The faithful gather at dawn on a grassy knoll in Central Park. Under a tree, they place a box playing harmonious Chinese melodies. Then they begin to meditate in the diffuse morning light, oblivious to the joggers huffing by. After 40 minutes an eternity at this hour a voice softly instructs them in Chinese to stand and assume the first position: hands raised overhead. This they do, holding still for several minutes until another command makes them glide as one into a new pose: both hands touching the lower abdomen. The joggers in their high-tech sneakers and microfiber shorts must think these shifting statues are students in some slo-mo yoga class. But this is far more than a gradual stretch. It's Falun Dafa, a new, body-based spirituality that seeks to balance the culture's obsession with perfecting the physique.
The dozen or so followers assembled here range in age from early twenties to pushing 80. Some hold high-powered jobs; others are unemployed. As diverse a crowd as rides the 7 train, their faces share a warm yet spacey glow. "I've tried everything under the sun," says Gail Rachlin, a marketing executive who coordinates Falun Dafa sessions. "I went to India and searched for gurus, but there is nothing like this."
Most of Falun Dafa's devotees are attracted by its poetic promise to heal what medical science cannot. This claim is based on qigong (pronouned chi-gung), an ancient Chinese folk tradition that envisions a qi, or life force, circulating in the body. Disease begins not when cells succumb to a microbe but when the qi is weakened by bad karma. Qigong masters can strengthen the qi, opening the door to recovery. But more than that, Falun Dafa practitioners believe its excercises can lead to enlightenment.
There are Falun Dafa groups in every major American city, and a convention in Chicago last month drew about 2000. Not bad for a belief system that was unknown in America two years ago. And not bad at all for a faith from China, where Falun Dafa was invented just seven years ago. China's qigong tradition was brutally repressed during the Cultural Revolution, only to be reborn in the post-Mao state. It's fitting that Mao's worship of secularism and science would heighten the appeal of a system that dismisses both.
Today, Falun Dafa claims tens of millions of followers in China, and every morning in Beijing the parks are flooded with disciples. Word has spread to the West, and academics studying Falun Dafa say it is the fastest growing spiritual movement in the world.
The guru behind all this is Li Hongzhi, a cherubic, charismatic man of 47 with a mysterious past. Until he burst onto the scene in northern China in 1992, Li was an obscure government clerk, but he maintains that qigong masters in a remote mountain school were secretly training him since the age of four. The monks supposedly found Li an unusually promising pupil, and they sent him into the world of "ordinary people" to teach a pop version of their closely guarded wisdom. Soon after his reentry, Li wrote Zhuan Falun (Rotating the Law Wheel), a sweeping, if chaotic, work that critiques various methods of Buddhist and Taoist training, laying out Falun Dafa as a superior "science of cultivation."
At the heart of this practice are five sets of meditative exercises that must be performed in the morning under the guidance of Li's own recorded voice. His spectral presence implants a celestial wheel in their lower abdomen, which rotates in synchronicity with the cosmos. Once "equipped" with this wheel, disciples are ready to have their Celestial Eyes opened. Several believers interviewed for this story told of fantastic visions such as clouds of black karma dissolving into dots of pure white energy, and kaleidoscope colors splashing across the horizon that they experienced by following Falun Dafa.
These are the sort of visions one associates with monks and mystics, but the genius of Falun Dafa is that its followers can maintain modern lives. Rather than pitch asceticism to the prosperous, Li says disciples should participate fully in society and even go for the gold. "You are required no more than to take some things lightly," writes Li.
Naturally, disciples must have a harmonious mind and be truthful and compassionate, but for Westerners accustomed to dogma as the measure of religion this Spirituality Lite is the perfect accessory to an overextended life. (Plus it's free.) Stay in the race, Li seems to say; just transcend your ratness. That and a regular diet of meditative exercise are all it takes to become spiritually buff.
To aid this quest, Li recommends that disciples hang his picture on the wall so that he can assist them during meditation. "Some people say that I am a God, some say I am a Buddha," he told an Australian reporter recently. "I cannot seal everyone's mouth."
While his disciples may think Li walks an enlightened path, the Chinese government is uneasy about his power. "What I am doing is teaching people to be kind and benevolent," Li says. "It is not politically motivated." But last March in Beijing, 10,000 practitioners appeared without notice in front of a government building and sat silently for 12 hours to protest the state's refusal to recognize Falun Dafa as a legit form of qigong. It was the largest demonstration since the democracy protests of 1989, and though it ended peacefully, party officials were seriously spooked. They began a propaganda campaign against Falun Dafa and banned Li's books.
This crackdown is one reason why Li left China two years ago for New York, the land where any faith (or fetish) can fly. Thirty years ago, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi embarked on a similar migration to the West, bringing Transcendental Meditation, or TM, a version of Hindu chanting-meditation. Rock stars of the day glommed on to the yogi in a wild white beard and flowing guru garb. But the '90s prophet has to be someone like Li, a clean-shaven suit-and-tie guy fit for Wall Street.
And as befits a faith for the information age, Falun Dafa's loose organization is entirely wired. Participants maintain many Web sites and post news of local gatherings.
The Internet is hardly the only thing about Falun Dafa that suits the times. Whereas TM was about emptying the mind (a head trip), Falun Dafa is about finding the spirit in the corporeal (a body buzz). But it's more than just a high. In an age when the body is regarded as a machine to be tuned and displayed, this new faith brings the dharma to the 'droid. If Li's teaching catches on, the joggers of the future might just be standing still.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.