Does Reiki Have a Buddhist Origin?
For a better understanding of the spiritual correlations within the Usui SystemOliver Klatt, Reiki Master and editor of the German-language Reiki Magazin, summarizes important information related to the practice, initiations, and symbols of the Usui System of Reiki – and opens new perspectives.
We often read today that the Usui System of Reiki has a Buddhist origin or that the spiritual roots of the system are in Buddhism. In my book Reiki Systems of the World, I also suggest the possibility of such a correlation because some of the renowned, internationally active Reiki Masters represent this viewpoint. But what is the actual basis of this assumption? I would like to explore this issue in the following article.
One starting point for considering the Usui System of Reiki within a Buddhist context is that the founder of the system, Mikao Usui, apparently followed a Buddhist practice. With this in mind, it is possible to say that since this system’s founder had a Buddhist orientation defining the core of his spirituality, the origin of the system that he founded was based in Buddhism. Aside from the issue of how extensive the sources are upon which this information is based, the important question is: Is this line of thought actually conclusive? It can obviously be seen in this way. But it is also a fact that when someone creates something new, he must always begin with what is or was there before. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew and became Jesus Christ, which was the beginning of Christianity. Prince Siddhartha was Hindu. He became the Buddha and created Buddhism.
Seen in this light, practitioners of a newly created spiritual path – and this is how I understand the Usui System of Reiki (and Usui apparently also viewed it in this way / see the footnote*) – may be interested in knowing about the historical starting point of this path. However, this is less significant in the spiritual sense. In spiritual terms, the only things that matters are its elements, as well as the inner orientation of this new path – and both prove to be what they are virtually from within. Following this line of thought, it makes sense to now further explore the initial question of this article by taking a closer look at the spiritually significant elements of the Usui System as the first step and examine them to determine if they have a special proximity to Buddhism. Then, in a second step, it appears reasonable to examine the spiritual orientation of the Usui System as a whole and to also scrutinize it for a special closeness to Buddhism. It appears to make sense for both steps to also examine a possible proximity of the Usui System with the other major spiritual traditions and religions of the world. If it turns out that the Usui System actually does have a close proximity to Buddhism but is also close to the other religions and spiritual traditions, then we cannot claim that the system has a "special close relationship" with Buddhism.
Elements of the Usui System
When considering the Usui System on a spiritual level, we notice that the three following elements are primarily significant in the system: 1. the initiations, 2. the forms of practice, and 3. the symbols that are used for them.1. The Initiations
The initiations enable the practitioners of the system to perform its fundamental practice: the laying on of hands. The fact that Tibetan Buddhism also works with initiations, as well as the claim that Usui traveled through places like Tibet on his journeys, has given rise to the assumption that there is a close relationship between the Usui System and Tibetan Buddhism. However, this does not take into account that the performance of energy-transmitting initiation rituals is not a unique characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism within the spiritual world. Other spiritual traditions such as Kriya Yoga, which originated in Hinduism, and Sufism, the mystic path of Islam, work with such initiation rituals.
Furthermore, there is no verifiable source for the claim that Usui was in Tibet and/or studied with Tibetan-Buddhist monks. As long as Usui did not have any contact with Tibetan Buddhism, the fact that the Usui System of Reiki includes initiation rituals actually seems to support the assumption that there is no particularly close relationship of the system with Buddhism. In general, all of the lines of Buddhism other than the Tibetan line do not work with initiation rituals and/or the focus is not on energy transmissions.
Another fact in support of Usui not having developed his Reiki System from Tibetan Buddhism is that the seed syllable of hrih, based upon which he probably created the Mental-Healing Symbol, has less similarity to the Mental-Healing Symbol in its Tibetan-Buddhist form than in its Siddham form. (Siddham is a script of Sanskrit that was developed by Buddhist monks in India and later also reached China and Japan – more on this later).2. The Forms of the Practice
The practice of the First Degree can be described as the core practice of the Usui System. Within the traditional form of the system, it essentially consists of the daily self-treatment with Reiki through the laying on of hands. However, this form of the practice has only developed over the course of decades, especially during the time in which Hawayo Takata, Dr. Hayashi’s successor (who was one of Usui’s successors) shaped what is now the most widespread form of the system, Usui Shiki Ryoho. In addition, the daily practice of this traditional form of the system includes the sincere effort of putting the contents of the five Reiki Principles into action in everyday life. At the time of Mikao Usui’s work in Japan, the core of the practice probably did not yet include self-treatment with Reiki on a regular basis; instead, the primary focus was to recite the five Reiki Principles in the morning and evening, to meditate on their content, and to implement them in everyday life. However, the practice of the system already included elements of the laying on of hands.
The practice of the Second Degree can be considered an advanced practice of the Usui System. The techniques of the Second Degree enable an intensification of the energy flow in working with Reiki, as well as for the practices of mental healing and distant healing. These techniques are made possible through the use of three symbols. In terms of practicing the Second Degree, there are very few differences between the traditional form of the system, Usui Shiki Ryoho, and the original Japanese-oriented form, Reiki Ryoho.
The practice on the Master level consists of performing initiations. While the initiations at the time of Mikao Usui were apparently still carried out without the use of symbols, the symbols associated with the system have also been used in initiations since Dr. Hayashi, Usui’s successor, through whom the system reached the West.
If we look at the individual elements of the practice that are described here, the following can be determined with regard to the question raised by this article:2.1 First Degree
It is apparent that the core practice of the system is the laying on of hands, as well as the spiritual orientation upon the Principles and their best-possible implementation in everyday life; in the original Japanese-influenced form of the system, this also includes the reciting of the Principles and meditation on their contents.
The laying on of hands for the purpose of transmitting spiritual energy or healing powers is not the sole domain of any particular religion or tradition. Instead, this practice can be found in all cultures and religions of the world in one way or another. We read in the Bible that Jesus and his apostles laid on their hands in order to heal. According to reports, kings and saints also healed in the Christian cultures through the laying on of hands. The Koran mentions the healing work of Jesus in many places. It has also been written that Mohammed, as well as many saints of Islam, healed through the laying on of hands. The same has been said of Buddha. There are Buddhist buildings containing reliefs in which the practice of the laying on of hands can be seen. The concept of ki – a vital life force – that can be transmitted through the laying on of hands, among other things, is a basic assumption in Taoism. The same applies to Hinduism, where this force is called prana, for example.
Like the laying on of hands, the contents of the Principles can be found in the writings of almost all cultures and religions. Overcoming anger and worry, a respectful attitude toward fellow human beings that extends to an empathetic attitude, an honest basic orientation in life, both the inner and the outer work in the service of spiritual development, as well as gratitude toward God or a higher power – all of these contents can be found in one form or another in actually every spiritual tradition.
In terms of the practice of reciting and meditating, we can determine that these two forms of spiritual practice can be found in almost every spiritual tradition in one form or another. For example, the Christian culture also has the practice of contemplation, a mental immersion in spiritual topics and relationships that is quite close to the Far Eastern practice of meditation in terms of both its contents and the Principles. In Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, the meditation generally plays a decisive role for progressing in the spiritual sense. The same also applies to the various esoteric teaching systems. Spiritual texts and contents are recited in the rites and ceremonies of all religions.
In terms of the practice of First Degree, no particular proximity of the system to Buddhism can be established. In any case, it is not closer than to all of the other significant spiritual traditions and religions throughout the world.2.2 Second Degree
On the level of the Second Degree, the practice of mental healing, as well as distance healing, have been determined to be the core elements. Both of these are specifically oriented forms of healing work. The Usui System of Reiki works with symbols in this respect.
The practice of distance healing, which means the transference of healing energy over a distance to a person who is not physically present, is an element of the various healing traditions. It can be found in the healing work by shamans of the indigenous peoples, as well as in the work of most spiritual healers, regardless of the spiritual background in which they work. Within the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish context, this primarily means the prayers that ask for healing through God. Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, call upon the help of spiritual beings and/or energy forms for distant healing or a spiritual connection with the person to be treated is established by means of a technique or a previously internalized spiritual principle.
The same applies to the practice of mental healing, which means healing effects on the deep layers of human consciousness that are components of various healing traditions. Consequently, it can be observed that this special form of healing work, which is primarily used by spiritual healers who see their spiritual background as primarily based on the Far Eastern cultures. However, many spiritual healers who see their spiritual background as rooted in Western cultures work with this form of healing; this usually includes Western, esoteric teaching systems or methods of positive thinking.
And, finally, the use of symbols in the respective different contexts – whether in rituals, ceremonies, or in forms of spiritual practice – can be found throughout all religions in every spiritual tradition. In order to make a statement about the respective spiritual context, this obviously depends ultimately on a) the precise form of the symbols used, as well as b) on their precise contents – two points that will be examined more closely in the following section with regard to the symbols used in the Usui System.
Preliminary conclusion: For the practice on the level of the Second Degree, no special proximity of the Usui System to Buddhism can be determined so far. The same applies to the practice on the Master level: As already mentioned above, the performance of initiations is a component of various spiritual traditions.
The Form of the Symbols3. The Symbols
The symbols of the Usui System are elements of the practice on two levels: On the level of the Second Degree and the Master level. There are three symbols in the Usui System of Reiki. These are the three symbols of the Second Degree. Their use enables an intensification of the energy flow, as well as the practice of mental healing and distant healing.
What is generally known as the "Reiki Symbol" is not a symbol in the narrower sense of the word but simply two Japanese characters. One of them represents the term rei and the other stands for the word ki. Both terms of rei and ki are part of the Japanese language, just like the words "universal" and "life energy" are part of the English language. The writing of the two terms rei and ki in Japanese as one word, Reiki, has no special symbolic power to the same extent that writing the two words "universal" and "life energy" in English as one term has no special symbolic power.
The same applies to the so-called "Master Symbol." It merely consists of three Japanese characters that connect three terms of the Japanese language with each other and/or make them into a sentence. Even if this combination of words may have a specific meaning within the spirituality and culture of Japan, this is no reason to assume that this meaning continues to exist beyond the Japanese context. For example, when an American says: "So help me God," then this sentence is usually understood within America – where Christianity is the dominating religion – as referring to the Christian god. But, for example, if this same English sentence is spoken within the scope of a Hindu ceremony in India by a Hindu, then it certainly does not refer to the Christian god.
This same fundamental consideration also applies to the terms or names of the three symbols of the Second Degree, whose contents can also be seen as independent of the specific context that they have within the Japanese culture. From a rational perspective and contrary to many opposing claims, the designations for the symbols are not mantras. Their sound does not contain any special mystic, spiritual energy or vibration; they are simply the names of the three symbols.
The following section is a reflection on the three symbols of the Usui System of Reiki and their names. However, in keeping with both the traditional and the original Japanese school of thought, neither the forms nor the names of the symbols will be revealed in the process since this only appears to be appropriate for initiates of the Second Degree. But anyone who has been initiated into the Second Degree of the Usui System will know what is meant in each case. For all others, the following text sections will probably have little meaning.3.1 The Power Symbol
The essential part of the Power Symbol that basically determines its form can be found in the spirituality and culture of all the peoples of the world. It is also omnipresent in nature, in all life on the earth, and in the universe.
The name of the Power Symbol is a specific Japanese expression that has a cultural context within the history and culture life of Japan. However, what it defines in terms of the content, as well as the nature of its relationship, can be found in the same manner in other significant, larger cultures of the world.3.2 The Mental-Healing Symbol
In order to explain the spiritual context in which the Mental-Healing Symbol, we have to expand our perspective. We can assume that Mikao Usui created this symbol as a further development of one of the so-called seed syllables that is formed from several characters of the Siddham script. As a result, two questions arise initially: What is a seed syllable? What is the Siddham script?
Siddham is a script with which Sanskrit, the sacred language of the Indians, can be written down. Sanskrit, also called the "original language of the gods," has no individual script associated with it. Originally, Sanskrit was just a spoken language. In the beginnings of civilization in India, as well as in other places, everything was just expressed and handed down orally; nothing was written down. A script, which was used by the Indian spiritual teachers so they could write down Sanskrit, only developed at a later point in time. This script is called Brahmi. This developed into other, simpler scripts that also served to write down the Sanskrit, including the Gupta script from which the Siddham and the Devanagari scripts developed. Devanagari is now the most important script in India. In earlier times, it was Siddham.
During the time when Siddham was the most important script in India, it was also used by Buddhist monks to record Buddhist contents in writing. Due to the Sanskrit origin of the Siddham script, the individual characters – according to their pronunciation in Sanskrit – were considered sacred and therefore used as objects of meditation and contemplation. Furthermore, several of the total of 51 Siddham script characters were combined to form each of the so-called seed syllables.
Each of these seed syllables represents the essence of a specific Buddha or Bodhisattva. This is how each important Buddhist entity received its own seed syllable, also called bija, which consists of a combination of several letters of the Siddham script. The combinations were created according to the nature of the respective entity on the basis of the original meaning of the individual characters that composed the combination, derived from their original pronunciation in Sanskrit.
A seed syllable serves the mystic identification of a spiritual practitioner with a spiritual entity or a divine principle. In a certain sense, a seed syllable is concentrated energy, a "seed of the absolute" and simultaneously the principle and origin of being. It enables the direct manifestation of the corresponding spiritual entity or energy form. In meditating on such seed syllables, as well as in the drawing of such syllables, the associated energy or entity manifests directly in the practitioner. Seed syllables exist in various forms within different spiritual traditions; for example, in the Jewish Kabbala, where Hebrew – the sacred language of the Jews – plays a role similar to that of Sanskrit for the forms of spirituality established in India.
As Buddhism spread beyond the borders of India, the Siddham script became the bearer of Buddhist contents in a certain sense – especially in relation to the emigration of Indian-Buddhist monks to China. In this process, the pronunciation of the individual characters, words, and seed syllables – which were based on the Sanskrit – increasingly lost their meaning due to the foreign cultural context and the fact that the Chinese had a language of their own, which they considered highly developed. From their perspective, they saw no necessity for adopting another language. So the pictorial design of the Siddham characters and seed syllables became increasingly important outside of India, especially in China, from that time on.
Centuries later, on one of his trips to China, Mikao Usui may have met with Buddhist monks who taught him the Siddham script. Perhaps he also encountered this script in Japan because the Siddham script had also been spread as far as Japan with Buddhism in the course of the centuries. (Japan is now even considered the country in which the Siddham script has been preserved. Even today, it is still used by the Shingon Buddhists to write down mantras and copy sutras, for example.) In any case, it is relatively certain that Usui was familiar with the Siddham script and therefore also the seed syllables associated with it. And one of these seed syllables apparently served him as the basis for creating the Mental-Healing Symbol: the seed syllable hrih.
The seed syllable hrih, which is kiriku in Japanese, represents a specific Buddha within the Siddham script: the Buddha Amida Nyorai (Amithaba Tathagata). This is the Buddha of infinite light and eternal life. We can read the following about what defines his nature at its core: "He promised to bring anyone who invokes his name with a sincere heart to his pure land. His merits are so great that he can transfer it freely to weak and foolish people who have no other hope for salvation. He is our great friend who will never abandon us. Those who follow him will be freed of all evils." This seed syllable is considered one of the most propitious signs. It ensures good luck.
The seed syllable hrih is formed from four individual characters of the Siddham script. (In the original notation, the "i" has a horizontal line instead of dot; the last "h" is a different "h" than the first because it has a dot beneath it.) In a nutshell, these four letters can be translated as follows: h - karma/cause, r - passions, i - calamity, h - remove, take away. This describes what the Buddha Amida Nyorai does.
In earlier times, this seed syllable was found on the helmets of some Japanese Samurais as a lucky charm in the battle. This seed syllable is still present everywhere in Japan as a kind of spiritual lucky charm. For example, t-shirts and bracelets that have this seed syllable depicted on them are sold in tourist destinations.
For the categorization of these relationships with respect to the question asked by this article, it is important to see that although Usui apparently used this seed syllable as the basis for the Mental Healing Symbol, the Mental Healing Symbol itself is something completely different and new; it is not identical with the described seed syllable. So even if there are parallels in terms of content between the above-described Buddhist meaning of the seed syllable and the statements by Hawayo Takata and Dr. Hayashi on the concrete application of the Mental-Healing Symbol, for example, we can still ascertain that the corresponding statements on the part of Ms. Takata and Dr. Hayashi have been made from a completely different perspective than it has in the Buddhist interpretation. (For example, it has been reported that Takata sometimes spoke to the course participants of the Second Degree with the following emphatic words on the use of the Mental Healing Symbol: "Think very carefully about the bad habit, and then think: No more of this! No more of this!")
The fact that the Mental-Healing Symbol is independent of the seed syllable hrih that inspired Usui to create it is also demonstrated in the fact that the name of the symbol is not hrih or kiriku, but something completely different. The name or designation of this symbol is quite simply two Japanese words that, taken together, actually express a behaviour pattern that must be overcome in order to progress on the spiritual path in any form of authentic spiritual development.
A Japanese Reiki teacher with whom I am friends once told me that, in her experience, Siddham scholars in Japan did not recognize the Siddham seed syllable as the origin of the Reiki Mental-Healing Symbol. Seen from this perspective, we probably cannot speak of a direct, contemporary influence of the seed syllable hrih on the Reiki Mental-Healing Symbol. This means that the form of the Reiki Mental-Healing Symbol stands on its own. It draws its power from within itself and not from another form that has inspired its creation.
In addition: Even if we wanted to create a spiritual relationship between the Reiki Mental-Healing Symbol and the Siddham seed syllable hrih through the above-described historic context, this would obviously not only exist with the Siddham script; consequently, this would also apply to its foundation, which is namely Sanskrit – the ancient Indian sacred language from which all forms of religiousness and spirituality that were established in India, especially Hinduism, have developed.3.3 The Distant-Healing Symbol
The form of the Distant-Healing symbol was developed from the Japanese script. However, unlike the form of the so-called Reiki Symbol and Master Symbol, it doesn’t consist of complete, individual Japanese characters, but is made of parts (!) of them. In the composition of the symbol, Usui supposedly made use of a Taoist combination technique. Is this an indication that Usui also came into closer contact with Taoism during his journeys through China? This can be presumed because the central meaning of chi – which is ki in Japanese – is an energy form within Taoism.
The name of the Reiki Distant-Healing Symbol consists of several Japanese words and includes various (spiritual) meanings that ultimately remain a mystery in their totality. As a result, the translation of these words into Western languages has probably been simplified a bit or reduced to a simple "formula." When written together, two of the five Japanese words that stand for the Distant-Healing Symbol can form a specialized Buddhist term. However, this does not have to be seen as a Buddhist context; not least because the two respective words are not written together in the name of the symbol.
The following can be asserted in general with regard to the nature of Japanese culture in the past and present, and therefore also in relation to the nature of the Japanese language: In addition to a multitude of other influences, it was or still is also obviously subject to Buddhist influences. However, so many other influences of a secular and spiritual nature have had an effect on Japanese culture that it is very difficult to identify a main influence. According to the scholars, a considerable portion of Japan’s mythological writings are based on Indian influences. Within this context, Shintoism – the nature religion of Japan – is also called the Japanese version of Hinduism.
The only possible conclusion here is that even a closer analysis of the precise forms and names of the three symbols of the Usui system does not reveal any particular proximity to Buddhism, except that these forms and names primarily have various correlations with Japanese culture. In turn, this was also influenced by Buddhism. However, it was possible to determine a historical relationship with a Buddhist meditation object in terms of the Mental-Healing Symbol. But upon closer inspection, this historical proximity extends beyond the Buddhist context to the origins of all Indian spiritual traditions and religions.
Healing and Spiritual Development
Now that we have examined the spiritually significant components of the Usui System in relation to their proximity to Buddhism, as well as to other spiritual traditions, this last section – as mentioned at the beginning of this article – will consider the spiritual orientation of the Usui System as a whole and with the same question.
When considering the practice of the Usui System of Reiki with regard to its inner orientation, we can also determine that its core consists of two aspects: 1. the attainment of both physical and mental healing and 2. the spiritual development of the practitioner. In addition, the system can also be considered a path of personal development for the practitioner (although this is certainly not independent of the two first aspects). On the one hand, this means that the system is a method of energetic healing; on the other hand, it is a spiritual discipline. Both of these elements are inseparably linked with each other.
It is probably unnecessary to demonstrate the individual details of why – as is common knowledge – the two aspects of mental and physical healing and spiritual development are components of every authentic spiritual path.
In summary, no special relationship between the Usui System of Reiki and Buddhism is discernible; in any case, no closer proximity than it also has to other religions or spiritual traditions. So the conclusion drawn by this article is perhaps that the Usui System of Reiki has a closer proximity to the Eastern religions and spiritual traditions as a whole than to the Western religions and spiritual traditions as a whole. This applies especially to the practice on the level of the Second Degree, as well as to the Master level.
Copyright by Oliver Klatt
Translation: Christine Grimm
* In a formal declaration by Mikao Usui as to why he publicly teaches the Reiki method of healing, which is right at the beginning of the Reiki Method of Healing Handbook (Reiki Ryoho Hikkei), Usui writes: "Our Reiki Ryoho is something absolutely original and cannot be compared with any other (spiritual) path in the world." (Quote from: Reiki - The Legacy of Dr. Usui, F. A. Petter, Lotus Light 1999)
Books: Sacred Calligraphy of the East, John Stevens, Boulder & London, 1981 / Siddham. An Essay on the History of Sanskrit Studies in China and Japan, R. H. van Gulik, International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 1956 (reprint 2001) / Das Buch der Schrift (The Book of Script), Carl Faulmann, Druck und Verlag der Kaiserlich-Königlichen Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, Vienna, 1880 (reprint Eichborn Verlag) / Sanskrit, Jutta Marie Zimmermann, Stuttgart, 2003 / Erlebnis: Sanskrit-Sprache (Experience: Sanskrit Language), Wilfried Huchzermeyer (editor), Karlsruhe, 2005 / Die heiligen Schriften Indiens (The Sacred Writings of India), Wilfried Huchzermeyer, Karslruhe, 2005 / The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, Inner Traditions, 1998 / Glaubensheilungen in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Faith Healings in History and the Present), Klaus-Dietrich Stumpfe, Self-published by Stumpfe, Cologne, 2007 / The Bible, Herder, Freiburg, Basel, Vienna, 1991 / The Koran, Acacia Publishing, 2008 / The Power of the Kabbalah, Yehuda Berg, Kabbalah Publishing, 2004 / Bhagavad Gita, Nilgiri Press, 2007 / Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse, Wilder Publications, 2009 / Das Tao-Handbuch (The Tao Handbook) Gérard Edde, Windpferd, 2006 / The Healing Buddha, Raoul Birnbaum, Shambhala, 2003 / The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Graham Coleman, Penguin Classics, 2007 / Reiki. Tao Tö Qi. Les Secrets du Reiki, Idris Lahore, Paris, 2008 / The Big Book of Reiki Symbols, Mark Hosak & Walter Lübeck, Lotus Press, 2007 / Reiki - The Legacy of Dr. Usui, Frank Arjava Petter, Lotus Light, 1999 / Das Reiki-Meister Buch (The Reiki Master Book) Frank Doerr (editor), Windpferd, 2007 / Reiki Systems of the World, Oliver Klatt, Lotus Press, 2006
Articles: "Siddham in China and Japan," Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri, Sino-Platonic Papers, 88, Dec. 1998, www.sino-platonic.org / "Bija, Seed Syllables," www.visiblemantra.org / "Japan," Kshatriya Dharam, www.esamskriti.com / "Understanding Byosen Scanning," Frank Arjava Petter, Reiki News Magazine, Spring 2007, www.reiki.org / "Bildwerdung durch Wandlung," Dr. Helmut Brinker, unimagazin, Zeitschrift der Universität Zürich, 2/97 edition, www.unicom.unizh.ch
Audio: Hawayo Takata Teaching the Second Degree, audio cassette, produced by www.reikivisions.com