Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What is Sukyo Mahikari?

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.

Young Woman Does Not Take Sukyo Mahikari Lightly

Shoes are lined up on shelves in the small white entry room of the Sukyo Mahikari center on Junipero Serra Boulevard. A cheerful, petite, young Japanese woman wearing a grey cardigan over a collared white shirt and a modest red floral skirt greets me and asks me if I have time to “receive light.” Intrigued, I agree. She asks me if brought any socks with me. I didn’t, so she offers me some from a bin inside a drawer. As I put them on, she asks me to rinse out my mouth and wash my hands at one of the three sinks just outside of the “altar room,” which is referred to as such because of the altar in the center of where the Goshintai – the scroll through which the light is believed to be channeling – is located. She opens the door to the pink-carpeted room and instructs me to kneel in front of her on one of the sets of pillows situated on the floor. I close my eyes while she claps three times, chants the “Amatsu” prayer, and raises her hand to lay it upon my forehead – where she and other members believe that the soul resides. After 10 minutes, she recites the “Oshizumari” prayer before letting me know it is okay to open my eyes. “Do you feel clear?” she asks. Although I don’t feel any different, I am curious to find out what will happen next and I assure her that I do indeed feel clear. She asks me to sit crossed-legged with my back facing her so that she can begin giving "true light" to points on my head and neck. When she is finished, I lie stomach-down so that she can concentrate "true light" into my kidneys, and remain in that position for what seems like an eternity before I hear her calming voice cajoling me from my slumber. I awaken after this 50-minute process feeling relaxed and eager to find out more about this young woman. Atsuko Kajita believes she is a vessel through which, “God’s light” travels.

Sukyo Mahikari: Comforting or Cultic?

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. “They all approach you and say just try it and see,” says Cult Information Consultant Joe Szimhart. “They're very relaxed, very casual.” But when so many are disguised as enticing paths to righteousness, how does one protect oneself?

A Glossary of Terms

If you find yourself stumped when researching Sukyo Mahikari, refer to this list of key terms used by members.

Dojo – A center where people are giving and receiving light energy.

Goshintai – the scroll through which the light energy is believed to be channeling, located in the center of the wall furthest from the entrance (in Japan that is the highest/most respectful spot.

Kenshu – The three-day Spiritual Development Course that one must take in order to become a member.

Kumite (or Kamikumite) – A member of Sukyo Mahikari. Kamikumite literally means “hand in hand with God.”

Okiyome – Light energy (i.e. members of Sukyo Mahikari give and receive Okiyome).

Omitama - The “divine pendant” given to members upon completion of kenshu. It is believed to concentrate the light energy through those who wear it, and protect the wearer, thus members wear it at all times except when swimming, showering, or engaging in any activity that may cause the pendant to get wet or damaged.

Sonen – Innermost attitude (i.e. what one really feels, not what one thinks one feels).

Giving/Receiving Okiyome

When you enter the Sukyo Mahikari center on Juniperro Serra Boulevard, you will be asked to remove your shoes and leave them in the entry room of the building. If you are not wearing socks, you will be provided a pair to wear inside the dojo, where you will be receiving light. Once you have washed your hands and rinsed out your mouth, you will enter the dojo, where a member will ask you to kneel in front of him/her on a pillow situated on the mauve carpeting. Once you are kneeling with your eyes closed, the member will clap three times and chant the "Amatsu" prayer while raising his/her hand to your forehead. After ten minutes, the member will ask you to open your eyes. If you respond "yes" when the member asks you if you "feel clear," the member will ask you to turn your back and sit cross-legged, and he/she will begin giving "true light" to points on your neck. When the member is finished, you will be instructed to lie stomach-down so that he/she can concentrate true light into your kidneys. If you have any specific areas of pain or discomfort,
now is the time to tell them so that you can receive extra light in those areas. You will remain in that position for what seems like an eternity - but is about 50 minutes in reality - before you'll hear the member reciting a closing chant.

Photo Credit: Dalton Blanco

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Sukyo Mahikari?

I've always been interested in religion and all things remotely related -- perhaps because I, myself, can't seem to fathom placing so much faith (no pun intended) on something that has no real basis and presents no concrete evidence. So when asked by my Investigative Reporting instructor to choose a community or organization to adopt for the semester, I jumped at the chance to find some unusual religion or spiritual practice in the Bay Area to be my project. I started by asking around, and almost immediately a roommate of a friend of mine told me that she had heard of a place on 19th Avenue "where people light themselves on fire." That place? The Sukyo Mahikari center, conveniently located across the street from San Francisco State University.

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.