The Roots of Reiki

The second webinar in Dr. Justin Stein’s 2020 series on the history of Reiki examined various spiritual therapies that arose in Japan during the period when Reiki was founded. Dr. Stein is a well-known Reiki scholar and has researched and written extensively on Reiki and its cultural context in which it arose. What follows is a brief summary of Dr. Stein’s second webinar, posted with permission.

Spiritual Therapies in Usui’s Time

According to Dr. Stein, in 1919-1920, Japan experienced epidemics of the Spanish flu, cholera, and tuberculosis. These were diseases that the medical science of the time could not adequately address, thus sparking interest in other healing options. At the same time, there were educated people in Japan who were interested in spiritual development but were not committed to a religion. These conditions led to the growth of what Dr. Stein labels “spiritual therapies.”

At the time, these techniques were known as reijutsu (spiritual arts or extraordinary therapies) and/or seishin ryoho (psycho-spiritual therapies). Reijutsu might include meditation techniques, healing methods, spiritualistic practices (i.e. channeling or spirit communication), and psychic activities (i.e. clairvoyance). In contemporary Japan, seishin ryoho refers to psychotherapy. In the early 20th century, it might have included a variety of practices such as breathing methods, positive affirmations, and hands-on healing, with the intention of healing the kokoro (heart-mind) and/or the seishin (spirit).

In both reijutsu and seishin ryoho, healing the mind and spirit was thought to also heal the body. Practitioners drew a distinction between their healing methods and religion, although they did borrow practices from religion, such as meditation and initiation. During this time in Japan, there were also many new and hybrid religions.

Influences

Dr. Stein explained that Usui Sensei was an enthusiastic reader and scholar, interested in a variety of topics, including spiritual practices. He was likely influenced by various people who were active prior to the development of his own method. These include Tamari Kizo, a theorist who wrote books about spiritual energy. He described a vital force that he called reiki. Spiritual practitioners during the period of 1910-1930 frequently referred to his work.

Tanaka Morihei founded a spiritual healing method known as Taireido. He is said to have gained healing abilities after a period of meditation on a mountaintop. Yogi Ramacharaka (William Walker Atkinson), was an American who combined principles of yoga and western spiritualism into a method of Prana Therapy. This method included transmitting energy through the hands, breath, and eyes; scanning techniques; distance techniques; a stroke down the back to assist circulation; self-healing; and breathing practices to cultivate prana (ki). Suzuki Bizan apparently influenced Usui’s ideas about how to maintain a healthy heart-mind; he published a book in 1914 that used a set of statements very similar to Usui’s Reiki precepts.

There were also contemporaries who may have influenced Usui. Among these were Takagi Hidesuke, who taught hands-on treatment, meditation, and a set of principles very similar to those used by Usui and by Suzuki Bizan. Yamada Shin’ichi was another contemporary; his prana therapy has much in common with both Usui’s system and the practices of Yogi Ramacharaka.

Overall, Usui Reiki Ryoho shared much with the spiritual healing methods of precursors and contemporaries. Gaining power after fasting on a mountaintop was a frequent feature; various healing methods utilized “gaze, breath, stroking, patting”; meditation techniques that concentrate ki and then distribute it were common; and precepts like Usui’s were taught by at least 2 other spiritual leaders.

Distinctions

There are four characteristics of Usui Reiki Ryoho that were unusual for Japan of that period. Usui did not advertise or write books. He was apparently fairly well-known at the time; we don’t know why he didn’t advertise, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary given his contact with a class of people who provided many in-person referrals. Usui’s use of poetry recitation as a way to cultivate concentration was apparently unique at the time; at least 2 of his students carried this technique forward.

The use of symbols and also initiation procedures were also unusual. These both likely came from mikkyo, Japanese esoteric Buddhism. They may have entered into Usui’s practice through Shugendo, an ascetic religion practiced in the mountains of Japan that derives in great part from esoteric Buddhism. Usui might have had other types of contact with magico-spiritual practices. Other spiritual therapies of Usui’s time used techniques from mikkyo, but not specifically symbols and initiations.

Some have questioned whether or not Usui used symbols, and have suggested that the symbols could be a later invention. However, Dr. Stein explained that there is substantial evidence that Usui did use symbols. The Usui Reiki Gakkai uses symbols, and Usui at various points discusses that distance treatment is part of his Okuden training (second degree). From the information that Dr. Stein has been able to access, it appears that three symbols were presented in Usui’s Okuden training and were taught in a manner similar to the way that Takata taught them.

Dr. Stein concluded by stating that Usui Reiki Ryoho had much in common with other therapies of the time, but was a unique combination of contemporary ideas and traditional Japanese practices.

Upcoming Webinars

Dr. Stein’s next webinar is on Sunday, July 26 at 2:00pm EST. It focuses on Hayashi’s work in Japan and Hawaii in the 1930s and 40s. Subsequent webinars are on August 30 and September 27. All proceeds benefit the non-profit Reiki Centers of America and will be dedicated to the English translation of an important Reiki book. For more information, see https://reikicentersofamerica.org/reiki-webinar-series/

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