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In Li Hongzhi’s A Brief Statement of Mine, he says, “Falun Gong is simply a popular qigong activity.” (www.falundafa.org). The exercises and meditations he recommends are, in my opinion, good qigong. However, the philosophy of Falun Gong is a mish-mosh of bizarre beliefs about Buddhism, Taoism, and UFOs. However, the scholar in me cringes when I read the Falun Gong materials or when Western media assumes that Falun Gong is representative of Buddhist or Taoist philosophy. Falun Gong is neither Buddhist nor Taoist; it is the personal philosophy of Li Hongzhi blended with messianic and millennial beliefs. I have outlined below several of the most serious errors in Falun Gong philosophy by offering personal commentary.

Automatic Spirituality. Li claims “the falun is constantly rotating, putting the practitioner in the state of cultivation for 24 hours a day. Of all the qigong or cultivation systems known to the public, Falun Dafa is the first and only one that solves the conflicting time requirements for practicing and work or study.” (Brief Introduction of Falun Dafa http://www.falundafa.org) This is a grandiose claim sure to attract followers. Are the cures attributed to Falun Gong a massive placebo effect, the power of expectant trust? I would like to see how long-term followers react to a Beijing traffic jam or how American followers meditate on Tax Day.

Commentary: Spiritual cultivation is like cultivating a field; you must water and nurture it every day. Qigong requires patience and perseverance. There are no short-cuts.

Not An Earth-Friendly Religion. In Degeneration of Mankind and Appearance of Enlightened Beings (www.falundafa.org), Li explains a new theory of evolution, actually devolution. “Man did not come from the evolution of the ape as Darwin suggested.” Instead, “Man has fallen down from different spaces of the universe.” When he does not follow the cosmic laws of a space, he falls down to a lower plane. “To put it in another way, the Earth is a rubbish center of the universe…The bad people of the universe fall down until they have reached the very center of the universe–the Earth.” He continues that the high God does not care about people. He is too far removed from them, regarding human beings as “no better than micro-organisms.” If a high God found this “rotten place” (the earth), he would destroy it. Thus we must be saved by a being closer to our plane of existence, a Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Zi–or perhaps Li Hongzhi?

The fact that life is transient (impermanent, anicca, in Buddhist terms) is all the more reason to pay attention and not miss its passing beauty. The earth is a beautiful place. Wang Wei, Tao Yuan Ming, and other great poets of China would be ashamed of you, Mr. Li.

Delusions of Grandeur? Did Li Hongzhi change his birthday to coincide with the birthday of the Buddha? Li claims that during the Cultural Revolution, his birthday had been misprinted and he only corrected the mistake. The fact that the Buddha was born on the same day is allegedly a coincidence. However, I wonder about the implications of his essay The Buddha Fa and Buddhism. After discussing the common Buddhist belief in Maitreya, the future Buddha, Li states, “At present, I have once again come to this world to teach the Fa [Dharma], and to directly teach the fundamental law of the universe.”

We are all Bozos on the bus. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. All beings have the Buddha nature, that is all are products of the same natural forces of the universe and are equally capable of enlightening an observant student.

Alien Invasion. Li’s belief in other dimensions and “spaces” is evidently more than metaphorical. He told Time Magazine’s William Dowell that aliens arrived on earth around 1900. Some look like humans; others resemble ghosts. They intend to replace all humans with clones. “In terms of culture and spirit, they already control men.” Even the inspiration of scientists is “manipulated by aliens.”

I better not reply. If I am an alien, my words will be suspect. But how do I know that Li Hongzhi is not an alien? No mention of aliens in Buddhism, Taoism, or Qigong.

Gimme that old time religion. Li Hongzhi goes out of his way to criticize Zen Buddhism. He says that Zen “doesn’t qualify as a cultivation system.” (Zen Sect has gone to Extremes http://www.falundafa.org). He complains that the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, was “unable to save others.” An odd statement, since the Buddha was emphatic about his own inability to save others. His dying words were, “Work out your own salvation through diligent practice.” As an additional indication of the Zen heresy, Li claims that Zen Buddhists worship Bodhidharma. Praise and respect Bodhidharma, yes; I have yet to meet a Zen Buddhist who worships him. They don’t even worship the Buddha! Li seems especially frustrated by the Zen concept of nothingness or emptiness (kong, xu, or wu in Chinese, sunyata in Sanskrit): “they even deny the existence of man…They even dare not accept what they have seen.”

Zen is a system of meditation inspired by both Taoism and Buddhism. Instead of worshipping the Buddha, Zen Buddhists seek what the Buddha sought, enlightened awareness. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught that suffering, dukkha, is caused by grasping, tanha. We want what we don’t have and reject what we do have. Only by emptying the mind of self-centeredness can suffering cease. Emptiness also means that nothing exists in and of itself; subject and object exist in relationship (in Buddhist technical jargon this is called co-dependent origination). Emptiness is not the denial of the senses, it is rather ceasing to confuse our concepts about life with that which words describe. It means experiencing the world silently, quietly, without a filter of preconception or belief system.

Emptiness is considered the goal of qigong practice. According to a fundamental tenet of qigong, “Cultivate your bodily energy (jing), then your mind (qi), and finally your spirit (shen). When you cultivate your spirit you will reach emptiness (xu). In the empty state you realize the Tao.” The Taijiquan Classics begin, “Taiji is born of Emptiness.”

Conventional Medicine, Complementary Medicine, and ULTIMATE Medicine. In China Falun Gong, Li states, “If a practitioner takes medicine, it means that he does not believe his disease can be cured through practice…” A true practitioner is “supernormal” and “the diseases an ordinary person suffers from are not allowed to attack him.” (p. 138) Odd that the Buddha may have died from bad pork, esteemed Buddhist Master Suzuki Roshi from cancer, and so many other holy men and women from various human ailments. If only life were so simple, if only goodness and wisdom ensured physical health. But microbes just don’t obey the rules! As Lao Zi said, “Heaven and Earth are not benevolent.”

I am not denying that Falun Gong can be good medicine. Like other qigong systems, scientific studies suggest that it may have positive effects on cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and other ailments. However, one of the largest studies of Falun Gong also states “only when those practitioners upgraded their Xingxing (mind nature and moral level) unceasingly, could the effects be remarkable.” (The Effect of Falun Gong on Healing Illnesses and Keeping Fit…, October 18, 1998 http://www.ncsu.edu/stud_orgs/falun/ reports/Survey2new.html)

This suggests a strong placebo effect. The study is also suspect because it only surveyed practitioners–no non-believing “controls” for comparison–and was conducted by a Falun Gong association (FalunGong Zizhuyuan Assistance Center, Beijing). If an organization has a vested financial or personal interest in finding a positive result, it almost always will. This is why western scientific protocol requires that research be judged by independent and, hopefully, impartial referees.

Qigong is complementary medicine and is a powerful adjunct to necessary medical intervention. It is now taught in several U.S.medical schools. I have more physicians in my own teacher training program than people of any other profession. Physicians are willing to study qigong because qigong does not claim to cure all diseases. Qigong is an excellent system of patient education. The more a student practices, the more he or she gains control over those aspects of health that can be controlled. Sometimes genes are stronger than qigong. People get sick in spite of qigong or any other therapy, but qigong gives the patient a better fighting chance.

Kenneth S. Cohen, M.A., M.S.Th. is an internationally renowned health educator, Qigong instructor, and China scholar. He is the author of “The Way of Qigong: the Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing” (Ballantine Books), “Taoism: Essential Teachings” (Sounds True), and more than 150 journal articles. His lectures have been sponsored by the Association of Asian Research Scholars, Zen Mountain Monastery, the Canadian Ministry of Culture, and many universities. He is executive director of the Qigong Research and Practice Center

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Polygamous leader Winston Blackmore will testify under oath for the first time about his ‘lifestyle’ during his 12-day trial in federal Tax Court begins Jan. 23, 2012.

Blackmore had asked for an unprecedented ban on the publication and use of any witness testimony or evidence related to polygamy during his tax trial so that none of that information could be used against him in any future criminal trial. His motion was denied by Judge Campbell Miller. Blackmore is not appealing the decision and now has three months to pay the $50,000 in court costs that Miller ordered him to pay.

Polygamy is illegal in Canada, but the law is under review by Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the B.C. Supreme Court, who was asked by the B.C. government to determine if the criminal sanction is constitutional since the Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom and freedom of expression.

Blackmore’s unprecedented request was denied earlier this month, clearing the way for his trial which is also a precedent-setting case to determine how he and his extended family ought to be taxed.

Blackmore is appealing the reassessment of his personal income tax filings for 2002 to 2006 that concluded he had under-estimated his earnings by $1.5 million and the $147,000 he was assessed in penalties.

At issue is whether Blackmore’s large family (which includes 19 or more wives and more than 130 children), plus his extended family of siblings and their multiple wives and children constitute a “congregation” for tax purposes.

The government of Canada says they don’t. Up until 2002 when he was ex-communicated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Blackmore was the bishop of the congregation in Bountiful, B.C. Since then, the government says he and his family are not “a constituent part of any religious organization.”

In Tax Court, it’s up to the taxpayer to prove that the government’s interpretation is wrong. So, it will be up to Blackmore, his wives and others to prove that they all lived and worked together and share beliefs. And under cross-examination, lawyers for Canada will be able to ask questions about all of that including how many wives Blackmore had during the disputed tax years and where they all lived.

Original text from: http://www.facts.org.cn/Reports/World/201106/t130631.htm

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Religious cults that make headlines for homicide are almost always well beyond the storefront stage – there is no better example than Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in Guyana 33 years ago.

Durham is awash in an exception.

Seven members of a small and heretofore unknown cult led by one Pete Lucas Moses Jr. are facing first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Antoinetta McKoy, 28, and Jadon Higganbothan, 5.

More than 1,200 religious cults of all sizes and beliefs are thought to flourish in the United States, thanks to the First Amendment and the country’s history of religious tolerance. Whatever Antoinetta McKoy was seeking in life, Pete Moses’ outfit in that cinder-block house at 2622 Ashe St. must have provided it until something went terribly awry.

From the Church of Scientology to Pete Moses Jr., religious cults have a bad odor among most Americans. Cults have a deserved reputation for creating a Stepford Wives mentality among their members, pocketing their money and alienating them from friends and family. Reasonable people regard this as a form of constitutionally protected body snatching, and it has spawned a vigorous anti-cult movement.

But what is a cult? And how is a cult different from, say, a religious denomination?

The late constitutional scholar Leo Pfeffer put it this way: If you believe in it, it’s a religion. If you don’t care one way or the other, it’s a sect. But if you fear it and hate it, it’s a cult.

Cults have been with us through the millennia. The mighty of Imperial Rome feared and persecuted the early Christians, whom they considered a subversive cult. The Christians eventually won the contest and became a mighty religion.

Cults appeared and vanished like the morning mist during the Vietnam War era and into the 1980s, attracting young Americans with the promise of finding their Bali Hai amid a fractious, militaristic and materialistic society. Most such communal cults – the bloodthirsty Manson Family was the worst of them – lasted about as long as the Summer of Love in 1967.

It is the religious cults that have always had staying power. Led by charismatic personalities, they exert a powerful sway over their adherents. Leaving such a cult is a wrenching experience akin to death – you become a nonperson, shunned and abandoned. The world you had been taught to hate is suddenly the one you must live in.

Studies of cults have shown that those attracted to them are not necessarily victims of brainwashing, as is commonly thought. New adherents enter cults on the basis of rational decisions. They see benefits and qualities in the cult that they like and want to share with others.

Predictably, the word cult is disavowed among academics, who consider it judgmental. They prefer “new religious movement.” That would have pleased the adherents of Heaven’s Gate, who believed suicide was the ticket to the celestial mother ship.

Whether we call them cults or new religious movements, the dangers can be real for young people seeking that elusive something greater than themselves. For Antoinetta McKoy and Jadon Higganbothan, that little white house on Ashe Avenue was not a home, but a horror.

Bob Wilson is a retired journalist, author and teacher who lives in southwest Durham.

text from:http://www.facts.org.cn/Reports/World/201106/t130280.htm

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“Falun Dafa cultivates a Falun in the lower abdomen area instead of Dan….Falun Dafa cultivates Zhu Yishi instead of Fu Yishi, He Who practices attains Gong. Namely, your Zhu Yishi or Zhu Yuansheng attains the cultivation energy.” –Li Hongzhi*

The doctrines of the Great Law of Falun Dafa can give guidance to anyone in their cultivation including those who have religious beliefs. This is the Principle of the universe, the true Law that has never been revealed. In the past humans were not allowed to know the Principle of the universe (Buddha Law); it transcends all the sciences and moral principles of ordinary human society from ancient times to the present. What has been taught in religions and what people have experienced are only superficialities and phenomena, while its extensive and profound inner meaning can only present itself to and be felt and understood by the cultivators who are at different levels of their true cultivation, and they can really see what the Law is. –Li Hongzhi*

Falun Gong (pronounced fah-luhn gung) is Li Hongzhi’s version of qi gong, which is an ancient Chinese practice of “energy cultivation”. Falun means “wheel of law”; falun dafa is falun Buddha law.* According to Li, Falun Gong “is a cultivation system aiming at cultivating both human life and nature. The practitioner is required to attain enlightenment (open his cultivation energy) and achieve physical immortality in this mortal world when his energy potency and Xinxing [mind-nature] have reached a certain level.”*

Li claims to have taken energy cultivation to a new level. He also claims to have some 100 million followers worldwide, though he also claims that he keeps no records and that Falun Gong is not a cult, religion or sect (“Followers defend Falun Gong as innocuous,” by Brian Milner, The Globe and Mail (Canada), July 22, 1999.)

Li left China in the early 1990s and lives in New York City. He promotes his beliefs in books he has written. His teachings are available on the Internet, which has significantly affected his status and popularity internationally. While much of Falun Gong is a rehash of traditional Chinese notions regarding meditation and exercises, Li has emphasized an anti-scientific approach to disease and medicine. He says disease is “is a black energy mass” that he can dissipate with his powers. Those who use medicine for their illnesses lack faith in Falun Gong. True believers don’t need medicine. They understand that disease exists in some other space beyond physical space and that only those with “supernormal capabilities” can truly heal. True healing involves “cultivation energies…in the form of light with very tiny particles in great density.”* He claims that he does not tell people not to use medicine, but that he has cured thousands of terminally ill people. He also claims that he advises terminally ill and mentally ill people not to practice Falun Gong. The former are too focused on their illness and the latter are not clear-minded enough to practice properly.

Li claims that Falun Gong is one of 84,000 cultivation ways of the Buddha’s school. He claims that it has only been used once before, in prehistory, but that he is making it available again “at this final period of the Last Havoc.”*

Falun is the miniature of the universe with all the abilities of the universe. It can automatically move in rotation. It will forever rotate in your lower abdomen area. Once it is installed in your body, it will no longer stop and will forever rotate like this year in and year out. During the time when it rotates clockwise, it can automatically absorb energy from the universe, and it can also transform energy from itself to supply the required energy for every part of your body transformation. At the same time, it can emit energy when it rotates counter-clock and releases the waste material which will disperse around your body. When it emits energy, the energy can be released to quite a distance and it brings in new energy again. The emitted energy can benefit the people around you….When Falun rotates clockwise, it can collect the energy back because it rotates forever….

Because Falun rotates forever, it cannot be stopped. If a phone call comes or someone knocks on the door, you may go ahead and take care of it immediately without having to finish the practice. When you stop to do your work, Falun will rotate at once clockwise and take back the emitted energy around your body.*

How Li knows about these rotations is a mystery, but he has many followers throughout the world who feel enlightened by these “teachings.”

In short, Falun Gong is based upon the belief that the universe consists of magical energies that can be tapped into by certain practices and which can eliminate the need for medicine, bringing one to a state of enlightenment and physical immortality.* Its popularity seems directly related to its claim to bring health and relieve stress while providing enlightenment. It is anti-science, anti-medical establishment, and anti-materialism; thus, Falun Gong is attractive to many people who are fed up with the world as it is and their position in it.

It is difficult to understand why the Communist party in China fears Falun Gong. Their practices would relieve the demand for medical assistance, thereby saving the government millions of yuan. They encourage truthfulness, forbearance and compassion. Of course, members may not be very useful to society, since they are not materialistic and would prefer to spend their days meditating and exercising in the park, cultivating energies, rather than working in factories. Then again, communists don’t like competition.

Original text from: http://www.skepdic.com/falungong.html

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Sep. 25 (Kaiwind) – Fang Zhouzi, a campaigner against cult and academic fraud, was attacked by two men using unknown liquid spray and iron hammer near his residence in Beijing on August 29, 2010.Then the Epoch Times gloated and published a piece of news titled “the fraud fighter got ambushed, which was suspected to be feigned case”. On September 1, the Epoch Times also selected some offensive comments on Fang Zhouzi from the Internet as news and said the attack of Fang Zhouzi was trumped up by himself, which was “entertaining and malicious”. It also hyped this with some blog posts.

Fang Zhouzi, the founder of “New Threads” monthly magazine and website, was born in September 1967 in Yunxiao County, Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province. His autonym is Fang Shiming while Fang Zhouzi is his pen name. Since 1999, he found the website of New Threads and published many articles of net friends and his own to expose the academic corruption in Chinese scientific community and educational circles and to criticize the fake news of the press, the pseudoscience, the pseudo-Qigong and pseudo-environmental protection.

Criticizing Falun Gong is one of his contribution to China and his related articles are choiced in expert anthology of Kaiwind website. His articles such as “Ten Analysises of Falun Gong” disclose the anti-society, anti-humanity, and anti-science nature of the cult. Falun Gong regards him as a thorn in the flesh, so the Epoch Times has abused him many times before.

Xiao Chuanguo, the main suspect (male, 54 years old, head of the Urology Surgery in the medical school of a university) of the case was arrested at 17:00 on September 21. After careful investigation, Beijing Public Security Bureau cracked the case. They arrested 4 suspects and seized some tools for crime. According to initial examination, Xiao Chuanguo believed that his failing to be the academician of Chinese Academy of Sciences was due to Fang’s disclosure of his academic fraud. So Xiao Chuanguo instigated Dai Jianxiang and other people to commit crime in revenge for this.

At this point, Fang Zhouzi case came out in the wash and the fake news by the Epoch Times collapsed of itself. In order to cover its defamatory news, the Epoch Times removed the news hurriedly. But unfortunately, people can still search the related directory in website of the Epoch Times (see picture as follows). However, you can’t open the webpage anymore.

Making pseudo event is the “persistent ailment” of the Epoch Times, and it relapsed again. See how the Epoch Times resort to sophistry this time.

(Kaiwind.com, September 25, 2010)

text from: http://facts.org.cn/Reports/China/201103/t125520.htm

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BEIJING, Feb. 4 — In the spring of 1999, Professor He Zuoxiu, an elderly theoretical physicist whose avocation is debunking pseudoscience, hoped to provoke some debate with a short article warning about the “deceitful lies” of certain “qigong” meditation sects. One called Falun Gong, he charged, led a student into mental illness.

At the time, his provocative views were not welcome in the mainstream press, and the article appeared in the April issue of “Science and Technology for Youth,”an obscure magazine published by a teacher-training university in Tianjin, 100 miles southeast of Beijing.

Neither the professor nor anyone else could have imagined that the article would touch off some of China’s most tumultuous events in years: nothing less than the broadest popular resistance to Communist authority since the 1989 democracy movement and the harsh government crackdown that followed.

It was anger over the professor’s article that led 10,000 or more Falun Gong believers to hold a vigil on April 25, 1999, outside the leadership compound in Beijing, demanding an official apology and legal recognition. And it was that unauthorized demonstration that led the frightened authorities to outlaw the spiritual group, which had attracted millions of Chinese with its promises of physical and spiritual salvation through meditative exercises.

Mr. He, now 74, is a Chinese original. As a physicist he aided China’s development of nuclear weapons in the early 1960’s. Today, he said in an interview at his small apartment in a compound of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he is still collaborating with scientists at M.I.T. in the search for “dark matter” in the universe.

Yet this advocate of scientific methods is also a devout Marxist who has published essays questioning whether today’s pell-mell market reforms are steering China off the true path of Marx and socialism.

“As a scientist I make my judgments based on universal laws,” he said in the interview. “And Marxism is a science just like all the others.”

If his orthodox Marxism is not always welcomed by the leadership, his diatribes against”evil cults”garner more official respect these days, and he has no regrets about his cameo role in the bizarre national drama of Falun Gong.

He said that the latest news, of seven apparent followers trying to immolate themselves in Tiananmen Square, only meant that Li Hongzhi, the Falun Gong founder, was even more despicable than he had asserted before. “This proves that Falun Gong is more evil than other cults,” Mr. He said. “With the Branch Davidians in the United States, at least the head of the cult burned himself together with the others. Here the head wanted to sacrifice his followers to achieve his own ulterior motives.”

The immolation attempts, on Jan. 23, left one woman dead and four people severely burned. Two others were stopped from lighting themselves, the authorities said. Falun Gong representatives in the United States insist that the incident could not have involved followers and that ”Master Li” opposes suicide. The government has launched a renewed campaign to discredit the spiritual movement.

Mr. He was born 1927 to an affluent family in Shanghai, with Christians and Buddhists in his family background, he said. His father, who died when the boy was only 2, had an engineering doctorate from Cornell University. Like many idealistic students during the war against Japanese invaders and the civil war that followed, he became interested in Marxism. In 1947, when he moved to Qinghua University in Beijing to study physics, he became an underground Communist Party member.

In the 1950’s, in the new People’s Republic of China, he mainly worked not in laboratories but in the Department of Propaganda, where he helped oversee the development of science and technology and wrote major articles on the Marxist theory of science.

During Mao’s Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, Mr. He and his wife also a physicist, fell into disfavor. Though they did not land in prison, with their upper-class backgrounds and insufficient enthusiasm for Maoist turmoil, they did wind up in a strange confinement: each day they had to go to separate places where they were kept locked up, then were released each night to sleep at home.

“Mao had an excessive belief in class struggle, and that became an obstacle to the development of productive forces,” Mr. He said. “To my point of view, such thinking was not consistent with Marxism.”

So was Mao, in the end, a kind of cult leader himself? Mr. He smiled disdainfully. ”You can’t compare Mao to Li Hongzhi,” he said.

“Mao hoped to raise the living standards of the people,” he said. “He personally lost six family members to the revolution, and during that period he made great contributions to our people.”
“Mao made mistakes during his later years, but these were the mistakes of a great man.”

For the last 20 years or so, Mr. He has pursued a part-time, unofficial crusade against what he considers superstition and bogus science. Qigong masters, who sprang up by the dozens in the 1980’s, were common targets.

Mr. He is among the minority of Chinese who deny the existence of qi, the supposed cosmic forces in the body and universe that are the basis of qigong exercises as well as much of traditional Chinese medical theory. But while he says the crackdown on Falun Gong should if anything be intensified — associated rights abuses, he says, have been greatly exaggerated abroad — he does not call for a blanket ban on qigong.

“I’ve never been against endeavors by old people to practice qigong in pursuit of health and longevity,” he said.”But if you claim that it can work all wonders, that’s cheating people.”

“My field is the quantum theory of fields,” he said. “When people say qigong is a field, I cannot agree.”

Since the Falun Gong troubles, the government has tied itself in knots trying to distinguish between “good” and ” bad” forms of qigong. Mr. He would only say that China “has not fully solved” the question of how to handle different schools.

Mr. He is unfazed by reports that some Falun Gong members have tried to direct supernatural punishments at him. “I welcome that,” he said, “because I know it’s impossible” Then, laughing, he added, “But if someone tries to use physical force against me they’ll succeed, because I’m old and frail and I believe in Newton’s laws of physics.”

text from: http://www.facts.org.cn/Reports/World/201103/t125252.htm

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The joy of sects

Though perhaps no saint, Heather Kavan has done her share of suffering for religion. For 11 months, Kavan, constitutionally not a morning person, rose before 6am to join a group of Falun Gong practitioners for half an hour of silent exercises.

Did she find transcendence? Not exactly. For Kavan, who is of slim build, a defining memory is of penetrating cold.

“I was stuck in the lotus position in a temperature below zero when I knew I just had to get my coat. And when I tried to stand up, I found I was paralysed from the waist down. So of course I went crashing down to the ground, and I crawled over to get my coat, and one of them looked at me and said, somewhat offhandedly, ‘If you had been meditating properly you wouldn’t have felt the cold.'”

It doesn’t help that the 6am exercise sessions seem to have gone into abeyance when Kavan stopped attending.

She suspects her presence was the impetus for the sessions all along.

Kavan’s small, corner office on the Manawatu campus is surprisingly pleasant. Long and narrow, with two intersecting rows of windows, it feels a little like the bridge of a ship, and the view, while largely of concrete, is softened by Kavan’s thriving collection of indoor plants.

On the wall is her framed 2009 national award for sustained excellence in teaching, and, alongside, its tongue-in-cheek complement, a Pre-Raphaelite print entitled The Accolade and featuring a kneeling Prince Valiant-like figure in chainmail being knighted by a white-robed, long haired damsel.

So far, so standard. While radiating more order and serenity than most, this is just another academic garret, and the books – Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue and Lyn Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves – are those you would expect to find in the collection of someone who teaches speech writing and the art of writing.

What isn’t in evidence is Kavan’s alter ego: Kavan the investigator of religions, cults and ‘altered states’.

The room is bare of religious iconography, crystals, and uplifting homilies.

Yet here is a woman who professes to be, if anything, more comfortable in a revivalist meeting or meditation group than in the confines of academia.

And away from the university surrounds, Kavan’s clinical remove falls away. “Most of us can suspend reality for a temporary period when we go to a movie; I suspend it when I go to a religious meeting.” She shares the fervour of those around her.

Some things, she says, have to be experienced to be understood.

Take, for example, the case of Janet Moses, the mother of two who drowned during a marathon exorcism session. Were those who forced cold water on her to expel the demons guilty of manslaughter? A jury thought so.

Kavan, who attended the six-week trial in the cause of research, is not so sure.

“The Moses case hinged on the consent issue. The judge advised the jury that if they believed that the accused had an honest belief that Janet Moses consented to the water being poured down her throat just before death, then they would have to find the defendants not guilty.

“The prosecutor argued, eloquently, – he should have been a writer – how can anyone say they thought she consented; they weren’t thinking at all; there was no thought involved – at least not towards the end. And it did ring true. They were so much in an altered state that they weren’t thinking.

“Similarly, what the defence said rang true, that at times Janet called the shots during the exorcism; she would say ‘the demon is here’ and the defendants would rush to expel it for her; she believed she was possessed. They were trying to help her. They did have an honest belief she was consenting because she declined offers to take her away from the situation.”

There is no denying that the events surrounding Moses’ death were bizarre. Up to 50 people were present at any time in the small lounge where the exorcism was held. The windows were tightly sealed to prevent demons entering. The temperatures rose to “furnace-like” levels. The laundry – which held clothing contaminated by vomit – and the toilet beyond were declared off limits. The room was awash with water. People had taken to relieving themselves in a corner.

“It’s understandable that people who hadn’t experienced [anything like this] couldn’t comprehend the defendants’ responses,” says Kavan.

“Witness after witness testified that Janet had a strange look in her eyes and that was what convinced them that she was possessed: while there were other unusual behaviours, it was this very strange look in her eyes that everyone recalled. I’ve seen that look in people’s eyes, and it is frightening. I don’t interpret it as possession, but I can understand how someone else would.”

How then does Kavan propose to interpret the trial for the purposes of her research?

Her proposal to the presiding judge was that she apply the lens of collective entrapment, a subset of group think2, in which members escalate their commitment to a course of action even though it is obviously failing.

Now she is more inclined to interpret the events surrounding Janet Moses’ death in terms of trance or altered states.

She also finds herself interested in the issue of gender: in most exorcisms it is the woman who is exorcised, the man who is the exorcist.

“Usually that is because the exorcist sees women as easy targets, less likely to say ‘no, what a load of rubbish’. But in this instance the people who were perceived as possessed were often those who fainted under the heat. So they were more likely to be female. The stronger males had a better chance of being able to physically endure.

“If you’re in a group and someone is checking out who has a demon, and they see you as the next target for an exorcism, there are really only a couple of ways of getting out of it. You can’t say, ‘no, I’m not possessed’, because that would just be evidence that you are. You could fake deliverance, which one of the witnesses in the Lee case3 did: he went along with it, and at the first possible moment [he faked deliverance]. And, of course, the other way is to turn on someone else really quickly. ‘Yes, there it is. It’s just flown to you!’

“Whoever is quick-witted enough to put themselves in the position of the discerner [and say], ‘it’s on him’, or on her – usually it’s her – is the survivor.

“I often think that exorcisms are like a game of spiritual poker: it’s about bluff. Whoever can bluff the best wins. However, I don’t believe anyone was bluffing in the Moses case. The family were tragically inexperienced.”

Set out in print – or related to a jury – the events leading up to Janet Moses’ death in fact sound insane. In coldly rational terms, what was to stop someone opening the windows, stepping outside the door, asking for help, simply saying “enough”?

Those caught up in the events – even those who stood accused of her manslaughter – acknowledged that to an outsider how it all played out would seem incomprehensible.

Yet at times during the testimony, Kavan was seized by an almost overpowering sense of empathy: she wanted to approach the defendants and say, “I do understand”.

Similarly, many other religious phenomena can only truly be understood through direct experience.

“When the anti-cult people criticise cult members, I often think that they’ve never been near a cult leader. Because the big-name cult leaders, the gurus, emanate an energy: it’s magnetic, it’s addictive. People let down their guard, all rational thought goes out the window. It’s like falling in love.”

What is the lure for Kavan personally? Part of it is that as a self-described child of the sixties and seventies she comes from a generation of spiritual seekers.

But there is also a certain in-the-moment thrill. “You can feel the adrenalin that goes around the room. Even if you’re a sceptic, the most mundane activity takes on an air of excitement.

“If I go into a room where people believe in spiritual entities, even a simple act like choosing where to sit takes on a whole new dynamic. I could inadvertently sit on a chair that someone believes an invisible entity is occupying. Every move is filled with adrenalin. There’s a whole game that goes on. It’s compelling.”

She enjoys the sense of uplift that revival meetings and meditation groups sometimes achieve. She likes the camaraderie, the moments of transcendence, and the “fantastic stories” they weave. In some groups, she says, the intimacy is closer than you would find in many families.

But unlike the true believers, Kavan does not believe there is only one true path to the divine.

Indeed, you could almost think of Kavan as a spiritual mystery shopper, sampling the range and setting out her insights in academic papers.

It is time-consuming work. Often the face a group of believers presents to the outside world will be at odds with the behind-the-scenes reality.

“With a cult, particularly an extreme cult, you have to spend about six months with the organisation before you even discover the cult. Usually there is a fairly straightforward-sounding religion, which is a front. And after six months you discover that there are other meetings.”

Even for the non-cult-like manifestations of religions, developing an understanding takes time.

To produce her research on glossolalia – aka speaking in tongues – Kavan spent over three years observing the practice in two very different religious groups4 – a Pentecostal congregation and an apocalyptic millenarian yoga-based sect. For her paper on Falun Gong5 there was the 11-month period of rising before daylight to participate in 6 o’clock group exercises.

Her approach to Falun Gong was made when she discovered it was inviting academic institutions to conduct unbiased research.

Kavan immersed herself in her research topic, conducting ethnographic research (part of which was her 6am exercise attendance), analysing Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi’s speeches and writings, and extensively consulting external courses.

To begin with, her sympathies lay firmly with Falun Gong, but as she became more knowledgeable a shift took place. Though the Falun Gong members she met were “humble and courageous”, Falun Gong itself was less attractive: it was adept at working the media to its advantage, was less than forthcoming about some of the less palatable aspects of its dogma, and was only too ready to bring defamation suits against anyone who published unfavourable material.

Is Falun Gong a cult? It certainly seems to display characteristics that are cult-like, writes Kavan: “An idolised charismatic leader who exploits people by letting them believe he – and it is usually a ‘he’ – is God’s mouthpiece; mind control techniques; an apocalyptic world view used to manipulate members; exclusivity (‘only our religion can save people’); alienation from society; and a view of members as superior to the rest of humanity.”

In her eclectic approach to religion, Kavan may be unusual, but she says the quest for ecstasy – to be outside of ourselves – is one of the most basic human drives.

By international yardsticks, New Zealand is highly secular, but, as seems to be embedded in the nature of being human, many of us hunger for something more.

In a recent survey, 30.5 per cent of New Zealanders agreed with the statement “I don’t follow a religion, but am a spiritual person interested in the sacred or the supernatural”6.

The trouble, says Kavan, comes when the spiritual experience people seek – “which is a state of higher consciousness” – becomes encumbered with other people’s ideas. “The person’s genuine experience becomes interpreted in terms of the group’s ideology, and the leader’s ego and dogmas and rules start dominating the experience.

“What’s the old saying?” she jokes. “I love Jesus; it’s his fan club I can’t stomach.”

And unlike Kavan, who will in the end return to her office to question and analyse every aspect of her experience, many people lose all scepticism, however strange the doctrines they are asked to believe.

“[People] get into the habit of suspending doubt for such long periods it becomes part of their personality; it becomes a way of living.”

Can the benefits be come by without the drawbacks? Imagine.

“One of the things I’ve been looking at, and other scholars have been searching for, is a way that people can have these amazing experiences without having a leader who will manipulate them.”

This is no longer so far fetched. With the neurological basis of religious experience being increasingly well understood, perhaps the day will come when drug- and guru-free spiritual epiphanies will be available on demand.

“If people could have these experiences without being driven by someone else’s ideology and ego, that would be great,” says Kavan. “There would be a lot less religious violence in the world.”

text from: http://www.facts.org.cn/puop/201102/t125103.htm

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