11 July 2024

While so-called “Johrei” purification practices have existed in Thailand for more than five decades now, the public knew little about the cult until the bodies of a mother and her 12-year-old daughter were found after an apparent suicide pact.

The pair were discovered dead in an embrace, close to the corpses of their two pet birds and a container of cyanide, at their house in Rayong’s Ban Chang district on the morning of January 2. On the bedside table lay a note reading: “No funeral services. Just immediate cremation. Put us in the same coffin. May our deaths bless all universes with freedom.”

The authorities have since confirmed that the deaths were caused by consumption of cyanide.

Police investigators discovered that the woman was a 41-year-old veterinarian who had recently lost her bedridden mother and was battling depression. Though she and her husband had parted ways more than five years earlier, they still lived in the same house.

The husband, who was away at the time of the incident, does not suspect any foul play in the deaths of his wife and child. He told police that his late ex-spouse was a member of the Johrei cult.

Origins of the cult

Joh means “purifying” in Japanese, while Rei translates as “spirit or soul”. According to Wikipedia, Johrei is a type of energy healing practice that was first introduced in Japan in the 1930s by Mokichi Okada.

Claiming he had received a divine revelation, Okada established Johrei or Sekai Kyusei Kyô, which aims to build an ideal world filled with truth, virtue and beauty by solving the difficult problems of illness, poverty and conflicts among individuals, families and society.

Another feature of the practice is surrendering, or offering up all human experiences to God, so the Johrei worshipper can pursue their lives with an open heart and clear mind.

Johrei followers believe that practitioners can channel a “divine light” from their palms to liberate recipients from physical and emotional pain, poverty, and conflicts.

According to Thai Wikipedia, Johrei was brought to Thailand in 1968 by a Japanese man, who spread the beliefs through translations of Okada’s teachings and via agricultural schools. His work was conducted under the banner of a foundation and by 1970, the cult had won some 40 followers and had established Thai headquarters in the heart of Bangkok.

Six years later, the government’s Religious Affairs Department granted the Johrei foundation the status of a Mahayana Buddhist sect. However, that status was cancelled in 1984.

Johrei then functioned as an unofficial sect, and by 2023 its followers had more than doubled. The foundation has set up religious sites in Chiang Mai, Lampang, Sukhothai and Saraburi provinces.

What is expected of followers?

Johrei followers are required to be polite, gentle, calm and clean. Membership costs 100 baht, though members are also required to shell out between 1,000 and 3,000 baht for the purchase of an “O-Hikari” pendant. Membership must be renewed every year at a fee of 150 baht, and all members are required to undergo rigorous religious training upon joining.

The cult reportedly divides its followers into five categories ranging from entry-level to master level, with the latter being members who have renounced worldly life to serve as preachers. Each branch can only have one master-level member.

Each Johrei follower is also tasked with encouraging more people to join the cult.

Concerns over ‘brainwashing’

Critics say the teachings spread by Johrei preachers are very different from the ideals introduced by the founder, and the newer version may even constitute “brainwashing”. They add that some sick followers of the cult had become so obsessed with its so-called healing method that they had rejected modern medicine and treatment, only to succumb to their illnesses.

There is no official record of the number of Johrei believers in Thailand.

The National Statistical Office only records the proportion of Buddhists (93%), Muslims (5.3%), and Christians (1.13%), with others including Hindus, Sikhs, and Confucians making up the remainder.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk