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.
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.