The History of Reiki
The Origins of Reiki Practice in Japan
Dr. Mikao Usui
Dr. Mikao Usui, the founder of the system of spiritual growth and energy healing known as Reiki, was born August 15, 1865, in Japan, in the small village of Taniai. He later married Sadako Suzuki, fathered a boy, Fuji, and a daughter, Toshiko, and died of a stroke in 1926.
Reiki is a Japanese word. In Japanese, the ideographic characters of the alphabet are called kanji. The word Reiki is made up of two kanji – Rei and Ki. In Japanese, Rei means Universal and Ki means Energy. Thus the word Reiki is often translated as “Universal Life Force Energy”.
During the 142 years since Dr. Usui’s birth, the practice of Reiki has spread from Japan to Hawaii, to mainland America and across the globe, and Reiki has been transformed in the process. Today, the International Center for Reiki Training estimates there are more than 50,000 Reiki masters and 1 million Reiki practitioners worldwide.
The Reiki tradition began as an exclusively oral set of secret teachings, handed down from teacher to student, similar to the methods of many other spiritual traditions in the East, such as yoga. As Reiki spread, and the Reiki teachings were transmitted orally from generation to generation of Reiki Masters, passing from Japan to America in the process, and then back again to the East, many stories, myths and legends about Dr. Usui and about the origins of Reiki have appeared.
In the last 25 years, various Western Reiki teachers created their own personal variations of the system of Reiki, and thus there are now many different Reiki “lineages”, such as Usui Reiki, Karuna Reiki, Usui/Tibetan Reiki, Seichem and many more.
In the West, Reiki teachers now generally provide written material for their students, including much material that was once secret. Stories about the origins of Reiki, the practice of Reiki, and the life of Dr. Usui abound, and are readily available in many books and on the Internet.
This has caused some problems for diligent modern students of Reiki, who must sift through the many competing stories told by Reiki teachers from different lineages in an attempt to understand the roots of Reiki, Dr. Usui’s original intent, and the most reliable Reiki methods for their own practice.
Although it can be confusing, the search for the “truth” about Reiki has very honorable roots in Japanese culture. Japanese spiritual teachers and martial arts masters place tremendous importance on the ”purity” of the teachings they provide their students.
The idea is that the teachings being given today should be the same as those of the founder of the lineage, because the original energy of the founder, who is considered to be a highly exalted individual who has attained a level of consciousness and expertise far beyond the ordinary, is being transmitted through the contemporary teacher to students today. It is thought that if the contemporary teacher is not entirely faithful to the original teachings and the spirit of the original teacher, then the energy that is being transmitted to the student is impure, and that such teachings cannot provide the intended result.
The “purity” of any given lineage is often unverifiable to historians, because these teachings often have their roots in antiquity and are often still transmitted orally in the East.
However, the power of the Reiki energy transmitted by Western Reiki teachers in different lineages has been verified and confirmed again and again over the years, so there is no doubt that although today’s Western teachings may not be exactly what was taught by Dr. Usui, the energy transmission remains forceful, active and efficacious.
Similarly, Western students cannot know exactly what Dr. Usui’s original teachings were, or what methods he passed down to his Master students, who became the teachers of the next generation of Reiki practitioners. There simply are no available written records to document Dr. Usui’s life or the original system of Reiki as he taught it in Japan. Or if there are any such records, they have not been made available to the general public.
In Japan, Dr. Usui’s teachings have been passed down through a series of Reiki Masters in the society known as the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai, which claims to have been founded by Dr. Usui in 1921. Japanese Reiki teachers and practitioners who belong to the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai have been asked not to discuss the details of the society with nonmembers and membership in their society is closed to foreigners.
The practices and history of the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai have been released to the rest of the world only in a very closely controlled manner, primarily through the translated works of one of their members, Reiki Master Hiroshi Doi, who wrote “Iyashino Gendai Reiki-ho” (Modern Reiki Method for Healing) the first book by a Japanese Reiki Master to be published in English.
The primary written source for reliable information about the life and practices of Dr. Usui is found in a long script carved into a large memorial stone erected by his students from the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai at his gravesite, located at the Pure Land Buddhist Saihôji Temple in Tokyo.
From the writing on this gravestone, and from the research done by a variety of Western Reiki Masters in recent years, the following basic history of Usui’s life can be reconstructed.
Recent research indicates that Dr. Mikao Usui was never a medical doctor, despite many Western biographies claiming he followed this healing profession. It is thought that a Reiki Master in the West mistranslated the Japanese honorific title “sensei”, given to a spiritual teacher, as “Doctor”. Rather than referring to Dr. Usui, it would then be more accurate to refer to Usui-Sensei.
Mikao Usui’s family had upper class roots. They were hatamoto samurai, the personal bodyguards of the shôgun. The shôgun was originally a military officer, with a rank corresponding to that of a general, and later the title was given to heads of military governments in Japan.
Contemporary Western Reiki Masters Chris Marsh and Frans and Bronwen Stiene contend that Usui was born a Tendai Buddhist, and studied this spiritual tradition as a youth. The Stienes further report that according to their sources Usui later became a Tendai lay minister, called a zaike. Such lay ministers were allowed to have families.
Usui is also said to have been influenced by Shintoism, an animistic and shamanistic spiritual tradition called in English The Way of the Gods. Shinto is the most ancient indigenous Japanese spiritual tradition, which views the natural world as the home for innumerable deities, residing in landscapes, celestial bodies such as the Sun, birds and animals. This spiritual practice sees Divinity in the natural world, and emphasizes right relations between human beings and the powers revealing themselves through nature.
Following the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s, Shinto was made the official religion of Japan, so it is virtually certain that Usui-Sensei would have studied this practice in his youth, and that Shinto played a significant part in the formation of his spiritual practice.
Because Usui-Sensei was born into a samurai family, his modern Western biographers generally assume that he was schooled in the martial arts, which were normally taught to all young samurai as a matter of course.
Thus it would appear that the major influences on Usui-Sensei’s spiritual development would have been martial arts, shamanic Shintoism, and Buddhism. Usui was a member of the Rei Jutsu Kai, a kind of Japanese Interfaith spiritual organization, where teachers from various traditions, such as Tendai, Shingon, Zen, Jodo Shu, Shinto and even Christianity would meet and share their insights and practices.
According to Hiroshi Doi, as he entered adulthood, Usui-Sensei was not distracted by career or worldly desires from spiritual pursuits, searching continuously for “the greatest purpose of life”. Usui came to believe that “the ultimate purpose of life is to accept your fate and live in peace.” Usui taught that one must “Know your fate and accept it and maintain peace of mind and not worry. . .Though it is necessary to try as you are, leave the rest in the hands of Providence and obtain the peace of mind.” Hiroshi Doi says this was Usui’s first great spiritual awakening, an intellectual breakthrough.
Hiroshi Doi says that it is not enough to have an intellectual understanding of the steps to spiritual awakening, however. “Spiritual awakening is to know truth and reach eternal joy. . .A true awakening is an intuitive understanding by Shinga (soul, higher-self) and to complete the unity with truth.”
To achieve the next step on his spiritual path, Usui trained for three years in the Zen Buddhist tradition, searching for this true awakening.
After three years of strenuous spiritual exercises, Usui did not achieve his goal. He asked his Zen teacher what could be done, and the teacher immediately responded, “Die one time”.
Usui is said to have thought “this was the end of his life”, so he went to the top of Mt. Kurama in March 1921 to begin a period of fasting.
After three weeks of penance and fasting, Usui “felt a great shock in the center of the brain as if being struck by lightning and went unconscious.”
Awakening at dawn, Usui had achieved his true awakening. He felt an indivisible unity with the entire Universe, his body and mind were refreshed and invigorated, and he rushed down the mountain, filled with the energy of Reiki.
In his haste, Usui ripped his toenail on a rock, and immediately grabbed his foot with his hands. To his surprise, the pain disappeared, and the foot healed at once. Usui realized that the Universal Life Force Energy, or Reiki, had the power to heal.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Japan, the ancient art of hands-on-healing, so much a part of shamanistic practice in all parts of the world for thousands of years, was enjoying a Renaissance. There were many different types of healing touch being practiced by various teachers affiliated with assorted spiritual traditions.
Western Reiki tradition emphasizes that Usui had had an interest in healing touch for some time prior to his awakening on Mt. Kurama, which would not be at all unusual in that time and place. It is said that Usui-Sensei had always been concerned that traditional forms of shamanic healing and other known forms of healing touch in Japan had some serious limitations.
Many traditional Chinese and Japanese healing methods require that the practitioner perform arduous spiritual practices and physical exercises designed to build up the body’s natural reservoir of Universal Life Force Energy, called qi (chi), in Chinese traditions, and ki in Japan. Then the practitioner transfers this healing energy to the recipient, often through the hands. Usui-Sensei was concerned that the energy practitioner must continuously replenish his own inner storehouse of ki through constant practice, and always runs the risk of depleting his own precious life force energy.
After his awakening on Mt. Kurama, Usui began using his new Reiki energy for healing, and discovered that he was drawing Universal Life Force Energy directly from the Divine Source. Usui was not depleting his own life force energy, but found instead that through the practice of Reiki healing it was actually possible for the practitioner to replenish and even increase his own inner storehouse of ki by giving healing treatments.
Hiroshi Doi says that in April 1921 Usui-Sensei developed the Reiki system of teachings and instructions for healing, established the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai, and began healing sick people.
Contemporary Western Reiki Masters, such as Chris Marsh, and the Stienes, contend that Usui’s early Reiki teachings were primarily spiritual in nature. They say that Usui gave mantras to students to help them connect with various forms of Divine energy, and provided guidance for intense meditation practices.
Since Usui’s system was designed as a path to spiritual enlightenment, students considered the ability to administer healing touch as a wonderful side effect of their practice.
In 1922, Usui opened a Reiki center in Tokyo for treatment and teaching, and began to offer the Reiki healing techniques to the public.
Although there were other spiritual teachers training students in various forms of healing touch in Japan at that time, Usui’s unique method, known as Usui dô, or “the way of Usui”, was based upon the direct transmission to students of Usui’s ability to connect with and channel Universal Life Force Energy, or Reiki. Usui used an initiation technique known as reiju, or attunement, to transmit his spiritual and healing gift to his students. All Usui students received attunements, and all were taught the importance of “The Five Precepts”, which are spiritual principles, later engraved on his gravestone.
During the 1920s, Usui and his students also created a series of symbols for Reiki practitioners to invoke when administering healing touch to persons suffering from illness. These symbols helped those who had difficulty in connecting and invoking the Reiki energy. The symbols also act as a focus for the practitioner’s intent. These symbol are taught in modern Western Reiki in Levels II and III.
Hiroshi Doi says that in 1923, during a major earthquake and fire in Tokyo, Usui became very well known for healing burn victims, and subsequently traveled around Japan healing and teaching.
More than two thousand people were said to have received Reiki initiations, or attunements, from Usui-Sensei, and it is said that Usui-Sensei initiated thirteen Reiki teachers, but according to Hiroshi Doi, only three individuals received the highest level of initiation. These three were Rear Admiral Juzaburo Ushida, Rear Admiral Kan’ichi Taketomi, Captain Hayashi Hujiro, a naval surgeon.
In 1925 Usui-Sensei and his students created a manual listing body parts and illnesses and correlating the hand positions to these body parts, organs, and diseases.
By this time, all the elements of a self-sustaining community of Reiki teachers and students had been successfully created.
Usui-Sensei died in 1926, and following his death, in the 1930s, Hayashi Hujirobroke away from the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai to create his own Reiki lineage.
Hayashi created the first commercial Reiki centers, where people could pay to receive healing. Hayashi wrote that by 1938 he had initiated thirteen Reiki teachers, among them an American born Japanese woman named Hawayo Takata.
It is through Takata and Hayashi’s lineage that Usui-Sensei’s system of spiritual enlightenment and healing was transmitted to students in the West.
Hawayo Takata was born on December 24, 1900 on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, the daughter of Japanese immigrants. While in Japan visiting her parents, Takata was diagnosed with appendicitis, gallstones and a tumor. Just before the surgery, she heard a voice saying “The surgery is not necessary.”
She was referred to Hayashi’s Reiki clinic, and was healed. She obtained instruction in Reiki from Hayashi while working in his clinic for a year.
In 1937, Takata brought the system of Reiki to Hawaii, where she started a clinic and school with Hayashi’s help and blessing. Takata was initiated as a Reiki Master in 1938, and began to teach others.
Her diary indicates that she did not teach energy healing utilizing the system of energy centers known as chakras. Takata says she did not know anything of the chakra system elaborated in the Hindu Vedas and considered the keystone of the yogic spiritual tradition of spiritual enlightenment in India. Instead, Takata focused on the Three Diamonds, the centers of chi or ki that are emphasized in Chinese and Japanese martial arts practices. These Three Diamonds are located in the forehead, the heart, and the hara center, located two fingers width below the navel.
Takata taught Reiki on the American mainland, and initiated 22 Reiki Masters during the period from 1970 to the time of her death in 1980, charging $10,000 for Master training classes as a way of creating respect for the value of Reiki.
The Reiki Alliance
Intense debate over the true nature of Reiki began in the West immediately following her death. A group called the Reiki Alliance taught what they believed to be the true Reiki teachings in a group called Usui Shiki Ryoho. Takata’s granddaughter, Phyllis Lee Furumoto, was the head of the Reiki Alliance, and took the title “Grandmaster”.
Iris Ishikura, a Reiki Master who took initiation from Takata, began to facilitate the spread of Reiki teachings during the 1980s, by making some reforms to the traditional practices taught by Takata. Ishikura began to charge much more reasonable fees for Mastership training, and thus many more Reiki Masters appeared on the scene.
This led to the development of yet more lineages, as various Western Reiki Masters added their own concepts, tools and practices to the tradition.
Study of the chakra system became widespread, and with the rise of New Age spiritual practices, Reiki practitioners began to work consciously with Spirit Guides and Ascended Master Teachers and to use crystals as part of their practice. Workbooks were created, note taking was allowed, and students felt free to study with more than one teacher – even to study the practices of more than one lineage.
This new freedom has brought with it a great responsibility. As students and practitioners of Reiki it is up to us to practice what is perhaps the most important spiritual discipline -- discernment. We must use our reason, our intuition and our inner spiritual guidance to understand the true nature of Reiki and to verify this truth for ourselves through our own direct experience.
As a practicing Buddhist, Usui-Sensei would have had a deep understanding of the wisdom teachings of the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism is essentially empirical and thus essentially scientific. TheBuddha's teachings were the result of his own direct investigations of the human condition, not "supernatural" revelation; and he repeatedly stressed that his teachings were not to be taken "on faith". Rather, he invited his disciples to "repeat his experiment" and determine for themselves, based on their own experience, whether the practices he taught were effective in transforming suffering into well-being.
The current Dalai Lama himself has said:
If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.
In addition, it is important that all Reiki practitioners give gratitude to the originators of this powerful system of spiritual advancement and healing in all lineages and all countries. It is only through their arduous efforts that we have obtained the incalculable benefits of Reiki in our lives today.
As Reiki practitioners we must also exercise tolerance to those who practice a different form of Reiki, and who belong to a different lineage. As a Hindu yogi master once said:
When you have found a path up the mountain, and you can see the summit from far below, it is tempting to call out to those struggling to ascend on either side of you, and to tell them – ‘Look, I have found the way.’ This is an error. It is only when one reaches the summit itself that one has the all-encompassing view of the mountain itself, and then one realizes that there are many paths to the summit, each with its own charms and its own pitfalls.
 The Reiki Sourcebook, Frans and Bronwen Stiene, p. 51.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, Hiroshi Doi, p. 41, The Reiki Sourcebook, p. 49.
 The Reiki Sourcebook, p. 56.
 The Reiki Sourcebook, p. 53.
 The Japanese Art of Reiki, Frans and Bronwen Stiene, p. 9; The Reiki Sourcebook, p. 53.
 The Japanese Art of Reiki, pp. 8-10.
 The Japanese Art of Reiki, pp. 14-15.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, p. 47.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, p. 47.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, p. 48.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, p. 48.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, p. 48.
 The Reiki Sourcebook, p. 58.
 Modern Reiki Method of Healing, p. 49.
 The Japanese Art of Reiki, p. 16.
 The Japanese Art of Reiki, p. 18.
 The Japanese Art of Reiki, p. 18.