Mikao Usui – Tendai and Mt Hiei

Frans StieneArticles, English Leave a Comment

It is said that Mikao Usui was a lay Tendai Buddhist monk and more and more research is supporting this belief. Let’s investigate this a bit more.

Mt Hiei houses Enryaku-ji, which is the main temple of Tendai Buddhism. Over the years more and more Reiki researchers have pointed out that Mikao Usui was a lay Tendai Buddhist, and this makes perfect sense. 

He practiced his 21 day meditation practice on Mt Kurama; at the time that Mikao Usui was practicing there, Mt Kurama belonged to Tendai Buddhism. Mt Kurama-dera, the main temple on Mt Kurama was a subordinate of Shōren-in, from the 12th century to 1949. Shōren-in was formerly the temple of the imperial abbot of the Tendai headquarters on Mount Hiei. One other interesting aspect is that Shinran Shonin, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu Pure Land, was ordained a monk at Shōren-in at the age of nine. Thus Shōren-in is not only a Tendai Temple but is also a sacred place for Jodo Shinshu Pure Land, as the temple also houses a child image and the hair of Shinran Shonin.

At Mikao Usui’s grave site in Tokyo, we can see his kaimyo – posthumous name: 霊山院秀譽天心居士 Reizan-in Shuyo Tenshin Koji

This name also points to Jodo Shinshu Pure Land.

霊 – Rei as in Reiki

山 – Zan (as in mountain)

院 – in (sort of a ranking/title of deceased)

秀 – Shu (preeminent)

譽 – Yo (given to one that has completed the Fivefold Transmission in Pure Land Sect)

天心- Tenshin (zenith, divine will)

居士- Koji (given to lay Buddhists)

“I think his kaimyo is worthy of his [Mikao Usui’s] achievements. As you know, 霊山 means the sacred mountain, which is the mother of Reiki as well as a Japanese spiritual practice.” – Takeda Hakusai Ajari – direct disciple (deshi) of Sakai Dai Ajari former Chief Abbot, Hieizan Enryakuji Temple

This is why some people claim Mikao Usui was a Jodo Shin Pure Land Buddhist; however, Jodo Shin Pure Land has its foundation on Mt Hiei. Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shin Pure Land and a former Tendai monk, practiced on Mt Hiei for over 20 years! It is thus said that Mikao Usui was a lay Tendai monk who also practiced Jodo Shin Pure Land.

Another interesting aspect is that it is said that Mikao Usui’s teachers were kaihōgyō practioners on Mt Hiei. Kaihōgyō is a very difficult ascetic practice performed over many many years. The main temple of the kaihōgyō monks is therefore also on Mt Hiei. The aim of the kaihōgyō monks is to embody Fudō Myōō and traditionally Fudō Myōō is linked with the Reiki III symbol and mantra DKM.

“Usui Sensei called Shinpiden students into his room one by one and he taught them the three Kanji of DKM. This information comes from an Aikido Shihan whose deceased grandfather learned Reiki from Usui Sensei.” – Hiroshi Doi

When I was in Japan for the first time in 2001, I kind of stumbled upon the temple, Shōren-in, which Kurama-dera was part of. The interesting thing is that this temple also has a very rare Fudō Myōō painting!

“Sakai Dai Ajari, of Heizan Enryakuji, often said to me, ‘Kaihogyo is the walking zen and while walking in Mt Hiei, chanting mantra, the mountain Reiki flows through my body and mind, and I am one with Fudō-myōō.” 霊山 means the sacred mountain, which is the mother of Reiki. In a sense, mountain Reiki can be called the sacred breathing of Fudō-myōō.” – Takeda Hakusai Ajari – direct disciple (deshi) of Sakai Dai Ajari former Chief Abbot, Hieizan Enryakuji Temple

Thus as we can see, many elements of Mikao Usui’s teachings are pointing to Tendai Buddhism and Mt Hiei. It is therefore said that Mikao Usui was trying to teach his friends and family a simpler form of esoteric Japanese spiritual practices which he was practicing himself. This was not uncommon at all at Mikao Usui’s time. Many spiritual practices emerged around Mikao Usui’s time which were commonly called “new religions – shinshūkyō” in Japan. However, this doesn’t mean that the system of Reiki is a religion! One important element of this movement was Shugendo, which also was interlinked with Tendai Buddhism.

“The influence of Shugendo on the origin of many of the new religious movements in Japan, for example, is increasingly recognized.”
– Paul Swanson, Permanent Fellow and Director, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

“Some of the founders of new religions had revelatory experiences while performing religious practices on sacred mountains, and some of the rituals created by new religions bear the imprint of Shugendo rituals; indeed, the highly syncretic character of Shugendo laid down a precedent for the syncretic pattern of most new religions.”
– Miyake Hitoshi – Shugendo – Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion

Hopefully one day more information about Mikao Usui will come forward to illustrate what he was practicing himself, so that we may gain a clearer picture of the basis for his teachings.

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