Fabrizio Romano is the Founding Director of the International School of Usui Reiki, an institution that trains students in the traditional system of Reiki. We talked with Fabrizio to understand what are the differences between the japanese form and the western lineage, how he developed his interest in Reiki and Buddhism and much more in this in-detail interview.
How did you discover Reiki and Buddhism and when they became such an integral part of your life?
I grew up in Italy and religion back then was still an integral part of our upbringing. I studied in a seminar when I was 11 and for some time even considered becoming a priest, but the older I got, the clearer it become that religion was not the perfect fit for me. Nothing wrong with religion, of course, but I felt I needed something different.
When I was around twenty, my uncle Gianpietro suggested me to read authors such as Carlos Castañeda and Paulo Coelho. Those readings inspired me to learn meditation, so I started reading about it, and attended seminars and courses. Eventually I came to the Tibetan Buddhist meditation “Shine“: calmness of mind. That was love at first sight.
My meditation teacher Margherita, together with her husband Graziano – who now are two of my dearest friends – introduced me to Buddhism. Immediately, I started developing a strong interest in it.
Those years were quite difficult for my family. For the second time in her life, my mother got sick with a very aggressive form of cancer. I helped my father tending to her for about two years, until eventually she passed away. Margherita and Graziano, and the teaching of the Buddha were a great help during those years.
I felt completely understood by that teaching. I felt it could describe my life, my mother’s life and death, and everything in and around us. So, naturally, about a year later I became a Buddhist in the Tibetan Karma Kagyu tradition, one of the main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kagyu tradition puts a lot of emphasis on practicing meditation as a way to find liberation from suffering.
Not many people know that Buddhism is not a religion. I know it is often categorised as such, but it is not. Some think it’s a philosophy of life, but I think the best way to describe it is simply as a practice. Buddhism is a collection of teachings and tools that we can use to discover our original nature, the true essence of our mind. I like how the Dalai Lama described the mind as “an entity that has the nature of mere experience, that is, ‘clarity and knowing’. It is the knowing nature, or agency, that is called mind, and this is non-material.”
Anyways, that was a long time ago, but Buddhism has been my life ever since.
The system of Reiki is a more recent entry. It came almost by chance, after a conversation with a friend of mine from Sweden, a lovely lady named Therese, who described it to me and got me really curious. I actually was very skeptical at the beginning, but nonetheless I decided to go and check it out. As with Buddhism several years before, it was love at first sight (actually, love at first Reiju!).
It felt like meeting a very old friend, after a long time. One of those people you don’t hear from for years and then, all of a sudden, they are back in your life and it’s like they never left. It felt like that. And it kept surprising me in the same way. When I did level two for the first time, it took me about three minutes to memorise the first three symbols, and all the time I had the feeling I had traced them many times before.
Eventually I started noticing similarities with Buddhism, so I decided to learn as much as I could. I trained in both the western and Japanese lineages, with different teachers from different lineages and schools.
I feel that the Japanese lineage is the one that resonates most with me, but I still teach both lineages to those who wish to learn them.
After about two years of daily practice, and several training sessions with different teachers, I started teaching others. A couple of years later, in 2019, the International School of Usui Reiki was born.
What are the differences between the western lineage of Reiki and the Japanese lineage?
Well, the system of Reiki was born in Japan. There is a vast body of research that would support the belief that Mikao Usui, its founder, was an accomplished Buddhist practitioner in the Tendai tradition.
Tendai is a form of Mahāyāna, which means the “great vehicle”. Mahāyāna puts the emphasis on compassion as a way to develop the wisdom we need to achieve liberation from suffering. The word “compassion” in this context means the spontaneous desire that every sentient being be free from suffering and from the causes of suffering.
When one is well versed in the Mahāyāna tradition, they can appreciate how that is connected to the system of Reiki. It is sufficient to learn the original Japanese meaning of the Reiki Gokai to see that connection quite clearly.
For these reasons, I believe a correct way to describe the system of Reiki is as a spiritual practice. When I say “spiritual”, all I mean is that it is “about the mind”.
In the late thirties of the last century, the system of Reiki took a detour from Japan and landed in Hawaii where Hawayo Takata – a student of Chujiro Hayashi, who was himself a student of Mikao Usui – started teaching it to western people.
Inevitably, as it happened to Buddhism, the system of Reiki lost part of its roots when transplanted in the West, due to the vast cultural differences with the East.
One day, while visiting Japan, Ms Takata met Reiki practitioners and witnessed the way in which they were training. In the book “Hand to Hand” from John Harvey Gray, we read that “Takata regarded their approach as entirely valid, but inappropriate for the West. It was highly complex, required years of training and was closely intertwined with religious practices. She felt these factors would deter students in the West and hobble the spread of Reiki through the world at a time when, in her view, it was urgently needed.”
Over the decades, the system of Reiki has spread into the world, and has been combined with elements from several other healing disciplines like shamanism, angels, massage, crystals, tarots, chakras, and so on. I believe there are now more than two hundred different flavours of Reiki in the world.
Hence, I personally find the Japanese lineage to be closer to what we think Mikao Usui would have taught his student. It seems to me that its primary focus is towards the aspects of personal practice. The ability to help others is therefore understood as a byproduct of the work we do on ourselves.
This is not surprising at all. If we consider the Tibetan word for “Buddhist”, ནང་པ། (nangpa), which means “he or she who goes inside”, we see how going inside is the main concern of a spiritual practice.
On the other hand, the western lineage seems to me slightly more focused outwardly, on helping others through hands-on-healing practices and other techniques. As mentioned above, the western lineages often include other elements from various healing traditions.
Both lineages share some elements, but I think the two are quite different. This is just my experience, which might be different than that of other practitioners.
Having said all that, I would like to stress that I do not consider one to be better than the other. We know that the Buddha gave 84.000 teachings. The reason for them to be so many is that he adjusted the teaching according to the needs of the audience.
I believe this is also true for the system of Reiki. Some people are naturally more in tune with the Japanese approach, as they might be looking more for an inward journey. Others will resonate more with the western approach, as they might be looking for something that enables them to work on others, or maybe that complements other healing disciplines they already practice.
Eventually, all rivers flow to the sea, so it is important not to be judgmental towards those traditions that are different from the one we feel closest to. We all have our favourite food, favourite flower, favourite colour, but at the same time we need to recognise that the world would be an incredibly boring place if there was only one type of food, one type of flower, or only one colour.
What can Usui Reiki bring to anyone?
Reiki brings liberation from anger and worry, which means liberation from fear. It also brings the power of gratitude in our lives; the immense benefits of discipline; the courage to try and be ourselves, to accept ourselves as we are.
It also brings one of the highest gifts one can receive in this life: the development of compassion and the awareness that there is a layer of existence in which we are all connected.
Reiki brings a certain form of happiness which is not tainted by impermanence, for it’s not coming from possession of a certain object, or riches, or from having a certain status, or a certain partner, etc. The happiness that Reiki brings is the result of having removed all the confusion that prevents us from being truly happy, so that we can abide in our natural state, which is joy.
In other words, the system of Reiki is not there to “bring us” anything. There is nothing we need to add, or achieve. Rather, it helps us get rid of that which we don’t need: anger, worry, fear, confusion, pride, attachment, ignorance, and so on. When all those veils have been cleared up, our original nature – which was always there, pure and unspoiled – spontaneously reveals itself.
What do you believe your students are looking after when they come to you to learn reiki?
Every person is unique. Some students come motivated from a deep desire to help themselves or maybe someone they love. Some have a sick pet. Some come just out of curiosity, or to accompany a friend.
I’ve had a wide variety of students. Some are completely open, and will soak in every word the teacher says. Others are completely closed, and will most likely spend the whole training trying to find contradictions or flaws in the teachings. Most students are somewhere in between those two extremes, but I have to say, I’ve been very lucky with the students I met.
My job as a teacher is that of finding the way to their hearts, and plant a little seed. A bit of curiosity, and enthusiasm toward the practice, so that then they can go home and verify for themselves if their experience corresponds to the teaching.
I try to behave in the same way with each of them. I try to offer them the very best I can offer, and be the best example I can be. It is very important not to judge where they are on their path. When we judge, we cannot observe, we cannot understand. When we judge, the way to the heart is shut.
Can you explain to us the different levels (Shoden, Okuden…) and what can your students expect in each level?
The system of Reiki is normally taught in three levels: Shoden, Okuden, and Shinpiden.
Shoden means “beginner’s teachings”. It normally takes place over a weekend. In this first level the student is initiated to the system of Reiki. We cover the foundational techniques for hands-on-healing, both on the self and on others. We learn the history and the philosophical aspects of the system, which are expressed by its precepts. We also learn a few basic meditation techniques which aim at supporting the student’s journey.
Okuden is the second level. It normally takes place over one or two days. The word Okuden means “hidden, inner teachings”. In this level we learn and practice the first three traditional Reiki symbols and we explore the precepts a bit more in-depth. We also perfect the technique of working on others, and cover the professional aspects of it. We learn how to perform a distant treatment. We really turn the focus inwardly. We want to discover what is hidden inside our hearts and minds.
After completing level two, students can take out insurance and start practicing professionally with paying clients.
Finally, the third level is Shinpiden, which is also known as “master level”.
Shinpiden means “mystery teachings”. The training normally takes place over a slightly longer period of time, such as a three-day weekend, or maybe even a week. Here we learn the fourth symbol, which is known as the “master symbol”, as well as how to perform Reiju and initiations, which are commonly called attunements.
During the training we also brush up on the main concepts from the previous levels, we learn a few more techniques, and we deepen our understanding of the precepts even further.
The reason why this level is called “mystery teachings” is because in order to really understand what is taught, we must be prepared. We must have an established daily practice, which we have done for an appropriate amount of time. We also need to be open; our hearts and minds need to be open to the possibility that things might be different than what we think. We must want to change.
Without the practice, and without the right disposition of heart and mind, this teaching will remain a mystery to us, hence the name.
For these reasons, I believe the Shipiden level is not the end of the journey. Rather, it is the beginning. It’s like having finished school, and now we are ready for the real world. And our job is to practice with diligence, daily. We also need to keep learning. The system of Reiki is a lifelong quest with no finish line. We have to keep practicing and learning.
In your blog you highlight the perils of distraction, how judgement is a prison of the mind. Do you have a special message to our readers in these challenging times?
We live in difficult times. Pandemic, wars, climate change, you name it. It is quite difficult to know what to do. We are so confused.
We think the earth belongs to us; however, the truth is actually the opposite. We are quite disconnected from our feelings and from our instincts. We have lost the awareness that we are all connected, all one with every living creature.
This disconnection is one of the reasons we then find it acceptable to pollute the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It is also one of the reasons we find it acceptable to inflict tremendous suffering and death to billions of animals, daily. Trillions are spent every year on weapons to destroy life.
As I said, we are indeed very confused.
Many years ago, a Tibetan teacher, Lama Gianchub, was visiting my hometown in Italy. He led a week-long meditation training, during which I asked him what was the most important thing to do in life. His answer was: “To cultivate a benevolent mind”.
To cultivate a benevolent mind means to develop compassion and love. Those qualities, when intended as the desire to free others from suffering and help them achieve true happiness, are an incredibly effective way to develop awareness and wisdom.
We need wisdom. We need it to dispel our ignorance, our confusion. And the good news is that we don’t need to train in a cavern for thirty years to get some wisdom. We just need to practice being kind, compassionate. It is not a coincidence that the last precept in the system of Reiki says, “Show compassion to yourself and others”.
So, my advice for the readers is simply to follow Lama Gianchub’ suggestion: please cultivate a benevolent mind.
May you be healthy, happy and free. May you find joy in anything you do, and may you help others do the same.
With much love, Fabrizio.