Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche - Haruki Murakami (2003)

Part II. THE PLACE THAT WAS PROMISED

“In my previous life I was a man”

Miyuki Kanda (b. 1973)

Ms. Kanda was drawn to mystical things as a little girl. When she was 16 she read a book by Shoko Asahara and was so moved that she and her two elder brothers all joined Aum together. To concentrate on her ascetic training she left high school and took vows.

Talking to her, I could understand how Aum Shinrikyo was a kind of ideal place. She clearly found ascetic life far more fulfilling than living in ordinary society, where she could find nothing of any spiritual value. Aum was a kind of paradise.

Of course one could view a case like hers—a 16-year-old girl raised in Aum—as a kind of abduction or brainwashing, but I tend to feel, more and more, that having people like her in the world isn’t such a bad thing after all. Not everybody has to line up with everybody else, jostling shoulder to shoulder, struggling to make a go of it in “this world,” do they? Why shouldn’t a few people be able to think deeply about things that aren’t directly relevant to society? The problem lies in the fact that Aum Shinrikyo was one of the few havens for such people, and in the end it turned out to be corrupt. Paradise was an illusion.

As we said goodbye I asked her if talking with someone from “this world” for so long would cause some uncleanliness to rub off on her. Perplexed for a moment, she replied, “Logically, that’s true.” She’s a very serious person. She offered me homemade bread, which was light and delicious.

Ever since I was little I’ve had mystical experiences. For instance, when I dreamed it was no different from reality. I’d call them stories rather than dreams—they were long and distinct, and after I woke up I could remember every detail. In my dreams I visited all sorts of worlds, had astral-projection-type experiences. I had them over and over, almost every day. In astral projection your body is fixed, your breathing stops, and you can fly. This happened most when I was very tired.

It was different from what you usually call dreams. Everything was extremely realistic. It would have been easier if you could make a clear-cut distinction, and say, “Okay, this is a dream and isn’t the same as reality,” but things very much like those in reality appeared in my dreams and confused me. “Is this reality? Or isn’t it?” Gradually I couldn’t distinguish between the two, or maybe I should say that my dreams became more real than reality. This bothered me. “So what is reality?” I asked myself. “Where is my true consciousness?”

These experiences influenced me a lot. I talked to my parents about them, but they couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. I was a bit on the introverted side, but I had friends and went to school like everyone else. I wasn’t particularly fond of school, though I worked hard at subjects I enjoyed. I loved to read, too, especially science fiction and fantasy. I read a lot of comics and watched cartoons. Math I was terrible at, and I didn’t like sports very much.

My mother often told me: “Study! If you study you’ll get into a good school and find a good job.” The usual things parents say. To tell the truth, I just wasn’t that concerned with school. I couldn’t see the point. My dreams continued. I had all sorts of experiences, and passed through different worlds. It was fun for a time, but it never lasted. It always ended up falling apart. I experienced wars, where lots of people were killed. I felt how fearful death is, and a deep sadness that those around me had died. I realized that this world is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, and suffering is the result of this impermanence.

MURAKAMI: In other words you experienced “another life,” and you arrived at this conclusion after these emotionally charged experiences in a parallel world?

That’s right. I’d never experienced the actual death of anybody close to me, but when I saw people on TV who were sick and dying I realized, “Oh, the real world is impermanent, as well. The same kind of suffering is here, too.” That’s how my dreams and the real world were connected.

I went to a public high school in Kanagawa. Everyone talked about boys, love, fashion, where the best karaoke boxes were, and so on. I couldn’t see any value in this, so I was always left out.

I spent most of my time alone, reading. I wrote things too. Since my dreams were narratives, I felt as if I only had to write them down and they’d become a book. Don’t some writers do that—get an idea from their dreams and write their fiction based on it?

I didn’t really want a boyfriend. When girls around me found boyfriends, I never felt envious. I couldn’t see the point.

When I was 16 my brother lent me some Aum books, saying they were pretty good. I think the first ones were Beyond Life and Death, Initiation, and Mahayana Sutra. When I read them I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!” I couldn’t wait to join.

The books explained how the path to true happiness lay in being liberated. Once liberated, you will gain eternal happiness. For instance, even if in my life I feel happy, it won’t last—but how wonderful it would be if happiness could last forever. Not just for me, but for everybody. In that sense I was quite taken with the word “liberation.”

MURAKAMI: What exactly do you mean by the word “happiness”?

For instance, the happy feelings you have when you’re chatting about all kinds of things with your friends or talking with your family. For me, conversation is very important.

If you ask what liberation, or enlightenment, means to me, I’d have to say that first there is suffering, and liberation is simply the end of suffering. When you reach liberation you are freed from the sufferings of this impermanent world. The books described some practical ascetic training you could do to help you reach liberation, so before I joined Aum I tried this for myself. I’d read the books at home and do asana [yoga] and breathing exercises every day.

My two brothers were attracted to Aum and said they wanted to join. The three of us had similar ways of thinking. My oldest brother experienced almost the same sortsof dreams, though his weren’t as intense.

So the three of us set off for the Setagaya dojo and asked the person at the reception desk for membership applications. We planned from the start to join so we started to fill in our names and addresses, but they said they’d like to talk to us first and led us inside, where we talked with the Master of the dojo. When he asked our motives for joining, all of us said, “Enlightenment and liberation,” which really surprised him. Apparently most people say they want to join to improve their situation in the world or gain supernatural powers and stuff like that.

The Master talked with us about many things, but what I felt most was a great—how shall I put it?—sense of calm, as if the air itself exuded peace. All three of us joined that day. The entrance fee, which included six months of fees, came to 30,000 yen each. I didn’t have enough with me, so I borrowed some from my brothers.

MURAKAMI: Didn’t your parents have something to say about all three of you joining Aum Shinrikyo at once?

They did. At that time there wasn’t a big stir about Aum, so we just told them it was like a yoga study center. There were some problems later, though, when there were all sorts of rumors about Aum.

After joining we spent time folding fliers about Aum, sticking them in mailboxes, or handing them out on the street. It was a lot of fun. I always felt a sense of achievement afterward. I don’t know why, but I felt more cheerful. These service activities built up merit. The more merit you accumulated, the stronger the energy you’d have to rise up to a higher level. In Aum we were always told that.

I made some friends, too. One of my friends from junior high joined and we distributed fliers together. I didn’t go out of my way to make her join, I just told her about the group.

I continued my ascetic practice after joining, and soon I experienced what they call dhartri siddhi. That’s the stage before being able to levitate, when your body starts to bounce up and down in the air. It suddenly happened at home when I was practicing breathing exercises. After that I was pretty much able to do it at will. At first, you don’t even realize you’re bouncing up and down in the air, but after a while you’re able to control it to a certain degree.

In the beginning it’s a real problem. You jump up! [laughs] You don’t know what’s going on. My family was a bit taken aback watching me. I was told that I’d reached this stage fairly quickly. I think that since I was small I’ve been pretty advanced, spiritually.

For a while after joining I continued going to high school as usual while I participated in Aum activities, but as time went on I found my school life pointless—actually, I hated it. What I was doing was the exact opposite of everyone else. To give you an example, my classmates would speak ill of the teachers, but Aum taught us never to say anything bad about others. I felt a strong contradiction there. All high school students can seem to talk about is how to have a good time, but Aum puts into practice the notion that “One should not pursue pleasure.” It’s the exact opposite.

In order to attain liberation, it’s quicker to renounce the world and pursue your practice full-time rather than remaining at home. So I’d had the idea for a long time that I should become a renunciate.

MURAKAMI: Renunciation means abandoning all attachments; were there any attachments you found particularly difficult to discard?

I did feel a lot of confusion and conflict. Up until then I lived with my family, but now I wouldn’t be able to see them. That was the hardest thing for me. And also food—after you become a renunciate you can only eat certain specified things.

My oldest brother had already left college to become a renunciate. My parents tried to persuade him to wait until he’d graduated, but he was adamant. My second brother stayed at home, with no apparent desire to become a renunciate.

My parents cried when I became a renunciate. They tried their hardest to hold me back. But I was sure that if I stayed I wouldn’t be able to be any kind of positive force in their lives. What I sought was not ordinary “love,” but love in a much broader sense. If I really could change myself, then that would be a positive influence for my parents. Naturally, it was hard to say goodbye, but I took the plunge and renounced the world.

After taking vows I was sent for training to the Seiryu-Shoja in Yamanashi Prefecture, then to the Setagaya dojo in Tokyo, where I was assigned to branch activities. I took care of lay followers, those who still lived at home. I was also involved in printing handbills and taking them to followers’ homes, after which they would distribute them. I did feel a bit lonely in this new life, but I didn’t regret my decision. I made some new friends in Aum. A lot of girls the same age as me became renunciates and we had a good time together at the Setagaya dojo. We had lots of things in common. After all, they’d also joined Aum because the world outside seemed without value. I was at the Setagaya dojo for a year, then was transferred to the Mt. Fuji headquarters, where I did office work. I was there a year and a half, then went to Satyam No. 6 at Kamikuishiki-mura, where I prepared “offerings.” This involved cooking food that was then offered to the gods. After it had been offered up, the samana [renunciates] ate it in a service.

MURAKAMI: Meals, in other words. What sorts of food did you eat?

Bread, cookies, things like that—hamburger-type food at one point, rice, kombu, deep-fried dishes. The menu changed a little over time; at one point we cooked ramen noodles. As a rule, it was vegetarian. Soybean burgers.

The number of people preparing the food also changed over time. At the end there were just three of us, all women, all specially selected to work there because these were considered holy offerings.

MURAKAMI: So they decided you had the qualifications to do that kind of work?

Yes, I suppose so. It was really physically demanding work. We cooked from morning to night, and sometimes got so exhausted we collapsed. During one period when the number of samana was particularly high we had to cook even more. It was just work, work, work without a break.

So, for a hundred samana you’d make a hundred portions and offer these in front of the altar. We didn’t just cook them, but had to carry them to the room where the altar was, and line them up neatly, then later distribute them to the samana.

Our superiors decided the menu. I think they based it on the average nutritional requirements for Japanese today. How did it taste? We sometimes served people from the outside, and they all said it was a bit plain. If it tastes too good there’s the danger of attachments increasing, but this wasn’t like a strict rule or anything. Meals that don’t stimulate the taste buds would be a good description. Our goal was to provide the nutrition people needed in their activities, not to make anything especially delicious.

We didn’t really have any special training to be cooks or anything. The Founder [Asahara] often reminded us to “Put your heart into your work.” After we finished the meals we had to wash the machines, and he told us to “Clean them as if you are polishing your own hearts.” I tried to put my heart and soul into the work. Before I took vows, when I still lived at home, I wasn’t much interested in cooking, but the four years I was at Kamikuishiki, I cooked every day in Satyam No. 6.

MURAKAMI: Wasn’t Shoko Asahara living at Satyam No. 6?

Yes. He had several homes, but that was his main residence, though he lived apart from us. Occasionally I saw him. Sometimes he ate the meals we prepared, but that was pretty rare. Someone else prepared his meals.

Along with working, I continued my ascetic practice, and I found myself growing in knowledge. I could clearly understand the state of my attachments, my energy level. And I could adjust my practice to correspond to these discoveries. It took me four years to reach liberation.

MURAKAMI: When you say you reached liberation, was this something the Master decided—like he said, “Okay, you’ve reached it.”

Yes, in the final analysis that’s what happened. There were many conditions you had to fulfill to reach liberation, then the Master would finally determine whether you’d attained it. As a rule, most people attained liberation when they were in the midst of intense, concentrated training. There was a kind of extreme practice whose purpose was reaching liberation. When you were doing this lots of mystical experiences would occur, and when enough of these took place, plus a little something extra, and your mind became clear—that’s when you reached liberation.

Only then were you given a holy name.

MURAKAMI: In your case, ever since you were small you experienced dreams and astral projection and the like, but what happened to these after you became a renunciate and entered Aum?

My spirituality rose even more, and I experienced even more unusual things. And I was able to control them much better. And I could remember my past lives, and was able to see what worlds the people around me would be reborn in next. It came to me in a flash: “This is my past life!”

To tell the truth, in my previous life I was a man. When I remembered things that happened when I was little, pieces of the puzzle fit together. When I was little I was always mistaken for a boy, and I thought it was strange, but if I were a boy in my previous life it made sense.

MURAKAMI: Apart from your gender, how about other things? For example, a crime you committed in a previous life that’s affecting you now?

In my case my experiences when I was little were pleasant, but there were also painful ones. I believe these were because of evil things I had to atone for.

MURAKAMI: I don’t mean to be overly critical here, but aren’t most people like that to some degree? Apart from spirituality or rebirth or anything, most people have something unpleasant happen to them.

I suppose so. Hmm. But I think having those kinds of experiences when you’re still little—when it’s too early for your environment to be a major factor—there’s got to be something from a previous existence that’s having an effect.

MURAKAMI: Even when you have no experience of reality you can still have unhappy experiences, right? You’re hungry but no one feeds you, you want your mother to hold you, but she won’t. Nothing to do with previous lives or anything. There are differences depending on the age you’re at, but I think it’s a question of the “pain” people experience as they struggle to come to terms with reality

But it’s only in certain circumstances that you become aware of it.

When the gas attack occurred I was, as always, preparing offerings at Satyam No. 6. I heard about it from other Aum members. “Something’s happened,” they told me, “and apparently they’re blaming Aum.” I couldn’t believe Aum was involved.

Before this, people said that sarin had been released inside the Kamikuishiki facilities and that we were under some kind of poison gas attack. Actually I thought it might be true, the reason being that a lot of people around me fell ill, including me. Blood came out of my lungs and mouth. I felt so bad there were times I was sick in bed. Later bloody phlegm came out, I had a headache, nausea, and I got tired easily. So I was convinced poison gas had been released. Otherwise so many people wouldn’t get sick at the same time. It had never happened before.

I was shocked when the police raided us. We hadn’t done anything wrong—it was too one-sided to label us as evil. They raided Satyam No. 6 as well. The places where we prepared the offerings were all searched, and they put a halt to our cooking, so we couldn’t distribute meals to the samana. Everyone was forced to fast for a while. The police were frightening. I saw people being beaten up. They were sent flying and got concussion.

MURAKAMI: You were in Satyam No. 6 around the time of the incident. Didn’t you notice anything out of the ordinary going on?

No. I spent every waking moment preparing offerings. I didn’t see or hear anything unusual. Work kept us busy, and we didn’t get out much, so we didn’t know what was going on elsewhere. The friends I talked to most were the girls I worked with.

MURAKAMI: Those who carried out the attack have been arrested and have begun to confess. It is obvious now that Aum was involved. What are your feelings about that?

I heard almost nothing about it. I was living in a remote mountain village. No TV or newspapers, so I had little idea what was going on.

If you wanted to hear the news that much you could get hold of it. I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t think Aum had anything to do with it.

The next year, though, I began to have doubts, when they started to talk about enforcing the Anti-Subversive Activities Law. If that law was enforced all my colleagues would be scattered, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my training, and it would mean the end of the sheltered environment I’d been living in. I’d have to go out and support myself. That frightened me.

MURAKAMI: But a year and a half after the incident you still had no idea Aum had done it?

That’s right. I had no suspicions, and neither did anyone else I knew. Almost everybody in Satyam No. 6 was cut off from the outside world. There was no data coming in.

In the end the number of samana had declined greatly. One by one, people left. Even so, if you left all of a sudden and didn’t have some means of support, you couldn’t live. You have to have something—a part-time job, even—otherwise how can you pay your rent? Samana only receive a small amount of money they’re given each month. People left one after the other. I was just about the last one, like a comb with some of the teeth missing. It got lonely. On November 1, 1996, we were ordered to vacate the Kamikuishiki facilities.

I moved to Saitama, where about ten Aum members were living. Our landlord was open-minded and said he didn’t mind renting to Aum people. Admittedly the place we rented—a kind of office building—was only half finished and no one else would rent it. Everyone worked at part-time jobs so we would have enough to live on and could support the children and old people.

I thought I’d put my experience preparing offerings at Satyam No. 6 to good use and open a bakery on the first floor of our building. My parents offered to put up the capital.

MURAKAMI: Pretty understanding parents.

Yes. They are understanding [laughs]. And that’s how I came to run a bakery. At first we gave it a cute name—“The Flying Bakers”—but the media found out about it. When we registered the business, newspaper and magazine reporters suddenly burst on the scene. The city hall must have leaked the information to the media. Anyway the name of our store came out and was shown on TV. Thanks to which our main customers refused to do business with us anymore. “It’s a store run by Aum followers,” they said.

Ordinary customers wouldn’t buy from us either. We tried to sell over the Internet, but since the name was already known the orders were all canceled. We tried doing business under a new name, but things didn’t go smoothly. Our business customers would transport our goods for us, only to be stopped by the police. “What are you doing there?” the police would ask them. “Don’t you realize that store’s run by Aum members?” We thought about trying to sell our goods elsewhere, but we knew the police would follow us and interfere, so there was no way we could make a living doing that.

Now we sell bread to samana and other followers. We bake it twice a week and deliver it ourselves. Somehow we’re able to make ends meet. We don’t sell to outsiders at all.

The police still hang around outside our store. If people are about to go in, they stop them and check their ID, then warn them that the shop is run by Aum. I suppose they have to make a show of actually doing something. Sometimes the police ask for bread and we give them some. When they ask for more we tell them to pay for it.

Sometimes we take cakes we’ve baked to people in the neighborhood and chat. They say things like, “We were afraid you people were up to no good, but it seems like you really are baking bread and cookies.” The media’s influence at work.

MURAKAMI: After you left the satyam and started living in society what were your thoughts on the gas attack, the incident with the lawyer, Mr. Sakamoto, and so on? The majority of people are convinced Aum Shinrikyo was involved.

Well, it’s pretty difficult for me to put my thoughts in order since there’s such a huge gap between the Aum I experienced and the picture of Aum outsiders have. I’ve begun to think that maybe what people are saying about these incidents is true, but the testimonies at the trials seem to change all the time. I’m still confused about what’s true and what isn’t.

MURAKAMI: Details in testimonies—like who said what to whom and when—have changed, but the fact remains that those five Aum leaders released sarin on the subway in order to indiscriminately kill commuters. What I’m after is your opinion about the attack itself. I’m not criticizing you as an individual, I merely want to know what you think.

Well—I just can’t believe it, or comprehend it. When I was living as a renunciate I never once killed anything—not a single cockroach or mosquito. I’ve practiced that always, and so has everyone else I know. So it’s hard for me to believe this could happen.

I learned about Vajrayana Tantra in sermons, but I never thought it had anything to do with reality. I didn’t base my actions on it or anything.

For me my guru was someone who would help me when I had problems during my training. That’s how I understood it—and in that sense a guru was an important person for me.

MURAKAMI: Was he an absolute presence for you, someone you were absolutely devoted to?

Absolute? … Hmm … Of course the Founder has asked me at times, “Are you able to do this?” but in those cases I used my own judgment and sometimes replied that it would be a little difficult for me to do. I didn’t just say “Yes” to everything, and the same holds true of others I knew. So my impression isn’t that of some absolute presence. Though that’s the image the media has latched on to.

Everyone’s different. I’m sure there were yes-men who did everything they were told, but there were lots of people who had their own ideas and acted accordingly.

MURAKAMI: What if you were in that situation—you saw the Master as an absolute guru, believed he was the only one capable of leading you, and he told you: “Do it”?

Even the people who carried out the gas attack—and I’ve seen this with my own eyes—are people with a strong sense of Self. They are people who have their own opinions and are not slow to speak up in front of others. So I have trouble with your assumptions here. When I think about the way those people were when I knew them, I just can’t imagine them doing it. If I actually saw them carrying out the attack, then maybe I’d believe it, but since I’ve seen and heard so much that contradicts what people say, I can’t shake the doubts I have that they really carried out these attacks.

When I watch the Founder’s trial, there are too many gray areas as far as I’m concerned, so I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude. At this stage I feel I can’t judge anything until the Founder clarifies things. As his lawyer has put it, it’s still not been proved that he actually ordered this to be done.

MURAKAMI: So you’ll reserve judgment until it’s all over?

I’m not saying there’s no way he did it, but at this stage it’s too early to decide. I won’t be convinced until all the facts are on the table.

MURAKAMI: You said your parents put up the money for your bakery. Do you still get along with them?

Once I attained liberation I visited my home, and I would call a few times. There was never any talk of disowning me or anything. They told me to come back whenever I could. It’s impossible for me to return to the secular world. If there was something wonderful there, something uplifting, things might change, but right now there isn’t. I could only find that in Aum Shinrikyo.

My mind did waver at times during the seven or eight years I lived in Aum. When I underwent training, it was like the impurities inside me were welling up to the surface. As you train, you go deeper inside yourself and come face-to-face with your sins, your passions, as they rise up. In ordinary society most people keep these in check by drinking or having a good time, but that’s impossible for those of us in training. We have to confront these things and prevail. It’s very trying. Your heart does waver at times, but as the hesitation subsides you reach a point where you can reaffirm that, “Hey, I can continue my training.” Not once did I seriously consider going back to the secular world.

The junior high friend of mine who entered at the same time is still in Aum and continuing her training. My eldest brother, who also became a renunciate, went back home just before the gas attack. He decided to start training at home again. Hmm—maybe he lost the battle to the impurities that come out, as I said, when you’re training. If you don’t triumph over these, you’ll never reach liberation.