Falun Gong: A young spiritual discipline with a turbulent history
CBC News Online | July 13, 2006
Amidst the cars zooming past, tourists milling around and gardeners mowing the lawn in front of Queen's Park, they stand calm and relaxed.
Falun Gong followers, equipped with a mat and a small radio, practice their exercises outside the provincial parliament buildings in Toronto every morning. (Armina Ligaya\CBC)
Eyes closed, arms swooping slowly to soothing music, these followers of Falun Gong — an ancient Chinese practice for the mind and body — seem oblivious to the fact that they're in the heart of Toronto, Canada's largest and busiest city. They're here every day, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., doing one of the group's core practices, a deep-breathing exercise system sometimes combined with meditation. Passersby stop, watch and smile. It's odd that this innocuous-looking movement has been outlawed by the Chinese government, and its members reportedly imprisoned and tortured.
The movement is relatively young, founded by Li Hongzhi in 1992. He introduced the Chinese public to Falun Gong, a type of qigong, the ancient practice of refining the body and mind through special exercises and meditation. There were several qigongs in China, but numbers of Falun Gong practitioners grew the most rapidly, mainly by word of mouth. It is now the most popular qigong in Chinese history. Falun Gong claims to have more than 100 million followers in more than 60 countries and regions.
Falun Gong, which translates to wheel of law, borrows from Buddhist and Taoist traditions. But follower and Canadian spokesperson for the group, Joel Chipkar, says it is not a religion, but a spiritual discipline that can improve physical and mental health.
"It has a strong creed, strong belief in the divine and a strong belief in God, but there's no worship, no ritual, no temples, no membership, no money involved," he says. "The framework of religion doesn't apply to Falun Gong. It transcends racial and religious boundaries. It's open to anyone who wants to learn."
There are two parts to Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa: practicing five sets of exercises to strengthen and align the body's energy and studying Li's teachings outlined in two books, the Falun Gong (Law Wheel Qigong)and Zhuan Falun (Turning the Law Wheel).
Falun Gong follower Helen Li meditates, one of the group's core practices, on the lawn of Queen's Park in Toronto. (Armina Ligaya\CBC)
Chipkar, a second-generation Canadian who has been practicing Falun Gong since 1998, says there are three guiding principles: truthfulness, compassion and tolerance. "What we believe is the universe is created by molecules and matter, and every molecule of matter in this universe has these characteristics."
The 38-year-old started practicing Falun Gong after he saw his mother become a practitioner. Chipkar said his mother's disposition became more peaceful and kind in just a few months. "I was always very skeptical about spirituality," he says. "I thought it was a multi-billion dollar business, and they had the answers if you had the money. I was really relieved to see that Falun Gong didn't charge any money and the benefits to my mom were long lasting."
The exercises and teachings have helped the Toronto real-estate company owner to be less stressed and negative, he says. "The one thing that stood out to me when I read [Zhuan Falun] is that you should always be kind and compassionate to others and think of others when doing anything. The whole teaching is geared to give up these attachments to self and greed and desires, and to see the big picture."
Some liken it to a cult
However, some critics of the movement, including the Chinese Communist party, have likened Falun Gong to a cult. On the website of the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in Toronto, it says the group "has been deceiving people by concocting and spreading superstitious fallacies." It adds that Falun Gong's anti-science stance encourages its followers to not seek medicine or see doctors when they are ill. "As a result, over 1,500 Falun Gong practitioners in China have died by refusing medical treatment for their illness," it reads.
On the website of the Chinese Embassy in Canada, it says, "Numerous facts prove that Li Hongzhi and his 'Falun Gong' organization have caused serious health problems and deaths among people they duped, and that 'Falun Gong' is not a religion but a cult that brings harm to the society and an illegal organization that engages in law-breaking activities." The Chinese Embassy in Canada also has a website with stories about these alleged activities.
Critics also cite its leader's references to aliens in his teachings. For example, Li, who left China for the United States in 1998, said at a 2000 conference in Ann Arbor, Michiganhe believes that "alien beings are in fact the true, proper inhabitants of this Earth."
Chipkar acknowledges there are references to aliens in Li's teachings, but says he doesn't mean "green men with tentacles." He says Li is referring to something not from this planet or from this world.
"In my understanding, it's almost extremely egotistical for human beings to think we're the only people in this entire universe."
He admits it's a part of the teachings he doesn't fully understand, yet. But, he says, people shouldn't "focus on certain sentences or certain parts of Falun Gong. We hope that people don't paint it with a brush because they don't understand a part of it. Take text from Buddha, the Bible, or the Koran and you could say the same thing. Only through studying the spiritual discipline would you understand it more."
Li's references to aliens are not integral to Falun Gong, Chipkar says. "Maybe they exist, maybe they don't," he says. "That's not the focus of this practice. This practice focuses on being better people."
And, it's a practice that people are flocking to. "It grew faster than any other spiritual discipline in history because the principles that it teaches are true. There's so much truth, so many people benefited from this practice," he says.
Chinese government takes action
But Falun Gong's popularity is also what led to its current demise.
On April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 of the movement's members filled the streets near the Chinese Communist Party headquarters, the largest protest since the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square 10 years earlier. They sat, stood, or meditated quietly in the peaceful protest, as military officers looked on. Protesters demanded the government take action against a Chinese magazine that published an article critical of the movement's leader. Members felt the article, which argued that Falun Gong should not be practiced by young people, was the government's first step to banning the group. Protesters later dispersed peacefully.
The strong display and growing numbers — it was then estimated to have between 10 and 70 million members — shook China's government leaders. On July 19, 1999, the Chinese government executed a series of raids over two days and arrested 70 Falun Gong local leaders. The group said houses were ransacked, and books and other materials were confiscated.
In response, on July 21, 1999, an estimated 30,000 Falun Gong followers quickly organized protests in Beijing and in more than 30 other Chinese cities. At the daylong protest police detained scores of Falun Gong members, reportedly dragging some by their hair. The demonstration prompted then President Jiang Zemin to form a task force to watch the group and ban it from holding large gatherings. The next day, the Chinese government officially banned Falun Gong.
The Communist regime's extreme reaction was said to be an indication of how threatened it felt by Falun Gong. At the time, the Chinese Communist party had an estimated 60 million members — 10 million less than Falun Gong was said to have, making the group a possible threat to its authoritarian rule. The countrywide ban marked the beginning of a long-term crackdown on the spiritual discipline. The government called Falun Gong a notorious cult with an evil political will. On July 29, 1999, Chinese authorities issued a warrant for Li.
Chipkar says: "This hate campaign has aided in the murder and torture of thousands of practitioners. People turn their back when they see people beating Falun Gong practitioners in the streets."
Falun Gong has long accused the Chinese government of keeping the movement's members in labour camps for years, where they are tortured and worse, charges the government has repeatedly denied.
On July 6, 2006, a report was released that said China was harvesting organs from live Falun Gong prisoners without consent, and destroying their remains.
Former MP David Kilgour and immigration, refugee and international human rights lawyer David Matas conducted the investigation. The 68-page report was based partly on a series of telephone recordings made by the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of the Falun Gong in China (CIPFG). The non-governmental group has offices in Washington and Ottawa, approached Kilgour and Matas to help with the investigation.
Falun Gong followers have long accused the Chinese government of selling the organs of its imprisoned members in a profitable organ trade. Chipkar says they've known about these practices since 2001.
The report said between 2000 and 2005, the China Medical Organ Transplant Association recorded 60,000 organ transplants — but only 18,500 of those organs came from identifiable sources. "That leaves 41,500 transplants from no other explained sources," Matas said during a news conference in Ottawa on July 6, 2006.
The report includes transcripts of voice conversations where organs of Falun Gong prisoners are promised to prospective buyers within a week. It also cites an organ price list on the website for a transplant centre in Shenyang City, offering corneas for $30,000 US, kidneys for $62,000 US, livers for $130,000 US and lungs for up to $170,000 US.
Also included was an interview with the unidentified ex-wife of a surgeon who allegedly removed the corneas from 2,000 euthanized Falun Gong prisoners over a two-year period. All died and the bodies were burned, she said.
The Chinese Embassy in Canada has denied these allegations, saying the Chinese government has consistently abided by the principles posed by the World Health Organization in 1991 against the sale of human organs. "China has issued a regulation on human organ transplants, explicitly banning the sale of organs and introducing a set of medical standards for organ transplants in an effort to guarantee medical safety and the health of patients," it says. And, it says the report "made by a few Canadians based on rumors and false allegations is groundless and biased," and is an attempt to smear China's image. "We hope that the Canadian people will not be deceived by the disguise of the Falun Gong, and more people will be aware of the nature of 'Falun Gong' as an evil cult," it reads.
But, Matas says, "There's enough evidence here to take these allegations seriously. It's a crime against humanity. It's very simple."
Falun Gong followers here continue to use the same tactics used in China — peaceful demonstrations and education. Outside the Chinese Consulate in Toronto, Falun Gong members have been holding a silent protest, 24 hours a day, since 2001. Two large signs lean against the gates, calling to halt the killing of Falun Gong practitioners. It also directs onlookers to one of their many websites, www.faluninfo.net. Followers give out flyers to people walking by. Or, they sit in front of the gate quietly meditating. On the weekends, several members come out and do their exercises on the sidewalk. Chipkar says it's this reserved, peaceful quality that is the group's strength.
"At the end of the day, Falun Gong practitioners remain peaceful, during seven years of the most brutal persecutions in this era," he says. "This attribute has to be worth something. It has to show society the power of this teaching."