Science Of Serenity

Handfuls of Marylanders, many involved in intellectual, earthly research, have embraced Falun Gong, a mystical practice that has China in arms and the world in wonder


As dawn breaks over the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, Chang He Shang trudges across a grassy field, lays down a small white rug, pops a cassette into his boombox, sits and nimbly crosses his legs into the lotus position.

To the strains of a mystical-sounding Oriental melody, Shang -- eyes closed, back erect and the fingertips of both hands pressed together -- begins the first slow, graceful gestures of Falun Gong, the movement that has aroused the suspicion of Chinese authorities and the curiosity of the world.

On this morning, Shang practices the exercises of Falun Gong alone. Other days he is joined by three or four other practitioners, as followers of Falun Gong call themselves. On Saturday mornings, there could be more than a dozen.

For two hours, with eyes closed in concentration, he performs the five exercises of Falun Gong. And then he is ready to tackle his job as a Hopkins research physicist.

"I feel quite energetic," he says. "After practice, I go to work. I work more efficiently. My mind is quite clear."

In China, the practitioners of Falun Gong number in the millions. In Maryland, they are counted by the dozens, most of them ethnic Chinese who are in the United States for study or research. For that reason, most practitioners gather at the universities -- there are groups that meet regularly each morning for an hour or two to do the exercises at Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, Johns Hopkins medical school, Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The news of the suppression of Falun Gong in China brought sadness and anxiety to the practitioners in Maryland, many of whom have family members who practice the discipline in their homeland. In late July, they abandoned their regular morning gatherings and went to Washington, where they joined more than 1,000 fellow practitioners in protest on Capitol Hill and in front of the Chinese embassy.

Min Deng, 26, who is studying in the chemistry department of Johns Hopkins' School of Hygiene and Public Health, says that after she began practicing Falun Gong, she persuaded her parents in China to do the same. But after the crackdown, her parents decided to give it up.

"They told me, `We decided not to continue,' and they're trying to convince me to give it up," Deng says. "They said, `Please don't practice this any more because we realize how bad it is. I think they're not determined enough, and they didn't see the truth of [Falun Gong]. They're fooled by the Chinese government."

Americans who are hearing of Falun Gong for the first time are struck by its seemingly audacious claims: The exercises will cure disease and give its adherents supernatural powers such as the ability to levitate.

Its founder, Li Hongzhi, who Falun Gong practitioners refer to as "Master Li," says he can telekinetically plant a spinning wheel, or "Falun," in his followers' abdomens. The wheel is a miniature version of the spinning cosmos that if cultivated through the exercises can improve one's mental and physical health.

It seems like a practice where Western science and rationality must be checked at the door. But like Shang, many of the local Falun Gong practitioners live and work in the world of science and see no contradiction between their vocation and their avocation.

"From normal science, normal physics, it's hard to understand. Like levitation, it's hard to understand," Shang says.

But if you think about it, he says, we are surrounded by fantastic phenomena. The Earth itself, for instance, is levitating.

"Our Earth is so heavy. How can our Earth float in space? How can this heavy body levitate in space, in a vacuum?" he says. "In this world a lot of things our present science can't explain. Present science as I understand it is quite preliminary. Maybe future science can explain it."

"Master Li didn't say he could levitate," says Yien Che Tsai, a doctoral student in microbiology at Johns Hopkins Medical School. "Master Li did talk about the phenomenon of levitation. In India, many people have demonstrated levitation. This phenomenon exists throughout the history of Oriental culture. So it's nothing that incredible."

Tsai says he studied Tai Chi, which has stylized movements very similar to Falun Gong, for seven years with a teacher. He finds Falun Gong much more satisfying.

"Tai Chi is just exercise. No matter how you do it, it's just exercise," he says. But [Falun Gong] has a complete theory. I know what I can do to improve myself, how I can make myself a better person."

Nearly every Falun Gong practitioner tells a story of physical healing that came through their practice of the discipline. Shang says his blood pressure, once so high that he had dizzy spells and had to take medication, is now normal, and he sleeps better. And Falun Gong even saved his marriage -- he and his wife no longer incessantly quarrel, like they did before he took up the practice.

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