July 8, 2018 Sermon

Just a few days ago, on July 6, 2018, Asahara Shoko, the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, was
executed along with six others of his membership. Asahara created and led a cult that
carried out the deadly mass murder in Japan twenty-three years ago in 1995. He was tried
and sentenced to death in 2006, but there were twelve other co-conspirators whose trials
needed to be heard. So, the execution was delayed, probably in case they needed his
testimony.
Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo in 1984. He quickly attracted thousands of disciples,
telling them of impending apocalypse. Japan would be engulfed in the flames of nuclear
war, he said. Although many of Aum’s disciples were highly educated scientists, they were
all easily manipulated by Asahara to commit horrible acts. On Asahara’s order, they
synthesized VX nerve agents, and manufacturing automatic rifles, for example.
The killings actually began in November of 1989, when Tsutsumi Sakamoto along with
his wife and child were silenced to protect the organization. Sakamoto was an attorney who
had been working on a class action suit against the cult. Cult members entered Sakamoto’s
apartment and injected him and his family with potassium chloride as they slept. Aum was
behind other crimes such as the Matsumoto Sarin Incident which occurred in Matsumoto of
Nagano Prefecture, on June 27, 1994. Eight were killed and over five hundred were
hospitalized. The motivation behind the Matsumoto Sarin Attack was originally to kill the
judges who were presiding over court cases investigating charges of fraud against the Aum
Shinrikyo. Of all of their crimes, none was more reprehensible than the March 20, 1995
incident in which cult members conspired and released sarin gas in five subway carriages
full of passengers commuting during Tokyo’s rush hour. Thirteen people were killed, and
5,500 were injured.
How did all this happen? It began when a sister of Kariya Kiyoshi escaped the cult.
Kariya Kiyoshi was kidnapped and brought to Aum’s headquarters in Kamikuishiki near
Mt. Fuji. He was injected with sodium thiopental to force him to reveal where his sister
was. Kariya, an elderly man, fell into a coma and died. The cult leaders microwaved his
body, and scattered his ashes. Many suspected Aum’s involvement because Kariya had left
a note that read, “If I disappear, I was abducted by Aum Shinrikyo.” Finding leads,
however, was difficult and its investigation stalled. Later, a Yomiuri Shimbun article broke
that traces of Sarin had been detected in Kamikuishiki’s soil. Asahara and his core group
panicked when they found out that they were in the crosshairs of the police. Cult members
poured most of the chemical stockpile into streams. Other chemicals were buried or burned.
And, equipment related to their manufacture were moved to other Aum properties. Parts for
their AK-47 rifles were thrown into dams. Finally, records were destroyed. Anything that
would raise suspicions about the organization’s clandestine activities were either
dismantled, moved, or demolished.
Then, on the day that the police were going to raid them, the 1995 Kobe Earthquake
struck, killing more than 6,000 people. This effectively distracted the attention of the
police. Asahara convinced many in his group that the earthquake was a sure sign that the
end of the world was near. To divert the attention of the police, Asahara and his men
decided to release sarin gas within the cabins of five trains that would converge upon
Kasumigaseki, the station nearest to Tokyo’s police headquarters. The effects of sarin
exposure is immediate and devastating. People bled from their noses and mouths while
vomiting. Sarin also affects the nervous system, so commuters staggered, and many were
unable to escape.
In two days, the police raided all of Aum’s properties. What they discovered was
horrifying. They found over fifty emaciated people detained in steel containers. And in the
basement of the buildings, there were blackened barrels where the bodies of murdered
dissident members were disposed.
How could something like this happen? Whenever you have unbridled power and wrong
information, something like this can easily occur. I am very concerned of many new
religions like Aum Shinrikyo because they purport something divine when there is not.
Asahara was supposed to have gained his spiritual powers upon the Himalayas. Apparently,
he could levitate himself. When the cameras entered the Aum properties, their believers
could be found jumping up and down while cross-legged, trying to levitate. Another
problem is that Asahara stole many Buddhist teachings and repackaged them to serve his
ends.
When there is a charismatic personality leading an organization, whether is religious,
institutional, or governmental, one must be wary. There is nothing wrong with charisma by
itself. It only turns ugly when people are fed wrong information. Nichiren Shonin wrote in
his Dannotsu-bo Go-henji that, “All phenomena which occurs in the world are not in
contradiction with the teaching”. In other words, the Buddha’s teaching is a reflection of
nature and our world as it is. Any teaching must be an explanation of the workings of our
world. In other words, the teaching is truth itself. If and when one bends the teaching to fit
his or her own agenda, that is when you have the beginning of a cult. Asahara borrowed
many concepts of Buddhism to bolster and give his own teaching an air of loftiness, but he
completely modified or twisted its interpretation to his advantage. In most cases, I think
that Asahara’s changes to the Buddha’s teaching extracted the element of truth from them.
The teachings were no longer in correspondence with life as it is or should be.
(Eisei Ikenaga)