Both Mikao Usui, founder of Reiki, and Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, trained on Mt. Kurama at approximately the same time. Is it a coincidence? Or were they both looking for something specific?

I invite you to embark on a journey into the history of certain aspects of Japanese religions, legends and facts to find it out.

Tengu

Tengu (Japanese: 天狗, lit. “Celestial Dog”) are a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion. They are considered a type of yōkai (supernatural beings) or Shinto kami (gods). The tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey and monkey deity, and they are traditionally depicted with human, monkey, and avian characteristics.

These mischievous mythological creatures were also experts in martial arts.

Scholars believe however that the tengu were actually yamabushi, mountain priests. Many of these practitioners of Shingon Buddhism were retired samurai who revered the mountains as sacred and found solace there to seek spiritual, mystical and supernatural powers through asceticism. Many famous swordsmen have stories attached to their legends of, encounters with, or, learning some secret technique from tengu.

Sojobo

Sōjōbō (Japanese: 僧正坊, pronounced [soːd͡ʑoːboː]) is the mythical king and god of the tengu.

Sōjōbō is a specific type of tengu called daitengu and has the appearance of a yamabushi, a Japanese mountain hermit. Daitengu have a primarily human form with some bird-like features such as wings and claws. The other distinctive physical characteristics of Sōjōbō include his long, white hair and unnaturally long nose. 

Sōjōbō is said to live on Mount Kurama. He rules over the other tengu that inhabit Mount Kurama in addition to all the other tengu in Japan. He is extremely powerful, and one legend says he has the strength of 1,000 normal tengu

Sōjōbō is perhaps best known for the legend of his teaching the warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (then known by his childhood name Ushiwaka-maru or Shanao) the arts of swordsmanship, tactics, and magic.

monk Ushiwakamaru on Mt Kurama

Ushiwakamaru (1159-89) was sent to a temple north of Kyoto at age seven to become a monk, after his Minamoto clan was defeated by the Taira clan.

Yoshitsune remained on Mt Kurama until he was sixteen years old. During this decade of study, when he wasn’t learning the Buddhist scriptures, Yoshitsune passed the time walking the steep trails through the sacred forest of pines, cedars, cypress, and other trees. It was there, deep in the mountains, some distance above the temple, he was befriended by Sojobo, the white-haired King of the Tengu on Mt. Kurama, who trained him in sword fighting and military strategy. It has also been said that Yoshitsune practiced his footwork among the prevalent roots of the trees that line the paths up the mountain.

Sojobo was a harsh task master, yet, through the spiritual and physical hardships of this training, Yoshitsune forged his warrior spirit and honed the martial skills that he hoped would make it possible to re-establish the honor of the Minamoto Clan.

During the battle at Yashima in 1184, Yoshitsune demonstrated reportedly superhuman agility, defeating the Taira Clan, and helping his brother Yoritomo establish the Kamakura Shogunate. This only served to lend plausibility to his tengu connection.

Morihei Ueshiba on Mt Kurama

In the 1920’s, Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, was known to take several of his best students with him on yearly week long retreats to Mt. Kurama to undergo austere training. Their daily routine began at 5 a.m. with prayer, misogi (purification), followed by suburito (heavy sword swinging) practice and footwork drills. Some days the training didn’t end until after midnight. Some of these students have said that O’Sensei would make a point of reminding them that they were training on the very spot where Sojobo taught Ushiwakamaru 850 years earlier.

Though no one claimed to have seen a tengu during these sessions, the students who crossed swords with master Ueshiba said, he fought with such intensity, it was as though his opponent were one of the goblins. No doubt their spirit was still on the mountain guiding the training.

Miko Usui on Mt Kurama

Mikao Usui, founder of Reiki, underwent 21-days of shugyo (deep mind and body training) in 1920’s.

Usui fasted and meditated near a massive cedar tree, called Osugi in Japanese. In Shinto Religion these old, massive trees are worshipped as kami, the deities in Shinto Religion. On the last day of his training Usui had a revelation about Reiki.

Kurama dera

Kurama Temple (Jp. Kurama-dera), built on Ryu-ketsu (‘dragon hole’), a site thought to be imbued with concentrated ‘spiritual energy’ was founded in 770 by Gantei, a disciple of the Chinese monk who introduced Buddhism to Japan.

The temple became a major center for Shugendo practices, a Japanese esoteric tradition that focuses on severe austerities to initiate practitioners into the physical elements of the mountain, its dense forests, streams, and waterfalls, so that they can experience its sacred dimension. This, in turn, offers insights into their own interior landscapes, generating greater self-awareness.
Often these ascetic practices are carried out to attain magico-religious ‘transformative’ power, and to spread this power for the benefit of others. The arduous discipline (Jp. shugyo) includes solitary confinement in caves, fasting, abstaining from drinking water, sleep deprivation, meditational practices in combination with breathing techniques and the recitation of mantras, the practice of ‘becoming a buddha in this very body’ (sokushin jobutsu) as well as mastery of the cold (Jp. samugyo; such as immersion in icy cold water), fire (Jp. goma; which includes fire-walking, hiwatari), and sharp swords (Jp. hawatari; climbing the sword ladder).

In the 12th century, the Shugendo mountain center at Kurama-dera became linked not only with the Esoteric Buddhist Tendai school but also with the theory and practices of the Buddhist female deity Marishi-ten (Skr. Marici), the patron goddess of warriors, both within the Vajrayana, or Tantric, tradition of Buddhism and in the field of Japanese martial arts.
It is important to observe and to note that the supernatural abilities which she confers upon her followers are similar to those of the tengu: they include the powers of invisibility (or concealment), perspicuity, evasiveness (the ability to easily escape being bound or controlled), healing and exorcism. It is no wonder that the tengu serve as ‘guides’ sent by Marishi-ten, to reveal and impart secret martial traditions.

Shugendo’s other deity, Fudo-myo-o (‘The Immovable One’; Skt. Acala), is said to dwell deep in the mountains and can also transform into a tengu. Tengu are thus profoundly interconnected with the other local deities of Mt. Kurama.

is the training time and place of both founders a coincidence?

It becomes quite obvious that Mt. Kurama and Kurama dera were considered a super power place.

Tengu and Sojobo are still myths, but the monk Ushiwakamaru seems to be a historical figure, a proof of the acquired super-human mastery.
Morihei Ueshiba strongly believed that he was a reincarnation of the shinto deity, so his belief and deep emergence into the world of kami was a fact.
We know much less about Mikao Usui, but maybe he was also “in training by Tengus” before he realized his Reiki.
My rational mind doesn’t take it literally though, but it accepts it as a metaphor.

When I went to Japan, I was lucky to visit the training grounds of modern Yamabushi on Mt Yoshino.
I chose not to go to Mt Kurama, as it has become a new age spiritual tourist attraction. And as you know, where masses of people come, monetizing evolves and the energy shifts.
Mt Yoshino instead is still full of actual trails and real living temples and shrines.
Just being there, walking the trails to the point of exhaustion, meditating in the temples, taking part in water and fire rituals draws a certain picture about how it might look like to be training there. The whole place feels animated by the powers that tell you a lot about yourself.

Back in those days Mt Kurama must have felt just as alive and empowered by the Tengu/yamabushi body-energy-mind that being and training there supported one to reach the depths of the super human powers of tengus/yamabushi who devoted their lives to developing them.
The latter is as we know – our True Self at its full potential = Reiki or Aiki.

Bibliography
Aikido journal
Aikiweb
Wikipedia

“Kurama-dera & Shoren-in” Frans Stiene
“The Great Tengu of Mt. Kurama” Sara Kuehn

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