Even in its early years
, Aum Shinrikyo showed sigsn of extreme guruism, intense apocalypticism, and the violent potential in both. Asahara was spoken of and addressed as Sonshi
, meaning "revered master," or "exalted one," a highly worshipful term not ordinarily used in Japanese Buddhism. A disciple came to understand that without the guru nothing was possible, but with him there opened up a path to perfection and to reincarnations in higher realms.
It was expected that that disciples would not only surrender himself to the guru, but ""merge" or "fuse" with him. He was to become what Asahara in one of his sermons spoke of as a "clone" of the guru.
As early as 1986, Asahara declared in another sermon that Japan would sink into the ocean, there would be a third great war, and the world would end. He initially claimed that by creating thirty thousand enlightened beings Aum could prevent Armageddon, but he came to emphasize its inevitability and Aum's role in the final battle.
Asahara recruited scientists more actively than he did any other group. His enthousiasm about science undoubtedly was connected with his lust for murderous weapons. But the guru also wished to consider himself a scientist and once declared, "A religion which cannot be scientifically proven is fake." He was especially interested in brainwaves and claimed that by studying them Aum could establish a scientific basis for the stages of spiritual attainment described by past Buddhist saints. With the help of Hideo Murai, his chief scientist, Aum introduced the use of a headset that purportedly contained the guru's brainwaves, which it transmitted to the disciple in a procedure known as the "perfect salvation initiation" (or PSI). The PSI, much revered in Aum, was meant to bring about the desired "cloning" of the guru by means of technology and science. There was also a strong element of science fiction in the PSI and other Aum projects, much of it actively fed by television. What took shape in Aum was a blending of science, occultism, and science fiction, with little distinction between the fictional and the actual.
Among Asahara's most crucial early decisions was the creation of skukke,
or renunciants. Shukke
means "leaving home" and is a traditional term for monks or nuns who give up the world. Aum's message was that if one really wished to follow the guru and join in his full spiritual project, one had to become a shukke,
removing oneself completely from one's family and one's prior work or study and turning all one's resources - money, property, and self - over to Aum and its guru.
Even one's name was to be abandoned, replaced by a Sanskrit one. Such renunciation of the world in favor of life in a small, close society is the antithesis of the this-worldy emphasis of most Japanese religious practice and a repudiation of the still powerful hold the Japanese family has over its members. As a family-like alternative to an actual family's conflicts and confusions, however, it proved a definite attraction to many young people.
Living together in Aum facilities, shukke
underwent severe forms of ascetic practice, including celibacy and a prohibition against ejaculation, fasting, long hours of meditation, intense breathing exercises, and vigorous sequences of prostration combined with demanding work assignments and irregular sleep (often only a few hours a night).
Their existence was a spartan one - two meals a day of extremely simple "Aum food" (rice and vegetables), tiny sleeping spaces, and no personal possessions. The fervent atmosphere was further heightened by Aum's gradual adoption of a series of initiations. In addition to PSI, there was shaktipat,
in which the guru mobilized a disciple's energy by touching his chakra
points, or energy centers, on the forehead or top of the head; there was a "bardo
initiation" (named for the in-between state" connecting death and rebirth), in which the initiate was brought before the "Lord of Hell" to hear accusations about his lifelong misbehaviors (the accusations sometimes rendered more specific by information previously obtained with the help of narcotic drugs); a "Christ initiation," in which the guru or a high disciple would personally offer the initiate a liquid containing LSD to help evoke visions; a "narco initiation," in which, again with the use of a narcotic drug, the initiate was requird to chant repeatedly his failure to absorb Aum's full message and his determination to make greater efforts to do so in the future.
Aum's environment become one of intense ideological totalism,
in which everything had to be experienced on an all-or-nothing basis.