Aum Shinrikyo (also spelled Om Shin Rikyo) was a Buddhist religious group based in Japan. It gained international notoriety in 1995, when its founder, Shōkō Asahara, and a group of followers were accused of carrying out a poison gas attack on a Tokyo subway. Since 2000, it has been called Aleph.
The name "Aum Shinrikyo" (Japanese: オウム真理教) 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 kyo ("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 reported to have 9,000 members in Japan and as many as to 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 relations to Hindu Shiva. There is controversy at to which 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 for the fact that scriptures from other traditions are being used complimentary to 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 the 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 comments to ancient sutras.
Aleph arranges studies in accordance with a special kogaku (learning) system, in which every next stage is approached only after examinations are passed successfully, similar to university education. Practice of meditations compliment the 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 buddist 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 Jnyana 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 attainer, specific conditions must be met before senior sangha members recognize them as such. For instance, Kundalini Yoga stage 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 they 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 right to teach others, only meditation counts.
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 the death penalty. 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 attempt of 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: 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.
In January, 2000, the group was placed under surveillance for a period of three years. (Highlights of the bill) http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn19991117a1.htm-.html
In January, 2003, Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency received permission to extend the surveillance for another three years http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn20030119a8.htm . According to a report http://asia.news.yahoo.com/040416/ap/d81vn7p85.html 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 http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn20041113b2.htm.html In November, 2004, Japan's Justice Ministry announced http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn20041113b2.htm.html that it does "not plan to abolish or revise the law when it comes up for its first review in December."
It is also well established that Aum Shinrikyo attempted in the 1990s to mine uranium for use as a nuclear weapon. See Georgetown University paper http://www.georgetown.edu/sfs/programs/stia/students/vol.02/chiricom.htm
Aum Shinrikyo has had several overseas branches: a Sri Lanka branch, small branches in New York City, United States and Bonn, Germany. The group also had several centers in Moscow, Russia.
- Aleph http://English.aleph.to : the organization's official website, with an English section
- Fumihiro Joyu's website http://www.joyu.to : the private website of Aleph's current head. Japanese only.
- CESNUR's Aum/Aleph page http://www.cesnur.org/testi/Aum1.htm : a collection of Aum/Aleph-related newspaper articles, updated regularly by the Centre for Study of New Religions. In English.
- a Japan Times article http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?ff20020327a1.htm about two documentary films on Aleph. In English.
- Crime Library article on Aum Shinrikyo http://www.crimelibrary.com/terrorists_spies/terrorists/prophet/1.html?sect=22
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01