“The kototama is not a theory or even a teaching. It’s the life energy, or ki, that gives birth to consciousness in all its myriad forms.” – William Gleason – Aikido and Words of Power The Sacred Sounds of Kototama
Traditionally within Mikao Usui’s Okuden Reiki II and Shinpiden Reiki III teachings, there are kototama. In reality they are the mantras, but they are chanted in a specific way.
Kototama started to gain popularity again in Mikao Usui’s time; this was also due to the fact that the Meiji Emperor and his wife were modern kototama researchers and practitioners.
The word kototama 言霊literally means “word spirit” or “soul”. But it also stands for the spiritual (tama) power of sound (koto).
Within kototama there are mother and father sounds. The mother sounds are the vowels, which are the most important, and the father sounds which are the consonants. When the mother and father sounds are united, they create child sounds. There are 5 mother sounds, 8 father sounds, 5 half mother sounds and 32 child sounds. The 5 mother sounds also interlink with the 5 elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space.
The sounds also are in specific patterns to trigger very precise states of mind, which we might also experience on an energetic level, as both mind and energy are intertwined.
The ultimate aim of chanting these kototama is to realize our interconnectedness with the universe. The more we start to realize this interconnectedness the more we experience that everything is kototama. And when chanting from this perspective of interconnectedness, then it is not you who is chanting kototama; it is the whole universe that is chanting.
“Finally we did the ‘deep chant’, taking the vowels a, i, u, e, o and energetically singing them out with our whole body and soul, sound by sound, as u, a, i, e… Sensei always said, ‘teaching this discipline is the greatest kindness. The first step in your practice is to practice this.’” – Satomi Myodo (1896-1978) Journey in Search of the Way [This was around the time of Mikao Usui.]
Why is chanting kototama so important? Within Japanese spiritual teachings you have mind, body, and speech (san mitsu – the three mysteries). Body is very physical: we can touch it, feel it, see it etc.. However, mind is very subtle; we can’t touch it, or feel it, or see it. While speech is in between body and mind, we can feel it and hear it. Yet speech is not as physical as the body and not as subtle as the mind. To work with our very subtle mind is difficult for most of us, as it is too subtle. Hence speech or chanting is a bridge between body and mind. It takes the practice from gross (body) to subtle (speech) to very subtle (mind)
We can see this within the mind teachings of the system of Reiki, the precepts:
Do not anger
Do not worry
Be true to your way and your being
Show compassion to yourself and others
As we can see the precepts are all about the mind and as we all know, they are not so easy to embody on a day to day basis.
Often within the system of Reiki, people learn first the body teachings: hands-on healing which is very physical. But then we take the teachings a step deeper and go into the speech teachings: kototama. And through prolonged practice of the kototama we start to embody the mind teachings of the system of Reiki, the precepts.
Of course this doesn’t take place overnight and this is why kototama needs to be chanted over and over and over again so that we get the direct experience of what kototama really represents.
“Hara is not only the physical center of the body; properly understood, it is also the center of our spiritual energy.” – William Gleason – The Spiritual Foundation of Aikido
One of the key elements to remember when chanting kototama is that the sound needs to come from our lower abdomen. In Japanese, this area is called the hara or tanden. When the sound comes from the hara, we perform deep breathing (Okinagaho in Shintoism). Through this kind of deep breathing the sounds can resonate through our whole physical being, due to our mind being calm and centred.
Imagine a singing bowl: if the bowl is upside down it doesn’t resonate; it needs to be placed the right way up. This is what we do when we focus on the hara, else we are chanting from our head which is like the singing bowl being upside down. Now imagine that you put lots of stuff in the singing bowl (turned right way up) and then hit it. Can it still resonate? No, it can’t as it is full of stuff. So for kototama to really resonate through our whole being, we need to be like the singing bowl: empty. Our mind needs to be empty. But now we can ask ourselves, empty of what? Empty of holding on to the past, present, and future. This can be a challenge. But thus the more we chant kototama and the more we start to breathe deeply into our hara, the more empty our mind will be, the more the sound will vibrate through our whole being, the more we will start to realize the interconnectedness with all that is.
“The kototama is not merely the sound of the human voice. It is the red blood in your hara, boiling over with life. When I chant the sounds of A O U E I, the gods which perform the functions of these kototama gather around me. A true human being can do this and a great deal more.” – Morihei Ueshiba
Each specific sound also has different meanings. Let’s look at the first kototama within the system of Reiki OUEI:
O = Water – continuation of a spiritual action – rushing stream – moving down – physical health – connection – accumulation – understanding – sinking
U = Unity – universal body/spirit – returns to itself – originates deep in the belly – pure existence – void (form is emptiness and emptiness is form – Heart Sutra) – direct spirit – balance
E = Fire – expanding – branches out to become the channels in the body – seeking – spiritual growth – rising
I = Earth – centre – one point – life force – will of life – senses – control centre/grounding – power – perception – vitality – stability – expanding outside of the body
Thus if we look deeply into this kototama, we can see that it helps us to become grounded and centred in our body. And from this grounded and centred state, we can expand up and outwards. This is why Mikao Usui taught OUEI as the first kototama, as we first need to become aware of our physical being before we can experience this expansion up and outwards. It is in this physical being that we need to embody the universe.
“Within the various sects of both Shinto and Buddhism, the classification of elements is not consistent; it changes with the view being expressed and sometimes it depends on the physical experience of the practitioner.” – William Gleason – Aikido and Words of Power The Sacred Sounds of Kototama
If we look deep enough within each of the kototama within the system of Reiki, we see many teachings which can aid us in our practice. In essence each kototama is like a stepping stone to the next, thus forming a path – a pathway from not knowing our true self to knowing our true self. A pathway to realizing that all is kototama.
William Gleason – Aikido and Words of Power The Sacred Sounds of Kototama
William Gleason – The Spiritual Foundation of Aikido
John Stevens – The Secrets of Aikido
John Stevens – The Philosophy of Aikido
John Stevens – The Heart of Aikido – The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki by Morihei Ueshiba
Shingon Texts – BDK English Tripitaka
The Collected Teachings of the Tendai Lotus School – BDK English Tripitaka
Motohisa Yamakage – The Essence of Shinto
Satomi Myodo – Journey in Search of the Way
Masahilo Nakazono – Inochi – The Book of Life
Masahilo Nakazono – My Past Way of Budo
Based in Holland, Frans Stiene teaches in North America, Europe, UK, Australia and Asia.
Frans is also the author of Reiki Insights, it is the continuation of his previous book The Inner Heart of Reiki, taking your personal practice and understanding of the system of Reiki yet another step deeper.