The following paper was presented by Rick Alan Ross at the January 2009 International Forum on Cultic Studies sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Destructive Cults in China and published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
My work in the area of cults, controversial groups and movements began in 1982 and has included professionally consulting with hundreds of affected families, mental health professionals, attorneys, clergy, law enforcement and the media.
I have been qualified and accepted as an expert witness across the United States in numerous court cases. This has included testimony given in United States federal courts.
My court testimony typically is focused upon the behavior of destructive groups, their persuasion techniques and the undue influence that such groups often gain over adherents.
I am the founder and Executive Director of the Ross Institute of New Jersey (RI). RI is a nonprofit tax-exempt educational institution devoted to the study of destructive cults, controversial groups and movements.
Researchers and the media often use the Ross Institute Internet Archives as an informational resource. It contains thousands of documents and hundreds of subsections about various cults, groups, movements and related topics.
Each year, through my work at RI, I respond to thousands of inquiries.
One subsection within the RI archives is devoted to Falun Dafa also known as Falun Gong and the teachings of its founder Li Hongzhi.
Falun Dafa, which was founded in 1992, is an idiosyncratic blend of beliefs and practices as assembled by its founder Li Hongzhi. This includes Taoist and Buddhist references predicated upon a belief in extraterrestrials and practiced through a set of prescribed exercises and meditation techniques.
Before specifically discussing the cultic aspects of Falun Dafa, I would like to offer a working definition of a cult determined more by its behavior than by its beliefs.
Definition of a Cult
Noted psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton developed the following definition of a cult. This definition is focused primarily upon three principal criteria and was first published in a paper titled "Cult Formation" in 1981 :
1. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
2. a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform;
3. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Falun Dafa and Lifton's three criteria
A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship
Exclusive claims made by Li Hongzhi, which are implicitly accepted by Falun Dafa practitioners without exemption, are the defining principles of the group.
For example, "Master Li" purportedly possesses supernatural powers.
Mr. Li claims to know "the top secret of the universe" and says "no religion can save people" but the "almighty Fa," which he exclusively represents. He is therefore essentially the chosen savior of man. The biography in his book "Zhuan Falun" claims that he first recognized his special powers at the age of 8.
Li Hongzhi's teachings also include the spinning "falun," which is a mystical "wheel of law" that he claims to be able to insert into his disciples' abdomens telekinetically.
Such fantastic and exclusive claims about a leader fit the classic profile of a personality-driven cult.
Falun Dafa followers, believe that Li Hongzhi is always right and they are not allowed to question the basic assumptions concerning his purported supernatural powers, teachings and/or opinions. His authority and infallibility appear to be absolute for the true believer, and therefore beyond what Falun Dafa followers consider reasonable doubt.
Examples of the intense devotion Li Hongzhi has effectively engendered among his followers include a television network and a newspaper called "The Epoch Times" both run by Falun Dafa adherents. Devotees also maintain numerous Web sites and there are schools to perpetuate Mr. Li's teachings. Frequent public demonstrations and events staged around the world also reflect the intense devotion of his followers.
While Li Hongzhi talks about "Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance," neither he nor his followers actually demonstrate any tolerance concerning critical questions or inquiry. Within Falun Dafa Li's followers are not allowed to question the basic assumptions of the group and criticism from outsiders is often characterized as "persecution."
Persistent critics of Li Hongzhi and Falun Dafa have been repeatedly subjected to personal attacks, threats of litigation and frivolous lawsuits.
Li Hongzhi remains an absolute, authoritarian leader with little if any accountability, and there appears to be no limit to the scope of his personal power and influence within Falun Dafa.
a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform
Sociologist Richard J. Ofshe explains, "Coercive persuasion and thought reform are alternate names for programs of social influence capable of producing substantial behavior and attitude change through the use of coercive tactics, persuasion, and/or interpersonal and group-based influence manipulations."
This is accomplished according to Ofshe by "intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual's sense of self" and "to promote conformity" within the framework of "an organized peer group."
Li Hongzhi through Falun Gong has promoted unreasonable fears about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions. He teaches his followers that the earth would have been destroyed, but he saved it. He also claims that "gods" will destroy those he disapproves of and that his followers must practice his prescribed program of "spiritual cultivation" or risk obliteration.
For Falun Gong followers, there is no legitimate reason to disagree with and/or leave the organization. Former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative, or even seen as "evil." While they may appear to be free to leave they often fear the consequences.
Mr. Li asks his followers to continuously keep "cultivating" and go on and on "cultivating" until they reach "perfection," something that no one can ever realistically hope to achieve as an ordinary man and woman within their lifetime. Such perfectionism is then supposedly deferred and only reachable in "other dimensions."
Li Hongzhi's program of coercive persuasion largely relies upon the cultivation not only of unreasonable fears but also prejudice, which ultimately serves to isolate and control his followers. "Master Li" manipulates the thinking and feelings of his followers to develop a certain seemingly predetermined and desired mindset.
In Mr. Li's worldview mixed-race people are part of a plot, contrived by the evil extraterrestrials. "By mixing the races of humans, the aliens make humans cast off gods," he told a gathering in Switzerland in 1998.
"Mixed races" are supposedly excluded from the "truth" and "have lost their roots, as if nobody in the paradise will take care of them. They belong to nowhere, and no places would accept them…the higher levels do not recognize such a human race."
According to Mr. Li, the offspring of mixed race unions are therefore "intellectually incomplete" or "with an incomplete body." In such cases, only he, Master Li, can help and "take care of it" (i.e., resolve the "incomplete" state). However, that can be done only if "such a person wants to practice cultivation."
Li Hongzhi also encourages hatred of homosexuals. He has said, "The disgusting homosexuality shows the dirty abnormal psychology of the gay who has lost his ability of reasoning at the present time," Li Hongzhi wrote in Volume II of "Zhuan Falun," or "Turning the Law Wheel," which was translated into English in 1996.
In his talk in Switzerland, Li Hongzhi also stated that gay people would be "eliminated" by "the gods." Asked in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1998 whether gays could practice Falun Gong, Mr. Li answered, "You can cultivate, but you must give up the bad conduct."
Li Hongzhi's disciples are taught to subordinate their own thoughts and feelings to the teachings of Falun Dafa. They essentially come to believe that "Master Li" has arranged everything and is their protection.
In describing her experience with Falun Dafa, cult expert and clinical psychologist Margaret Singer said that a practitioner will "actually say 'Don't Think. Just recite the Master's teaching.' "
Among Falun Dafa's many questionable mind-altering practices, this command to "stop thinking" and continuously "recite the Master's teaching," when heeded, meets the main criterion of cult control American communication researchers and cult experts Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman describe in their book Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change:
Almost every major cult and cult-like group we came upon teaches some form of not thinking or "mind control" as part of its regular program of activity. The process may take the form of repetitive prayer, chanting, speaking in tongues, self-hypnosis or diverse methods of meditation….Such techniques, when practiced in moderation, may yield real physical and mental health benefits….Prolonged stilling of the mind, however, may wear on the brain physically until it readjusts, suddenly and sharply, to its new condition of not thinking. When that happens, we have found, the brain's information-processing capacities may be disrupted or enter a state of complete suspension…disorientation, detachment…hallucinations, delusions and, in extreme instances, total withdrawal.
exploitation of group members by the leader
Former Falun Dafa followers, the families of devotees and others concerned often relate the same allegations of abuse, which reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
Mr. Li teaches his followers that illness is caused by the evil deeds of a sick person, in this life or a previous one. According to his teachings, modern medicine treats only the symptoms of a disease, and not its underlying spiritual cause, which can be cured only by practicing Falun Gong.
"The only way to find yourself comfortably free of illnesses," Li Hongzhi writes in "Zhuan Falun," "is through cultivation practice!"
The complaints I have received about Falun Dafa are most often directly related to teachings about "spiritual cultivation," which may preclude seeing a doctor and/or taking prescribed medication.
As a result of such teachings some of Mr. Li's followers have reportedly died due to medical neglect, while many others have needlessly exacerbated their medical conditions.
I have also received serious complaints within the United States regarding the damage done by Falun Dafa through family estrangement. This has particularly occurred when families question and/or are critical of Mr. Li and his teachings.
It should be noted that "Master Li" has apparently accumulated substantial assets through his work within Falun Dafa.
Mr. Li moved to United States in 1995. In 1998 he reportedly bought a house in New York for $293,500. Li Hongzhi purchased his second residence in New Jersey for $580,000 the following year. The value of the two residences today may easily exceed a million dollars.
Exchanges with Falun Dafa devotees
In the many email exchanges I have had with Falun Dafa members I have frequently focused on the following three areas:
Racism and homophobia: I have specifically asked Falun Dafa members how they regard Mr. Li's racist teachings, which denigrate the children of interracial unions as "cross bred" and "incomplete."
One Falun Dafa practitioner responded, "My understanding is that when gods created man, we were created to god's image [sic], different races was created [sic] by gods of different races and when a child is born from a marriage of two people from different races it will be hard for the gods to trace the child's origin and therefore hard to save."
In defense of Li Hongzhi's homophobic pronouncements one member remarked, "Actually all orthodox (upright) religions view this matter in the same way, Christianity included, it is very hard to reach heaven when practicing homosexuality."
Medical Neglect: I have questioned Falun Dafa members regarding reports of medical neglect that have been tied to their beliefs.
One member responded concerning "Master Li's" bizarre claim that elderly women would start menstruating again after practicing Falun Dafa. "Can you prove that elderly women who practice Falun Gong DON'T regain their menstrual periods? Have you ever considered the possibility that Li's teachings in this regard are true? I know for a fact that they are true. I suggest you do more research on the subject before mocking these teachings," the member responded.
Protests: Public protests appear to have become a pivotal function of Falun Dafa. The most horrific example was the 2001 self-immolation protest in China, which included adult members and minor children.
However, Falun Dafa members routinely deny any responsibility for this tragedy, which is somehow consigned to the category of a government "conspiracy," despite the public statements made by the survivors.
One mother that survived the tragic event explained, "We wanted to show the government that Falun was good." Her daughter observed, "I think Falun Gong has developed into a cult with anti-human and anti-society characteristics."
The consistent pattern of my email exchanges is that Falun Dafa is always "good" and "Master Li" is never wrong, no matter how extreme or harmful the group behavior or hateful his teachings may be.
Margaret Singer succinctly summarized: "If you want a good description of a cult, all you have to do is read what [Falun Dafa followers] say they are."
Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., "Cult Formation," The Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 1981.
Mark Jurkowitz, "Times for a change," Boston Globe, May 31, 2005.
Richard J. Ofshe, Ph.D., "Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change," Encyclopedia of Sociology, Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 2001.
Sarah Lubman, "A Chinese Battle on U.S. Soil," San Jose Mercury News, December 23, 2001.
"Falun Gong Derided as Authoritarian Sect by Anti-Cult Experts," San Francisco Chronicle, April 29, 2000.
Conway and Siegelman, Snapping, pp 153-154.
Peter Carlson, "For Whom the Gong Tolls," Washington Post, February 27, 2000.
Paul Vallely and Clifford Coonan, "China's Enemy Within: The Story of Falun Gong," The Independent (UK), April 22, 2006.
Jeremy Page, "Survivors say China Falun Gong immolation real," Reuters, April 4, 2002.
1. Hongzhi Li, Zhuan Falun (http://www.falundafa.org/book/eng/zfl_new.html).
2. Various articles posted on Falun Gong's Web site, www.clearwisdom.net.
4. The late Professor Margaret Singer's Live Interview on Falun Gong.
5. Margaret Singer, Cults In Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
6. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, 2nd ed. New York: Stillpoint Press, 1995/2005.
(Cultnews.com, January 25, 2009)