NEW YORK—The founder of Falun Gong, Mr. Li Hongzhi, spoke to nearly 10,000 practitioners of the spiritual discipline on May 15 at the Barclays Center. Before and after his talk, individuals gave talks about what they had learned in practicing Falun Gong and how they had educated people about the persecution adherents suffer in China.
Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, is a practice of self-cultivation—adherents seek to improve their bodies, minds, and spirits. Falun Gong practitioners live according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, and they also practice five exercises—four of which are standing exercises with gentle movements similar to Tai Chi, and a fifth that is a sitting meditation.
After first being publicly taught on May 13, 1992, the practice spread very rapidly in China, with 100 million having taken it up by 1999. In July 1999, the then paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party, fearing that the moral teachings of Falun Gong might prove more attractive than the Communist Party’s ideology, ordered a campaign aimed at exterminating the practice. Since then, Falun Gong practitioners have sought to end the persecution by telling people inside and outside China about what Falun Gong is and how it has been persecuted.
Mr. Li spoke at the conference in the early afternoon. He emphasized the importance of exposing the persecution and urged practitioners to do better in their cultivation. He also took time to answer questions from the audience.
The conference in New York was the climax of a several days of events that included a parade, candlelight vigils memorializing those killed in the persecution, performances of music, song, and dance, and mass demonstrations of the Falun Gong exercises.
Practitioners hold similar conferences throughout the year in the different cities and countries, but the annual conference in New York is the largest. Participants in the May 15 conference came from at least 53 countries, and practically every walk of life.
Graciela Moreno (“Kela” to friends) came from Argentina. She has practiced Falun Gong for over a decade, and was an administrator with the government of Córdoba, a province in Argentina, before retiring. She has lived in the capital, Buenos Aires, for many years, and spends most of her time working as a volunteer to raise awareness about the persecution of Falun Gong.
Miss Moreno said that the experience papers that were read out, as well as the lecture by Mr. Li, were extremely encouraging. “As a practitioner, my heart is very determined to help people understand the truth of the persecution,” she said.
Over the past year or so, mainstream recognition has increased that practitioners of Falun Gong in China have been slaughtered in large numbers so that their vital organs can be sold, and this is often one of the key pieces of information that practitioners around the world seek to explain to governments, NGOs, journalists, and regular citizens they encounter when they tell people about the persecution.
A number of the experience sharing papers at the conference discussed activities around raising awareness on this issue. John Perry, a young man from the U.S. state of Georgia, for instance, explained how he initially felt embarrassed and resistant to the idea of approaching strangers and asking them to sign a petition about organ harvesting.
After reflecting on the reality of the crime, however, and his sense of responsibility as a practitioner of Falun Gong, he said he felt clear that “I’m absolutely doing the right thing, and I should do it openly and without any hesitation.” He went on to talk about the reactions of people in society who heard about the crimes for the first time, and the unreserved support they expressed for Falun Gong. He saw these reactions as a reflection of his own changed state of mind.
His experience goes back to a core principle of the Falun Gong cultivation way that was a recurring theme at the conference: self-examination, or “looking within,” as it’s called in the practice.
Practitioners recounted again and again how they sought out and corrected many of the ideas they had that they knew were problematic, but that they nevertheless clung to because of emotional attachments, inertia, or the unwillingness to undergo the sometimes painful process of self-recognition and transformation. They spoke about how the teachings of Falun Gong guided and propelled them through this process, and of the abiding sense of peace they felt once they had faced and conquered those internal problems.
Joe Knox, a school-teacher in the south of San Diego near the Mexican border, has practiced Falun Gong for just short of a decade. For several years, he said, he simply read the books and did the exercises by himself at home. As he slowly began to gain a deeper feeling for the power of the practice, and its effect on him, he started to seek out the Falun Gong community and learn how he could raise awareness about the abuses against it, and also demonstrate what he saw as its fundamental goodness to those in his community.
To this end, he began a practice site near his school, and invited his students — many of them disadvantaged young people who’d come from Tijuana just across the border — to come along and do the exercises.
He is also a regular presence at the practice site near the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum, a favored site for large groups of tourists from mainland China.
“The Chinese practitioners joke that I’m the face of Falun Gong around here,” he said with a laugh. The effect of seeing a Westerner flawlessly performing the Falun Gong exercises movements “makes them take a step back and question their dogma in their mind,” he said. Falun Gong has been slandered by the Chinese Communist Party, and many Chinese have been told the practice is somehow dangerous. “The Chinese often stop and look—just by being non-Chinese, it makes them curious. They think Falun Gong is strictly a Chinese thing, but now they can see there are people in America doing it, and that they’d been lied to.”
He first heard of the practice after seeing a Falun Gong float in a Veteran’s Day parade. His grandfather fought in World War II, and Knox said, “anything the Communist Party is against, I want to know about.”
Knox said he was inspired by the paper read by another Westerner who has been practicing Falun Gong in California for 20 years and has become a volunteer coordinator. “He was echoing things I’ve experienced as a Westerner in this community—it’s gratifying to know he’s been there and is still cultivating today.”
Two veteran practitioners of Falun Gong, both of them former members of the Ministry of Public Security in China, happened to bump into each other during the lunch break.
Ye Hao and Zhong Guichun were both key early figures in Falun Gong’s rapid growth in China, serving as volunteers in part of the voluntary organization that oversaw the dissemination of the practice until it was dissolved, several years before the persecution began. Before the comprehensive and unprecedented campaign to eliminate the practice began in 1999, Falun Gong had already come under pressure from the regime, as both of them can attest.
Ye Hao, a bureau chief in the Ministry of Public Security, was a key force in holding off for about three years, from 1996, the hardliners seeking persecution. Zhong Guichun, a section chief, learnt Falun Gong before it was even taught publicly in 1992.
Both of them have thus seen the practice flourish in China, as well as its savage persecution and vilification at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. But they also expect to see a renaissance.
“I don’t think it will be long now,” said Zhong Guichun. “The Communist Party is all about persecuting traditional culture, and establishing Party culture instead. It came to power with lies and violence, cheating and abusing people. They’re persecuting universal values.”
Mr. Zhong said he believes the campaign against Falun Gong is unsustainable, and that some form of political change is inevitable in China, which will see a restoration of Falun Gong’s prominence in Chinese society.
Mr. Zhong declined to comment on whether he hoped Xi Jinping, the current leader, would effect such a change in policy, or whether he hoped for that.
“We don’t put our hopes in anyone,” he said. “You can cultivate Falun Gong in the most difficult circumstances all the same.” In the meantime, he said, Falun Gong practitioners should all be thinking: “We need to look inward more. We should ask ourselves: are we diligent enough? We need to find the mistakes in ourselves and correct them.”
Ye Hao said “We’ve not done enough to reveal the truth about the persecution in China. It requires a lot more hard work.” He added, however, that under any situation, “the essence of cultivation is the same.” He added “We have no interest in politics,” but just a wish to cultivate the heart and expose the crimes that have been committed against those who practice Falun Gong.
Joy Xue, 19, started practicing Falun Gong in New Zealand after she emigrated from her original home in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China. As a university student, Miss Xue said she tries to do well in her school work, said she has learned from the teachings of Falun Gong that no matter where she is, she should be a good person.
Miss Xue said that in China her understanding of Falun Gong was limited to the Chinese regime’s propaganda, and because of this, she believed it was something she should stay away from. Her mother started practicing when she was 10, but didn’t introduce her family to it, fearing the severity of the persecution.
After she arrived in New Zealand, however, he mother told her about the practice. Miss Xue said she started reading the books, and after learning about all the hardships Falun Gong practitioners endure in China to explain to people what Falun Gong is really about, she was touched and started cultivating.
She learned a lesson, she said, to “think independently and rationally,” instead of avoiding facts out of fear.
A Harmonious Life
Son Nguyen, a 30-year-old software engineer from Finland attended the conference with his girlfriend, Thao Thanh Nguyen, a 26-year-old student.
Miss Nguyen introduced Mr. Nguyen to Falun Gong in 2013, and the practice changed his perspective on the world. Mr. Nguyen said he used to be bothered by conflicts with other people, but these days when he runs into conflicts he looks at himself first, and tries to harmonize the environment.
He also experienced another change. He said, “since I started to practice Falun Dafa, I can feel my body is purer.”
Both of them took a 12-hour flight to attend the conference, and both said they were very moved. Miss Nguyen said “It was amazing, I was really touched. What should I say … it’s very encouraging—very touching and inspiring. I’m touched from the bottom of my heart. I really feel I should be a better cultivator.”
Juliet Song contributed to this report.