-imposed absence can help a leader in his efforts to become deified, Li's recent letters suggest an acknowledgment of some lost support, says Alan Ellis, who teaches social psychology at San Francisco State University.
"Even the most charismatic leader will invariably not meet everyone's needs, offend someone, or cause some to question," Ellis says. "His reappearance is necessary to keep his followers and help confirm their beliefs."
Splinter groups like Peng's, he says, offer something a little different for those not comfortable with their original master. "People who don't want to take responsibility for their own actions and thoughts will find someone else to serve as their leader that they better identify with."
So far, the group supporting Peng has not experienced a groundswell. Gatherings on Lantau Island have not totaled more than 30 people at a time, though more dissenters arrive from overseas every day to join in the vigil. Followers of Master Li refuse to comment on Peng's influence. "It is very complicated; many people are confused," says an organizer for Li in California who did not want his name used. "The more we talk about them, the more noise they make. The best way is to ignore them. But it must be made clear they are not the true Falun Gong."
Two Bay Area women adamantly disagree. Wendy Fang, of San Francisco, and Mary Qian, of Fremont, are fervent supporters of Peng, their "Lord of Buddhas." Fang, who is six months pregnant, made headlines in Hong Kong for flying there from San Francisco last month without a valid visa in hopes of meeting Peng. After being denied entry, Fang staged a hunger strike while in custody and was hospitalized for dehydration. Her husband had to fly to Hong Kong and talk her into coming home.
It was not the first time Fang put herself in jeopardy, having gone to Beijing last March to organize underground Falun Gong activity. When she was arrested and detained by Chinese officials then, followers in California called on Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) to help orchestrate her release.