A Falun (Dharma wheel)
Falun Gong (Practice of the Dharma Wheel)
Falun Gong is a group founded in the People's Republic of China 1992 by Li Hongzhi. He teaches a form of qigong. Due to persecution, Li Hongzhi has resided in the United States since 1998.
Qigong is an ancient system of exercises, breathing and meditation for cultivating meditation. Practitioners claim that it promotes physical, mental, and spiritual well-being by enhancing the flow of vital energy through the body. The PRC does not consider qigong itself to be religious activity; there are legal scientific associations for qigong.
Li Hongzhi has characterized his teaching as one form of "qigong from the Buddhist school". He has stated that it is not Buddhism---and in fact is not a religion. Li Hongzhi and his adherents feel that the Falun Gong teachings and practices are grounded in reality, they are scientific: compare Scientology, for example. The communist regime is quite glad to take them on their word, since this preempts objections to suppressing the Falun Gong on the basis of the legal right of freedom of religion.
At the same time, Falun Gong teachings have strongly religious elements, including: (1) presentation of the founder as being at a higher level than Jesus, Buddha, etc.. (2) view that he can "install" a spinning falun (dharma wheel) in the abdomen of practitioners, allowing their qigong energy to regenerate, (3) view that sickness is caused by karmically induced attacks by "intelligent entities from another dimension," a fact which many qigong healers do not know, causing them danger; (4) emphasis not just on exercises, but upon an ethical life with high moral standards, based on cultivating the virtues of truthfulness/sincerity, compassion, and forbearance; (5) an apocalyptic/messianic outlook, inasmuch as "only a small number of people survive" each cyclical destruction of the world, our period is called "the Last Havoc," and that salvation is nonetheless available to all through Falungong. One characteristic that we associate with religion that is lacking is rituals of daily worship or rites of passage (such as funerary rituals and initiations); there is only the daily practice of exercises to keep the falun turning in one's abdomen.
Falungong is by far the most significant and vigorous religious movement in recent Chinese history. Peak membership appears to have been in 1999, when 70-100 million members in thirty countries, including 40-70 million within the PRC. It is a rural and urban movement with wide appeal based on a few easy-to-learn exercises. The greatest appeal within the PRC has been in the smaller cities. A significant portion of the membership consists of well-educated professionals, including scientists, students/faculty, technology experts, physicians; it appears that e-mail and the internet played a significant role in spreading the practice within and beyond China during the 1990s.
During the early and mid-1990s, the government of the PRC accused Falungong of having fashioned a tight and secretive organizational structure for the purpose of overthrowing the government, an accusation the group denies. The government warned people to stop joining the group and in 1996 banned its publications as "books that propagate ignorance and superstition". The group began a series of extremely well-organized, peaceful, public protests at government buildings. The reaction was that in 1999, Falungong was declared "an evil cult," its assets seized. Many practitioners have been arrested and tortured.
Most important source: A great resource on the topic is the academic site: http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/bth/falun.htm
Work of the Li Hongzhi can be seen at: http://www.falundafa.org/book/eng/flg.htm
Latest information on persecution of the group from the group's perspective: http://www.faluninfo.net/