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Point of View: ‘Falun Gong’ — Is it cult, or religion?

Now comes the self-immolation incident that has turned a cool meditation drive into a hot political issue in China and probably in this country as well. The group has a large following in the United...

By George H. Tsai

How much have you heard about Falun Gong lately?

Now comes the self-immolation incident that has turned a cool meditation drive into a hot political issue in China and probably in this country as well. The group has a large following in the United States, especially in New York City, and especially here in Queens.

China has launched a crackdown on its activities, thrusting the government and Falun Gong into a collision course.

The recent tragedy staged by Falun Gong practitioners has made headlines around the world. According to the media here, a group of Falun Gong followers set themselves on fire at Tieannmen Square in Beijing in an apparent attempt to ascend to heaven. They were indoctrinated to believe that they could go to heaven after “achieving consummation” in their practices. And those who attempted to immolate themselves undoubtedly thought they had reached that goal and it was time for them to depart from the earth. But their daring action is beyond comprehension. There is nothing more precious than life because we can live only once.

The self-immolation attempt on the Jan. 23 Eve of the Lunar New Year left one woman dead and four severely burned. Two were stopped from lighting themselves. A 12-year-old girl was among the seven in the bizarre event. A few days later, a man died in the same way as the woman did in Beijing.

One of the survivors said he was surprised the smoke that rose from the burning bodies was black instead of white as it should be for the consummated practitioners in accordance with the Dafa (great law) of Falun Gong. When asked why she tried to take her own life in such a horrifying way, the 12-year-old, recovering from severe burns, said her mother, who died in the incident, had told her about the Falun paradise, where all roads are paved with gold and houses also built with gold. Assuming this is not the girl’s fabrication, then Falun Gong leaders should drop that deceptive verse from their teachings.

It was reported as many as 1,600 practitioners had lost their lives as a result of their refusal to take medication for serious illness.

Obviously, the failed ascension attempt by the group in China’s capital might have stopped more practitioners from following suit. And a lot of followers have become disillusioned and spoken out against their beloved master, Li Hongzhi, now living in the United States.

But Falun Gong’s representatives categorically denied their followers’ involvement in such a tragedy because Li opposes suicide and he condemned China’s crackdown on the followers.

What in the world is Falun (wheel of law) Gong (energy)? A cult, or a religion, or a “qigong” (strengthening the mind and body) or a spiritual group? The Chinese officials call it a dyed-in-the-wool cult, but to its followers, Falun Gong is a spiritual path.

Li founded Falun Gong in 1992 during a period when thousands of people lost their jobs and state benefits, such as medical coverage, as the Communist regime implemented its economic reforms. Falun Gong showed a great appeal to those frustrated people, especially those in rural areas. Since then, Falun Gong has spread like a wildfire in that Asian nation with a population of 1.3 billion.

Li, 49, said that the Chinese Communist government is atheist, so anything of spiritual nature is often discouraged and outlawed because it is not in keeping with the Communist ideology. Fundamental human rights are rarely protected.

A junior high school graduate, Li is being touted by his admirers as a man of peace, and a follower in Flushing said Li is even greater than Jesus Christ. Besides, a U.S. congressman was reported to have recommended that Li be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Assembly of New Jersey, where Li may be a resident, has passed a resolution to pay the highest respect to Li for promoting mind-and -body health through slow, gentle movements and meditation. But three other American cities, including San Francisco, have dropped plans to give Li similar honors after the recent tragedy in Beijing.

On the Web sites, Falun Gong gets more critics than supporters. In fact, there is a virtual war in cyberspace between scholars and Li’s followers.

Li portrays himself as a superior being (the Lord of Buddhas) and has predicted an apocalyptic disaster. He declares in his Jinwen (“scripture”) that he is introducing an unprecedented system “to bring people up to a high level.”

He claims that medicine does not cure any disease, social science does not solve moral decline, and that physicists know nothing about the origin of this universe.

His is not the first religious leader to make these types of statements.

He won’t be the last.

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