How a samurai-born man became the father of an alternative therapy used by millions worldwide

How a samurai-born man became the father of an alternative therapy used by millions worldwide
via Public Domain, Pixabay
Carl Samson
April 6, 2023
Of the various forms of alternative or complementary therapies — many of them originating in Asia — reiki is arguably the most accessible. In its simplest delivery, all it takes is openness to receive healing through an invisible transfer of energy, at least according to swaths of reiki-focused YouTube channels, from roleplaying ASMRists to certified “master teachers.”
This invisible energy is a universal life force that supposedly exists in all things, both animate and inanimate. In Chinese, it is known as “qi”; in Sanskrit, “prana,” and in Japanese, “ki.” Such is what a Japanese scholar by the name of Mikao Usui reportedly received during a 21-day spiritual quest in Mount Kurama, a sacred mountain just north of Kyoto. According to reports, it was in this journey that he began developing reiki — combining “rei,” which translates to “universal soul” or “spirit,” and “ki” — and later earned recognition as its founder.

The makings of a master

Born on Aug. 15, 1865, in the village of Taniai in central Japan’s Gifu prefecture, Usui was reported to be a descendant of the once-influential Chiba clan, whose members had served as Hatamoto samurai — high-ranking military and noblemen who directly served feudal Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate. Among them was a commander who lived between the Heian and Kamakura periods, and whose name had been inscribed in Usui’s memorial stone.
With such a background, Usui was raised as a samurai from childhood. He was specifically trained in ”aiki,” a martial arts principle that allows a practitioner to penetrate, counter or redirect an opponent’s power.
Usui was a student at heart with a wide range of academic interests. As he grew older, he traveled to China, Europe and the U.S. to further his education. His curriculum reportedly included studies in medicine, psychology and religion, including divination. At some point, he became a member of the Rei Jyutu Ka, a group dedicated to developing psychic abilities.
Alongside his constant pursuit of knowledge, Usui held regular jobs. He reportedly worked as a journalist, a salaryman and a civil servant, including someone who rehabilitated prisoners. He also worked as a secretary to a politician named Gotō Shinpei, who later became mayor of Tokyo. Over time, his studies and experiences fueled him to take a deeper look at a human being’s purpose in life.
Mikao Usui
As he dove into his research, Usui stumbled upon “An-shin Ritus-mei,” a state of consciousness in which one remains at peace regardless of what occurs around them. This is supposedly where a person finds their life purpose. Usui sought such a state and learned that it can be achieved through a meditative discipline called “zazen.” Eventually, he found a teacher to guide him toward his goal.
After years of practice, however, Usui barely made any progress. In a dark turn of events, his teacher said he must be prepared to die to finally achieve An-shin Ritus-mei. This convinced Usui to climb Mount Kurama in February of 1922 to fast and meditate to his potential death. Without anything to replenish his body — and being barred from seeking any form of relief — he grew weaker by the day.
However, on his 21st day on the mountain, Usui reportedly felt a powerful light enter through the top of his head. The impact, which had been compared to lightning, was so strong that it knocked him unconscious. He woke up the next morning but instead of feeling weaker, he was filled with an unprecedented sense of awareness and vitality; he felt that he was one with the universe.
Thrilled to share his experience with his teacher, Usui rushed down the mountain, which caused him to trip over a rock and injure his toe. He placed his hand over the injured area in pain, but noticed that energy had begun “flowing” from his hand. His toe eventually healed, and the event marked the beginning of his formal studies in reiki.
Kurama Temple, located at the base of Mount Kurama, houses some of Japan’s National Treasures. Image via Axel Ebert/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Laying the groundwork

Mikao Usui may have brought reiki to the modern world, but he was far from the first to understand and work with universal life force. As mentioned previously, this form of energy goes by other names in other cultures, such as ancient Tibetan monks who had been harnessing it for thousands of years. However, Usui appears to have been the first to create an organized, methodical system that utilized its benefits to promote healing or spiritual progression. For this reason, he is regarded as the “father of reiki.”
Usui developed techniques like Gassho meditation, Byosen scanning and Seishin-to-itsu, among others. He purportedly increased his efforts to develop his practice after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 — also known as the Great Japan Earthquake — which killed and injured countless people. Five notable principles also emerged from Usui’s studies and practices: to rise above anger, to let go of worry, to express gratitude, to work honestly and to honor all living beings.
Aside from providing treatments, Usui trained reiki practitioners. He developed a formal attunement method called “Reiju,” which facilitated the transfer of reiki more quickly. Students reportedly received such attunements over and over to refine their ability to channel the universal energy. Usui called his healing method “Shin-shin Kai-zen Usui Reiki Ryo-ho” (“The Usui Reiki Treatment Method for Improvement of Body and Mind”), or simply “Usui Reiki Ryoho” (“Usui Reiki Healing Method”).
Usui’s training included three degrees of study: “Shoden” (“First Degree”), “Okuden” (“Inner Teachings”) and “Shinpiden” (“Mystery Teachings”). These degrees would later become known in the West as Reiki Levels I, II and III. Completing the final degree typically qualifies a student for attunement as a “reiki master” or “reiki master teacher.”

Usui passed away on March 9, 1926, due to a stroke. While he taught over 2,000 beginner students throughout his life, he only trained 16 as reiki masters. One of them was Dr. Chujiro Hayashi, a retired naval officer whom he encouraged to set up his own reiki clinic. Over time, the mentee would become the mentor as he both improved and modified Usui’s teachings.
Chujiro Hayashi
Hawayo Takata, a first generation Japanese American, was among Hayashi’s students. Takata initially visited Hayashi’s clinic to receive treatment for several conditions, including asthma. After months of treatment, her health was reportedly restored. She became a devoted student and eventually took reiki to Hawaii in 1937 and, subsequently, the continental U.S.
A reiki society called “Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai” (“Usui Reiki Healing Method Society”) honors Usui and his contributions to the practice. Some sources claim he founded the organization himself two months after his life-changing experience at Mount Kurama, while others say it was his students who established the group after his death. Regardless, the society appears to have been active until at least 2010, with retired businessman Takahashi Ichita serving as its eighth and final president.
Usui’s ashes, along with his wife and children’s, are buried at the Saihō-ji Temple in Tokyo. Usui and his wife, Sadako Suzuki, had two children, Fuji and Toshiko. Fuji became a teacher at Tokyo University, while Toshiko died at 22 in 1935.

Healing the future

Since Usui’s development of reiki, the practice has evolved to become an alternative and complementary therapy to conventional medicine. In 2007, 15% of U.S. hospitals — or more than 800 institutions — offered reiki as a service, according to the American Hospital Association. In the previous year, more than 1.2 million adults and 160,000 children in the U.S. had received at least one reiki session, as per the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Current figures are unavailable, but the fact that reiki-focused YouTubers have built their own communities demonstrates a demand for “treatments” outside of traditional hospital settings.
While reiki masters generally work by placing their hand (or hands) on or above different parts of the patient’s body, some have integrated sound, crystals and other tools into their practice. Altogether, they continue to serve the same purpose of healing, otherwise known as removing “energy blocks.” So far, there have been virtually no reports of adverse side effects. Yet reiki’s effectiveness continues to be a matter of dispute, with the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health stating that “most” of the research on the subject “has not been of high quality, and the results have been inconsistent.”
For this reason, reiki is endorsed as a complementary, not a replacement, therapy. Sarah P., who uses reiki to manage stress, told NextShark:

I’m doubtful if reiki has any material effects on medical illness, but I’ve enjoyed using it as a supplement to stress management. I find that the deep breathing and intense focus on the body’s energy nicely complements other activities I use to manage anxiety, such as meditation and therapy. The visualization portion of reiki work, especially the invitation to feel energy in the body, carries over to important skills that I have to apply, say, in case of a panic attack or frequent anxiety episodes. I find it to be very affirming, as the practice invites one to always revisit what they would hope for their body and how they would like to feel in their skin.

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