James R. Lewis
Li Hongzhi, founder-leader of Falun Gong, was a controversial figure even before his movement was banned in China in 1999. We find conflicting images of Master Li (as Falun Gong members refer to him) as a revered spiritual teacher among his followers and as just another a cult leader to his detractors. From early on, Li Hongzhi presented himself as a high-level spiritual teacher who had studied under a series of exalted spiritual masters in what should be referred to as his hagiography. Perhaps surprisingly, we also often find instances of practitioners and other friends of the movement blatantly ignoring, downplaying, or whitewashing the more controversial of Li Hongzhi’s teachings. As his following grew, Li Hongzi’s claims to spiritual greatness grew as well, until he began viewing himself as a bodhisattva who had come to earth to save humanity from an impending apocalypse. However, as his self-conception continued to expand, even the status of bodhisattva seemed insufficient to capture his increasing sense of his own specialness. Eventually, he not only claimed to be a transcendent god, situated well beyond all earthly and spiritual realms, but also claimed that all other spiritual teachers, including Jesus and the historical Buddha, were his disciples. This paper provides a brief backdrop to Li Hongzhi and the Falun Gong movement, then traces the development of Master Li’s evolving self-perception.
Keywords: Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong, new religion