This article might ruffle a few feathers, but I think that there is so much over-esotericizing of Reiki in the West that this kind of well-grounded information needs to be presented. I'm all for esotericism and occultism, but very often the desire for something to seem 'magickal' or 'mystical' creates some very unnecessary myths that then get taken to extremes by some individuals. There is A LOT of overblown drama out there surrounding the Reiki symbols, and the process used in the Reiki attunements. I would like to present a more sober perspective on what the symbols and attunements are, what effect they are having on the energetic bodies, and how they really work. The answers may very well dissapoint you as there aren't very glamouruos. They ARE however very interesting from a more psychological point of view.
Let's start with some facts that are thankfully becoming more well-known. For one thing, Mikao Usui did not originially use symbols in his practice, or in his training of students. He also did not pass attunements in the way we have come to know them. Shocked?? Don't be. Read on.
For more perspective on this one should look to what academic research has told us about Usui, and about the cultural milieu within which this was all developing - primarily Buddhist Japan. Usui's first students were all very experienced spiritual practitioners. They also learned Reiki over a long period of time under the direction of Mikao Usui, as in customary in the Eastern Master-Student relationship context. Usui would regularly give students a ceremonial 'blessing' or 'empowerment' or 'attunement' as part of the training, which really functioned as an extra burst of spiritual energy meant to help them reach the next level of their development as spiritual healers. These are referred to as reiju.
There are so far no records of the exact process that Usui used to empart reiju, although there have been several teachers who claim to know and teach the original method. That's really neither here nor there. This type of periodic 'empowerment' was a common part of training process in several Buddhist denominations which Usui would likely have had intimate contact with. Research has validated that attunements as we now know them, as an initiation into a system or energy rather than blessing, known as denju, did not enter into the Usui Reiki system until Takata began teaching.
Even then, both the reiju and the denju were regular practices in Buddhist circles. Denju was more initiation-oriented, meaning that is granted "spiritual permission" to the student to begin practicing a certain method. The reiju was a worked on a more cumulative basis, as recipients were getting several of these over time. These were certainly spiritual and sacred practices intended to provide and bestow a particular energy to the recipient.
As for the Reiki symbols, 3 of the 4 of them are easily traced straight back to Sanskrit or Japanese kanji, which is just calligraphic writing. The distance healing symbol and the master symbol are both straight kanji - they are JUST Japanese writing. The power symbol is much more stylized, and the general consensus seems to be that this symbol developed out of kanji, but morphed into a more abstract form over the years until it became a more purely meditative tool rather than recognizable as a word. Using calligraphy, or symbols based on calligraphic writing as symbols upon which to focus intent during meditation is a common practice among many Buddhist schools. The symbols, whether written words or more abstract renderings, have all been found to exist somewhere outside of the Reiki tradition within Buddhist culture. So the Reiki symbols were nothing new in and of themselves.
Original Reiki students were not attuned to symbols by Usui, and if they used them at all it was likely for meditation and not as healing tools as such. However the utilization of the Reiki symbols as symbols to be accessed and applied during a Reiki treatment came later as the system was taught to people outside the original Reiki spiritual community. Some were having problems tuning their Reiki energy to different frequencies of healing, such as for mental healing, and so they were provided with the symbols we all now know and love as a way to help focus their intent. Looking at, visualizing, drawing, or chanting the symbol was a way to change their own internal focus to the desired frequency, to enable them to bring that frequency through in the healing. It was essentially a healing mnemonic. They didn't have any extra power outside of the importance the student assigned to it and how they utilized it. It was exactly as if I had taught someone to think/visualize/write/chant "put the power here" in order to help them make that intentional change in their healing energy at that moment. That's it!!
Now, all of this is of course still tied to a spiritually-oriented energetic healing practice. But it doesn't need to get hyped-up beyond what it is. However, as Reiki made its way into the Western world, the West got caught up in exoticism. Not being familiar with the routine processes of Buddhist-based spiritual education (reiju, denju), and especially not overly familiar with the kanji comprising the symbols, alot of extraneous ideas got attached to them. They were often perceived as mystical stores of supernormal energy that we could now psychically tap into through the magic of the Reiki attunement. The very simple and practical nature of them was lost! Buddhism is nothing if not practical, and many schools are staunch minimalists. They are always seeking the most efficient way to achieve the goals. Concentrating on a phrase that helped you reach a particular state of mind is a lot more efficient than trying to shift yourself into another plane in order to access some energy store on the astral. Not that you can’t do that. You can. It’s just easier and faster for the average human being to think “mental calm and peace” in order to evoke that energy, then to try and pull the essence of that out of the aether through mystical means!
While most of this over-esotericizing of Reiki was well-intentioned, and probably most of it was completely unintentional, it resulted in some very odd ideas about the system. I've seen some amazing claims on the internet about the "dangers" of Reiki attunements and symbols. I've run into several web denizens who have come to believe (nearly always through the "guidance" of psychic or other spiritual worker) that their Reiki attunements had bound them to some sort of being that had then been negatively effecting them energetically and psychically, even while providing the link to the Reiki energy which they used for healing. These people then had ceremonial work done by their spiritual consultant which loosed them from these binds, and set them free from the Reiki energy forever! I've also seem claims that some people are teaching that attunements bind your energies to the Reiki Master who can then exercise psychic control over their students through this link. Again, methods of "de-tunement" are prescribed and the system of Reiki decried as evil and deceptive. Still others see the work of dark forces masquerading as benevolent ones in order to dupe fleets of, well, dupes into doing their bidding and furthering their own dark agendas.
My response to these people, and other people who may claim to have had such experiences is multi-layered. In some cases, I believe that those people fell victim to one of the oldest "psychic" scams in the book: the you're-cursed-and-I-will-fix-you...for-a-fee-of-course. Now, I fully believe in the legitimacy of psychic gifts (hell, I have a touch of the clairsentience and clairvoyance myself). But I also believe that there are plenty of con artists out there praying on the scared and weak in the guise of being psychic advisers or spiritual workers or various ilks. Just because someone is waving sage and a rattle around doesn't mean that they can't run the same scam as someone dressed like a belly-dancer gazing into a crystal ball. Sadly, these con-wo/men are most often visited by people in crisis, and they know their victims. Want to scam people in the modern New Age community? Betcha those types have been dabbling with crystals or Reiki! Easy to hone in on an opening and make the "You've been feeling unwell and unbalanced? Let me take a look at you. Ooooo, I see a dark being around you! Are you involved with any kind of energy work? REIKI!?!!? That attunement has bound you to this spirit. But never fear...I can release you from its grasp!"
Next, we need to face the facts that in addition to straight-up con jobs, the spiritual community has a malevolent practitioner component. You know, the unsavory types who engage in very unhealthy and unethical practices in order to gain money and control over the few people they can impress/intimidate enough to follow them. It is a sad but true fact that some people CAN and do launch very effective psychic attacks, and one form of attack involves creating an energetic link and then exploiting it. Without even getting too creative I can see how a dark person of this type could, under the guise of performing a Reiki attunement, take the opportunity to create an unhealthy link. This is pure predation. Let me reassure any of my more faint-hearted readers that individuals of this nature are rare, and individual of this nature with the training and skills needed to be adept enough to make this kind of attack work as even rarer still.
A second possibility for this "binding" could occur by someone well-meaning, but ill-informed. There are many Reiki practitioners who pray to their personal spiritual deity/ies or guides before or even during a session. This isn't part of Usui Reiki (and I don't do it out of respect for the possibility that a client may not be comfortable with the idea of whoever I happen to be praying to being involved in the treatment), but some modern channelled Reiki-based systems do work on the idea of new frequencies of the energy coming from a particular being/ascended master/angel/deity/etc. I can see an intentionally benevolent practitioner who has given little thought to the ethical implications of such an act, creating an energetic link between a student and another entity, in the guise of a Reiki attunement. I would again argue that someone with enough ritual know-how to effectively create such a link (and who would not have the common ethical sense to inform their student of what they are doing) is very rare.
One simple caveat would likely have helped the victims of the three above scenarios avoid these situations: BUYER BEWARE. Use common sense when shopping around for spiritual services. Get references!! Ask your friends for the names of practitioner or workers that they have had postitive experiences with. Ask the practitioner for more references. Try to meet, or at least speak on the phone with the practitioner before booking a consultation/session/class with them. Even if they are the most reliable and ethical practitioner ever, their energies or personal philosophy might not resonate with you...and that's ok. Make sure that you feel totally comfortable with the practitioner, and that you feel good about going to see them. If you're still a bit unsure, take some time to meditate or pray on it. There's no need to rush into anything. Make sure you resonate with all aspects before going forward. If you get there and suddenly something doesn’t feel right to you – leave! This is actually advice that suits ANY new client-provider relationship. Real estate agents, doctors, car salesman, aerobics instructor, you name it.
And finally, you'll run across people who are mentally unstable and not receiving the appropriate treatment who are suffering from paranoia, delusions, or other effects of their illness. I saw one very emphatic and tragic page where a women decrying Reiki as satanic, described being stalked and hounded by demons in ever increasing numbers after her attunement. Her story was a textbook example of someone experiencing a psychotic break that was manifesting itself in paranoid delusions. It was heartbreaking to read, and also saddened me that she had somehow linked the terrifying symptoms of her illness to Reiki (which I suspect happened after she was brought into the fold of a very fundamentalist "spiritual warfare"-oriented religious organization that she was now a member of)...and that she was spending alot of time trying to convince others of the "satanic nature of Reiki". I still send prayers of healing to her (I figure she won't be too open to Reiki) when thoughts of her cross my mind, hoping that she'll find some peace and proper treatment.
So these are all situations where an unfortunate event has taken place that has been wrongly identified as being the result of "Reiki". I don’t think that these people are lying! I am not denying anyone their experience, or their truth, but I think that a healthy dose of logic and research can help clear the air about what was really going on. Proper Usui Reiki attunements and symbols DO NOT connect a person to any beings or deities. They are there to function as "permission granters" and "intention focusers".
The idea that somehow these nefarious effects of Reiki attunements were programmed into the attunement ritual, and are being carried out unknowingly by sadly naïve and deceived Reiki Masters the world over is patently absurd. Firstly, the Usui Reiki attunement ceremony has shifted and changed innumerable times throughout the development of Reiki. Takata often changed the way she performed attunements from student to student, and she also taught the symbols in slightly different ways to different classes! There are key elements that are common to all Usui attunements, but there are a great many variations…and all of them are effective. Secondly, over the years I’ve talked to at least a hundred Reiki Masters (probably more if you count all the ones on the discussion lists I’ve belonged to), and I’ve read stacks of books on Reiki healing from a variety of perspectives, and NEVER have I run into information hinting at the intent for the attunement being anything other than granting permission to heal. If the intent is not there, then it cannot be manifested through ritual. Period. Many Reiki Practitioners and Masters are extremely gifted healers and impressive spiritual adepts. If some psychic dirt in your aura sticks out like a sore thumb to them, do you really think that an entity of ANY kind, let alone malevolent intentions could get anywhere near them without them knowing? Um, NO.
I’m very spiritually sensitive. I’ve run into my fair share of nasty and malevolent entities in my life, and I can tell if something unpleasant is hanging around a room several steps before I even enter it. Likewise, I can tell when something or someone benevolent or divine is hanging around. I’ve NEVER encountered the sensation that any spirits or beings – good or bad – were linked to the Reiki energy. I’ve certainly encountered spirit guides and other higher spiritual vibrations or beings in my work as a healer; but it was due to the fact that they had been called upon to give aid by the client, or that client’s High Self. I am also often guided by my personal intuition. It was and is NOT part of the Reiki. It was completely independent of them. Reiki is one of the purest feeling forms of energy that I have come across – and by that I mean undiluted or shaped by any particular paradigm or dogma. It just IS. It is the pure, undiluted ki/chi/prana/ruach/ whatever you want to call that universal energy. It is above and beyond any limiting factors such as culture, religion, etc. It only needs for us to get (our egos, our prejudices, our social programming, our biases) out of the way and call on the energy with the intention of healing for the highest good.
Which make a nice segue into the #1 MOST CENTRAL concept at the heart of this needlessly contentious issue: INTENT. For a ritual or ceremony to work it must carry energy charged with focused intent for a specific effect. A Reiki attunement is a ritual ceremony, and as such it is ruled by the same metaphysical principals as any other one. During a proper Usui Reiki attunement the Reiki Master grants spiritual permission to the student’s subconscious (and conscious mind, since the student is aware of what is going on, and has been studying towards this goal) to allow the reiki energy to flow through that person in greater amounts for the purposes of channeling extra energy into a recipient for healing. The symbols are placed into the student’s aura and chakras, which is really just handing the confirmation of the ability to utilize these symbols for a specific purpose to the subconscious mind. Through the energetic work that that Reiki Master performs on the student as part of the attunement, the chakras are opened so that they can better receive the influx of energy being provided by the Master, and channel that extra energy outwards when called upon to do so. The student is being given the energetic blue-print for how to perform a Reiki healing. That is the intent inherent to the Usui Reiki attunement, and the symbols – “Here are your tools, now go use them”.
I personally believe that every individual is already divine and perfected – the biggest challenge in life is learning to realize that yourself! Especially in the West, we’ve been programmed by society (and the patriarchal hierarchical religions it is based in) to believe that nothing good can come from us, we must look for that elsewhere. Our culture has denigrated the value of intuitive ways of thinking and being, and we’ve been taught that if you can’t see, smell, taste, hear, or touch it, and if our scientists can’t record in on a machine, then it isn’t real. Reiki defies all that. It asks you to accept that you are fully worthy of and able to be a vessel for healing, and that you must trust your intuition to guide you in those abilities. We need, more than ever, a ceremony to grant us permission to let go and be divine! But the truth is we already ARE. I think that Reiki attunements and symbols are like our spiritual “Dumbo’s feather”. They give us permission to believe that we CAN…but that ability has always been within us. You don’t need to be connected to a deity, or a spirit, or a spiritual master. It’s completely unnecessary. You only need to know that you are allowed.
So there you have it. The oh-so-boring truth (but really, nonetheless fascinating from a metapsychological perspective) about the Reiki symbols and Reiki attunements. I hope that this will inspire you look more closely at the Reiki tradition from all its angles, strange as some of them may seem. I find that researching the history and development of nearly any system, tradition, or organization usually sheds an amazing amount of light on the original spirit that was intended to be the heart. But time and culture-shifts (and also often issues related to translation) result in a lot of misunderstandings! The core of Reiki is the intent to heal. Reiki seeks to communicate to your mind-body-spirit through symbols and attunements that YOU HAVE THE RIGHT. You need only to step up and claim it.