Was Mikao Usui a Yamabushi?

Frans Stiene Articles, English 12 Comments

First of all, what is a Yamabushi?

A Yamabushi is an ascetic who roams the mountains in Japan seeking spiritual fulfillment. Yamabushis follow a spiritual practice called Shugendo, which is a blend of Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism and Shinto.

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

The Japanese term for ‘New Religions’ is Shinshukyo and this term has been used to classify New Religious organizations since the middle of the 19th Century. These New Religions “reflect fundamental religious values and attitudes that have been held since ancient times” (Paul Varley – Japanese Culture. 4th edition p. 335) such as the values of early Japanese Shamanism and the qualities of Japanese folk religions (which includes the power to heal).

This is not to say that the system of Reiki is a religion as we understand the term in the West. The Japanese New Religions do vary in their levels of religiosity and the system of Reiki is not religious in the commonest sense of the term; traditionally there is no element of worship within the system. Yet, the system of Reiki shares its evolution and influences with these Japanese New Religions. And one of the major influences on the Japanese New Religions is Shugendo.

Shugendo teaches that a human being is a product of the universe and is himself or herself a “small” universe. Thus all things, including human beings, are thought to have the same nature or character as the divine, the primary and original form of all things. Therefore it is possible for a human being to become a divine being. – 
Miyake Hitoshi – Shugendo: Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion

But lets go back to the Yamabushi, as the name itself holds some interesting facts.

The kanji for Yamabushi is 山伏 which is often translated in English as: one who lays down in the mountains. But there is more behind the actual kanji.

The first kanji stands for mountain. In the Hikosan Shugendo Hiketsu Kanjo No Maki the three vertical lines represent each element of the three-fold practice – the precepts, concentration and wisdom – and the horizontal line line represents the joining of these three elements together in practice.

We can see these 3 elements clearly within the system of Reiki as well. First, we have the Reiki precepts. Secondly, we have the meditations like Joshin Kokyu ho and the symbols and mantras which help us to concentrate our mind. This in turn leads us to finding our inner wisdom which is symbolized within the system of Reiki by the mantra taught in level III; 大光明 Dai Kômyô. This begs the question, did Usui-san model his system on Shugendo?

According to Miyake Hitoshi (Professor Emeritus of Keio University) the second kanji of Yamabushi is divided into two segments – one representing enlightenment and the other ignorance. These two elements combined therefore stand for oneness and non-duality, which in turn is expressed within the system of Reiki by the 3rd mantra taught in Okuden level II; 本者是正念 Hon Sha Ze Sho Nen and the Level III mantra; Dai Kômyô.

This interpretation uses the two characters of “yamabushi” (山伏), the best known name associated with the shugenja, to give expression to the experience of non-duality and oneness. – Miyake Hitoshi – The Mandala of the Mountain: Shugendo and Folk Religion

What else correlates between the Yamabushi and Reiki practices?

Yamabushi were considered as healers due to their accumulated insights gained during their mountain asceticism.

The memorial stone states that Usui-san was well versed in Taoism, as well as the art of divination, incantation, and physiognomy, further aspects of Shugendo.

Mt Kurama, the birthplace of the system of Reiki, has many links to the Yamabushi as well. Sojogatani is a valley at Mt Kurama in which many Yamabushi have practiced and at the top of Mt Kurama there lives a mythical tengu called Sojobo – Sojobo is an ancient Yamabushi.

Yet, to really find out if Usui-san was a Yamabushi we need to do more research, but as we can see many elements point in that direction.

Research is one of the reasons that I went to Japan in 2012, and trained with Hakusai Takeda – a Shugendo and Shingon Priest and a direct deshi (lineage disciple) of Yusai Sakai Dai-Ajari (Great Esoteric Master) who himself is a highly prominent Japanese figure in multi-religious affairs. And I have just completed further Shugendo training with Rev Kuban Jakkôin Yambushi, priest of Shomudo Hermitage.

For me, to find out what Usui-san was practicing himself will help me to teach the system of Reiki from a clearer perspective.

Comments 12

  1. Hi Elly,
    It is very fascinating and it helps me to understand the deeper layers of the Mikao Usui’s teaching better. Learning never stops. We can always go deeper and discover more about ourselves and the system of Reiki.

    Hope to do some more training this year with Takeda-san as well, crossing my fingers 🙂

  2. I find this very interesting as it is through Reiki that I have begun to connect to my Higher-Self. I believe that reiki is not something external from us, but rather something that exists in every living thing – A Divine Intelligence. I find the quote

    “Shugendo teaches that a human being is a product of the universe and is himself or herself a “small” universe. Thus all things, including human beings, are thought to have the same nature or character as the divine, the primary and original form of all things. Therefore it is possible for a human being to become a divine being. – 
Miyake Hitoshi – Shugendo: Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion”

    resonates with my belief. Thank you!

  3. Frans and Bronwen, thanks!  I so appreciate your approach to teaching and the whole of life is a journey, not a destination – but I am sure glad that part of your journey is to Japan and delving deeper into the system of Reiki.  Thank you for sharing your information, maintaining your enthusiasm and for being an inspiration.

  4. Hi Susan,
    I agree, it is the journey what matters not the destination 🙂
    I love to delve deeper into the system of Reiki to see what Usui-san was really about.
    We can look at Mrs Takata or Hayashi-san but for me it really is about Usui-san.

  5. Hi Frans,
    There is a good book on Japanese Yamabushi, now long out of print but sometimes available on Amazon. Here is the US (Amazon.com) link: http://www.amazon.com/Catalpa-Bow-Shamanistic-Practices-Classics/dp/1873410859/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381600871&sr=1-3&keywords=yamabushi+of+japan
    As you can see even the used copies sell now for $40, but the book, originally written in the 50s, is well worth it. I’d be very pleased to know what if these rituals and practices still survive. Many Japanese are afraid of the Yamabushi, thinking them wild or dangerous. I have run across them when hiking in Japan to my great pleasure and of course there are some related rituals associated with Fushimi Inari and the many independent temples in that complex.
    If you have any more information regarding the Yamabushi please pass it my way.
    Blessings, Vicki

  6. Hi Vicki,

    That is a great book indeed. I think if we want to know more about Usui-san and his teachings it is great to read books like this, from a traditional Japanese perspective. Many Japanese Reiki teachers teach from a very modern perspective so if we want to know more about Usui-san’s time we need to look at the period he was practicing in himself, that way we get a much clearer picture.

    I love to come across them when you walk in the mountains. 🙂

    Here is another great book to read:

    https://www.cjspubs.lsa.umich.edu/books/list/mono32.php

    Love
    Frans

  7. Hi All,

    Here are some more links to related articles about Mikao Usui and mountain practices:

    http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/echoes_in_the_mountains_locating_usuis_experience_in_the_history_of_japanes/

    http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/what_i_am_discovering_from_my_japanese_shugendo_training_about_reiki/

    http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/frans_stienes_japan_journal/

    http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/shugendo_and_the_system_of_reiki/

    http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/researching_reiki_training_from_a_japanese_viewpoint/

  8. What an interesting and rich piece, thank you. It seems important to keep tying things back to Usui like this, otherwise we are just jumping practice traditions, you know?

    I know this wasn’t the focus on the article, but I was particularly struck with the value of this statement: “…the system of Reiki is not religious in the commonest sense of the term; traditionally there is no element of worship within the system.”

    Many people ask if Reiki is a religion, and I always answer no, but this is specific and really hits why it is not a religion in a way that I think people will understand. It even points specifically to how practicing the system of Reiki as a spiritual practice can help us deepen our individual religious paths, if we have them. There is no contradiction, since it is not about worship at all, just about opening to wisdom within.

    Thanks very much.

    Warmly,
    Alice

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