“Experts” call Reiki an “occult religion” or a “destructive cult.” They misunderstand what Reiki is all about.
by Massimo Introvigne
I was alerted by an article in the China Anti-Xie-Jiao Association website (xie jiao being the label used in China since the Middle Ages to label the “heterodox” religious groups the government forbids), published last week, that Russian “anti-cult experts,” who are often quoted as “authorities” by their Chinese counterparts, had declared Reiki “a destructive cult.”
This judgement is based, quoting a Russian source, on a statement by a professor of Criminal Law and well-known critic of “cults” called Igor Ponkin. The source is interesting, and dangerous, since Ponkin is a member of the Expert Council for the State Religious Expertise at the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation in Moscow. The Council plays a role in determining what spiritual or religious groups are labeled “extremist,” and as such can be “liquidated” in the Russian Federation, as it happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. Ponkin is also not unknown in China, as he went there to argue that Falun Gong is a “destructive cult” and its repression is justified.
By reading the sources quoted by the Chinese article, it seems that in part the problem comes from domestic Russian quarrels. They target an old document dated 2005, which included a statement that Reiki is not a “destructive cult,” the entity that issued the document, Moscow’s Commission on Traditional Medicine, and the sponsor of that Commission, the Council of Entrepreneurs under the Mayor and the Government of Moscow.
However, a look at Ponkin’s production reveals his frequent cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and his quotes from ROC’s anti-cult sources and “experts.” The Russian article the China Anti-Xie-Jiao Association referenced in turn links a Russian website entirely devoted to attacking Reiki from a conservative Christian Orthodox perspective. Both living and deceased ROC theologians and priests are mobilized against Reiki.
There is indeed a tradition of conservative Christian criticism of Reiki, not only in Russia, but the accusations of the website are somewhat extreme, as they argue that those involved in Reiki may lose their mental health, experience hallucinations and mental breakdowns, and even open themselves to Satan and his minions.
Both the website’s and Ponkin’s claims that Reiki is related to “religious occultism” (but shouldn’t occultism be part of magic rather than religion?) are based on a misunderstanding.
The statements by several ROC priests on the website that Reiki did not originate in a Christian context are, of course, true. Reiki originated in Japan in a Buddhist milieu. The history of Reiki has been told by its first masters who came to the West in several different versions, some of which may represent a symbolic rather than a factual truth. It has been claimed that the founder of the modern Reiki tradition, Usui Mikao (1865–1926), converted to Christianity and even became a pastor or a priest.
Scholars have conclusively ascertained that this is not true. Usui remained throughout all his life a Buddhist. He was affiliated with the Pure Land school and at the beginning of his spiritual experience spent time meditating in a temple of the Japanese Tendai school, which is rooted in Chinese esoteric sources whose influence is apparent in Usui’s teachings. Confusing what in the West is commonly designated as “occultism” with esoteric Buddhism, however, verges on the ridiculous.
The apocryphal tale of Usui’s Christianity may, however, have a symbolic truth, as his teachings were universalist rather than sectarian, and open to other religions and cultures. Usui was a Buddhist, but he certainly knew teachings of non-Buddhist origin as well, including Chinese Taoism and various Japanese non-Buddhist traditions.
What eludes Ponkin and other critics is that Usui never wanted to establish a religion, nor did he ask members of other religions who joined his Usui Reiki Ryōhō Gakkai, which he founded in 1922, to abandon their previous faith or “convert” to his. Reiki was simply conceived as a set of techniques mobilizing the universal energy ki for healing both bodies and souls, and for the general benefit of human beings.
Usui, who had among his early disciples well-known Japanese intellectuals and members of the social elite, did not want to create a “movement” either. In fact, he and the subsequent presidents of the Usui Reiki Ryōhō Gakkai were reluctant to put their teachings in writing, and admitted to the initiation only selected disciples after a long training. This strict selectivity has become a problem for the Gakkai in recent years, as few younger masters are initiated and the society proper is reduced to some 200 members.
However, precisely because Reiki is not a religion and not even a “movement,” Usui’s disciples pursued different paths. One of Usui’s direct disciples, Hayashi Chujiro (1879–1940: scholars have ascertained that the dates 1878–1941 often supplied by his Western disciples are incorrect, and possibly based on a confusion between the Lunar and the Solar calendar, as is incorrect the information that Hayashi was once the president of the Gakkai) initiated a Japanese American lady, Hawayo Takata (1900–1980), who became a world-famous Reiki master.
Unlike the somewhat rigid successors of Usui in the Japanese Gakkai (quite a few with a background in the higher echelons of the Japanese Imperial Navy), Takata believed that, without diluting the seriousness of the training and the initiations, Reiki should be more largely brought to the world. Although there are other lineages, it was mostly thanks to the prodigious work of Takata, who personally trained some 20,000 students, that Reiki became a world phenomenon for which statistics are difficult but which may well involve today more than one million people.
Takata taught students, and initiated new masters, of all religions, and Reiki has been combined by different teachers with almost everything else, from Christianity to Hinduism. But this proves, rather than disproving, its non-religious, fluid, and protean nature. Scholars have recognized a difference between the small, secretive (and aging) Usui Reiki Ryōhō Gakkai in Japan and the huge world phenomenon largely originated by Takata. Neither of them, however, is a religion, or an “occult religion” (whatever this might be), or a competitor for religions, including the Russian Orthodox Church.
Within such a large phenomenon, it is well possible that there are unethical masters or students with psychiatric problems, just as there are unethical or abusive Orthodox priests or devotees in Orthodox churches who need a psychiatrist.
In general, however, the Russian critics ignore the testimony of a majority who has no complaints and indeed reports significant benefits from Reiki, and by considering it a kind of religion in competition with the ROC deeply misunderstand its nature. Unfortunately, Russian anti-cultists and governmental “experts” normally do not promote their theories through academic debates but by calling for judicial repression and mobilizing the police.