N.Y.ers feel the Falun Gong spirit

NY Daily News/May 21, 2005

Gail Rachlin was checking out a holistic health fair at a Manhattan hotel about seven years ago when she spotted a guy with a blissed-out grin standing at a booth. He apparently wasn't selling anything, and that caught her attention.

"I stopped and said, 'Whatever you've got, I want,'" Rachlin recalled this week.

And that's how she learned about a Chinese spiritual movement called Falun Gong, which in 1998 was just gaining traction - and devotees - in the U.S. Now it holds its meditation and exercise classes at more than 40 sites in metro New York alone, and Rachlin is a spokeswoman for it.

To most New Yorkers, Falun Gong, also sometimes called Falun Dafa, is known only for its high-visibility public protests of China's attempts to suppress the movement. The Communist government believes it is a dangerous cult.

Devotees and supporters often pass out literature and reenact scenes of alleged Chinese brutality and torture during protests in Times Square, Union Square, Washington Square Park and elsewhere around the city.

But last week in City Hall Park there was a different kind of demonstration - to mark the 13th annual world Falun Dafa Day - with song, dance, exercise, information on the movement and greetings to New Yorkers in a dozen or so languages, including Hebrew and Russian.

Even bigger, in a way, was a conference last month at the Sheraton New York attended by several thousand practitioners and highlighted by an appearance by Li Hongzhi, who founded Falun Gong in 1992 in his native China.

In his remarks, he denied that the movement was interested in politics and predicted that it would continue to grow rapidly. It is active in more than 50 countries, with some estimates putting the number of its devotees at more than 100 million.

Li, his family name, has lived in New York since the late 1990s, when the Chinese government branded him a "dangerous charlatan," banned Falun Gong and ordered his arrest on charges of fomenting public disorder.

His followers, who call him "Master" and, in some cases, "Living Buddha," say the Chinese cracked down because Falun Gong poses a serious challenge to the Communist Party. In any case, there is little doubt the movement has grown enormously there. By some counts there are at least 60 million Chinese practitioners.

To some, it is a spiritual movement. To others, it is a sect, a society, even a cult.

"I call it a way of life," said Rachlin, a real estate agent who lives on the upper West Side.

Falun Gong combines traditional Chinese breathing exercises with meditation and Buddhist and Taoist precepts, especially truth, goodness and tolerance. There are five exercises with names like "Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands" and "Penetrating the Cosmic Extremes."

"They're easy to learn, fun and both relaxing and energizing," Rachlin said, "and there is never any cost to people taking our classes."

Many adherents, she said, retain their conventional Christian or Jewish identities while others characterize themselves exclusively as Falun Gong practitioners. There are no formal sanctuaries; devotees meet in homes, student centers (at New York University and elsewhere) and rented space.

"There are four places to meet on the upper West Side - all in homes," Rachlin said.

In one way, the most controversial thing about the movement is its founder, a 52-year-old onetime grain store clerk and trumpet player in a Chinese police band.

One belief, expressed in a Time magazine interview six years ago, is that aliens from other planets - which he refused to identify - have invaded Earth and are responsible for, among other things, airplanes and computers.

"The ultimate purpose is to replace humans," Li said.

He also was quoted as saying Falun Gong can endow practitioners with superhuman powers.

"I think that he meant supersensitive, in the sense of heightened awareness," Rachlin said.

As for the alien invasion, she said that is not something devotees think or talk about.

Li says he began learning "qigong," a special form of Chinese martial art, at age 4. At 12, he was taught Taoist practices by an "immortal scholar," and in 1992 formulated the precepts that became Falun Gong and went public, he says.

For all its increasing visibility, Rachlin said it is impossible to give a figure for the number of practitioners in the New York area because there are no formal membership rolls.

"It's like asking how many people jog in Central Park," she said.

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