Archive for July, 2010

Filling the Gap

Filling the Gap

by Susan Downing

I make a weekly Reiki housecall to Neil, my friend Heather’s husband -we have been friends for a long time, and now Neil is bedridden, suffering from a host of neurological conditions which render him unable to speak or control his physical movements.  In the past couple of months he seems to have gradually been getting close and closer to finally letting go of being here in his physical body.  Both Heather and I have sensed that, and the Reiki seems to be helping the process along.

Two weeks ago, as I finished Neil’s session, Heather came in with a folded piece of fabric, a batik. She said that she and Neil had gotten it for me in May at the Cummington fair, and she had been waiting for the right time to give it to me, without knowing when that would be.  I unfolded it and immediately recognized that it was a batik of Tara, an important Tibetan Buddhist deity.  (One story tells us that Tara was born from a tear that fell from the eye of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.)  There is White Tara and Green Tara and there are also the 21 Taras – 21 different forms that Green Tara can take to help us conquer various dangers and mental afflictions.  White and Green Tara are pretty easy to tell apart, for obvious reasons, but the 21 Taras are hard to tell apart.  And that is why I was amazed when as soon as I laid eyes on this Tara, I had the feeling she was Tara, Destroyer of Grasping.

I don’t know what the artist’s intention had been – Heather said there had been a whole stack of different Tara batiks, and she had taken a long time in choosing the one that felt right to give to me.  What a coincidence: you see, a print of Tara, Destroyer of Grasping, hangs on my wall at home.  I got it at the end of April from Joan Bredin-Price, the artist, who painted a series of all the 21 Taras (you can go to Joan’s website to see all 21 of these beautiful, non-traditional thangkas – Tibetan devotional paintings of deities.)  This Tara is my favorite of all the 21, because reducing grasping is a big focus of my own practice.  You can imagine how surprised I was to unfold that batik and see my favorite Tara there!

Heather remarked that she had no idea why she had held onto it for two months before actually giving it to me.  But then it struck us that Neil probably needed to have Tara around for a while.  Heather and I thought back and realized that Neil had begun his letting go just about the time she’d come into the house.  And during this day’s session, I had felt him release what seemed like some very old pain.  Evidently he was feeling free enough to let Tara move to me.

I held the batik in my hands, folded up, and as I stood there thinking about how best to display it, I felt a sudden rush of energy from it.  I am someone who is sometimes skeptical of this kind of thing, but there was no doubt – the energy was coming from the folded Tara, not my hands.  A powerful, sacred image.  And I decided I wanted make a thangka out of it to hang up in my Center.

Four traditional thangkas – images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas painted on thick paper and then surrounded by sewn brocade frames – hang in the Center’s zendo, and I knew Tara would be the perfect addition, even though the batik is a non-traditional representation. And Heather, when she came by the Center the next day, pointed to the empty wall across the zendo from the altar, and said, “That would be a perfect place for her.”  And she was right. It is a twelve-foot wall, and a traditional thangka would be dwarfed there. But the batik itself was the size of the other thangkas, so the finished piece would be very large, of a size proportionate to the wall.

Even so, I was a little nervous.   Would it be in any way disrespectful or inappropriate for me to sew a thangka? I consulted Jeff Brooks.  This is his view: “Authentic dharma practice does not depend how well we Westerners imitate Asian cultural forms. An American holding a horse hair fly whisk while speaking in a zendo may signal authenticity to some people; it may signal pretending to be Japanese to someone else. Having a practice space that is austere may support a kind of dharma practice. A space that has aesthetic reminders of dharma teaching and experience may support another kind. The environments we create for practice can help us be better human beings, better dharma practitioners and better bodhisattvas. What matters in them is not how well we imitate our imaginary ’pure’ Asian traditions but whether or not we know what we’re doing — and how deep our knowledge, understanding and practice is.”

And so, I felt that what was most important was approaching this task with the proper motivation and care.  For starters, it seemed that I should be very careful with the actual batik – not to let it touch the ground, or let my cats lie on it!!  But aside from that, I’d have to carefully choose the fabric to make the frame around it.  Without a doubt, the place to go for that was  Osgood’s in West Springfield, so I took my folded Tara and headed down there.  Osgood’s is textile heaven – or hell, depending on your perspective.  You walk in and see literally thousands and thousands of rolls of fabric, many just lying piled up much higher than you can reach, or standing upright in bin after bin.  Finding fabric there can be an overwhelming experience if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. And even if you do!

On this day, with Tara in my hand, I knew only that I was looking for medium weight brocade.  And so, having found out where I could find the brocades, I paused, asked Tara to help guide me.  Then I started walking.  Silk brocades  embroidered with flowers were lovely, but didn’t go well with the batik.  Others were too thick.  Still others I found appealing, but somehow lackluster.  Then I came around a corner and saw before me a row of bins with fabric bolts sticking upright. All, that is, except for a roll of blue brocade which bent over and out into the aisle.  I wondered whether it was meant for the thangka – it was certainly putting itself right in front of me – but it didn’t really grab me.  A quiet, but sophisticated bolt of gold did.  And as I unrolled it and lay Tara atop it, I knew the gold was right.  But I needed a contrasting color.  Still the blue bolt waited patiently, leaning silently toward me as I stood with my back to it and held Tara up next to every other fabric in the adjoining bin.  But finally I listened.  Pulled that big, thick bolt out, laid it next to the gold, with Tara on top.  Yes. A perfect combination.  What really appealed to me was that while the regularly-patterned gold was elegant and deity-appropriate, the blue had an almost homespun look to it – the raised contrasting shiny pattern looked hand-sewn and very alive, as if in motion.  The two together seem to me now to express both the calm gleaming beauty of the quiet mind that Tara helps one attain and the more chaotic impulses we hope to tame during practice.

My fabric choices made, I headed to the cutting table, where one woman was cutting fabric for the line of us who were waiting.  Then suddenly a second young woman (whose name is Brandy, I later learned) appeared. She cut some samples for the woman ahead of me, and then asked what she could cut for me.  I gave her the blue and gold bolts, plus the buttery yellow fabric I’d chosen for the shade to go on top, and told her how much I’d need of each.  Silently, she took each bolt, rolled it out on the table, slowly smoothed it and then, with what seemed to me unimaginable  care and attention, cut each length of fabric.  As she finished, she glanced at Tara, who was lying folded up in front of me.  ”Are you making a flag?” she asked. “Of sorts,” I answered.  I explained what I was planning.  She smiled in what seemed to me a kind and thoughtful way as she passed my fabric across the table.  I left Osgood’s so happy – not only had I easily found the right fabric for the thangka, but the young woman who had cut it could not have been more respectful or mindful.  It felt auspicious.

It was only over the weekend that I was able to get down to cutting the fabric and actually sewing the thangka.  I knew that I should sew it all by hand, using the shiny rayon thread I’d gotten at Osgood’s – a color named Temple Gold, believe it or not!  So I cut out the pieces for the frame, using my traditional thangkas as a rough template, only lots bigger!  When I actually sat down to sew, in my room at home, it felt so peaceful, the motion of the thread going through the fabric and the accompanying sound so soothing.  And right away it occurred to me that it would be good to chant the Tara mantra as I worked: “Om tare tuttare ture svaha.”  (It is meant to help liberate one from worldly dangers, from the three poisons of greed, aversion and ignorance, and to spur one to compassionate deeds.) Don’t know why I thought of it, but I did, so that’s how I worked:  over the four days I was sewing, I sang that mantra as I stitched, and thought about what a blessing it would be to be able to bring Tara’s presence into the zendo to join the Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and the Medicine Buddha who already hang there.

I found it very moving to work that way.  On two of the afternoons, as  I sat and sewed,  singing that mantra, my daughter Emily was there with me, too, sitting at the computer, playing The Sims. We joked about the seeming incongruity of the two activities, but I appreciated having her there – and she provided valuable consultation, too, helping me choose the right fabric alignment for the bottom of the thangka.

Finally, on Wednesday night, I finished the thangka.  And when I went to Heather and Neil’s yesterday for my regular housecall, I took it along.  I hung it up  on Neil’s IV stand, so Tara could look down on him as I gave him Reiki.  It seemed the right thing to do, bringing her back for a visit before hanging her in the zendo, to share her with him again. Especially since our experiences with this beautiful Tara had a common thread:  she had helped him let go of some of his anxiety about moving toward death.  She helped me loosen my grip, too – during the process of designing and sewing and chanting, I gained a liberating new perspective on a situation I’d been struggling with. It was like pulling loose the threads of an old, constrictive seam and restitching the pieces together in a new, beautiful way.

Tara is now hanging in the zendo on the big wall. (See the photo below.)  Thank you, Heather, Neil and Brandy, for making that possible.  The room feels somehow complete now.  My friend Karen and I meditated there last night, and we felt fully surrounded by the presence of the deities.  All gaps filled.

Tara thangka

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Giving Back

Giving Back

by Jeff Brooks

In Massachusetts if you do not return your library books you can go to jail. (Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266 sections 99a and 100.)

A wide variety of personal choices are tolerated and encouraged by the Commonwealth. But clinging to your library books past their due date is not acceptable. You may have forgotten. You may have become accustomed to their presence on your shelves. You may be busy or lazy or possessive or forgetful but the harder you hold on to them the more vigorously they will be removed from your grasp. Most people let go of their books in plenty of time. Willingly bringing them back so other people can enjoy the books we can avoid the fines and the piquant tartness of the librarian. And why hang on to them anyway? They take up space, we already read them and if civic virtue and social sanction aren’t motivation enough there is always the bedrock of self interest.

Which is a good dharma lesson for us because everything we have – whether James Patterson, Shakespeare, Milton or the Bible – it’s going to come due and it’s going to be returned.

Everything we have is borrowed. Whether we love it or loathe it, protect it or neglect it, we will be separated from it sooner or later.

Our bodies will be returned. We slipped through a narrow opening into life and we may walk upon the earth proud and powerful but no matter what we think along the way that body will slip back through another portal, briefly opened, into death. Someone else will borrow it. It will be food, molecules, memories for others.

Your clothes, your house, your car, your tools, your friends and family, your rank and position, your achievements and regrets, all the scripts that form the volumes of our life will be returned. They are on loan to us, and no matter how accustomed to their presence we are they are not ours.

This process of separation is a source of unimaginable suffering if we are not prepared.  This suffering is commonplace. But it is not inevitable. The way to avoid it is offered to us through practice. The tighter we cling to the components of our lives, the more we hold to the mistake of their permanence, the more we suffer. The more we are accustomed to practice, to behaving decently toward ourselves and others, to developing a calm, clear mind that does not project or linger, the more we cultivate the wisdom to see the fundamental dharma teaching that all things that have been assembled from parts – our bodies, our minds, our lives – will eventually be disassembled, the more suffering will cease and an opportunity to achieve great things will arise in its place. (Dhammapda, The Path, chapter 5-7)

So we can borrow our wonderful or terrible stories. We can read them, explore them, learn from them, live them out, take care of them, ignore them or revile them. We can make them our own for a while. But eventually we will have to return them. And if we do not do so willingly with wisdom they – and we – will be taken away by force.

The monk meditating at midnight, with nothing to his name but a robe, a bowl and the moonlight, is an image we might view with sentimental yearning, like a lifestyle piece in Real Simple magazine. Or we might see it as unimaginably impoverished – a life defined by deficiency – a life without a sweetheart, the internet, friends, stuff to do or a cool job.

There is another way to see it. That monk is not so different from those of us who live our lives in other ways. Only he is focused on doing the work he needs to do – not by neglecting the important things of this life, but by putting them in context of eternity, where everything will be returned, and our choice is not between pastimes or genres but between imprisonment or freedom.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at


What Should I Do About Living?

What Should I Do About Living?

by Susan Downing

On Monday I took my daughter Emily on the first of her college visits, to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Back in prehistoric times in Illinois, when I was applying to colleges, I never did any visits.  I just chose.  I thought I wanted to study linguistics, and the linguistics department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison had a good reputation, and so I went there.  Don’t remember where else I applied, but that was my first choice, and once I got in, I just went there, sight unseen.  Well, at least consciously – I was born in Madison, but we moved when I was a baby, so I had no conscious memories of the city where I ended up my freshman year with 35,000 other undergraduates.

Emily, on the other hand, like most other high school kids these days, has already done more research on colleges than I ever thought of doing.  Small, liberal arts colleges appeal most to her now, and so we’ll be touring a number of them.  Skidmore’s special Open House this week was a perfect opportunity for her to get a glimpse of the campus, hear students talk about their experiences, see the dining hall she’d be eating in and try to ferret out what the academic program there is really like.

After we had toured the library, arts building, museum, dormitories and dining hall, our guide – a senior psych and sociology major – took us into one of the academic buildings and began explaining how their First Year Experience program works.  Each freshman takes a special first year seminar, and whichever professor teaches the seminar also serves as faculty advisor for the students in that class, helping plan classes for the first one or two years.  But, our guide explained, “They serve as your mentor really.  You can ask them things like, ‘What should I do about living?’”

I’d been listening to her all along, but that remark really caught my attention.  As the tour continued and the group walked into an auditorium, Em and I consulted and decided that our guide had probably meant that you can ask your faculty mentor how to deal with Living, as in the Residential Life department, the folks you’d talk to if you have problems with your roommate or dorm neighbors.  But the way I understood our guide, the mentors were there to answer your big questions about Living. As in Life.  And to me, that seemed as it should be. Especially your first year in college.

When I was a college teacher, I regularly served as an advisor for first-year students, and I certainly got my fair share of questions about Life.  As well as a larger share of questions about Living.  I would do my best to listen, ask follow-up questions, dispense answers (in the case of Residential Living questions) and the best suggestions I could (in the case of Life questions.)  But usually, I only rarely saw my advisees, which meant that there wasn’t much continued communication about the burning questions of Living or Life.  Any ongoing discussions of Life tended to happen with my major advisees, the students who were Russian majors.  We would definitely talk about Life, as in What am I going to do with my Life once I graduate??!!, less about Living.  I was very close to some of these students, the ones who went to Russia with me in 2003 for five months when I was the group leader for the Mount Holyoke study program there.  On that trip I was a 24/7 combination parent (actual parent for my own two kids, who also came along), teacher, tour guide, translator, and consultant.

Daily life with that wonderful group of students included a constant stream of questions about Living and Life and everything in between, from “We want to go to Estonia for fall break. What time does that train leave?” to “My host family walks around in their underwear. Is that normal?” to “What do I do about the guy I was supposed to meet for my internship who didn’t show up?” to “Do you think I really look more Russian without my glasses?” to “I lied to my host mother and said I liked red caviar and now she’s started giving it to me for breakfast every day.  What do I do?”  All, basically, versions of “What should I do about living?”  And I had to answer them.  Of course, I am not a walking train schedule, so I had no way of knowing when the train for Estonia left.  That time, I smiled and replied that although I appreciated their confidence in me, they would have to go to the train station and look at the schedule themselves.  It would be good practice.  They did.  It was.  And a whole group of them made it to Estonia and back in one piece – although late to class that first day back – and they nervously enlisted the student they thought I’d be least likely to yell at to call me from the train about 9 a.m., saying they were still en route, but would try to be there for afternoon classes.

Although I still laugh when my own kids ask questions to which I could not possibly know the answers, replying, “That’s a Russia question!”, part of me is happy when they ask.  I’ll explain why:  one weekend on that trip, I was taking the whole group to visit Tver, a town on the Volga River.  We all met at the train station to catch an early train – and thank heavens for cell phones, because I had to guide one student in as if by instruments (”Susan, I got off the subway, but I don’t know where I am.”  ”What do you see around you?  Do you see the arch?”  ”No.” “Turn to your left. Do you see it now?”  ”Yeah.”  ”Okay, go straight.”  etc.). But once we were all there, standing on the platform, ready to board, an announcement came over the speakers that that train was cancelled.  Just like that.  No reason.  Just cancelled. Ah, Russia!  But right away, one of the students piped up, “Don’t worry. Susan’ll figure it out.”  And I did.  (Okay, it didn’t take too much figuring.  Just looking at the board to see when the next train was leaving, and making sure no one got lost in the intervening two hours.)

But I never forgot that student’s confidence in me. And I never stopped appreciating it, because all 16 of those young folks, including my own kids, seem to trust me implicitly, to have total faith that whatever happened, I would get them to the right train, whether literally or metaphorically.  (Yes, even W., who shortened my life by a couple of years when he stepped onto the overnight train to Petersburg literally 30 seconds before it began pulling out of the station.)  And their trust meant that even though I might have been a lot less certain than they were in my ability to always “figure it out”, they were able to relax in any situation we faced together, knowing that they could rely on my support, that they weren’t going it alone, responsible for figuring everything out in a foreign country, foreign culture and foreign language.  In fact, I think it was after that weekend trip that the question about the train to Estonia came up.  And so, although I teased them a bit for asking me about that, I was also pleased to have that kind of bond with my group. Blessed to have their faith in me, grateful and honored that their parents had entrusted them to me for those months.

Maybe that is why I heard the tour guide’s question the way I did: because during that trip to Russia, I was a walking spravochnoe biuro (Information bureau) on all topics. And because I saw how much it meant to both my students and my own kids to have someone they could go to with any question under the sun or snow or vodka.  But it was also because once my own son went off to college four years ago, I really understood how important it is for freshmen to have someone they can turn to in a new and foreign town and culture, someone who will patiently answer questions.  Not only the easy ones, like “How many science classes do I have to take?” or “Can I stay on campus during break?” but also the tough ones, like “My parents want me to major in economics, but I love literature.  What should I do?” or “I am so scared and lonely here.”  In other words, questions that may not even sound like questions, but are.  Countless versions of “What should I do about living?”  Important questions, all of them, all in need of answering.

So, I hope that Skidmore’s faculty mentors really are open to questions about both Living and Life.  Because we all need to have at least one person we can go to with any question about living, someone who will try to help, someone we trust and have faith in, even if they don’t always have the answers.  College students are no exception. Perhaps they are even more in need of this than folks at other life stages.  So, I know what question I’ll be asking the guides as Emily and I continue our touring: “Who do you go to when you need to ask, “What should I do about living?”

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To Protect and Serve Everyone

To Protect and Serve Everyone

by Jeffrey Brooks

Indra, the guardian god of the Buddha’s teaching, asked in the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra, how he could protect the dharma. Subhuti, the character in the sutra speaking for the Buddha, replied “Do you see any dharmas you can protect?”

Subhuti’s question implies that Indra understands something but not everything about prajna paramita – about transcendent wisdom, the great insight into the nature of reality which alone, according to Buddha’s teaching, puts an end to ignorance and so puts an end to suffering.

Now with his question, he pushes Indra, a great god of traditional Indian culture in that time, to consider the implications of his understanding more deeply. If, as the prajna paramita teachings prove, all dharmas – all existing things – are contingent upon other things, then they cannot exist themselves as self-standing, unchanging entities with properties inherent in themselves.

This means that all the existing things which we experience subjectively as separate entities actually exist as a function of the causes and conditions which bring them into existence and sustain these things until they cease. It means that dharmas are contingent upon the parts which comprise them and each of those parts also are temporary constructions upon which our minds impose a label, an idea and a self-nature. It means that all dharmas therefore are contingent upon the mind of the observer – someone who lays upon the shapes and colors of visual reality, for example, labels, ideas, memories, expectations, and so on. This is not to say that there is nothing out there in the world. It is to say that there are no fixed things in existence, no things, as Subhuti’s question implies, to protect.

Indra understands and then asks, well then how do I protect Bodhisattvas – the enlightening beings who practice the teachings of the Buddha and who live their lives according to the three trainings of proper personal conduct, deep mental stability and clarity and deep insight into the nature of reality – prajna paramita, as described in the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.

The previous question gave Subhuti the chance to point out the sunyatta or emptiness or lack of self-existence of objects. This new question is an opportunity for Subhuti to point Indra’s mind to an understanding of the sunyatta – emptiness or no-self-nature – of persons. Subhuti explains in this sutra that if the bodhisattvas truly practice their insight into the nature of reality deeply they are in no need of protection – that insight itself is the only true protection, the only means by which any mind can be freed from ignorance and the suffering that arises from it.

The only way Indra can protect the dharma, the only way he can protect people, is to himself become a practitioner of the dharma – that is, become someone whose life is itself a manifestation of the practice of the three trainings, developing the insight into the nature of reality, and so putting an end to suffering for himself and others.

Having taken the bodhisattva vow I vowed to save all beings. Having taken the law enforcement oath of office I am sworn to protect and serve the public. In neither case does it say “except for jerks,” or “if you like the person.” No exception. You need to act with skillful means, with appropriate action in every case – not the same action in every case. If I run toward the sound of shouting and violence to save someone is my action inconsistent with Subhuti’s advice to Indra? Should I just let the person get beaten up?

Is there really no one to protect? Should I yell at them to start meditating now! Because only insight into the nature of reality can ultimately save them or anyone else!!

In the heat of the moment there is no time for anyone to prepare. In each present moment my skillful means, acting on the basis of my vow, means I do step in to remove the person from danger or remove the threat to the person.

It would be ignorant to think that I have saved that person permanently, or to think that the person I did save temporarily had fixed properties that defined him or her for all time, in relation to me or others. Because the next day I might be putting that same person in handcuffs after they shot the person they were fighting with the day before. It is compassionate to do that, because it will help the murderer avoid collecting bad karma from doing more murders, protects the other victims and their families, protects many anonymous and uninvolved members of society because they do not have to continually encounter predators stronger than themselves running wild and unchecked.

Do I stand by and tell them I cannot save them? Do I fall into the belief that I have?

Or do I understand that there are no dharmas to protect and that ultimately there is no way to the end of suffering besides living a life that manifests the skillful compassion and transcendent wisdom of the Buddha dharma?

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at


Kickin’ It Old School Some More


Kickin’ It Old School Some More
by Susan Downing
Those of you who read my post from a couple of months ago, “Kickin’ It Old School”, will recall that I’ve made a conscious decision to practice Reiki in a way that’s as close as possible to how Mikao Usui, who developed this healing modality, practiced it.  Just how did Usui practice Reiki? That’s been a tricky thing to determine, but thanks to one of my students, Lydia, I came in contact with a fabulous book that really unlocked Usui’s approach for me.  (It’s The Reiki Sourcebook by Bronwen and Frans Stiene.)
It turns out that the way of practicing Reiki that came to America through Hawayo Takata from Dr. Hayashi was quite different from what Mikao Usui had developed, and not just in one way. But in one big way:  Usui was using the energy connection between himself and his students, and between his students and each other as the core of a spiritual practice.  The Stienes write that the point of Usui’s work with his students “was to provide a method for students to achieve enlightenment.” (p. 58, for  those of you who like citations!)    And the healing that took place in the course of these interactions was a marvelous kind of side effect, rather than the purpose of practice.  But once Dr. Hayashi began practicing and teaching Reiki, he broke off from the traditional Usui practice, following Usui’s death, and he secularized the practice, placing the emphasis squarely on the healing rather than the spiritual.  And it is this non-spiritual version of Reiki which Mme. Takata spread here in America.
Well, when I read that Usui’s aim was to use Reiki as part of a spiritual path, I got really excited, because it wasn’t just any spiritual path he was on, it was a Buddhist path: Usui was a lay priest within the Tendai Buddhist tradition, which meant that I felt an even stronger connection between my Reiki practice and my Buddhist practice.  It suddenly seemed natural that the two feel so connected to me, and dt first I didn’t really think so much about how the Reiki practice could be an enlightenment practice.  But last weekend, something happened that gave me insight into what I think Usui must have been doing…
I’ve been writing a lot in this blog about the 3-day-in-a-row Reiki sessions, and I’ve done them and received them with a number of clients and friends.  And three of my Reiki friends in particular were intrigued by the possibility of doing a series as a share.  So we decided to do it: last weekend, for three days in a row, the four of us took turns giving each other Reiki.  The first person would like down on the table, and the three others would give her Reiki (only a 20-minute session, since there were three of us giving.)  We’d sit for 10 or 15 minutes, and then we would rotate, so that the second person would lie down and the other three would give her Reiki. And so on.  So, on each of these three days we spent about 2 hours giving and receiving Reiki.
And under these intensive and intense practice conditions, we experienced exactly what I now believe Mikao Usui was hoping his students would experience.  And what was that?
Anyone who does Reiki enough and with sufficient focus and intention will at some point feel what I described in my October blog “Reiki Heaven”: “Sometimes we lose awareness of any distinction between our hands and the body of the person we’re working on: because we move our hands and then let them settle and rest in one spot for a minute or two, and because the action is so meditative, the opportunity arises for this distinction to fall away as if we were in deep meditation.  Rather than having a sense that I am giving Reiki to someone, there is simply the calm, happy presence of energy flowing, just flowing, not from or to anyone. Receiving Reiki during the share, we can experience the same thing: it begins to feel that the hands resting on us are part of us, that they are us and we them, without boundary.”
This is precisely what happened over the weekend.  Almost immediately, someone on the table or one of the practitioners would talk about feeling so connected in this boundary-less way, feeling that either we couldn’t feel a body beneath our hands, or hands on our body.  And then, after each session, one of us would inevitably turn to one of the others of us and remark, “I was working at her head and was just thinking I really needed to move to her hip, and then you went there.”  It was as if we were all so focused on the recipient and so in tune with her energy and with each other that we all just knew what to do and just did it.  Silent dance after silent dance. And at some points we practitioners were intertwined above the person on whom we were working. But how does this explain Reiki as a spiritual practice?  Keep reading…
At one point, during our Saturday sessions, one of us wanted to lie on her side for her session. I was at her front, one of us was at her feet, and the other was at her back.  The two of us at front and back had our arms draped across our friend’s side, each of us reaching over her, forming what she later said felt like a comforting cocoon.  And as we stood there, silently, I happened to glance down at her face, and was overcome with sweetness and tenderness. She looked just like an angel to me, and I felt so grateful at that moment, felt it was an honor to be able to bring her this healing energy together with our other friends.  I glanced at the one who was at her feet, and she smiled, and then at our other friend, and realized that she and I were feeling the same thing – there were tears in her eyes, too.
And that is when I understood what Usui must have been getting at: that is where Reiki becomes a spiritual practice. You see, Usui’s Buddhist practice would have focused not only on individual enlightenment, but on bringing benefit to all beings, with the bodhisattva ideal of leading others to liberation, too. And the Buddhist traditions with this ideal (the Dalai Lama’s Mahayana tradition falls into this category) focus intensely on both achieving wisdom (insight into the nature of reality – see Jeff’s last post, “Buddhism and the Three Trainings” on this) and compassion.  Tibetan Buddhism offers a whole set of meditations to develop compassion, but I am now convinced that what Usui did was use the body-based practice of Reiki as a powerful tool for both erasing our ignorant sense that we possess a fixed, separate self-nature and helping us develop compassion.  I think he was brilliant, and this is how it works:
When we give or receive Reiki, if we are very open and still and focused, we can experience that sense of lack of separation between practitioner and recipient that I refer to above.   When the recipient’s and practitioner’s (or, in this case, practitioners’) energies are connected and they both have that sense of loss of separateness, that produces a feeling that combines both strong compassion and tenderness for the other person and intense well-being and happiness in oneself.  Of course, the Reiki recipient often feels this, too, and this is the reason we all feel great after Reiki, whether we’re giving or receiving it. To put it another way, experiencing the loss of separateness elicits strong joy and compassion, which is precisely the goal of many of the Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhist meditations or ritual practices.
But how does this help us, aside from helping us feel great?  Let’s say you receive this wonderful sense of well-being and tenderness toward the recpient or practitioner during a Reiki session.  Ideally, when you walk out of that room, you will carry that sense of tenderness and well-being with you. But that’s not all.  In addition, back out in the world, you will be able to remind yourself that it is possible to feel that connected to another human being.  Toward all beings, human or otherwise.  And ideally, reminding ourself of this enables us to be as loving and kind to every being we encounter as we feel toward the person with whom we experienced Reiki.
So, what I am pretty sure now is that Usui was using the practice of Reiki to enable his students to consistently and repeatedly experience this state of non-separateness (while receiving or giving Reiki) as well as to continually share the happiness and love (through giving Reiki to others), because within the Buddhist tradition, it is crucial to take the loving feelings generated by the practice and pass them on to others, rather than focusing solely on one’s own happiness.  And so, Reiki turns out to be a perfect combination of receiving and giving.
That is exactly how it worked for all of us this weekend. What I saw was that my friends, who are already very sensitive to each others’ needs, became more finely attuned to each others’ needs as the hours passed, steadily more concerned with each others’ comfort and happiness, fussing with pillows, paying close attention to every toe, smoothing out locks of hair and wrinkles in the sheets, so that each one’s experience would be optimally enjoyable.  And as we talked about how the sessions were affecting us, it became clear that we were all leaving each day and feeling much more tender and solicitous about those around us, even strangers.

That is how Reiki practice becomes a spiritual practice – and you don’t have to be Buddhist in order to do it.  Repeatedly and consistently practicing – or receiving! – Reiki makes it possible for this great happiness to arise, and if you can then have the conscious intent to carry that happiness with you and shower every being around you with it, then you are establishing a habit of viewing others more compassionately,  of treating them with tenderness.  If you’re working within a Buddhist framework, and you combine this practice with pursuing insight into wisdom, and you are on the path to enlightenment.  If you are not Buddhist, you can still use Reiki experiences in this way to bring infinite happiness to both yourself and others.  This is exactly what I strive to do: to carry on Mikao Usui’s work of teaching people to create that happiness through Reiki.




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