Was Usui Mikao practicing Pure Land or Tendai?

Frans StieneArticles, English 16 Comments

trees question marks

Some people say that Usui Mikao, the founder of the system of Reiki was a Tendai lay monk while others say that he was practicing Pure Land, as he is buried in a Pure Land Temple in Tokyo.

Let’s take a closer look at this and see what we can find.

Honen (1133-1212) created the first independent branch of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, this was called Jodo-shu. Honen was a Tendai monk and practiced on Mt Hiei for many years before creating Jodu-shu. The main practice of Pure Land is to chant the name of Amida Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu, to attain unity with Amida Buddha. 

If Mikao Usui was a very devoted Pure Land practitioner then he would have included the chant Namu Amida Butsu into the system of Reiki.

As Namu Amida Butsu is not included in the system of Reiki, what is?

In the traditional Japanese system of Reiki there are specific meditations and symbols and mantras.

When we start to look closer at these meditations and symbols and mantras we start to see clear links to Tendai/Shingon/Shugendo teachings.

One of the most important Japanese Reiki meditations is Joshin kokyu-ho, taught in Shoden Level I. In this practice you breathe deeply into the tanden (just below your navel) and then you expand the energy through your body and out through your skin into the surroundings, further and further out into the universe. Most commonly, the practitioner visualises breathing in a white light which then flows down to the tanden (just below the navel) and expands like a balloon through the body and out into the universe.

Joshink kokyu-ho appears to be a simplification of a Tendai, Shingon and Shugendo practice called Kakudai-ho in which the practitioner visualizes a moon at the tanden (or another place depending on the teacher and practice), and expands this energy outwards into the universe. This moon is expanded until it is big as the universe. 

In Okuden Level II we learn symbols and mantras. Okuden means inner/hidden teachings, this indicates that the practices taught at this level are there to rediscover what is hidden inside of ourselves, our true self/Reiki. From this we understand that traditionally these tools were taught to be used internally and not externally as in many modern ways of teaching the system of Reiki.

In Tendai and Shingon there are meditations called Tenji-yuga (syllable/symbol transformation technique) and Tenji-yuga (syllable/symbol transformation yoga) in which the practitioner starts with visualizing a syllable inside of him/herself with the aim of ultimately becoming one with the associated deity of the syllable.

As we know the symbol/mantra SHK has its origins in the Japanese seed syllable Kiriku. So could the symbol/mantra practice in the traditional Japanese system of Reiki be a simplification of this more elaborate practice? You meditate on the symbol/mantra CKR, for example, to become the associated element which it embodies.

In Okuden Level II there is also the symbol/mantra HSZSN which can be translated in a very direct way as: I am right mind.

This Right Mind also points to a foundation teaching of Tendai and Shingon, the eightfold holy path (jp.  Hasshodo).

Shoken – Right views

Shoshiyui – Right thoughts

Sho go – Right speech

Shogo – Right acts

Shomyo – Right living

Shosho-jin – Right effort

Shonen – Right mindfulness (yes it is the same kanji as “sho nen” in hon sha ze sho nen)

Sho jo – Right meditation

Could HSZSN be a simplified tool to help us remember the eightfold holy path within us? 

In Shinpiden Level III there is the reiju, often translated as attunement, however when the system of Reiki first came to the west it was called an initiation. In Tendai and Shingon concentration points (jp. seishin shuchu ichi ) are worked with. The major points are the heart, forehead, throat, and crown of the head. When we look at the traditional reiju/attunement we see the same concentration points in this practice.

So by looking at the practices taught within the system of Reiki we can see stronger links to Tendai/Shingon/Shugendo than to Pure Land practices. 

Maybe we can even say that Usui-san simplified Japanese Tendai/Shingon/Shugendo esoteric teachings so that lay people could remember their true self without becoming a monk or a nun.

The standard biographies of Nakayama Miki [June 2, 1798 – February 18, 1887 – the Japanese foundress of Tenrikyo] all record that she was raised in a family deeply devoted to the Jõdo school of Buddhism, and that she herself was very devout. Significant as this early religious influence may have been, however, it is also necessary to point out that in the years immediately preceding Miki’s first revelations she was heavily involved in Shugendõ, and that Shugendõ had a more proximate and equally weighty influence upon her. 
Helen Hardacre from Conflict Between Shugendõ and the New Religions of Bakumatsu Japan

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 

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

Comments 16

  1. Avatar of Elly
  2. Avatar of Lilia
  3. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Elly and Lilia,

    If you look deep into the system of Reiki, the precepts and HSZSN for example you will find the eight fold path. There are many more hidden layers within the system of Reiki, we just have to dig deep within it and within ourselves to find it.

    Keep on digging.

  4. Avatar of Dana Lisa Young

    I always do appreciate your efforts to connect Reiki with the larger spiritual systems and practices in place in Japan at the time.

    It’s quite possible that Usui sensei was born and raised Jodo-shu, yet became personally interested in the more esoteric practices associated with Tendai and Shugendo as an adult. (No different to me than say, Christians or Jews who explore Buddhism and incorporate aspects that have meaning to them into their daily life.) His involvement in those practices should not negate that historically, Jodo-shu was Usui sensei’s family heritage. Both aspects have importance, but for entirely different reasons.

  5. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Dana,
    Yes he could have been raised as a Pure Land practitioner, still no concrete evidence for this, well he is buried at a Pure Land Temple, but I have also heard that the specific temple absorbed another temple due to the train station being build.

    But besides that, I think you are right to say that if he was a Pure Land practitioner that this would be of importance as well.  Our heritage is always important no matter what.

    It is a pity that there is not much known about Usui-san and that most of the elements we have to put together ourselves. Maybe one day we can get a clearer picture of Usui-san, wouldn’t that be wonderful!

    By the way I liked your pondering about the symbols and mantras and how this relates, for you, to hands on healing.

  6. Avatar of Tamu Ngina

    The EightFold Path is part of most all Buddhist sects including Pure Land.  Generally in the West we think of one or the other.  But in the East like Japan or China…some people may be a hodge podge of paths.

    One of my favorite monks of old is Suzuki Shosan, Samurai turned monk…He was a Pure Land Buddhist but also a Zen Buddhist as well.

    In the end for myself I think it all continues to point to the Oneness of All.

    Thank you for the blog post.

    P.S. Also included in why I think Suzuki Shosan was cool he became a self ordained monk at age 41, his Buddhist practice was really about being daily aware of death (which he first learned of death at age four as I did) but he also brings the practice of working with Ki into his daily Buddhist practice. So as a Reiki practitioner I find that so cool!

  7. Avatar of Frans Stiene
  8. Avatar of Frans Stiene
  9. Avatar of Frank

    Hi Dana (and others),

    Altough it is possible that Usui-sensei’s family was Jodo-shu I also remember reading that Usui-sensei started studying in a Tendai monastery at a very young age and (Mariko) Suzuki-san stated that he’s been a Tendai practitioner all his life.


  10. Avatar of Tamu Ngina

    Greetings Frans

    Thank you for the link. My Buddhist lay minister’s class descends from Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, my Sensei is a first generation Japanese American. The class, a two year program, has been such a delight especially as it has helped to make my Reiki practice even more meaningful.

    Regarding the hrih my understanding that it is also the seed syllable of Amitabha/Amidha Butsu. The main Buddha of Pure Land and also revered in Shingon. Kiriku also connected to Kannon, honored in both Pure Land and Shingon.

    Its beautiful how the correlations just seem to weave in and out. Mind boggling.

    Do you have any articles/blog posts that deal with Usui Reiki and the Paramitas or especially favorite the Bodhisattvas? Also more articles on SHK and or kiriku?

    Usui-sensei must have been a very deep and interesting fellow foe sure.

    Thank you.

  11. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Tamu,
    I bet that your training has given you a deeper understanding of Usui-sans teachings.

    Yes Amida Butsu and the Kiriku is also Pure Land, and yet Usui-san didn’t use the chant of Namu Amida Butsu in his teachings, maybe one day we will find out why. Pure Land is also part of Tendai, as you said before there is a lot of mixing in Japanese spiritual practices.

    No articles on the Paramittas, I always hope students will find this by themselves within their own personal practice of the system of Reiki, this is why I normally do not include these kind of things in articles.

    SHK = could be translated as mental habit, but it is not the habit of smoking or drinking, it goes much deeper then that. We need to go to the root of what triggers our mental habits.

    Thanks for your insights.

  12. Avatar of Patsy Fine

    Thanks for this interesting article. I think that when people reach advanced or spiritual levels of their religious practice (whether born into or chosen) they often become more inclusive in the spiritual aspects of other religions.  It seems the Western mind, especially the American version, is more inclined to be exclusive and independent of other religions (even within Christianity). Competition is severe not only in sports, but in religion and politics as well. The Eastern mind seems much more able to be committed to one path while open to the benefits and value of others.  Spiritual is really trans-religious so when we become more spiritually minded than religiously indoctrinated, I think we are attracted to practices, symbology, values, etc. that show up in some form in most religions. We become less attached to the form and more to the experience. I think Master Usui was an advanced spiritual teacher who wanted to simplify the esoteric teachings and practices to make them more understandable and user-friendly to common people that did not have the luxury of spending all their time in religious practice. Regardless of his “official” religious affiliation (I was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic in my childhood, but no longer practice this religion), I am grateful Usui’s teachings and practice came to the US even in their distorted form and now we are untangling them with new information and a new attitude that allows a clearer understanding to unfold.  Yeah for us!  Keep up the good work of bringing to greater Light that which was kept in the dark. Blessings to one and all.

  13. Avatar of Frans Stiene

    Hi Patsy,
    I think you hit the hammer on the nail 🙂

    I also believe that Usui-san was simplifying Japanese esoteric teachings to make it more accessible, not just for monks and nuns.

    Yes sometimes even religion can become a competition. But in a real spiritual practice there is no competition, just practice.

    Thanks for sharing your insights

  14. Avatar of Elly
  15. Avatar of Inayat Tal

    As a practicing Reiki Master and Vajraya Buddhist, this year I realized an unmistakable, and I think undeniable, reference to Bhaiṣajyaguru (Medicine Buddha) encoded in the Reiki Master symbol itself. You have to dig a little in the history of the transmission of esoteric Buddhism to Japan which occurred before similar transmissions to Tibet. I know of Maureen Kelly’s controversial (some would say poorly researched) ‘Reiki and the Healing Buddha’ and I don’t think she conveyed this exact bit of information in her book. Keep in mind that many times when a Buddha appears there is a bodhisattva on each side of them. The specific references to the bodhisattvas which attend Bhaiṣajyaguru are exact match for the two kanji characters at the end/bottom of the Master Symbol. See YAKUSHI NYORAI attended by Nikko and Gakko.

    If correct, this means the master symbol is the passcard/password for Medicine Buddha and his attendants, requesting them to the activities that are about to occur. As the Kanji and the references for Yakushi Nyorais attendants seem to me to be a 100% match to the original (Usui) master symbol, this makes a strong impression. To me the master symbol is a clear tie betweens Usuis esoteric/healing practices and his experience of the transmission of Buddhism in Japan. Usui found a way to package this experience and realization and to be expressed in a non-religious way through the practice of Reiki.

    It is not beyond reason that Usui had in mind a way to transmit the light he had experienced in his rigorous practices in Tendai and Shingon sects in a way that makes this energy available to ‘laypeople’. By extension it also provides the sails for these inner experiences to make their way out from Japanese esoteric Buddhism to the rest of the world.

    I sense from this perspective Usui’s recognition of Pure Land Buddhism. I believe the Master Symbol viewed from the perspective presented here (Yakushi Nyorai/Nikko/Gakko) provides an energetic tie back to Pure Land Buddhism though not a provable one. The energetic connection in the Master symbol and in Reiki to the Buddha(s) exists. The work of Reiki is healing and its motivation is compassion, the intention and foundation of the Buddhist path. I sense strong connections both back to Medicine Buddha and Amitabha when viewing the Master symbol now with this insight.

    I encourage ‘Westerners’ to learn more about esoteric Buddhism in helping to understand what Usui’s energetic view of reality was. As the embellishments from Mrs Takatas stories about Reiki continue to fall away, the best ways IMHO to understand Reiki are to combine actual ‘Reiki’ history with Japanese esoteric Buddhism and ‘cooked’ personal experience. I don’t believe Reiki came from nowhere with no previous history. Usui codified something he experienced and called it Reiki. Its energetic roots are deep in Japanese esoteric Buddhism. To me it is clearly a Buddhist practice regardless of having not much in the way of external trappings or decorations. Reiki to me appears now a transmission from Yakushi Nyorai/Nikko/Gakko through Usui and they left their signatures on the Master symbol as proof. 🙂

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