NORFOLK – As the sun rises, all is tranquillity along the riverbank at the dead end of West 48th Street.
Crickets chirp in the green marsh grass. A white heron glides silently overhead.
On the boardwalk, two motionless men face the water, eyes closed, arms stretched in an “O” above their heads. A tape player projects quavering Chinese music and calm words of instruction: “Liangce Baolun.”
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Shu Xiao and Yanjin “James” Zhang lower their arms at the cue and again freeze, now in the “Holding the Wheel on Both Sides of the Head” position. A soft breeze flutters Zhang’s shirt sleeve.
The placid setting is ideal for practitioners of Falun Gong, a discipline of meditation and slow-motion exercises that is reputed to have 100 million followers around the world.
But the climate is anything but serene for Falun Gong practitioners in China, where the movement began in 1992. Viewing Falun Gong as a threat to political stability, the Chinese government outlawed the discipline four years ago. Since then, tens of thousands of adherents have been detained, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group reported that as many as 500 practitioners may have died while jailed.
In America, Falun Gong followers distraught over the repression have urged public officials to intervene. Their lobbying prodded Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate into approving resolutions earlier this year that rebuked the Chinese government.
Practitioners also have held public protests, such as a peaceful demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol building last month. Zhang and Xiao were among the hundreds of participants.
To introduce Americans to Falun Gong, Zhang, an assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and Xiao, a bioelectrics researcher at Old Dominion University, have hosted free workshops in Hampton Roads.
Both men, who are among a handful of local practitioners, said they have practiced Falun Gong religiously for five years and experienced the healing power Falun Gong promises.
“I used to suffer very strong insomnia; I could only sleep two or three hours. It was very horrible,” Xiao said. Four months after he began the regimen of exercises, he said his affliction disappeared.
Zhang said that before embracing Falun Gong, he would get seriously ill once a year.
“For the last five years, I haven’t needed any doctors visits at all.”
Xiao said the benefits increase if a person also studies the writings of Li Hongzhi, the movement’s founder, and abides by Falun Gong’s principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.
“You can create a kind of harmony. You respect others, listen to other people’s ideas. So there’s no fighting, even no argument,” he said.
Chinese officials have called Falun Gong politically subversive and a dangerous cult.
Scott Lowe, a Chinese religion scholar at the University of North Dakota, said it’s more likely that Chinese authorities see Falun Gong as a threat because the mass movement operates outside government control.
Lowe considers Falun Gong relatively innocuous, although he said the writings of Li Hongzhi include statements that “sound clinically like some form of paranoia.”
Practitioners are not required to pay money, attend meetings, support clergy, be initiated, obtain membership or revere Li. “Just practice the exercises and read the books, which you can download for free off the Internet,” Lowe said.
Studies show that mind-body exercises like those prescribed by Falun Gong are effective in treating stress-related health conditions such as hypertension, Lowe said.
More incredible are Li’s statements that Falun Gong followers can discover or develop in themselves supernormal powers such as clairvoyance.
Claims of this sort are familiar in the tradition of Qigong (chee- gong), which includes Tai-Chi and Chinese martial arts. Characters in the 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” portrayed powers derived from Qigong when they flew and leaped over buildings, Lowe said.
According to Li, Falun Gong also improves moral character in a measurable sense: As a practitioner embodies truth, compassion and tolerance, he or she accumulates virtue in the form of a white substance. Wrongdoing creates karma, which Li describes as a black substance.
One of the best ways to build virtue is to be calm and exhibit Falun Gong’s principles in the face of violence or persecution, Li states.
While this concept resembles the Christian tenet of turning the other cheek, Falun Gong followers call their movement a self- improvement practice, not a religion.
Lowe said Falun Gong is, like yoga and transcendental meditation, a mind-body discipline that explains the universe but that is practiced mainly by people who just want to improve their health.
But, he added, “For some people, it becomes the most important spiritual focus of their life.”
The description fits Xiao, who said he has no personal religion. After studying Falun Gong’s depiction of the universe, Xiao said he accepted that there is a spiritual Almighty.
“If you want to get close to him, you have to purify yourself first,” Xiao said.
“How you do that is to try to follow the principles of truth, compassion and tolerance. I think it’s an instinct in people. When I practice Falun Gong, I just feel it’s basically rooted in my heart.”
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