The world learned of the cult called Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995, when deadly sarin gas was released in five Tokyo subway stations. Eleven people were killed and 5,500 injured. It was subsequently learned that Aum had released sarin once before, killing seven and injuring fifty in the town of Matsumoto in 1994. Both attacks would turn out to be meager in scale compared with the violence on Aum’s drawing board.

Aum was founded in 1987 by a partially blind former yoga teacher known as Shoko Asahara. Born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955 in a small village on the island of Kyushu, Asahara is currently on trial in Tokyo for the subway attack. His ideology, a volatile mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, shares elements with other new religions that have been founded in Japan in this century. It attracted many young Japanese, often from the professional classes, who were disenchanted with the country’s values during the period of the economic boom.

Aum is not the first example of spiritual ideas gone toxic, but in the violence of its vision, it is by far the most dangerous seen to date, and its “Buddhism” is a disturbing reminder that no vision is independent of the mind in which it takes root. -Lawrence Shainberg

Robert Jay Lifton is Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and at John Jay College, where he directs the Center on Violence and Human Survival. His books have explored such varied subjects as Nazi doctors, nuclear weapons, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution; his most recent title is Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial(Putnam/Grosset). His previous work in Japan has included extensive research among survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. He has been conducting research on Aum Shinrikyo since 1995. 

Lawrence Shainberg is a writer and consulting editor to Tricycle. His most recent book is Ambivalent Zen: A Memoir (Vintage).

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