Me and Li — Why I left Falun Gong after being a devoted believer for a decade
*I wrote this story about three years ago, shortly after I made the decision to have nothing more to do with the meditation group Falun Gong. It’s taken me some time to summon up the courage to publish it. My apologies if some of the references are a little dated. I have published fiction on this blog but want to clarify that this particular article is completely true, except for the names of people which I’ve removed.
I think it was Lynn’s* death that finally made me realise it was time to leave. I’d seen the writing on the wall about a year prior when I saw her at a yearly “Fa conference” for believers of Falun Gong, otherwise known as Falun Dafa, to exchange experiences and grow spiritually together. An executive assistant at a Queensland valuation firm, I’d gotten to know her over the years in various events as a warm and level-headed lady who had time for everyone. But I’d noticed she had developed a bulge on the side of her head and I was trying not to look at it when I talked to her. I saw, or at least I believed I saw, some pain in her smile. She was probably questioning herself over and over again what “attachments” she hadn’t let go of that were causing this sickness to spread through her body and endanger her life. I wanted to tell her to just go to a hospital, although I wasn’t at this stage resolute enough in my gradual return to logic. Another part of me feared that by looking at it I was acknowledging it — something you don’t do with illnesses in Falun Gong because Master Li Hongzhi teaches that his pupils don’t get illnesses. He can cure you but only if you don’t have any loopholes in your belief in him and his teachings. Some people with solid beliefs can actually die due to others around them having flaws in their thinking, Li says. Just thinking the wrong way is perilous when you’re a Falun Gong practitioner.
I later heard through the grapevine of Lynn’s death. The cancer went into her brain and she passed away in extreme pain, probably believing to the end that it was her fault she was in this awful predicament. In a way, I guess it was.
She wasn’t the first Falun Gong practitioner I knew who died from an illness after refusing medical treatment. Another, Sarah*, did some gardening for my mother in Sydney for a while. She got along well with my mum and did a great job with the garden until her breast cancer became too severe. A staunch believer, she took on a number of big roles in Falun Gong organisations in Australia, including president of Free China and spokesperson for the Celestial Marching Band. She held out against medical treatment, finally accepting treatment when it was far too late. She had been spending her days not in a hospital but in pain in the living room of a family of practitioners, unable or unwilling to explain to the outside world why she hadn’t sought professional help. One of her last hurrahs was singing at a Falun Gong event, seated on a wheelchair on the stage. I listened to a recording and the music was cheery and full of hope. Quietly grieving her death, I called her mobile phone and listened to her answering message one last time, her calm and soothing voice, before deleting her contact number. I never told my wife or friends the truth about her death.
That Falun Gong practitioners frequently die from treatable medical conditions is one of Falun Gong’s dirtiest secrets. A lot of Falun Gong practitioners have died this way. I heard about deaths often when I was involved in the community, typically middle-aged or older practitioners dying of cancers they didn’t treat. These cases would come up in group “sharings”, where we would meet regularly and study scriptures together then talk about them. And they would come up on the email lists I was on. Usually it was a request for practitioners around the world to “send righteous thoughts” to “eliminate evil interference” that was causing this person to become ill. Word would quietly circulate later that the person hadn’t made it.
This was one of the Chinese government’s earliest criticisms of Falun Gong — that thousands of Falun Gong believers had died because they had refused medical help for treatable conditions. The Chinese government then went on to launch a whole range of more dubious accusations about self-immolation, murder and terrorism to justify its brutal campaign against the group — a campaign that continues to this day and has killed thousands. Falun Gong practitioners have continually countered that these claims are nothing but Communist Party propaganda. They have come up with ways to explain away Master Li Hongzhi’s very clear teachings against taking medicine. In fact, the Party was right about this phenomenon although I wouldn’t trust their numbers. Even in a more recent lecture, published on Falun Gong website Clearwisdom.net in May 2015, Master Li acknowledges the “many” deaths in the group and lays the blame squarely on those practitioners’ thoughts:
There have been quite a few instances of sickness karma tests, with many people even passing away. But truth be told, if I’m to put it seriously, you cannot tell from the surface how a cultivator is really doing. Of course, such a person will be doing Dafa things like others, but what people see are the outward things, while in reality there are many attachments deep inside, which others cannot see. (Accessed Jan 16, 2016)
I can say confidently that anyone who has been involved with Falun Gong for more than a short length of time will have heard of — or directly witnessed — cases like this. But it’s an extremely delicate topic, uncomfortable even when there are only practitioners in the room. Any believing Falun Gong practitioner will hide this secret from non-believers. They’re not just hiding it because they don’t want their friends and family to know what a bizarre belief they have. They genuinely fear that by revealing it they will be giving someone a bad impression of the practice and damning them to hell.
A lot of medical professionals actually know about this, but for some reason it has escaped wider public scrutiny in the Western world. Maybe the noisy arguments between the Chinese Communist Party and Falun Gong have drowned out a more nuanced discussion of the half-truths and half-lies coming from both sides. I once met a nurse who had directly witnessed a dying Falun Gong practitioner refuse medication in hospital. And a while back when I sought some counselling on a few topics including this one, it turned out my counsellor, who was Taiwanese, had lost an aunt this way. She rode her cancer out to the end without palliative care.
Falun Gong dominated a decade of my life. It began innocently enough with a flier from a Chinese man in the Sydney CBD, which outlined some basic principles of the practice and talked about the situation in China. I went home and read more. I decided to join a local meditation site which went from 5am to 7am each morning, in a park only a block away from where I was living, overlooking Blackwattle Bay in Glebe beneath two giant fig trees. The people who taught me the exercises were friendly, interesting and unimposing. No money exchanged hands, and the materials were available online for free. It resonated with me deeply. In it I saw the spiritual guidance I had craved for so long, seemingly without the evangelical, charismatic bent that turned me off a lot of religions. I was wrong on these points, it turned out, but I guess by the time these aspects became obvious I already was quite devoted to the teachings. The intense workload demanded of every practitioner in promoting Falun Gong isn’t really discussed in the main book Zhuan Falun, but rather gradually unveiled bit by bit in later articles by Li.
I pushed myself with the exercises, eventually working up to being able to sit in full lotus position for a full hour — the desired length of time in Falun Gong exercise tutorials. Unfortunately after a few years, those people who taught me the practice those first days were either no longer practicing or still believing on some level but shunned by the community.
After a while I became involved with the community of Falun Gong practitioners in Thailand while travelling, which is where I deepened my belief. We’d exercise together at Lumpini Park in Bangkok, eat some delicious food, then some would leave for work while others stayed to read for a while.
The reading groups, usually in someone’s living room in the evening, were particularly warm in those early days. I’d cram into a room with mainland Chinese, Thais and visiting foreigners from various parts of the world. We’d all take turns to read paragraphs from Falun Gong teachings aloud in various languages while others followed along in their own languages. We’d chat for an hour or two afterwards about our lives and the problems we were facing.
But perhaps I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses here. When I returned to Australia, my family and friends were struck by how different I had become. I was intense and evangelical, and devoting most of my spare time to Falun Gong activities. My former curious interest in the many experiences the world had to offer had vanished. My social beliefs had transformed from those typical of a left-leaning family to take on a very conservative hue. I had a lot of explaining to do before people reluctantly came to accept the new me. I later observed other new Falun Gong practitioners go through a similar process. They would begin by shocking their family at their sudden change, then gradually learn to live the kind of double life typical of most practitioners. Many would get normal jobs. Most would find they had little in common with non-practitioners (“ordinary people” in Falun Gong parlance) but would maintain cordial relations with friends and family nonetheless, and think of various ways to explain the edge off some of Falun Gong’s less palatable teachings about aliens, how heaven views gay people, the inferiority of other religions and Master Li’s role in saving the universe.
During my time in Falun Gong I was involved in some of Falun Gong’s public outreach projects, with my biggest contribution being to The Epoch Times newspaper. Falun Gong practitioners have launched a range of media companies as part of what they see as their spiritual mission, including New Tang Dynasty Television, Sound of Hope Radio, and the Vision China Times. Their purpose is purely evangelical, although perhaps not in the way evangelical Christians might understand. Converting people to Falun Gong is not a priority right now — that will happen in the future, according to Master Li’s teachings — after an apocalyptic “weeding out” takes place where anyone who holds bad thoughts towards Falun Gong, or good thoughts towards the Chinese Communist Party, will come to a grisly end.
(Clearwisdom has published some very graphic descriptions of this day where practitioners describe visions that Master Li has given them of people being weeded out. “People were screaming in terror,” reads one [Last accessed 23/10/2017). “Mangled, dead bodies were everywhere. Next, the ground split open. Monsters were attacking people.” It goes on to describe the survivors being grateful to Dafa for sparing them.)
So the spiritual mission of all of Falun Gong’s projects is a kind of giant PR campaign to warm people to Falun Gong but not necessarily to convert them, and turn people away from the Communist Party — a representation in the human world of all that is truly evil in the cosmos. This intention is clear in any article in these media that is related to these topics, whether it be the satirical banter of Chris Chappell’s China Uncensored or the more stiff-collared serious journalism of The Epoch Times.
The Epoch Times Australia, English edition, began in the small Summer Hill living room of a Falun Gong couple, where a bunch of followers pieced it together with laptops while sitting on the floor. Somehow our ragtag army, with hardly any media experience among us, managed to put out a weekly newspaper that way. Later the English version joined the more successful Chinese-language paper in an upstairs office by the train tracks in Hurstville — a Chinese-dominated suburb of Southern Sydney. Some of the first editions had some laughable errors. But others weren’t that bad, considering the scant resources. I have no idea where the money came from to print thousands of newspapers a week, or to pay for the Reuters and AAP articles that filled them. Even less to pay for another media company, New Tang Dynasty Television — a satellite TV station. This was understandably kept a secret, since the Chinese Embassy was particularly active at that time in seeking out and pressuring any public supporters of Falun Gong. I was told it was a few wealthy benefactors. Some Falun Gong critics believe it came from the US government. I honestly don’t know, although I do know the editorial guidelines of The Epoch Times were very clear about being sympathetic to the US government.
It was hard work, with many late nights and red-eyed arguments as disagreements emerged over how the paper should be run. But there was warmth and camaraderie as well, particularly in the kitchen where volunteers would cook dinner and make tea for the team.
The prestigious editor position was a dubious promotion. It basically involved giving up your entire life for The Epoch Times, such was the time commitment. Without time to work, have a relationship or raise a family, the editor was typically a single person living off his or her own savings. One editor was a warm-natured and gentle guy who became a good friend of mine. He managed to hold this position for several years and I saw directly what a toll it took on his life, he was just tired all the time. At one point the then heads of The Epoch Times Australia decided to start paying him a very basic wage to meet his living expenses. Later Master Li directly intervened and ruled that it wasn’t OK for Epoch Times staff to be paid with the money that other practitioners had volunteered. My friend was suddenly in debt, and had to pay back the money he had been paid which totalled a significant sum that he didn’t have. Somehow his belief survived, despite this slap in the face after all the sweat and blood he had put into the paper. A few years later it became OK again for workers in Falun Gong media companies to receive a basic payment to allow them to do their work. Unilateral decisions like this were unquestionable, unchallengeable. Heaven had spoken. Continuing to follow Falun Gong involved a kind of slow murder-by-a-thousand-cuts of my free will, my independent logic. They were like tests from Master Li, sifting out the moderates and solidifying the zealots.
Master Li’s fingerprints were, in fact, all over the paper. There was one time when Master Li directly sacked a large number of Falun Gong media workers and appointed new people to take their place. But most of his influence was through a select few close followers who would then transmit his directives through the broader Falun Gong network. It was rarely made clear what, exactly, he had said, and whether it was, in fact, a Master Li directive or rather simply a decision of The Epoch Times board in New York. It was usually just described as a decision from New York.
There were so many examples of this, where any sense of the public’s right to know was trumped by Falun Gong dogma. In the early days of The Epoch Times Australia, we formulated the editorial code after a conference call with the head office in New York. It specified that we should report positively on public figures who had spoken positively of Falun Gong, and avoid negative coverage of these people if they were involved in scandals. We also should avoid positive coverage of people who had spoken badly of Falun Gong or were seen as too close to the Chinese government. Later when the Iraq War broke out we weren’t to question the United States’ involvement. We were to completely avoid coverage of anything to do with homosexuality. There were also some specific people who we absolutely weren’t to cover. One was Hillary Clinton, who was seen as having sold herself out to the Chinese government. Another was Kofi Annan, then head of the United Nations, which had something to do with him being a ghost or devil in another dimension. Jackie Chan and movie director Zhang Yimou were similarly seen as having sold out to the Communist Party. Due to the highly changeable nature of these kinds of directives, and my distance from the group now, I can’t say whether they are still in place today.
One email circular in particular made my blood boil. It dictated to all global Epoch Times staff how they should describe The Epoch Times, be it to the general public or their friends or family. We were not to reveal we were volunteers, as this would project an unprofessional image of the paper. And we were not to draw any association between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong. Rather, we should describe ourselves as staff, and there were suggestions about how we should answer the question about whether or not we were paid, while still adhering to Falun Gong’s teaching of “Truth”. I wrote an angry email over this and ignited something of an email controversy — not my first and not my last. How dare they tell me how I should describe something I was involved in to my own friends and family? And why was it necessary to deny a connection between Falun Gong and its media organisations? The Christian Science Monitor, for example, has shown it’s possible for a sometimes controversial religious group to openly run a respected media publication. Society is surprisingly open minded about this kind of thing if you have nothing to hide.
Later another circular demanded that every single Epoch Times staff member put themselves through an exhaustive grammar and writing course developed by the head office. It was weeks of work for an already highly over-worked (and mostly unpaid) team. And it taught a level of grammar that was technical to the point of being mostly superfluous for most media professionals, except perhaps sub-editors. It was irrelevant how much media experience you already had or how much time you had. It was a “one body” exercise, which is Falun Gong parlance for every believer being on the same page in thought and action. Practical outcomes (or the lack of them) took a back seat to the changes in other dimensions that we were bringing about through these kinds of actions.
One argument I never made in response to these directives might have been: How dare you give me orders when I’m giving you so much of my time for free and asking for nothing in return? But I knew that would have fallen on deaf ears. We were all being paid in “virtue” — a white substance in another dimension that you gain when you do good things and that leads to blessings in this life and the next. We would all later be paid with glorious futures. We all believed that, deeply.
Over time the control over content became increasingly detailed and iron-clad. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the reportage of dance group Shen Yun, which tours the world and performs in some high-class venues like New York’s Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts and London’s Royal Festival Hall. In terms of racking up blessings for your eternal existence, participating in the Shen Yun reporting team was about as good as it got. Every Shen Yun performance was viewed by Falun Gong practitioners as a monumental battle between good and evil in other dimensions, with the manifestation in this physical dimension being a little more mundane. A media team would assemble in a hotel room or apartment somewhere nearby the venue, ready to work through the night. Several reporters would go to the venue and do short interviews with audience members as they came out during intermission and after the show. Positive comments were taken down or recorded on video and then quickly written into articles and broadcast on various Falun Gong media outlets. Each outlet had its own set of standards which had presumedly come straight from Master Li. The Epoch Times had to get one article published online within half an hour of each show finishing, otherwise the battle in other dimensions had basically been lost for the night, and Shen Yun’s entire tour of that country was jeopardised. There was also a quota of articles that had to be written each night, which rose every year. High priority people were written up first — people who were well-known or esteemed in society — with the remainder written up through the night.
Whenever Shen Yun came to town, another team was devoted solely to taking care of the cosmic battle side of things. This team would sit in a room somewhere nearby with crossed legs and right hand held erect in front of their chests, “sending righteous thoughts” non-stop, day and night, to clear away the evil in other dimensions. People with full-time jobs would drop in for an hour or two after work, others would stay much longer, coming in day after day for hours on end. The local “assistant centre”, which was basically the satellite office for the central Falun Gong organisation in each city, would also stipulate that all that city’s Falun Gong practitioners should send righteous thoughts for 15 minutes at certain set times — typically three times each evening. This was in addition to the four global times that had been in place for years, corresponding to Beijing times of 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight.
I would dread the arrival of Shen Yun in Australia every year, because of the expectation that all practitioners there would basically put their lives on hold for the weeks or even months leading up to it to meet all these demands. I became increasingly angry that Falun Gong practitioners, who were already putting in so much of their time, were spending so much additional time sitting in rooms sending righteous thoughts rather than activities with more practical outcomes. I hoped Master Li might eventually inject some reason here in one of his talks, and sure enough in a July 2011 lecture in Washington DC he did address this issue. The problem, according to Master Li, was people like me:
Another thing is, there was a portion of students who sent righteous thoughts as a group [to help the situation]…Clearing out evil is a good thing, of course. Could it not have an impact when so many people were sending righteous thoughts? It did have an impact. However, we need to look at what some people were sending out when sending righteous thoughts. They would be sitting there, palm erect, but their thoughts would not be righteous, “How come we’re taking this approach this year? I did a great job selling tickets last year. Why are they making me send righteous thoughts here when I could be out selling tickets? Why do we have to target society’s cultural mainstream? These tickets are so expensive — who’s going to buy them?!” (Laughter) While it sounds funny to hear this now, that was in fact an extremely widespread phenomenon. Do you realize that with all that being sent out, all around the world it formed into a sticky, glue-like substance, and it took just a very few evil beings to be able to interfere with you. It was not something that you could clear out, and it directly blocked our Dafa disciples’ ticket sales and blocked the Dafa disciples who were sending out true righteous thoughts.
In other words, people who thought it was a waste of time and were resentful while doing it were the problem. Another little piece of my faith died that day. We were talking about a cumulative 100 minutes every 24 hours that we were expected to do this, in addition to the hours of scripture reading and meditation that were crucial for anyone who considered him- or herself a true Falun Gong practitioner. And then on top of this the various projects that every Falun Gong practitioner had a cosmic responsibility to be part of. It was already impossible to get a good night’s sleep, and was getting harder and harder to maintain normal relations with society. This nagging voice deep in my mind became a little stronger — Master Li just wants to keep us all busy and tired.
It became increasingly clear to me as I worked on these media projects how hamstrung they were in achieving any real traction in society. Unable to trust non-believers with the spiritual mission of saving people, and unwilling to allow outsiders an inside view into the machinations of Falun Gong, these media could do nothing but continually draw from a very small pool of Falun Gong practitioners, typically with little or no media experience. And whatever good content they produced (I still feel the Shen Yun dances are beautiful to watch and the original orchestral music is lovely) it was overshadowed by the genuine weirdness of the Falun Gong propaganda inserted throughout, and the eccentricities of the practitioners themselves who had very few societal relations outside the Falun Gong community. In group sharings, for example, groups of Shen Yun ticket sellers would describe sneaking into office buildings without authorisation and working their way through floor-by-floor, desk-by-desk, handing out Shen Yun flyers and pressing people to buy tickets while ignoring requests from security to leave.
I don’t mean to represent Falun Gong as a rigid dictatorship. Some decisions like the above were made in assistant meetings that anyone could attend, although attending them meant giving up additional hours of my already scarce time each week and enduring the guilt trips that often pervaded them about how practitioners weren’t doing well enough and so many of the world’s people were doomed.
But a lot of them came from higher up, and the restrictions and time demands became more and more iron clad. Master Li’s authority was always there — elusive, ever-changing, unchallengeable.
This control extended into the personal lives of the broader Falun Gong community, and gradually I became locked out of the community for not participating to the extent demanded.
Twice when I was involved with Falun Gong, the entire global community was told to switch mobile phones. The first came after a number of practitioners around the world received anti-Falun Gong propaganda messages on their mobiles. The Chinese secret service knew all our numbers, we were told, and could listen in on us at any time. We would disrupt their database if we all changed numbers at the same time.
I did this the first time, and went through the inconvenience of telling all my friends and contacts my new mobile number. A year or so later we were directed to do the same thing again and this time I refused. It doubled as my work number and changing it was simply too much trouble. No problem, I was told, just carry two mobile phones — one for your dealings with the everyday world and one for your dealings with Falun Gong practitioners. Not to mention the expense and the annoyance of constantly having the weight of two phones in your pants, this was anathema to me as Falun Gong had previously promoted itself as a transparent and open group with nothing to hide. Naturally those communicating with practitioners in China should be cautious about security since those people faced threats and arrest if caught…but people like me, really? What on earth did I have to hide? For refusing to change my number, I was no longer welcome to call practitioners on their new numbers and did most of my communicating via email. Some Falun Gong practitioner friends of mine even adopted this strict policy with me, making it very hard for us to catch up.
Changing mobile phones en masse might seem extreme, but here, as in many areas of Falun Gong, there were shades of reasonableness underpinning the decision. It was true that frequently at Falun Gong events we would see stern-faced Chinese men follow us with cameras, monitoring our activities. They would often react angrily or run away when confronted. My mother once received a phone call from a Chinese-sounding woman telling her to stop me from practicing Falun Gong — who was she and how had she got hold of our home number? And then there were the propaganda messages that appeared all at once on practitioners’ mobile phones. And of course the allegations of widespread monitoring from Chinese government defectors like former Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin. There was little doubt the Chinese government and its embassies abroad were monitoring the activities of Falun Gong, but it was impossible to say to what extent. Uncertainty bred fear, confusion and zealotry.
Another way I became edged out was through the “experience-sharing conferences” held by various cities and countries each year becoming much harder to get into, and not just because the seats were full. To get a ticket to attend, your local assistant had to vouch that you were a diligent practitioner who regularly attended group readings and sharings. I was extremely busy with my corporate job and looking after my mother who suffered from a degenerative disease. And I saw a lot of these sharings as unstructured, inefficient and wasting large amounts of already scarce time. Attending less than once a week made it hard for me to attend these conferences since I wasn’t deemed diligent enough. By that time I didn’t really care, but it did show to me how far Falun Gong had come in its shift towards an insular and controlling group that demanded a large time commitment, increasingly isolated its members from society and hid its inner workings from outside scrutiny. For the first few years I was involved with Falun Gong, these Fa conferences were open to anyone, whether they were practicing or not, giving a transparent, warts-and-all insight into Falun Gong for anyone who wanted it.
Falun Gong lurched closer and closer to being a structured organisation with an increasingly rigid heirarchy. In a July 2010 article called “Be More Diligent”, Master Li introduced a new directive that nobody was to challenge decisions by those higher up — be they heads of projects or people with positions of responsibility in the Falun Gong organisation — which upturned a previously loose and largely democratic organisational structure.
So, I want to tell you that from this day forth, the main coordinator for each project — the one principal coordinator — is that project’s representative. This holds true for the main coordinator of each region’s Dafa Association as well. He or she is its representative. Whatever it may be that the coordinator does, requires of you, or decides — carry it out unconditionally. (Enthusiastic applause) Starting today.
Falun Gong shifted in many other ways. It began as a group that made no claim against the validity of other major religions, but later Master Li asserted that the gods in charge of other religions had become evil and were interfering with his cosmic mission. He also specified rules for interacting with social groups like Chinese democracy advocates, which Falun Gong practitioners had some dealings with due to a common opposition to the actions of the Chinese government. In the heavily edited 2007 video lecture he released, called Teaching the Fa to Australian Practitioners, he chided his followers like children for opening up and sharing their problems with ordinary people. It’s very difficult for ordinary people to understand us, he said.
And then there was just simply the time commitment which became harder and harder to meet. As I said before, practitioners around the world were required to send righteous thoughts for 15 minutes four times a day — at 6am, 12pm, 6pm and 12am Beijing time. This meant getting up at 2am to do it every night, which disrupted my already insufficient sleep. In fact for years I consistently slept around five hours a night, often less. Master Li also frequently made alterations to his past works — often simply changing a few characters to others with slightly different meanings. It wasn’t ok to throw sacred texts like these in the rubbish, so practitioners were expected to go through their books page-by-page and use a razor blade to scratch out the now incorrect characters and glue the new ones over them. Hundreds of character changes in a 300-plus page book meant many, many hours of work. Another impractical and time-intensive directive that we were meant to spiritually grow through.
There was also a list of unofficial precepts that grew, in addition to the official ones like don’t drink alcohol and don’t kill anything. We had to finish all food on our plates or we’d have to eat it all as rotten food after we died. We shouldn’t eat raw meats like sashimi because that would cause resentful living entities to build up in our stomachs. We shouldn’t eat custard apples because they’re shaped like the Buddha’s head.
All up it pretty much ruled out doing things for the sake of doing them, which is where so much of the world’s creativity comes from. Hobbies, exercise, reading, travel — all became hard to justify when time and energy were so stretched. And as I started to gradually distance myself from Falun Gong and began taking these things up again, I battled with a lot of personal guilt and didn’t dare talk about them to other Falun Gong practitioners. Such innocent activities were frowned upon because it was wasting time that should be spent doing the “three things” that all Falun Gong practitioners should to — study scriptures, spread Li’s teachings and send righteous thoughts. Every interaction with someone, even just a chance encounter with a stranger on the street, is a chance to talk about Falun Gong, Li says.
Whether Master Li was living up to his own high standards for practitioners is hard to say. One practitioner who also left the group, William*, went to The Mountain and saw Li for himself. The Mountain is a large piece of land at Cuddebackville in the mountains near New York where Falun Gong-related temples have been built — again a departure from the earlier Falun Gong which claimed it wasn’t a religion for a range of reasons including that it had no temples or places of worship. Li spends a lot of time there overseeing the Shen Yun dancers who live there — mostly kids and young adults. Word has it The Mountain is a place where a wave of new disciples will go to learn Falun Gong after the apocalyptic weeding out.
But William was upset by a couple of things, and this story is interesting because genuine depictions of interactions with the reclusive Li are hard to come by. Firstly, Master Li was drinking a can of Coke. This was an affront to William since Li had always described himself as a man without any worldly attachments or desires, to the point that he was unable to find conversation interesting and couldn’t even tell whether or not food tasted good. Secondly, William saw Li berate the young dancers with a level of anger and intensity that shocked him, which was totally out of line with Li’s own teachings that we deal with people and each other using compassion. (Li’s videoed lecture to Australian practitioners, who had apparently been arguing too much, talked a lot about being compassionate to each other. He delivered it in an extra calm, smiling, slow- and soft-spoken, follow-my-example kind of way.)
Other people have attempted the topic of whether Falun Gong is a cult, so I’m not going to do that here. It’s kind of like a swearword that doesn’t actually mean anything specific to most of the people who use it. But I will make the point that Falun Gong is a much more secretive and controlling organisation than many people realise, it’s not a transparent group. While most of the core teachings are accessible for free on the websites, there are secret teachings and directives that are passed down verbally, and the discussions and forums that were once open to the public are now tightly controlled. Master Li’s published lectures and recent video are not simple transcriptions from the original talk, but rather are highly edited and redacted. All of Falun Gong’s websites, notably Clearwisdom.net which claims to be a forum for practitioners, are tightly curated. Master Li has made it clear that anyone who transcribes or records his talks and spreads them without his approval is undermining his practice which is a grave sin. And he has savagely criticised online Falun Gong-related forums like the Qingxin Discussion Forum where conversations among practitioners took place beyond his control.
While Falun Gong practitioners are technically free to come and go as they please, social pressures and deep spiritual fears become a strong staying force, in addition to social ties like marriages and children with other devout practitioners. Many, having given so much to Falun Gong, have little ties to society anymore and transitioning back would be a scary prospect. And then there is the shame, which I’ve felt deeply, of acknowledging to your friends and family that this thing you’ve talked up for so long has a darker side that you’ve said nothing about.
It’s taken me a long time to pluck up the courage to write this article. It’s a story I haven’t told in full to anyone. It’s not that I feared for my physical safety in writing this, the Falun Gong community isn’t like that. But I feared the judgement from the friends I have who still do it, and I feared being seen as an idiot by non-practicing people I’ve known all this time. I’m not a stupid guy — I’m well educated, I’ve got a good career and generally take a nuanced view of the world around me. This experience shows a childish, naive side of me; how rationality and dogma can exist side-by-side in one person’s head. And I have trouble explaining that to people.
But more than anything I deeply feared that by facing up to what I was seeing and feeling in Falun Gong I would face unimaginable punishment in this life and the afterlife. It was a heavy burden that ate away at me every hour of every day, and I think it can only be understood by others who have held a spiritual belief as deep as mine. The only time I truly felt safe from the consequences of a long list of sins I committed daily by simply going about my life was when I was sitting in meditation or reading Li’s writings. It’s a kind of blood debt Li has carefully cultivated in all of his followers and regularly reminds them of.
Falun Gong and the confusion I felt when I departed from it was probably the main factor that ended my marriage, even though my wife was not a Falun Gong practitioner. I felt like I was starting my life again and re-forming my worldview from scratch. I had to re-evaluate a lot of big choices I’d made. I saw no other way but to leave my old life and live overseas to do this quietly in my own time. I abandoned some relationships and rekindled others. I listened to music I used to like, took up pursuits I used to be into, got in touch with people I used to be close to. It was like re-connecting to a lifeline or a narrative that started to die when I took up Falun Gong.
But it wasn’t a total waste of time. One of the best things I got from my time in Falun Gong was to experience meditation and the clarity and warmth that can come from sitting with your eyes closed and calming everything down. Li doesn’t own that. Meditation makes me feel grateful, small, and motivated to salvage as much attention as I can garner to experience life. You could say I have my own religion now. It has only one follower and I don’t have to explain it to anyone.
Sometimes I wonder how these people think — the many Li Hongzhis that have appeared over the years as gurus, or charismatic salesmen, or just straight-out cons. People who can go at a goal with zero regard for the people they hurt along the way, including their staunchest believers. Li’s writings leap from glowing adulation to ‘stick warnings’ which in essence warn his followers they face eternal damnation if they don’t do what he says. When he delivers them to his followers the ensuing fear and self-recrimination really hurts. I wonder to what extent he actually believes his own teachings. If he hasn’t deluded himself into believing what he propagates, then he must know the extent of the fallacies he is peddling, and that would make him a cynical, nasty person indeed. His flawless confidence creates a kind of safe zone for people who struggle with the many shades of grey in the world. But in reality it’s not a safe zone at all.
It’s hard to explain, and hard for me now to understand, why I believed in such a crazy ideology, and for so long. In the same way it’s hard for me to understand why young people from around the world would give up everything they know and care about and join a repulsive group like ISIS. Their ideology makes no sense to me, the things they do make me sick. But I think I can relate a little to what’s going on in those young mens’ minds: the yearning for clarity, the search for meaning, the desire to belong, the willingness to make immense personal sacrifices for a cause bigger than they are. It’s a very deep place to snag someone, and potentially very dangerous. Logic, education, knowledge, human connection — all these things change from being moderating forces into tools for furthering the cause.
This article is in no way an attempt to justify the Chinese government’s ridiculous and violent campaign against Falun Gong. The many outright lies the Chinese government has told about the group have in some ways helped Falun Gong by giving the organisation a human rights narrative that allows it to not focus too closely on its own practices and beliefs. If only the Chinese government had just stuck to the facts. Falun Gong in many foreigners’ minds is associated with other freedom movements abroad, when in reality Falun Gong doesn’t give a stuff about other groups or about reform in China. In the world view of most Falun Gong practitioners, any movement that is trying to achieve an outcome in the human world — apart from Falun Gong’s various projects, that is — is engaging in dirty human politics.
Unfortunately the sympathy that many uninformed Westerners have towards Falun Gong has led to a kind of exasperated stand-off with a lot of Chinese people who justifiably feel that Falun Gong is just plain silly and that Westerners can never really understand China. This kind of thing drives a wedge between China and the rest of the world which is the last thing we need in an increasingly tense geopolitical climate.
The way Falun Gong defines itself to the public and to its own followers — as a health-focussed spiritual group concerned about human rights — is just not true. It made me less healthy, less happy, less kind, less compassionate. And it made me less truthful — to myself and others. Any spiritual growth that it may once have offered was left by the roadside as it morphed into a giant PR machine for a bullshit cause, exploiting a free labour force of exhausted zealots. Its goal now has nothing to do with meditation, spirituality or improving health. It’s just a political machine — Li’s project to amass power and influence and then shoot for whatever bizarre goal he thinks of next.
Finally I’ve left that sad little man in the dust. Me and Li are finished. And I’ve never been happier.
*I’ve changed all the names in this article.