Aum Shinrikyō

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AUM SHINRIKYŌ , or "Aum Sect of Truth," is a new religious movement based on Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, including Hinduism and Daoism. The movement was founded by Asahara Shōkō, also known as Matsumoto Chizuo (b. 1955), who claims to have attained ultimate enlightenment. Although Aum Shinrikyō presents itself as a Buddhist sect, its main deity is Śiva. This is unusual even in the eclectic and syncretic Japanese religious tradition. Compared to other new religious movements in the main line, at its height Aum was a small group, with only one thousand shukke (full-time members who had renounced the world) and ten thousand zaike (lay members) in Japan, and more than twenty thousand members in Russia. As of early 2004, twelve Aum members (including Asahara) had received death sentences because of the group's criminal and terrorist activities perpetrated in the name of salvation. Aum Shinrikyō proved to the world how a new religious movement could be a real threat and danger to the contemporary society. In 2001, under the leadership of Jōyū Fumihiro (b. 1962), the group changed its name to Aleph. Reeling from the legal problems and poor public relations resulting from the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the sect was radically reformed.

Asahara Shōkō, who suffered from severe eye problems as a child, entered an elementary school and high school for the blind in Kyushu. He went to work in Tokyo after graduating from high school with special training to become a licensed masseur. Asahara then entered cram school in Tokyo to prepare for the university entrance examinations. After he failed, he got married and, with the help of his wife's parents, opened a pharmacy of Eastern medicine in Chiba prefecture.

Asahara's religious interests matured during this period. In the 1980s he was a member of Agonshū, a new religious movement based on the ideas of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, Kualinī Yoga, and the āgama, the ancient collections of the Buddha's own words and teachings. Agonshū stressed liberation from individual karma and the attainment of supernatural powers by awakening the chakras, the spiritual centers inside the body. Later, Asahara's teaching also emphasized the goal of attaining those powers by yogic practice.

Asahara opened a yoga school in Tokyo in 1983. In either 1984 or 1986 he named his circle Aum Shinsen no Kai (Aum circle of immortals); it is certain that he established the Aum Corporation in 1984. He frequently appeared in New Age magazines during this period, and he published books with such titles as The Secret Method to Develop Psychic Powers (1986) and Beyond Life and Death (1986). In 1986, Asahara claimed that he had attained "ultimate enlightenment" after meditating in the Himalayas. In 1987, Asahara renamed his group Aum Shinrikyō and transformed his yoga school into a religious body. At the same time he published a book titled Initiation (1987), in which he invited people to become members.

In 1989 the Tokyo metropolitan government recognized Aum Shinrikyō as a religious corporation, which gave it tax-exempt status and legal protection. By this time Aum was facing attacks from those who saw it as a dangerous group that recruited minors as monks and stole money from believers. In November 1989, with criticism mounting, Asahara secretly ordered his disciples to kill not only the anti-Aum lawyer of families whose children were Aum members, but also the lawyer's wife and baby boy.

Asahara had a political ambition to become elected to the Japanese diet, and in February 1990 Asahara and twenty-four of his followers stood for election in the general election. Their resounding political defeat was a humiliation for both Asahara and Aum Shinrikyō. Aum Shinrikyō then built facilities in rural Yamanashi and Kumamoto prefectures, and in both sites the group provoked strong opposition, causing Asahara's antipathy toward Japanese society to intensify.

Asahara began publishing books with such titles as Doomsday (1989) and The Truth of the Destruction of Humanity (1991) that announced a coming armageddon caused by the use of weapons of mass destruction. His apocalyptic eschatological vision intensified during these years, and his disciples worked to facilitate his prophecies. They secretly pursued research into biological weapons and constructed a laboratory in Aum's Yamanashi compound. In 1990 Aum tried to produce poison gas in the Kumamoto compound, and in 1993 Asahara secretly ordered his disciples to produce one thousand machine guns and conduct research on developing chemical weapons. At the same time, he complained that Aum was being persecuted by the Japanese government and American troops, and he claimed that they themselves had suffered from nerve gas attacks.

Sarin Gas Attacks

In June 1994 Aum members released sarin gas in Matsumoto, killing 7 and injuring 144. On March 20, 1995, Aum agents released sarin gas on several Tokyo subway trains, killing 12 people and injuring 3,796. Two days later several thousand police officers began systematic raids on Aum facilities. On May 16 Asahara was found hiding in one of the Aum facilities and was arrested. More than one hundred Aum members were arrested that year. The details of the criminal activities of this religious organization were revealed in the subsequent trials.

Asahara is accused of masterminding seventeen crimes in which at least twenty-six people were killed and more than five thousand were injured. The crimes that Asahara and his followers committed fall into the following categories: murder of its own members (thirty-three Aum members are missing); murder of its enemies; and indiscriminate mass murder using nerve gas. Aum members also produced and used illegal drugs like LSD, and they manufactured machine guns. On February 27, 2004, Asahara was convicted and received a death sentence from the Tokyo District Court. His lawyers, who claimed Asahara's innocence and blamed his disciples, appealed to the upper court just before their resignation. It will take a number of years before the Japanese Supreme Court passes the final sentence on him. Aleph announced its deep regret to the victims and vowed to compensate them on the occasion of Asahara's death sentence.

In October 1995 the Tokyo District Court ordered Aum Shinrikyō to disband as a religious corporation because of the danger it posed to the public. Members of the government argued whether or not it was proper to apply existing antisubversive activities laws to Aum Shinrikyō. In January 1997 they decided that this was not necessary because most of the executive members involved in the sarin incidents in Matsumoto and Tokyo had been arrested, eliminating any clear and present danger.

In 1999 there were major changes in Aum Shinrikyō. The organization finally admitted its criminal responsibility, asked for forgiveness, and promised to compensate victims and bereaved families. Two new so-called Aum laws were passed by the national diet. They restrict groups that have committed indiscriminate mass murder and allow the confiscation of the group's property to compensate victims.

At the end of 1999 Jōyū Fumihiro was released from prison. In January 2001, Aum Shinrikyō changed its name to Aleph. As the leader of Aleph, Jōyū began trying to reform the organization's structure and doctrine. The Japanese government decided to keep Aleph under surveillance for three years, but in 2003 the surveillance was extended for three more years. Although many intellectuals pointed out that Aleph was not capable of mass murder, there was almost no public objection to the extension of the surveillance over the organization.

Aum Practices and Worldview

In Japan, new religious movements have developed during four distinct periods. The first such development occurred in the waning days of the Tokugawa regime in the late nineteenth century; the second occurred in the Taisho period of the early 1900s; and the third was the period following Japan's defeat in World War II. Aum Shinrikyō and Agonshū were products of the fourth boom of new religious movements, which occurred in the 1970s. The religious movements of the first and the third periods stressed this-worldly merits and popular ethics in daily life. However, the movements that arose during the second and the fourth periods emphasized manipulation of the spirits and personal asceticism for self-cultivation. After the student revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people experienced a spiritual void and disorientation. New religious movement like Aum Shinrikyō gave some of them a purpose and meaning in life. The average age of Aum's members was around thirty, which was young compared with other new religious movements.

The worldview of Aum Shinrikyō and Aleph is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other traditions. According to Aum teachings, human history is devolutionary. People are degenerating from their true selves in mahānirvāna, and they are fallen and stuck in the mud of suffering. To be born in this world means that one has bad karma. Every living being transmigrates up and down through the six worlds of being.

Asahara espoused a kind of eschatology from the start. In 1987 he predicted that Japan would arm itself again in 1993 and that there would be a nuclear war between 1999 and 2003 unless Aum Shinrikyō built two branch offices in each country in the world. Then, in 1989, Asahara predicted that the United States president and the secretary general of the Soviet Union would start a war that would put an end to the world. He warned his disciples that more than one-fourth of humankind would die unless Aum Shinrikyō produced accomplished practitioners.

The ultimate purposes of Aum Shinrikyō were the worship of Śiva as the principal god and the saving of every living being from sasāra based on ancient yoga, original Buddhism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism under the guidance of people who understand and execute Śiva's will. There are three kinds of salvation: to free people from disease, to bring worldly happiness to people, and to lead people to satori and gedatsu, that is, "self-realization" and "enlightenment," as Aum translated these terms into English. The first two kinds of salvation are this-worldly benefits typical of new religious movement in Japan. The third is an otherworldly ideal that is consistent with traditional Buddhism.

Aum Shinrikyō promoted a plan to transform Japan into Shambhala, a society based on truth, in which people realize themselves according to the truth, understood as the great will of Asahara and Śiva. Later, Aum Shinrikyō tried to make the whole world into Shambhala. This means that Aum Shinrikyō aimed to put the world under its rule.

Aum's system of practice was also a mixture of Buddhism and Yoga philosophy. On the Buddhist side, there was the noble eightfold path, the six perfections of wisdom (prajñāpāramitās ), and other ideas and practices. On the Yoga side, there was raja, kualinī, jñāna, Mahāyāna, and astral and causal yoga. In addition to these practices based on self-power, there were also initiations that relied on other-power. Initiations like shaktīpat were methods to increase one's spiritual ability through the gurū 's charisma or some other source of spiritual power.

It was believed that Aum's superior members removed the bad karma of inferior members by violence or ill treatment. Such behavior was interpreted by Aum as an act of compassion, because it was a means of eliminating the bad karma of members. This idea was taken to extremes, however, with the poa (phowa ) in Aum Shinrikyō's sense. The Tibetan word phowa refers to the transference of the dead soul to a higher realm. However, Asahara claimed that a deliberate act of murder by a superior being was also a case of poa. To be identical with Asahara (meaning "the cloning of the gurū ") was also interpreted as liberation and salvation for Asahara's disciples because Asahara was considered the ultimate enlightened one and the embodiment of the true self.


Aum Shinrikyō is an ultimate example of a new religious movement that turns violent. Aum's violent acts have had an impact on religion and politics around the world, and they have led to legislation against dangerous groups in a number of countries, especially in Japan and France. For a number of secular people the Aum incident was a serious disappointment and caused disbelief toward religion in general. And it also raised people's awareness toward deviant religious movements in various countries, and Japanese people actually welcomed and supported the arrest of the founders of such groups as Life Space and Hō-no-hana Sanpōgyō in 2000. Because of its use of a chemical weapon (one of the weapons of mass destruction), Aum Shinrikyō also indicated that the activities of a new religious movement could be a matter of public safety. The sect created an apocalyptic connection between religion and violence (as well as terrorism) that foreshadowed the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

See Also

New Religious Movements, overview article, article on New Religious Movements in Japan.


Several books can be recommended: Ian Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyō (Richmond, U.K., 2000), one of the most reliable and critical reviews of the Aum affair; Robert J. Kisala and Mark R. Mullins, eds., Religion and Social Crisis in Japan: Understanding Japanese Society through the Aum Affair (Houndmills, UK, and New York, 2001), a good collection of papers and informative essays on reactions to the Aum affair; Susumu Shimazono, Gendai shūkyō no kanōsei (Possibility of contemporary religions; Tokyo, 1997), a critical study of the doctrine of salvational violence in Aum Shinrikyō; Shimada Hiromi, Oumu: Naze shūkyō wa terorizumu wo undanoka? (Aum: Why did a religion turn to terrorism? Tokyo, 2001), an indepth study of Aum and the author's personal reflections on the future of religious studies; and Robert Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyō, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism (New York, 1999), a psychologically informed reflection on the Aum affair, including interviews with former members, which are rare in English-language materials.

Manabu Watanabe (2005)