Before I get into what I want to say, I also want to say that I plan to attend the screening of the film Zen Noir on the evening of Saturday September 23 (I’m trying to find the show times) at the Westside Pavillion in Los Angeles. If that’s any incentive for anyone to show up, I don’t know. I hope it’s not incentive to stay away! Feel free to come up and say “hi” if you’re there. But if you were not at our monthly one-day Zazen at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica which also takes place on Saturday September 23rd (see the link to your right for details), know that I will be secretly wondering why you came to the movie but not to the Zen sitting. But I won’t say anything, so don’t worry.
I just got back from Japan this afternoon. The big news over there apart from the impending nomination of a new Prime Minister is all about Shoko Asahara, former leader of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult, the guys who gassed the Tokyo subway system in the name of Buddhism in 1995. Asahara recently lost his final appeal against the death sentence he received a few years ago (2004, I think) for his role in instigating mass murder (12 people died and thousands of others were affected by the gas, additionally 7 others died in a practice run for that attack in the city of Matsumoto in 1994). Throughout the trial, Asahara refused to speak in his defence, or, to speak at all, save for the cryptic statement, in English, “I can speak a little.” This is the kind of English phrase Japanese kids learn in grade school, the way I can say, “Je parle un petit peux de Francais” even though I don’t.
Amazingly enough, Asahara still has followers. The group has changed its name to Aleph and disavows its former leader, though they still consider him a “genius of meditation” whatever that means. There is a lot of worry in Japan that, once Asahara’s death sentence is carried out, his remaining followers may stage some kind of revenge attack. This is probably a legitimate concern, though the cult is not nearly as large and well-funded as it was 11 years ago.
The interesting thing to me was one particular guy who kept showing up every time the TV news ran a story about Aum. He’s a funny lookining guy, tall and skinny with long hair dyed platimum blond and the kind of scraggly beard George Harrison has on the cover of the All Things Must Pass album. He always dresses like a hippy refugee from Woodstock and sometimes wears what appears to be a skirt, although the skirt looks more like hippy-wear than something a cross-dresser might outfit himself in. This guy is some kind of expert in all things related to Aum Shinrikyo. He’s apparently been studying them for quite a number of years and has been sitting in on most of Asahara’s trials.
What stuck me was that, while a whole lot of “respectable society” types like doctors, scientists and lawyers, are members or ex-members of Aum, this guy who is an obvious weirdo knew enough to stay away from them. I think this is important. People who are able to be themselves the way this comentator is seem far less likely to be taken in by people like Asahara and his ilk.
Some folks in Japan are concerned that Asahara hasn’t had a fair trial. They insist that he is mentally ill and that this should be taken into consideration. Of course he is mentally ill! What worries me is that he is far from the only mentally ill person on this planet who is taken seriously as a guru by the kind of people who take gurus seriously. It often seems like signs of mental illness are taken by way too many people as evidence of Enlightenment. This is the same kind of thinking engaged in by the guys who wrote the book Zig Zag Zen which postulates that being stoned on acid is the same as Enlightenment. This is one of many reasons why I do not believe in that kind of Enlightenment.