Toil of `cultivator' subtly rocks China

Falun Gong: A New York immigrant's teaching `to be good' led to a crackdown halfway around the world.

July 26, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Meet Li Hongzhi, the quiet man whose followers have tripped China's most sensitive security alarms, mostly by showing strength in numbers and solidarity in their morning exercise routines.

On this Sunday afternoon, Li is holding court on the 25th floor of a midtown Manhattan hotel. He is 48, about 6 feet tall and dressed smartly but blandly in a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie. As he rises to shake hands, one half expects him to begin discussing the advantages of term life insurance.

Yet, it is his teachings of the spirituality and discipline of Falun Gong -- and the millions who have responded to them -- that have unnerved the Chinese government enough to carry out its harshest and broadest security crackdown since the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square.

Li, too, is worried about security, he says through a translator. Having moved to the United States last year, he frets about the lack of bodyguards for him, his wife and teen-age daughter, not to mention the possibility of extradition. If he had it his way, he says, he would be leading his usual life as a nobody out in Queens -- yet another immigrant with an abundance of initiative and a shortage of English, out shopping at the supermarket or cleaning the house.

Yet, this is also the man who has said he can telekinetically implant your abdomen with a "Falun," or wheel of energy, which, if you then practice your exercises, will make you healthier both mentally and physically, as well as a better citizen free of aggression and bad habits.

So, instead of being at the grocery store Li is doing interviews, with locations changing by the day. They are arranged by a coterie of followers who remind you to please not refer to Falun Gong as either a cult or a religion.

Li drives that point home as well, because such characterizations are at the heart of the Chinese government's campaign to discredit him, the movement, and its followers.

"Actually Falun Gong is no different from any other exercises, like Tai Chi or Tao," Li says. "People just come out to practice in the morning for half an hour or an hour, then they go to work. We don't have any churches, we don't have temples, we don't have any regulations or worship rituals. We don't even have offices. What I'm doing is to teach people to be good, and only in this way can they attain better health."

The rudiments of Falun Gong seem fairly straightforward, based on Li's extensive writings, most of which are available on the discipline's Web site: www.falundafa. org.

Li developed it as an outgrowth of Qigong, an ancient practice linked to qi, or life force, and Buddhist and Taoist spirituality. Its basis is a set of five exercises of "cultivation," a series of simple, controlled movements and breathing exercises.

Beyond that the explanations get cosmic, including discussions of how to open your "Celestial Eye" (it's near the middle of your eyebrows) so you can "see" things such as the "Falun," a wheel of energy twirling within your abdomen, or, if you're practiced enough, the future.

Although similar teachings of self-improvement have been around for centuries, Li's version seemed to catch on partly because of some new twists.

For one thing, it promises that the ultimate practitioners "will stay young forever."

Li also had something that even the sharpest Qigong masters never had: the Internet. Free online copies of his books spread rapidly, and from the movement's beginnings in 1992 Li now claims 100 million followers for Falun Gong -- 70 million in China, 30 million elsewhere, including the United States, with the Web site listing chapters in 38 states and the nation's capital.

Little is known of Li's past or of his spiritual awakening and training, which seems to be the way he prefers it. He was born in the remote mountains of Jilin province in northeastern China.

"At that time," Li says, "the new [Communist] China was just founded, and I was with my grandmother on my mother's side when I was very little."

At age 4, he happened to be near the grounds of a temple. He won't say what sort of temple or give its location, but what happened next changed him forever.

"I saw a fruit, a red fruit, under the fruit tree, and I picked it up." Li says. "A young monk came over and tried to stop me, and at that moment a senior monk came over."

The older monk told the younger one to leave the boy alone, then stared at the 4-year-old Li a moment before saying cryptically, "I was just looking for you."

"So, he became my first master," Li says, "and since then I became a `cultivator,' and a well-trained one. And in later years I came upon different masters from different schools, and learned a lot.

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