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 says he found enlightenment.
He began to call himself Shoko Asahara and to gather followers for his ostensibly Buddhist religion, which also promotes Tibetan-style mysticism and includes 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--or Aum Supreme Truth--has grown into a sprawling organization, claiming 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. It has amassed huge sums. Asahara and 24 of his followers have run unsuccessfully for Parliament. Supreme Truth has become the subject of media scrutiny here 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 more than 5,000 commuters.
By the time about 2,500 police raided two dozen Supreme Truth facilities on Wednesday, the group already had achieved more than a whiff of notoriety throughout Japan.
"I won't get close to the people in white robes because they'll pull me in," Yutaka Aoki, a junior high student who passed by one of the raided Tokyo facilities, said Wednesday, referring to the garb worn by some Supreme Truth members and to the group's alleged high-pressure recruiting tactics.
In 1990, in sweeps similar to those carried out Wednesday, 1,000 police raided 14 Supreme Truth 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 at the time that the searches were triggered by accusations that Supreme Truth members had held people captive and staged bizarre initiation rites.
Asahara, commenting then, quickly assumed the stance of persecuted victim, declaring in a nationally televised news conference: "Globally expanding religions have always been oppressed by the powers that be."
Police initially claimed Wednesday again to be acting in a kidnaping investigation. But no one doubted that a key motivation for their raids was to seek evidence that might link Supreme Truth to Monday's release of deadly sarin nerve gas in Tokyo's subway system during morning rush hour.
About 20 group followers rallied Wednesday outside Supreme Truth's main Tokyo facility to protest the police raids. They waited quietly, some looking blank-faced and glassy-eyed, while police went through the building.
But after officers carried two boxes from the building, one member shouted out, "We're against religious oppression!" The rest took up this chant, going on to shout slogans: "Stop neglecting human rights! Give us back privacy! We're against the illegal raid!"
They declined, however, to be interviewed about their group and the concerns many have about it. Those suspicions have been fanned by articles in Japanese media that have portrayed the group, legally registered here in 1989 as a religious organization, in a chilling light.
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 lawyers warned last year that the initiation was dangerous, the period for hallucination apparently was reduced to three hours or so.
Officials of Supreme Truth--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.
In Russia, the group's highly visible growth in Moscow has also been controversial. It started there in 1992 and claims to have 30,000 followers in Moscow alone--an assertion generally accepted as true.
Members are actively recruited in advertising, and the general sense of hopelessness felt by many Russians in these transitional times contributes to the group's appeal.
The group is fighting a lawsuit--filed by parents and other relatives of members--seeking a little more than $4 million. They assert that Supreme Truth leaders caused "moral and physical damage" to Russian group members.
The Russian branch of Supreme Truth is also under investigation by a district prosecutor's office in Moscow for alleged swindles in property purchases. It now has six "temples" in Moscow, all of which are huge apartments adorned with pictures of Asahara.
He himself has contributed to the eerie air that surrounds Supreme Truth.
Asahara has said, for example, that he has been the target of poison gas attacks.
Focus magazine said that Asahara, in a speech published in Supreme Truth's newspaper in May, said: "I've been predicting my death to you. This time, the first death, which has now become clear, is from a poison phenomenon such as sarin. Next time it might be an atomic bomb."
While such comments about multiple deaths could be interpreted as being based on the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, these comments were nonetheless described by Focus in its January report as "not understandable to outsiders."
Focus also reported that in a speech in March of last year, Asahara declared: "There is a possibility that Aum Supreme Truth may not survive. It has been put into a situation where it is possible that everyone may get a special disease or commit mass suicide."
Wednesday, the group issued a statement in Germany that appeared to deny that Asahara, whose whereabouts are unknown, ever made such comments. It charged, instead, that the Japanese government plans to murder sect members.
"A recent report spoke as if we were going to commit suicide," said the statement, attributed to Asahara and distributed by his group in Bonn. "This evidently demonstrates their intention of killing us and making it appear to be mass suicide. If it is reported that our order committed suicide, understand that we were killed by the Japanese state authorities."
Valery Zybkovets, an official with the Moscow government committee on religion, said that Supreme Truth in Russia is "a very rich organization. . . . They are buying a lot of TV and radio time to advertise themselves. They are also buying a lot of property (apartments to use as temples) in Moscow. I may not know all the facts about them, but after dealing with these people I can say one can hardly accuse them of terrorism or any such aggressive activities. They may be eccentric, but they are definitely not terrorists."
But Zinaida Zakharova, a physician whose 25-year-old son, Oleg, left home to join the group and has never been back, is not so sure.
"Anything can be expected of them," she said. "The young people they convert are like robots. They no longer have any ties with the surrounding world. They can be programmed to commit anything if their leader should wish so. They think of Asahara as god, and there is only one law for them: his word."
Megumi Shimizu and Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau and Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.