Is Falun Gong a “Cult”
Cultic Studies Review, 17, 2000, 168-186
Is Falun Gong a “Cult”?
In his article “Cults, Violence, and the Millennium” (Cult Observer, Vol. 16, No. 4, p.5), Michael Langone suggests that the following three characteristics “are central to the definition of a cultic group.” These are: centralized control by a charismatic leader; an “us-them” mentality which isolates; and a lack of toleration of dissent. I will address each issue in relation to the Falun Gong. My comments will be based on material found in the Zhuan Falun. This book is considered by practitioners to be more important than the Bible, Koran, and Torah combined. Li Hongzhi is the founder of the group and the author of the book that is taken from his public lectures. I will give a brief overview of these three characteristics as found in the Zhuan Falun and then go into more detail.
In this article, “control” will refer to psychological means of control. However, particularly in the case of the Falun Gong, it may be important to also examine the elements of control in an organizational sense and in relation to external actions by its members. Psychologically, control comes from three main venues in the book: 1) setting up Master Li as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent and listing what he can GIVE practitioners; 2) telling practitioners the DON’Ts — what they should not do if they wish to remain true cultivators; 3) telling practitioners what they will LOSE if they go wrong.
Closely related to the DON’Ts is the lack of toleration for dissent. However, the lack of toleration for dissent or criticism is not only found within the group, but also applies to anyone outside the group.
The development of the us-them mentality and the ensuing isolation is perhaps the first characteristic to be developed. It closely relates to the scare tactics used to control practitioners, and helps to create an anxious dependency with high anxiety around no longer being a “true” cultivator.
Since the us-them mentality is such a fundamental characteristic, I will begin by describing it in more detail. The Zhuan Falun describes “ordinary people” as being degenerate, likely to be bad, likely to disturb you, likely to contaminate you, and possibly evil or demons out to possess or eat you. Li, at best, cares nothing for the ordinary person. He only cares for those who are cultivators. Li expresses his feelings towards ordinary people when he states: “Anyway, an ordinary person is an ordinary person. No matter how he does damage to his body, we do not care.” Li reminds the practitioners that “Such light-opening does not apply to your relatives or friends because we only take care of the cultivators.” (This also provides motivation for practitioners to recruit loved ones.) Li’s care for the practitioners will be unconditional, as long as they are true cultivators. He tells them that after hearing his lecture (or reading his book or seeing his videotape), there will be a great gap between themselves and “ordinary people.” He suggests that having ordinary friends doesn’t “matter much” but then adds, “However, if that person indeed possesses something evil, it could be very bad and you had better not have contact with him.” Li says that “Except those who tell you to avoid fatal dangers, all those who tell you to get benefits in the society of ordinary people are demons.”
Some of the control tactics involve telling you what will happen to you if you fall from grace. “Your body will be reduced to the level of an ordinary person and the bad things will be returned to you.” He is the one who gives you the good things and who can take away the bad things. If you fail and return to being an ordinary person, these good things will be lost and the bad things will be returned to you by him. The good things include an instantly high level of cultivation, the opening of your celestial eye, and guaranteed protection and unconditional care by him. The bad things include bad karma and physical illness. He promises, “Now that you want to cultivate, your future life will be rearranged and your physical body will be put right.” He is the only one who can save you, and if you fail in his method, then no one can save you; you are “doomed.” Any thought you might have “condemning the teacher and the Great Law” is a test to see if you can overcome such evil thoughts.
This leads us into the lack of toleration of dissent. Within the group, certain DON’Ts help create an intolerant atmosphere: don’t read any other books but his, don’t make notes or marks in his books since they are holy objects, don’t listen to non-practitioners, and don’t speak of the teachings in your own words (since you know so little compared to him); you must only quote him directly. Li also states that “the least deviation of your thinking will surely incur danger to your life.” An interesting aspect of this lack of toleration for dissent and criticism is how it applies to those outside the group as well. This has resulted in practitioners showing up at various locations to protest critical comments in papers, on TV programs, and in front of government buildings in China. A seventy-two-year-old theoretical physicist named the Zuoxiu published an article in the Teenager Science-Technology Outlook titled “I’m opposed to Qi Gong Practice by Teenagers.” In the article he also questioned the “so-called magical effects of Falun Gong.” As a result, on April 19th, 2,000 practitioners staged a sit-in at his university, the number growing to 6,000. A Beijing TV station that broadcasted an interview with He Zuoxiu, had 1,000 practitioners show up at its door in protest. He Zuoxiu says he was also “harassed” by Falun Gong members, with seven groups coming to his home to debate with him, his answering machine flooded with calls, and over 200 letters “of abuse” being sent to him.
With so much good promised if you follow, and so much bad predicted if you leave, there is strong reason to remain. Since Li Hongzhi has stated that: “I am rooted into the cosmos; whoever challenges you can challenge me and, to be frank, can challenge the cosmos,” who wants to get on the wrong side of the cosmos?
Patsy Rahn, the author of this report, a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, is now in Chinese language studies at that institution.