Meditative discipline from China builds a following in N.J.

Bergen Record/May 5, 1999
By Adam Geller

The dawn sky wears a fringe of pink when Sue Meng and three others unroll their mats at the far end of the volleyball court in Leonia's Overpeck Park.

For the next hour they sit nearly motionless, legs folded over lotus-style and eyes closed, as a tape player at their shoeless feet spins ethereal music into the breeze.

The meditative session -- observing a Chinese spiritual discipline known as Falun Dafa -- is so serene, most joggers trotting by hardly seem to notice. It is so placid, it's impossible to imagine this as the seeds of a revolution.

But that very notion has jarred the Chinese government in recent days, after followers of Falun Dafa massed in the largest demonstration seen in China since democracy protests at Tiananmen Square a decade ago.

The peaceful rally, which drew 10,000 to Beijing to demand the right to practice without government interference, demonstrated the reach of the fast-growing movement, whose adherents number 70 million, according to estimates by Chinese officials. That would make it bigger than China's Communist Party.

Some critics of Falun Dafa in China call it a cult and say it poses a threat to social order. The Chinese government last year pressured the leader of Falun Dafa, Li Hongzhi, to leave the country. He now lives in New York.

But even as its popularity soars in China, Falun Dafa is taking root in the United States, including in New Jersey, where followers say fears sparked by last week's protest are entirely misguided.

"This is no religion," said Meng, of Ridgefield. "This is no cult."

The other practitioners gathered on this chilly morning in Leonia are firm in their agreement.

"It's a way of upgrading one's physical condition and moral character," said Alan Adler of Tenafly. "Basically, I would say, it's a way of life."

Whatever Falun Dafa is -- and it defies easy classification -- it is starting to catch on in New Jersey. Practice sessions and readings of Falun Dafa texts are held in about 30 locations around the state each week, drawing largely from a growing Chinese community.

Falun Dafa groups meet at a number of parks, including the one in Leonia, where four to 10 practitioners gather weekday mornings. At Lucent Technologies and AT&T offices in Holmdel and Middletown, small groups of employees gather at lunch hour for the meditative sessions. Others cluster at Rutgers University, in schools and community centers, and inside homes.

The appeal, practitioners say, is that it makes them feel better physically and improves their outlook on life.

"We try to look at the fault inside, what's wrong with me, rather than blaming other people," said Gordon Li, a software developer at Lucent who organizes sessions outside his office building. "That's a big change."

Followers say Falun Dafa is an outgrowth of the widespread practice known as qigong (pronounced chee-gong), a spiritual discipline which teaches that people have the power to channel internal energy, usually through a regimen of breathing and gentle exercise.

"Qigong has been practiced for a long time in China," said Peter Li, an associate professor of East Asian studies at Rutgers University. "With the practice of qigong, you can really transmit your energy to other people for healing purposes."

In China, qigong is so common that millions of people practice it in some form, with scores of older adults gathering in public parks to engage in its meditative exercises, Li said.

China's embrace of capitalism has fueled qigong's popularity in the past few years, said Lionel Jensen, an expert on Chinese culture at the University of Colorado at Denver.

The rapid changes in society have spurred many Chinese to search for meaning in their lives beyond acquiring goods, said Jensen, who draws parallels to Americans and their talk of family values.

"They're trying to find an identity separate from what the government orders," he said.

That quest is typified by Falun Dafa and the ability of its leader, Li, to attract so many followers since it was founded in 1992, Jensen said.

"I think it's a broad fellowship, the inspiration for which is basically found in what we've considered to be moral axioms, for example, living a sound moral life and being faithful to your spouse," Jensen said.

Practitioners of Falun Dafa in New Jersey say reading the movement's text, Zhuan Falun, and following its teachings have transformed their lives.

The treatise is voluminous and written in prose that can be difficult to grasp. But it makes clear the importance of the values of truth, benevolence, and forbearance. It also tells how practitioners can realize the power of their internal Falun, a "law wheel" spinning inside the abdomen that channels energy through the body.

Meng said she tapped into Falun Dafa while visiting her long-ailing father in China and listening to him talk about how much better he was feeling because of Falun meditation.

She resisted at first but eventually downloaded the Falun Dafa text from the Internet and was intrigued.

"It brightened my eyes and heart," said Meng, an engineer who now spends her days as a homemaker. "I felt like this was something I was looking for."

Another member of the Overpeck Park group, a man who gave his name only as Nick, said the readings and meditation have helped put the stresses of work and family into perspective and made him a more content person.

He and other practitioners said they were confounded by news reports from Beijing, both because of the consternation it seemed to cause for Chinese officials and the suggestion that Falun Dafa might be a cult.

Chinese officials gave tenuous approval to the group after last week's protest, saying followers need not worry about a crackdown. But the official government news agency described the protest itself as "completely wrong."

Meng and the other practitioners emphasize that Falun Dafa does not cost anything and followers are never asked for money, that there is no organization or hierarchy, and that people are free to reject it. Most of the people who have stopped to pick up their brochures over the past year or sit in on a practice have done just that, they say.

They deliver the explanation patiently, with smiles of bemusement at some questions and this last reminder as the park comes to life around them and they roll up their mats.

"Don't call us a cult," practitioner Jane Chen of Park Ridge calls out to a departing visitor. "We're not."


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