Aum Shinrikyo, also known as Aleph, is a Japanese New Religious Movement which gained international notoriety in 1995, when it carried out a lethal sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
Founded by Shoko Asahara, Aum emerged in Japan in the mid-1980s and attracted growing numbers of young adherents from leading Japanese universities with its blend of Buddhist and Hindu teachings, yoga, the promise of personal enlightenment, and a collective mission of saving humankind from destruction.
In the 1990s, after being branded a "cult" and unsuccessfully running several candidates for political office, the group began to turn increasingly hostile toward the outside world. Its leaders procured military weapons in Russia and engaged in assassinations of opponents. As the result of the 1995 sarin attack and additional attempts to release deadly gas into the Tokyo subway system, many Aum members were arrested and convicted for various criminal acts. Asahara was sentenced to death.
In the aftermath of the sarin attacks, most members left Aum Shinrikyo, which was now considered a terrorist organization. Others, still believing in its earlier teachings, stayed and worked to change its image, apologizing for its earlier behavior, changing its name to Aleph, and establishing a fund to compensate its victims.
In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was reported to have 9,000 members in Japan and as many as 40,000 worldwide. As of 2004, Aleph membership was estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 persons. In 2006, many of its remaining members, believing Aleph had not sufficiently distanced itself from Asahara and the gas attacks, left the group and formed a new organization, called Hikari no Wa, or Ring of Light.
Asahara, whose legal name was Matsumoto Chizuo, was born on March 2, 1955, with severe glaucoma. He was almost completely blind at birth, having only slight vision in one eye. In his early years he attended a school for the blind, and lived in a boarding school for almost 14 years. After graduating in 1977, he moved to Tokyo. Despite intense efforts, Asahara failed to pass the entrance exam at Tokyo University. He then studied acupuncture and also developed an intense interest in religion.
Asahara's Aum movement got its start around 1984, when he initiated a yoga and meditation class known as Aum-no-kai ("Aum club"), which steadily grew in the following years. It gained the official status as a religious organization in 1989. The group attracted such a considerable number of young graduates from Japan's elite universities that it was dubbed a "religion for the elite." The movement's core beliefs represented a combination of Buddhist teachings derived from yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Hindu beliefs and practices. It adopted the Hindu god Shiva, the god of destruction, as its primary deity.
Asahara asserted that he had been given the divine mission of establishing the utopian Buddhist kingdom of Shambhala, and he proposed in 1988, to build communal “Lotus Villages” across Japan. Asahara borrowed many practices from yoga, and he developed a sophisticated sequence of training and spiritual testing, the goal of which was for individuals to rid themselves completely of bad karma. However, unlike traditional Buddhism, the group also aimed to save the world. From its beginning, it invoked millennialist themes, believing that if enough followers gathered together, their positive spiritual energy could overcome the negative forces in the world and avoid the Armageddon that was to come at the end of the twentieth century.
However, Asahara eventually came to believe that harnessing the spiritual energy of a large number of followers was not enough to save the world. He spoke about the need for mass, indiscriminate death as the only way save humanity.
Aum's teachings are a combination of Buddhist scriptures, Hindu yogic sutras, and Taoist writings. The name "Aum Shinrikyo" (Japanese: オウム真理教—Ōmu Shinrikyō) derives from the mystical Hindu syllable Aum, followed by Shinrikyo, roughly meaning "religion of truth."
The primary deity revered by Aum followers was Shiva, traditionally identified as the Hindu deity symbolizing the power of destruction. However, some believe that Aum's version of the deity derives from Tibetan Vajrayana tradition and has little connection to the Hindu Shiva. There is also controversy as to what role Christianity plays in its doctrine. Ashahara's vision of an impending apocalyptic event, for example, seems to derive from the Christian idea of the Battle of Armageddon.
Asahara himself referred to Aum's doctrine as "truth," arguing that while various religions lead to the same goal by different routes, the goal remains the same. However, a religion for modern Japanese will be different from a religion for ancient Indians or Medieval Europeans. The more custom-tailored to the audience the religion is, the more effective it becomes. Asahara also taught that once a disciple chooses whom to learn from, he should maintain focus with that person so as to avoid any confusion that could arise from contradictions between different routes to the ultimate goal, the state of Enlightenment.
According to Aum teachings, the ultimate and final realization of life is "the state where everything is achieved and there is nothing else worth achieving." This involves a multitude of small enlightenments, each elevating the consciousness of a follower to a higher level, making him or her a more intelligent and better-developed person by coming closer to his or her "true self" (or atman). Asahara believed that the Buddhist path was the most effective way to achieve this goal. He selected various traditional Buddhist sermons as the foundation for the Aum doctrine. He also added various elements from Chinese gymnastics and yogic asanas in order to maintain a proper meditative attitude and posture.
In Asahara's view, Aum's doctrine encompassed all three major Buddhist schools: Theravada (aimed at personal enlightenment), Mahayana (the "great vehicle," aimed at helping others), and tantric Vajrayana (the "diamond vehicle," which involves secret initiations, mantras, and advanced esoteric meditations). In his book, Initiation, Asahara compares the stages of enlightenment, according to the famous Yoga Sutra with the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. He asserted that these two traditions discuss the same experiences but in different words.
Asahara also authored a number of other books. The best known are Beyond Life and Death and Mahayana-Sutra. These books explain the process of attaining various stages of enlightenment provided in ancient scriptures, and compares it with the experiences of Asahara and his followers. Asahara also published commentaries on ancient scriptures.
Aum inherited the Indian esoteric yoga tradition of Shaktipat, also mentioned in Mahayana Buddhist texts. The Shaktipat, which is believed to allow a direct transmission of spiritual energy from a teacher to a disciple, was practiced by Asahara and several of his top disciples, including Fumihiro Joyu, who took over the leadership of the group in 1999.
Asahara stressed isolation from the "outside world" because the outside world was impure and would contaminate his followers. He convinced his followers that isolation from the outside world was for their own benefit. He also allegedly distributed drugs to some members in order to keep them docile.
Aum applied specific methodologies and arranged doctrinal studies in accordance with a specialized learning system. A new stage would be reached only after a follower successfully passed an examination. Meditation practice was combined with theoretical studies. Asahara maintained that such studies served no purpose if "practical experience" was not achieved. He advised his followers not to attempt to explain anything if it was not actually experienced.
Followers were divided into two groups: Lay practitioners who lived with their families and another group that led an ascetic lifestyle, usually living in groups.
For a follower to be considered an attainer, specific conditions had to be met before he became recognized by senior members as attaining a higher spiritual state. For instance, the "Kundalini Yoga" stage required a demonstration of being able to show a reduced consumption of oxygen, changes in electromagnetic brain activity, and reduction of heart rate (measured by corresponding equipment). A follower who demonstrated such changes was considered to have entered what was called the samadhi state, and received permission to teach others.
Asahara traveled abroad on multiple occasions and met with various notable yogis and Buddhist religious teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, Kalu Rinpoche (a patriarch of the Tibetan Kagyupa school), and Khamtrul Jamyang Dondrup Rinpoche (former General Secretary of the Council for Cultural and Religious Affairs in Tibetan Government in Exile). Aum's activities aimed at the popularization of Buddhist texts and were recognized by the governments of Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Intense advertising and recruitment activities included claims of being able to cure physical illnesses with yoga techniques, realizing life goals by improving intelligence and positive thinking, and helping participants to concentrate on spiritual advancement. These efforts resulted in Aum becoming one of the fastest-growing religious groups in Japan's history, also resulting in its being labeled a "cult."
The group started attracting controversy in the late 1980s, when its recruiting efforts led to accusations of deception, holding members against their will, and forcing members to donate large sums of money. A murder of a group member who tried to leave is alleged to have taken place in February 1989.
In October 1989, the Aum's negotiations with Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an anti-cult lawyer threatening a lawsuit against them which could potentially bankrupt the group, failed. The following month Sakamoto, his wife, and their child went missing from their home in Yokohama. The police were unable to solve the case at the time, but the family was later found murdered, and the killings were officially linked to Aum members in 1995.
In 1990, Asahara and twenty-four other members stood unsuccessfully for the General Elections for the House of Representatives under the banner of Shinri-tō (Supreme Truth Party). From 1992, Aum began showing an increasingly hostile attitude toward the larger society. One of Aum's senior members, Kiyohide Hayakawa, published a treatise called, Principles of a Citizen's Utopia, which has been described as a "declaration of war" against Japan's constitution and civil institutions.
At the same time, Hayakawa started to make frequent visits to Russia to acquire military hardware, including AK-47's, a MIL Mi-17 military helicopter, and reportedly even components for a nuclear bomb. Aum leaders also considered the assassinations of several individuals who were critical of Aum, such as the leader of a Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai, and the controversial cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi.
At the end of 1993, Aum started to secretly manufacture the nerve agents sarin and VX nerve gas. It also attempted to manufacture automatic rifles and allegedly tested the sarin on sheep at a remote ranch in western Australia, killing 29 sheep. Both sarin and VX were then used in several assassinations and attempted assassinations between 1994-1995.
On the night of June 27, 1994, Aum carried out the world's first use of chemical weapons in a terrorist attack against civilians, in Japan, when it released sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto. This incident resulted in the deaths of several people and the injury of 200 others. In February 1995, several Aum members kidnapped Kiyoshi Kariya, a 69-year old brother of a member who had left the group. Kariya was taken to one of the Aum compounds at Kamikuishiki, near Mount Fuji, where he was killed with a drug overdose.
Then, on the morning of March 20, 1995, Aum members released sarin in an attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters, seriously harming 54, and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim as many as 5,000 people were injured but not all hospitalized.
On March 22, in a massive raid on Aum facilities involving 2,500 officers, the police seized two tons of chloroform and ethane, and fifteen bottles of ethylene, the basic materials needed to produce 5.6 tons of the sarin gas, a quantity sufficient to kill 10 million people. The police also seized equipment used to manufacture the sarin, as well as sizable quantities of raw materials for producing dynamite. In Asahara's safe they found ten kilograms of gold ingots and 700 million yen in cash, the equivalent to 7 million dollars. The police also found approximately 50 emaciated individuals who had been locked up in cells, and who were suffering from malnutrition and possibly due to the use of drugs.
At the group's nearby heliport, firemen discovered an unauthorized storage facility containing more than 2,000 liters of fuel, along with a Soviet-manufactured Mi-17 helicopter. There were also stockpiles of chemicals that could be used for producing enough sarin to kill and additional 4 million people. Police also found laboratories to manufacture drugs such as LSD, methamphetamines, and a crude form of truth serum. During the raids, Aum issued statements claiming that the chemicals were for fertilizers. Over the next 6 weeks, over 150 group members were arrested for a variety of offenses.
During this time, Asahara was on the run from the authorities. He issued several statements. One claimed that the Tokyo attacks were a ploy by the U.S. military to implicate the group. Another predicted an impending disaster that "would make the Kobe earthquake seem as minor as a fly landing on one's cheek." The police took these threats seriously and declared a state of emergency. Hospitals made sure they had enough stockpiles of antidotes to the sarin gas. Chemical warfare specialists in the military were put on standby alert status.
On March 30, Takaji Kunimatsu, chief of the National Police Agency, was shot four times near his house in Tokyo, seriously wounding him. Many suspect Aum involvement in the shooting, but no one was ever prosecuted.
On the evening of May 5, a burning paper bag was discovered at one of the busiest subway stations in Tokyo. It turned out to be a hydrogen cyanide device which could have released enough gas to kill as many as 20,000 commuters. Additional cyanide devices were found in other subway stations.
Shoko Asahara was finally found hiding within a wall in a building in Aum's Kamikuishiki complex and was arrested. On that same day, the group mailed a parcel bomb to the office of the governor of Tokyo, Yukio Aoshima, blowing the fingers off his secretary's hand.
Asahara was initially charged with 23 counts of murder as well as 16 other offenses. The court found Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack on the subway system and sentenced him to death. The indictment was appealed unsuccessfully. A number of senior members of the group also received death sentences. On September 15, 2006, Shoko Asahara lost his final appeal.
On October 10, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo was stripped of its official status as a "religious legal entity" and was declared bankrupt in early 1996. However, the group continued to operate under the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, funded by a successful computer business and donations, under strict surveillance by the police. Attempts to ban the group altogether under the 1952 Subversive Activities Prevention Law were rejected by the Public Security Examination Commission in January 1997.
After Asahara's arrest and trial, the group underwent a number of transformations. Fumihiro Joyu, who had headed Aum's Russian branches during the 1995 gas attacks, was asked to return to Japan when many of Aum's senior members were arrested. However, he was eventually arrested and convicted for inciting others to make false statements, serving three years in prison. Joyu reorganized the group under the name Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew Alphabet. Aleph accepted responsibility for the actions of several former senior members of Aum for the Tokyo Subway gas attack and other incidents. Joyu formally apologized to the victims and established a special compensation fund. Several controversial doctrines and texts were excised from the group's scriptures and displaying pictures of Shoko Asahara was officially discouraged.
Joyu hoped to to re-integrate Aleph into Japanese society. However, a small but vocal group of members opposed these changes. In 2006, Joyu and his supporters decided to split from Aleph and form their own group, believing Aleph had not sufficiently distanced itself from its past and from Asahara. In March of 2007 Joyu made a formal announcement that he was forming a new group called Hikari no Wa, or Ring of Light, which was committed to uniting religion and science.
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