Morning practice in Chengdu, central China. This photo was taken in 1998.
While Falun Gong is quite simple to learn and pick up—a combination of exercises, meditation, and moral living—it nevertheless has many dimensions to it and shares with similar Chinese arts an ancient pedigree.
First and foremost, Falun Gong can be thought of as a practice—as something that is done, that is put into action. The practice is designed to effect positive change, or reinforce what is already good, in body, mind, and self.
The body is attended to in Falun Gong most directly by the regular performance of four qigong exercises and a meditation. Qigong exercises, popularized in post-Cultural Revolution 1980s China, resemble Tai-chi somewhat in form and work, similarly, on the body primarily on an energetic level. Some refer to qigong (pron. “chee-gung”) as “Chinese yoga.”
Falun Gong recalibrates the body on an energetic level while dredging out blockages and impurities that might compromise health and well-being. On deeper levels, the practice, in its own unique ways, deals with the more fundamental origins of illness and physical suffering (i.e., a nefarious material called karma). The meditation facilitates these changes and processes while reinforcing the subtler workings of the practice specific to the body and mind.
Several health studies, including clinically controlled, peer reviewed research at leading medical facilities, has begun to explore and confirm the positive, and sometimes dramatic, health benefits that so many persons attribute to the practice. Many individuals have been moved to write about their experiences, which can be read online.
Typical benefits that people describe include increased amounts of energy and reduced fatigue; better health; greater resistance to disease; better sleep; emotional balance; a sense of calm; a positive outlook; improved relationships; greater self-awareness; a deeper sense of meaning; and spiritual growth.
The exercises and meditation can be done by persons of any age, fitness level, or background, and are highly flexible in terms of demands; they can be done for just a few minutes at a time, any time or anywhere, or as long as a few hours if one so chooses. Often people like to do these together with others, as a group, in a quiet setting such as a park.
They are always taught for free by volunteers or can be learned through following an instructional video. These features were likely part of Falun Gong’s phenomenal growth in China.
While the physical dimension of Falun Gong is important, it is the emphasis on the mind and one’s moral self that set this practice apart.
Falun Gong is Buddhist in nature, and contains in its teachings a higher aspiration, namely, spiritual perfection—or “enlightenment” as it’s called in Asia. In Asia spiritual disciplines of this sort are often referred to as ways of “inner cultivation,” or “self-cultivation,” and form an important part of traditional Chinese culture. Various Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian practices fit this rubric.
At the core of Falun Gong are the values of truth, compassion, and forbearance (or in Chinese, Zhen, Shan, Ren). The practice teaches that these are the most fundamental qualities of the universe itself, and it is these, as elaborated in the book Zhuan Falun, that serve as a guide for daily life and practice. Many study the book regularly in order to better understand and embody its teachings.
Through consistent and dedicated practice, the student of Falun Gong aspires to achieve a state of selflessness, greater insight and awareness, inner purity, and balance—the inner workings of what might be called true health.
While Falun Gong aspires to inner transformation of the self, it nevertheless typically translates outwardly into positive change in the world, insofar as the practitioner becomes a more patient family member, a more conscientious employee, a more giving member of the community, and so on.
However, the locus of the practice is always the individual, and as such, the teachings are not seen as a blueprint for social or political change and applied to others or the world at large.
Many observers are struck by the openness of Falun Gong, in terms of both its teachings (i.e., there is no creed, set of rules, or codification of doctrine) and its administration or enactment (i.e., no forms of initiation, no clergy or religious professionals, no fees, etc.). People are encouraged to come to their own understanding of the teachings, as the emphasis is on personal growth, something which can’t be coerced or made programmatic.
Those interested in learning the practice are encouraged to visit http://www.falundafa.org/, where the writings of Falun Gong and video instruction of its exercises can be found.