NEW YORK -- On Sunday, followers of Buddhist Law staged the largest protest in Beijing since the Tiananmen Square movement 10 years ago, but the New York-based spiritual leader who developed the doctrine rarely shows his face.
The leader, Li Hongzhi, a 47-year-old native of Changchun in northeastern China who now calls New York home, keeps a low public profile even as his books, audio and video tapes and Web sites spread his message to tens of million of people around the world.
Close associates say they do not know where he is now. They assert that he has no formal organization. Like a rebel leader on the run, he sometimes appears at conferences his followers sponsor in Asia, North America or Europe, but with little advance notice.
"We have no organization," said Yi Rong, an associate of Li based in New York. "No one talks to him regularly except maybe his family. We had a research society in China once but this has been abolished."
Despite that elusiveness, or maybe because of it, Li has become a guru of a movement that even by Chinese government estimates has more members than the Communist Party. Beijing puts the tally of followers in his mystical movement at 70 million. Its practitioners say they do not dispute those numbers. But they say they have no way of knowing for sure, in part because they have no central membership lists.
Amorphousness makes practical sense. The Communist Party suppresses unauthorized organizations of any kind, whether they explicitly oppose communist rule or not.
The demonstration on Sunday in Beijing involved more than 10,000 followers. But Ms. Yi insisted that Li did not know about the demonstration beforehand. "I'm quite sure that not only did he not organize this, but he did not even know about it. We all learned about it just yesterday," she said, but she acknowledged that her certainty was tempered by her inability to contact Li or to pinpoint his whereabouts.
Li has fashioned a mind and body spiritual exercise program intended to allow adherents to live a moral life, remain free of disease and achieve enlightenment. He is a master of what the Chinese call qigong, an ancient practice than spans a spectrum from martial arts to soothsaying.
In the early 1990s, people who follow Li said, he built up a network of students around China, lecturing thousands at a time. Last year, under pressure from the government, he left China for the United States.
Exile appeared to do nothing to limit his popularity in China, even as he spread his gospel to Americans and Europeans. Li, who followers say is always on the road, was the guest of honor at a recent qigong conference in Sweden, where most of the practitioners were locals.
"He is like qigong masters everywhere but claims to be one level above them," said Chen Maiping, who is Chinese and attended a seminar with Li in Sweden but does not follow Li's teaching. "He treats it like religion. He has a complete philosophy of life and death."
In some ways the movement resembles a religion. It has a central treatise, called the Zhuan Falun. Like some ancient Chinese philosophy, the text is a little obtuse.
"The reason why cultivation can be called cultivation is that there is a way for cultivation, a road for you to walk on," begins a chapter entitled "Not Cultivating the Dao" (Dao means the way and is sometimes spelled Tao).
"There was such a saying in the past: The man does not cultivate the Dao, yet he is already in the Dao. Such a man abides by the small way and pays attention to Nothingness or Emptiness."
Despite these quasireligious overtones, followers of Li insist that his movement is not religious. It has no churches, no ordained priests, no hierarchy of any kind, says Ms. Yi.
"There are no conditions for membership, and people can come or go at any time," she said. "We have no structure or hierarchy. That's why we strongly state that we are not a religion."