The Origins of Reiki

The Origins of Reiki

Most of those who have heard of Reiki will know it as an alternative or an holistic therapy, with similarities to other healing-by-touch practices such as spiritual healing.

There are differences: Spiritual Healing is a form of mediumship in which a naturally gifted person channels or donates energy to effect a cure. Reiki Healing is energy channelled by a person that has had their Reiki awakened.  Reiki is within us all, it is not something someone can give you.  Once awakened you can then begin to heal yourself, and later you may go onto offering others the opportunity to heal also. Reiki is based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and energy transfer techniques like Chi Kung, but unlike Chi Kung, the healer does not donate their own energy, but acts as a channel for the energy, without being drained themselves.

In the west, Reiki’s primary purpose is seen as that of a healing system. While it’s certainly true that Reiki can be used to heal, that’s only part of the story. In fact, in terms of the system from which our western Reiki is derived, the healing of others was seen as a side-effect - an incidental, if useful, benefit. The original system was developed in the late 1800s by a man called Mikao Usui, who for part of his life was a Japanese Buddhist Monk. In its original form, ‘Reiki’ was a path to 'enlightenment' and the original impetus for the development of the system was experiencing the personal benefits that would be obtained if one could come to know one’s true purpose in life and be content. There are spiritual exercises within the original system that have only recently been passed to the West.


The original Japanese form of Reiki is very different from the way that it has ended up being practised in the West, and we are even now only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the depth and enormity of Usui’s system. The original system, called Usui Teate (pronounced TEE-ahh-TAY) or Usui-Do (Usui’s Way), was a spiritual path: a path to enlightenment, based on committing yourself to carrying out meditations and self-healings, receiving regular spiritual empowerments, and receiving training in an open ended fashion. The payoff was experiencing the personal benefits that would be obtained if one could come to know one’s true purpose in life and be content. This is rather like the way that martial arts are taught in the West today: you keep turning up and slowly developing your skills, and when it is thought that you have progressed sufficiently, then you are allowed to move on to the next level of training.

To understand the circumstances that gave rise to the development of the system we know today as Reiki, it is helpful to understand a little of the history of Japan.

Prehistory: Before 300 BC, Japan was unimportant in the Far East. China was the great mover and shaker of the times, having a sophisticated society with a rich language and literature traditions. An innovative and practical race, they excelled in science and the arts, making invention after invention, but were weak on capitalising on them. At that time, the inhabitants of the Japanese islands were gatherers, fishers and hunters with an Emperor, who was said to be descended from the Sun Goddess. There is no evidence that a written language existed in Japan at this time.

2nd Century: Around 100 BC, Japanese agriculture became widespread, social classes started to evolve, and parts of the country began to unite under powerful land owners who came to rule Japan. Political power struggles were constant, as were minor wars and skirmishes. The political power was now in the hands of the clans, with the emperors only acting as the symbol of the state. Despite the fact that the effective power of the emperors was limited or purely symbolic throughout most of Japan’s history, all actual rulers respected the emperors and were keen in having the imperial legitimisation for their position as rulers of Japan. It is interesting to note that emperors have reigned over Japan since this time, and that they have all descended from the same imperial family.

Shinto (which means "the way of the gods") the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, is a polytheistic religion which has neither a founder nor sacred scriptures such as the sutras or the bible. Reverence is given to the sacred spirits, called "Kami" which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some holy places. The Sun Goddess (Amaterasu) is considered to be Shinto’s most important kami.

6th Century: Acupuncture came to Japan in 502 AD. The Chinese government of the day presented the Mikado (Emperor, or Tenno) of Japan with the "Canon of Acupuncture". Zhi Cong (pronounced Gee Tsong) brought charts of Acupuncture and Moxibustion and other medical texts. Somewhere between 540 and 550, Buddhism was introduced from China, closely followed by Confucianism and Taoism. Kanji (Chinese writing) began penetrating Japanese culture in earnest and the Chinese system of medicine was also adopted. The introduction of Buddhism was followed by a few initial conflicts, however, the two religions were soon able to co-exist harmoniously and even complement each other. Many Buddhists viewed the Kami as manifestations of Buddhas.

7th Century: In 620, the Japanese government sent doctors to China to study and issued an imperial decree to copy the medical educational system of the Chinese Tang dynasty. It set up a speciality of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. The Japanese embraced these practices, as they have embraced many things Chinese over the millennia and developed them along their own lines. In 645, new governmental, administrative and tax systems were established after the Chinese model; these were to last until the rise of the military class (samurai) in the 11th century. During this period, the imported Chinese influences were "Japanese" and absorbed into the culture.

17th Century: In 1633, the Shogun forbade travelling abroad and almost completely isolated Japan in 1640, by expelling all Foreigners except the Dutch and Chinese, who were confined to special trading centres in Nagasaki only. In addition, all foreign books were banned. No Japanese were allowed to leave the country. Christianity was declared illegal and all Japanese were forced to register at Buddhist temples. Those Japanese who refused to renounce Christianity were executed, so were a number of the European missionaries who refused to leave the country.


18th Century: Towards the end of the 18th century, external pressure started to become an increasingly important issue, when the Russians first tried to establish trade contacts with Japan without success. They were followed by other European nations and the Americans in the 19th century. Eventually, the Shogun was forced to open a limited number of ports for international trade in 1853. Anti-government feelings were growing and caused other movements such as the demand for the restoration of imperial power. In 1867, the Tokugawa government began to fall because of heavy political pressure and the power of the Emperor as ruler was restored.

Mikao Usui: In the midst of all this, Mikao Usui was born on 15th. August 1865 in the village of ‘Taniai-mura’ (now called Miyama-cho) in the Yamagata district of Gifu prefecture of the Japanese capital city of Kyoto. The Usui family were Tendai Buddhist followers. They came from a Samurai background and were ‘Hatamoto’, which means they were from the higher Samurai ranks. In 1868, three years after Usui’s birth, Japan opened its doors to the outside world after many years of being a closed country. The opening of Japan brought about an explosion of new ideas. Education was revolutionised according to European models and a decade or two of intense "Westernisation" occurred. Inevitably, the pendulum swung and produced a revival of conservative and nationalistic feelings. The principles of Confucianism and Shinto including the worship of the emperor were increasingly emphasised and taught.

Japan searched for itself and, in both arts and sciences, native Japanese movements became increasingly popular. Martial Arts such as Juijitsu and Aiki Jutsu were developed and new ones, such as Aikido, emerged from them at this time, many with spiritual values at their foundations, as were a number of Japanese Teaté or palm healing methods. Usui grew up during this period: Japan was a melting pot of new ideas, with many new spiritual systems and healing techniques being developed. At the age of four, Usui was sent to a Tendai Buddhist monastery which gave foundation to his interest in spiritual development and healing. He would have studied ‘kiko’ (the Japanese version of Chi Kung) to an advanced level - and maybe practised projection healings. He followed the Buddhist teachings all his life and became a very spiritual man. Around the age of 12 he started practising the Martial Art of Aiki Jutsu, eventually reaching the highest level of Menkyo Kaiden by his mid twenties. He also reached high levels in several other of the most ancient Japanese methods.​

His memorial states that he was a talented hard-working student, he liked to read and his knowledge of medicine, psychology, fortune telling and theology of religions around the world, including the Kyoten (Buddhist Bible) was vast. At some point in his life he became a Buddhist Monk/Priest (but still having his own home, not living in the temple). This is called a ‘Zaike’ in Japanese - a priest possessing a home. He was a Tendai Buddhist and remained so all his life. As a young man, he worked as a businessman and as a diplomatic ‘aide’, a term which was often used as a euphemism for a bodyguard. It is during his time in diplomatic service that he may have had the opportunity to travel to other countries, including America, Europe and China.

He was interested in a great many things and seems to have carried out a great deal of research at the large University library in Kyoto, where sacred texts from all over the world would have been held. Mikao Usui was wondering what the ultimate purpose of life was and set out to try to understand this. After some time, he finally experienced an enlightenment: the ultimate life purpose was ‘Anshin Rytsu Mei’ - the state of your mind being totally in peace, knowing what to do with your life, being bothered by nothing. With this revelation, Usui researched harder, for 3 years, trying to achieve this goal.

According to his memorial, this prompted him to go to Mount Kurama and to carry out a 21-day Tendai Buddhist meditation and fast called the ‘Lotus Repentance Meditation’ and, at the end of it, he experienced an enlightenment or ‘satori’ that led to the development of his system. There is, however, evidence that Usui had actually been teaching his spiritual system for several years before carrying out the meditation mentioned on his memorial. It is however entirely possible that a satori may have crystallised certain aspects of the system, but this is speculation.

Usui’s healing technique is based firmly on the esoteric principles that were represented in Japan in the early part of last century. It is based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and energy transfer techniques like Chi Kung. Even martial arts, at which Usui excelled, develop into healing systems at the highest levels. Reiki draws upon ‘mystical’ Tendai Buddhism and Shintoism in terms of the use of symbols within Reiki, and Tendai Buddhism in terms of the energy exercises and traditional empowerments that are only now emerging from Japan. Usui brought together all these various strands in a unique way. His technique allows anyone to be connected permanently to a source of healing energy. Once attuned, you can channel this energy without having to dedicate yourself to many years of practice, and it is possible for anyone to learn how to bestow this ability on others through a simple connection ritual.

The original impetus for the development of Usui’s system was the personal benefits that would be experienced if one could come to know one’s true purpose in life and be content. It seems that there are further spiritual exercises within the original system of Reiki that have yet to be passed to the West. The healing benefits were a useful extra. In its original form, Reiki was a path to enlightenment. Originally, Usui referred to the healing part of his system as Teaté which means ‘hand healing’ or ‘hand application’. The name ‘Reiki’ came later. In fact, there is a long tradition of ‘palm healing’ in Japan, and this is one of the traditions that Usui drew upon in creating what is now called 'Usui Reiki Ryoho'.

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