The name derives from the Sanskrit syllable Aum (which represents the universe), followed by Shinrikyo written in kanji, roughly meaning "religion of Truth". In English, it is usually translated as "Supreme Truth." In January 2000, the organization changed its name to Aleph in reference to the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. It changed its logo as well.
In 1995, the group had 9,000 members in Japan, and as many as 40,000 worldwide. As of 2005, Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph membership was estimated at 1,650 people ja:無差別大量殺人行為を行った団体の規制に関する法律第二十六条第四項及び第五項において準用する同法第十七条第二項の規定に基づく意見陳述の通知の件.
There is also controversy as to what role Asahara himself referred to Aum's doctrine as 'truth', arguing that 'while various Buddhist and yogic schools lead to the same goal by different routes, the goal remains the same' and insisting that the world's major religions are closely related. The 'true religion' in his view shouldn't only offer the path but should also lead to the final destination by its own specific 'route' which may differ considerably due to differences in those who follow it (what the religion terms 'Final Realization'). This way, a religion for modern Japanese or Americans will be different from a religion for ancient Indians. The more custom-tailored to the audience the religion is, the more effective it becomes, Asahara argued. His other conviction was that once a disciple chose whom to learn from, he should maintain focus in order not to add confusion arising from contradictions between different 'routes' to the ultimate goal, the Enlightenment. Asahara quoted Indian and Tibetan religious figures in support of these viewpoints.
In Asahara's view, Aum's doctrine encompassed 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 own book Initiation he compares the stages of enlightenment according to the famous Yoga Sutra by Patanjali with the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, arguing that these two traditions discuss exactly the same experiences although in different words. Asahara has also authored a number of other books, among which the best known are Beyond Life and Death and Mahayana-Sutra. The books explain the process of attaining various stages of enlightenment provided in ancient scriptures and compares it with the experiences of Asahara and his followers. He also published commentaries to ancient scriptures. On top of these, Asahara's sermons dedicated to specific themes (from ways to keep the proper meditation posture to methods of raising a healthy child) are studied by Aum followers. Some of the sermons seem quite simple in terms of wording and deal with everyday matters such as unhappiness arising from problems in human relationships. Others use sophisticated language and discuss matters more interesting for an educated elite. Full-time renunciates mostly study the sermons dealing with aspects considered 'advanced' while lay followers concentrate more on dealing with common hardships. Some of the sermons, considered 'pre-entry level' are not being studied (a good example of these are television interviews or recorded brief broadcasts of Aum's radio station, 'Evangelion Tes Basileias', or 'The Gospel of the Kingdom'). To maintain and improve thinking abilities, Asahara suggested that his followers refrain from consuming 'low-quality' and 'degrading' information from sources such as entertainment magazines and comic shows and advised them to read scientific literature instead. This approach which was dubbed 'information intake control' became a source of media criticism.
Ultimately, Asahara outlined a doomsday prophecy, which included a Third World War. Asahara's final conflict would culminate in a nuclear Armageddon. Asahara even used the term "armageddon," which he took from the book of Revelation. Humanity would end, except for an elite few. Those elite few meant those who joined Aum. Aum's mission was not only to spread the word of "salvation," but also to survive these "End Times." Asahara predicted Armageddon would occur in 1997.
Asahara incessantly attacked the Jews and even the British Royal Family as principals in conspiracies. He named the United States as the Beast from the Book of Revelation predicting America would eventually attack Japan. Asahara's characterization of America as the harbinger of Armageddon led to his decision to use Sarin gas in his attack on the Tokyo Subway. As the predicted Armageddon came closer and closer Asahara and his followers became more concerned with proving his prophecies to be true. Through the Sarin gas attack Asahara hoped to initiate World War III and Armageddon.
Followers are divided into two groups: lay practitioners and "samana" (a Pali word for monks but also used to include "nuns"), which comprise a "sangha" (monastic order). The former live with their families; the latter lead ascetic lifestyles, usually in groups.
According to Aum's classification, a follower can attain the following invented stages by 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 alleged attainers were monks, though there were some lay Raja Yoga and Kundalini Yoga attainers. For a follower to be considered an attainer, specific conditions had to be met before senior sangha members would recognize them as such. For instance, the "Kundalini Yoga" stage requires demonstration of reduction in oxygen consumption, changes in electromagnetic brain activity, and reduction of heart rate (measured by corresponding equipment). A follower who demonstrates such changes is considered to have entered the "samadhi" state and thus deserved the title and permission to teach others. Each stage has its own requirements. Advancements in theoretical studies did not give followers the right to teach others anything except the basic doctrine. According to Asahara, real meditation experience could be the only criterion for deciding the actual ability to coach.
Aum also inherited the Indian esoteric yoga tradition of Shaktipat, also mentioned in Mahayana Buddhist texts. The Shaktipat, which is believed to allow a direct transmission of spiritual energy from a teacher to a disciple, was practiced by Asahara himself and several of his top disciples, including Fumihiro Joyu and Hisako Ishii. Fumihiro Joyu also performed a shaktipat-like ceremony at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Following the formal closure of Aum Shinrikyo, a number of steps were undertaken that changed some of the aspects that concerned both the society and authorities. Some of the most controversial parts of the doctrine (see below for details) were removed, while the basic, general aspects remained intact. For this reason, the information on religious doctrine provided in this article remains largely relevant to the new organization Aleph as well.
Aum's PR activities included publishing. In Japan, where comics and animated cartoons enjoy unprecedented popularity among all ages, Aum attempted to tie religious ideas to popular anime and manga themes - space missions, extremely powerful weapons, world conspiracies and conquest for ultimate truth.
Followers were discouraged from consuming Aum's publications like Enjoy the Happiness and Vajrayana Sacca, which were aimed primarily at the outside world; researchers later misinterpreted the ideas as being part of Aum's internal belief system. One of their most extraordinary publications about ninja traced the origins of martial arts and espionage to ancient China and linked the supernatural abilities ninja were rumored to possess with religious spiritual practices, concluding that the "true ninja" was interested in "preserving peace" in times of military conflict.
Science fiction novels, specifically the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov were referenced "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 civilization." Also, they used Buddhist ideas to impress the shrewd and educated Japanese not attracted to boring, purely traditional sermons. (Lifton, p258) Later, the discussions about pre-requisites of Aum appeal factor resulted in some traditional Japanese Buddhist shrines adapting the Aum 'weekend meditation seminars' format. The necessity to 'modernize' the traditional Buddhist approach towards followers also became the common refrain.
Aum Shinrikyo had started as a quiet group of people interested in yogic meditation, but later transformed into a very different organization. According to Asahara, he needed "to demonstrate charisma" to attract the modern audience. Following his decision, Aum underwent a radical image change.
The rebranded Aum looked less like an elite meditation boutique and more like an organization attractive to a broader, larger population group. Public interviews, bold controversial statements, and vicious opposition to critique were incorporated into the religion's PR style.
In private, both Asahara and his top disciples continued their humble lifestyles, the only exception being the armored Mercedes gifted by a wealthy follower concerned over his Guru's traffic safety. In rather rare footage, Asahara is seen on the street in front of a large clown doll resembling himself, smiling happily. He never ceased repeating that personal wealth or fame were of little importance to him, but he had to be known in order to attract more people.
Intense advertising and recruitment activities, dubbed the 'Aum Salvation plan' included claims of curing physical illnesses with yoga health improvement techniques, realizing life goals by improving intelligence and positive thinking, and concentrating on what was important at the expense of leisure and spiritual advancement. This was to be accomplished by practising the ancient teachings, accurately translated from original Pali sutras (these three were referred to as 'threefold Salvation'). Extraordinary efforts resulted in Aum becoming the fastest-growing religious group in Japan's history.
The religion's practices remained shrouded in secrecy. Initiation rituals often involved the use of hallucinogens, such as LSD. Religious practices often involved extreme ascetic practices referred to as "yoga" These included everything from renunciants being hung upside down to being given shock therapy.
With ambitious young graduates from Japan's top universities, Aum's 'department' system also changed its name. Thus 'medical department' became 'ministry of health', 'scientific group' became 'ministry of science' and people with martial-arts or military backgrounds were organized into a 'ministry of intelligence.' Female followers involved in the care of children were assigned to the 'ministry of education' accordingly.
In October 1989, the group's negotiations with Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an anti-cult lawyer threatening a lawsuit against them which could potentially bankrupt the group, failed. In the same month, Sakamoto recorded an interview for a talk show on the Japanese TV station TBS, which was secretly shown to the group without notifying Sakamoto intentionally breaking protection of sources. The group then pressured TBS to drop broadcast. The following month Sakamoto, his wife and his child went missing from their home in Yokohama. The police were unable to resolve the case at the time, although some of his colleagues publicly voiced their suspicions of the group. It was not until 1995 that they were known to have been murdered and their bodies dumped by cult members. (See Sakamoto family murder).
Aum was also connected with such activities as extortion. The group commonly took patients into its hospitals and then forced them to pay exorbitant medical bills.
In 1990, Asahara and 24 other members stood unsuccessfully for the General Elections for the House of Representatives under the banner of Shinri-tō (Supreme Truth Party). Asahara made a couple of appearances on TV talk shows in 1991, however at this time the attitude of the cult's doctrine against society started to grow in hostility. In 1992 Aum's "Construction Minister" Kiyohide Hayakawa published a treatise called Principles of a Citizen's Utopia which has been described as a "declaration of war" against Japan's constitution and civil institutions. At the same time, Hayakawa started to make frequent visits to Russia to acquire military hardware, including AK47s, a MIL Mi-17 military helicopter, and reportedly an attempt to acquire components for a nuclear bomb.
The cult is known to have considered assassinations of several individuals critical of the cult, such as the heads of Buddhist sects Soka Gakkai and The Institute for Research in Human Happiness and the attempted assassination of the controversial cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi in 1993.
At the end of 1993, the cult started secretly manufacturing the nerve agent sarin and later VX gas. They also attempted to manufacture 1000 automatic rifles but only managed to make one Aum tested their sarin on sheep at a remote pastoral property in Western Australia, killing 29 sheep. Both sarin and VX were then used in several assassinations (and attempts) over 1994-1995. Most notably, on the night of 27 June 1994, the cult carried out the world's first use of chemical weapons in a terrorist attack against civilians when they released sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto. This Matsumoto incident killed seven and harmed 200 more. However, police investigations focused only on an innocent local resident and failed to implicate the cult.
In February 1995, several cult members kidnapped Kiyoshi Kariya, a 69-year old brother of a member who had escaped, from a Tokyo street and took him to one of their compounds at Kamikuishiki near Mount Fuji, where he was killed with an overdose and his body destroyed in a microwave-powered incinerator before being disposed of in Lake Kawaguchi. Before Kariya was abducted, he had been receiving threatening phone calls demanding to know the whereabouts of his sister, and he had left a note saying "If I disappear, I was abducted by Aum Shinrikyo".
Police made plans to simultaneously raid cult facilities across Japan in March 1995.
On the morning of 20 March 1995, Aum members released sarin in a co-ordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim as many as 5,000 people were injured by the sarin. It is difficult to obtain exact numbers since many victims are reluctant to come forward. Prosecutors allege that Asahara was tipped off about planned police raids on cult facilities by an insider, and ordered an attack in central Tokyo to divert attention away from the group. The plan evidently backfired, and the police conducted huge simultaneous raids on cult compounds across the country. Over the next week, the full scale of Aum's activities was revealed for the first time. At the cult's headquarters in Kamikuishiki on the foot of Mount Fuji, police found explosives, chemical weapons and biological warfare agents, such as anthrax and Ebola cultures, and a Russian MIL Mi-17 military helicopter. The Ebola virus was delivered from Zaire in 1994. There were stockpiles of chemicals which could be used for producing enough sarin to kill four million people. Police also found laboratories to manufacture drugs such as LSD, methamphetamine, and a crude form of truth serum, a safe containing millions of dollars worth in cash and gold, and cells, many still containing prisoners. During the raids, Aum issued statements claiming that the chemicals were for fertilizers. Over the next six weeks, over 150 cult members were arrested for a variety of offenses.
On 30 March, Takaji Kunimatsu, chief of the National Police Agency, was shot four times near his house in Tokyo, seriously wounding him. Many suspect Aum involvement in the shooting, but nobody has been charged, and Hiroshi Nakamura is suspected of the crime, according to Sankei Shimbun.
Asahara, while on the run, issued statements, one claiming that the Tokyo attacks were a ploy by the US military to implicate the cult, and another threatening a disaster that "would make the Kobe earthquake seem as minor as a fly landing on one's cheek." to occur on 15 April. The authorities took the threat seriously, declaring a state of emergency, stocking up hospitals with antidotes to nerve gas while chemical warfare specialists of the Self-Defence Force were put on standby. However, the day came and went with no incident.
On 23 April, Murai Hideo, the head of Aum's Ministry of Science, was stabbed to death outside the cult's Tokyo headquarters amidst a crowd of about 100 reporters, in front of cameras. The man responsible, a Korean member of Yamaguchi-gumi, was arrested and eventually convicted of the murder.
On the evening of 5 May, a burning paper bag was discovered in a toilet in Shinjuku station in Tokyo, the busiest station in the world. Upon examination it was revealed that it was a hydrogen cyanide device which, had it not been extinguished in time, would have released enough gas into the ventilation system to potentially kill 20,000 commuters. Several undetonated cyanide devices were found at other locations in the Tokyo subway.
During this time, numerous cult members were arrested for various offences, but arrests of the most senior members on the charge of the subway gassing had not yet taken place.
Shoko Asahara was finally found hiding within a wall of a cult building known as "The 6th Satian" in the Kamikuishiki complex on 16 May and was arrested. On the same day, the cult mailed a parcel bomb to the office of Yukio Aoshima, the governor of Tokyo, blowing the fingers off his secretary's hand. Asahara was initially charged with 23 counts of murder as well as 16 other offenses. The trial, dubbed "the trial of the century" by the press, ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to death. The indictment was appealed unsuccessfully. A number of senior members accused of participation, such as Masami Tsuchiya, also received death sentences.
The reasons why a small circle of mostly senior Aum members committed atrocities and the extent of personal involvement by Asahara remain unclear to this day, although several theories have attempted to explain these events. In response to the prosecution's charge that Asahara ordered the subway attacks to distract the authorities' away from Aum, the defense maintained that Asahara was not aware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health condition. Shortly after his arrest, Asahara abandoned the post of organization's leader and since then has maintained silence, refusing to communicate even with lawyers and family members. Many believe the trials failed to establish truth behind the events.
The group underwent a number of transformations in the aftermath of Asahara's arrest and trial. It re-grouped under the new name of Aleph in February 2000. It has announced a change in its doctrine: religious texts related to controversial 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. Provocative publications and activities that alarmed the society during Aum times are no longer in place.
Fumihiro Joyu, one of the few senior leaders of the group under Asahara who did not face serious charges, became official head of the organization in 1999.
In July 2000, Russian police arrested Dmitri Sigachev, an ex-KGB former Aum Shinrikyo member, and four more former Russian Aum members, for stockpiling weapons in preparation for attacking Japanese cities in a bid to free Asahara. In response, Aleph issued a statement saying they "do not regard Sigachev as one of its members".
An article on the Mainichi Shimbun on September 11, 2002, showed that the Japanese public still distrusts Aleph, and cult facilities distributed throughout Japan are usually surrounded by protest banners from local residents demanding they leave. There have been numerous cases where local authorities have refused to accept resident registration for cult members when it is discovered that Aleph has set up a facility within their jurisdiction. (This effectively denies cult members social benefits such as health insurance, and a total of five cases were taken to court by cult members, who won every time). Local communities have also tried to drive the cult away by trying to prevent cultists from finding jobs, or to keep cult children out of universities and schools. Right-wing groups also frequently conduct marches near Aum-related premises such as apartments rented by Aum followers with extremely loud music broadcast over loudspeakers installed on minivans, which add to their neighbors' displeasure.
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 surveillance 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 September 15 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 in order 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 have been carried out upon any of the members, nor have the time and date for the executions to take effect been publicly established.
In 2006, Joyu and a number of supporters split from Aleph followers and occupied another building where they currently reside. According to Joyu, most of the higher-rank followers supported him, while 'many others cannot announce [their agreement with Joyu's ideas] at this moment'. A number of essays by Joyu explain the basis for disagreement. The appeal to abandon the viewpoint that 'Aum people are chosen people' and the society that opposes it is 'evil' with determination to 'hold on' and endure persecution (which Joyu considers 'fundamentalist ideas') is facing fierce opposition from more dogmatic followers while Joyu's tolerance to Aum followers who travel to India or Tibet to learn from meditation masters other than Asahara attract accusations of disloyalty. Joyu is nevertheless optimistic. 'This is a process and at the circumstances it cannot be accomplished by some order from above,' he explains. He criticizes the 'loyalty' argument saying that 'reintegrating into society' is not 'abandoning the faith' but rather elevating it to the next level and quotes Asahara's sermons where he speaks about 'egoistic desire to get separated from others by way of monkhood'.
The EU has designated Aum Shinrikyo as a terrorist organization .
The United States also maintains Aum on its list of foreign terrorist groups.
In several of his lectures more related to economy and politics than religion itself, Asahara also made comments about Jewish people, such as: According to Asahara's prophecies, 'the future Buddha Maitreya' (the Buddhist 'Savior' who comes at the End of Times to save the humankind by spiritual guidance) 'will come surrounded by asuras' (while he also has said that 'Jewish people have a very strong asura factor'). It is also 'unclear yet if the Jews will ultimately come to my side'. Jewish people, in Asahara's judgement have a 'strong desire to achieve happiness not in material, but in a spiritual sense' and their ancestry is 'divine' (another quotation: '[..]therefore they are demi-gods'. He also noted that the Kabbalah teaches 'the secret science' (previously kept secret) that will surface from within Jewish nation at the End of Times. (from book 'Vajrayana Sutra', which was removed from circulation by the group's leadership in 1999 as Japan's PSIA agency criticized the book as 'justifying violence').
Speaking of more traditional religious groups, on a number of occasions Asahara criticized them for 'degrading into traditionalism and losing the essence' [i.e. evolutionary path to Enlightenment]. 'What was left are just religious ceremonies and things necessary in order to make you become a religious robot and that's all'. He spoke highly however of Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism in general. (lectures, 1990-1993)
Aum Shinrikyo has criticized the Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest new religious group. Asahara accused Soka Gakkai of malicious interference in its affairs and provocations aimed at creating difficulties to its activities.