TOKYO -- Bearded and sleepy-eyed, Chizuo Matsumoto, 39, claims that he went off to the Himalayas, and, via an ascetic experience, underwent a miraculous transformation. He said he found enlightenment.
He began to call himself "Shoko Asahara," to gather followers for his ostensibly Buddhist religion, which also promotes Tibetan-style mysticism, with elements of Hinduism, such as use of the image of the god Shiva and the practice of yoga exercises.
From its launch in 1987, his group, Aum Shinri Kyo -- which means Sublime Truth -- has grown into a sprawling organization, claiming 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. It has amassed huge sums. Mr. Asahara and 24 of his followers have run unsuccessfully for Parliament. Aum Shinri Kyo has become the subject of media scrutiny in Japan with reports about its allegedly bizarre rites.
And, in keeping with the tenor of its leader's sometimes apocalyptic ramblings, the group suddenly has found itself the focus of speculation that its members may have played a role in a nerve gas attack Monday in Tokyo's subways that killed 10 and afflicted 4,700 commuters.
By the time about 2,500 police raided two dozen Aum Shinri Kyo facilities yesterday, the group already had achieved more than a whiff of notoriety throughout Japan.
In 1990, in sweeps, 1,000 police raided 14 Aum Shinri Kyo chapters.
Although police said the earlier raids were prompted by allegations of shady land deals and the manufacture of bogus license plates, Japanese media reported that the searches were triggered by accusations that Aum Shinri Kyo members had held people captive and staged bizarre initiation rites.
A January report in Focus, a popular news and lifestyle magazine, described a harrowing initiation process it said the cult has used.
"First, one drinks some liquid. For 20 hours they see hallucinations. One who experienced it said he could see colorful objects, or things collapsing, and that he had no hearing. If during this hallucination one gets a fever, they pour ethyl alcohol on the person's body to reduce the fever. After 20 hours, diuretics and purgatives are given to get the substance out of the body. During this initiation, they have to wear diapers."
Those being initiated then take extremely hot baths, the magazine reported. After being warned by lawyers last year that the initiation was dangerous, the period for hallucination apparently was reduced to three hours or so.
Officials of Aum Shinri Kyo -- whose full name includes a rendering of "om," a Sanskrit word of affirmation or assent intoned as an aid to meditation -- have denied the accuracy of such portrayals.
They say members study yoga, meditation and psychic training to reach enlightenment.