Utah practitioners of Falun Dafa say the fast-growing movement provides spiritual answers
Sheng Yang Mei, pursuing a degree in computer science, and Tongyun Dang, a fellow University of Utah student working on his medicinal chemistry doctorate, wanted more than their empirical worlds.
But the spiritual odyssey proved every bit as difficult as divining the secrets of digital codes or molecules. Dotting the landscape of faith were Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and many others touting their spiritual bona fides.
In the end, Mei and Dang chose none of the established faiths. Instead, it was Falun Dafa -- a new and rapidly growing movement from their Chinese homeland -- that Mei and Dang embraced.
"I'd met all kinds of missionaries. I even went to some Buddhist temples," said Mei. "I looked at many Bibles and read the Book of Mormon and Buddhist scripture. I could not find my answers there."
Added Dang: "I didn't have a religion, either. Although I've read some books on Buddhism, Taoism, I Ching and Yoga before, I didn't really practice them."
Just seven years old, Falun Dafa is one of the world's fastest-growing spiritual movements, attracting more than 100 million practitioners since its 1992 introduction in China by Master Li Hongzhi.
The 48-year-old Hongzhi insists his creation, though born of his years of studying Buddhism, Taoism and ancient Chinese "qigong" exercises, transcends those religious traditions.
Instead, he maintains, Falun Dafa is a personal "high-level cultivation" of physical, mental and spiritual qualities that leads to improved health, clarity of thought and cosmic enlightenment. There are no Falun Dafa churches; practitioners exercise and meditate alone or together in parks. Hongzhi collects no tithes, instead living off royalties from his numerous books.
Religion or not, Hongzhi allows that his sect seeks to fulfill many of the same needs of traditional faiths. At Falun Dafa's core is "Zhen-Shan-Rehn," or Truth, Compassion and Forbearance, which Hongzhi teaches is a universal and ancient spiritual quality.
Debate over exactly where Falun Dafa falls in the religion-philosophy continuum goes on unresolved, but there is no question about its popularity. Within a few years of its unveiling, Hongzhi's teachings had attracted an estimated 70 million Chinese -- much to the alarm of authorities.
Hongzhi himself, pressured by a communist government wary of the rise of religion as it lifts restraints on free enterprise, left China. He moved to New York last year.
However, Falun Dafa remains strong in China, where on April 25, 10,000 followers gathered outside the Beijing offices of communist officials, silently meditating and exercising in a so-far unsuccessful bid for government recognition.
Reports of persecution, including arrests, beatings and job discrimination, continue to make the rounds on the sect's numerous Internet Web sites.
The sect has not remained confined to the Middle Kingdom. In the past few years it has spread to around 30 countries, nearly doubling its practitioners with new recruits in Europe and America. Today, an estimated 10,000 practice Falun Dafa in the U.S., and several thousand more in Canada.
Martial arts enthusiast Martin Larsson, a Swedish student at Utah Valley State College in Orem, is a more recent convert. A nominal Christian upbringing left him unsatisfied and open to Falun Dafa, he says.
"I've been practicing it for eight months. I found it has given me more understanding of things around me and a lot more patience," Larsson said.
"Falun Dafa appeared like a shock wave in the world," said Mei, an East High School graduate who is among 10 adherents in Utah. He was introduced to the discipline by a housemate three years ago.
Curious, he picked up the Bible of Falun Dafa, Hongzhi's Zhuan Falun -- Mandarin for "Rotate the Law Wheel" -- and found he couldn't put it down. In two days he had finished the 500-page tome.
"I have a nonreligious background. I didn't believe anything before," said Mei, now a spokesman for Utah's Falun Dafa community. "The first day I read the book I knew right away that this was what I wanted."
Dang, 28, has read the book "eight or nine times" in the year since he adopted Falun Dafa. He and Mei know of other followers who have plied its pages hundreds of times, in some cases memorizing its lines.
The book, available free on the Internet (www.falundafa.org) -- purports to teach wisdom mined from millennia of qigong traditions, along with a series of five physical and meditative exercises to tap and develop each person's "Law Wheel," a high-energy entity spinning inside one's lower abdomen.
In teaching that this entity absorbs energy from the universe, Hongzhi seems to draw on the Taoist concepts of "Yin-Yang" and the Buddhist "Dharma-wheel."
However, Hongzhi says Falun Dafa takes adherents to much higher planes of enlightenment, being the refined product of his years of qigong study and previously "highly classified" knowledge handed down from teachers to students over centuries.
Such claims are nothing new to the ancient traditions of Eastern faiths, said the Rev. Jerry Hirano of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. "Every so often a lot of things like that come up," he said. "There are a lot of new religions that have similar ideals to Buddhism but different ways of doing it, and some of them grow quite large."
Although Hirano does not see Falun Dafa as a threat to more mainstream expressions of Buddhism, he is concerned with its exclusivity -- for while Hongzhi rebuffs the religious label, he also teaches that Falun Dafa practitioners cannot achieve enlightenment while holding other faiths.
"If it helps a person, that's fine," Hirano said. "But the thing that worries me is when some of these sects say that they are the one way. "Buddhism doesn't have that tradition, that we're the only way. So when some of these New Age religions come up with that attitude, that can be a hindrance."
Mei doesn't see it that way, sharing his teacher's contention that Falun Dafa is beyond such debate.
"We are cultivating the whole universe, not just a religion," he said.
"All he [Hongzhi] wants is for us to be good, to become enlightened."