Sukyo Mahikari is a Japanese spiritual practice that was founded in 1959 by Japanese military leader Yoshikazu Okada, or, as he is known within the practice, "Sukuinushisama," which translates to “salvation master.” Not considered a religion, the practice is centered around okiyome, the giving and receiving of light energy. This light energy is supposedly concentrated in members, and is transmitted when members hold their palm to the recipient’s forehead—where, they say, the soul resides—in addition to the neck, kidneys, and anywhere a person is experiencing pain. This light is not only believed to purify the body, but the physical world as well. "Sukyo," coined by Okada, is a derivative of shukyo, the Japanese word for religion. "Mahikari" by itself means true light (ma = true; hikari = light). According to the teachings of Sukyo Mahikari, which are revelations that Okada supposedly received from God, all humankind comes from one origin - known as Su God, or Creator God - thus meaning that all religions come from one religion.
The teachings advise replacing over-the-counter medicines and chemicals found in food with "God's light," although members insist that those with serious medical issues are encouraged to seek professional medical help. Okada tested out "raising his hand" and discovered, supposedly to his great surprise, that he could heal people by "raising his hand." Initially, the fact that he could heal people by giving light is believed to have convinced Okada that the revelation was genuine. Therefore, he founded his new religion because he believed Su God was telling him what to do, and that all the revelations contained “The Truth.”
By changing the word from “shukyo” to “sukyo,” some say Okada was trying to indicate that Mahikari is not just another religion to emerge in Japan following World War II, but a practice that rises above ordinary religions. Sukyo used to be translated as “supra-religion,” but over recent years that translation has been dropped. Incidentally, the practice had been known as “Sekai Mahikri Bunmei Kyodan” until after his death in 1974, when the group was split into two factions. The “other” Mahikari kept the original name.
The goal, claims members, is to unite everyone and allow everyone an opportunity to deepen their relationship with God regardless of religious background. The practice is based off of many books and readings; the main one being Gosiegen, or “The Book of Holy Words.” These “revelations” were supposedly sent by Su God, or the God of true light, and transcribed by Okada. These teachings advise replacing over-the-counter medicines and chemicals found in food, with “God’s light,” although those with serious medical issues are encouraged to seek professional medical help. “In the years before I became a member of Sukyo Mahikari, I was a pacifist,” says 60-year-old Pat Poelma, a member of the center for 22 years. “I am very grateful to live in the light.”
Anne Broder was a member of Sukyo Mahikari for ten years, including several years, she says, as a “full-time trainee and junior staff member.” ‘Anne Broder’ is a pseudonym she chooses to use when speaking to the media. During this time, Broder was living at the center. Despite devoting almost every waking hour to the organization during that time, she feels that she has learned more about Sukyo Mahikari in the past few years. “Much of my knowledge of Sukyo Mahikari came from my study of its teachings, and the history of it and other Japanese new religions, over the years since I left the organization, motivated by a need to make sense of what I had experienced as a member,” she says.
Currently there are centers, known as dojos, in more than seventy countries and about 490,000 members according to The Encyclopedia of Shinto. According to The Phoenix Flies West: The Dynamics of Inculturation of Mahikari in Western Europe written by Catherine Cornille for The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1991), each dojo is financially self-sufficient by way of donations and the training course each person must complete in order to become an official member. This system of donations has also made it possible to build a large headquarters in Takayama, Japan.
At about $300, the Spiritual Development Course, known to members as kenshu, introduces such elementary aspects of the practice as body points, karma, reincarnation, and transmigration. Because the course is so short, members are encouraged to complete it more than once. Kajita says that many people prefer a shorter course in favor of taking less time away from work and other commitments. Upon completion of the course, new members are given an omitama, a “divine pendant” which supposedly enables those who wear it to radiate the light through their hands. The pendant is supposed to be worn at all times except when swimming, showering, or engaging in any activity that may cause the pendant to get wet. Dropping the pendant, allowing it to touch an “impure” place on the body, or getting it wet are considered signs that one is not behaving correctly in some way, such as having an attitude, or sonen, that is not “in tune” with God. “Since the person cannot give light until the person reattends kenshu and has omitama “purified,” the incident is usually publicly known and highly embarrassing,” says Broder. “Everyone wonders exactly what the ‘sin’ has been! As you can imagine, an omitama accident, or the fear of one, becomes a very useful manipulative tool.” Each month, members attend the "Monthly Thanksgiving Ceremony" held at the center. Non-members are invited to come and receive light during the hours of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Members are encouraged to come in, daily if possible, both to give and receive light. The minimum expectation is that they give once and receive once, but they are urged to give light to as many people as possible.
Additionally, members pledge to practice the following “Ten Points:”
· Diligently practice the art of True Light.
· Do your best to spread the Light and teachings to others.
· Offer gratitude for God’s blessings in concrete ways.
· Follow the will of Su God in an accepting manner.
· Become a practitioner of genuine humility.
· Make mutual concessions, and acknowledge the help of others.
· Maintain purity of the body and soul as well as the physical environment.
· Maintain cleanliness and tidiness.
· Avoid waste, and use materials efficiently.
· Conduct yourself in a calm manner, and do things in an orderly fashion.
In an article she wrote on the subject for the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies last year, Broder points out that the content of the first revelation recorded in Goseigen was changed around the time of Okada's death in June, 1974, even though that revelation occurred in 1959. The first four editions of Goseigen, which were released between 1970 and 1974 do not contain a particular sentence that is present in all subsequent editions of Goseigen. As Broder writes, “According to most published texts of this revelation,
Su God told Okada:
‘You will be made to speak the depth of the teachings, which was not revealed before. The Spirit of Truth has entered your ___. You shall speak what you hear. The time of heaven has come. Rise. Your name shall be Kōtama. Raise your hand [perform tekazashi]. The world shall enter severe times.‘
(Holy Words: Goseigen, 4-5.)
“Raise your hand” does not appear in the first Japanese edition, printed in 1970, the third, printed in 1973, or the fourth printed in 1974 – the year of Okada’s death – while it does in fact exist in all subsequent editions printed after Okada’s death in 1974. But how did this sentence – one that happens to be at the center of the beliefs upheld by members - appear after the time of his death? “In brief, these stories concerning the origin of Mahikari say that God gave the above revelation to Okada in 1959 and, as a result of that revelation, Okada tested out ‘raising his hand’ and discovered, supposedly to his great surprise, that he could heal people by giving light,” she says. “Initially, the fact that he could heal people by giving light was the thing that supposedly convinced Okada that the revelation was genuine. Therefore, he founded his new religion because he believed Su God was telling him what to do, and that all the revelations contained “The Truth.” According to Broder, adding in words to make it seem that God told Okada to raise his hand as part of that particular revelation in 1959 suggests a link between the healing technique practiced by members, "true light," and the revelations from God. "They thus drop any previous beliefs they might have had about unseen spiritual matters and willingly follow Okada's teachings," says Broder. “Sukyo Mahikari controls the beliefs of its members, their beliefs dictate their actions, and you get very dedicated altruistic members - some of the nicest people I've ever met - who often become quite incapable of seeing that they have been manipulated.” When asked for a response in regards to the sentence that is missing from the earlier editions, Poelma preferred that William Roberts, Assistant Director for the North American region, answer on her behalf. Roberts, who is able to read Japanese, confirmed that the sentence is missing from the earliest editions. “The revelations were revealed as much as could be at the time,” he says. Roberts expressed a desire to “check with headquarters” when asked how this sentence could possibly have been revealed after the time of Okada’s death. Headquarters has not yet responded to Roberts’ inquiry.
Michel, who did not reveal his last name, is a long-time member, stating “I’ve been practicing for 23 years and not brainwashed!” Michel said he had never heard of the missing sentence, or of the earlier editions being different in any way. “I don't try to defend Mahikari, as it is based on personal experience,” Michel says. “Many enjoy it and don’t have any doubt.” Michel provided an article that summarizes the practice but the article has been placed in the “Wikipedia Intensive Care Unit” and may be subject to deletion because its “factual accuracy has been disputed.”
Jason Leeper believes that followers of Sukyo Mahikari feel that they are the “new Jews” and that, if they follow the formula set forth in the protocols, the Japanese emperor will become the new king of the world. "Sukyo Mahikari members certainly do not follow the Protocols, but the rest of that statement is true even if it is perhaps a red herring," Broder says. "The post-war years saw many cults emerge in Japan, and many of those promoted nationalistic ideals that included the notion that Japan had a divine duty to save the world by uniting it under the leadership of Japan. If we remove our cultural blinkers, this is not so different to the underlying cultural/religious "justification" that supported Western colonialism and many wars. The only surprising thing is that so many of the non-Japanese members of Sukyo Mahikari seem to accept or ignore the nationalistic component of the founder's teachings. One reason that they do, I think, is that this aspect is downplayed and even denied in material published for consumption outside Japan, even though Sukyo Mahikari is openly nationalistic within Japan.”
Members of Sukyo Mahikari are well aware of these allegations, and posted this statement on their official website as a response: “Members and guests are never coerced into any activity. When people practice Sukyo Mahikari, they do not give up their personal independence or responsibility. Indeed, the opposite is the case since Sukyo Mahikari clearly states that it is important to balance efforts at personal growth, commitments to family, to other people, and to one’s vocation. Nor is it appropriate to focus entirely on giving Light without taking time for study, exercise, or rest. Such commitments are also important parts of growing personally and spiritually. People are free to leave Sukyo Mahikari at any time.”
What Constitutes a Cult?
According to the Cult Help and Information Centre founded by Jan Groenveld, there are an estimated 5,000 cults currently recruiting thousands of members each year in the United States alone. Groenveld compiled a list called the “Eight Marks of Mind Control” derived from research done by Robert J. Lifton, author of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China.
1. Milieu control – “Control of the environment and communication”
2. Mystical manipulation – [Luring members with] “the mystique of the organization”
3. Demand for purity – “Everything is black and white (pure and impure)”
4. Cult of confession – “Reporting to leadership (increases and intensifies personal secrets, making members more vulnerable)”
5. Sacred science – “Their truth is the ‘absolute truth’”
6. Loading the language – “Thought terminating clichés”
7. Doctrine over person – “Doctrine supersedes human experience”
8. Dispensing of existence – “Those in the organization are worthy of life; those outside, worthy of death”
“One way of understanding a cult is a break from a tradition,” says Dr. Michael Sudduth, San Francisco State University’s philosophy and religion department advisor. “Usually cults disown tradition in an important way.”
Sudduth is not familiar with this particular group, but he believes that secrecy seems to be an element in lots of cults in terms of their beliefs and practices. “Typically, there’s some charismatic person that is the leader of the group,” he explains. “Although people who are not religious are going to regard certain extreme groups as cults, such as Jim Jones [Jonestown], many other groups are labeled cults from the vantage point of a particular religion.” In other words, Protestantism was a break from Catholicism, but no one today regards Protestantism as a cult because Protestants and Catholics accept similar creeds.
Broder has a similar definition of the term. “To me a cult is anything that manipulates a person’s beliefs and actions by mixing deception with enough truth to make the whole believable, and then uses fear to maintain a hold over the person,” she says. “The really sad thing is that most of the people doing the manipulating are merely passing on what they themselves sincerely believe.” She points out that those who join cults are often stereotyped as gullible and insecure by society. “It’s a common misconception that ‘cults’ are populated by other people, those who are stupid, or socially inept, or maladjusted in some way,” Broder says. “I think most people think that they themselves could never be sucked into a cult, as if they come with a convenient sign over the door saying ‘this is a cult.’ As someone once said, don’t ask a cult member if he has been brainwashed, because if he knew he was, he wouldn’t be.”