Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph) is a new religious movement. Shoko Asahara founded the group in 1984. The group gained international notoriety in 1995 when it launched the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The name "Aum Shinrikyo" (オウム真理教 Ōmu Shinrikyō) derives from the Sanskrit syllable Aum, which represents the universe, followed by Shinrikyo written in kanji, roughly meaning "religion of Truth". "Aum Shinrikyo" is usually translated as "Supreme Truth" in English. In January 2000, the organisation changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew and Phoenician alphabet. It changed its logo as well.

In 1995, the group claimed they had over 9,000 members in Japan and 40,000 worldwide. As of 2009, the Japanese government estimated Aum Shinrikyo/Aleph membership at 1,650 people (650 priests, 1,000 laities).


Aleph's doctrine is based on the ancient Buddhist scriptures called the Pali Canon. The collection comprises about 70 volumes, fully translated from the Pali language into modern Japanese by the group's translation team. Along with the Pali Canon, Aleph uses other religious texts, including many Tibetan Buddhist sutras, Hindu yogic sutras and Taoist scriptures.

Some scholars of new religious movements view Aleph's doctrine as a mixture of various traditions, arguing that a primary deity revered by Aleph's followers is Shiva (a deity that symbolises powers of destruction in Hindu tradition). Aleph's Lord Shiva (also known as Samantabhadra, Kuntu-Zangpo, or Adi-Buddha) derives from Tibetan Vajrayana tradition and has no connection to the Hindu Shiva. There is controversy about Christianity's role in Aleph's doctrine since it was mentioned in some of Shoko Asahara's books. Many refuse to classifyAleph as Buddhist because scriptures from other traditions are used with Buddhist sutras. Anti-cult activists and some scholars classify Aleph as a cult mainly because of the violent history of its predecessor.

In the view of Shoko Asahara, the group's founder, the doctrine encompasses all three primary 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 book Initiation, he compares the stages of enlightenment according to the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali with Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, stating these two traditions speak about the same experiences in different words.

Shoko Asahara has written some books, of which the best known are Beyond Life and Death, Mahayana-Sutra, and Initiation (translated into English). The papers describe attaining various stages of enlightenment and compare the descriptions provided in the ancient sutras with Asahara's own experiences. He also wrote commentaries to ancient sutras.

Aleph arranges studies by a special kogaku (learning) system, in which each new stage is reached after examinations are passed successfully, as in university education. Meditation practices complement the theoretical study.

Followers are divided into lay practitioners and Samana (monks and nuns), which comprise a sangha (monastic order). Laymen observe five basic Buddhist precepts and live with their families; the latter lead ascetic lifestyles, usually in groups.

According to Aleph's classification, a follower can attain the following stages of their religious practice: Raja Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Mahamudra (sometimes called Jnana Yoga), Mahayana Yoga, Astral Yoga, Causal Yoga and the ultimate stage, the Ultimate Realization. Most such attainers are monks, though some lay Raja Yoga and Kundalini Yoga attainers. For a follower to be considered an attainer, specific conditions must be met before senior sangha members recognise them. For instance, the Kundalini Yoga stage in their system requires reduced oxygen consumption (measured by individual sensors), changes in electromagnetic brain activity and reduced heart rhythm (also measured). When the follower demonstrates such changes, it is recognised that s/he did enter the samadhi state and thus deserves the title and permission to teach others. Each stage has its requirements. Advancements in the theoretical study do not give followers the right to teach others. Only meditation counts.

Other beliefs include the yogic practice of shaktipat, which is the direct transmission of spiritual energy, or mingling of religious bodies on the subtle plane, between guru and student. This is a belief in guru-based yoga systems, where the guru has divine or semi-divine status. Aum also had many ideas from the modern world, such as the belief in the practicality of death-ray-type weapons written about by Nikola Tesla (see Senate Hearing reference), and influenced by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels as a model for Aum, depicted as it does an elite group of spiritually evolved scientists forced to go underground during an age of barbarism to prepare themselves for the moment … when they will emerge to rebuild civilisation" (Lifton, p258). Also, the experience of the science fiction movies that grew out of Japan's cultural response to the Hiroshima – Nagasaki bombings was shared within the group.


The movement received official religious status from the Japanese government in 1987. Shoko Asahara founded it in his one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo's Shibuya district in 1984. In the following years, the group grew quickly and thus became Japan's fastest-growing religious group. Despite the profoundly negative public image that followed the group since it decided to participate in municipal elections, it attracted many young intellectuals. The press dubbed it a "religion for the elite" due to the abundance of graduates from Japan's top universities. Asahara engaged in lecture tours, explaining his views on religion and answering questions.

Shoko Asahara travelled abroad on some occasions and met various well-known yogic and Buddhist religious teachers, such as the 14th Dalai Lama and Kalu Rimpoche, a patriarch of the Tibetan Kagyupa school. In Dharamsala, India, Aleph's activities aimed at popularising Buddhist texts were also noted by Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Sarin gas attacks and aftermaths

In 1995, following a Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in which 12 commuters died and thousands were injured, Shoko Asahara and some senior Aum Shinrikyo officials were arrested and accused of planning the attack. The trial, called "the trial of the century" by the Japanese press, ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to death. The indictment is currently in the process of appeal at the High Court. Some senior members accused of participation, such as Masami Tsuchiya, also received death sentences.

After the 1995 sarin gas incidents and following police searches and arrests, some Aum followers were accused of other crimes. The following people are believed to be murdered: two Aum Shinrikyo members, including Shuji Taguchi (reportedly for trying to leave the group), lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family members (including his wife, Satoko and their one-year-old child, Tatsuhiko). For more information, see Sakamoto family murder

The reasons why a group of senior Aum members decided to commit atrocities and the involvement of Asahara remain unclear to this day. Prosecutors charged that Asahara had obtained inside information on police activities and explicitly conducted coordinated searches of all the Aum facilities in Japan. By this theory, the subway attack was an attempt to distract the police investigation (previously, police suggested the attack was an attempt by Shoko Asahara to become the king of Japan). The defence maintains that Asahara was unaware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health. He left the post of the organisation's leader and kept silent, refusing to speak even to lawyers and family members. Many believe the trials failed to establish the truth behind the events.

The group continues to operate in Japan. It has announced a change in its doctrine: a misreading of religious texts related to Vajrayana Buddhist doctrines that authorities claimed were "justifying murder" were removed. The group apologised to the victims of the sarin gas attack and established a special compensation fund.

Jōyū Fumihiro (上祐史浩), a charismatic senior leader of the group under Asahara, was the official head of the organisation until 2007, when he split up and formed a group called "The Circle of Rainbow Light" (ひかりの輪 Hikari no Wa), see below.

'Aum Surveillance Law': Under Pressure

In January 2000, the group was placed under surveillance for three years under an anti-Aum law, in which the group is required to submit a list of members and details of assets to the authorities. In January 2003, Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency received permission to extend the surveillance for another three years, as they found evidence which suggests that the group still reveres Asahara. According to the Religious News Blog report issued in April 2004, the authorities still consider the group "a threat to society".

In January 2006, the Public Security Investigation Agency extended the surveillance for another three years. Despite the doctrinal changes and banning of Vajrayana texts, the PSIA advocates an increase in monitoring 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 the leader. Aleph leaders carefully insert passages into almost everything they say or write to prevent misinterpretation, including karaoke songs.

On 15 September 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 to "prevent any illegal activities by cult members in response to the confirmation of Asahara's death sentence", according to a police spokesperson.

Overseas presence

Aum Shinrikyo had several overseas branches: a Sri Lanka branch, small branches in New York City, United States and Bonn, Germany. The group also had several centres in Moscow, Russia.


On 8 March 2007, former Aum Shinrikyo spokesman and head of Aum's Moscow operation, Jōyū Fumihiro, formally announced a long-expected split. Jōyū's group called Hikari no Wa ("The Circle of Rainbow Light") is committed to uniting science and religion, thus creating the new 'science of the human mind' to move the group away from its violent history and toward its spiritual roots.

In April 2011, the Public Security Intelligence Agency stated that Aum had about 1,500 members, while the group reported just over 1,000 members in June 2011.

International opposition

Aum Shinrikyo has been formally designated a terrorist organisation by several entities, including Canada, the European Union, and the United States.


Asahara in 1995 (Photo: Kyodo)


On 6 July 2018, Shoko Asahara and six other condemned Aum members (Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, Masami Tsuchiya, 53, Seiichi Endo, 58, and Tomomitsu Niimi, 54) were executed by hanging at the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika-ku. On 26 July 2018, six other convicted members were executed: Yasuo Hayashi, Kenichi Hirose, Toru Toyoda, and Masato Yokoyama, all involved in the Tokyo subway attack, and Kazuaki Okazaki and Satoro Hashimoto, both involved in the Sakamoto family murder.