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Kanji Wisdom - Ma - feeling the spaces

Updated: May 21, 2022

The following is an excerpt from Part II of Women in Reiki - Lifetimes dedicated to healing in 1930s Japan and today by Amanda Jayne and Silke Kleemann, available in online stores now.

Ma 間

Looking at this character and how it is used in so many ways can help us understand

some of the limitations our language has for translating Japanese and what those limitations can cause us to miss out on.

You could simply describe ma as meaning interval, pause or space.

However, where we might think of this as being a space or a moment within which there is nothing, the Japanese understand that these spaces are living, palpable things. There is a powerful presence in them, they are pregnant with the energy of potential.

The kanji character ma is made of two characters – the first meaning gate 門, the second was originally written as moon 月, but these days, the character for sun 日 is used. Within this character is the representation of light shining through a gap. The opportunity for illumination, or kami, to enter.

The character is present as one component of a multitude of common words in Japanese. In each, it shows up to represent that powerful presence in one way or another and may most often be read as ma, aida, kan or gen (as we mentioned before, most kanji have different readings depending on the context and which word it is a component of). It can mean the space between two places or objects, a measurement or an ‘empty’ space. It is used to represent moments of time (space in flow) or even the spirit or mood that fills a place. Ma represents the relationship between form and non-form (in the heart sutra, ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’).

In Jikiden Reiki, we often mention an extraordinary temple in Kyoto when we teach. This temple is filled with 1001 statues of Senju Kannon, the goddess of compassion, and the feeling inside can be a whole-body experience. The name of the temple is Sanjusangendo. Translated, this literally means, 33 (sanjusan) spaces between pillars (gen) in the hall/temple (do). “Why on earth would you count the spaces between the pillars?” I thought when my friend Ikuko first told me this, I didn’t understand. I know 33 is an important number in Buddhism, but the whole thing points towards the fact that the spaces are places in themselves, filled with possibility, homes for these incredible beings of light and compassion.

Ma shows up in Japanese arts where non-doing, space and time are an important part of the whole creation. In calligraphy, this balance between form (the brush stroke) and non-form (the space on the paper) is paramount. The relationship between the two amounts to what is seen as good or bad art. The pause or space before, during and after the stroke

is made must be considered, it’s a vital component of the art.

Left - Kokoro (stock image)

Ma is present in haiku as what is not said, as a feeling of space or time or atmosphere – or perhaps all of them. It means noticing what is absent and the power inherent in that.

If you have seen a Noh play you will either have felt the power of it, or been bored by the apparent lack of things happening. Zeami, a famous Noh playwright and actor, born in the fourteenth century, is believed to have said, “What the actor doesn’t do is of interest.” He was referring to ma. There needs to be balance between action and inaction, sound and

silence, movement and rest. Thinking of Reiki in relation to this, it is possible to see how our tendency to want to add things into the spaces, to create more action around it, symbols, rules and rights and wrongs, often comes from not comprehending what is already there, in the silence and the space. Those still spaces are the moments filled with the possibility of movement into healing.

In traditional Japanese music, ma is acknowledged. Players consider the sound to be released from the instrument rather than thinking they are playing it. This takes into account their relationship with everything around them, with the moment itself, the silence before the note and after the note has faded away is as important as the note itself.

In modern culture, we have become accustomed to looking only at a part of the picture and believing the rest doesn’t exist. We end up painting over the spaces in an effort to complete the picture – only to wipe out the very things that are key to our existence. We see this in virtually every part of society, our devastation of natural spaces, the encouragement to fill every space with stimulation and in Reiki, we see it when people are so busy trying to add things to make it ‘more powerful’, they miss the power inherent in using the space to come into harmony with all that is.

Take care not to miss the space and your relationship with it, feel it, feel what at first appears to be absent. Doing this will help you with Reiki. Reiki is action through non-action, though many of us have tried to make it into an action, so rather than doing Reiki, think of it more as being in relationship with this wonderful energy. Through this connection, it is released, just as the note is liberated from the instrument. Stop doing,

there is no need to add anything. Move into non-doing and listen for the Byosen, feel the depth of what is present within the void. As the Reiki comes into relationship with the person you are ‘treating’, what happens next is out of your hands – literally.

The word for human in Japanese is ningen 人間. The character nin 人 means person while gen 間 means … you guessed it – space or place (it’s the character ma again). In other words, we only exist in relationship to the space around us.

The individualisation that has taken place in the West, while it has some positives, has eroded our comprehension of our symbiotic connection with what is around us. All these examples illustrate the Japanese acknowledgement that we do not exist as separate from our surroundings, we are here only in relationship with everything else, including that which we cannot immediately see, touch or hear. We are all in relationship with nature, it is not a thing separate from us, it is not something we are in charge of or can claim to own, improve or change. Similarly, we are all in relationship with Reiki, it is not a thing separate from us, it is not something we are in charge of or can claim to own, improve or change.

One Japanese word for stupidity or idiot is manuke 間抜け. The characters mean, ‘someone missing/omitting ma’. Look at the spaces, the emptiness, the intervals, feel their existence. They are as present as that which can be seen with the eye. It will change your view of the world, the way you interact with it. It will change the way you interact with Reiki.


You can buy a copy of Women in Reiki - Lifetimes dedicated to healing in 1930s Japan and today at most online stores.

Part I - Back in Japan traces the lives of the early women dedicated to Reiki

Part II - What it's all about looks at what Reiki is, some practical uses and other ideas

Part III - Today across the world is a series of interviews with women working with Reiki in various parts of the world

Appendix - Women in Japanese history looks at how Japanese women have been regarded over the ages

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