Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Q&A Robert J. Lifton: Gurus


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Robert J. Lifton's new book, "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism," is a study of the Japanese group that attacked the Tokyo subway system with poison gas in 1995. Previous books include "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism; A Study of Brainwashing in China," "Death In Life: Survivors of Hiroshima" and "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide."

Altered states resulted from intense forms of religious practice -- especially from the oxygen deprivation bought about by yogic rapid-breathing exercises -- and, later on, from the use of drugs like LSD. But they were all attributed to the guru's unique spiritual power and so were considered indicators of one's own spiritual progress. There was nothing more important to disciples than to hold on to those mystical experiences, for which purpose they could numb themselves to immediate evidence of violence around them -- or join in that violence.
   "Destroying the World to Save It"

HB: "Destroying the World to Save It" seems to be a kind of culminating work for you. It brings together so many of your concerns.

RJL: It isn't that I decided that now I'll do a culminating work; it was rather my encountering Aum Shinrikyo and sensing very quickly it seemed to live out all the horrors that I've been studying in one way or another.

HB: How well-known in Japan was Aum Shinrikyo prior to the poison gas?

RJL: It was very visible and, at the same time, not well-known at all. It was visible in that it was aggressive and dramatic, and Asahara was a television personality who had various brushes with the law. On the other hand, when the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway took place, Japanese scholars were inundated with phone calls and requests for information and very few them knew much about the group.

HB: "Destroying the World to Save It" is, perhaps above all, a study of the dangers of gurus and what you call guruism. But haven't our religions always adored gurus, rabbis, teachers of all sorts in the way Aum Shinrikyo adored Asahara?

RJL: I have a good friend who was a serious Zen Buddhist, and became deeply troubled by this work for the very reason that you're raising, the pitfalls of guruism. It's a very fine line. Anybody who opens himself or herself to a guru is to some degree at risk. I myself am restrained, reluctant, skeptical about anything that smacks of totalism. It has to with my work. My very first study was about Chinese thought reform, way back in the '50s.

But I don't think one can put down all work with gurus on the basis of my study of Aum Shinrikyo. What one can do and probably should do if one is working with a guru or in a religious experience that involves a guru, is raise questions about whether that experience is in the service of opening one up or closing one down -- taking over one's mind, owning life and death, as I put with Asahara. That may be a difficult determination but it's the kind people have to make.

HB: The problem is that it seems you get the full benefit of the guru to the degree that you surrender yourself. You quote a scholar who calls this the "ecstasy of merger" with the guru.

RJL: Guruism can become an addiction, no doubt about it. Aum Shinrikyo really shows this. The guru is internalized as the only significant element of one's life. In Aum Shinrikyo, the more dangerous and bizarre the guru's behavior and statements were, the more the high disciple was expected to follow without question, as a severe and ultimate test of his virtue. Because virtue lay only in absolute submission to the guru.

HB: As you point out, the whole issue becomes more significant now because of weapons of mass destruction.

RJL: If you surrendered to a mediaeval guru, you could kill lots of people, and they did. And if you were deep into the Book of Revelation, as many groups were. you could do it in the name of bringing about an end of the world. But you couldn't realize the vision of the end of the word by your own hand; you didn't have the weapons. In that sense, the perils are greater today, the issues more ultimate. Aum Shinrikyo is the first example of absolutely extreme guruism -- ultimate guruism and ultimate weapons combined in a project to bring about the end of the world.

HB: You make a general connection between guruism and millenarian movements.

RJL: Millenarianism seems almost always to involve guru-like leaders.

HB: Can you have a guru who is not effected by millenarianism?

RJL: Of course. And you can have an apocalyptic movement without a guru. That's the way I describe much of right-wing extremism. Timothy McVeigh carried around the Turner Diaries wherever he went, sold it at gun shows, revered it and was said to sleep with it under his pillow. The Turner Diaries is an apocalyptic and millenarian book in the extreme.

It talks about a revolution on the part of developed members of the white race which finally succeeds through nuclear war. The triumph lies in the mass killing of all Jews and all non-whites, first in the United States and then throughout the world. So it's apocalyptic and millenarian but there's no central guru -- except at the end there's a hint of what I call a guru in the wings, and that is none other than Adolph Hitler. The book declares that the white world was finally achievable on the 110th anniversary of the birth of the "Great One."

HB: So Hitler was a guru, in the sense you use that word, and the Nazi movement a kind of cult, even though Nazism was ostensibly secular.

RJL: Doesn't matter whether the rhetoric is secular or religious. It can be equally guruistic, equally totalistic and equally violent. And the language of the Nazis was full of religious rhetoric. The 1,000 year Reich -- what could be more millenarian than that? And they're now seen by all sorts of scholars as a millenarian movement. But Hitler was different from Asahara, in the sense that everybody in Aum Shinrikyo was supposed to become a clone of Asahara, a version of Asahara, whereas the Nazi movement sacralized the leader as such. You weren't supposed to become Hitler, you were supposed to be absolutely submissive to him.

HB: There's the sense, in the millenarian groups you describe, that a certain kind of action can strike the match to the world as we know it, bringing on the final breakdown and transformation.

RJL: A big issue here is how much a group is dedicated to forcing the end. There are all kinds of groups in the world that anticipate Armageddon. But groups are a little different when they actively seek to bring it about. They can seek to do it in a small way by striking the matche, as you say, or in a big way, as Aum Shinrikyo imagined itself doing -- literally initiating World War III, and that leading directly to Armageddon.

HB: I have some questions about your following Norman Cohn's "Pursuit of the Millennium" so closely. Cohn was writing shortly after World War II, and tended to read all of millenarian history in the light of Hitler. For him it's all proto-Nazi. But is that necessarily the case?

RJL: Cohn doesn't by any means give a full story of millenarian movements in the Middle Ages. But he does take from them certain trends and characteristics that we see later in Nazi-like behavior. That's valid, but only part of the story.

HB: How did Aum Shinrikyo come by its anti-Semitism?

RJL: It turns out there's a long history of anti-Semitism in Japan, which doesn't begin with the Nazis at all. It begins with modernization, in the late 19th century, when Jews came to symbolize the enormous changes the Japanese had undergone since the Meiji restoration. These nineteenth-century anti-Semitic writings were rekindled by the Nazis. Much more recently, in the '70s and '80s, there have been best-selling Japanese anti-Semitic volumes. Asahara is also thought to have been influenced by neo-Nazi groups with outlets in Tokyo. One of the last publications of the Aum Shinrikyo magazine had a vast and intensive attack on Jews, using traditional anti-Semitic stuff of every kind.

HB: It's interesting how many different religions and traditions feed Asahara, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

RJL: Eclectic apocalypticism, yes. But it's interesting that in the year or two prior to the sarin attack on Tokyo, Armageddon was Aum's central image of the end of the world. There are lots of Hindu and Buddhist endist influences but they're not quite the same. Hinduism and Buddhism, tend to talk about a moral decline over hundreds of thousands of years; in the Kali Yuga, eventually there's Shiva dancing the cosmos to death in order to recreate it. But Christianity is much more direct about cause and effect in relation to ending the world. Armageddon has a relatively concrete story of the final battle between good and evil. In that sense, when you are absolutizing the end of the world you are likely to seize upon Armageddon no matter where you start out.

The eclecticism and the multiplicity of Asahara's borrowings is very contemporary. It's protean, to use my own term, a dark aspect of proteanism, to say the least. Proteanism simply means minds that are many-sided in relation to recent and contemporary history. All of us have some proteanism in us, and Asahara was very protean as a guru. That's true to some extent of many Japanese new religions. But Asahara's Proteanism was extreme, and impressed many disciples because it was so many-sided. It absolutized the end from so many sources.

HB: You write about Asahara's interest in science and, for example, about disciples looking for techniques that would allow them to sample his brainwaves.

RJL: Almost all contemporary cults need to see themselves as science, given the enormously high status of scientific truth in our time. Asahara went much further and wanted scientific proof for the absolute truth of his religion. Also, he wanted to enhance his methods of manipulation by using science, as in using drugs to enhance so-called mystic experiences in disciples.

He was, and perhaps is, though it's hard to speak about his present state, a highly intelligent man. In people like Asahara and Hitler also, you can get a kind of superficial brilliance. Asahara could sense a lot of what science was saying and grasp something of what neurology meant, what brain waves were, what various kinds of drugs were capable of doing to the mind. He wanted all this to be in some way subsumed to his mission. You can't underestimate the dimension of his megalomania. For example, when one of his chief disciples says, the master has long superseded Einstein, science is brought within the sphere of his megalomania.

HB: You also talk about the appeal of science fiction to cults.

RJL: Heaven's Gate members imagined themselves in the Star Trek universe.

HB: You write that the ones who committed suicide called it an "away team."

RJL: That's rather poignant and touching and almost funny. Science fiction writers respond to some currents in their time but imagine something beyond what's happening. And that's what a prophet is trying to do. Asahara was a prophet who wanted the whole experience to be acceptable within a scientific mode. There then develops a deep confusion between the narrative of science fiction and the narrative these people are living out. At some point they cease to know which it is they are in.

HB: At one point you quote Charles Manson saying: "I'm a guitar, a cup of coffee, a snake, a pocket full of names and faces. I see myself in the desert as a rattlesnake, a bird, as anything. You guys are stuck play-acting as humans. I don't need to be human."

That's powerful stuff.

RJL: It's proteanism going mad. These gurus, Manson included, can be very talented, adept at grasping feeling tones central to their time and taking them further. Their power comes from promising their followers an extraordinary vitality on the one hand, and something eternal or immortal, on the other.

HB: What is Aum Shinrikyo up to now? Are they waiting for the second coming of Asahara?

HB: It's very hard to say. It seems unlikely that anyone will be able to rival Asahara in the minds of the group members. But the continued existence of the group -- there may still be something like 2000 members and who knows how many people at varying degrees of involvement -- suggests to me the depth of Japanese social confusion and the antagonism of young and not so young people toward the society. It's a very intensely divided and pained society, the very opposite of what it appears to be from the outside.

HB: How did Aum Shinrikyo get supporters in Russia?

RJL: They certainly did have a lot of followers there, some 30,000. There are two very important forces that lent themselves to Aum Shinrikyo's success in Russia. One is the classical Russian fascination with mysticism. The second is the obvious one, the breakdown of Russian society to an extreme degree during the last years of the Soviet Union, a breakdown that was occurring in people's minds before the Soviet Union gave way to post-Soviet Russia.

HB: When did you first formulate the distinction between proteanism and fundamentalism?
RJL:The first essay I wrote on the protean self was published in the early '70s. I wrote a lot of things about it after that and referred to it all the time. And over those years, fundamentalism loomed larger and larger. The juxtaposition became riveting in looking at Rushdie and Khomeini in the early '80s.

Over the course of the '80s, I began to think of fundamentalism as the underbelly of proteanism. You could see all of fundamentalism as a reaction to protean possibilities and protean confusion. In "The Protean Self," I talked about how the word, "fundamentalism, " was coined, early in the 20th century, to refer to the fear of losing the fundamentals of Protestant belief. That fear of losing fundamentals accompanies the expansion of protean tendencies.

HB: You talk about the limits of proteanism being disassociation or disintegration of the personality, and you talk about the limit of fundamentalism being stasis.

RJL: Fundamentalism can also collapse under its own demands. Fundamentalist religious practice is likely to be very dynamic, asking for more and more beliefs that are hard to sustain. So fundamentalists have a kind of second self, a kind of doubling, as I call it, in which they live in regular culture, not in Armageddon.

HB: You mean there's a part of the self that doesn't subscribe, that stands apart?

RJL: When you're in the cult, the alternative self, the non-cult self may not be conscious at all. You may be truly and totally immersed. However there could be moments of doubt. Many people have a story about leaving Aum Shinrikyo -- before being forcibly retained or coming back voluntarily -- showing that there is some sort of contrary self that can at least have moments of doubts. There's so much milieu control in the cult environment that it's very hard to render those doubts conscious, and the impulse is to bury them as soon as one can.

HB: Doesn't the cult call doubt a function of unworthiness, a sign of your lack of faith or commitment?

RJL: Absolutely. All totalistic movements do that. That's what I learned by studying Chinese thought reform. Any doubts you had about the Communist world view and system had to do with your residual bourgeois influences. For Aum Shinrikyo it would be the residual defilement -- that was a favorite word -- coming from a society that was totally defiled. Much of the psychological work of any such cultic movement is an overcoming such doubts.

It's modestly hopeful that the self doesn't seem to be completely taken over and is likely to have some glimmer of doubt or protest. It's not overwhelmingly hopeful by any means because groups can succeed in doing their dirty work while those who contribute to it have doubts. Nazi doctors had lots of doubts, as I found when I interviewed them, plenty of inner conflicts about what they were doing but they sufficiently overcame those doubts to involve themselves in the killing.

HB: Speaking of hope, you have studied some of the century's most horrific events, the heaviest stuff. How do you cope with it?

RJL: It effects me, of course, it takes me to certain kinds of poetry and writing. I've always been fond of the poets a little bit older than my generation. Peter Roethke is a favorite of mine, Stanley Kunitz is both a favorite and a friend, Robert Lowell -- all of them talk about the issues a lot.

For me, the very act of doing the study and seeing it through is a way out of despair. Maybe the most extreme personal experience I had was studying Nazi doctors. Being Jewish meant a personal involvement with the subject. When I was struggling through a lot of pain while doing the Nazi doctors, one thing that helped was my sense of the intellectual's revenge. I would write my book. I had all he conflicts authors have about writing a book and writing a good book but I knew I would write that book.

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