And so the Redneck Riviera is permeated with the first probings of this "wave." Interesting how the first news of it in this area is in such a supportive light. What better free advertising could be asked for? Scary. Very scary.
Feb. 18, 2001
Falun Gong rouses interest
Meditation 'practice' deemed an 'evil cult' by communists
By Billy Cox
Gary Pansey's search for origins came to him in a dream one night in May 1999. Granted, he already was an avid searcher, scanning for intersections of science and mysticism. But he claims he knew nothing of the troubles simmering on the other side of the world.
Pansey had been studying Qigong - the Chinese discipline of energy cultivation through stretches, meditation and slow movement - since 1996. So, it was no surprise that the image of a teacher should appear to him in his sleep. The surprise was when his guide jumped out the window of a tall building and landed on his feet unharmed.
"My falling master," Pansey muses. "I woke up feeling good, feeling that I was an apprentice, but I didn't know who the teacher was. Falling."
The dream was a doorway into Falun Gong, a practice said by adherents to transform mind and body into enlightenment through five basic exercises keyed to moral principles. That last part wasn't stressed by Qigong.
The more Pansey explored, the more Falun Gong made sense. There was no charge, no hierarchy, no dogma. He converted, without so much as an application fee.
Three months after the dream, however, the ripple effect Falun Gong unleashed in its own country exploded inward on a tidal wave of violence. In July 1999, China's Communist Party outlawed the movement, conducted mass arrests and book burnings, dispatched troops to seize and ransack property, and sent thousands of practitioners to labor camps without trial.
The official reason: Falun Gong was "an evil cult" that threatened national security. Adherents argued the real reason was that - in less than seven years - a philosophy of self-empowerment through mental and physical health had eclipsed the Communist Party's membership roles.
But Party strong-arms, still haunted by the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, hardly could have envisioned what happened next.
Amid the maelstrom of reports describing jailings, torture and murder, a backlash of global curiosity has - Falun Gong followers contend - accelerated practitioners' worldwide numbers to more than 100 million.
Today, Falun Gong defenders say they have one goal in mind.
"We're determined," Pansey says, "that reports from the (government) Xinhua News Agency be seen for the propaganda that they are. We want the truth to get out and let the people decide for themselves."
Pansey's stage is a lonely one in Brevard County. He exercises by himself at Wells Park outside the Melbourne Public Library, where motorists usually can see his methodical performance on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. For those who give this visual curiosity more than a passing glance, Pansey - a 46-year-old independent stockbroker will distribute fliers and brochures.
What they contain is an abbreviated history of Falun Gong, how it was founded in 1992 by one Li Hongzhi on the principles of Zhen, Shan, Ren: Truth, Compassion, Forbearance. There are details on the exercises, the attendant philosophies and how to visit Web sites to obtain more information free of charge.
And there are graphic images of alleged government brutality against Falun Gong prisoners, accompanied by first-person and eyewitness accounts. Dozens reportedly have been killed and tens of thousands imprisoned. The most recent controversy occurred last month when five reputed adherents immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square, leaving one dead. Communist authorities say the incident illustrates the fanaticism of Falun Gong; critics smell a rat and say Falun Gong specifically forbids violence and suicide.
Presidents Clinton and Bush have called for the release of practitioners and an end to the persecution. State Department spokesman Rick Marshall says a formal assessment will be released Friday in its annual Human Rights Report. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return phone calls from Florida Today.
"Why are they so paranoid? Because the Communist Party knows it's left a huge gap in the Chinese people's daily lives," Pansey says. "This isn't just something for peasants - Communist Party officials, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, they're all involved with it, because it works. And the irony is, this isn't political.
"Master Li has never advocated the overthrow of the government, and advises people to stay out of politics. And that may be one of the strengths of Falun Gong. It has not, and cannot be allowed, to degenerate into an organized hierarchy like other religions, with preachers and the exchange of money. But for this, we get government labor camps, a phenomenon that should've died out with the 20th century."
Veteran Brevard Community College world religions professor Lin Osborne says he isn't familiar with Falun Gong, but he finds the concept intriguing. Especially if it can avoid precedents engraved in the granite of history. Osborne visited Moscow three years ago to do a documentary on the Eastern Orthodox Church, which survived 70 years of repression by the Soviet Union.
"Banning religious movements doesn't serve empires very well," says Osborne. "Three or four centuries after the Roman Empire began persecuting Christians, it led to the establishment of a state religion. Nothing is ever lost under repression except the public practice. Look at what the Chinese did for the Dalai Lama. They made him famous.
"Christianity came to Russia 1,000 years ago and shaped its culture, its alphabet. Yet, within a few years, Stalin tried to turn it around by blowing up half the churches in Red Square. Yet, how long did it take for the church to step back in when communism fell? Today, monks have gone back to teaching in the public schools; the mayor of Moscow raised $100 million to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. There's no such thing as the separation of church and state.
"All these ancient cultures - China, Russia - have totalitarian traditions beginning with monarchs, czars and dynasties. Cultural tradition is a powerful force, easily underestimated."
But Pansey says Falun Gong is unique.
The grandson of Polish immigrants (original name: Panski), Gary Pansey grew up with a non-practicing Jew for a father and a mildly observant Italian Catholic mother. He began studying yoga at age 14 in his native Rhode Island. A Brevard County resident for 10 years, his interests are broad: fiddle, violin, trumpet, jazz, classical, cosmology, physics, alternative medicine. He earned an engineering degree at Florida Tech, but plays Wall Street for a living.
"I've always been swept up in scientific explanations of the universe, explanations of matter, how it all started. Where did we come from?" he says. "But, as time went by, I guess you could say I got disenfranchised with science.
"In the beginning, all your great scientists - Copernicus, Newton, Descartes - were philosophers at the core. You should read these guys. They reinforce that the essence of science is to prove yourself wrong. Unfortunately, today, science is just as authoritarian as religion ever was, and if you challenge certain theoretical assumptions - the Big Bang, for instance, relativity - and you're with a major institution, they'll cut off government funding."
Spreading the word
Beginning with Qigong in 1996, Pansey began delving into a training regimen connecting wellness to a comprehension of the body's energy meridians. But not until his dream led him to Falun Gong - and the writings of Li Hongzhi - did Pansey discover what he feels was the missing complement: a behavior code.
"You don't tell a lie, you don't get angry, you go out of your way to help people, you thank them - these sound like very simple things, and they are," he said. "Science will never define good and evil, but there is a supernatural activity in the universe that mitigates evil. Good is rewarded with good, evil is rewarded with punishment, and these are physical laws that are as real as our knowledge of photons and orbiting electrons.
"On a practical level, I haven't gotten sick in four years. That's why exercising across the street from (Holmes Regional Medical Center) isn't an accident. I'd love to share this information with patients and doctors."
Spreading the word has been a busy but thankless task, so far. Pansey says he's sent fliers to all the churches, and has landed a few speaking gigs here and there.
In December, he achieved a symbolic coup by getting the city of Melbourne to proclaim a Falun Gong Week, which, according to the statement, "encourage(d) citizens to become aware of this ancient practice that studies the universal principles of truth, benevolence, and tolerance."
The tide of public awareness in America is rising. Last month, the first Falun Gong conference in Florida was staged in Orlando. Some 250 people showed up, according to organizer Chris Jasurek. Significantly, only 30 of them spoke Chinese only.
"That's important, because Falun Gong is viewed by Westerners as a Chinese thing. We say no, this is something universal," Jasurek says. "That's why I admire Gary tremendously for sticking it out over there in Brevard. He doesn't have a support group, but he's getting the word out."
Although Li Hongzhi isn't formally lobbying for the end of China's Communist Party, Jasurek wonders if Falun Gong will be the Party's last big blunder. Between the current crackdown and the "Tiananmen Papers" published in Foreign Affairs last month describing sharp leadership divisions over the bloody termination of the '89 student demonstrations, Jasurek is keeping his fingers crossed.
"We live in exciting times, in terms of history," Jasurek says. "Falun Gong is now a worldwide movement with local human faces. All we're saying is that it'll help anybody with an open mind be happier and healthier."