Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph) is a new religious movement. The group was founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. The group gained international notoriety in 1995 when it carried out the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The name “Aum Shinrikyo” (オウム真理教 Ōmu Shinrikyō) derives from the Sanskrit syllable Aum, which represents the universe, followed by Shinrikyo wrote in kanji, roughly meaning “religion of Truth”. In English, “Aum Shinrikyo” is usually translated as “Supreme Truth”. In January 2000, the organisation changed its name to Aleph about the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Phoenician alphabets. It changed its logo as well.
In 1995, the group claimed they had over 9,000 members in Japan, and as many as 40,000 worldwide. As of 2009, Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph membership is estimated about 1,650 people (650 priests, 1,000 laities) by the Japanese government.
Aleph’s doctrine is based on the ancient Buddhist scriptures called the 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 many 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 symbolises 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 classifyAleph 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 primary 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 some books, of which the best known are Beyond Life and Death, Mahayana-Sutra, and Initiation (translated into English). The papers 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 by a special kogaku (learning) system, in which each new stage is reached 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 recognise them as such. For instance, Kundalini Yoga stage in their system requires a reduction in oxygen consumption (which is measured by individual sensors), changes in electromagnetic brain activity and reduction of heart rhythm (also measured). When the follower demonstrates such changes, it is recognised that s/he did, in fact, enter the samadhi state and thus deserves the title and permission to teach others. Each stage has its requirements. Advancements in the 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 religious 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 status. Aum also had a number of ideas from the modern world, such as the belief the practicality of death-ray type weapons written about by Nikola Tesla (see Senate Hearing reference), and influenced 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 civilisation” (Lifton, p258). Also, the 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 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 profoundly 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 travelled abroad on some 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 popularisation 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
In 1995, following a Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in which 12 commuters died, and thousands were injured, Shoko Asahara and some 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, some 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, plans explicitly 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 defence maintains that Asahara was not aware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health condition. He left the post of organisation’s leader and maintains silence, refusing to speak even to lawyers and family members. Many believe the trials failed to establish the truth behind the events.
The group continues to operate in Japan. It has announced a change in its doctrine: a misreading of religious texts related to Vajrayana Buddhist doctrines that authorities claimed was “justifying murder” were removed. The group apologised to the victims of the sarin gas attack and established a special compensations fund.
Jōyū Fumihiro (上祐史浩), a charismatic senior leader of the group under Asahara, was the official head of the organisation until 2007, when he split up and formed a group called “The Circle of Rainbow Light” (ひかりの輪 Hikari no Wa), see below.
‘Aum Surveillance Law': Under Pressure
In January 2000, the group was placed under surveillance for three years under an anti-Aum law, in which the group is required to submit a list of members and details of assets to the authorities. In January 2003, Japan’s Public Security Investigation Agency received permission to extend the surveillance for another three years, as they have found evidence which suggests that the group still reveres Asahara. According to the Religious News Blog report issued in April 2004, the authorities still consider the group “a threat to society”.
In January 2006, the Public Security Investigation Agency was able to extend the surveillance for another three years. Despite the doctrinal changes and banning of Vajrayana texts, the PSIA advocates an increase of monitoring and increases in funding of the agency itself; periodically, the group airs concerns that texts are still in place and that danger remains while Asahara remains leader. Aleph leaders carefully insert passages into almost everything they say or write to prevent misinterpretation, including karaoke songs.
On 15 September 2006, Shoko Asahara lost his final appeal against the death penalty imposed on him after his trial for the sarin attacks. The following day Japanese police raided the offices of Aleph to “prevent any illegal activities by cult members in response to the confirmation of Asahara’s death sentence”, according to a police spokesperson.
So far, 11 cult members have been sentenced to death, although none of the sentences has been carried out upon any of the members, nor have the time and date for the executions to take effect been publicly established.
Aum Shinrikyo had several overseas branches: a Sri Lanka branch, small branches in New York City, United States and Bonn, Germany. The group also had several centres in Moscow, Russia.
On 8 March 2007, former Aum Shinrikyo spokesman and head of Aum’s Moscow operation, Jōyū Fumihiro, formally announced a long-expected split. Jōyū’s group called Hikari no Wa (“The Circle of Rainbow Light”) is committed to uniting science and religion, thus creating the new ‘science of the human mind’ aimed to move the group away from its violent history and toward its spiritual roots.
In April 2011, the Public Security Intelligence Agency stated that Aum currently had about 1,500 members, while the group reported just over 1,000 members in June 2011.
Aum Shinrikyo has been formally designated a terrorist organisation by several entities, including Canada, the European Union, and the United States.
Asahara in 1995 (Photo: Kyodo)
On 6 July 2018, Shoko Asahara and six other condemned Aum members (Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, Masami Tsuchiya, 53, Seiichi Endo, 58, and Tomomitsu Niimi, 54) were executed by hanging at the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika-ku.
- Aleph: official website
- ReligionNewsBlog: articles and news on Aum Shinrikyo
- The “De-nationalization” of AUM Followers: Its Hidden Political Purpose: essay by Prof. Masaaki Fukuda of Hitotsubashi University
- A: Midnight Eye review of Tatsuya Mori’s documentary of the Aum trials
- Lifton, Robert Jay; Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Macmillan (2000)
- Guru's life shrouded in mystery as gallows loom | The Japan Times
- Aum Shinrikyo guru Shoko Asahara and six other cult members hanged for mass murders: officials | The Japan Times