Who are Aum Shinrikyo and why would anyone want to join them?

The Japanese doomsday cult known as Aum Shinrikyo has been back in the news this month, with the execution of its leader Chizuo Matsumoto (a.k.a. Shoko Asahara) on July 6th and his successors now fighting for his ashes to be scattered into the Pacific Ocean. I have covered weird religious phenomenon before, let alone from Japan, but I’m surprised to have never covered this particular cult on my website despite their infamy. Here, I hope to rectify this by providing a basic outline of their beliefs, the atrocities the cult committed, and some reasons why some people still fall into this cult well into the 2010s.

Aum Shinrikyo began in 1984 as essentially a yoga club, at the time going by the name of Aum Shinsen no Kai. Three years later, Matsumoto changed the group’s name to Aum Shinrikyo, and two years after that the group was officially recognized as a religious organization/corporation under Japanese law. By this time, Chizuo Matsumoto changed his name from his birth name to Shoko Asahara. It is said that, between 1984 and 1987, Matsumoto appeared in various spiritualist and occult magazines claiming to be capable of levitation, established a publishing firm named Chōnōryoku no Kaihatsuhō to distribute his teachings to a wider audience, and claimed to have encounters with supernatural beings, including the Hindu deity Shiva, informing him of his divine mission.

The doctrine of Aum Shinrikyo can best be summarized as an apocalyptic form of Buddhism mixed with doctrines from Christianity, Hinduism and New Age belief systems, centered of course around the personality cult of Chizuo Matsumoto. One of the main aspects of the doctrine is its interpretation of the Vajrayana Buddhist doctrine of powa, or phowa. In Vajrayana Buddhism, Powa refers to a specific ritual performed on behalf of the deceased by a Lama or a guru in order to transfer the consciousness of the deceased into a spiritual location known as a “pure land”, the abode of a Buddha or bodhisattva. This ritual is performed in order to aid the deceased in his or her journey towards spiritual liberation. In Aum Shinrikyo, however, Powa refers to the act of killing someone on behalf of Chizou Matsumoto or Aum Shinrikyo in order to stop them from accumulating negative karma through their opposition to Aum Shinrikyo or by acting in a way that undermines their interests. For example, when in 1989 a member named Taguchi Shuji decided to leave the movement after the accidental death of another member named Majima Terayuki and threatened to go public about Terayuki’s death, Chizuo Matsumoto ordered that Shuji be killed in order to protect Aum Shinrikyo’s reputation. It was believed that had Shuji informed public about the death of Terayuki within Aum Shinrikyo, Shuji would acrue eons worth of bad karma and suffer countless negative reincarnations as a result. By killing him, in accordance with the perversely interpreted doctrine of Powa, his soul could be saved from such a fate while protecting the organization. This interpretation of Powa would also go on to serve as a justification for the atrocities that were to be enacted from then on.

Matsumoto and adherents of Aum Shinrikyo also believed that the end of the world was coming imminently, with “materialism” running rampant and people having forgotten how to practice Buddhism. In East Asian forms of Buddhism, the history of Buddhism is divided into three stages: The Former Day of the Law, The Middle Day of the Law, and The Latter Day of the Law. For convenience we will use their Japanese names – Shobo, Zoho, and Mappo respectively. Shobo refers to the age of the true dharma, where said dharma was practiced by the disciples of the Buddha and flourished as such, Zoho refers to the age of copied dharma, dharma that resembles the true dharma but does not accurately reflected, and Mappo refers to the age of degenerated dharma, wherein the essence of dharma is forgotten and thus cannot be upheld properly. The concept also dovetails nicely with the Hindu concept of the Four Yugas, in which after the Satya Yuga (basically the golden age) Man strays further from God until finally Man reaches the Kali Yuga, the time in which Man is farthest from God. Typically it is held that the Mappo age is to be abolished and the Shobo age restored by Maitreya, the Buddha who is yet to be. For Aum Shinrikyo though, the duty of restoring the Shobo age falls upon them. Chizuo Matsumoto technically gave himself the role of Maitreya through his claiming to be Jesus Christ in the flesh. This of course fits into the theme of holy war, a war between the saved and the unsaved, between those who believed in Aum Shinrikyo and those outside of the cult who were held to be trapped in materialistic urges and bad karma, an idea that very much echoes the sentiments found within the Book of Revelation concerning holy war between the believers and the non-believers. Indeed Matsumoto would eventually begin referring to the concept of Armageddon by name in the run up to the sarin gas attack committed in 1995, even believing that America wanted to hasten the arrival of this event by triggering World War 3 with Japan (in true religious conspiracy theorist character).

Another notable feature is that, besides Matsumoto himself being the messiah, there is a central deity within this sect, namely Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction, recreation and transformation. Indeed, some say Matsumoto’s messianic title refers not to him being Jesus Christ, but an incarnation of Shiva. While Hindu sects venerate Shiva as a positive figure, representing not simply destruction, let alone necessary destruction, but also the rebirth of the universe and the transformation into new forms, thereby natural and positive change, as well as a creative force in the cosmos, not to mention also venerating him as the Godhead who does battle with demons and sometimes performs self-sacrificial acts to protect the universe from premature destruction, the Aum Shinrikyo veneration of Shiva most likely stems from an obsession with the deity’s destructive aspects, dovetailing with their theme of apocalyptic salvation, destroying the world in order to “save” it. It is said that Aum Shinrikyo had a secret chapel containing a large statue of Shiva, inaccessible to all but the chosen few within the cult.

One very interesting aspect of the cult is its incorporation of bizarre paranormal technology. Members of the cult would wear headsets that connected electrodes to their heads. The idea behind this device was supposedly to allow devotees to telepathically communicate with their guru Chizuo Matsumoto by having them receive his brainwaves or synchronize their own electrical impulses with them. Another piece of technology they made was an electronic device known as an “astral teleporter”, which would purportedly pick up vibrations from Matsumoto’s meditations while he recites his mantra and transmit them to his disciples. That’s not even getting into their development of chemical weapons, and their liaisons with international networks for the purposes of acquiring them and other weapons of mass destruction.

Over the years, the cult became infamous for the various crimes and atrocities they have committed, most notably in 1995 where the cult unleashed sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing thirteen people and injuring many more. Following this attack, police uncovered evidence of the cult’s laboratories dedicated to producing drugs and chemical weapons. Prior to the attack, the cult perpetrated a number murders on people who opposed the cult as well as cult members who they perceived as a threat. Known victims included lawyer Tsutumi Sakamoto, along with his wife and son, fellow cultist Taguchi Shuji, another fellow cultist Tadahito Hamaguchi, and notary Kiyoshi Kariya, who died under their confinement. In the years after the 1995 sarin gas attack, the Aum Shinrikyo cult would split off into two spin-off cults – Aleph, not to be confused with yours truly, and Hikari no Wa, the latter of whom claims to want to shed the influence of the old Aum Shinrikyo and its leader. As of July 6th, Chizuo Matsumoto and six other cultists have been executed by the Japanese government for the atrocity committed in 1995, with another six still awaiting execution.

Despite the cult’s infamy, particularly following the sarin attack in 1995, the cult continued to attract membership well into the present decade. Apparently by 2016 the cult gained thousands of new members from, of all places, Russia, as evidenced by the arrests of new cult members from Russia, as well as Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. It seems that Aum Shinrikyo had set up operations in Russia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by which time The Japan Times reckons the cult acquired blueprints for their sarin gas attack from Russia. Russian experts suspect that the appeal of the cult is similar to that of New Age movements and even that of ISIS for young Muslims prone to radicalization – that is, those who join Aum Shinrikyo do so because they see in Chizuo Matsumoto a source of unified truth and in his cult a source of brotherhood, in much the same way some people ultimately see absolute truth and fellowship in other violent religious extremist movements (like ISIS or one of those American Christian militias). In 2016, the Russian government banned the Aum Shinrikyo cult from being practiced because it was, unsurprisingly, seen as a terrorist organization. I can only assume that this decision was made by the Russian state upon its discovery of Russian followers of the cult, lending itself to fears of a religious terror cell operating in Russia.

In Japan, Aum Shinrikyo’s spin-off cult Aleph has attracted numerous young followers despite the atrocities committed by Aum Shinrikyo. For example, in the case of an anonymous man one Kuchikomi writes for Japan Today:

Mr S was in junior high school when the sarin affair exploded on the national consciousness. He recalls being more interested than appalled, and anyway, all that was a long time ago. If anything, the connection to so dramatic an episode made his present experience all the more titillating. Moreover, he says, by then he’d spent some 40,000 yen on the training, and he was unwilling to admit that it was money down the drain.

And so he graduated into hard-core Aleph training, heavy on recorded sermons by Aum guru Shoko Asahara, currently on death row.

His awakening, when at last it came, was a strange one. It was in response to an Aleph teaching to the effect that a man who has sexual relations cannot attain enlightenment. Strange, thought Mr S – Asahara has children. “Yes,” he was told, “but the Master is no ordinary man.”

To the surprise of just about anyone, including myself who missed this development entirely when it came up, Aum Shinrikyo has been been growing in the twenty years since the sarin gas attack of 1995, with new generations in Japan developing a perverse fascination with the cult for various reasons including the good looks of some of the cult members, the absurdity of their cultish activities, the sense among sympathizers that their murderous acts were motivated not out of malice but out of obedience to their guru, and broad empathy with the cult and its leader for standing against a society that frustrates them.

That last part needs to be looked at rather carefully, especially given how apparently Aum Shinrikyo literature is known for emphasizing contempt for contemporary society. The fact that such a reprehensible cult known to the public for committing atrocities, ones that have had a significant negative impact on the national consciousness of Japan, can still attract a number of converts to me says something about the widespread alienation within Japanese society. I mean think about it: this is the country that actually has its own word for working yourself to death, itself testament to a horrendous work culture where you just tough it out until you die. A country known for its notoriously high suicide rates. A country where one bad day might turn you into a complete and total shut-in. A country whose social attitudes are defined by deference to authority or the social group above almost anything else including the individual. And to top it all off, like many East Asian cultures, the elder generations are never to be put at fault on pain of violating long-embedded Confucian virtue towards respecting your elders, and criticizing authority in general is considered anathema in Japanese society, so everything bad about Japan can be shafted to the younger generation (admittedly not too dissimilar to attitude baby boomers have towards millennials here in the West), who are socially and economically powerless.

The more you learn about Japanese society, the more you understand how profoundly dysfunctional it is. This is especially relevant when dealing with young converts of the cult. If you have a society that a generation of people has come to see is against, they might well go off towards anything that can stand against it. For some of these people, it seems, the Aum Shinrikyo cult is one avenue by which to actively resist the social order because it appeals to their alienation and the sense of a lack of purpose, or they just fall in love with criminals because they see them as attractive bad boys. Like with a lot of cults, people facing alienation and other social ills will often gravitate towards whatever suits them best, including totalitarian cults. Just ask anyone who’s ever been in groups like the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, Yahweh Nation, ACMTC or Scientology.

On the whole, damn, I can’t believe I didn’t cover this subject much sooner. Learning about the cult has definitely yielded some surprises on my part. A perverted Buddhist doctrine fighting to bring about the end of days, believing this will save the souls of the mass dead from accumulating bad karma, in the name of a self-proclaimed reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and to that end amassing and developing weapons of mass destruction, mind controlling drugs and paranormal technologies, and killing those who oppose them or don’t believe in them, and now potentially hiding out in Europe after the arrest of their leader and other cultists. In a sane world, this would be the stuff of movies, video games and thriller novels, and I guess manga as well (this is Japan after all). To be honest, I’ll be disappointed if Chizuo Matsumoto’s execution is the last we hear from them, considering the cells that are likely hiding outside of Japan.

Chizuo Matsumoto (Shoko Asahara) in an animated promo video for Aum Shinrikyo