Transforming Life with the Great Death – The Deeper Meaning of Usui’s Mountain Experience

Frans StieneArticles, English 13 Comments


Die while alive,
Thoroughly die.Then just do as you will,
and all is right. – Shido Bunan Zenji

It is said that when Mikao Usui, the founder of the system of Reiki, asked his teacher about his spiritual progress, his teacher said, “You have to die once.” Usui-san took this advice and sat on Mt. Kurama for 21 days to meditate to die once.

Some people suggest that he meant to physically die, but if that were the case it would have been much easier for him to climb Mt. Kurama and jump off a cliff, rather than to sit for a difficult practice for 21 days.

But if it was not the physical death that his teacher pointed to, what kind of death was it then?

In Japanese spiritual traditions ‘to die once’ means to go through the Great Death (in Japanese, Daishi) so that we are able to rediscover our True Self.

Mikao Usui’s memorial stone states, “One day, he climbed kurama yama and after 21 days of a severe discipline without eating, he suddenly felt One Great Reiki over his head and attained enlightenment and he obtained Reiki Ryoho.” The purpose of this “severe discipline” was to help him “die once” so that he could rediscover his True Self/Reiki. It was this Great Death experience that preceded his creation of the spiritual system of Reiki. It was after this experience that he really found purpose in his life and started to teach more and more people his spiritual teachings.

Is it possible to really live our lives fully without ever looking hard at death? I do not believe it is. Without staring death in the eye, as the perpetual reverse side of life, we cannot live life fully and completely. ~ From: Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga

It is possible that Usui-san was practicing Shugendo. Within Shugendo there is a very specific 21-day mountain practice in which you abstain from eating (in Japanese, danjiki) and drinking (in Japanese, mizudachi). This practice is suitable only for the rare, dedicated and prepared practitioner, called 餌食水无  読誦 修行  /  だんじき  みず なし どくじゅ  しゅぎょう – Danjiki-Mizunachi dokuju Shûgyô. One of my teachers has done this specific 21-day Shugendo practice. This is one of the reasons I train with these kinds of teachers, so that I can understand what Usui-san was doing himself so that I can share his ideas, insights and practices within the wider Reiki community.

What is even more interesting is that during this particular 21-day practice the practitioner focuses also on the deity Myoken Bosatsu. Myoken Bosatsu is linked to Mikao Usui’s family. We can see this by looking at Mikao Usui’s family crest, the Chiba Mon. Did Usui-san choose this particular practice because of his family heritage? Myoken Bosatsu is also related to having certain healing qualities and holds a sun and moon in her hands. Healing is a central focus of the system of Reiki and we can see the sun and moon within the Shinpiden Reiki Level III symbol and mantra. 

The whole universe shatters into a hundred pieces.
In the great death there is no heaven and earth
Once body and mind have turned over
there is only this to say:
Past mind cannot be grasped,
present mind cannot be grasped,
future mind cannot be grasped.

– Dogen 

The state of mind Dogen refers to is called the Great Death because it is the death of the ego, the death of the “I.” If we want to take our spiritual practice deeper, then one day we need to go through the progress of letting go of the “I”, because it is only at that stage that we can rediscover our True Self. When we let go of the “I,” of our dualistic life of separateness and suffering, we start to find the meaning of life: a life full of compassion and wisdom, a life of interconnectedness and harmony, a life full of light and inner joy.

For many years before his Mt. Kurama experience, Usui-san sought Anshin Ritsumei: enlightenment or satori. He finally realized that to attain this goal he needed to go through the Great Death experience, because it is only after going through the Great Death that Anshin Ritsumei will show its face. Therefore we could say that the Great Death is the gate through which we enter the state of mind of enlightenment. This state of mind is all about realizing non-duality, which is the ultimate reality.

Hakuin suggests that satori is necessarily preceded by ‘great doubt’ (daigi) and ‘great death’ (daishi). The practitioner has to be able and willing to let go of all securities and beliefs and throw himself or herself into the abyss of emptiness. Hakuin urges the practitioner to abandon all discriminating thoughts, to form the ‘ball of doubt’ (gidan), and to penetrate the One Mind. This, Hakuin says, is the experience of ‘great death’.

From: World Philosophies by Ninian Smart

After experiencing this One Mind on Mt. Kurama, Usui-san created a system of teachings to help others also find the way to experience the Great Death. We can see that he was pointing out the Great Death in his teachings, for example within the precepts and the symbols and mantras.

The precepts are:

Do not anger
Do not worry
Be grateful
Practice diligently 
Show compassion to yourself and others

It is only when we have let go of the “I” that we can truly embody the precepts. Because it is the “I” who gets angry and worried, it is the “I” who is in the way of being humble, honest, and compassionate. Thus the precepts are pointing towards Mikao Usui’s own enlightened experience, the Great Death. So actually this Great Death is about gratitude for life, to live life at its fullest because when we have let go of our biggest worry, fear of death, we are free, free to dance through life. It is at this stage that we really start to transform our lives and those of others.

Usui-san also showed some of his students the DKM symbol/mantra, which stands for the great bright light of Anshin Ritsumei, again pointing towards the Great Death. He included all these pointers in his teachings because it is only after the Great Death that we truly become alive. The following quotes powerfully illustrate the transformation into our True Self:

After several days in his [Hakuin] condition, which he also later designated as the “Great Death” and interpreted as the dying of the ego and illusion. He recounted how he “chanced to hear the sound of the temple bell and…was suddenly transformed. It was as if a sheet of ice had been smashed or a jade tower had fallen with a crash. Suddenly I returned to my senses…All my former doubts vanished as though ice had melted away. In a loud voice I called: ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’

From: Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen: The Soto and Rinzai Schools of Japan by Conrad Hyers

Suddenly, under some impetus unknown to me, the fog lifted and vanished. And it is not that the pain in my own body disappeared, but rather that the body that is supposed to feel the pain disappeared. Everything was utterly clear. Even in the dimly lit darkness, things could be seen in a fine clarity. The faintest sound could be heard distinctly, but the hearing self was not there. This was, I believe, to die while alive.

From: Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga

Mikao Usui was only able to create the system of Reiki after going through the Great Death experience because it was only then that he had the clarity, wisdom, and compassion to formulate what he had been looking for himself in some sort of teaching. These teachings are the legacy of his own satori and by practicing the system of Reiki as a spiritual practice we are stepping into the footsteps of Mikao Usui, so that one day we can go through the same gate of the Great Death that Mikao Usui went though.

I cannot stress enough that the ultimate goal of religion, whether we call it satori or peace of mind, is for each individual to live in peace and tranquility, to live a full and satisfying life.

From: Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga

Further Resources

Chiba Mon and Myoken Bosatsu

Chiba Crest and Mikao Usui

Myoken Bosatsu

Mikao Usui’s history

Mikao Usui’s teachings

Hiroshi Doi about Usui-san

Reiki = True Self


Comments 13

  1. Avatar of Elly

    What a wonderful and insightful post, Frans! I especially loved the quote from Dogen Zenji. “Cannot be grasped,” indeed! I suspect that in a state of Anshin Ritsumei, all thought of grasping (the very essence of ego) drops away. Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Avatar of Bronwen Stiene
  3. Avatar of francine Hershkowitz

    Wonderful article.  Recently I had Jan the writing teacher   who lives in Sidney stay with me in New York.  She mentioned that finally you got to do the Transmission from Namkihai Norbu.  So in the light of that I write to you with a great smile.  AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH   now   just now that   is the fruit   no austerity is needed   no changes   Everything is the   state of wisdom already!  everything is already the great white light   if you relax into it     And   if you want a few more books to read ha ha   (when do you have time)  I can name a few .  Happily I continue with my Reiki practice   and   Dzogchen practice.  Being in the presence of Rimpoche   relaxing in the energy   there you are   immediately!!!!!  with great love

  4. Avatar of Cecelia Staryos RMT

    Good Morning,

    A lovely and gracious introduction to a (new to me) deity. Myoken Bosatsu resonates with me for her many associations and protections – Eyes, stars, horses, compassion. Where can I find a statue of Myoken Bosatsu?

    About the Great Death. In addition to a 21 Day Fast and Reiki, is it possible that great physical pain can open us to The Great Death?


  5. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Francine, What a small world, nice to have Jan visit you.
    I will be back in NY again in November.
    Always interested in different books so just email me a few titles 😉

    Indeed wisdom and the great bright light is here already, if we can only realize this in this moment then the world would be a better place.

  6. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Cecelia,

    You might want to have a look at this website for statues: If they don’t have it you can always email them, they are very helpful.

    I think teh great death can come at any moment in our lives. However for most of us we have accumulated so many things that even if we get a glimpse of it we often do not recognise it.

  7. Avatar of Cecelia Staryos RMT

    Hi Frans,

    What a peaceful website, a pleasure to visit.

    Yes, the great death makes sense. If one does not have a solid foundation or doesn’t understand the significance of the experience, it is so easy to be lured by old habits into falling back asleep.

    Ai to hikari

  8. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Cecelia,

    Yes without a good foundation I think it will be very hard to go through the gate of teh Great Death.

    So true often we just fall back asleep again.

    Here is a wonderful quote I like:

    “For the most part, we don’t really want to wake up. We have to be honest about this. We want to hold on to our beliefs and even to our suffering. Afraid of the unknown, we cling to the familiar. We don’t want to give up our illusions even when they make us miserable.”
    Ezra Bayda

  9. Avatar of Cecelia Staryos RMT

    Hi Frans,

    I love the ending quote. Waking up is hard to do.

    I am surprised at how much determination, honesty, and courage it takes me to create a consistent spiritual practice during the Transition to Shinpiden. As I read and study, I am clearer about what to do to develop a deeper spiritual practice and how to do it ~ which is really helpful. Knowing that I am in a community of like minded practitioners relieves me of the burden of isolation.

  10. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Cecelia,

    I know it is not that easy to keep up a daily practice. But with a nice community and like minded group we can have that support which we need for that ongoing practice.

  11. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi All,

    Here is another wonderful quote:

    “In other words, if you want to be one with the object and freely express yourself, you have to die. That is, you must become egoless. To die to the ego is not to be dead.”
    Dainin Katagiri

    We can learn so much from these real traditional Japanese teachers.


  12. Avatar of Seema

    Hi Frans ,

    I was thinking of this article last night , I receive healing and inspiration for this every time.
    And just now saw you posted the link again .
    Thank you so much !

  13. Avatar of Frans Stiene

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