Shoko Asahara was born as Chizuo Matsumoto (松本智津夫 Matsumoto Chizuo)
to a large and poor family of a tatami mat maker in Japan’s remote
Kumamoto Prefecture. Afflicted at birth with infantile glaucoma, he
was blind in his left eye and only partially sighted in his right.
Asahara was enrolled in a school for the blind as a child. Asahara
graduated in 1977 and turned to the study of acupuncture and Chinese
medicine. He married in 1978. During this period he worked as a
accupuncturist and sold herbal medicines.
religious quest reportedly started in these early times, when he was
intensely working to support his family and dedicated his free time
to study of various religious concepts, starting from Chinese
astrology and Taoism. Later Shoko Asahara practiced the Indian
esoteric Yoga and Buddhism.
Very little is known about this period of his life.
Relentless religious search
Shoko Asahara’s attitude towards religion was not typical for
Japanese. While religion does not play a significant role in the
lives of ordinary Japanese except in days of religious ceremonies
such as funerals and weddings, Mr. Asahara’s goal was to ‘achieve
the ultimate enlightenment’, so frequently mentioned in ancient
religious scriptures, from the very beginning. He studied seriously
and tried various schools, meditations and approaches to find the
way that is really effective. Mr Asahara’s tenacity is, perhaps,
most clearly illustrated by his pursuit of Agonshu.
In the early 1980s, Shoko Asahara joined Agonshu, a Buddhist
religious group. The most serious of its religious practices was the
practice of 1000 consecutive days of offerings. Those who offered
money daily throughout this period were promised enlightenment.
Despite the financial hardships, he completed the course. The
enlightenment never came. He later recalled the story on a number of
occasions to his disciples to illustrate the importance of faith:
despite serious doubts regarding the effectiveness of practice and
the religious organization itself, he continued to the very last
Several years passed and Asahara’s efforts started to bring results.
He continued to live in a small one-room apartment in Tokyo’s
Shibuya district with his wife and two daughters. It was during that
period that he negotiated the support of his first, most loyal,
He started teaching them yoga. Financial hardship continued to
constrain his efforts, as Shoko Asahara refused to accept any
payment for his coaching, as this was contradictory with regard to
religious principles - that only those who have achieved
enlightenment can accept material offerings.
People who knew Asahara during this period characterize his as an
uniquely understanding, kind and compassionate person. One of them
remembers that during one of her visits the foodstock of Mr
Asahara’s family was completely used up and all that was left was
some carrots. To motivate the hungry disciples that had not had
their dinners to stay and train a little longer, he cooked a carrot
salad. The fresh carrots went to disciples, while the rotten ones
that were not fit for the dish he ate himself, smiling. Having heard
about the unusual yoga teacher, friends of his disciples also
started attending the classes.
Birth of Aum Shinrikyo
In 1987 Asahara returned from India and explained to his disciples
that he attained his ultimate goal: the enlightenment. The immediate
disciples offered money that he was now able to accept and thus
financially helped to organize an intensive yoga seminar that
attracted many people interested in spiritual development and lasted
several days. Mr Asahara himself coached the participants. The group
started to grow exponentially. There was no monastic order as such
at the time.
That year Shoko Asahara officially changed his name and applied for
registration of the group Aum Shinrikyo. The authorities were
initially reluctant to grant the status of a religious organization
and dragged out the registration process . The group was granted
legal recognition after an appeal, in 1989. The monastic order was
established and many of the lay followers decided to join.
Aum Shinrikyo: the Doctrine
The doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo is based on original Buddhist sutras
(scriptures), known as the Pali Canon. Besides the Pali Canon, Aum
Shinrikyo uses other texts, such as Tibetan sutras, Yoga-Sutra by
Patanjali and Taoist scriptures. The sutras are studied together
with comments, written by Shoko Asahara himself. The learning system
(kyogaku system) has several stages, similar to university
education: only those who complete a preliminary stage can move on
and advance to further steps if they successfully pass the
examination. The collection of publications that are being studied
comprises several bookshelves.
Shoko Asahara has written many religious books himself. The most
known are: Beyond the Life and Death, Mahayana Sutra and Initiation.
Shoko Asahara’s teachings stress the importance of ascetic practice,
similar to those of a Kargyudpa, a Tibetan Buddhist school. Modern
technology such as computers and CD players are used to complement
the ancient meditations. To justify the achievement of a certain
stage of religious practice, practitioners must demonstrate signs
such as cessation of oxygen consumption, reduction of heart activity
and changes in the electromagnetic activity of the brain. The
intensive practice (retreat) rooms are equipped with corresponding
Tokyo subway gas incident, accusations and trial
Main article: Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway
On March 20, 1995, Aum attacked the Tokyo Subway
System with the nerve gas Sarin. Twelve commuters died, and
thousands more suffered from after-effects. After finding sufficient
evidence, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of complicity in the
attack, as well as in a number smaller-scale incidents. Tens of
disciples were arrested, Aum’s facilities were raided and soon the
court issued an order for Shoko Asahara’s arrest. He was discovered
in a very small completely isolated room of the building belonging
to Aum, meditating.
Shoko Asahara faced 27 murder counts in 13 separate indictments. The
prosecution argued that Asahara "gave orders to attack the Tokyo
Subway", in order to "overthrow the government and install himself
the position of king of Japan" (several years later prosecution
introduced another theory, namely that attacks were ordered "to
divert police attention" [from Aum]). The prosecution also accused
him of masterminding the Matsumoto incident and the Sakamoto family
murder. According to the position of Mr Asahara's defence team, a
group of senior followers initiated the atrocities, secretly from
Some of the disciples testified against Asahara, and he was found
guilty on 13 charges out of 17 (three were dropped) and sentenced to
death by hanging on February 27, 2004.
The trial has been referred to as the "Trial of the century" by the
Japanese media. Yoshihiro Yasuda, the most experienced attorney in
Shoko Asahara’s defence team, was arrested and was unable to
participate in his legal defence team, though he was subsequently
acquitted, prior to the end of the trial. Human Rights Watch
criticized Yasuda's isolation. Shoko Asahara was defended solely by
Shortly after the beginning of the trial, Shoko Asahara cooperated
with his defence counsel and provided explanations regarding the
doctrine, aims of the organization and other matters. Later he
resigned from the post of the representative of Aum Shinrikyo, in
order to defend the group from forceful dissolution. Since then,
Shoko Asahara ceased to speak even with his family members and
supposedly spends his days in meditation.
The legal team appealed the ruling; as a result, the trial went to
the Supreme Court.
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
---- Life and Death, (Shizuoka: Aum, 1993).
Focuses on the process of Kundalini-Yoga, one of the stages in Aum's
Categories: Aum Shinrikyo | Buddhism | Japanese religious leaders | Charismatic religious leaders Cult leaders