Banned by the Chinese government, the spiritual movement Falun Gong fuels international debate over human rights. But here in Richmond, its public practice stirs only one park's waking hours. 

Flexing Freedom

Leejun Ivie barely seems to touch the ground.

Smocked in blaze-orange fleece warm-ups, she bobs lightly, like a tiger lily in the breeze, even as she tows a bundle — boom box, crimson cushion, pushpins and cue card — toward the lakeside gazebo in western Henrico County's Deep Run Park. Just after 9 a.m. there is no one here to notice her, let alone protest the purple and yellow banners she stretches between the gazebo's wooden posts. Here, unlike at her family's home in China, she's free to practice Falun Gong outdoors.

Halfway around the world, Falun Gong, a meditation and light exercise routine that claims 70 million followers in 32 countries and combines features of Buddhism, Taoism and tai chi, has fallen under the constant eye of the communist Chinese government that brands the movement a dangerous brainwashing cult. Seemingly paranoid by the massive crowds Falun Gong attracts and fearful that its "master" Li Hongzhi's cult of personality could replace government authority, China banned the sect last July. But in Richmond, Falun Gong raises hardly a peep from its few followers who practice it for the health benefits it promises — like cultivating the body to live well past 100.

Hongzhi, 48, fled his native China late last summer after the government ban on the movement he began in 1992. While an estimated 5,000 Falun Gong practitioners are kept in labor camps, and more than 20 Falun Gong leaders have been arrested and imprisoned for terms up to 18 years, Li now lives reclusively, but no less anonymously, in New York.

Not since the Tiananmen Square massacre 11 years ago has Beijing been the center of such national turbulence and international controversy. Last month, thousands of Falun Gong members gathered outside the National People's Congress during its closing session to protest the government's ban and plead for open debate and the release of imprisoned members. The banned sect now is making an appeal in Geneva to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, at its annual six-week session that examines reported violations worldwide. According to a March 23 speech by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before the U.N. commission, it is expected that the United States will support a resolution condemning China for its recent repression of political and religious groups, including Falun Gong.

But here at home it's quite another story — one that unfolds quietly and peacefully for the handful of curious people who spend weekend mornings in a park with Leejun Ivie.

It's a windy 38 degrees at 9:30 a.m., and the welcome sun can't warm the gathered circle of six bodies quickly enough. They face one another on a wooden deck at Deep Run Park, a glistening lake and well-worn path beside them. Chinese music tings like wind chimes from Ivie's boom box. And for those who haven't yet mastered the exercises and have to look, a cue card rests on a stand reminding them of the three laws of Falun Gong: zhen, shan, ren - truth, compassion, forbearance. Together, they move their hands in fluid, conscious strokes. Legs still, knees slightly bent, they are motionless except when arcs form as arms reach for the sun. To the observer, it's hard to imagine that such seemingly simple and slow exercises could provide a work out. But the precision of each movement followed by minutes-long frozen positionings takes much endurance and concentration.

Occasionally a jogger or dog-walker passes but rarely looks up. The group, beneath the sky and Ivie's banners, seems just as oblivious to the park awakening in its midst.

Five years ago, Ivie, 37, visited her family in Beijing and immediately noticed a stunning change in her mother. She looked younger and was much more relaxed. "I asked her, 'Can you share your secret recipe?' And she told me she hadn't changed her diet," remembers Ivie. It was the result of practicing Falun Gong.

Ivie was so intrigued that she persuaded her mother to visit Ivie in her new home in Richmond and teach her the five fundamental exercises and meditation techniques. "She brought me a suitcase of books," laughs Ivie, "she didn't bring a lot of personal things." For six months, mother and daughter practiced Falun Gong early in the morning in Ivie's backyard.

Gradually, Ivie built to two-hour Falun Gong sessions daily. "I knew it was good for me," she says, "my body no longer feels tired."

What's more, she says she hasn't taken medicine in two years. "I used to have bad menstrual cramps, for 20 years. Sometimes I couldn't go to work." But now Ivie believes her body has been purified by a "cultivation of her body mind and spirit." In Chinese it's called xinxing. It's also the idea least tolerated by the Chinese government that accuses the sect of contributing to the deaths of an estimated 1,200 members who died - according to government reports — from stopping their medications. But Ivie maintains it's a personal decision not pushed by the philosophy of Falun Gong.

Last July, one week before the ban, Ivie began giving free sessions in the park. "It came as such a surprise," she says about the ban. "But we never stopped once. On the coldest days in winter we were sitting in the snow and on the hottest days, too, we were there."

"She's completely devoted to it and some people may fear that," says Sam Forrest, a Richmond landlord who practices Falun Gong with Ivie's small weekend group.

"I wanted to explore it," says Forrest, a Taoist, "to see why it's so threatening to the communists. Religion in America's no big deal. We can do anything we want. But to them, the longer you deny a god the stronger it becomes."

Forrest says Falun Gong has helped him cultivate an open mind. "I grew up Episcopalian. Growing up in the West you see with one eye, in the East with the other eye. With both, it's three-dimensional."

It's perspectives like Forrest's that Cliff Edwards, professor of Asian religions and director the religious studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University, says could be the way religious study is approached in the future. "The Western idea of religion tends to be exclusivist," says Edwards, "in the East, that's simply not so." What's more, Edwards explains that sects like Falun Gong that focus on spirituality rather than on any one religion, often arouse suspicion because of the intensity of its followers. "I have lots of parents who call and say, 'Johnny is into this'" worried about what to do. "Life is complex and mysterious," says Edwards. "Ask yourself, is it open to self-criticism? Does it have a sense of humor? Does it use practical feelings? We learn from our neighbors, but we're not worried about them taking over our minds."

Falun Gong is Ivie's guide, however threatening it seems to the Chinese government or misunderstood by other cultures. In Richmond she's found tolerance. The benefits of that, she says, are boundless. "If you keep a clean, clear mind the energy for good is working for

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