Any number multiplied by zero is always zero. To most, this is a simple mathematics rule, but to Chen Bin, a former Falun Gong follower, it is the only way to adequately explain the five years he spent with the cult.
"The cult is the 'zero' and when your life and spirit are multiplied by it, all of that become zero, no matter how good they once were," Chen said.
"You become a blind follower and all the knowledge you had learned before becomes useless."
Chen, 57, graduated from Renmin University of China in 1968, and was a government official in the local light industry bureau in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province for more than 30 years. In 1996, he began practicing Falun Gong.
The cult spread the word among its followers that doomsday was imminent and humans would become extinct and that they had to accept its leader, Li Hongzhi, as the sole savior.
Chen said he and other followers received instructions, that any illnesses would be cured by practicing Falun Gong and that they should not seek medical treatment when they got sick.
Government statistics show that more than 1,700 people have died as a result of this instruction by Falun Gong.
Chen said he "woke up" from the lies of cult after 11 months at a local re-education-through-labor program after he was sentenced to two years in a camp in the provincial capital of Xi'an in October 2000 for producing and selling Falun Gong materials.
This is a common punishment for people guilty of minor crimes. Sentences range from one to three years.
Falun Gong was banned in 1999 after it began to show characteristics of a heretical cult that endangered lives and disturbed social stability.
"Li Hongzhi is not a god. He is just human and he is not even a good one," Chen said in an article describing his five-year "nightmare" as a Falun Gong practitioner.
Chen is also volunteering time to work with former followers. He has already helped 30 other practitioners to free themselves from the cult.
Recently, Chen was invited by News Probe on China Central Television to tell his Falun Gong story where he shared why he joined, how he suffered under the cult and how he finally broke free.
Q: How did you start practicing Falun Gong?
A: It was in early 1996 when I first met some people who were promoting Falun Gong in a park near my home. I thought it was just a derivative of qigong (a system of deep breathing exercises). Falun Gong was also the only sort of qigong that was offered free of charge. After weeks of practicing, I felt my health had improved.
Q: How had it improved?
A: Some of my small illnesses had disappeared. Take my nose for example. I used to have chronic rhinitis but later I was able to breathe smoothly.
Q: Did you see a doctor?
A: It was impossible for me to go to the hospital for a consultation at that time. Why? Because Li Hongzhi wrote in his "scripture" that having a disease meant that someone had to "repay debt." Once he or she paid off the debt, he or she would then upgrade their physical and mental capabilities. Going to the hospital would betray Falun Gong. By doing so you could never reach the "height" set by Li Hongzhi.
Q: Feeling better is the reason you began to trust Falun Gong?
A: Yes. But the biggest difference between Falun Gong and other qigong exercises is that Falun Gong requires its practitioners to study the "scripture," which was called "dafa." If you don't want to learn "dafa," you have no chance of being a real disciple of Falun Gong and your illness will never be cured.
Furthermore, Li asked us to add "master Li says" and "teacher Li says" to each sentence we quoted in his "scripture" during our meditation, practice and discussion in order to receive the special power in his original sentences.
Li especially emphasized "dafa" by asking us to spend more time studying it than practising qigong. It took at least four hours to finish both kinds of assignments each day.
Q: At least four hours on Falun Gong each day?
A: Yes. Being a Falun Gong practitioner means your spare time is filled with nothing but Falun Gong. There is almost no time for anything else.
Q: Did your way of thinking change after learning the "scripture?"
A: Yes. Gradually, I no longer regarded myself as an average person. For example, in 1999 I was nominated for the annual Best Civil Servant Award but I didn't win the award. Naturally, I should have felt upset. However, I secretly felt happy because losing the award would bring me some "de" (merit), "which was the only thing you could take with you to heaven," according to Li.
Someone would say that "standing aloof from worldly strife" is a sign of moral improvement. It is actually just an egoistical way of thinking, since we only wish to lift our "height" and some day achieve nirvana through this.
Q: What was the image of Li Hongzhi at that time?
A: The top Buddha of the universe, who was a person with supreme power. In the end we only had four sentences in our minds: Read what Li Hongzhi writes. Listen to what Li Hongzhi says. Do what Li Hongzhi asks. Serve as Li Hongzhi's good disciple.
Q: How did you feel when you were required by law to serve two years in the re-education-through-labor camp?
A: Honestly, I wasn't upset and angry at that moment. Instead, I felt peaceful because I believed it was a special test that "Master Li" offered me. If I could pass this test, my spirit would reach another "height" and I would go to a nearer stage of nirvana.
Q: Was life in the re-education-through-labor camp the same as you had imagined?
A: I'd heard a lot from some fellow practitioners about the camp, such as many kinds of torture, water cells or dark rooms, but I didn't find anything like that after I entered. All of the wardens gave me warmhearted care and I was very grateful to them.
Q: How did you change your ideas about Falun Gong?
A: It was the small Falun Gong badge that finally changed my mind.
Li claimed many times that he would never take any money from his disciples. He also said if his 100 million disciples were to each give him 1 yuan (US$0.12) he would have immediately become a millionaire.
But in actuality, it cost us 3 yuan (US$0.36) to buy a badge which costs only 0.45 yuan (US$0.054) to produce. That meant Li earned at least 1.5 yuan (US$0.18) from selling just one badge. Every one of us bought at least one. Take me for example, I bought six! You can count by yourself how much money he earned.
I am very sure about the original price because I was very familiar with the factory that made the badges due to my work with the light industry bureau. I had sold many badges to practitioners for 3 yuan (US$0.36) each.
Q: Was there any chance the money went to other people and not Li?
A: Absolutely impossible. At that time all the practitioners, including me, thought about nothing but Falun Gong. Money meant nothing to us and we believed money should belong to and should be turned in to Li Hongzhi, our "master."
Video tapes is another example of how he made money. One Falun Gong video tape was sold at 57 yuan (US$6.87) but the cost of producing one was only 18 yuan (US$2.17). He also forbade practitioners to copy the video tapes on their own.
Q: When did you finally free yourself from the cult?
A: During the 2001 Spring Festival. I insisted on staying at the camp instead of joining my family because I thought it would be a good time for me to read some books to find out why practising Falun Gong could improve my health.
Q: What did you find out after your reading?
A: First, I found it was Chinese traditional qigong that actually helped improve my health. Activities such as "sitting in repose with eyes closed" and "sitting in mediation" were not created by Falun Gong. It has remained the main prescription for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and in Buddhism and Taoism from which Falun Gong took ideas.
It was not Li Hongzhi who cured my disease. It was me who practised qigong. Li had done nothing. But when I was a blind follower, I credited all the improvements in my health to him and thought of him as a god.
Q: How do you feel now that you have changed your ideas about Falun Gong?
A: I felt deeply hurt. I had trusted Li Hongzhi so deeply but I found he had lied to me. Is there anyone who wants to make friends with a charlatan? No. I chose to break with him firmly and forever.
Trust is the most important thing to most practitioners. So when I began to persuade other people to get out of the cult, the first thing I convinced them of was to trust me, to trust what I said.
Q: Are there some people who try to persuade you to rejoin them?
A: Yes. Especially some acquaintances. They warned me that if I didn't stop criticizing Falun Gong, the "master" will punish me some day.
Q: Have you been punished?
A: (laughing) This question reminds me of a story. In April this year, I suffered from excessive internal heat which caused a small ulcer in my mouth.
Liu Dianxun, a follower and a graduate student from Xi'an Jiaotong University, also developed an ulcer but he laughed at me and said it was punishment from the "master."
I asked him why then did he have the same illness? He said he was "paying a debt" from "Master Li" and that the "master" would cure his illness. I went to see a doctor and recovered from it within a few days. But Liu refused medical treatment and his ulcer grew larger and larger. When the camp wardens asked him to go see a doctor, Liu asked for three more days so he could wait to be cured by Li Hongzhi. Three more days passed and Liu's ulcer grew even larger. Finally, he had to go to a hospital and it took a week before he fully recovered.
Q: Do you feel different now that you are free from Falun Gong?
A: I am studying computer science at the local university now. I have walked a misguided path for the past five years. My heart still feels hurt when I think of those days as a follower. I fell. But I was able to stand up again.
(China Daily, September 18, 2002)