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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