Guiru Zhang, 28, is a soft-spoken chemistry student who wakes every day to pursue three things in life -- truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.

What sound like three innocent, useful virtues have caused political havoc and violence back home in his native country, China.

Zhang is a local practitioner of Falun Gong, a Chinese-oriented spiritual movement of mind and body that aims to cultivate well-being, truth and healing.

In China, though, the movement is banned as a cult that threatens public order.

Zhang calls the charge ridiculous.

"The government is afraid of anything it can't control," he said.

"Falun Gong is not involved in politics, yet it has actually contributed to the stability of society. It creates harmonious relationships. It's spread by word of mouth because people discover it's beneficial to them. The government would rather not think so."

Zhang will talk about Falun Gong in a panel discussion at 3:30 p.m. Saturday during the annual "Celebration of Cultures" at Scarritt-Bennett Center. The panel discussion will be in the center's Laskey Library.

Celebration of Cultures organizers said it's a rare opportunity to learn about a spiritual movement that's provoking international headlines.

"There's real value in having a place where we can come together and learn about things that might be controversial," said Cynthia Morin, Celebration director.

"We don't take sides. It's to help us understand where we are."

Falun Gong, sometimes called Falun Dafa, calls itself "an advanced cultivation system of mind, body and spirit based on ancient wisdom."

It uses a series of slow-motion exercises and various standing and sitting meditation techniques to improve "energy circulation" and "instinctual powers," according to Falun Gong literature.

Beyond these techniques, Falun Gong relies on two basic unorthodox metaphysical books, Zhuan Falun and China Falun Gong, to help practitioners "improve their health, purify their mind, uplift their spirit and deepen their understanding of life, humanity and the universe." Some of these esoteric teachings borrow terms from Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese health practices.

Locally, Zhang teaches a daily early morning exercise session at Centennial Park. Sometimes a dozen people join him. Last week at Vanderbilt University, he finished teaching a nine-session seminar on the movement, attended by about 10 people.

He also organizes a weekly study group on Falun Gong. For more information call 479-5150.

Believers say Falun Gong has no political intentions, no binding memberships or religious rituals.

The movement does have a founder, Master Li Hongzhi, whom practitioners prefer to call their teacher, not leader.

The two foundational Falun Gong books were written by Li, who introduced the teachings to the public in 1992. The China-born Li, an ex-government grain clerk, now reportedly lives in New York.

Practitioners say Li is a man of special enlightenment, similar to Buddha or Jesus.

Last year, the government banned the group and arrested hundreds of leading members. The crackdown has provoked criticism from human rights groups and prompted public demonstrations in China by Falun Gong members.

Li, who has stayed out of the public eye since the practice was outlawed, broke a months-long silence last week. On a Falun Gong Web site, Li said the Chinese government's ban on the movement was foretold by 16th century "prophet" Nostradamus.

Zhang said the criticisms of Li are distortions and lies. Li is a beloved teacher but no cult leader.

"He teaches what's right and wrong, and we're free to accept what we accept," Zhang said.

"We call him teacher because he never commands anyone. People pay too much attention to him. We pay more attention to the teachings."

Zhang said he got interested in Falun Gong by discovering its precepts on the Internet. He said Li Hongzhi's teachings can be read at the Web site

Another Web site,, lists Falun Gong as a "spiritual path" rather than a world religion and attempts to give an even-handed account of its recent history. The Web site said the question "Is it a cult?" is "unanswerable" because the definitions of cult are so varied. To some, any nontraditional religion is a cult. To others, any non-Christian group is a cult.

Zhang said Falun Gong is no cult.

"A cult violates the law or restricts the personal freedom of its members," he said. "Falun Gong does not do that."

Ray Waddle covers religion for The Tennessean. He can be reached at or