Being a Falun Gong practitioner

Often in the news but rarely understood, Falun Gong is regularly associated with Chinese human right

I would have laughed if ten years ago you told me that my search for a meditation practice would land me on Beijing’s blacklist.

At that time I was an athlete with more determination than talent. My fascination with the mental side of sports and venture into alternative treatments for a back injury lead me to visualisation techniques, yoga, and tai chi. My quest then turned to Buddhist practices - a Vipassana retreat here, sessions at a Zen centre there.

Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, was among the disciplines I experimented with but initially put aside. While I appreciated Falun Gong’s holistic system for mind and body, friendly and outgoing practitioners, and always free teachings, I also found the emphasis on discarding all attachments too demanding; some attachments I still wanted to keep. I’ll get back to this later, I thought, after I’ve had my fun.

A mundane incident brought me back to Falun Dafa. One evening I was arguing heatedly with my father. I suggested we take a break. Sitting on the floor, I tried coaching myself into a better state of mind: ‘Ok, what should I do? Well, this Falun Dafa book here says we should act with truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. I might be acting truthfully, but I’m not being very tolerant or compassionate. I’ll try keeping these principles in mind’. I returned to the kitchen and within a minute we were hugging. Soon after, I went online and found the local Falun Dafa volunteer.

Daily Cultivation

Not long before, I applied for ordination at a remote Buddhist temple. Instead, with Falun Dafa I found a way to bring a monk’s sacred commitment to spiritual perfection to daily life in the secular world.

This balancing act is both challenging and rewarding. All the things we are deeply attached to – what we desire and what upsets us – are right before us. From nude advertisements to obnoxious colleagues – daily tests pop up to see whether we can sever the strings of attachments and emotions that tug at our hearts. While maintaining a job and raising a family, we seek to abandon selfishness and orient our hearts toward a greater good. We try to embrace hardships that come along as opportunities for spiritual growth.

Normally (as before persecution began in China), there are only two obvious differences between the lives of Falun Gong practitioners and others.

First, we perform four exercises, which resemble tai chi, and a meditation. When I manage to get up in the morning to exercise I feel lighter, energized, and more clearheaded.

As in Chinese medicine, we believe the body’s energy can be refined and transformed in ways that cannot be seen. Like heat, however, the effect is often palpable.

Second, we regularly study the teachings of Master Li Hongzhi, Falun Dafa’s founder. We might read a chapter during lunch break or listen to a talk on our iPods on the Tube. Sometimes, we’ll meet to exchange understandings of the teachings and how we apply them to our daily lives, taking joy in enlightening to new spiritual insights.

Path of Return

As I understand them, these teachings remind us to ‘look inside’ and find our own shortcomings instead of blaming others. They also remind us of life’s transience, cause and effect relationships, and our ultimate goal of enlightenment.

Cosmologically, I would say we believe we humans have descended to the world from much purer realms. We can return to these heavens, the true homes of our souls, by elevating our moral characters through a process we call ‘self-cultivation’ (xiu-lian). We do this by striving to follow the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance (zhen-shan-ren). We hold these to be the underlying characteristics of the universe from which we have deviated out of selfishness.

Like Buddhists, we see suffering as basic to the human experience, a result of karma from previous wrongdoings in this life or before. We have no ordinances against taking medicine, nor are we discouraged from helping those in need. But we believe more permanent relief comes through spiritual elevation via self-cultivation.

Admittedly, the media have had some fun with us. Falun Gong teachings have a traditional Chinese flavour, including conservative views of issues like pre-marital sex or homosexuality no different from many Buddhist and Taoist practices. Unfortunately, lost in such parodies is that we don’t judge others by requirements for practitioners or preach our values. Meanwhile, we welcome anyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, social status, religious background, or disability.

As for aliens - another issue media have drooled over – yes, like NASA’s ex-astronaut, we believe they exist, but could go months without thinking about them until some journalist claims it’s what our belief system is about. Rather, self-cultivation is really what lies at the core of being a Falun Gong practitioner.

Since most know Falun Gong through its human rights activism (discussed in upcoming entries), it’s easy to forget that this activism is something we’ve been begrudgingly forced into by persecution. At heart, we would much rather spend our Saturday mornings in the park, meditating quietly under a tree.

Leeshai Lemish has researched and written about Falun Gong since 2001. He has spent the past year travelling around the world to interview its practitioners, including labour camp survivors, for a forthcoming book.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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