Reiki and Compassion

Rebecca HoltonArticles, English 1 Comment


As students of Japanese Reiki, healers and practitioners, compassion is an essential part of what we do. But what is compassion and why is it so important to us and our practice of Reiki? In Japanese Reiki we often find the words “compassion” and “oneness” occurring very closely together. We may notice this happening in class, in discussions and also in articles about the system. Why is this? What is the connection between compassion and oneness in our practice of the system of Japanese Reiki?

Sometimes, when we are trying to truly understand of what something really is, we may start by first thinking about what it definitely isn’t. Most people who try to practise compassion would agree that it doesn’t have anything to do with “niceness” in the sense of doing something because our humanity tells us that it is generally acceptable. Compassion is also not fundamentally the same as kindness, pity, sympathy or even empathy. When we say we “practise” compassion the word “practise” is an important key to the meaning of it, because it implies action. Kindness, pity, sympathy and empathy can all be extremely valuable feelings which may lead to compassion, but they are not exactly the same as it. The reason for this is that none of these feelings have an intrinsic element of action attached to them. What I mean is that it is quite possible to feel sympathy for someone and then do nothing about it. Sympathy does not always lead to action. This is not the case with compassion. For it to be compassion there will always be an element of action involved. Compassion is an action that is driven initially by our thoughts and feelings. It is an inevitable action that comes from recognising a need and responding to it. In its most developed form it can go beyond our thoughts and feelings to become a very special type of action. It’s this type of action that is fundamentally related to the deeper practice of Japanese Reiki.

So, how does an action work when it is not driven by thoughts and feelings? This pure action is something that has transcended all our thoughts and feelings to become something that contains only action and nothing else. So it’s not the same as thoughts and it’s also not the same as feelings. Its initial practise may have sprung from either or both of these things but once it has fully developed it does not contain either of them.

Here’s a teaching from Zen which may help us to explore this.

Image – Kannon with 1000 Eyes and Hands

The Hands and Eyes of Great Compassion
from Shobogenzo by Dogen

Ungan asked Dōgo: “How does Kannon use so many hands and eyes?”
Dōgo said: “It’s like a person in the middle of the night reaching back in search of a pillow.”
Ungan said: “I understand!”
Dōgo said: “How do you understand it?”
Ungan said: “All over his body are hands and eyes.”
Dōgo said: “What you said is right, but it’s only eighty percent of it.”
Ungan said: “Well, so much for me. How do you understand it?”
Dōgo said: “The whole being is hands and eyes.”

We’ll return to the “reaching for the pillow” bit later but, for now, let’s leave that part of the passage alone and concentrate on what Kannon and his 1000 hands and eyes represent.

Kannon is a personification of 100% total and complete compassion. If we think about the phrase used by witnesses in law courts, “Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” this is how compassion works for Kannon. Kannon means compassion, the whole of compassion and nothing but compassion. Everything that is compassion can be found in Kannon, as well as nothing that isn’t. Kannon’s 1000 hands and eyes are traditionally thought to represent how true compassion is always receptive to need, always open and always responsive.

The 1000 hands of Kannon represent our perceptions and the way we relate to the world using our senses. This way of looking at things allows us to say, “I feel…” or “I measure…” In this way of relating to the world our physical perception of things around us is central. We are personally involved, experiencing the material world, being able to feel, measure, compare and categorize our experiences of it. It is an objective point of view because we are looking outwards, making the physical world around us and the way we interact with it our primary focus. In its most developed form, this is the way of working that scientists aspire to. In Japanese Reiki it can be described and understood as Earth energy or the energy that is centred at the hara and through which we relate to the world in a directly physical, feeling way using our perceptions and senses.

The 1000 eyes of Kannon represent our thoughts. This is the way we understand the world and relate to it using our mind and our intellect. In this way of relating to the world we are removed from direct, physical interaction with it. We are observing and evaluating the world as something that we can understand and conceptualise, using our thoughts. On a deeper level this could be described as how we experience the world as ideas that exist within our mind. This is a subjective point of view because we are looking inwards, making our intellect, thoughts and intuition about how the world exists our primary focus. In Japanese Reiki it can be described and understood as Heaven energy or the energy that is centred at the head and through which we interact with the world in an intellectual or intuitive way using our thoughts and mental observation.

So the 1000 hands and eyes of Kannon represent two very different ways of experiencing the world that human beings use all the time.

In the passage above Ungan says that “All over his body are hands and eyes.” He is saying that Kannon is using all his thoughts and perceptive feelings to help drive his compassionate actions. So this is like a Reiki practitioner using all the trained sensitivity in their perceptions and thoughts to try to actively give the recipient of a Reiki treatment what they need right at that moment. The compassionate action of the healing is being driven by the practitioner’s thoughts and feelings.

Dōgo’s reply to this approach to compassion is, “What you said is right, but it’s only 80% of it.”
He is saying that Ungan’s answer is extremely good but he could go even further if he wants to really get to the heart of the matter.

Then he says, “The whole being is hands and eyes.” This is the real crux of the matter when it comes to understanding compassion as Reiki practitioners. Instead of the thoughts (eyes) and feelings (hands) being many separate things that exist somewhere on Kannon’s body, as in Ungan’s version, Dōgo is saying that the hands, eyes and body are not separate things for Kannon, they are fundamentally all the same thing. So for Kannon, his compassionate action, his thoughts and his perceptive feelings are one. There is no thought leading to action, nor feeling leading to action. The action is direct. It has absorbed and transcended both thoughts and feelings to become instantaneous and instinctive with no need for anything separate to drive it.

In Japanese Reiki, this is the way of working for a practitioner who has moved beyond actively using their thoughts and perceptive feelings to use Earth energy or Heaven energy and is now working from a place of having a direct knowledge of oneness in their Reiki practice. When we practise Japanese Reiki in the oneness energy space, our treatments can become full of that special, pure action that is true compassion. Do not be fooled into thinking that action must mean the movement of something like a thought, a feeling or a part of the body. Compassion is action because something is happening, that is all. In this kind of healing the practitioner and the recipient are one so there is no need for anything less that the direct, open action of pure compassion to exist between them. The hands and eyes of Kannon have become the whole being. Thoughts and feelings become superfluous and are no longer used to direct the healing as the direct action of openly “doing nothing” is all that is needed.

For practitioners of Japanese Reiki, this way of understanding compassion is inescapably linked with the practices taught in the system. Earth energy feelings or perceptions and Heaven energy thoughts or intuition are transcended as we progress in our practice and begin to work within oneness. Compassion and oneness appear close together in the teachings of Japanese Reiki because they cannot be separated from each other. They are a crucial part of the system and of our development as practitioners. In the precepts this relationship is made clear. Compassion is given near the end of the precepts as a deeper practice which is central to self realisation within oneness.

So, what about the sleeping person and their pillow?
It sounds like a meaningless conundrum, but if we turn our thinking on its head and start to reflect on it in the way it was written it may become much clearer.

Dōgo is using a simple example from everyday life to try to describe something that is both deeply subtle and also essential to the serious practice of compassion. When a person is sleeping they do not use their conscious thoughts or perceptions to drive their actions. Nevertheless, the action described in the passage is still completed. There is a need, in this case to find and adjust the pillow, and this need is immediately turned into action, without any thoughts, perceptions or feelings happening in between. Dōgo is describing how compassion can work when it is no longer limited by thoughts and perceptive feelings. The action of the sleeper with the pillow is a pure action because it does not contain anything other than action. This is how compassion works and how it can be understood from the point of view of a practitioner of Japanese Reiki. Compassion, in its most developed form, is an action that responds directly to a need without the intervention of any thoughts or feelings on the part of the person who is doing it.

Just think what a wonderful, loving practice we could achieve in our healing, our meditation and our work with all the elements of Japanese Reiki if we could consistently realise this level of compassion in them.
Note on Kannon and gender:
Kannon can be described as either male or female in Japan. In this article I have used male pronouns for Kannon for simplicity.
See for further information on Kannon, including gender.

References for the translation from Shobogenzo:
1.Dogen and Koans
By John Daido Loori, Roshi
Published in Mountain Record, A Zen Practitioner’s Journal, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Issue, Volume XXIV, No. 2 – Winter 2006 (accessed 11/05/09)

The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching
A Trainee’s Translation of Great Master Dogen’s Spiritual Masterpiece
Translated by Rev. Hubert Nearman, O.B.C.
Published by Shasta Abbey Press, Mount Shasta, California (accessed 11/05/09)

Rebecca Holton is a Shinpiden Level III student of the International House of Reiki

Comments 1

  1. Avatar of seema

    So much wisdom in this , will have to read several times .. Like the example of person adjusting the pillow while sleeping and its comparison with compassion. Compassion is mere a action not limited or dependent on thoughts or perceived ideas just like some one adjusting the pillow in sleep , its a mere action without thought. So , compassion just comes with the need and one does not have to think or rationalize.
    Thank you Rebecca

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *