Shōkō Asahara (麻原 彰晃 Asahara Shōkō), March 2, 1955 is the founder of the Japanese Buddhist religious group Aleph (formerly called Aum Shinrikyo).
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. Partially blind since birth, he 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.
His 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 day.
Several years passed and Mr 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, disciples.
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 Shoko 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 haven’t had their dinners to stay and train a little longer, he cooked a carrot salad. The fresh carrots went to disciples, but 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 to attend.
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 the registration process up. 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 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 being studied together with comments to them, 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 of 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 is being 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 sensors.
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 is currently imprisoned and faces 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 Asahara.
As some of the disciples testified against Asahara, he was found guilty on 13 charges out of 17 (three were dropped) and sentenced to death 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. Currently, Shoko Asahara is defended solely by court-appointed lawyers.
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 is expected to move to the Supreme Court.
Last updated: 02-11-2005 00:59:49