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In Texas there are only a few dozen loosely knit practitioners, most of whom are Chinese born, but they are making their presence more visible with hopes of attracting Westerners. A Falun Dafa advertisement appears on DART buses in Dallas. Every day in Houston, at least one person can be seen practicing Falun Gong's five sets of simple, yogalike exercises outside the Chinese Consulate.
But who are these people and what do they want? More important, what is Falun Gong? Is it, as the Chinese government claims, an "evil cult" bent on revolt? Or does its philosophy really hold the key to the universe, as Falun Gong practitioners claim? One thing is for sure: They are willing to die for beliefs that, to many Western minds, are difficult to swallow.
The first obstacle Gongers present to newcomers is their claim that Falun Gong is not a religion. Rather, they call it a mind and body "cultivation practice," because Falun Gong does not involve the worship of a god or any other central figure. It also has no earthly hierarchy, and its practitioners collect no money. Master Li, who fled China in the late 1990s and now lives in New York, is considered a teacher. Today, he travels across the country giving lectures to packed audiences. These lectures are recorded, translated into various languages and posted on the Internet where they can be downloaded for free.
Li's students, meanwhile, gather in their own homes or in public spaces, preferably parks, where they are visible. Some volunteers offer free, nine-day classes in which they teach the five sets of exercises. Called qigong (pronounced: chi-gong), they include four standing exercises and one sitting meditation.
The practice itself requires surprisingly little. Besides the exercises, the only thing practitioners are expected to do is apply the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance to their daily lives. These principles, which in Chinese translate to Zhen-Shan-Ren, make up the "mind" component of Falun Gong, and they are what separate it from other physical-oriented practices, like Taiji or yoga.
Therein lies the catch.
In Li's writings, he offers an explanation for human existence that most people would consider to be religious. Simply put, Li believes that life, as we know it, takes place in one dimension that represents the lowest state of existence in the greater universe. Human beings were once enlightened beings that traveled in that universe, Li says, but because they failed to adhere to the principles of Zhen-Shan-Ren, they gradually descended to lower levels and, ultimately, wound up on Earth, where they cling to human "attachments."
David Kang, who is planted in the backseat of the minivan, tries to translate the concept into Western terms.
"Catholics say there is a heaven, but where is it?" Kang says. "It exists. It's in another dimension."
Unlike Catholics, Gongers do not believe that higher life exists after death. Instead, the greater universe is omnipresent. If one practices Zhen-Shan-Ren on earth, gradually he will ascend to higher levels of existence or understanding. Along the way, he will simply "put down" his attachments, which include everything from seeking fame and material wealth, to smoking, homosexuality and violence. Killing, which includes abortion, is considered the most serious of all attachments.
Kang, a software engineer who came to the United States for graduate school, explains that routine American life provides many opportunities to practice. "In our daily lives," Kang says, "some people don't like to work, so they push their work on you. How do you handle this?"
If you react well, meaning you respond with Zhen-Shan-Ren, you will cultivate Xing Xing, which is a Chinese word for moral virtue. As people cultivate Xing Xing (pronounced: shing shing) their "Gong" column grows. Like a spiritual elevator, the Gong column lifts practitioners to higher levels of existence. Ultimately, they reach the state of "Unlocking Gong," where they become enlightened beings. Their "celestial eye," located in the brain above and slightly between the eyes, will open, enabling them to see into other dimensions and, thereby, discover the "truth" of the universe.
Practitioners are encouraged to do the exercises and apply Zhen-Shan-Ren to their "ordinary" lives. In return, Master Li promises them that their physical health will immediately improve, freeing their minds for spiritual growth.
The health benefits, which some claim have cured cancer and turned gray hair black again, may be hard for outsiders to believe. To Xuehai Li, they are the key to understanding Falun Gong's popularity.
"Why can Falun Gong attract so many people in such a short period of time? There must be a reason. It's because when people start the practice they actually feel the benefits," Li says. "That's why we start with the [exercises]. When we have a good feeling about the health part, gradually people will get to understand why."
Kang says Falun Gong has given him more than physical health: It has created a venue to explore broader spiritual questions that aren't debated in China, where religion is outlawed and the only road maps to human existence are contained in science textbooks.
"In this generation, we don't believe in anything--just science and communism. But to some extent science is a religion. It has professors. It has Ph.Ds. It has its own temples. And communism is a cult--it has a history of killing," Kang says. "In Falun Gong, there is no punishment. We regulate our hearts using the principles [of Zhen-Shan-Ren]. You are responsible for yourself."