NEW YORK — Oblivious to the leaves crunching under foot and the chill wind whipping his parka, for two hours Adam Montanaro practices slow, dancelike Falun Gong exercises to traditional Chinese music in New York City's Central Park.
"I think prior to this, I was living randomly, like a leaf in the wind. Falun Gong has given me guidance," says Mr. Montanaro.
Montanaro is not unique in turning to this spiritual movement, which started in China seven years ago and is so new no one is certain how large it is.
The movement surprised the Chinese government last April by mounting a 10,000-strong demonstration in Beijing'sTiananmen Square. In July, the government banned its practice. Since then, human rights activists and even the US Congress have condemned China.
In the US, much of its growth is still within the Chinese immigrant community. At the same time, Falun Gong - Chinese for "cultivation of the Buddhist Wheel of Law" - is becoming another contribution to American religious diversity and benefiting from increasing religious tolerance among Americans.
"Perhaps you can go back to New Age practices from the 1960s, the need to seek alternatives to the system for those who are disappointed with the institutional religions, or with science, or with the establishment," says Charles Wu, a professor of Chinese and humanities at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He notes that Falun Gong is not the only Chinese religious practice that has taken hold in the US.
Falun Gong, introduced by Li Hongzhi in China in 1992, is an exposition of zhen-shan-ren, or truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance, a way to cultivate both mind and body through exercise and meditation. It has its roots in Buddhism, Taoist philosophy, and qigong - mind-body exercises that focus on the flow of "vital energies," or qi [pronounced tchee].
"As far as Falun Gong goes..., Li's kind of a latecomer in the world of qigong, and you have to understand him in the context of the popularity of qigong in China in the 1980s," says Mr. Wu. He describes Falun Gong as utilizing qigong exercise but concentrating mostly on the spiritual aspect.
Qigong caught on in China because its emphasis on fitness and self-healing aided those who couldn't afford medical care, and its spiritual message filled a vacuum in the wake of widespread disillusionment about communism, Wu says.
Internet access to teachings
Practitioners say Americans from non-Chinese backgrounds have joined the movement in steadily increasing numbers since the English edition of Li Hongzhi's teachings came out two years ago. Now, it is possible to download the book from the Internet.
While precise numbers are hard to come by because the Falun Gong movement does not keep membership rolls, practice groups have a presence in American cities as diverse as Louisville, Ky.; Cleveland; Orlando, Fla.; and Salt Lake City. Wu says the group has a chapter in Portland, Ore., as well.
In the New York City area, where Li reportedly lives, aside from Montanaro's practice group in Central Park, there are groups in Chinatown, Battery Park, the Upper West Side, and the East Side. There are several in Brooklyn and Queens, and others on Long Island, in Westchester and Rockland counties, and Buffalo. Some meet once or twice a week, others every weekday.
The added benefit of Falun Gong is that practicing it requires little effort, Wu says. "It has a very wide appeal because for other forms of qigong, the question is, what happens if you don't do the exercises? Li says, 'If I plant the wheel in you, you don't have to worry.' "
Wu has some reservations about such an approach, which he says moves the focus from the practitioner to the master. Also of concern to Wu is Li's claim that he talks of the truth of the entire galaxy and places himself above all other ancient Buddhist and Taoist sages.
"I myself feel [Falun Gong] has cult tendencies in that when the master says I am going to plant something in you, and it's me protecting you, it's actually encouraging a worship of him, a dependence on him. He has an organization. I've seen the constitution of the organization, and he's the only leader who can teach the principles of Falun Gong," Wu says.
Gail Rachlin, a spokeswoman for the spiritual movement, denies all Wu's criticism. "What constitution? I've never seen a constitution. I mean, we don't even have an organization," she says, adding that neither she nor any other Falun Gong practitioner she knows has spoken with Li since July.
While they have been called everything from a "banned mystical exercise group" to "sect" and "cult," Falun Gong practitioners in New York City - and they like to be called "practitioners" rather than "members" - are emphatic in their denials that they belong to some sort of deviant group. They don't isolate themselves from non-Falun Gong practitioners. They don't keep tabs on who practices and who doesn't, and they don't have strict rules on how to practice. They don't proselytize. They don't donate money to the movement. They don't even call Falun Gong a religion.
As for their reaction to the persecution of their fellow practitioners in China, New York practitioners say the publicity since the crackdown has benefited the movement's profile, generating interest and sympathy among Americans from all ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. It has brought a new wave of followers who would not have found out about the movement otherwise. Ms. Rachlin estimates that before April, only 30 percent of practitioners in the US were of non-Chinese ancestry. Now, she says, it's close to 50 percent.
Search for a freer spirituality
Overall, practitioners' reasons for following Falun Gong are similar to the reasons Americans from other backgrounds adopt Eastern religions and practices - a search for a different philosophy, a freer way to express spirituality, and a healthy exercise routine. Indeed, many practitioners interviewed said they had a prior interest in Buddhism, Taoism, qigong, or martial arts. And while most said they no longer strictly adhered to the religious background they came from, they did not see any inherent conflict between their religious heritage and their new practice.
Montanaro, who practices Falun Gong exercises every day, credits the spiritual movement for making him less anxious.
At the software company where he works, five of his 13 colleagues have become practitioners in the last seven months, after a Chinese-American colleague was told about Falun Gong from his mother, a practitioner in China.
"If you look at the principles of Falun Gong, it's the same as those in all orthodox religions," says Noah Parker, Montanaro's colleague and fellow Falun Gong practitioner. Mr. Parker, who is the son of a minister, says he still participates in church activities, although he is no longer a regular churchgoer.
Falun Gong has more advantages, Montanaro says: "It's not like you visit church and you're alone for the rest of the week."
At a nine-day introductory session to watch Li's lectures on videotape, retired credit manager Andy Murtagh laments what he sees as decaying morality and the collapse of orthodox religion in America since the 1960s. "The whole concept of America is how much money you have, how big is your house," he says.
For Mr. Murtagh, Falun Gong is a way to fill that spiritual void.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society