An important feature of Reiki is the symbols. The symbols are used to access the Reiki energy both in performing healings and the attunement process. Reiki is not unique in that it uses symbols, some other systems also have the practitioners draw symbols to access certain abilities. The Reiki symbols bring to the practitioner certain "flavors" of the Reiki energy, tuned to specific uses.
The Symbols themselves
There are three symbols in Level II Reiki and another in Level III or Master. These are as follows, with names obfuscated so you don't see the name but get the idea of each symbol (see below on protecting the symbols).
The system, then, contains the same trinity which appears in all spiritual systems. The Body/Mind/Spirit trinity which can be read many ways (Ego/Subconscious/Superconscious, Self/Family/All, Father/Son/Holy-Ghost, etc). Note, I'm putting this body/mind/spirit interpretation onto the three symbols, and haven't seen that distinction made by other teachers.
The fourth symbol is used to attune someone to the Reiki energy. The attunement process is similar to the Tibetan Buddhist empowerment practices, and is a ceremony by which one is attuned to and may access Reiki.
In healings the practitioner, of level II or above, paints the symbols in the air with his/her hands. Sometimes the practitioner might draw the symbols on paper, with the intent that the symbol is for a specific person or purpose. Generally, the symbols are drawn near the person who is to receive healing.
The drawn symbols are not presented here because they are not truly important to this discussion. If you wish to see them, there are many books which have published the symbols. Also, the symbols can be discussed without revealing their form. The form is relatively unimportant, while it is the function which is greatly important.
Protecting the symbols
Traditionally the Reiki symbols have been kept secret and only shown to those attuned for Reiki Level II and higher. Keeping the symbols secret has been done to prevent misuse (people claiming to know Reiki when in fact they haven't been trained in Reiki). This was also because Mrs. Takata insisted that the symbols were kept secret by the practitioners in Japan.
Consider whether Reiki is only the symbols, the drawn pictures. It's my experience that drawing the symbols creates a flow of energy (Chi) having different characteristics for each symbol, and that it's the flow of energy which is important. Without the flow of energy, the symbols themselves are just pictures, yes? What makes Reiki interesting is the source of energy from which Reiki springs, and the high degree of intelligence, wisdom and divinity behind that energy source.
When teaching Reiki a few times I conducted an experiment with the students. The Chi energy is not unique to Reiki, in fact Chi is in everything and around everything. Think Yoda here, in Star Wars, lecturing young Skywalker on the Force; that lecture was not far from the truth. There are many systems of Energy Healing, of which Reiki is only one, and it is quite easy for people to access and channel Chi without knowing Reiki. The experiment was, before they received any Reiki attunement, to lead them through a simple method of accessing Chi from the earth (earth energy), and then after their first attunement to have them compare the energy which came to the earth energy they had accessed just a few moments before. Every one of them were able to access earth energy with ease. In addition, each of them had dramatically stronger and different energy come, just a few minutes later, after their first Reiki attunement.
This indicates someone could call themselves Reiki Practitioners simply because they've seen the symbols in a book. This is analogous to someone calling themselves a Tarot Reader simply because they've memorized a book of Tarot card meanings. Just as reading tarot is much more than memorizing a set of predetermined meanings (namely, being intuitive about what the cards mean in this reading), there is more to using Reiki than drawing symbols (namely accessing the energy). Even a fully attuned Reiki practitioner can fail to access the energy if s/he gets confused here.
The symbols have been published in many books and web sites. Particularly interesting are a series of books by Frank Arjava Petter, Walter Lubeck and William Rand exploring the true history of Reiki (Reiki Fire, The Original Reiki Handbook of Dr. Mikao Usui, and The Spirit of Reiki). These three books in particular show that the Japanese practitioners had rather different practices from what Mrs. Takata taught, and in particular that the Reiki symbols (and others) are clearly shown to the public in a temple at Mt. Kurama in Japan. I can only assume that it's no longer necessary to follow the tradition of secrecy.
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