CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

The "Quasi-Religion" of Reiki

by Andrea Menegotto, CESNUR
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

«Reiki is a system of spiritual healing
that appears to be on its way
to becoming a complete religion»
(J. Gordon Melton, 2001)



Reiki is a technique of Japanese origin in order to reduce stress, to relax and to increase just your own degree of physical and moral well-being. It is based on the idea that universal (rei) energy (ki) flows inside all living beings. We often wonder whether Reiki is simply a technique or it is, as a matter of fact, a religion. The study of its origins, its characteristics and some tens of thousands of various schools, (paying a particular attention to Italian scene) may induce to think that the category of quasi-religion coined from American specialists can adequately be applied to such a phenomenon.

Reiki is a technique of Japanese origin on a Chinese, more ancient basis, in order to reduce stress, to relax and to increase just your own degree of physical and moral well-being. Broadly speaking, since a unitary organisation does not exist, the name “Reiki” is also used to indicate the movement of those who practise this technique and share a certain number of principles that support it. The technique is based on the idea that universal (rei) energy (ki), Japanese version of the Chinese “qi”, flows inside all living beings. The flow of this energy can be improved or corrected, in deviation case, through the gestures of a person initiated to Reiki that puts his hands on another person (or on himself), or simply raises his hands towards the other without touching him.

Reiki was introduced to the West from Mrs. Hawayo Takata (1900-1980), a Hawaiian of Japanese origin, who discovered it during a travel in Japan, between 1935 and 1937. On her return to the Hawaii islands in 1937, Mrs. Takata invited her Japanese master of Reiki, Chujiro Hayashi (1879-1949), and in 1948 together they opened the first western centre. The latter is one of the sixteen masters who were officially initiated from the founder Mikao Usui (1865-1926). During over forty years of her career in the West, Mrs. Takata told the history of Reiki more times; nowadays the story can still be listened to, from her clear voice through an audiotape (1989). However, may be in order to adapt it to western tastes, this history has been reported taking some “freedom” with the facts. Two authors, William Lee Rand (1998) and Frank Arjawa Petter (1997), favourable to Reiki and they themselves masters of Reiki, come to these conclusions. They led their searches in Japan and, later on, they constituted a “revisionist” tradition of the history of Reiki. The same theses were later reproposed in Italian language in a volume written by Dario Canil and Petter himself in 2000.

In this report we do not intend to go over again the most interesting vicissitudes of the origins of Reiki in an organic way, to analyse the controversies that developed around it or the main organisations to which some masters have joined themselves (and that embody some trends) or to deal with the recent developments, arguments properly faced by some scholars of the new religious movements (CESNUR, 693-696; Melton, 2001; Hammer, 2001).

We would rather try to read the reality of Reiki, paying a particular attention to the Italian scene, striving to understand if, on the basis of its phenomenology, Reiki can be simply considered a technique or, instead on the contrary, a religion.


1. The Experience of the Founder

If the history of Reiki and of its founder is free from some elements having “mythological” features, introduced by Mrs. Takata and found out from Rand’s and Petter’s work (a vulgata very diffused in Reiki circles, whose traces are also found in several publications, would like, for example, Mikao Usui to be a minister or catholic clergy), we realize that little is known about the Reiki founder. In order to reconstruct the story of the founder, Rand and Petter, based themselves, among the other things, on the inscription that is found on the Usui Memorial Monument, which was erected and supervised from the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai ([Society for the Spread of] Usui System of Reiki Recovery, the organisation founded in Tokio in 1922 from M. Usui himself), and placed at the cemetery of the Buddhist temple of Saiho-ji in the quarter of Suginami in Tokyo (the Italian translation of this gravestone inscription is proposed by Canil [Canil & Petter, 83-86]). The Reiki founder was born in Yago, a small village (in the Prefecture of Gifu), on 15th August 1865. When he was a child, he attended a tendai Buddhist school. It is not clear if he achieved further qualifications even if his first followers reported that he had studied Medicine, Buddhist Theology and the Art to foretell the future of the Japanese fortune-tellers. He married Sadako Suzuki, from whom he had two children. He travelled in Europe, China, Tibet, Nepal and India, becoming a successful businessman. He became a member of an esoteric group, interested in parapsychological phenomena and the world of the spirits, the Rei Jyutu Ka. In 1914 he was involved in an economic ruin. As a result of that, he devoted himself to religion and he went up to the temple on Kurama mount, sacred to the tendai Buddhist school, in order to meditate and to fast for a period of twenty-one days. Putting into practise a common Japanese custom, that is meditation under a waterfall, he received an unexpected illumination and he felt full of divine energy. Canil describes the crucial moment in Usui’s life in this way: “After several days of fast and meditation, he lived Satori’s experience, a particular state of conscience: he had the vision of Avalokiteshvara, a highly developed being that embodies the Buddhist principle of compassion. This being instructed Mikao Usui on the mountain. He initiated him, teaching Mikao Usui to transmit the cosmic energy of healing to the others” (Canil & Petter, 29-30). After that, his mission for the spread of Reiki began, but Usui is also remembered to have been a precursor of the crystal therapy, a worldwide practise of recovery which will become extremely diffused about sixty or seventy years later in some circles influenced by New Age. For many years, it was thought that documents written by Usui did not exist, until Petter published the outcome of his long research culminated in their discovery occurred in 1997, in a German version and, later, in an English one. He reproduced in copies, some parts of Japanese texts of the Reiki Ryoho Hikkei, that is the handbook written by Usui in the years 1920-1925 (Petter, 1997-1998, Usui & Petter, 1999). It is a work composed of an introduction concerning different techniques of working with energy, a series of questions and answers developed in the style of the interview and, finally, one hundred twenty five poems having spiritual features, composed probably by Emperor Meiji in the Japanese traditional shape of Waka. In order to understand Usui’s thought, the five principles of Reiki have also proved to be useful, even if the “revisionist” reading of the origins of Reiki has led us to think that they weren’t written up from the founder – as, instead, Mrs. Takata asserted – attributing them to Usui’s particularly inspired meditations, but, on the contrary, by the above mentioned Emperor Meji and adopted by Usui on the basis of the great esteem he had for him (Canil & Petter, 79-82). Such principles are guidelines that concur, through the unity and the harmony between the individual and the cosmos, to the flowing of the universal vital energy. Usui suggested his disciples repeating these principles every morning and evening at loud voice, with authentic availability and opening of mind and heart.

Anyway, apart such sources, little remains of his thought and his teaching. However, on the whole, there are no doubts he taught the divine nature of the ki, the importance of the sacred songs, the prayer and the thankings to God. Moreover, one of the main secret symbols of Reiki in the original version of Mikao Usui, corresponds to the symbols of the supreme divinity worshipped in the Buddhist temple on Kurama mount: the Universal Vital Energy (Petter, 1997; Usui & Petter, 1999). Considering the fact that even the Reiki founder is Buddhist and referring in particular to the formative experience of the Kurama mount and in a more generalized manner to the existing ties between the doctrinal system of Reiki and the spirituality connected with the sacred place Buddhism tendai, Petter asserts the existence of the Buddhist background into which Reiki might be inserted (Usui & Petter, 1999, 10-14).

Anil Bhatnagar, (2002, 67-76), a Reiki master living in India, doesn’t supply us with any indications as regards his sources, and anticipates of just one year Usui’s date of birth, whose complete name, according to the Indian author, is Mikaomi Gyoho Usui. He introduces a further and partially different version of the biography of the founder and of the history of the origins of Reiki, even if the Reiki master demonstrates to know the circulating, more or less legendary, biographies. Besides supplying information which was already known thanks to other authors, Bhatnagar stops on some details that other works left out or skimmed over. Bhatnagar states that the Reiki founder got a doctorate in Literature and was able to speak many languages but, above all, the information according to which Usui turned to spirituality after an economic and financial ruin, is put in doubt. His religious interest is rather the result of a near-death experience (on this type of experience, read: Introvigne, 1996), being survived to an attack of cholera about 1890. After his awakening, Usui frequently went up Kurama mount and practised meditation under a waterfall. Being thirsty of knowledge, he studied for a long time the ancient texts of Buddhist medicine at the libraries and the monasteries of Kyoto, experimenting the techniques he learned through the reading. Therefore he became a well known Buddhist master who had a lot of followers, but Usui had the hope of discovering a technique of simple and effective recovery, that could be learned from everybody independently of his own religion and culture. In about 1900, he, by chance, discovered an ancient Buddhist manuscript entitled The Tantra of the Lightning Flash, that precisely revealed him a technique, which went back to Buddha’s times (563-483 b.C.) and practised in Tibet in the seventh century. He went up Kurama mount in order to meditate and deeply understand this system. There he received the illumination from the Reiki energy itself. Later on, he devoted himself to deepening his discovery for many years before being able to teach Reiki to the masses.

In a private correspondence with the author of the present text (Bhatnagar, 2003), the Indian Reiki-master, questioned on his sources, declared to consider the version spread by Mrs. Takata too superficial. Besides having therefore used some works of other authors (Petter 1997, Stein 1997, Lee Rand 1998, Ellyard 2002), he also referred to use the intuitive guide of Reiki itself in a state of trance to know the hidden details of the history of the origins of the same technique.

Moreover, in his volume, Bhatnagar seems to refer broadly to the version spread by the Australian Reiki master Lawrence Ellyard (2002; Klatt, 2002) that announced the discovery (happened in 1994), and partly published in English translation, of the diary and a series of manuscripts of Usui, among which the above mentioned The Tantra of the Lightning Flash, dating back to the seventh century, and of which Ellyard himself is informed directly (in 1999) from the discoverer: his Buddhist teacher and clinical psychologist of American origins, lama Yeshe Drugpa Trinley Odzer (Richard Blackwell), ordered both in the Tibetan and Shingon traditions. He received the text from his father, a captain of the American Army who had come into its possession in Japan in 1945, having purchased it from some monks who were seeking funds to rebuild their own monastery damaged by bombardments in the Second World War. Quite frankly speaking, even lama Yeshe himself, two years before his disciple had published the translation of some excerpts of the manuscripts he had discovered (Yeshe, 2000).

Independently of the historical reliability of the news supplied by Bhatnagar and Ellyard (really, an absolutely not negligible question), also the history of the origins of Reiki proposed by these authors, not only confirms the existence of a Buddhist background but also its direct Buddhist origins, objective or legendary , but in any case deeply rooted in the beliefs and the teachings of Reiki practitioners and masters. Therefore Bhatnagar himself asserts that, after Usui’s discovery «Reiki was re-born» (Bhatnagar, 68).


2. The Initiations

As to the several schools and Reiki masters offer more or less different interpretations as regards the modalities that qualify to the practise of Reiki it can be said, in a generalized manner, that the practise of this technique is approached through three levels or degrees, called: shoden (the first level has the scope to activate the receptive channels of the universal energy and allows to transmit it through several positions of the hands); okuden (inner teaching needs the precise acquaintance of the three secret symbols of Reiki and of their execution and it concurs to canalize the energy into the mind even at a certain distance); and shinpiden (mysteric instruction coinciding with the choice to become a Reiki master and with the delivery of the fourth symbol). According to others, but this is controversial point, it is followed by three more secrets.

As to secretness of the symbols of Reiki that should only be known by those who have had access to the second and the third levels, a wide discussion involving Reiki masters is in progress over the last few years. While someone asserts that the diffusion of the acquaintance of the symbols to the great public great public can finally prejudice their good use and represent a decrease of the respect which is due to their sacrality, others believe that for a pedagogic aim it is advisable symbols may be easily found on Reiki handbooks. Therefore, not without any wide polemic sequels, others have let the great public know the names and the symbols, their meanings and their graphical representation (Manual 1995; Stein, 1997), moreover revealing some disparities concerning their meaning and, sometimes, the number of the symbols.

They are gained access to the various levels through some ceremonies defined from the greater part of the authors like “initiations”. It must moreover be noticed that other Reiki masters prefer describing such ceremonies like “activations”, insisting on the “natural” aspect of Reiki, that in their opinions has nothing religious, esoteric or magical, but then however they highlight the spiritual nature of this technique (Udgatri & Masseglia, 2001, 74-77). Bhatnagar (44-48) generally uses the term “attunements”, sometimes reserving the qualification “initiation” only for the access to the third level. Attunements must be followed by a period of physical-psychological purification of twenty-one days. Such temporal duration obviously reminds of the period of fast and meditation spent by Mikao Usui on Kurama Mount, historical news that Bhatnagar himself defines “reasonable” (Bhatnagar, 72).

Initiation – a widely prevailing definition however in the international literature – has a very remarkable meaning. Hawayo Takata herself taught that they induced deep changes into the person on his spiritual, emotional and physical sphere (Brown 1992, 90). Initiations enable the initiated through the harmonization and the opening of energy channels, to become a channel of the universal vital energy that, according to the founder Mikao Usui, has a divine nature. In such sense, they also correspond to an awareness of his divine or spiritual self and to the experimental rediscovery of an archetype that can be found in the same energy but also in the experience of the illumination of the founder that gives life to a lineage. The bond between the student and the Reiki master during the series of initiations perpetuates a lineage of energetic transmission that, through the several masters, flows directly from the founder Mikao Usui. The Reiki master is the means through which the opening of the energetic channels takes place and he has, therefore, the intermediary role, not producing himself the event of the initiation. Carmignani (2001, 244) describes the role of the master introducing a parallel: Reiki master and the priest of the animist religion of the Orishà actually carry out the same function of intermediaries between the physical world and the spiritual world.

The initiation rituals have always been a fundamental object of study within religious sciences (Ries, 1986) to which the phenomenologist of the religion, the Rumanian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) paid great attention in his researches (1957; 1986). The initiation corresponds to a change of the ontological, religious, spiritual and social status of the initiated that is often described in terms of a “new birth” or “rebirth”. To the initiations as they are meant in the circles of Reiki, all the categories coined from Eliade referring to the several religious fields, are not certainly applicable. Anyway, some aspects and modalities of the rituals of initiation can be seen as a not useless attempt of organisation inside the models Eliade developed. According to this scholar, the rituals of initiation are classifiable into three groups, on the basis of their function: (1) the first group is made up of the pubertal rituals of passage; (2) the second from the rituals that allow the access of the initiated to a closed religious society, that may be a secret society or a religious or military confraternity; (3) the third consists of the ritual of initiation that leads to a vocation that might be defined “mystic”: it is the case of the shaman, of medicine man and of sacerdotal initiations. With such a type of initiation, the initiated acquires exceptional powers and gets to a state of life inaccessible to the other members of the society.

If we exclude the category of the pubertal rituals, we can, instead, consider the effects attributed to the Reiki initiations and the remarkable changes from a spiritual but also social and ontological point of view that initiation ceremonies produce on the initiated, to get to several levels of Reiki. Consequently, it is possible to place, somehow, also the initiation to Reiki inside other two groups of initiation rituals considered by Eliade. They have the function of making the initiated a channeller of the Universal Vital Energy, and therefore a subject endowed with powers that others do not have and making part of a lineage and a community of initiated that Lee Rand defines “sacred metaphysical order”.


3. Reiki, Religions and Religion

The analysis of the origin of Reiki, the fact that the message of the founder turns out to be incomprehensible if it is separated from the original religious context, the essential reference to an energy that has divine features, the organisation of the rituals of initiation inside some categories found out by religious sciences and the similarities that exist between Reiki and the several extreme-oriental movements which combine Buddhism and Taoism (CESNUR, 661-666), that cannot elude the specialist of religious movements, could hastily get to the conclusion that Reiki is a religion.

The fact that nearly all schools deny that, it is not decisive at all. In fact, other new Japanese religions and in particular, some in which the imposition of the hands such as Sûkyô Mahikari (Introvigne, 1999), equally deny being religions and prefer introducing themselves like “above” religions opened to people of every faith. Their character of new religion is however given for certain by specialists. But the movement of Sûkyô Mahikari also offers a complete message of salvation, a theology of the history, a cosmological formulation and tries to explain the origins of the mankind. In most Reiki schools, instead, these elements turn out to be absent.

Therefore, the issue of the definition and the positioning of Reiki within the category “religion” needs to be faced with some additional instruments. A useful element, in such sense, can be the location of the position that Reiki has in the present post-modern religious and spiritual context, that is in the age of the «deinstitutionalization» of the religion to use an expression of the French sociologist Daniel Hervieu-Leger (1993). In the world surely thousands, may be tens of thousands of several different schools of Reiki exist, each one has its own features and often it arranges the techniques and the ideas of Mikao Usui with elements of other origin, of Buddhist derivation, coming from the background of the esoteric, of the New Age-Next Age world and also, sometimes, Christian). Beside the greatest international organisations, Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai, The Reiki Foundation (ex Reiki Alliance), The Radiance Technique International Association, Karuna Reiki (Canil & Petter, 51-75), many organisations and smaller schools exist. They characterize themselves for an intense activity and a certain public visibility. In order to limit us to some examples, the Shambala Reiki associates the technique of Usui with tantric recovery NgalSo taught by Lama Gangchen Tulku Rinpoche, an exponent of the Tibetan Buddhism (CESNUR, 599-699), the Associazione Reiki Amore Universale (R.A.U.) in Rho (Milan, Italy) and the Centre Eleven in Cuneo (Italy) join Reiki to elements of theosophical character and of other nature (CESNUR, 696-701), the Osho Neo Reiki comes into being instead from the acceptance by Osho Rajnesh (1931-1990 [Coney, 1999; Fox, 2002]), at the end of 1980s in the Ashram of Poona of the technique taught by Usui that now, according to the disciples of Osho, is useful to practise as self-recovery, joined to the meditation in order to obtain the harmonization between the body and the spirit and to progress in the spiritual way.

From a series of interviews carried out between people who have themselves accepted to undertake occasionally Reiki sittings, practitioners and Reiki masters of different ages, sex, degree of education and religious beliefs (Milione 1999-2000; Udgatri & Masseglia, 71-125), the fact emerges, as an almost constant datum, that Reiki is not considered a religion. However in the common opinion it has a spiritual connotation and it is thought to be useful. Besides being a technique for the achievement of the physical well-being and in some cases of the recovery as a complement, in order to improve our own spiritual way thanks to the free flow of the Universal Vital Energy and to its harmonizing function. It is to be pointed out, as an interesting datum, the fact that many Reiki masters have built up themselves and are skilful also in alternative therapeutic practises or techniques able to increase the human potentiality, or they reveal an interest for the oriental spirituality (Buddhist in particular). Therefore not few people declare to have been disciples of Osho Rajneesh.

William Lee Rand, together with others authors, in his volume Reiki. The Healing Touch, states that Reiki is spiritual in its nature (I-11) and that it is not a religion since there are no dogmas in which to believe and it acts in any case, either one believes in it or one doesn’t. The author himself in Reiki for a new millennium precises that Reiki comes from God or from an advanced power (Lee Rand, 139). Therefore it enables many people to keep their ideas and their own religious experiences. Resuming a vulgata widely diffused in the world of the new religiosity, Lee Rand supports the idea of an “esoteric” formation of Jesus Christ between the twelve and thirty years. Before dedicating himself to the public ministry Jesus travelled in India, Tibet and China and was initiated to Reiki or to a primitive technique similar to Reiki to become a Reiki master. On the other hand, Mikao Usui himself in his handbook asserts that “the way to Reiki is not comparable to any other (spiritual) way in the world” and he thinks that trough Reiki, everybody “has the potentiality to receive gifts from the sphere of the divine” (Canil & Petter, 88).

The statements of Lee Rand, who is an author among the most quoted in circles favourable to Reiki, even if they are exemplificative, help to pick some of the essential features of the doctrinal system which is the practical basis of Reiki, that is of the ideas expressed from the totality of the authors and Reiki masters as a theoretical- philosophical justification of the spiritual and physical connotation of Reiki. The anthropological and spiritual reference picture is characterized by an underlying, syncretistic formulation tending to create a mingling among elements drawn from the various religious traditions. In a generalized manner, and owing to the reasons that are by now well known, elements drawn from the philosophies and oriental religions prevail with a strong predominance of Buddhism. For example the flowing of the energy into the human body is described through the system of the energetic channels and the chakra. In its proposals, made to an external public, the syncretistic attitude yields the step to an open relativism. Consequently Reiki is described as a not exclusive spiritual way. It can be put together to other ways and to their own religious beliefs. If we keep in consideration the interviews to which a hint has been made, such a conception seems to be deeply rooted in the greater part of the interviewed. Making reference to the sacral dimension of their practises, authors and Reiki masters, unanimously prefer speaking about “spirituality” rather than of religion even if they make explicit reference, with various right, to a divinity concept that is identified with the Universal Vital Energy. In the perspective of the relationship health-salvation (Fizzotti, 1994; Pavesi 1994), the option of the schools of Reiki is openly oriented towards a holistic vision of the cosmos and of man. The body and the spirit are actually the two action plans of the practise of Reiki and the harmony between these produces a physical and spiritual well-being.

On the basis of these elements, Reiki can simply appear as one of the alternative therapeutic practises, flowing into the immense network of alternatives therapies. It can be framed, in its turn, in the large metanetwork of the New Age. In particular, the historical evolution of the spreading of Reiki to the West and its present very remarkable international expansion, leads to think that such a practise has not suffered any damage but instead it has drawn benefits from the evolution-decline of the New Age. It has taken place, starting from the half of 1990s, in that phenomenon having a more individualistic character which is called Next Age (Introvigne 2000; Zoccatelli 1997; Berzano 1999; Menegotto 1999). If this classification reveals to be adequate according to several scholars, a scrupulous observation of the modalities of presence of Reiki in the West, can lead us to think that probably the existence of such a practice has a much more complex sociological connotation. In fact, Reiki presents its own characteristics of “transverseness” in its appearance on the western scene. The modalities of its existence transversely cross the religious scene of the post-modern West. In the plurality of its schools, Reiki sometimes lives inside or on the sidelines of some new religious movements, above all of oriental origin, of its own human potential or, more exactly, of the New Age-Next Age tradition. In such cases, it gets integrated inside a wider vision of man and the cosmos. It appears a complement that enables the person who is already walking along a sure spiritual way, the optimisation of the results, thanks to a “harmonization” between body and spirit. Very often yet Reiki has an independent life for the cure of the body, and it is advised inside well-being centres. In spite of that, it continues, however, in its founding ideas to recall some dominant concepts in the sacred post-modern scenery and some notions that on the basis of the criteria of religious sciences are classifiable as clearly relevant to the sacred and spiritual spheres. This “transverseness” is also typical of other alternative therapeutic practises. The case of Reiki appears however either for the great diffusion that this practise has presently in the West or for the great presence of centres in which it is practised, surely the most meaningful case.

Owing to the likeness existing, under many aspects, between Reiki and some new Japanese religious movements, since the attention for the recovery is a central element, the ideas supported by many scholars is that the new religious movements in many cases offer an opportunity of psychological-physical well-being, if we consider the category of the “healing religions” (Fizzotti, Pavesi), coined from sociologists and historians of the religions just before the phenomenon of the new religious movements, assumed the importance that nowadays it is attributed to it and we consider their most important features, we realize that such a label can be adapted to Reiki with good approximation. However, the category of religion cannot be extended without any difficulty to Reiki, being it lacking in its doctrinal system in elements such as a complete message of salvation and a theology of the history that explains the origin and the destiny of man.

However, nowadays, a shared definition of religion (CESNUR, 15-17) does not generally exist in social sciences and in the study of religions. The reality of Reiki well seems to adapt itself to a model of research supplied by some American specialists. Therefore it turns out to be unrelated to the “folk”, but also to definitions elaborated in scientific centres or other authoritative contexts (Introvigne 2001; Greil 1993). Being Reiki really placed in a borderline along the “frontier of the sacred”, it lives a continuous dualism in the relationships between technique-religion, profane-sacred, material-spiritual, body-spirit, it seems better to adapt the category of “quasi-religion” to it (Greil 1993; Greil and Robbins, 1994).

In this perspective the study of the reality of Reiki reveals to be a further contribution to the wide debate on the concept, the meaning, the role and the place that the religion occupies in our age.

* * *




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