Intrigued, I began my investigation right away. As it turns out, no member of Sukyo Mahikari is lighting him/herself on fire -- but there is no doubt that a heated debate between believers and non-believers is under way.
As I explain in more detail in the three in-depth pieces that came out of this semester-long investigation, Sukyo Mahikari is not a religion; rather, it is a Japanese spiritual practice based around the giving and receiving of light energy (this must've been why my friend's roommate got confused and thought that members light themselves on fire). This light, which members refer to as "a universal life force" that comes from God, is believed to purify the body in addition to the physical world as a whole. Seems harmless enough right? Admittedly, that is the impression I got at the very beginning of my investigation (albeit I did feel that members were a bit pushy when asking me whether or not I would like to receive light when I visited the center), but a deeper investigation revealed some very dark findings. Many people believe this practice, now almost a half-million members strong, to be a Japanese cult that emerged in the wake of WWII. Members are well-aware of these allegations, and even have "is Sukyo Mahikari a cult?" in the FAQ section of the official website. Officials claim that no one is ever coerced into any activity, and while members reiterate that statement, several credible sources that I've had the opportunity to consult -- among them an ex-member and a cult information specialist -- have insisted otherwise.