THE POWER OF ORAL TRADITION: WHAT MATTERS MOST, INFORMATION OR ESSENCE?
Updated: Jul 24
Never in any other history in the world have I known there to be more uncertainty and controversy as there is surrounding the history of Reiki. Particularly about the founder of Reiki, Mikao Usui. You'd think it would be fairly straight forward. Not so. It is a constantly moving target and is not in any way near fixed or settled.
There are endless 'versions' of the story of Mikao Usui, who he was and how he came to discover Reiki.
Some claim he was Tendai Buddhist despite him growing up as a Pure Land Buddhist and his memorial stone being situated at a Pure Land Buddhist Temple. He was a seeker, being said to have travelled the world studying my different subjects and modalities. He was appointed Mayor of Tokyo, achieving a great deal success and status in society. He ran his own successful business. But when his business failed and at mid-life, he found himself seeking greater meaning. He returned to his Buddhist roots and he embarked on a quest to discover the meaning of life, what it means to be human and looking for answer to how to eliminate human suffering.
Many Westerners believe that Usui wasn't Buddhist at all, that he was a Christian Minister, teaching at a Christian University, who was asked a question by a student about how Jesus could heal. He was said to have gone on a quest to find the answer to this question of how Jesus was able to heal. This version is attributed to Takata Sensai, the woman responsible for bringing Reiki to the West. For more detail and the fascinating insight into this version you may want to read the history of Reiki on the Within The Space website.
In all versions, Usui was said to have climbed Mt Kurama, meditated for 21 days and that on the 21st day experienced a Satori (or enlightenment) . This was how he discovered Reiki.
So why such uncertainty about who he was and what propelled him in his search? Well, when it comes to the history of Reiki and of Usui Sensai himself, there are few written records available to really know the precise history or details about him as all the records held by the Usui Gakkai (the organisation founded by Mikao Usui) were destroyed in a bombing during the war. Accordingly, much of the history relies on second-hand oral sources or ‘most likely’ type of summations based on where he grew up and what was actually known about him – connecting the dots, so to speak.
There are many people in the Reiki community that have made it their life mission to discover the truth, they are emphatically committed to finding accurate information and details and are entirely focussed on finding the truth of the ‘details’. And I have to raise my hand here. For the last few years, I too was on a mission to discover the truth.
It began with my relationship with Mrs. Takata upon hearing her story of Usui’s Christian persuasion. I was almost angry at her for lying at the history of Reiki and I totally judged her for that. I had little respect for her as a result. But something nagged me about that, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. It took years of research and going in and out of rabbit warrens before I began to build a different picture of who she was as a person and why she may have done what she did.
In time I found myself doing a complete turnabout, I reached a place of having deep revere and respect for her. I felt regretful for having held her with such low esteem for so long and found myself feeling like I had finally reconciled with her (a funny feeling to have given that I had never actually met her, yet I felt like I had a relationship with her somehow). But once I arrived at that place, I felt at peace within myself. Like it was how it should always have always been. All was right and well.
Looking back, I now know that what really motivated my searching and seeking for truth was that my anger and judgment towards her felt uncomfortable within me (energetically speaking) because something in me knew it to be unfair and untrue - she deserved great honour and respect for her place in Reiki’s history and I had been dishonouring of that, dishonouring of her.
And in a way this piece I’m writing here is my way of making it right, honouring her for all she was and did for Reiki and that includes her 'version' of the story of Reiki regardless of whether or not it is a true account because at the end of the day it really doesn't matter. What I know in my heart and every ounce of my being to certainly be true, is that what matters is the power and essence of the story and the gift her story gives to all current and future students and practitioners of Reiki to whom the story is passed down to. Indeed, to anyone who hears the story, whether they practice Reiki or not.
And what brought me to this was listening to her Late grand-daughter, Phyllis Furumoto, discussing the history of Reiki and addressing the controversy that surrounds it.
She invited us to consider what it is , when it comes to oral tradition, that is of the greatest priority and value in the story. Is it really the information, dates, places or things? Or is it the essence of the story that has the most value? Paul Mitchell posed these questions to her and are ones she then shared and contemplated in her ‘Reiki Talk Show With Phyllis Furumoto’.
I highly recommend listening to the whole show, as it really is a powerful contemplation.
What she allowed me to see in my own journey with the history of Reiki, is that we can get utterly lost in seeking the correctness of the dates, places and things and in the process, when we tell a story full of that information and detail there is a danger that in the process we lose the essence, the power and the energy associated what lies beneath those dates, places and things. I know I certainly did.
We can miss the essence within that story and therefore the power that lies within that story for us. Phyllis suggested “The value is the energetic which [the story] carries and [the many things] which it communicates to the student. It communicates the particular history in the lineage, their history in relationship to this practice.”
Phyllis goes on to say “What’s important in the story of Reiki is this process of Mikao Usui, who was living his life as a regular person, who had a question and all of a sudden that question lit him up, it produced a reaction in him that was far beyond just a question…it went inside of him and propelled him into search that took the rest of his life”.
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter whether it was a Christian student at a Christian University who asked him a question about Jesus or whether the question was one that he was asking himself of his own volition. Either way, however it came to him, this was a question that went deep within him. So the who and how of it are merely details and information that carry little value.
The essence in this story (and the essence of what lies in every single version of the story) is that he had that burning question that propelled him to uproot and change his life as he knew it and instead dedicate his life seeking the answer to that burning question. “It propelled him into a search, it changed his life and in that, it changed the life of millions of people on the planet.” That is the essence of the story of Reiki, and that is where the power of that story lies."
Moreover, the power and energy is not just in the telling of that story, but then how that story connects students to the experience of Usui Sensai with their own experience through their own practice. That's where history and the present meet and connect to each other, where they bond and have a relationship to and with each other and there is such extraordinary richness in that bond and connection; “With the story, we have the people in the story that we know existed, the lineage, the essence. We, as students, get to know where we come from. And we have our practice, we have what we have in our hands, we have our experiences with Reiki that we’ve gained from this practice”.
In essence, for those practicing Reiki (and whether we practice professionally or not, for the life of our practice we are all students), we get to connect and have a shared experience with Usui through the story told and his story helps to ground and inform our own experience through that shared endeavour. That is where there is power in the history and that is where there is power (and priority and value) in the story.
Phyllis goes on to talk about her Grandmother, Takata Sensai, and how her experience in many ways mirrored Usui’s (how she walked the same path) to exemplify the point about how the story of Reiki and Usui helps us connect through history and our own experience. “My Grandmother went to Japan seeking her health because she was a widow and had two daughters to take care of, and in that search, she found Reiki. And once she had a number of treatments, she was committed to the practice and she found a way to become a student and she became a dedicated, passionate student of the system and of this life energy called Reiki. That changed her life, that change in her life changed everyone she met”.
The more we connect to the essence of these stories, the less the detail and information becomes important. When we take the energy of what the story communicates, when we connect to those stories and how our own stories connect to them, we don't really need any more than that. Phyllis leaves us with this powerful statement;
“Mikao Usui…has a unique place in the healing history of mankind right now. He took a question and through his search, found answers for himself, not a written ‘how to do it’ book or a formula of Reiki practice, but certainly guide-posts and impulses that guided him to each step of the way that he took and as he took these steps, it allows us to see that we are doing the same things.
For each of us, whether we know it or not, somewhere in our life, we have a burning question, we have something that sparks us, that drives us to do something and that question will burn in us for the rest of our lives.
That question probably brought us to Reiki and we will ‘experiment with it’, we will ‘use it’, we will makes mistakes, we will find that it gives others joy and we will get satisfaction from that, we will experience its healing on all different kinds of levels and still there is something that drives us for the next step, something that we know something is around the next corner.
And that’s what Mikao Usui gives us – he gives us this journey that he has done and it allows us to follow the same path that he did but in our own way.
Very inspiring story from a man who was simply a man, following his burning question.”
I encourage you to listen to the entire radio episode by Phyllis Furumoto, and particularly, to the story of Reiki, as told to her by her Grandmother, Takata Sensai (it starts at 27:27). And after listening to the story, after feeling the energy that it communicates and the power of its essence, ask yourself, does it really matter what the details are, the data, the information? I’ll leave it for you make up your own mind.