Benjamin Penny. Asian Studies Review. Volume 29. March 2005.
More than five years have now passed since crowds of Falun Gong practitioners assembled outside the Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing to seek redress for what they saw as the heavy-handed treatment of their colleagues in a demonstration in Tianjin a few days before. The events of 25 April 1999—”laying siege” to the headquarters of the Chinese State and Communist Party, as the official organs would have it—have since given rise to a sustained and violent suppression of the movement in China. This situation has also led to the emergence of Falun Gong as a global community of devoted followers brought together in collective actions through electronic communications, as well as a new and intractable topic in negotiations between China and concerned foreign governments. While it may no longer be the subject of screaming front-page headlines as it was during those heady days of late April and early May 1999, Falun Gong is still with us. It is a serious presence amongst expatriate Chinese communities wherever they are found and has become a topic of profound interest to scholars of new religious movements the world over.
Falun Gong means the Practice of the Wheel of the Law, and Falun Dafa, as it is more commonly known by its practitioners, means the Great Method of the Wheel of the Law. The falun of Falun Gong is the standard Chinese translation for dharmacakra, the Buddhist Wheel of the Law, and Zhuan Falun, the title of the primary text of Falun Gong, means to turn that wheel. However, these obvious Buddhist references mask a complex relationship between Falun Gong and Buddhism, and the question of what is meant in Falun Gong by these terms, as well as others, is of central importance to the discussions that follow. The use of Buddhist terms by Li Hongzhi, or rather their claimed misuse, was one of the foci of the earliest criticism of the movement that emanated from the Chinese Buddhist Association as early as 1996, and it is with the Buddhist critique of Falun Gong that this article will begin. In the spirit of balance, it then moves on to discuss Falun Gong’s critique of Buddhism and explain how Li Hongzhi sees the relationship between the two. The remainder of the paper will be devoted to an elucidation of the use of some Buddhist terminology in Falun Gong.
The Buddhist Critique of Falun Gong
In the aftermath of the suppression of Falun Gong in mid-1999, books, journal articles, newspaper editorials, television specials and websites across China followed the lead of the major organs of the Party, the Xinhua news agency, People’s Daily and Enlightenment Daily in denouncing what became known as the “evil cult” of Falun Gong. “Evil cult” is the official translation of xiejiao, one that obviously directs English-speaking readers towards a very specific, and critical, interpretation with its resonances of new religious groups that have ended in events of mass violence and death. Perhaps more importantly in the Chinese context, “organising or utilising” an organisation based on a xiejiao “to undermine the implementation of national laws and administrative regulations … to cheat other people thereby causing death to a person … or to have sexual relations with a woman or to swindle property” are all explicitly outlawed in the 1997 Chinese Criminal Code. Thus, simply to use the term xiejiao to describe Falun Gong was to proclaim its illegality.
Many of the publications mentioned above simply reprinted the official press releases or wrote articles of similar stridency. However, in the Buddhist periodical press the critique, while no less strong, was characterised by more depth. Clearly, the leadership of Buddhist organisations was keenly aware of the possibility that it could be criticised by association, and as the arm of the Party-state charged with administering Buddhism the Chinese Buddhist Association was especially keen to demonstrate its anti-Falun Gong credentials. In addition, however, the Buddhist response should be seen in the context of Falun Gong’s phenomenal growth. From its beginnings in 1992 it grew in a few years into a movement with certainly tens of millions of followers. Such a huge movement, with no affiliation with the Buddhist Association but with a name redolent of Buddhism, must have given the Association’s leadership reason for concern and compelled a response.
It comes as no suiprise, then, that one of the strategies the Buddhist Association used when Falun Gong was suppressed, as represented in its journal Fayin, was to point out that by 1999 it had already been critical of Falun Gong for several years. At that time, its longstanding president Zhao Puchu, who was in hospital towards the end of his life. made clear that Buddhist journals, including those of the Buddhist Association, had been critiquing Falun Gong for “the past few years.” He himself had criticised Falun Gong as early as 1996. On the official Chinese government website ‘Memorandum on “Falun Gong” from 2000—on the page entitled ‘Personages of Religious Circles Oppose “Falun Gong”—Zhao, “late leader of Chinese Buddhist circles and late Chairman of the Chinese Buddhist Association,” is quoted as having said: ‘”Falun Gong’ is a cult. It is not enough to merely ban ‘Falun Gong.’ Li Hongzhi’s fallacies must be refuted with sound reasoning,” although no source for this statement is given.
The importance of the Buddhist critique of Falun Gong goes beyond the delicate position in which the Buddhist Association found itself. Although only a trickle compared with the flood of propaganda that flowed from the organs of government after July 1999. The Buddhist critique represents the only sustained specific criticism of Falun Gong doctrine before then. To be sure, the protests against media outlets that Falun Gong practitioners had staged since 1996 were in response to criticisms of the movement but these criticisms had been sporadic and had focused primarily on the social effects of Falun Gong rather than on its doctrine.
After the crackdown, in the August 1999 issue of Fayin, one Chang Zheng gives a potted history of Buddhist criticism of Falun Gong (Chang, 1999). He claimed that in 1996 the monthly Taizhou Buddhism from Zhejiang published a series of critical articles from May to December of that year. After 1997, Shanghai Buddhism, Guangdong Buddhism and other regional Buddhist journals also published critiques.
Much of the ammunition used in this attempt to demonstrate Buddhism’s—and more pertinently the Buddhist Association’s—longstanding critique of Falun Gong fell to Chen Xingqiao (Johnson, 2000). A native of Harbin and a deputy secretary of the Buddhist Association of that city, he came across Falun Gong in 1994 when he attended lectures given by Li Hongzhi. Prompted by what he took to be misunderstandings of Buddhist doctrine and terminology, in 1996 Chen wrote a 20,000-word essay entitled ‘Revealing the Original Face of Falun Gong—A New Kind of Popular Religion,’ which he gave to his local Buddhist Association. This essay came to Zhao Puchu’s attention after it was published in what appears to be the Buddhist Association’s internal newsletter Yanjiu dongtai in 1997. In the same year Chen also published a four-part article on Buddhist qigong in Fayin (Chen, 1997). In January 1998, the Buddhist Association held a seminar to discuss the problem of Falun Gong and it subsequently published a long essay, also by Chen Xingqiao, entitled (and here I quote the eccentrically translated contents page of the journal), “Dharma Wheel Gongfu” is a heretic with the characteristics of folk religions and flaunting the banner of Buddhism—criticism of Li Hongzhi’s Rolling Dharma Wheel and his Gongfu, across two 1998 issues of Fayin (Chen, 1998a).
The content of this 1998 article is especially important as a sustained critique untainted by the ideological imperatives of the government-ordered campaign that has taken place since mid-1999. One major contrast with the post-July 1999 critiques is the absence, in this article, of the term xiejiao, except as a parenthetic gloss for minjian zongjiao—”popular religion”—at one point (Chen, 1998b, p. 16). The current official translation of “evil cult” would be particularly odd in this context, in which the more literal rendering of “heterodox teaching” is far more appropriate. Rather than describing Falun Gong as a xiejiao, the term waidao is used in the title of this article. Waidao is a term that originated among Chinese Buddhists to describe any non-Buddhist (or non-orthodox Buddhist) teaching—perhaps the English term that best translates waidao in this context is “heresy.” Thus, by describing Falun Gong as a waidao, the author of this article places it beyond the boundaries of Buddhism as defined by the Association and therefore, as will be discussed below, unable to claim the rights granted one of China’s officially recognised religions. We should also note that in this introductory article for Buddhist readers, Falun Gong is declared in the title to have the characteristics of “popular religion” and is described in the introduction by the editors of Fayin as the latest in a long line of “popular super¬stitions” [minjian mixin] dating back to the Qin and Han periods that absorbed the cultural currents of the time (Chen. 1998b, p. 21). The category mixin as it occurs in the discourse of the Party-state whether collocated with minjian, as in this example, or with its common qualifier fengjian—feudal—or alone, is one that immediately engenders suspicion and condemnation. In other words, whereas in the post-suppression period Falun Gong is seen as comparable to Heaven’s Gate, the Solar Temple and Aum Shinrikyo and needing to be crushed as a danger to society, here, in early 1998, it is a Buddhist heresy best understood in Chinese historical terms.
This characterisation does not, however, render Falun Gong acceptable. In the administration of religion in the People’s Republic, the only religions that have the protection of the Party-state are those five that are controlled through their respective religious associations: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestant Christianity and Catholic Christianity. To define Falun Gong outside Buddhism is to render it either not a religion or a religion liable for suppression. This is a crucial point for, as will be seen below, Chen argues that Falun Gong has religious characteristics—and is therefore implicitly arguing for its suppression—while Li Hongzhi, for his part, has steadfastly maintained that Falun Gong is not a religion. For him, Falun Gong is a cultivation system—a qigong of the Buddha School to use his terminology—that has explicitly avoided the forms of religion. In addition, the characterisation of Falun Gong by the editors of Fayin as a variety oimixin renders it ripe for crushing.
The article itself, apart from providing background information about Falun Gong, addresses the relationships between Falun Gong and, respectively, qigong and Buddhism. Chen maintains that while in historical times what we call qigong or its antecedents absorbed elements of various religions and developed schools that have been designated and distinguished by religious labels such as Daoist qigong, Buddhist qigong and so on, in modern times religion and qigong have been distinct. Qigong, he says, has to do with the manipulation of qi with the goals of “calming the spirit and the heart, curing diseases and strengthening the body,” but when these activities cross over into the acquisition of higher powers, seeking enlightenment, long life, immortality or Buddhahood, they belong to religion. Falun Gong, maintains Chen,—and on his definition of what constitutes qigong and religion it is hard to disagree—has distinctly religious characteristics.
On the question of the relationship between Buddhism and Falun Gong, Chen first quotes Li to the effect that although Falun Gong has its roots in what he calls the “Buddha School” [fojia], its fa has superseded both the Buddha and the Dao—what Li calls “Buddha fa” is not, in fact, Buddhism. “Buddha fa” is the standard Falun Gong translation of fofa—also, of course, the standard translation of Buddhadharma—but in this context it is best to use the Falun Gong terminology to avoid confusion. While Chen takes issue with Li’s contention that Falun Gong has its roots in Buddhist philosophy by pointing out several of his misrepresentations of the basic tenets of Buddhism, he nonetheless does not disagree with Li’s claim that Falun Gong and Buddhism are fundamentally different. Secondly, Chen takes issue with Li’s claims about the nature of the Buddhist religion, fojiao. In one case Chen notes Li’s idea that the different varieties of Buddha, and Buddhahood, in which different Buddhas are said to exist in different dimensions, represent the attainment of different levels of enlightenment. Chen points out, however, that although there are many different Buddhas, there is but one enlightenment, and that as equally enlightened beings, all of the Buddhas enjoy equal status. Finally, Chen addresses Li’s misunderstandings of Buddhadharma, or fofa. One of the points at issue here is the use Li makes of Buddhist terminology, a topic that I will discuss below (Chen, 1998b, pp. 24-28).
Having demonstrated that Falun Gong is neither qigong nor Buddhism, Chen proceeds to ask what it is. He suggests that it is a popular religion that shares with Yiguan Dao and similar groups a syncretic tendency in which various doctrines are given equal valuation. For evidence he describes the imagery of the Falun, a Buddhist swastika surrounded by Daoist taijitu, or yinyang symbols. The possible connections between Falun Gong and organisations related to the Yiguan Dao are intriguing. Chen here does not compare like with like—the Yiguan Dao, as he notes, has a variety of “five religions” doctrine in which Buddhism. Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam are included whereas Falun Gong refers explicitly to only Buddhism and Daoism. However, later in his article he notes reports that before liberation Li’s family had been involved with the Red Swastika Society, the philanthropic branch of the Daoyuan. The Daoyuan is one of the religious groups whose ancestry is shared with the Yiguan Dao, but Falun Gong is clearly not in the same tradition. Nonetheless, the mere mention of the Yiguan Dao serves the strategic purpose of aligning Falun Gong with a famously banned and savagely suppressed religious group familiar by name, if nothing else, to his readers, suggesting that Falun Gong, too, should be suppressed. Chen also claims that, in common with all popular religions, Falun Gong strongly spiritualises [shenhua] the individual, and in particular its leader, pointing to the way in which Li discusses his “Law Bodies,” the function of the “Law Wheel,” and other aspects of Falun Gong doctrine that I will address below (Chen, 1998b, pp. 15-18). Chen’s article concludes with a discussion of Falun Gong’s unscientific nature and some information on its background and the dangers it poses.
This critique of Falun Gong is important for several reasons. Chen’s conclusion that Falun Gong is best understood as having the characteristics of a popular religion, while not of course a complimentary interpretation, nonetheless grants it an analytical status that differs substantially from the simple abuse that is its designation as an “evil cult.” Indeed, this designation, as noted above, is one that invites a governmental response in China where only the five “official” religions listed earlier have standing. Secondly, while Chen notes some dangers that Falun Gong is said to pose, these are amorphous and ideological—for instance, “it harms the healthy development of scientific qigong”—rather than being powerfully focused on its danger to the mental and physical health of individuals as has been claimed by critiques since the suppression, where pictures of disembowelments and self-immolations and intimate stories of family tragedies are commonplace. Thirdly, while the idea that Falun Gong is dangerous is raised, it is really only as an afterthought—the primary focus of the article is on defining what kind of movement Falun Gong is, and more especially, what it is not. It is possible to speculate that Chen’s long article, and the meeting that preceded it, were prompted by concerns within orthodox Buddhist circles not for the general health of Chinese society, but for the confusion among Buddhists—over whether Falun Gong was, or was not, Buddhism and whether it was, or was not, possible to be both a Buddhist and a Falun Gong practitioner—as well as with what must have seemed the alarming rate of Falun Gong’s growth. By the late 1990s Falun Gong must, therefore, have been offering enough competition to Buddhism for the Buddhist Association to feel it necessary to make the kind of critique that would invite its suppression.
The Falun Gong Critique of Buddhism
The Buddhist Association’s critique of Falun Gong can in some ways be seen as a reply from the custodians of the orthodox religion to criticisms of Buddhism that Li Hongzhi had launched from his earliest expositions of Falun Gong doctrine. However, before explaining Li’s criticisms of Buddhism and his views of its history, it is important to clarify how he sees Falun Gong’s relationship with Buddhism. As noted above, Li claims that Falun Gong belongs to the “Buddha School” but is not Buddhism. Here, he is drawing a distinction between fojia and fojiao—that is between, literally, a school of the Buddha (whatever that might mean) and a religion or teaching of the Buddha. (In general, the philosophical schools of early China were all called jia but this was, of course, before Buddhism had entered Chinese territory.) Li’s seemingly reasonable distinction between a jiao and a jia echoes a better-known one between daojia and daojiao, Daoist philosophy (Laozi, Zhuangzi and so on) and the Daoist religion, which came into being some centuries after the classical philosophical texts were written. The distinction between fojia as Buddhist philosophy and fojiao as Buddhist religion is rarely used: while Daoist philosophy and Daoist religion are best understood as completely different entities, Buddhist philosophy is generally considered an inextricable part of Buddhist religion. In other words, unlike the example from Daoism a fojia cannot be separated from fojiao in any meaningful way. Thus, the use of fojia to mean Buddhist philosophy as opposed to Buddhist religion is most uncommon, and Li’s use of it to refer to something larger than Buddhism itself, indeed something that Buddhism as we know it is but a small part of, is novel. We should not doubt, however, that Li’s use of fojia has a strategic purpose: it allows him to claim Buddhist affiliations for Falun Gong—especially in its early phase—while maintaining administrative freedom for his organisation that would necessarily be lost if it were incorporated under the aegis of the Buddhist Association.
Nonetheless, in Falun Gong doctrine it is part of the “Buddha School.” In fact, says Li, “Our Falun Dafa is … one of the eighty-four thousand cultivation ways in the Buddha School, and it has nothing to do with the original Buddhism or Buddhism in the Dharma-ending period; neither is it related to modern religions” (Li, 1998, p. 107; 2000, p. 95). He tells us that among the features of the Buddha School are the cultivation of Buddhahood (Li, 1998, p. 25; 2000, p. 23) and the belief in predestined relationships (Li, 1998, p. 91; 2000, p. 81). Falun Gong is:
Buddha School qigong [which] is not the Buddhist Religion. I must make this point clear to everyone … Some of you are always confused by these things. Some people are monks from temples, and some are lay Buddhists. They think they know a little more about Buddhist religion, so they enthusiastically promote Buddhism amongst our practitioners. Let me tell you that you should not do such a thing because it is something from a different cultivation school. Religion has religious forms. Here we are teaching the cultivation part of our school. Except for those monks and nuns who are Falun Dafa disciples, everyone else should not observe religious forms. Therefore, our school is not Buddhism in the Dharma-ending Period (Li, 1998, p. 106; 2000, pp. 94-95).
What Li Hongzhi teaches, he maintains, is a cultivation practice, a form of qigong that he distinguishes from other forms, as he teaches qigong “towards high levels” offering “salvation to humankind” (Li, 1998. p. 2; 2000, p. 2). A cultivation practice, then, is not a religion—”a religion has religious forms”—but nonetheless a religious teacher such as Sakyamuni can teach cultivation. Discussing Theravada Buddhism, he maintains that Southeast Asian monks have, indeed, inherited and preserved the “original cultivation way of Sakyamuni’s time” (Li, 1998, p. 109; 2000, p. 98). Thus, the cultivation that Sakyamuni taught is also a valid cultivation system, inferior to Falun Gong as it is. Sakyamuni’s cultivation method is also a cultivation way of the Buddha School—as are, apparently, “Tiantai, Huayan, Zen Buddhism. Pure Land, Tantrism, etc.”—but the cultivation component of all of these appears to be separable from the religious component. In this, Li follows a line of interpretation of religion favoured in the People’s Republic where religious phenomena can be separated into what is seen as essential, usually texts, philosophy, and meditation, and what is seen as inessential, namely ritual, institutions, and popular practices such as fortune-telling. Intriguingly, given Li’s high valuation of Theravada Buddhism, his family is reported to have connections among the Chinese community in Thailand.
The Buddha School is also constituted cosmically. In his discussion of the appearance of the Falun emblem, Li addresses the presence in it of both the Buddhist swastika and the Daoist taijitu. These are both there because “what we cultivate is very immense, which is the same as cultivating the entire universe.” He continues:
Think about it, everyone: This universe consists of two major schools, the Buddha School and the Tao School. With either of them excluded, it will not constitute a complete universe. Consequently, we have included things from the Tao School. Also, some people have said that in addition to the Tao School, there are also Christianity, Confucianism, other religions, etc. Let me tell you that after its cultivation reaches a very high level, Confucianism belongs to the Tao School: when many Western religious cultivation practices reach high levels, they are classified as belonging to the same system as ours, the Buddha School. There are only two such schools (Li, 1998, pp. 205-06: 2000. p. 185).
The idea that there is something called the Buddha School that is greater than Buddhism and that also includes Falun Gong is paralleled by Li’s use of the term the “Buddha Fa”: thus, “The Dharma in Buddhism [fojiao zhong defa] cannot summarise the entire Buddha Fa [fofa], and it is only a tiny fraction of the Buddha Fa” (Li, 1998, p. 15; 2000, p. 14). Not only is Buddhism just a tiny fraction of the Buddha Fa, it is also an inferior part. He says:
There are … people who believe that the Dharma stated in Buddhism is the Buddha Fa in its entirety. Actually it is not. The Dharma that Sakyamuni professed two thousand five hundred years ago was only for everyday people at a very low level; it was taught to those who had just evolved from a primitive society and still possessed very simple minds (Li, 1998, p. 14; 2000, pp. 13-14).
The inferiority of Buddhism is a theme that runs through Falun Gong texts. Li has three ways of explaining this. The first has just been touched upon: Buddhism as taught by Sakyamuni was suited to his audience at the time but they were less advanced than we are, so the doctrine he taught them was less advanced than the one that could be taught today. It is tempting to hear in this explanation a distant echo of the Daoist story of Laozi’s conversion of the barbarians in which Laozi, when he departed for the West, actually progressed to India and taught a doctrine suitable for the less advanced audience he found there. His listeners could not cope with the subtleties of proper Daoism—what he taught them instead was Buddhism.
Another way in which Li has characterised Buddhism’s inferiority is by relativising it in a radical way. This relativisation relies on his understanding that as we cultivate we climb a ladder of enlightenment, and that at the different levels we attain we have different insights. Thus, in Sakyamuni’s case, when Sakyamuni became enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he did not reach the Tathagata level right away. He was also constantly improving himself during the forty-nine years of his Dharma teaching. Whenever he upgraded himself to a higher level, he looked back and realised that the Dharma he just taught was all wrong … He also discovered that the Dharma at each level is always the manifestation of the Dharma at that level, that there is Dharma at every level, and that none of them is the absolute truth of the universe. The Dharma at high levels is closer to the characteristic of the universe than that of lower levels. Therefore, he stated: “No Dharma is definitive [fa wu ding fa]” (Li. 1998, p. 12; 2000. p. 11).
The third element of the critique is familiar from Western writings on Buddhism and other Chinese—and indeed non-Chinese—religions. This is that while the original form of Buddhism, Sakyamuni’s Buddhism, was somehow pure, it has declined over the centuries through the intervention of a degenerate priesthood. In Li’s interpretation, what Sakyamuni taught was a system of cultivation, but after his departure monks enlightened to a lower level “used the manifestation of the universe they saw at their levels and the situations and principles they understood” to interpret his words. Thus, “the Buddhist Dharma [was] distorted beyond recognition” acquiring the forms of religion (Li, 1998, p. 109; 2000, p. 98). In addition, Li periodically refers to our times as the Dharma-ending period during which “even monks in temples have difficulty saving themselves, let alone offering salvation to others” (Li, 1998, p. 15; 2000, p. 14).
Falun Gong’s Use of Buddhist Terminology
At the beginning of the article, it was noted that the falun of Falun Gong is a standard translation for dharmacakra, the Wheel of the Law, but that the meaning ascribed to it in Falun Gong differs from that in orthodox Buddhism. This is a common occurrence in Falun Gong, where such words as yeli [karma], fashen—dharmakaya—[the body of the dharma or Buddhist doctrine], and many others have acquired new meanings. These terms will be examined in this concluding section.
In Buddhism, the dharmacakra or falun refers to the Buddhist truth itself, set in motion (zhuan in Chinese, thus Zhuan Falun, the title of Falun Gong’s main scripture) with the first lecture the Buddha gave after his enlightenment. In Falun Gong, the falun has become a physical object, a real “law wheel,” albeit one that is said to exist and operate in another dimension. When practitioners first attended the introductory series of nine lectures that Li gave, or these days when they listen to or watch the tapes or videos of them, or practise the exercises, a falun was inserted into the practitioner’s abdomen. After insertion, the falun rotated, first clockwise, then anticlockwise, continuously absorbing energy from the universe and emitting it, transfemng the energy to different parts of the practitioner’s body, transforming it. The falun is defined in the first text the movement produced—now simply called Falun Gong although its original title was Zhongguo Falun Gong—as “an intelligent being consisting of high-energy substances. It automatically transforms gong [defined as cultivation energy] and does not exist in our dimension” (Li, 1999a, p. 61: 1999b, p. 68). Li explains in Zhuan Falun that it is “a miniature of the universe that possesses all of the universe’s capabilities, and it can operate and rotate automatically” (Li, 1998. p. 46: 2000, p. 42). Apparently, when, during the lectures, Master Li “personally installs it” for practitioners, “the majority of people can feel it,” which seems to imply some kind of materiality (Li, 1998, p. 46: 2000. p. 42).
In Falun Gong writings karma—yeli—has also acquired a materiality that is not found in the standard Buddhist understanding of this term. In Falun Gong karma is an unequivocally bad thing. There is no “good karma” and karma is understood to be acquired through the performance of bad actions. It stands in opposition to de, which is always left untranslated but is the de we know as virtue and is acquired through good actions. The tendency to materialise that is evident in the case of falun can be seen here also as karma is described as “a black substance” and de as “a white substance” (Li, 1998, pp. 35-36; 2000, p. 33, emphasis added). The object of the cultivation practice of Falun Gong is to eliminate the karma and transform it into de (a process that may require undergoing great pain and tribulation), and then into what Li calls cultivation energy or gong. Let me note in passing that, among its other usages, gong is the standard term in Chinese for the Buddhist idea of merit. The equivalent process to the Buddhist’s merit-making in Falun Gong is the construction of a gong column that grows out of the top of a practitioner’s head. Those with supernormal capabilities can apparently judge how advanced someone is in their cultivation by the height and colour of their gong column. To return to karma: Li says that if someone has acquired a lot of it, it can form “a field around one’s body” that cuts them off from the essential characteristics of the universe. Karma is also carried from lifetime to lifetime so that while a person may have led a blameless life this time around, they may still suffer for transgressions they committed in previous lives. In addition, intriguing echoes of both the early Daoist idea of “inherited burden” and early misunderstandings of karma by Chinese Buddhists can be found in Li’s statement that a person’s karma may have been acquired by their ancestors and passed on to them.
Finally, the meaning of fashen—dharmakaya—in Falun Gong is far from its standard meaning in Buddhism, where it literally means the body of the Buddhist doctrine, the real nature of the Buddha, the eternal principle. Li’s understanding of law bodies is very different from this. For him. a law body is a kind of being created in the process of high-level cultivation. Li possesses many of them—although potentially anyone highly cultivated enough could produce and control their own. Fashen act as surrogates of the person who created them and possess the same omnipotence as that person. In Falun Gong, Li’s fashen are his eyes and ears, protecting practitioners from evil influences, warning them if they are deviating from the proper path, and taking back from them what they have gained from their cultivation if they charge money to teach it or if they attempt to heal anybody of illness. Once again, in Li’s reading of fashen, a Buddhist term has acquired a physicality it previously did not have.
The way in which Li uses Buddhist terminology in Falun Gong—and the above are only a few of the more obvious examples—begs the question of why he has employed this strategy rather than simply inventing new words to describe his ideas. One observation that can be made is that religious movements in general are rarely truly novel, more often presenting themselves as a new chapter of an old book—one that radically refigures the previous tradition to be sure, typically revealing truths that had previously not been known, or offering a new dispensation. Although, in my analysis. Falun Gong cannot usefully be seen as a Buddhist heresy, it is my contention that in the crowded qigong world of the early 1990s it was strategically important for Falun Gong to emphasise and exploit its Buddhist affiliations for positioning in the qigong marketplace. “This is not just another new qigong movement,” they seemed to be saying. Falun Gong had the cachet of a terminology that resonated among Li’s potential audience, an audience who would have been, at once, broadly familiar with the externalities of Buddhism and mostly ignorant of its specifics. Presenting it as qigong with Buddhist characteristics. Li was then able to re-present Falun Gong to his potential adherents as a teaching that had superseded Buddhism. His redefinition of Buddhist terms should therefore be seen as a claim to a new dispensation; not as misunderstandings but as pretensions to a new and deeper truth.