Bloomington, Ind.--Every morning at dawn, Mary Lan makes her way to Indiana University's grassy arboretum toting a tape player, cassette and mat. After spreading her mat and starting the tape player, Lan clasps her hands together and steps onto the mat. Once the tape begins, a steady voice directs her to raise her arms above her head and put her hands parallel to her face. She doesn't care who sees her. Most of the time, her eyes are shut.

A graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington, Lan is a practitioner of Falun Dafa. While the Chinese slow-motion exercises and ancient Eastern principles of Falun Dafa--also known as Falun Gong--might seem exotic among the cornfields of Indiana, Lan has drawn companions from both the university and the greater Bloomington area.

While there are no exact numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests Falun Gong has become increasingly popular on American campuses. "It works," said Anthony Stranton, an Indiana resident who joins Lan and several others for group meditations on Saturday evenings. "My outlook is more positive."

Lan enjoys introducing others to the teachings and movements of Falun Dafa, calling it mainly a self-improvement group. "I feel more confidence and much more assured of myself," says the slender Chinese woman. "And I feel that practicing Falun Dafa and living out the principles of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance help me in eliminating the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty." Lan, who never considered herself a religious person, sees an irony in her new role. Growing up in China, she says, there was "an obligatory class of Marxism from primary school to graduate school." On the societal level, religiosity was seen as passe or purely sentimental. "The old people who claim to have faith in a deity are considered to be uneducated," Lan says, while young people "get married at church because it is a fashion." Still, she had "positive feelings toward religious stories, Western and Oriental alike."

When her father, a retired college professor, introduced Lan to the teachings in the mid-1990s, Falun Gong was still fairly new and many didn't know about it. Lan says the serenity of the lessons and the grace of the movements hooked her. She and her father began attending regular meetings in friends' homes. Sometimes members of the group practiced the meditative movements in public. Lan remembers those days affectionately, partly because they didn't last long.

As the popularity of the spiritual movement increased, so did the nervousness of the Chinese government. In July 1999, the government banned Falun Gong, denouncing it as a "counterrevolutionary group" and an "evil cult," and began cracking down on the group. Lan tells of friends and acquaintances who were caught practicing the movements and have faced internment in labor camps, torture and even death.

Lan and her companions continued group meditations, more secretly--and always inside the safety of their homes. According to Lan, some Falun Gong members defied the government by practicing in the open, in the face of certain arrest. "They have no power, but they dared to stand up for what they believe is right. This is really amazing," she says.

As the situation for followers became bleak, Lan looked for other places to live. A former lecturer at China's esteemed Tsinhua University, she landed a grant through the Li Foundation to study communication and decided to do her research at Indiana University. Lan enjoys the "open-mindedness and tolerance" she finds at the university. "IU is a school with many international students, which is good for me to learn about different cultures," she says, adding that "the people I meet in Bloomington are all very polite, kind and honest."

This school year, Lan's Falun Dafa group became an official student organization. Lan estimates that at least a half-dozen people regularly spend Saturday evenings meditating with her. Many of the people are connected through the university, although some come from the nearby community or drive several hours to attend the meetings. Stranton, a member since July, came to the group because he read about it in a flier. At the time, he was experiencing severe insomnia and was tired of taking medication to go to sleep. The movements helped him recover from his illness. "I can see an improved condition," he said.

Ruby Huang, a graduate student from Taiwan, got involved with the group through word of mouth. Before meeting Lan, Huang had studied Buddhism but felt unfulfilled. With Falun Dafa, she says, "there is something special about the teachings" that helped her find answers to some of the questions she harbored. "After learning Falun Dafa, I got new perspectives and an understanding of life, which gives me true happiness," she said.

Although grateful for the opportunity to help others learn the teachings of the movement, Lan says she longs to return to China "to let my friends, neighbors, relatives and colleagues know the truth of the Falun Gong and the evil of the persecution." However, she is confident that "as more and more people in the U.S. and other countries come to know the truth, they will carry the information around, and the persecution will collapse in the end." Lan hasn't seen her family since she left China and worries about her aging father, to whom she's been especially close since her mother died. Although calling home on the weekends cheers her up, Lan says she feels torn between love of her native country and the beauty of religious freedom.

"The first time I joined a group practice of Falun Gong (in the United States) was in Los Angeles earlier this year when we had an experience-sharing conference," says Lan. "Sitting on the grassland looking at thousands of people from various (ethnic) backgrounds, recalling when thousands of Chinese people practiced the Falun Gong exercises together at the park before the persecution, I felt that America is a blessed land."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad