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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.