Is it a cult or isn’t it?

Seeing that I intended to write an article on Falun Gong, a friend of mine questioned why I would do something so untimely. True, the subject is not even news. In fact, it’s been in the papers for several years now, including The Varsity (most recently on Feb. 24, 2003), where a headline read, “Protestors: Falun Gong practitioners tortured, persecuted in China.” This is precisely why I want to say something about the topic: it seems these days, anything published regarding this controversial issue predictably draws attention to China’s suppression of the practice, and invariably to the lack of religious freedom in its Communist regime. I feel uneasy about this, as it is still uncertain whether or not Falun Gong is a religion, and there are potentially other things to be said on the subject.

What is Falun Gong? Translated into English, it is literally “wisdom of the wheel of law” or “wisdom of the law of change.” Like all things foreign, this sounds like an enigma. But last fall, I had a chance to talk with two U of T students who are Falun Gong practitioners, Jia-Zhueng Fan and Jason Loftus. What they practice is similar to Tai Chi, except it’s not just exercise, but the cultivation of the heart and mind as well as the body, with an emphasis on the collective principle of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.

Contrary to what I had assumed, Loftus told me Falun Gong is not a religion. “There’s no religious structure, no worship. There’s no set of rules you have to follow, no rituals, no temples. And there’s no hierarchy.”

Quite simply, according to these modest and soft-spoken individuals, Falun Gong is just a way of “encouraging people to be good.”

Thinking that large groups have the power to persuade and mobilize the general public, I kept asking questions about any hidden political agenda. Fan and Loftus assured me there was none.

After all, the 1999 ten-thousand-strong quiet sit-in at the Chinese government headquarters was nothing more than what it was. It seems the only thing political about the subject is China’s outlawing and persecution of the practice. Practitioners caught in China are sent to labour camps, and many of those detained in the country are Canadians.

Falun Gong appears very slippery, because it cannot be readily categorized. Neither China nor Western countries could pin it down with an accurate name. It is still debatable whether it’s a religion, a cult, a sect, a movement or a phenomenon. Chinese authorities have formally “branded” it as an evil cult, but it would be incorrect to understand it as a cult in the Western sense of the term, since cults involve worship of one form or another; Falun Gong involves none. It could perhaps be called a faith group, but according to authorities such as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the UK, it doesn’t really fit in with other faith groups around the world.

Academic sources point out that although Falun Gong presents “a cosmology, moral system and practices that intend to fit human life into the overall cosmic process in a way that we normally call religious,” it emphatically denies being a religion. It also denies being a cult or a sect. In light of what we understand about each of those terms, these denials make sense.

Just what exactly is Falun Gong then, if it resists categorizing? But if something so deeply culturally rooted (Falun Gong is said to originate in ancient Chinese culture) can be easily worded in another language, like English (the roots of which are radically different from those of Chinese), one might question that as well.

So could the ambiguous “identity” of Falun Gong be the very culprit? Whenever there’s press coverage about the torture and persecution of practitioners in China, the issue often raised is that of religious freedom. But if Falun Gong is not a religion (and not a cult, nor a sect, nor…), why do newspapers keep hammering China for its attack on freedom of religion whenever Falun Gong makes headlines? Is it a good idea to begin looking at the issue from a different standpoint other than religious policy? And should China cease its persecution of something that is not a cult to begin with? Why is the Chinese government so paranoid about the spread of this practice? I say that we try to answer some of these questions before printing any more news stories on the subject.

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