The Gong Heard Around the World

Even as China relentlessly persecutes the members of Falun Gong, a group of followers of the social movement has sprung up in Israel. Together with a few Chinese exiles, several hundred Israelis are learning the exercises that are intended to bring about inner peace and better health - and making a quiet protest of their own.

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

Every day for the past month or so, in the afternoon, a small protest has been staged in front of the Chinese embassy on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. The demonstrators hold their vigil quietly. They wear yellow shirts on which are emblazoned the words "Falun Dafa" and carry placards.

On the placards are messages that convey only a fraction of the details of the war the Chinese government is waging against anyone who does the Falun Gong exercises that are an integral element of the Falun Dafa movement. It is a war against anyone who dares to adhere to the principles of Falun Dafa publicly or in secret; to buy or sell the two books written by founder of the method, Li Hongzhi; to talk about Falun Dafa in China; or to say anything about the torture methods used by the Beijing authorities against those who, despite all the prohibitions, continue to engage in Falun Gong.

Yaira Oryan is one of the regular protesters outside the Chinese embassy. The daughter of the well-known Israeli pianist Pnina Salzman, she was once known as Yaira Yasmin, and went by that name when she worked as a journalist. She became acquainted with Falun Dafa about a year and a half ago while attending a "politics in the park" event in Tel Aviv's Neveh Avivim neighborhood.

"I was walking through the park and I saw a few people doing exercises, and it caught my fancy," she recalls. "Then I saw a note on a tree saying that anyone who wanted to do Falun Gong exercises should come to the park on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a time. I went, I met Cheng, and in practically no time, we were married."

Oryan, 48, has two children from a previous marriage. Her new husband, Cheng Zuo, is 30. The two have just finished translating into Hebrew the two books by the founder of the method, Li Hongzhi. Zuo was born in China and moved with his family to the United States as a boy. He arrived in Israel two-and-a-half years ago in order to study Semitic languages "because in New York I had already studied all kinds of European languages."

He got a job in a high-tech company and started to learn Hebrew, a process in which Yaira "helped very much." His Hebrew could well be envied by many Israelis.

Zuo's mother and sister, who live in New York, practice Falun Gong, and he himself has been doing so for the past two years. Although Falun Dafa "belongs to the family of the Taoist and Buddhist religions," he explains, "it is neither Taoism nor Buddhism but something autonomous." At the same time, as in Buddhism, Falun Dafa aspires to enable its practitioners "to move to higher levels," mainly by means of a combination of healthful exercises and meditation.

Li Hongzhi, a former grain bureau clerk from Jilin province in China, founded the movement in 1992. He originally registered it as a form of the natural-healing discipline Qigong, but afterward withdrew it from China's Qigong Research Association in order to stress its spiritual (rather than health-related) emphasis. The movement claims to have 100 million followers worldwide. Beijing regards it as a threat and has persecuted and arrested its followers.

Li immigrated to the United States in 1996 under government pressure.

Local following

Anyone who wants to watch the exercises being performed - they give the impression of being a very precise, slow-motion form of meditation - need only come to Gordon Beach on the Tel Aviv seafront on a Friday afternoon. Twenty or so people wearing yellow shirts gather for the quiet drill, which is led by Zion Xiong. Xiong, who has been in Israel for about nine years and Hebraized his first name, has been practicing Falun Gong for nearly four years. He arrived in Israel on a trip related to his work in the field of import-export, met an Israeli woman and married her - and they now live in Netanya.

The exercisers on the Tel Aviv beach sit in the lotus position, their eyes closed, in a triangle-like formation, at the head of which is Zion Xiong. They look like an island of cool calm in the midst of the bathers on the noisy, crowded beach. Xiong also does exercises with a few groups in Netanya, including a group of high-schoolers. About 40 people turn up regularly for his sessions.

As the group's Internet site (www.falundafa.org.il) notes, the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv refuses to issue Zion Xiong a visa for China because he is the movement's local liaison person.

"There was a time when I would visit China or Hong Kong once every two months, but now I can't do that," he says, noting that a few months ago, he was called in to the Chinese embassy for a talk and asked whether he did Falun Gong; he admitted he did and added that he also taught the method.

"After that, I started getting phone calls from all kinds of people in the embassy asking me why I was doing that. I told them it makes me feel good. Two weeks after I started it, I was able to give up smoking. I feel a lot of energy in my body. That is good for me and it is good for the people around me, because I teach truth-compassion-forbearance."

Some time after one of these conversations took place, he was supposed to make a trip to China: "I went to the embassy and they told me I could not get a visa. Before this I would get a business visa every six months. When I asked why they would not give me a visa, they told me, `We can't tell you.' Then, a week ago, a new commercial attache arrived at the embassy. He called me and asked to meet with me. I came to him and he said, `Why are you doing Falun Gong, and in front of the embassy, too? We don't like to see that and we don't like the people who do it. If you don't stop doing that, and if you don't write a letter saying that Falun Gong is something bad and that it is bad for people, you will not get a visa.'"

The Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment on the subject at the time of printing.

Persecution and torture

Last year's report of Amnesty International, the human rights organization, contains some 70 pages on the various types of persecution and torture that are experienced by anyone in China who is suspected of having anything to do with Falun Gong. According to Amnesty, tens of thousands of the movement's practitioners have been exiled to "re-education" labor camps for periods of more than a year.

In China there is no need for a trial in order to send people to a forced-labor camp - a decision by the local police is enough. Many people lose their health in these camps, and quite a few also lose their life. The Amnesty International report states that thousands of Chinese who were suspected of being connected with Falun Gong were sent to psychiatric hospitals without any medical reason, were treated with drugs that in many cases caused their death, and were subjected to electric shocks.

Those who are tried by the courts on suspicion of having ties with the Falun Dafa movement are deprived of the right to plead not guilty, and can only throw themselves at the mercy of the court, Amnesty wrote. The legal proceedings, which bear all the characteristics of show trials, almost always end in prison terms of more than 10 years. Many of those who are incarcerated are forced to endure every possible type of torture; many die in prison.

The official claim of the Chinese government is that these prisoners commit suicide because Falun Dafa is a "cult" that destabilizes its followers. And that is also why they are committed to psychiatric hospitals, the Chinese authorities say.

In fact, Li Hongzhi, in his written works, forbids the taking of life. His doctrine is based on zhen-shan-ren, meaning truth-compassion-forbearance, and its goal is to teach people how to cultivate physical and mental health by means of certain exercises, and through this, to help the entire world. Nowhere in the books is it claimed that the world is in danger, or, by the same token, that only Li Hongzhi can save it.

According to the movement's doctrine, the world and human beings have a cyclical existence, and hence also the name of the method: "Falun" means "law wheel" and "gong" is essentially energy.

In an interview in this magazine last week ("The China syndrome"), the ambassador of China in Israel, Pan Zhanlin, stated that Falun Gong is a cult, and added that its members "believe in a `war of Gog and Magog.' Their leader says that only he can save the world. That sect has caused people to deteriorate. So far, 1,600 people have committed suicide because of Falun Gong. Many members of the sect lost their place of work and their family."

The official figures show a somewhat different picture from the one painted by the ambassador. Some 70 million Chinese believe in the principles of the movement and practice them. It is a mass movement whose members carry out its practices in full view of everyone; it has no single leader or personality cult, and is not a sect. The hierarchy of the movement is only defined by the levels of spiritual-physical development and purification that an individual attains, each in his or her own way. There are no belts of different colors or titles as in judo or karate, for example; there is no uniform or special training clothes.

Falun Gong exercises can be done in the company of people who have previously done them - but also from books or via the Internet. Neither in the books nor on the Web is there a hint of a recommendation that it's preferable to learn the exercises at the hands of a particular trainer, instructor or master. It seems self-evident that when no preference is given to a human teacher over self-instruction via the Internet, the emergence of a personality cult is not possible.

What is true in the comments by the Chinese ambassador is that many followers of Falun Gong have lost their jobs or their family. The reason for that is that they have been dismissed from work and sent to labor camps, psychiatric hospitals or prison.

Silencing the `gong'

What is there about the five regular and repeated exercises performed by Falun Dafa adherents (called "Buddha showing a thousand hands," "Falun standing stance," "penetrating the two Cosmic Extremes," "The Great Heavenly Circuit" and "Strengthening Divine Powers"), which are supposed to purify the body by means of the "inner cultivation of the xingxing" - the internal energy of the "mind nature" that corresponds to the nature of the world - that drives the Chinese government crazy?

According to Li Hongzhi and others who adhere to the tenets of Falun Dafa, the method has existed for hundreds or thousands of years and has been passed from one person to one pupil in every generation. Falun Gong is only one of the thousands of "gong" methods that have existed in China since ancient times, explains Yoav Rappaport of the East Asian Studies Department of Tel Aviv University.

"All the martial arts, from Tai Chi to Ma Gong, have a physical aspect of exercise and bodily cultivation, along with healing and medicine, and therefore they are studied in China in the schools and even in teachers' colleges. On the other hand, all the martial arts also have a religious or spiritual aspect, because persistence in [practicing] these methods is supposed to bring a person to a higher level or enlightenment. It was not rare in China to see people practicing in public parks using various methods."

Adds Rappaport: "The problem with Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is that it succeeded and also became popular in the West, and because it succeeded, the Chinese authorities began to view it as a threat and to suppress it. And because the government decided to suppress it, a kind of underground emerged and a type of organization was formed. And because a type of organization has sprung up, the campaign against it has become a very fierce one."

Is Falun Gong a sect?

Rappaport: "Absolutely not. It may be a kind of religion, but it is not a religion that has institutions or a hierarchy, or precepts concerning what is forbidden and what is permitted. Nor is it a political movement, in the sense that it is interested in ruling. There is no political dimension to what they do, just as there is no political dimension in Tai Chi."

In his books, Li also states that Falun Dafa has no political or commercial motivation. He forbids money to be taken in return for Falun Gong lessons, and he himself makes his living from only a minuscule fraction of the profits from his writings. There are no courses for pupils or teachers of Falun Dafa and no money changes hands.

On July 22, 1999, the government of China issued an ordinance outlawing Falun Dafa and forbidding its practice. The government decree declared the movement a "heretical organization that threatens the social and political stability of China."

Li had already been out of the country for three years, but a few months before clamping down on Falun Dafa, the Beijing authorities decided to issue an arrest warrant for him. That prompted a large demonstration, which was held in a residential area where members of the Chinese government lived. Some 10,000 people stood in absolute silence. The demonstration threw the government into even more of a panic, Rapaport explains.

"The only organization that is allowed to exist in China is the government, just like the empire of the past. The structure of society in China is such that people are usually organized only within their families or as subjects of the ruling authority. If 10,000 people turn up for a demonstration, then obviously they have connections that are not only within their families; it's clear that there must be some sort of organizational apparatus. To be committed to something that is not the government has always been considered a grave offense down through the generations in China."

A few days before the July 1999 decree was issued, the police rounded up thousands of members of the movement, according to Amnesty International. By November of that year, some 20,000 Falun Dafa members had been arrested, according to official reports. The Chinese press reported that all of them were liaison people or "leaders," a term that is not in the movement's lexicon.

The latest official reports from China maintain that only two million people in the country practice Falun Gong. Since the reports two years ago referred to 70 to 100 million followers, the current low number is intended to signify the effectiveness of the Chinese government's campaign against the "sect," which supposedly believes in something that is not the Communist Party.

Quiet vigil

Vadim Berestetsky, a designer of Internet sites, including the Israeli site of Falun Dafa, came to be interested in the movement after engaging in Chi Kong and Tai Chi, as well as other martial arts.

"I started to look for other methods via the Internet, and then, about two-and-a-half years ago, I came across a book by Master Li, I took it off the shelf and I started to read it, and I was really thrown for a loop. It was so different from everything else I knew, it suddenly explained to me my whole existence in a completely different way. And what I really liked about it was that the book makes personal cultivation and personal improvement dependent on moral criteria."

According to Paula Izenberg, a Jerusalem architect, Vadim is the chief organizer of all the practice sessions in Jerusalem. "There are about 40 of us in Jerusalem," she says. "We practice in the Rose Garden [next to the Knesset] and in a few other public parks. Vadim is the main planner and go-getter."

About a week ago, Berestetsky returned from a Falun Dafa conference that was held in Washington. During the past month, demonstrations against the persecution of the movement by the Chinese government have been held in various places. In the United States, some 5,000 people from 30 states organized a march on Washington and held a three-day gathering in the city. For two days, they held a quiet vigil on the steps of the Capitol building; many members of Congress and the administration came to express their solidarity.

On the third day, a conference was held at the Kennedy Center: "The most amazing thing," Berestetsky says, "is that even though there was only room for 4,000 people in the hall, people voluntarily gave up their places so those who had come from a long way could have a seat. No one shouted and no one pushed, because that is Falun Dafa - it always speaks of the need to place the needs of others before your own."

Isn't that what's called being a sucker?

Izenberg: "That's what it's called in Israel, but that's exactly what I like about it. In the group you will never see people trying to push their way in or making noise, or violence of any sort. It is part of our principles to totally avoid violence, and that is what's so good. We see everything that happens as an opportunity to train ourselves in truth-compassion-forbearance."

Remi Bleibtreu trains people on the Tel Aviv beach. A 36-year-old actor from France, he began doing Falun Gong about a year and a half ago. According to the movement, he says, human beings are actually the embodiment of the divine, which is also called the "Buddha nature" as well as xingxing. In order to be transformed from something divine to flesh and blood, a human being performs a kind of descent into the material dimension. Falun Dafa is intended to help people discover and refine the divine element within themselves, namely the zhen-shan-ren, which constitute the elements and the principles that are the moving force of divinity, man and nature. Those who succeed in cultivating these inner elements to higher levels will achieve "enlightenment."

As Bleibtreu explains, "Enlightenment is the perfect cultivation of our Buddha nature, and this is a process that is felt in both the body and the soul."

How do you know you have reached enlightenment?

Bleibtreu: "When I get there I will let you know."

Prof. Henry Markram, a brain researcher who teaches at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, practices Falun Gong along with his wife, Anat, and their three children. Anat Markram attended the recent conference in Washington while he stayed home to look after the kids. Markram first heard about Falun Gong when he and his wife were on sabbatical in San Francisco, and when they returned to Israel, about a year and a half ago, they decided to become practitioners.

"I learned the method from the Internet and from books, and then I looked for other people who were doing it, and we found a few people in Rehovot," he says.

How much time a day do you devote to Falun Gong?

Markram: "I do it the whole day. After all, most of the technique consists not of physical exercises but of spiritual ones. I train myself to show truth-compassion-forbearance throughout the day. Everything that happens is a chance for me to test myself."

Are you now more tolerant and compassionate toward your students now?

"I think so."

The Markrams' 12-year-old daughter, Lenoy, is no longer interested in doing Falun Gong but says that the fact that the whole family did it together changed their life at home. "Suddenly, we started listening to one another and understanding one another," she says.

Her 10-year-old sister, Kali, likes to practice - sometimes. Her name, she explains, means "goddess of destruction." Asked why she was named that, she replies, "I don't know. But once I was called `Kelly' and then my dad started calling me `Kali.' But my little brother, who is five, is called `Kai,' and Kai is the highest level of cultivation in Falun Dafa."

The several hundred Israelis who practice Falun Gong have a clear interest in creating the impression that they joined the movement by chance, in order to refute the Chinese government's claim that it is an organization - a claim that underlies the horrific persecution of the movement's members in China. Nevertheless, many of the Israelis seem to have begun to practice Falun Gong about a year and a half ago, which was when Yaira Oryan and Cheng Zuo were married.

But even if the developments in Israel are the result of an organized effort by Falun Gong supporters in the country, the movement is no more dangerous than a meditation group or a bunch of folkdance enthusiasts. Moral values such as "truth-compassion-forbearance" can "endanger political and social stability" only in a society that advocates values that are the exact opposite: lying-cruelty-dictatorship of ideas.

"The terrible persecution of Falun Gong by the Chinese government is a paramount subject in every meeting between American and Chinese officials, and that is as it should be," Rappaport says. "This is a saliently political and religious persecution, which violates all human rights, freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly - every democratic principle imaginable.

"But it is precisely because Falun Gong has become so popular in the West, and precisely because the U.S. encourages it as part of its tactics in the struggle against communism, that the Chinese are fighting the movement so fiercely. The Chinese authorities feel threatened because they know that the movement, like the Dalai Lama, offers an answer to something that the Communist Party has long since ceased to offer: a solution to the inner, spiritual human need to believe."n

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