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Is Qigong Political?

Is Qigong Political? A New Look at Falun Gong

Falun Gong has been in the international news and has become a political topic as China attempts to ban the practice and jail participants. Mr. Cohen not only describes the discipline to help us understand it better, but also gives his personal opinions on this very hot topic.

Falun Practice in LA

What is Falun Gong?

Qigong has always been associated with spiritual traditions. Although modern practitioners generally consider qigong a healing art or even a branch of Chinese medicine, the majority of early qigong texts are found in the Taoist Canon, a collection of more than 1,000 texts on Taoist philosophy, religion, ritual, and qigong. In Taoist literature, qigong is called daoyin, "leading and guiding the qi" or yang sheng, "nourishing the forces of life." Qigong exercises were probably originally modeled on ancient shamanic postures and dances, similar to the postures described in anthropologist Felicitas Goodman's landmark book Where Spirits Ride the Wind. Ancient people discovered that specific postures or combinations of postures produce specific states of consciousness and influence the flow of subtle energy in the body.

Qigong is an evolving art. Old styles are modified and refined, and new styles are created according to the experiences, insights, and talents of practitioners. One of these new systems, called Falun Gong, was introduced by forty-one year old Li Hongzhi in 1992. Fa is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, meaning Buddhist teachings. Lun translates the Sanskrit word chakra, meaning wheel. Falun is the dharma chakra, the wheel of Buddhist teachings. To turn the wheel of the dharma is to practice and propagate Buddhist teachings. Gong means skill or it may be short for the skill of controlling qi: qigong. Thus the name Falun Gong means "a qigong method that spreads Buddhist wisdom." Alternately, this system is called Falun Dafa, the Great (Da) Method (fa) of Falun. It includes both dynamic qigong (dong gong) in which qi is stimulated through gentle exercises, as well as quiescent qigong (jing gong), in which the mind controls qi during meditation.

Falun is more than a philosophical principle and a qigong system. The falun is also a spiritual energy center in the lower abdomen. This is not as esoteric as it first sounds. Imagine that you are a belly dancer doing hip gyrations--these movements, by the way, are part of a sacred healing dance tradition from the Middle East, originally practiced by women preparing for childbirth. Now imagine the movements getting smaller and smaller until your body is hardly moving at all, yet you still sense motion within the belly. The feeling of subtle rotating energy is actually very pleasant. The "energy ball" massages the internal organs, relaxes the diaphragm (causing a deepening and slowing down of the breath), and awakens an awareness of the body's untapped potentials. In conventional qigong and Taijiquan practice, this sensation is called dan tian nei zhuan, inner rotation of the dan tian (elixir field). I am convinced that the turning of the falun mentioned in Li Hongzhi's various publications is a variation of dan tian rotation. It is a valid qigong technique.

Book Burning

Why has a spiritual and healing art like Falun Gong become front page news and a focal point for international human rights groups? In less than a decade, Falun Gong has attracted more than 70 million practitioners, at least ten million more members than the Chinese Communist Party. Although Li tells his students to obey the laws of their country and has made it clear that he has no political ambitions, the Chinese government is worried about its ability to control the activities of Falun Gong practitioners. On April 25, 1999, 10,000 Falun Gong followers gathered in a peaceful demonstration outside the headquarters of the Communist Party in Beijing to protest the arrest of several Falun Gong leaders. China was shocked at the ability of a spiritual movement to mobilize so many people. When other leaders were detained in July, tens of thousands of followers demonstrated in some thirty cities. China reacted. On July 22, 1999 the People's Republic of China Ministry of Civil Affairs banned Falun Gong and branded it an "evil cult" and "a threat to social stability." According to Xinhua, China's official state news agency, any party member who believes in Falun Gong will "fall captive to idealistic heresies and finally lose credit as a communist."

Xinhua issued prohibitions against:

  • hanging or posting Falun Gong pictures, insignias, signs, or advertisements
  • distribution of books, magazines, audio and video products, or Falun Gong promotional materials
  • assemblies of people for the purpose of promoting Falun Gong
  • activities such as parades, demonstrations, or petitions that protect or advertise Falun Gong
  • any activities that incite the public to disturb social order through fabricating or distorting facts" or spreading rumors
  • organizing, linking up, or directing activities that contest relevant government decisions.
  • The Chinese government has censored and destroyed all Falun Gong books, literature, and videos. Thousands of practitioners have been arrested, detained, or sent without trial to labor camps for reeducation. Amnesty International has reported ill treatment, torture, and fatal beatings of various members. On December 26, 1999, four Falun Gong leaders were sentenced to prison terms after a one day trial. Li Chang, a fifty-nine year old official in the Police Ministry was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Wang Zhiwen, 50, a railroad engineer, was sentenced to 16 years. Ji Liewu, 36, manager of a Hong Kong metals company, received 12 years; Yao Jie, 40, a Communist Party official at a large Beijing real estate company, was sentenced to seven years.

    Master Li

    The founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, moved to the United States about three years ago. After Falun Gong was outlawed in July of 1999, Li Hongzhi was placed on China's most wanted list. The Chinese government asked Interpol, the international police force, to aid in Li's arrest. Hiroaki Takizawa, acting director of criminal intelligence at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, made it clear that Interpol would not comply because Li is not a criminal, "...our principle is not to intervene in any religious, military, racial or political issues. If any offender commits a crime, which falls under the category of ordinary crime, such as murder-- in that case it is possible to co-operate." (BBC World Service Report, July 29, 1999).

    Officials from the U.S. State Department, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, Human Rights Watch, and other groups have universally expressed outrage over the way China has violated international law and its own constitution. According to Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, "Cloaking this campaign [against Falun Gong] in rhetoric about the 'rule of law' doesn't give any greater legitimacy to China's crackdown on Falun Gong. The official ban on Falun Gong should be lifted...All Falun Gong members in detention, formally charged, or sentenced to labor camps for peaceful activities should be immediately released."

    Paranoia is spreading

    On September 23, 1999, the Chinese Health Ministry issued rules that restricted all forms of qigong. "General" and "health enhancing" qigong are allowed, but only among small, scattered, local, voluntary groups that register with the government. Qigong schools are prohibited. Qigong may not be practiced in "important places" such as government or military institutions, embassies, airports, train or bus stations, ports, or streets. The terminology of the Health Ministry statutes seems deliberately ambiguous. It leaves the definition of "important place" or "qigong school" to law enforcement authorities, and may allow them to arrest practitioners on a whim. This may already be occurring. In December of 1999, Chinese police in Shanxi Province closed down the largest training school for Zhong Gong, a qigong healing meditation society unassociated with Falun Gong. On January 19, 2000, The New York Times reported that Chen Jinlong, 51, a Zhong Gong teacher from Zhejiang Province was sentenced to two years in prison. He allegedly provided medical care that he was not qualified to deliver and harmed patients. The founder of Zhong Gong, Zhang Hongbao, 45, has not been arrested. His followers will, understandably, not reveal their master's whereabouts.

    There are conflicting reports about the current status of medical qigong in China. Medical qigong is, in itself, considered scientific and acceptable. Spiritual qigong schools, especially those which claim many followers, are perceived as threats to Communist power, control, and dogma. But how does one draw the line between medical and spiritual? You cannot heal the body without transforming awareness and spirit, and vice versa. The interconnection of jing (body), qi (mind), and shen (spirit) is the basis of all schools of qigong.

    China wants to distinguish scientific from supernatural. Unfortunately, many competent teachers make supernatural and bogus claims, either to boost their status among gullible students or to compensate for personal feelings of incompetence. A person who has power does not need to brag about it. We should also take into account that in a despotic regime, people will latch onto anything that promises power or salvation.

    Recent events have already had unfortunate results for Western students. Many are hesitant to travel to China for qigong training. On March 3, 2000, a Chinese official, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me that foreigners would not be allowed to present at an upcoming medical qigong conference because of the "falun gong paranoia."

    The Taoist Messiah

    Throughout Chinese history Taoism, Buddhism, and qigong have been associated with political revolts. Does this mean that Falun Gong is a political threat? Not at all! However, a brief look at Chinese religious history may help us understand why China is so fearful and mistrusting.

    Lao Zi, the fourth century B.C. founder of Taoism, left his job as librarian at the Zhou Dynasty court because of his distaste for political intrigue. Yet he wrote a book that advised emperors how to rule wisely. Perhaps he realized that unless justice prevailed, Taoist recluses would not be able to remain undisturbed for long. Zhang Dao Ling, the second century founder of the first Taoist Church (called the Heavenly Masters), was a charismatic medium, ritualist, and healer who attracted tens of thousands of followers during his lifetime. He created an egalitarian Taoist theocracy, with equal roles and rights for men and women. His Taoist armies were defeated by the Han Dynasty General Cao Cao in 215 A.D.

    Many Taoists expected an apocalyptic end to the Chinese dynasties. Taoist scriptures such as the Annals of the Sage Who Is To Come (Shang Qing Hou Sheng Dao Jun Lie Ji) declared that after the wicked had been exterminated by plagues, war, and flood, Lao Zi would return to earth as a God. These events were prophesied to occur in the ren chen, water dragon year 512 A.D. Taoists prepared themselves for the new world by reciting sacred texts and practicing qigong. When the renaissance did not occur, new dates were calculated. (Interestingly, renowned Taoist scholar and author, Dr. Michel Strickmann, once confided in me that according to his interpretation of the early texts, the Taoists were one thousand years off. The proper date for the Taoist apocalypse is the water dragon year of 2012 A.D.-- the same year that some indigenous scholars believe marks the end of the Aztec Calendar!)

    Taoists have been politically suspect for more than two thousand years. Throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Zhang Dao Ling's lineage descendant, the "Heavenly Master," was forbidden to issue Taoist ordination diplomas. The Reformist Movement of 1895 tried to convert as many Taoist temples as possible into public museums, hospitals, and schools. In the New Life Movement of the 1920s, students participated in the destruction of temples around the capitals of Beijing and Nanjing. When the Communists occupied the Taoist Holy Mountain, Dragon Tiger Mountain, in 1927, the Heavenly Master, Zhang Enpu, was driven out. His lands were seized and distributed among the poor, and his brother was executed for "advocating superstition." Not surprisingly, in 1951, Chen Duxiu, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, complained that Taoism exerted an anarchistic influence on Chinese youth, making it difficult to recruit them into the Party. Taoists were branded fan dong "counter-revolutionary", and both Buddhists and Taoists were forced into lay life.

    Chinese Buddhism has also inspired revolution. Since the seventh century A.D. numerous individuals have declared themselves to be Maitreya (the future Buddha) on earth and inspired their followers to take up arms. One thousand years ago, the Song Dynasty government declared Maitreya Sects to be "heresies and unsanctioned religions", phrases now applied to Falun Gong. Tens of thousands of Maitreya Sect followers were killed. (For a more detailed history of these movements, see my article on Falun Gong in the Summer 2000 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.)

    Qigong Chop Suey: My Personal Opinion of Falun Gong

    In Li Hongzhi's A Brief Statement of Mine, he says, "Falun Gong is simply a popular qigong activity." (www.falundafa.org). The exercises and meditations he recommends are, in my opinion, good qigong. However, the philosophy of Falun Gong is a mish-mosh of bizarre beliefs about Buddhism, Taoism, and UFOs. This does not in any way condone Chinese censorship or the persecution of Li's followers. However, the scholar in me cringes when I read the Falun Gong materials or when Western media assumes that Falun Gong is representative of Buddhist or Taoist philosophy. Falun Gong is neither Buddhist nor Taoist; it is the personal philosophy of Li Hongzhi blended with messianic and millennial beliefs. I have outlined below several of the most serious errors in Falun Gong philosophy by offering personal commentary.

    Automatic Spirituality. Li claims "the falun is constantly rotating, putting the practitioner in the state of cultivation for 24 hours a day. Of all the qigong or cultivation systems known to the public, Falun Dafa is the first and only one that solves the conflicting time requirements for practicing and work or study." (Brief Introduction of Falun Dafa www.falundafa.org) This is a grandiose claim sure to attract followers. Are the cures attributed to Falun Gong a massive placebo effect, the power of expectant trust? I would like to see how long-term followers react to a Beijing traffic jam or how American followers meditate on Tax Day.

    Commentary: Spiritual cultivation is like cultivating a field; you must water and nurture it every day. Qigong requires patience and perseverance. There are no short-cuts.

    Not An Earth-Friendly Religion. In Degeneration of Mankind and Appearance of Enlightened Beings (www.falundafa.org), Li explains a new theory of evolution, actually devolution. "Man did not come from the evolution of the ape as Darwin suggested." Instead, "Man has fallen down from different spaces of the universe." When he does not follow the cosmic laws of a space, he falls down to a lower plane. "To put it in another way, the Earth is a rubbish center of the universe...The bad people of the universe fall down until they have reached the very center of the universe--the Earth." He continues that the high God does not care about people. He is too far removed from them, regarding human beings as "no better than micro-organisms." If a high God found this "rotten place" (the earth), he would destroy it. Thus we must be saved by a being closer to our plane of existence, a Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Zi--or perhaps Li Hongzhi?

    The fact that life is transient (impermanent, anicca, in Buddhist terms) is all the more reason to pay attention and not miss its passing beauty. The earth is a beautiful place. Wang Wei, Tao Yuan Ming, and other great poets of China would be ashamed of you, Mr. Li. Perhaps you spent too much time in Chinese cities, where two million people die each year because of pollution. I suggest a camping trip in Montana.

    Delusions of Grandeur? Did Li Hongzhi change his birthday to coincide with the birthday of the Buddha? Li claims that during the Cultural Revolution, his birthday had been misprinted and he only corrected the mistake. The fact that the Buddha was born on the same day is allegedly a coincidence. However, I wonder about the implications of his essay The Buddha Fa and Buddhism. After discussing the common Buddhist belief in Maitreya, the future Buddha, Li states, "At present, I have once again come to this world to teach the Fa [Dharma], and to directly teach the fundamental law of the universe."

    We are all Bozos on the bus. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. All beings have the Buddha nature, that is all are products of the same natural forces of the universe and are equally capable of enlightening an observant student.

    Alien Invasion. Li's belief in other dimensions and "spaces" is evidently more than metaphorical. He told Time Magazine's William Dowell that aliens arrived on earth around 1900. Some look like humans; others resemble ghosts. They intend to replace all humans with clones. "In terms of culture and spirit, they already control men." Even the inspiration of scientists is "manipulated by aliens."

    I better not reply. If I am an alien, my words will be suspect. But how do I know that Li Hongzhi is not an alien? No mention of aliens in Buddhism, Taoism, or Qigong.

    Gimme that old time religion. Li Hongzhi goes out of his way to criticize Zen Buddhism. He says that Zen "doesn't qualify as a cultivation system." (Zen Sect has gone to Extremes www.falundafa.org). He complains that the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, was "unable to save others." An odd statement, since the Buddha was emphatic about his own inability to save others. His dying words were, "Work out your own salvation through diligent practice." As an additional indication of the Zen heresy, Li claims that Zen Buddhists worship Bodhidharma. Praise and respect Bodhidharma, yes; I have yet to meet a Zen Buddhist who worships him. They don't even worship the Buddha! Li seems especially frustrated by the Zen concept of nothingness or emptiness (kong, xu, or wu in Chinese, sunyata in Sanskrit): "they even deny the existence of man...They even dare not accept what they have seen."

    Zen is a system of meditation inspired by both Taoism and Buddhism. Instead of worshipping the Buddha, Zen Buddhists seek what the Buddha sought, enlightened awareness. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught that suffering, dukkha, is caused by grasping, tanha. We want what we don't have and reject what we do have. Only by emptying the mind of self-centeredness can suffering cease. Emptiness also means that nothing exists in and of itself; subject and object exist in relationship (in Buddhist technical jargon this is called co-dependent origination). Emptiness is not the denial of the senses, it is rather ceasing to confuse our concepts about life with that which words describe. It means experiencing the world silently, quietly, without a filter of preconception or belief system.

    Emptiness is considered the goal of qigong practice. According to a fundamental tenet of qigong, "Cultivate your bodily energy (jing), then your mind (qi), and finally your spirit (shen). When you cultivate your spirit you will reach emptiness (xu). In the empty state you realize the Tao." The Taijiquan Classics begin, "Taiji is born of Emptiness."

    Conventional Medicine, Complementary Medicine, and ULTIMATE Medicine. In China Falun Gong, Li states, "If a practitioner takes medicine, it means that he does not believe his disease can be cured through practice..." A true practitioner is "supernormal" and "the diseases an ordinary person suffers from are not allowed to attack him." (p. 138) Odd that the Buddha may have died from bad pork, esteemed Buddhist Master Suzuki Roshi from cancer, and so many other holy men and women from various human ailments. If only life were so simple, if only goodness and wisdom ensured physical health. But microbes just don't obey the rules! As Lao Zi said, "Heaven and Earth are not benevolent."

    I am not denying that Falun Gong can be good medicine. Like other qigong systems, scientific studies suggest that it may have positive effects on cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and other ailments. However, one of the largest studies of Falun Gong also states "only when those practitioners upgraded their Xingxing (mind nature and moral level) unceasingly, could the effects be remarkable." (The Effect of Falun Gong on Healing Illnesses and Keeping Fit..., October 18, 1998 www.ncsu.edu/stud_orgs/falun/ reports/Survey2new.html)

    This suggests a strong placebo effect. The study is also suspect because it only surveyed practitioners--no non-believing "controls" for comparison--and was conducted by a Falun Gong association (Falun Gong Zizhuyuan Assistance Center, Beijing). If an organization has a vested financial or personal interest in finding a positive result, it almost always will. This is why western scientific protocol requires that research be judged by independent and, hopefully, impartial referees. (Biased research is all too common in China. When I wrote The Way of Qigong, I found that only about 10% of published qigong experiments were scientifically trustworthy.)

    Qigong is complementary medicine and is a powerful adjunct to necessary medical intervention. It is now taught in several U.S. medical schools. I have more physicians in my own teacher training program than people of any other profession. Physicians are willing to study qigong because qigong does not claim to cure all diseases. Qigong is an excellent system of patient education. The more a student practices, the more he or she gains control over those aspects of health that can be controlled. Sometimes genes are stronger than qigong. People get sick in spite of qigong or any other therapy, but qigong gives the patient a better fighting chance.

    China's Search for Meaning

    It seems to me that the Falun Gong movement is symptomatic of the desperate search of the Chinese people for freedom, empowerment, peace, and, most importantly, meaning. When psychiatrist Victor Frankl was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, he discovered that inmates who maintained a sense of purpose and meaning had the best chances of survival. Perhaps, meaning is the most important benefit of Falun Gong. However misguided the philosophy, it does confer a sense of hope for something better. This may, ultimately, be even more important for health than qigong.

    Ken Cohen

    ©2000, Kenneth S. Cohen, M.A., M.S.Th. is an internationally renowned health educator, Qigong instructor, and China scholar. He is the author of "The Way of Qigong: the Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing" (Ballantine Books), "Taoism: Essential Teachings" (Sounds True), and more than 150 journal articles. His lectures have been sponsored by the Association of Asian Research Scholars, Zen Mountain Monastery, the Canadian Ministry of Culture, and many universities. He is executive director of the Qigong Research and Practice Center (http://www.qigonghealing.com).

    Article reprinted from the Summer 2000 issue of Qi Journal

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