Going for the flow

Growing ranks of devotees seek Falun Gong's 'energy healing'

Boston Globe/November 15, 2001
By Tara H. Arden-Smith

im Bourget is stretching, trying to empty his mind and open his energy channels in a ''standing stance'' exercise, the first of the night: ''Buddha Showing 1,000 Hands.''

He seeks the same flowing force of energy and inner peace that have attracted millions to the practice of Falun Gong, now banned in China.

Bourget is of a new breed of Falun Gong practitioner in the United States. He's not Chinese. He's not a scientist or a student. He's not even one of the human rights activists drawn to the movement because of reports of the violent persecution of its practitioners in China.

Bourget, 38, is a carpenter from Worcester. And though he's an anomaly among Falun Gong practitioners in the United States right now, that might not be the case for long.

Even as Falun Gong has dropped from mainstream news, its practice in the Boston area has grown. In Cambridge, a four-hour Friday night meeting in a fluorescent-lit classroom at Massachusetts Institute of Technology draws up to 80 people a week - a number up sharply from a year ago.

In regular attendance at the Friday night MIT meetings, which feature group practice of the five core exercises followed by several hours of reading and discussion, are a high school English teacher, a hairdresser, and the owner of a company that lays wall-to-wall carpet.

Bourget, who was introduced to Falun Gong by ''a girl on the beach'' two months ago, describes his attraction to the spiritual movement - and subsequent growing indifference to the Christian faith he grew up with - as more inner compulsion than intellectual decision.

''It just felt right for me,'' Bourget said recently, while the assembled group in the next room read aloud from Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi's main text, ''Zhuan Falun.''

''When I practice, I feel the energy, a flowing force of peace,'' Bourget said. ''I'm a Christian, but I feel that to practice Falun Gong I really have to practice that as my only belief, so I've kind of put my Christianity on the back burner.''

The spiritual exclusivity that many practitioners say is essential to fully reap the physical and mental health benefits that have attracted perhaps as many as 100 million Chinese to Falun Gong may help explain why China's Communist government banned the movement in 1999. China deemed Falun Gong a dangerous cult whose ''energy healing'' beliefs precluded some followers from seeking modern medical care.

Many US politicians have spoken out against China's crackdown, and have openly welcomed Falun Gong practices here.

Falun Gong, which Li established in 1992, is an adaptation of ancient Chinese religious ritual that was banned in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. It uses exercise and study to help practitioners find their kinder and healthier inner selves. Falun Gong, which loosely translates as ''the law of the universe's energy,'' does not involve any worship.

Practitioners say Falun Gong is not a cult and that they have been targeted in China because the movement was attracting huge numbers of followers disenchanted with the austere values and social safety net failures of the Communist Party. The party, practitioners say, supported the traditional Eastern, or qigong, philosophies of master teacher Li until he grew too popular.

Merle Goldman, a faculty researcher at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, says that in the United States, the movement appeals ''mainly to highly educated Chinese people who want to feel better about themselves, to satisfy some kind of a spiritual need.''

That demographic, she says, could be about to experience an influx as more Americans learn about a ''cultivation practice'' that, unlike popular alternatives such as tai chi and yoga, promises to guard against health problems and in which instruction is always free, as ordained by Falun Gong tenets.

That was a major selling point for Riordan Galluccio, who says, ''I thought enlightenment should not be something you're charged for.''

Galluccio, 34, lives in West Roxbury and didn't want to pay, and couldn't afford to pay, to be a better person.

''Since I was about 18, I was really interested in Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism,'' he said.

Like other Falun Gong practitioners, Galluccio hopes for both better health and a calmer life. And he believes the five essential exercises expel bad qi, or energy, into the universe, and harness good qi into the body.

Michael believes that too, and for the last five months has been rising daily at 4:30 a.m. to devote an hour to the Falun Gong exercises before he goes to work. Michael, a laborer who asked that his last name not be used because he fears losing work if employers believe he has joined a cult, says he has turned to Falun Gong for health and strength, the same reasons that unemployed and aging Chinese do.

''I can't afford to be hurt, and I can't afford to get angry,'' said Michael, who is 59, lives paycheck to paycheck, and has no health insurance. He says the meditation-like exercises ease his aches and give him focused spurts of energy.

''At this point in my life I have to do whatever I can to be better, to work better,'' he said. ''I'm hanging on by a string ... But for me, it works.''

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