'Sending righteous thoughts': Inside the closed Falun Gong compound with two legal fights

Times Herald-Record, New York/November 21, 2022

By Chris McKenna

Cudderbackville -- To the outside world, it's Dragon Springs: the remote and secretive compound where the Falun Gong spiritual group runs its schools and world-traveling dance company and skirmishes with local officials and neighbors over its steady construction work. 

But inside, it's known as "The Mountain," the mythical-sounding description used by those who live, study and work there. Presiding over their community, isolated behind two guarded gates and hundreds of acres of forest, is their revered Master Li, the 71-year-old guru who invented a belief system that captivated millions in his native China in the 1990s, filling parks with groups of followers doing slow-motion exercises and seated in meditation.

After Chinese authorities began a harsh crackdown on the movement, Li Hongzhi and his disciples set up a sanctuary in exile in western Orange County 20 years ago that has become the unlikely base of a worldwide operation. The Shen Yun dance troupe that formed in 2006 and rehearses at Dragon Springs is so successful it has multiplied into seven touring groups with $26 million in reported profits one year and $126 million in savings.

The Buddhist-influenced movement's mantra is "truthfulness, compassion and tolerance," the peaceful values Master Li preaches. Yet its Shangri-La in the Shawangunk Mountains has waged or fended off a string of lawsuits since 2006 and is currently embroiled in two.

Clashing pictures emerge: on the one hand, an enclave that builds without permission or environmental concern and resists oversight in its quest to expand; on the other, a law-abiding group that suffered terrible repression in China and faces harassment and obstruction here, fueled by bigotry and resentment that Dragon Springs pays no property taxes.

In one pending suit, Dragon Springs accuses town of Deerpark officials of concocting reasons to withhold final approval for a building that has been used for years, ultimately forcing it to be declared off-limits for college purposes. The case amounts to a larger showdown over what one leader describes in court papers as the town's "death by a thousand cuts" - a nitpicking campaign that "keeps Dragon Springs stuck in quicksand in one fashion or another as we try to make use of our" property and buildings.

"This is shocking, unprecedented, and demonstrates the level of political and personal bias that has characterized the Town's unapologetically discriminatory, harmful, atrocious, and damaging treatment of Dragon Springs," Levi Browde, a Mount Hope resident and vice president of planning for Dragon Springs, said in a court statement filed in September.

Town officials counter that Dragon Springs' setbacks are self-inflicted, caused by its failure to furnish required documents and history of building without approval. Dragon Springs is also defending itself in a federal lawsuit brought by two neighbors and an environmental group, claiming that sewage has seeped from the compound's overwhelmed treatment system into the nearby Basher Kill stream and Neversink River, polluting the water.

Grace Woodard, a plaintiff in that case and a founder of the Deerpark Rural Alliance, argues its leaders "use their victimization as a cudgel" to blunt criticism, and have gotten away with violations that wouldn't be tolerated from other property owners. She says many residents see leniency rather than discrimination in the town's handling of Dragon Springs and its typical building approach.

“Build first; if it’s in violation, pay the fine," Woodard said in an interview to describe that pattern. "Apologize, pay the fine. Repeat.”

The compound alarmed neighbors in 2018 by proposing an expansion that would include a 920-seat performance hall for Shen Yun, which fills big venues for multiple nights in New York City, Paris, Berlin and other cities. Its plans estimated the enlarged complex would draw 2,000 visitors a day, an unsettling level of traffic for a rural area and the winding, two-lane roads that lead to Dragon Springs' gates.

That proposal stalled in 2019 and it's unclear if Dragon Springs will pursue it. The compound already has extended its footprint by opening satellite campuses for its two performing arts schools in Middletown and amassing a total of nearly 1,100 acres in Deerpark and Mount Hope, almost tripling the 427 acres the Falun Gong originally bought for $555,000 in 2000.

Dragon Springs also has served as a magnet for two decades, attracting a growing Falun Gong community to the surrounding area in western Orange.

Life on The Mountain

The compound has two main sections, very different in appearance. One is a striking set of Buddhist temples and other wooden structures built in the style of the Tang Dynasty, the era more than 1,100 years ago that the Falun Gong uphold as the peak of Chinese culture. The timbers, held together without nails or metal joints, are oiled to an amber hue.

Next to that serene setting is the institutional side: a complex of modern buildings with dormitories where all the daily activity occurs and where construction has sparked off-and-on friction with town officials and neighbors for years. That is where more than 300 students hone their dancing and instrumental skills at two performing arts schools called Fei Tian, training from sixth grade through college to be Shen Yun dancers and musicians.

The five connected buildings also include the eight-story theater where Shen Yun rehearses, preparing a new show each year to showcase classical Chinese dance and dramatize central Falun Gong messages: the persecution of its practitioners in China and evils of the ruling Chinese Community Party.

One former Fei Tian teacher recalls Li as a visible figure at Dragon Springs, commanding awe and excitement whenever he appeared but also interacting at times in ordinary ways, such as stopping by the billiards room to shoot pool. At holiday gatherings, Li would dine with his followers and then give a lecture in Chinese. He also would turn up unexpectedly, prompting a rush to see him as word spread that he was delivering books to a class.

"'Revered' is an understatement," the former teacher said. "They considered him to be a god."

More than two hours each day on The Mountain were devoted to group Falun Gong practices. One hour was spent doing the four standing exercises and one seated meditation Li taught. Another hour was dedicated to reading aloud from Zhuan Falun, the collection of Li lectures that is the movement's central text. Practitioners would gather in a classroom and take turns reciting passages from the book.

Teachers and students also would drop whatever they were doing three or four times a day to sit cross-legged for urgent meditation spells, a 15-minute ritual known as "sending righteous thoughts" that was meant to dispel evil forces. Once, the former teacher recalls, practitioners were told to summon those thoughts when the town building inspector arrived at Dragon Springs, an intruder to be repelled.

"They're on a mission of saving the world, and they see themselves as surrounded by evil," he said.

The compound, on guard against suspected sabotage by the Chinese government, is always on high alert. Surveillance cameras line the perimeter, pointing outward. One neighbor describes seeing red and blue flashing lights of patrol cars through the trees throughout the night, as guards travel the former logging paths that are now the paved roads of Dragon Springs.

Closed world

Falun Gong practice consists of the daily group exercises and book readings, and spreading the Falun Gong message. Practitioners are taught to "cultivate" themselves − which they believe has healing powers − and work collectively to save the souls of non-practitioners, or "ordinary" people, author and scholar Andrew Junker explained in his 2019 book, "Becoming Activists in Global China."

The Falun Gong, which has practitioners from the U.S., Japan, Australia and other countries besides China, have no houses of worship and no clergy or sacred figure other than Master Li, whose stature is most exalted among his Chinese followers.

"Chinese practitioners treat Li like God," Junker wrote.

Their mountaintop compound is closed to outsiders, viewable only through aerial photos and a few images Dragon Springs shows on its website. Its supporters are equally guarded. All who were contacted for this story, even those who spoke at a 2019 public hearing or have served as spokespersons for the Falun Gong, either didn't respond or rebuffed requests to be interviewed about Dragon Springs and the local Falun Gong community.

Among those who voiced support at the hearing on the expansion proposal was Gail Rachlin, a former Manhattan public-relations agent for Li Hongzhi and the Falun Gong who is now a real estate agent in Orange County. Rachlin, a practitioner herself, told the audience she had sold more than 300 homes to members of their group since moving to the county five years earlier.

"This is due to a lot of people who are part of the Falun Dafa practice moving to our area, which can only enhance the area," Rachlin said, using the alternative name for Falun Gong. "We never harm people. We are kind and considerate. We practice compassion, truth and patience, and we never intentionally impose on others."

Supporters argued that the project would help the local economy and that any problems could be overcome. But most hearing speakers opposed the construction plans, saying Dragon Springs already had disrupted their rural area and would cause further harm if allowed to expand and draw a flood of visitors.

"Increased traffic on a lazy rural road is dangerous, unwanted and not suited to the design of the road line," said Ken Porada, a longtime resident who lives a half-mile from one of Dragon Springs' two entrances. "Galley Hill Road is rural residential and was not constructed for a complex that is expected to host thousands upon thousands of visitors annually."

How is it funded?

Shen Yun, the dance troupe, is both a big money-maker and a form of outreach, spreading the Falun Gong word through art as the group also does through its media arms: the Epoch Times newspaper, a rising force in conservative media since hitching its wagon to Donald Trump; and the New Tang Dynasty TV station, known as NTD.

Shen Yun performances are colorful spectacles that are accompanied by orchestral music and glorify ancient Chinese culture. Li, the movement's leader, has talked in speeches about winning converts through those shows and marketing them to the affluent.

"Some people want to learn Falun Gong after seeing the performance," Li told a crowd of disciples at the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn in 2019, an annual gathering that the Epoch Times reported was attended by 10,000.

Li, speaking in Chinese, boasted that Shen Yun was expanding again, adding a seventh company to keep up with demand after selling about a million tickets on its last tour. "A million − a million people in attendance," he said, according to the translated transcript posted on the Falun Gong website, Menghui. "You can see what a force it is in saving people."

Each Shen Yun cast has about 80 dancers, musicians, singers and stage crew workers, a total of roughly 560 members rehearsing each day inside Dragon Springs. Their next tour is set to start in late December and run for more than four months, a blizzard of shows mostly in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.

Dragon Springs replenishes Shen Yun's ranks with its Fei Tian Academy of the Performing Arts, which had 172 students enrolled in grades 6-12 last year, and Fei Tian College, which had 140 students in 2020-21. The satellite campuses on the grounds of the former Middletown Psychiatric Center last reported 120 students in grades 6-12 and 54 in college, according to state Education Department data.

The schools are profitable: Fei Tian College disclosed $1.5 million in net earnings and the Northern Academy of the Arts in Middletown reported $1.2 million in profits in their last public tax returns. But Shen Yun far outstrips them both, reporting $26 million in profits in 2018 and $20 million in 2019 in its tax filings. It claimed $126 million in savings at the end of 2019, plus $16 million in a separate foundation that promotes the dance company.

Neither Fei Tian Academy nor Dragon Springs itself file tax returns because both are classified as religious organizations. In a 2005 tax filing, its last before being reclassified, Dragon Springs reported its fledgling campus − described then as a Buddhist monastery − was worth about $12 million and it had gotten $10 million in donations in the last four years.

The lawsuits

One unusual piece of the current lawsuits is the insinuation, in court papers and Epoch Times articles, that the Chinese government has stoked antagonism to Dragon Springs through an American agent. That supposed agent is Alex Scilla, founder of the environmental watchdog group that brought this year's federal case over stream pollution with Woodard and another Dragon Springs neighbor.

Citing Scilla's resume on his LinkedIn profile, Dragon Springs and its defenders question why else someone who worked in China for 16 years would move to New Paltz and start a group - NYenvironcom - that has taken a keen interest in Dragon Springs and other Falun Gong projects. (Copies of Epoch Times articles questioning his and Woodard's motives were mailed anonymously to homes in western Orange.)

Kaijin Liang, an engineer for Dragon Springs and its former president, made the most explicit connection, claiming Scilla has "public ties to the Chinese Communist Party" in a letter to state environment officials that was filed in court in September in Dragon Springs' suit against Deerpark.

Scilla scoffs at the accusation, saying he worked in China mostly in the recycling industry, hauling steel for 10 of those years, because that was a very lucrative business in China until a few years ago. He denies any ties to the Chinese government and says he and Woodard have raised legitimate concerns about stream pollution and Dragon Springs dodging oversight.

“If you’re dumping your sewage in the water, it’s not a political issue," Scilla said. "It’s sewage in the water.”

He questioned in turn the point of Dragon Springs' non-profit status and resulting tax exemption.

"Do they organize any beneficial activities for anyone besides their own members?" he asked. "Do they engage with the community in a way beyond airing of their grievances? You're not serving the public, but you’re not paying your taxes. You’re not even being a good steward of your environment.”

The suit Dragon Springs filed in May was its second discrimination case against the town. Its lawyers dispute the "harmful false narrative" that it routinely builds without approval, and claim Deerpark's building inspectors visited the compound too often and made redundant demands.

"Each time, Town Defendants generated a new, harsh, excessive, and petty 'list' of items or newfound 'requirements' allegedly needing attention – only to return again and again with a new list," attorney Joshua Grauer wrote.

In its response, the town called Dragon Springs a "serial abuser of state and local regulatory processes" and rejected its claims of religious intolerance. Its leaders known since 2018 what it needed to do to get final approval for the disputed building: submit "as built" drawings of the existing complex, attorney John Walsh wrote. Yet it hasn't done so.

Dragon Springs blocked at least some of the inspections it criticized. A building inspector who entered the compound in July 2021 reported afterward in his notes that the Dragon Springs representative who met him there wouldn't allow him past the gate to the temple and school areas.

"William informed me that this area was not open to the public and that if I wanted to enter I should see a judge," inspector Al Dodd said in his handwritten account, a copy of which was obtained by the Times Herald-Record through a public-records request.

Growing community

That steady influx of Falun Gong practitioners to Deerpark, Mount Hope and other places in western Orange has led to other development plans and side projects outside the gates of Dragon Springs, like the conversion of a former equestrian center into a Falun Gong film production studio and event space. The Epoch Times bought a three-story office building in Middletown last year and has since sold it to Gan Jing World, a new social media platform offering only "clean content."

Another result was the incorporation in June of a group called the Mount Hope Chinese Association, which declares its mission is to promote "traditional Chinese culture and values." Its public activities thus far have been a primary Falun Gong cause: denunciation of the Chinese Communist Party.

The association has staged three anti-CCP events in western Orange County since then to warn of China's threats to the U.S. and American society, and has another lecture scheduled on Dec. 8 in Middletown about how China has "infiltrated our schools, companies and communities." Signs advertising the group's Oct. 27 seminar were posted on the side of Guymard Turnpike, one of the roads leading to Dragon Springs.

"Wake up to the CCP threat," the signs read.

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