Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

FALSE PROPHET: THE AUM CULT OF TERROR

Metamorphosis

During the 1980s, while Matsumoto was discovering his new-found "spirituality," Japan was in the grip of a veritable outbreak of spiritual fervor owing to a healthy economy and the nation's need to embrace religious freedom. Chizuo wished to align himself with an established religion to receive formal training to further validate the profound spiritual gift that he believed he possessed.

Of the many hundreds of sects and obscure cults that he researched, he settled on one called Agonshu. Fundamentally Buddhist, the sect had embraced modern technology by advertising in leading publications and beaming its message to thousands of followers by way of its own satellite TV station.

Matsumoto was intrigued and in early 1981 began a strict regimen of training for admission to the sect. The training consisted of periods of meditation every day for a thousand days. Having completed the ritual, he complained that the process had robbed him of his peace of mind. Disillusioned, Chizuo turned his back on Agonshu and began to lay plans for a sect of his own.

Asahara's levitation scam
Asahara's levitation scam
In 1984 he registered a company called Aum Incorporated, which was soon to be unofficially known as the Aum Association of Mountain Wizards, a grandiose title for a business that operated out of a single rented room and derived its sole income from selling questionable health drinks.

Soon after Aum opened for business, a few followers signed up for what was initially a yoga school with Chizuo as its chief instructor. He came to public notice through an article in the popular "Twilight Zone" magazine that showed him supposedly levitating in a yoga pose. Yoga exponents had practiced the technique, which consisted of flexing the thigh muscles to imitate levitation, for centuries. Matsumoto used it successfully as a publicity tool to advertise his school. The promotion worked and soon he was flooded with hundreds of new members, which gave him sufficient capital to open several more schools across the country.

He became known as a gentle, caring and charismatic leader and his following grew to the point where he was able to place deputies in charge and go off on spiritual retreats in the mountains and on the beaches of Japan. During one such sojourn, Matsumoto met an obscure student of history who informed him that Armageddon was coming soon and only a race made up of the purest of spirit would survive. Chizuo listened keenly to what he considered was his spiritual calling. Not only did he believe that he was to become the anointed leader of such a race, but that he was also going to save the world single-handed.

When he returned from his enlightening trip, he declared to his followers that he was going to reshape the world and they were to be an important part of it. Chizuo took to wearing flowing robes of purest white and let his hair and beard grow long and scruffy. To complete the metamorphosis, he changed his name. He considered that Chizuo Matsumoto was too plain for a religious leader of his stature and informed his followers that, from that day on, he was to be known only as Shoko Asahara.

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