Aum Shinrikyo (also spelled Om Shin Rikyo) was a religious group which mixed Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and was based in Japan. It gained international notoriety in 1995, when a group of followers carried out a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subways. Since 2000, it has been called Aleph.
The name "Aum Shinrikyo" (Japanese: オウム真理教 Oumu Shinrikyō) derives from the Hindu syllable Aum (which represents the universe), followed by the three kanji characters shin ("truth," "reality," "Buddhist sect"), ri ("reason," "justice," "truth"), and kyō ("teaching," "faith," "doctrine"). In 2000, the organization changed its name to Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), changing their logo as well.
In 1995 the group was reported as having 9,000 members in Japan and as many as 40,000 worldwide. As of 2004, Aleph membership is estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 persons.
Aleph's doctrine is based on the ancient Buddhist scriptures called Pali Canon. The collection comprises about 70 volumes, fully translated from Pali language into modern Japanese by the group's translation team. Along with the Pali Canon, Aleph uses other religious texts, including a number of Tibetan Buddhist sutras, some Hindu yogic sutras and Taoist scriptures.
Some scholars of new religious movements view the Aleph's doctrine as a mixture of various traditions, arguing that a primary deity revered by Aleph followers is Shiva (a deity that symbolizes powers of destruction in Hindu tradition). In fact, the Aleph's Lord Shiva (also known as Samantabhadra, Kuntu-Zangpo, or Adi-Buddha) derives from Tibetan Vajrayana tradition and has no connection to the Hindu Shiva. There is controversy as to what role Christianity plays in Aleph's doctrine, since it was mentioned in some of Shoko Asahara's books. Many refuse to classify Aleph as Buddhist because scriptures from other traditions are used in conjunction with Buddhist sutras. Anti-cult activists and some scholars classify Aleph as a cult, mainly because of the violent history of its predecessor.
In the view of Shoko Asahara, the group's founder, the doctrine encompasses 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, secret mantras, and advanced esoteric meditations). In his book Initiation he compares the stages of enlightenment according to the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali with Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, stating these two traditions speak about the same experiences in different words.
Shoko Asahara has written a number of books, of which the best known are Beyond Life and Death, Mahayana-Sutra, and Initiation (translated into English). The books describe a process of attaining various stages of enlightenment and compare the descriptions provided in the ancient sutras with Asahara's own experiences. He also wrote commentaries to ancient sutras.
Aleph arranges studies in accordance with a special kogaku (learning) system, in which each new stage is reached only after examinations are passed successfully, as in university education. Meditation practices complement theoretical study.
Followers are divided into two groups: lay practitioners and samana (monks and nuns), which comprise a sangha (monastic order). Laymen observe five basic Buddhist precepts and live with their families, the latter lead ascetic lifestyles, usually in groups.
According to Aleph's classification, a follower can attain the following stages by way of his/her religious practice: Raja Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Mahamudra (sometimes called Jnana Yoga), Mahayana Yoga, Astral Yoga, Causal Yoga and the ultimate stage, the Ultimate Realization. The overwhelming majority of such attainers are monks, though there are some lay Raja Yoga and Kundalini Yoga attainers. For a follower to be considered an attainer, specific conditions must be met before senior sangha members recognize them as such. For instance, Kundalini Yoga stage in their system requires reduction in oxygen consumption (which is measured by special sensors), changes in electromagnetic brain activity and reduction of heart rhythm (also measured). When the follower demonstrates such changes, it is recognized that s/he did in fact enter the samadhi state and thus deserves the title and permission to teach others. Each stage has its own requirements. Advancements in theoretical study do not give followers the right to teach others. Only meditation counts.
Other beliefs include the yogic practice of shaktipat, which is the direct transmission of spiritual energy, or mingling of spiritual bodies on the subtle plane, between guru and student. This is a belief of guru-based yoga systems, where the guru has divine or semi-divine, spiritually advanced, status. Aum also had a number of beliefs from the modern world that are not part of the official doctrine but were a common part of their belief structure. These include the belief the practicality of death-ray type weapons written about by Nikola Tesla (see Senate Hearing reference), and influence by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels as a model for Aum, "depicting as it does an elite group of spiritually evolved scientists forced to go underground during an age of barbarism so as to prepare themselves for the moment ... when they will emerge to rebuild civilization" (Lifton, p258). Also, experience of the science fiction movies that grew out of Japan's cultural response to the Hiroshima - Nagasaki bombings was a commonality within the group.
The movement received an official status of a religion from the Japanese government in 1987. It had been founded by Shoko Asahara in his one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo's Shibuya district in 1984. In the following years the group grew quickly and thus became Japan's fastest-growing religious group. Despite the highly negative public image that followed the group since the time it decided to participate in municipal elections, the group attracted a considerable number of young intellectuals and was dubbed a "religion for the elite" by the press due to the abundance of graduates from Japan's top universities. Asahara engaged in lecture tours, during which he explained his views on religion and answered questions.
Shoko Asahara traveled abroad on a number of occasions and met various well-known yogic and Buddhist religious teachers, such as the 14th Dalai Lama and Kalu Rimpoche, a patriarch of the Tibetan Kagyupa school. Aleph's activities aimed at the popularization of Buddhist texts were also noted by the governments of Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Tibetan government-in-exile located in Dharamsala, India.
Sarin gas attacks and aftermaths
Main article: Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway
In 1995, following a Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in which 12 commuters died and thousands were injured, Shoko Asahara and a number of senior Aum Shinrikyo officials were arrested and accused of planning the attack. The trial, called "the trial of the century" by the Japanese press, ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to death. The indictment is currently in the process of appeal at the High Court. Some senior members accused of participation, such as Masami Tsuchiya, also received death sentences.
After the 1995 sarin gas incidents and following police searches and arrests, a number of Aum followers were accused in other crimes. The following people are believed to be murdered: two Aum Shinrikyo members, including Shuji Taguchi (reportedly for trying to leave the group), lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family members (including his wife, Satoko and their one-year-old child, Tatsuhiko). For more information, see Sakamoto family murder.
The reasons why a group of senior Aum members decided to commit atrocities and involvement of Asahara remain unclear to this very day. Prosecutors charged that Asahara had obtained inside information on police activities, specifically plans to conduct coordinated searches of all the Aum facilities in Japan. The subway attack, by this theory, was an attempt to distract the police investigation (previously police suggested the attack was an attempt by Shoko Asahara to become a king of Japan). The defense maintains that Asahara was not aware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health condition. He left the post of organization's leader and maintains silence, refusing to speak even to lawyers and family members. Many believe the trials failed to establish truth behind the events.
The group still continues to operate in Japan. It has announced a change in its doctrine: misreading of religious texts related to Vajrayana Buddhist doctrines that authorities claimed were "justifying murder" were removed. The group apologized to the victims of the sarin gas attack and established a special compensations fund.
Fumihiro Joyu, a charismatic senior leader of the group under Asahara, is currently the official head of the organization (since 1999). According to the media reports quoting the Public Security Investigatine Agency, at present (as of December 2005) the group is split over a dispute over its future: a large number of members, incuding senior members would like to keep the organization as close to pre-1995 situation as realistically possible. Joyu and the supporting fraction advocate a milder course aimed at re-integration to society.
'Aum Surveillance Law': Under Pressure
In January 2000, the group was placed under surveillance for a period of three years. (Highlights of the bill)
In January 2003, Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency received permission to extend the surveillance for another three years. According to a report issued in April 2004, the government still considers Aum "a threat to society."
"Because of concerns it could infringe upon the freedom of religion and other rights, the law is subject to review every five years, including its possible abrogation." Source In November, 2004, Japan's Justice Ministry announced that it does "not plan to abolish or revise the law when it comes up for its first review in December."
- Shoko Asahara, Supreme Initiation: An Empirical Spiritual Science for the Supreme Truth, 1988, AUM USA Inc, ISBN 0-945638-00-0. Highlights the main stages of Yogic and Buddhist practice, comparing Yoga-sutra system by Patanjali and the Eightfold Noble Path from Buddhist tradition.
- ---- Life and Death, (Shizuoka: Aum, 1993). Focuses on the process of Kundalini-Yoga, one of the stages in Aum's practice.
- ---- Disaster Approaches the Land of the Rising Sun: Shoko Asahara's Apocalyptic Prodictions, (Shizuoka: Aum, 1995). A controversial book, later removed by Aum leadership, speaks about possible destruction of Japan.
- Ikuo Hayashi, Aum to Watakushi (Aum and I), Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 1998. Book about personal experiences by former Aum member.
- Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Henry Holt, ISBN 0-8050-6511-3, LoC BP605.088.L54 1999
- Haruki Murakami, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Vintage, ISBN 0-37572580-6, LoC BP605.O88.M8613 2001 Interviews with victims.
- Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Case Study on the Aum Shinrikyo, [USA] Senate Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, October 31, 1995. online
- David E. Kaplan, and Andrew Marshall, The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia, 1996, Random House, ISBN 0-517-70543-5. An account of the cult from its beginnings to the aftermaths of the tokyo subway attack, including details of facilities, weapons and other information regarding aum's followers, activities and property.
- Ian Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, 2000, Curzon Press