Updated: Oct 6
The Reiki symbols are controversial, there is no getting away from that. For most of my career as a teacher of Reiki I have taught the system in Muslim countries where many people have found great benefit in the system’s ability to bring healing to mental and emotional issues as well as for physical conditions. It’s routine for me to hear students say that the Reiki class that I had just taken them through was the most pivotal moment of their life. It’s a big claim but often the evidence is obvious. You can see the deep changes in them, and they are all for the good.
Other students, due to the conservative nature of their religious beliefs struggle with Reiki, especially the Reiki symbols. They don’t quite understand them or know where they come from or what they really do. These reservations are compounded by the fact that if you do a Google search on the Reiki symbols, it’s often the case that you find some very bizarre claims about them. Then there are all the fictional Reiki symbols that just serve to muddy the waters even further. Even on such notable sites as Learn Religions where respected researcher and writer Phylameana lila Desy discusses the symbols, she adds in a symbol called Raku, the Completion symbol, which has no relationship to Reiki at all. Google is littered with examples of non-Reiki, Reiki symbols.
All of these extra symbols don’t help the genuine seeker to discover the truth of Reiki, or the Reiki symbols themselves. There are only four symbols in the system of Reiki (though two of them are in fact Japanese kanji and not symbols at all in the traditional sense. Kanji is calligraphic writing). The first symbol is the power symbol that has the mantra Choku-rei associated with it. The second symbol is the mental and emotional symbol with the mantra Sei-hei-ki. The third symbol (the most complex of them all) is the distant symbol and has the mantra Hon-sha-ze-sho-nen associated with it. The final symbol is the master symbol and has the mantra Dai-ko-myo. That’s it. There are no other symbols linked to or used in the system of Reiki.
If you Google these four symbols, you will find all sorts of bizarre explanations and attributes given for them, often bringing in concepts and ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with Reiki, such as unlocking the Akashic records or using the second symbol like a transmuting shield (whatever that is) to catch emotional energy coming (your) way from others to diffuse it. Here’s another truly bizarre reference to the third symbol: The symbol is supposed to depict a shape-shifting creature that can cross space and time. I could fill pages with this stuff, but here’s just one more: using the Choku-rei to journey to the realms of the power animals and using the Sei-hei-ki to communicate with them.
Is it any wonder that non-Reiki people think that Reiki people are at best, completely nuts, and at worst, dabbling in things that are potentially malevolent or harmful in some way? Certainly, there are some of my more conservative students in places like Egypt who are frankly horrified and scared by such references to the symbols. I have a lot of sympathy with their reluctance to engage with this stuff.
The Reiki Symbols
Symbols three and four are written expressions in the form of kanji. As such it makes them much easier to understand. I’m not going to dissect them here, but a good place to start in understanding these two symbols would be to check out this blog post by Pamela Miles: What Does the Reiki Kanji Mean? Pamela has a very down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to her practice of Reiki that must be applauded.
All four symbols, whether traditional symbols or kanji forms need a root and branch reassessment, however. It’s rare to find them discussed in terms of their primary function, which is as meditation objects. There is no doubt that the symbols do indeed invoke different energetic responses when used in a healing context, and for the most part, this is the function that most credible Reiki practitioners and teachers ascribe to them. The symbols are certainly immensely powerful in this context. However, we need to go much deeper into an understanding of the symbols if we are to begin to address some of the legitimate concerns that some have when looking at them from a religious perspective.
It would be useful to look at what Frans Steine, one of the world’s lead researchers and authorities on Reiki has to say. This is from his book, Reiki Insights:
“The symbols are tools to help us to rediscover our own hidden inner light, our Reiki, our true self… By meditating on the symbols again and again and again, we start to slowly peel away our layers of ignorance, our anger and worry; this in turn will lay bare our hidden inner great bright light… This is… why the symbols and mantras were tools for meditation, meant to help us go within. However, over time they have become very externalised and now often are used only during hands-on healing sessions.”
It is this externalisation of the Reiki symbols that is the root of all the trouble. As Steine makes clear, these devices were meant to help us to discover innate qualities within ourselves that could lead us to a realisation of our own true nature. That true nature is as an expression of the divine nature of the universe, embodying the qualities of love, wisdom, and compassion.
Functions of the Symbols
When I teach about the symbols in a class, I am at great pains to emphasize that their origins are within esoteric Buddhism, and that they are, like their Buddhist counterparts, used principally as devices for bringing stillness and focus to the mind, to help the meditator access different aspects of their own being and to help guide them on their journey towards enlightenment. In working with the symbols as meditation devices, the practitioner returns to the essence of their True Nature from which they had been unconsciously alienated. The practice helps to re-centre daily life as we move into a space of reintegration with the Absolute.
Symbols can be regarded as a midway point between the external physical world and what is deeply embedded within. They are one of the ways in which we can approach our True Nature, by internalising our consciousness and allowing the inherent qualities and functions of the symbols to lead us to higher states of awareness. By using symbols, we can raise our consciousness and thus potentially achieve or realise the state of enlightenment.
Esoteric symbols resonate deeply at the level of the unconscious and their inner or secret aspects are often beyond the realms of logic and rationality and the parameters of the conscious mind. The symbols act as a bridge between two levels of truth: the relative and the absolute. We can say that relative truth is the way that the world appears to exist, and absolute truth is the way the world actually exists. That said and from our place within the world of relative truth, we should still endeavour to piece together what we can about the symbols to give us a starting point in our practice with them.
Origins of the Symbols
It’s worth noting that spiritual symbols are not ‘invented’ or ‘made up’. You can’t just sit down and doodle your own on a notepad over coffee. Spiritual symbols are discovered within the infinite void of the Absolute or the Universal Energy Field by the highly realised minds of very advanced spiritual practitioners. They look the way they do because of the laws of something called ‘form’ or ‘space’ energy. This means on a basic level that if you want to generate the energy of ‘circle’ you can’t do that by drawing a square. You must always draw a circle. The Reiki symbols, therefore, were not created by Mikao Usui (the founder of Reiki), he discovered them, either through his own meditative practices or from some other source. The symbols simply express qualities and attributes that are already fundamentally part of our own True Nature, so in discovering the symbols, Usui was simply externalising and bringing into conscious manifestation, tools for all of us to use as an aid in realising our True Nature once more.
Associations have been made between the Reiki symbols and various Buddhist deities and Bodhisattva’s by Reiki Master Dave King, and others. Most specifically with Amida (Amitabha) Buddha; the Buddha of Infinite Light. It is said that Amida “… shed a tear of compassion upon recognizing the suffering of all sentient beings, and from this tear was born a special emanation of the Bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit) …”.
Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and from a Christian perspective has often been equated with the Virgin Mary. The way the symbols are perceived as meditation aids (and in some senses as healing devices) is of great significance, as it is in this that we find their real depth and meaning. It is important to keep in mind that as Reiki is a secular method, the references here to Buddhist deities and Bodhisattvas are provided simply to anchor awareness of key attributes and universal qualities during a meditation on the symbols.
Let’s just focus on one of the symbols for a moment, Symbol 1. Symbol 1, the power symbol, has been associated with a Buddhist deity called Seishi. On a spiritual level, we work with this symbol to develop power, or the capacity to be effective, confident, assertive. i.e., “put the power here”; to assert our truth. It is a command from Seishi whom we are in a sense embodying when we use Symbol 1 and its associated mantra. Seishi often appears in Buddhist iconography as one of the main attendants of Amida Buddha and represents the power of wisdom. The other attendant to Amida is Kannon, or Avalokiteshvara embodying, as we have seen, the quality of compassion.
If we wish to explore Symbol 1 further, we must now turn to other understandings and the concept of ‘direct spirit’. which is another interpretation of the word Choku-rei. So, what do we mean by ‘direct spirit’? According to the research of James Deacon in quoting Masahisa Goi, founder of the religious group Byakko Shinkokai, ‘direct spirit’ refers to the power of God, the supreme being. Goi writes in The Future of Mankind:
“… chokurei, (is) the image of God working in this world of mankind..."
We ask then “what is God?” Perhaps the omniscient state of oneness? As Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Sufi mystic and poet said “I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.” The divine, the state of oneness, is our own True Nature: our Buddha Nature. However, as Goi states, Choku Rei is the image of God, not God him/herself. It is something that points to the divine, to our Buddha Nature. It is an aid to help us find or realise enlightenment (The Absolute).
Let’s return to Rumi’s search for God once more: “I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.” If we wind Symbol 1 through the body’s subtle energy system, we find that the termination of the final turn of the spiral ends in the centre of the chest at the Heart chakra. This is no coincidence. This is the home of love in the centre of the human being. Isn’t love the primary quality or expression of God?
We could go on with a similar analysis of all the symbols, and this I have done in my book, Mindfulness Meditation and the Art of Reiki. For our purposes here however, one symbol is sufficient. What I wanted to do through this short analysis is two things. Firstly, reorientate the understanding of the symbols away from some of the more bizarre definitions that litter the internet, which will naturally lead many to the conclusion that they should keep away from the practice of Reiki. Secondly, lay out some of the truths about the symbols in relation to their origins within Buddhist belief, thought and practice.
It’s important to understand in all of this however that the concept of Buddhist deities can easily get misconstrued if viewed from an Abrahamic religious perspective. When a Reiki practitioner who understands the links between the Buddhist idea of Seishi works with Symbol 1, for instance, he or she is not invoking something that exists in the world. Seishi, as I have tried to make clear, is a device from the Buddhist canon that represents a quality that is already innate to us. Seishi is an external tool for internalising our consciousness to discover certain qualities within us: our true power to be assertive, confident and in control of our lives. In the same way that Avalokiteshvara allows us to explore our own reservoirs of deep compassion for the suffering of others. In a sense you could say that the device of Avalokiteshvara is the Buddhist way of trying to understand, experience and hopefully embody the compassionate nature of God.
The symbols are not about worshipping Buddhist deities because Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of deity in the sense of the three Abrahamic religions. These are externalised constructs, fully acknowledged to be mind-generated. The Reiki symbols then are simply devices to help us explore, through the practice of meditation, aspects of ourselves, and not to get us worshipping beings from a different religion.
It's worth emphasising quite strongly that most Reiki practitioners have no idea of the relationship between the symbols and Buddhist deities. Nor do they need to know this. The beauty of Reiki is that all these associations have been stripped away. Knowledge of the origins of the Reiki symbols or their associations within Buddhism are entirely unnecessary. Such knowledge adds nothing nor takes anything away from the practice.
Researching the Symbols
Google is not a good research tool when it comes to exploring anything in depth, and most certainly not when it comes to the Reiki symbols. Priests, Sheikhs, and other spiritual leaders and adherents routinely rely on it when it comes to the subject of Reiki as if it were the fount of all wisdom, and then they pontificate on the subject, that they know extraordinarily little or nothing about, as if they are now endowed with all the knowledge required. They’re not. Not by a long shot.
It’s highly possible and probable that what I have laid out here would not assuage the feelings of concern that some religiously conservative folks feel towards Reiki. Some may still have concerns, deep chills running along their spines or horror that Reiki has its primary working tools deeply embedded within Buddhist religion/philosophy.
It’s worth emphasising that Reiki is a secular system. It is not Buddhist. It has its origins there, but it is not linked to Buddhism in any meaningful way. The Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hanh once commented on returning to his monastery in southern France, that he was surprised to find a Christian Priest living there. The Priest told him that being in a Buddhist monastery made him a better Christian. This says a lot about the orientation of Buddhism. It is not a religion to supplant other religions, but a deep well of wisdom that can enhance an engagement with all other religions. The same can be said of Reiki. Some of my Muslim and Christian students, having learned Reiki tell me that they found, due to the use of the Reiki symbols and meditations, that they experienced for the first time in their lives, a deep and genuine connection to Allah/God. This is not to say that all the tools they need are not already in their respective religions, just that for some people, something extra was needed. That something extra was Reiki.
If you want to try a meditation on one of the Reiki symbols for yourself, check out my meditation on the Power symbol on Insight Timer.