The Great Death and Mikao Usui

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It is said that when Mikao Usui, the founder of the system of Reiki, asked his teacher about his spiritual progress, his teacher said, “You have to die once.” Usui-san took this advice and sat on Mt. Kurama for 21 days to meditate to die once.

Some people suggest that he meant to physically die, but if that were the case it would have been much easier for him to climb Mt. Kurama and jump off a cliff, rather than to sit for a difficult practice for 21 days.

But if it was not the physical death that his teacher pointed to, what kind of death was it then?

In Japanese spiritual traditions ‘to die once’ means to go through the Great Death (in Japanese, Daishi) so that we are able to rediscover our True Self.

Mikao Usui’s memorial stone states, “One day, he climbed kurama yama and after 21 days of a severe discipline without eating, he suddenly felt One Great Reiki over his head and attained enlightenment and he obtained Reiki Ryoho.” The purpose of this “severe discipline” was to help him “die once” so that he could rediscover his True Self/Reiki. It was this Great Death experience that preceded his creation of the spiritual system of Reiki. It was after this experience that he really found purpose in his life and started to teach more and more people his spiritual teachings.

Is it possible to really live our lives fully without ever looking hard at death? I do not believe it is. Without staring death in the eye, as the perpetual reverse side of life, we cannot live life fully and completely.

From: Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga

It is possible that Usui-san was practicing Shugendo. Within Shugendo there is a very specific 21-day mountain practice in which you abstain from eating (in Japanese, danjiki) and drinking (in Japanese, mizudachi). This practice is suitable only for the rare, dedicated and prepared practitioner, called 餌食水无 読誦 修行 / だんじき みず なし どくじゅ しゅぎょう – Danjiki-Mizunachi dokuju Shûgyô. One of my teachers has done this specific 21-day Shugendo practice. This is one of the reasons I train with these kinds of teachers, so that I can understand what Usui-san was doing himself so that I can share his ideas, insights and practices within the wider Reiki community.

What is even more interesting is that during this particular 21-day practice the practitioner focuses also on the deity Myoken Bosatsu. Myoken Bosatsu is linked to Mikao Usui’s family. We can see this by looking at Mikao Usui’s family crest, the Chiba Mon. Did Usui-san choose this particular practice because of his family heritage? Myoken Bosatsu is also related to having certain healing qualities and holds a sun and moon in her hands. Healing is a central focus of the system of Reiki and we can see the sun and moon within the Shinpiden Reiki Level III symbol and mantra.

The whole universe s
hatters into a hundred pieces.
In the great death there is no heaven and earth
Once body and mind have turned over
there is only this to say:
Past mind cannot be grasped,
present mind cannot be grasped,
future mind cannot be grasped. –


The state of mind Dogen refers to is called the Great Death because it is the death of the ego, the death of the “I.” If we want to take our spiritual practice deeper, then one day we need to go through the progress of letting go of the “I”, because it is only at that stage that we can rediscover our True Self. When we let go of the “I,” of our dualistic life of separateness and suffering, we start to find the meaning of life: a life full of compassion and wisdom, a life of interconnectedness and harmony, a life full of light and inner joy.

For many years before his Mt. Kurama experience, Usui-san sought Anshin Ritsumei: enlightenment or satori. He finally realized that to attain this goal he needed to go through the Great Death experience, because it is only after going through the Great Death that Anshin Ritsumei will show its face. Therefore we could say that the Great Death is the gate through which we enter the state of mind of enlightenment. This state of mind is all about realizing non-duality, which is the ultimate reality.

Hakuin suggests that satori is necessarily preceded by ‘great doubt’ (daigi) and ‘great death’ (daishi). The practitioner has to be able and willing to let go of all securities and beliefs and throw himself or herself into the abyss of emptiness. Hakuin urges the practitioner to abandon all discriminating thoughts, to form the ‘ball of doubt’ (gidan), and to penetrate the One Mind. This, Hakuin says, is the experience of ‘great death’.

After experiencing this One Mind on Mt. Kurama, Usui-san created a system of teachings to help others also find the way to experience the Great Death. We can see that he was pointing out the Great Death in his teachings, for example within the precepts and the symbols and mantras.

The precepts are:

Do not anger
Do not worry
Be humble
Be honest
Show compassion to yourself and others

It is only when we have let go of the “I” that we can truly embody the precepts. Because it is the “I” who gets angry and worried, it is the “I” who is in the way of being humble, honest, and compassionate. Thus the precepts are pointing towards Mikao Usui’s own enlightened experience, the Great Death. So actually this Great Death is about gratitude for life, to live life at its fullest because when we have let go of our biggest worry, fear of death, we are free, free to dance through life. It is at this stage that we really start to transform our lives and those of others.

Usui-san also showed some of his students the DKM symbol/mantra, which stands for the great bright light of Anshin Ritsumei, again pointing towards the Great Death. He included all these pointers in his teachings because it is only after the Great Death that we truly become alive. The following quotes powerfully illustrate the transformation into our True Self:

After several days in his [Hakuin] condition, which he also later designated as the “Great Death” and interpreted as the dying of the ego and illusion. He recounted how he “chanced to hear the sound of the temple bell and…was suddenly transformed. It was as if a sheet of ice had been smashed or a jade tower had fallen with a crash. Suddenly I returned to my senses…All my former doubts vanished as though ice had melted away. In a loud voice I called: ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’

From: Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen: The Soto and Rinzai Schools of Japan by Conrad Hyers

Suddenly, under some impetus unknown to me, the fog lifted and vanished. And it is not that the pain in my own body disappeared, but rather that the body that is supposed to feel the pain disappeared. Everything was utterly clear. Even in the dimly lit darkness, things could be seen in a fine clarity. The faintest sound could be heard distinctly, but the hearing self was not there. This was, I believe, to die while alive.

From: Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga

Mikao Usui was only able to create the system of Reiki after going through the Great Death experience because it was only then that he had the clarity, wisdom, and compassion to formulate what he had been looking for himself in some sort of teaching. These teachings are the legacy of his own satori and by practicing the system of Reiki as a spiritual practice we are stepping into the footsteps of Mikao Usui, so that one day we can go through the same gate of the Great Death that Mikao Usui went though.

I cannot stress enough that the ultimate goal of religion, whether we call it satori or peace of mind, is for each individual to live in peace and tranquility, to live a full and satisfying life.

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