Understanding Reiki History

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Reiki is most commonly practiced in the West as a complementary healing modality, used in conjunction with a variety of other methods such as massage therapy or psychoanalysis. While Reiki can and is used quite effectively as a healing tool, the Western interpretation of the form and nature of it loses something in translation.

To begin with, the word “Rei-Ki” in simplest terms means “universal life energy”. There is nothing in this definition that refers to healing, changing or transforming anything. It is only a particular “flavor” of energy that a Master attunes a recipient to, like tuning to a particular radio station in your spiritual body. It does not bestow the recipient with any kind of super-power, extraordinary secret knowledge or moral superiority. It’s just Reiki.

The History That Got Us Here

A large part of the massive variation of Reiki flavors available today stems from a well-meaning but misguided translation on the part of the original bearers of Reiki from Japan to the West. Here is the original story as taught by “traditional” Masters:

In the late 1800s, Dr. Mikao Usui was a Christian professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. One of his students asked him to demonstrate the healing power of Jesus Christ so that he might have faith in the teachings of the Bible, and Dr. Usui admitted that he couldn’t. He went on a great quest to find this secret knowledge, even going so far as the University of Chicago Divinity School, but to no avail. He returned home in defeat and went on a 21-day fast on Mt. Kurama. At the end of this time, Reiki entered into his third eye chakra and gave him the four symbols of Reiki. He went back down the mountain, healing himself and a girl he met along the way, and then he had a full meal without ill effects. He devoted himself to sharing Reiki with others and gave away healing sessions for free to the beggars of Kyoto. They came back week after week, though, even after being healed because, as he observed, their illness served them. He determined then that Reiki should never be given away for free because people have to be invested in their healing, that there has to be an “energy exchange”.

Fast forward a few years, and Dr. Usui had established a kind of school for Reiki. One of his attuned Masters was a fellow by the name of Dr. Chujiro Hayashi, and the story goes that Dr. Hayashi was Dr. Usui’s chosen successor. Dr. Hayashi used Reiki in his medical clinic, where he met a young Japanese-American patient named Hawayo Takata. Mrs. Takata received a remarkable treatment from Dr. Hayashi and studied under him to become a Reiki Master herself. Mrs. Takata considered the four Reiki symbols given to her as sacred and not to be shared with people who were not studying Reiki. When she returned to Hawaii, she established her own school, so to speak, which was then passed on to her granddaughter, Phyllis Furumoto. Following Mrs. Takata’s death in 1980, Mrs. Furumoto, along with Mrs. Takata’s other students, established the Reiki Alliance, a voluntary organization that outlines the teaching methods and pricing structure for Reiki practice. The Alliance considered Mrs. Furumoto to be the last Grand Master and Lineage Bearer of Reiki.

Those Pesky Historical References

In the early 1990s, real information came trickling out of the East about how Reiki had fared in its homeland separate from the lives of those in the West. Part of what came to light is the real and historically-supported version of the discovery of Reiki:

Mikao Usui was born in 1865 and was a Tendai Buddhist. He was a businessman, but the economy of Japan at the time was a difficult place to maintain a business. He studied Shingon Buddhism from the age of 27, and then started studying Zen Buddhism when he was 53. During this time, he took a pilgrimage on Mt. Kurama, did a 21-day fast and achieved satori. During this satori (or “enlightenment”), Reiki entered through his crown chakra. He realized that he had been given a great gift of healing for himself and others, but that this method of healing would not deplete his personal energy like Chi Gung would. (Chi Gung is another method of energy work that uses the practitioner’s own chi instead of universal energy.)

When he returned from the mountain, he shared this with others, doing pro bono work on the victims of an earthquake in Tokyo in order to create word-of-mouth advertising for his new practice. He established an organization, Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai, to teach others and probably attuned close to 2000 people before his death in 1929. It was during his teaching at the Gakkai that he developed the four symbols associated with Reiki in order to assist certain people in recognizing the sensations of the energy. Usui taught Reiki first as a means of self-healing and enlightenment and only at later stages as a means of healing others.

Dr. Hayashi was indeed one of his Master students. Dr. Hayashi used Reiki specifically as part of his medical practice, and this was the style that Mrs. Takata learned. As it turned out, Usui never declared anyone his “successor”, nor was there ever such a title as “Grand Master” or “Lineage Bearer”. The Reiki symbols are in wide use in Japan, and anyone can purchase jewelry, wall hangings or any number of other accessories bearing their images from anywhere.

What This Means for Current Reiki Practitioners

In much the same way that history reveals new things about old religions, relatively little research has shown that there are vast differences between the Western and Eastern methods of Reiki. The true method of Reiki is such that in the strict Western tradition, there appear to be large gaps in the practice. This is most likely who so many “variations” have been “discovered” in recent years: people are trying to fill in the omissions from the original form.

For the Reiki Alliance, the awareness of historical foundation is a little more serious. The Alliance’s proscription to charge $10,000 for Master-level training and attunement is not consistent with the origin or spirit of Reiki, and additionally the Alliance at one point had even attempted to copyright the term “Reiki” to keep other non-Alliance members from using it. This deepened the rifts that were already forming between the Alliance and other Reiki groups.

The fact is that Reiki is not a system, nor is it a modality. It is a special brand of spiritual awareness that is open to anyone through attunement. It wants you to be happy and healthy, to be able to live free from the bondage of ego and to share the joy you find with others. It does not care if you think it comes from Tibet, Atlantis, Lemuria or Brooklyn: just enjoy it, share it and let it guide you.

The history of Reiki is important to know only in that it gives us a point of reference by which to understand. Regardless of whether the message got garbled a little during its arrival to the United States, one should still be grateful that it is here with us in the Western world today. Without Mrs. Takata, that might not have happened.


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