I regularly receive strong criticism for my perceived failure to criticize the suppression by the Chinese government of the Falun Gong movement so active in that country. Let me outline here my stance on the matter.
I recently watched a very well-produced PBS-TV program on the Shaolin monks, "Shaolin: The Wheel of Life," a spectacular demonstration of standard "martial arts" tricks — and they are tricks — some of which date back to medieval times. The Shaolin movement is very old, teaching the usual claptrap notions that most of the martial arts groups espouse. They say they can teach students "to develop supernatural abilities, far beyond abilities of an ordinary man." A student can learn to "pierce a wooden board with his finger as it were a straw mat and crush stones into sand with blows of his elbows." They claim that one master of Shaolin
. . . crushed huge stones with his elbow like with a diamond pestle and broke thick wooden beams with an arm blow . . . blows of a big iron hammer did not hurt him at all. [He] beat off arrows shot at him, was able of dodging spears pointed at him from a few sides . . . he could crush a stone with a "trampling" blow and kill a man with the "Iron Fist". . . [he] ran up a sheer wall of three meters high . . .
They sell a medallion — the Wheel of Life Pendant — that is supposed to have healing and protective powers. Says one of their "experts" who uses "Applied Kinesiology" to test the pendant:
I have discovered that when one finds the Wheel (five varieties) suitable to one's energy field, it is capable of reducing the intensity of allergic reactions if it is worn close to the body. The Wheel of Life pendant also helps to improve one's physical energy and mental clarity by bringing the energy meridians into a Yin-Yang state of balance.
Not to be outdone, a TV minister, Terry Cole-Whitaker, endorsed the pendant with: "My aura jumped out 60 ft. This is fabulous." And as final validation, actor Steven Segal declared, "My chakras began spinning and then went into balance after putting on my Wheel." Nothing like spinning, unbalanced charkas to get your attention...
The show on PBS was beautifully choreographed, the music was exciting, the performances brilliant. But these stunts are not supernatural or mystical in nature, at all, any more than ballet maneuvers are. At no point was that made clear, though the impression certainly was allowed to get across that this was no mere dance recital, but rather a show of superhuman powers.
These stunts have been used as selling points for many religious movements down through history, particularly in the Far East. The Chinese "Falun Gong" movement originated with Li Hongzhi, who in 1992 introduced the practice and started the religion, also known as Falun Dafa. Li's claims are very much like those of the Shaolin priestsbody", though not as old.
Li preaches that the "qi," "ki," or "chi" — the "energy substance in the human body" — can, through practice of Falun Gong, be activated, changing the physical state of the body, achieving healing and health. Through such training, he says, one can emit a "high-energy cluster that is manifested in the form of light with fine particles and high density." This he calls, "Gong." "Fa" he defines as "Law" in the sense of a "primary cosmic law that pervades all things in the universe." "Dafa" is "Great Law." "Falun" means "Law Wheel." The purpose of Falun Gong, he says, is to cultivate a person's "Gong." This is done through physical exercise and the development of a person's "mind-nature," or "Xinxing." Li teaches that a "super-eye" obtained via Falun Gong can give his followers X-ray vision, that "goodness" cures disease, and that deep breathing exercises can solve the world's problems. This is how they describe the "Dharma Wheel" that they claim each adherent can actually grow in their abdomen:
Falun Gong is characterized by the cultivation of a Falun [Dharma wheel], located at the lower abdomen. As an intelligent entity of high energy substance, the Falun automatically absorbs energy from the universe and relieves the body of bad elements.
In short, folks, this is another mystical cult basing its philosophy on mythology and pseudoscience, a spiritual movement loosely based on Buddhism, Taoism, yoga-style exercises, and blatant fantasies.
Leader "Master" Li Hongzhi is a former grain clerk from China's northeastern Jilin province, now in exile in New York, from which position he solicits financial support and directs the movement. Now, there is no question about the challenge that the rise of Falun Gong offers to the absolute authority of the Chinese Communist Party, and Beijing keeps cracking down on public demonstrations by followers. I have serious problems with any suppression of religious or philosophical beliefs, and I certainly would speak out on any such situation here in the United States. I believe, and have always believed, that education and access to information can serve to fight absurd ideas, and we pursue that as a principle at the JREF, as well. The unfortunate fact here is that the uninformed usually want to remain in that state, and you know what they say about leading a horse to water...
China is not a democracy. We have no right to expect that that country should follow democratic principles, though we can hope that they might go in that direction, and can make suggestions to that effect. Falun Gong is just such an untenable philosophy that it should collapse automatically when the followers become more informed. But be assured: I am not at all deceived by the emphasis that the Chinese government has placed on the self-immolation, bloody suicides, disembowelment antics and other horrific actions carried out by certain Falun Gong followers, as if to damn the entire movement by the actions of a few obviously disturbed fanatics. These are exceptions, to be found in all disciplines, even in science.
Let us not forget, however, that we in the USA have been depending on prayers, pleading, and self-abasement to a deity to bring us magical advantages, and have been encouraged to attribute our prosperity and general success among nations, to that sort of action. In my opinion, hard work and dedication to logic and reason ought to be recognized as the reasons for our achievements, not appeals to a mythical friend-in-the-sky. We got where we are in spite of, not because of, those incantations.
I would like to see cults and unreason go the way of the dinosaurs; one of those dinosaurs is Falun Gong. Education is the only morally acceptable weapon we can apply to this project, and in China we have Sima Nan, a valued friend and colleague, going out into the countryside to teach the population how the side-show tricks of the "masters" are done. This activity is not without danger to Sima Nan, who has suffered physical assaults by local groups who support and preach the mythology of Falun Gong. He's one of my heroes, a man who gets out into the countryside to educate and inform citizens about matters of critical importance.
The PBS show that I saw consisted of cleverly-choreographed demonstrations of the kind of tricks that Sima Nan regularly reveals in his performances. Now, I'm all for entertainment, but when it is used to sell a false philosophy, it becomes propaganda. Breaking cinder-blocks on someone's head and balancing on the point of a spear seem to prove supernatural powers, but these are standard deceptions that literally can be traced back into the early histories of most cultures. Clearly, presentation of Shaolin miracles also serves as propaganda for the Falun Gong cult, which builds its following via such demonstrations. If that's the best they have to offer, it's not good enough.
(James Randi Educational Foundation, Ocotber 17, 2003)
Original text from: http://www.randi.org/jr/101703.html