New York -- Nadine Leichter, a 38-year-old hat designer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., claims to be as skeptical as anyone in the world. But like millions of others who follow the teachings of Li Hongzhi, she is a true believer.
What she believes in is something called falun gong (pronounced fah-luhn goong), a mixture of ancient Chinese exercises, meditation and the study of Mr. Li's teachings. It has spread rapidly around the world, fuelled by the Internet, its simple tenets and the fact that people of all ages and backgrounds seem to be able to fit it easily into their daily lives. There are no fees, no organization to join, no compulsory meetings or programs and no offices.
Despite its rapid growth -- Mr. Li claims falun gong has grown to 100 million members, perhaps as many as 70 million of them inside China, in just seven years -- there is no proselytizing or paid staff.
"I come from California and I've been exposed to every New Age thing," Ms. Leichter said in an interview yesterday. "I have a really deep dislike for that stuff and I have pretty good radar for bad things. I am not one to throw myself into anything."
North American adherents say that despite what Chinese authorities say, falun gong bears no resemblance to a cult or religious organization of any kind, has no political interests and does not have a doomsday view of the world.
"We are not a cult. We are not a religion and we are certainly not a sect," said Gail Rachlin, who runs her own public-relations firm in Manhattan. "We're all individuals drawn to spiritual practice, because it has helped us in our personal lives."
Ms. Rachlin and other U.S. "practitioners," as they call themselves, say they are shocked by what is happening to their co-followers in China, who yesterday were subject to a massive police sweep in 30 cities.
"It's craziness," Ms. Rachlin said. "We're a meditation group. We're completely non-political."
Adherents of falun gong (falun means wheel of law, and gong translates as spatial powers) say emphatically that they do not worship Mr. Li, a 48-year-old former clerk in China who has lived quietly in the New York City-area with his wife and teenage daughter since going into self-imposed exile in 1996.
He also spends part of the time in Atlanta and travels frequently to large Chinese communities in cities such as Toronto, San Francisco and Sydney, Australia.
The group holds frequent conferences in which people demonstrate exercises, share their experiences and line up to buy Mr. Li's bright blue books. Such meetings in China have been known to draw up to 4,000 people. Everything, including translation work, is done by volunteers.
"We consider him a teacher, master of the system he developed," said Ms. Leichter, who has not met Mr. Li. "We have sincere respect for him and consider him a very enlightened person. But we don't worship him and we don't follow him."
Mr. Li was travelling and could not be reached for comment yesterday. But the son of medical doctors, who was born in Changchun, has spoken in the past about how he was transformed at the age of four.
He said he was picking apples near a temple while visiting his grandmother, when a Buddhist monk approached and said: "We have been waiting for you."
The monk became the first of a long line of spiritual teachers, Mr. Li said.
"This is not a movement," Mr. Li said in a recent interview. "It has no arms and no violence. It just teaches people to be good citizens. Moreover, it implements loose management. You are free to come and go. It has neither a list of names nor any records of anybody."
He appears to earn all his money from royalties from several books of his teachings, the most popular of which, Zhuan Falun (Rotate the Wheel), was published in 1996. (Mr. Li has said that if making money were his goal, he could simply charge practitioners $1 a head and collect $100-million.)
Those who don't want to buy his books can download them free from the Internet, where the group's Web site is maintained by volunteers.
Adherents gather in study groups to read all or bits of chapters or sections.
"People tend to view it as a religion because we read a book," which they assume is like the Bible, said Mela Wu, a young Manhattan mother who had never heard of Mr. Li or his teachings until a visit to China last year. She was introduced to the exercises by a stranger after remarking how young the person looked. Adherents claim medical, as well as spiritual, benefits.
Mr. Li insists he is no better than any of the people who read his teachings, but the Web site devoted to his teachings (<http://www.falundafa.org>) makes much of various honours accorded to him.
And for an organization that isn't one, falun gong is extraordinarily well connected in China, where many thousands of Communist officials and academics are adherents. The woman who persuaded Ms. Wu to try it is a chemist.
"If it was a bunch of monks running around a temple, people on the outside would say: 'Oh, I understand,' " Ms. Leichter said. "But they don't understand ordinary people doing this. They think we're nuts."
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