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Aum Shinrikyo (オウム真理教 Oumu Shinrikyō) was a cult/terrorist group in Japan that achieved official recognition as a religion in 1989; reaching its heyday in the 1990s. Aum members followed the guru and real-life Bond villain Shoko Asahara, idolizing him to the extent that they would drink his blood and/or bathwater. The group came to the world's attention in 1995 after releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 and injuring more than one thousand. All told, the cult was responsible for at least 30 murders during its heyday. Since then, the Japanese government has worked hard to eradicate the cult. In 2000, the remaining members of the group attempted to distance themselves from the cult's violent past, renaming themselves Aleph, apologizing to the families and victims of the attacks, and revising texts to avoid justifying violence.
Founded in 1984 in a yoga center run by Shoko Asahara (formerly Matsumoto Chizuo), the cult claimed to be a Mahayana Buddhist sect. From then until 1990, when Asahara ran a slate of candidates for the Japanese Diet, it was a fairly conventional Mahayana sect with a somewhat eccentric preoccupation with preventing the apocalypse. After Asahara failed to get a single member of the cult elected to the Japanese Diet, he became convinced that instead of working to prevent the end of the world it was necessary to induce it.
However, secretly, the cult was already extremely violent and possessive. Members who lapsed or disobeyed Asahara were punished in excruciating ways, such as immersion in scalding water. This was sometimes fatal. There is even evidence that members who truly fell afoul of Asahara were killed with the cult's growing chemical weapons arsenal. Moreover, in 1989, Aum Shinrikyo killed Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a lawyer, along with his wife and baby son when the lawyer began investigating the cult.
The group ran a series of hospitals which charged extortionately high medical bills. In 1992 construction minister Kiyohide Hayakawa started to make frequent visits to Russia to acquire military hardware, including AK74 assault rifles, a MIL Mi-17 military helicopter, and reportedly an attempt to acquire components for a nuclear bomb.
Aum Shinrikyo proselytized and recruited heavily among intellectuals and the wealthy, managing to attract several intelligent followers, including some with backgrounds in the sciences who utilized their knowledge to produce rudimentary weapons of mass destruction. Recent prestigious university graduates were attracted to the group's use of anime and manga themes; they frequently referenced Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy; comparing themselves to the series protagonists, a group of underground spiritually evolved scientists waiting to rebuild civilization.
In February 1995, several cult members kidnapped Kiyoshi Kariya, a 69-year old brother of a member who had escaped and took him to one of their compounds at Kamikuishiki near Mount Fuji, where he was killed. His body was destroyed in a microwave-powered incinerator before being disposed of in Lake Kawaguchi.
They first believed that they could immanentize the eschaton via bio-terrorism. The cult constructed an improvised facility to grow anthrax and botulin. Luckily they produced non-lethal versions of the organisms. Chemical weapons proved to be much easier to produce and distribute, requiring basic knowledge of chemistry (rather than the advanced biology required for biological weapons). Prior to the subway attack, another sarin attack was conducted in an attempt to kill three judges sitting on a panel hearing a lawsuit over a real-estate dispute in which Aum Shinrikyo was the defendant, which doubled as a weapons testing opportunity before the main attack on Tokyo. Seven people died and 500 were sickened in the city of Matsumoto (population 300,000). On top of all this, Aum was behind the only recorded murder committed with the nerve agent VX, when cultist Tomomitsu Niimi sprinkled it on the neck of a member whom Asahara suspected of being a police informant. However, at least one study estimates that as many as 20 Aum members whose loyalties Asahara doubted were murdered in this way. There also appears to be evidence that Aum put some effort into acquiring nuclear capabilities.
When arrested following the attacks a number of members appeared to be wearing what looked like personal stereo sets connected to headphones that went over the temples. The device was determined to use complex electromagnetic signals in imitation of the Persinger "God helmet"; a device which allegedly induces religious experiences.
After the 1995 subway attack, with much of the country in shock, police began serious raids into Aum strongholds, eventually arresting all of the top leadership. Asahara was charged with 27 counts of murder, was convicted, and was sentenced to death. Practically the only member of the organization's leadership to avoid serious criminal charges was Fumihiro Joyu who then assumed leadership of the group.
Many find the violence of Aum Shinrikyo abhorrent and puzzling. Buddhism is normally considered a very peaceful religion, and thus a violent Buddhist sect is at odds with how many in the West see it. This violence was justified by reference to the Buddhist concepts of Mappō and Shōhō. Mappō is the state of the world as it is now, with sin and corruption running rampant. In the Mappō world, it is almost impossible for anyone to reach Nirvana. The next time in the cycle would then be Shōhō, the time of peace and tranquility, when Nirvana is easy to achieve. By bringing the end of the world, they would restore Shōhō.
In addition, the Aum cult twisted the Tibetan idea of poa. Poa is a ritual performed to help the passage of the soul when one is dying, to help them ascend higher. For Aum, it was the idea that killing someone who was against the cult prevented them from accumulating additional bad karma, and thus was to their benefit. Even after the trials and attempts and deprogramming, many of the adherents claimed that high-level members had the right and duty to "poa" people.
Aum Shinrikyo was not a clear-cut Buddhist sect, and while it borrowed some ideas from Buddhism, the cult's chief deity was the Hindu god Shiva. Aum Shinrikyo also incorporated elements of Taoism in an eclectic mix along with its own more "original" ideas.
Why would anyone do this?
What made it possible for the people in Aum (and other such groups) to commit premeditated murder? Not only murder of the people opposed to their cult, but also of doubting members and innocents, such as Sakamoto's baby? While such crimes have been committed by 'normal' people (i.e., those acting without external guidance towards criminality), this discussion will focus on criminal enterprise founded in a fervently held social, political or religious belief.
Michiko Maekawa has posited that a large problem within Aum Shinrikyo (and many other cults today) is the "Authentic Self" ideology prevalent in many "New Age" groups. People need to find themselves, such groups say, and thus try to remove all of the socially constructed parts of themselves. The social constructs keep us "alienated" from our true self. In the process, people usually have to follow some guru who has already achieved liberation and authenticity.
Along with this, there is a belief in the inherent wickedness of the world and specifically society. Soon, practitioners are aiming for some form of union with the guru. In Aum Shinrikyo's case, the believers became unable to form normal social ties, and could only have a relationship with the guru, who was, of course, unable to reciprocate, except in the believer's mind.
Thus, especially in Shinrikyo’s case, everybody involved withdraws into a fantasy world, and the rest of humanity comes to mean nothing. A special form of detachment from the rest of the world then occurs. Maekawa presents to us the case history of one young man who, during his trial for multiple murders, could no longer act as a human being. He tried to express contrition, because it was expected, and declared that he was willing to take any punishment as a way of further refining his spirituality. He could not understand until near the end of the trial why the families of the survivors could not accept such an apology. It was then that he realized that everyone despised this detachment of his. Then, and only then, the detached persona he had built up in Aum came crashing down.
Thus, detachment was itself a major component of the disciples' willingness to use or excuse violence. Detachment was prized within Aum, and it was to be accomplished by ridding one's mind of all the false teachings and refilling it with Aum. More specifically, believers were to 'clone the guru', using mantras, drugs, and electric stimulation to do so. All of the high-level leaders (with the possible exception of Asahara) were able to "present a calm and unruffled face to the world at large", even while the police were knocking their doors down and searching for Asahara.
Detachment is an important component of the believer's ability to commit violence, in that it made them unconcerned with the rest of the world. However, the "Authentic Self" ideology had little to do with it; the idea of “cloning the guru” shows that the “Authentic Self” ideology once practiced by Aum Shinrikyo was abandoned.
More important was the apocalyptic imagery that Aum Shinrikyo used, and the megalomania of the guru. Asahara was consciously seeking Armageddon as the greatest possible good that could happen to the world, and he managed to convince many of his subordinates of this. Beyond that, he convinced them that the war had already started and that any death they inflicted was part of that war. As he was the greatest possible spiritual being, he knew how to direct the war (as he was told to do by Shiva), though it was probable the entire world would perish.
With that rationale, and his ideas on poa, it became natural that they should be able to kill those that opposed them, in order to protect themselves and help the others onto a better life. This provided the rationale for doing so, while the detachment provided the means to bypass any disgust or guilt over such acts. Asahara was able to launch a terrorist chemical attack on a major metropolis through social programming of his followers and the ability to acquire potent toxins.
The dogma presented followed an internal logic. Aum Shinrikyo went to great lengths to make sure that the believers were in no condition to truly think rationally, through programming through "Cloning the guru", groupthink, and the risk of social ostracism (or other punishment) from the group. Some of the people involved in the Sakamoto murders and the sarin attack have said that they felt guilty at the time they were doing them, but could not stop themselves.
Even when members were able to see the problems and violence arising within the cult, they often had a hard time breaking away. Asahara had emphasized that loyalty to the guru was more important, ethically, than all other considerations. He used the concept of Mahamudra, which traditionally means a state of "the unity of emptiness and luminosity" and "the purification… [of] the transitory contamination of confusion.” However, Asahara used it to mean beating down all resistance to the commands of the guru. If something seemed bizarre or wrong, the devotees would assume it was a Mahamudra test of their worth. There were some who, even after the gas attacks and the capture of Asahara, refused to believe that Aum was involved or believed that Asahara must have been right to order it.
If a follower managed to make it out of Aum Shinrikyo, then he or she would have a hard time rejoining society. Quite a few felt guilt over their defection, and even after the 1995 attack, ex-members would talk about how great Asahara is.
In conclusion, in Aum Shinrikyo we see a melding of an extremely dangerous apocalyptic theology, which celebrates murder as a virtuous action, and a system that leaves its believers unable to make moral decisions. Compounding the tragedy, Aum Shinrikyo made a deliberate and systematic attempt to get the strongest weapons they could, including the sarin gas that the detached believers were all too willing to spread through the Tokyo subway system.
We would be willfully ignorant to believe that the same kind of theology could not replicate itself elsewhere; we have seen it happen too many times.
- Lewis, James R.; Jesper Aagaard Petersen (2005). Controversial New Religions. Oxford University Press. p. 162.
- D. W. Brackett, Holy Terror: Armageddon in Tokyo, 1996
- Lifton, Robert Jay, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Macmillan (2000).
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- "Aum Shinrikyo cult fugitive turns himself in after 16 years", The Guardian, 2 January 2012
- https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/content/5/4/pdfs/v5-n4.pdf Olson
- Pamela Zurer, "Japanese cult used VX to slay member", Chemical and Engineering News 1998, Vol 76 (no. 35).
- Buckman, Robert (2002) Can We Be Good Without God? Biology, Behavior, and the Need to Believe Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573929743. page 92
- https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20180706_13/ Sources:Former Aum Shinrikyo leader executed
- Metraux, Daniel A., Asian Survey, “Religious Terrorism in Japan: The Fatal Appeal of Aum Shinrikyo”, Vol. 35, Issue 12 (December: 1995) p. 1153
- Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It 1999
- Maekawa, Michiko, International Journal of Japanese Sociology, "The Dilemma of ‘Authentic Self’ Ideology in Contemporary Japan", Volume 10, Issue 2001, p. 16-21
- Reader, p. 80-81
- Lifton, p. 153