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What People Believe: Aum Shinrikyo


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Aum Shinrikyo is a religious group based in Japan, more recently known as Aleph. Something like a Christo-Buddhist cult, members live in small, commune-like cells all over Japan. The group changed its name in 2000 from Aum Shinrikyo (an amalgamation of Sanskrit and Japanese which roughly means ‘religion of truth’) to Aleph (the first character of the Hebrew alphabet). Under both names, the philosophy of the group combines elements of Yoga, Christianity and the teachings of Nostradamus.

Until 1995, however, the group was led by founder Shoko Asahara to commit various terrorist attacks against the people of Japan.

Asahara began Shinrikyo as a yoga and meditation club in 1984. It gained the status of a religious organisation in 1989, and in the early 90s Asahara declared himself Christ, and began adding elements to the doctrine which were less than friendly: he suggested, basing his prophecies on the book of revelation, that an apocalyptic nuclear war with America was coming, and that various groups were precipitating this - including Jews, Freemasons, and the British royal family.

Using these paranoid prophecies as a starting point, Aum Shinrikyo committed a number of terrorist attacks, culminating in the gassing of a Toyo subway with Sarin gas in 1995. The attacks killed 13 people, but affected almost a thousand. It is now known that the cult began gathering and manufacturing weapons in 1993, in preparation for the Armageddon they believed was coming. Several murders and kidnappings have also been attributed to Aum, but much of their activities still remain unclear - and most of their original leaders are still being questioned behind bars.

When Asahara was arrested following the attacks, along with many of the cult’s senior followers, it was stripped of its title as a religious legal entity, and in 1996 it was declared bankrupt. In 1999, however, Fumihiro Joyu took control of the group. Joyu had been arrested with Asahara as Shinrikyo’s spokesperson, and was jailed for three years, but when he was released he became the effective chief of the group until 2007 - when a difference of ideas split the renamed Aleph into two factions.

The current Aleph website advertises “liberation of soul, the age of benevolence” as its tagline. The doctrine of the organisation is difficult to find on the site, but Aleph does make significant apology for the actions of Aum Shinrikyo. It also maintains that, although his actions were deplorable, Shoko Asahara was a genius of yoga, and his meditation techniques should be preserved and taught.

These techniques are adapted from Hindu and Buddhist practices, and they are actually fairly straightforward. As regards meditation, Aleph advocates a four step programme: firstly, one must separate one’s true self from one’s body, which is impure - we can tell that the body is impure, because it becomes dirty over time, and must therefore be dirty in essence. Secondly, one must learn to reject the five senses, which Aleph suggests are the root of all suffering: try imagining something upsetting without using sensory images - it’s impossible. Thirdly, one must separate one’s soul from one’s mind, which is ultimately also a burden on the independent soul, and finally one must abandon all fixed ideas - truth, love, family, society - in order to reach Nirvana.

The dark history of Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph somewhat overshadows its actual beliefs, which are fairly diffuse and difficult to track. Today, the group claims to have just over a thousand members, around half of whom live in dedicated Aleph compounds all across Japan. Hated by locals, frequently raided by police and government organisations, and recognised as a terrorist group by the EU and USA, one thing is certain: Aum Shinrikyo will not be remembered for the excellence of its meditation techniques, but for its propensity towards mass murder.   


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