In silence, the 50 men and women form themselves into orderly rows on Boston Common. Then, in slow motion, they begin a series of rhythmic, meditative exercises that dates to a self-improvement technique rooted in the mythic pre-history of China. The technique, called Falun Gong, is poised to become the next exercise and consciousness-expanding craze of New Age America.
Falun Gong (''Law Wheel'') is a form of Qi Gong, the more-than-4,000-year-old Chinese exercise and meditation system that purports to channel energy (or Qi, pronounced ''chee'') to different parts of the body. It is the basis of tai chi and martial arts such as tai kwon do. Also sometimes known as Falun Dafa (''Great Law''), the technique includes elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, philosophies that encourage simple and harmonious lifestyles. ''Qi Gong is usually practiced by people who want to have a healthier body,'' says Michael Tsang of Arlington, one of the organizers of the recent ''promulgation'' event on the Common, ''but Falun Gong is also about cultivating your higher self, what in Western terms is called personal growth.''
Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992 by a mysterious, charismatic former martial arts instructor from Manchuria named Li Hongzhi, who now lives in Manhattan. Although it claims 100 million followers worldwide (more than two-thirds of them in China) Falun Gong attracted little attention until this spring.
On April 25, in response to the Chinese government's attempts to restrict the movement, more than 10,000 practitioners converged on the official residence compound in the heart of Beijing. They spent the entire day in silence, meditating and doing Falun Gong exercises. At sundown - after picking up all their litter - they quietly dispersed.
''That demonstration in Beijing was amazing because it was totally unexpected,'' says Donald Klein, a Tufts professor emeritus of Asian studies. ''That sort of thing isn't supposed to happen in China. Nobody knows what it means.''
Falun Gong was confined to Boston's Chinese community when it was introduced to Boston about three years ago. However, there are now branches at Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Tufts. Lectures on the system and instruction in its techniques are given frequently by volunteers like Tsang. ''All our lectures and classes are free and we don't ask for donations; this is just something we believe in,'' says Tsang, who credits Falun Gong with curing him of a debilitating fatigue syndrome. ''I'm also kinder and more patient and tolerant,'' he adds.
Tsang estimates that there are about 200 serious Falun Gong practitioners in the Boston area - those who, like himself, devote two or three hours a day to exercises - but says several thousand people have attended classes or demonstrations. Today there are reportedly Falun Gong groups in 21 states and 80 Web sites around the world devoted to it.
The Beijing demonstration was apparently organized on short notice by Falun Gong practitioners in northeastern China who communicated with one another by fax, cellular phone, and the Internet. ''We must have a lot of practitioners in cyberspace,'' quips Tsang.
''Whatever political ramifications Falun Gong may have in China, it doesn't have any in the United States,'' says Merle Goldman, professor of Chinese history at BU. ''But it's interesting that a fundamentalist movement with a mass following is using high technology. Some members must be very sophisticated. In Chinese history, many movements that started out as religious have become political and that's why the government is frightened.''
While he has no apparent political agenda, the 48-year-old Li holds peculiar views - among other things, he thinks most of the world's scientists are aliens from other planets - and claims superhuman powers for himself and his followers.
According to the biography found on most Falun Gong Web sites, the first indication that ''Master Li'' had special gifts came when he was 8 years old and willed himself to be invisible during games of hide and seek. He also claims to be able to insert a ''spiritual wheel'' into the abdomens of Falun Gong practitioners that can so energize them they may even levitate.
In this pragmatic and both-feet-on-the-ground country, Falun Gong's greatest impact is likely to be on the thriving personal-growth and martial arts instruction industries.
''Falun Gong is coming on like a tidal wave; I've never seen anything like it,'' says Eugene Gaudreau of Haverhill, director of the Oriental Arts Institute of New England, president of the National Qi Gong Association, and a professional tai chi and martial arts instructor for more than 25 years. ''Of course, they give free Falun Gong lessons and that's a pretty powerful marketing device,'' notes Gaudreau dryly. ''You get something for nothing and a claim that you're plugging into some source of universal energy. No form of Qi Gong will hurt you, but people with a void in their lives can be vulnerable'' to going overboard.
It was a flier advertising free instruction that introduced him to Falun Gong last summer, says 22-year-old Jason Pomerleau of Augusta, Maine, who was a Tufts student at the time. ''I was looking for something to help answer my questions and free up my life,'' says Pomerleau, who founded the Tufts Falun Gong group. ''Now I'm graduated and have to find a job to pay off my student loans,'' he says. ''I hope Falun Gong can help with that.''
Bruce Pettinari of Groton says he responded to an ad in a local paper offering free Falun Gong lessons. He now spends about 90 minutes a day going through the five prescribed Falun Gong exercises. ''I have reached levels of tranquility I've never known before,'' asserts Pettinari, who says he previously was a devotee of Eckankar, a Minnesota-based New Age religion.
Falun Gong has frequently been referred to as a cult in news reports, but local practitioners insist that while it has spiritual content, it is not a religious movement. ''I've never been religious and this isn't a religion,'' declares Tianlun Jian, who has a PhD in economics and works for a Boston securities firm. Although Li is its acknowledged leader, Falun Gong supposedly has no formal structure. ''There is a certain amount of organizational activity,'' concedes Tsang, ''but individuals volunteer to do whatever has to be done.''
The event on the Common appeared to be well-organized. Display panels alongside the rows of practitioners explained their movements and other panels detailed Falun Gong's philosophy in both English and Chinese. Leaflets and copies of books about Falun Gong, written by Li and awkwardly translated into English, sat on tables.
However, none of the practitioners levitated. ''Some of them might be able to do it,'' Tsang says, ''but levitating in public would be showing off, and that's not Falun Gong.''
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