Sinking into the Hara
the Gateway to Vastness creaks wide:
clouds enveloping mountains,
mountains embracing clouds.
a drumbeat in empty space
a hammer striking the void:
sparks shoot from Daruma's blue eyes
the ringing of the great bell of Fu
pervades the darkness for miles
This book is a work in progress. It may at first appear to be a series of fragmentary notes. Keep reading, practice the techniques, and you will eventually "get the gist."
You know these things as thoughts, but your thoughts are not your experiences, they are an echo and after-effect of your experiences: as when your room trembles when a carriage goes past. I however am sitting in the carriage, and often I am the carriage itself. -Friedrich Nietzsche
This book is intended as an introduction to the vital method of Hara training. Vital why? Vital because it is life-giving. By strengthening the "one point" or tanden in the Hara (roughly two inches below the navel), by breathing from the Hara, and by cultivating Hara Awareness or Haragei, a human being can attain equanimity along with abilities that some might call "mystical" (I merely call them mysterious, in the sense that the sound of the bamboo flute is mysterious, or that the origin, duration and ultimate end of this universe itself is mysterious and inexplicable).
Can Hara training help you succeed in battle, in business, in your personal relationships -- in life as a whole? Yes. Absolutely it can and will, if by success you mean no matter what happens "never leaving the Tao," which is said to be "great and dignified." This is not a method bound to any particular ideology, although it is part and parcel of the "nonverbal" philosophical approach of Japanese culture.
There have been several interesting books about Hara training and Haragei in the context of Zen and the martial arts. I refer to these in my own text where it seems helpful. I draw in a detailed way on my own experiences with cultivating the Hara and doing Zen, both to encourage you to practice and to give you a baseline idea of what it means to live one's life in and from the Hara.
Note that Ki/Hara training necessarily shades into Zen. There is no real division between them. By means of the Hara one learns to attain "the thoughtless reality" at will, not by means of some special power or talent, but simply via a natural cutting away or negation of "discriminatory self consciousness." This "cutting off" enables one to perceive "the original Being." Spontaneous ability then rises in a natural way and makes life a joy. What sounds mystical is actually quite direct and clear. As Hakuin said of his kensho, "It was like looking at the palm of my hand. The rhinocerous of doubt fell over dead."
Use the power you already have. "Strive on! Strive on! Sentient beings must save themselves! No Buddhas can do it for you!" -- Huang Po.
Japanese Zen teachers emphasize "Hara breathing" for the purpose of clearing the mind and gaining sudden insight. Japanese martial arts teachers use the Hara to attain a natural state that is spontaneous and free of "egotistic self consciousness." In Taoist meditation, Hara is connected to the forehead via breathing and the result is the "circulation of the Light," leading to the blossoming of the Golden Flower. (More about The Secret of the Golden Flower toward the end of this little book.)
(Note that many older Taoist sources say there are important differences in practice for men and women, the major one being that women are advised to focus on a point between the breasts (sternum) while resting spirit on breathing during meditation, rather than the "lower elixer field" or seika tanden below the navel. Otherwise, the Hara practice I describe is almost entirely the same for men and women. See Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women, translated by Thomas Cleary for some interesting advice on this and other subtle points. Generally, it is most important to always do what feels most natural and vitalizing, rather than trying to force any particular technique. Where does the energy of your breathing naturally gather and emanate from when you are sitting with your back straight and shoulders at the most relaxed? This should be your initial focal point in the practice of Haragei.)
Use this book with direct sincerity and you'll attain freedom.
Haragei (腹芸) is a concept in Japanese interpersonal communication and martial arts. -Wikipedia. No, actually, it is not a concept, although there is a sign for it; it is an art. The art of acting from and imbuing your whole life with Hara.
Gei means art. A Geisha is an artist. One who develops the Hara is a Harageisha.
Zen Master Hakuin wrote several lengthy treatises on Haragei and internal energy training, published in English as Selections from the Embossed Tea-Kettle. These techniques are traditionally taught in the Rinzai line of Japanese Zen. Master Takuan Soho also taught this -- he called it "the immovable mind." Actually, Bodhidharma, the so called First Chinese Patriarch, taught similar techniques to the Shaolin monks at the very dawn of "Zen."
This connection between Haragei and Zen seems to some people mysterious, like that between Mahamudra or Dzogchen and Tsa Lung/Trul Khor. Isn't Zen about realizing the "Mind-Dharma?" But Hara practice dissipates the fantasy of cutting apart mind and body, your life and the universe. As Daiun Sogaku Harada said, "You have to realize that the center of the universe is your belly-cave!"
Hakuin Zenji learned about Hara training from a Taoist hermit. He wrote at least two treatises on this subject and taught it personally to many hundreds of students. Hakuin says of Hara training, quite bluntly, "It is Zen." These are not my words; they are Master Hakuin's.
The classic Hara training techniques are sound. They resolve stress and anxiety; they help you to endure intense heat and cold and other types of physical anguish; they give you a clear, vivid alertness.
Zen doesn't neglect physical life. If it did, it would merely be a philosophy -- or an institutional religion.
It's not for nothing that in old Japan -- where life was often nasty, brutish and cut short -- Zen was the "religion" of warriors.
Doing Zen in the samurai way can resolve your anxious mental turmoil and keep you from being "stressed out" by anything at all.
The basic idea is to start with some attention to breathing and body posture. Learning to sit in Seiza, that's an excellent start (see the diagram above).
Assume the Seiza posture and rather than either thinking or imagining anything or directly trying to stop thinking or imagining anything, keep bringing your attention back to your breathing.
Now, for some people "breathing" is too diffuse and it's impossible to really concentrate on that, so in Koichi Tohei's "Ki training" we're taught to focus on a small area just about two fingers below your navel and about one inch inside it.
Note that the reason this kind of "one point" mind training in meditation works is that it brings the awareness, energy and attention down from your upper body where it's getting knotted up as "thoughts" and very uncomfortable emotions (in the neck, jaw, head, and shoulders especially) and constricting the circulation of Ki.
Each time the attention wavers, which it will, you gently bring it back to the "one point."
If even this is difficult at first, there are two even easier methods (I actually use them all):
The first is to light a candle (a small votive type candle in a dish or a glass is best so you don't get distracted by dripping wax) and focus all your attention on the flame of the candle as the "one point," getting completely absorbed into it by bringing your attention back each time it begins to wander into thoughts or images of the past and future, any worries you might have, &c.
The second is to use a small indoor fountain that has a stream of water running very quietly over pebbles. This can be very absorbing. It's the same idea: you listen to the trickling water (while sitting firmly yet comfortably in Seiza) and the changing, subtle sound of the water is your "one point." Each time your attention begins to waver, you gently return it to the sound of the trickling water.
Seiza is by itself a powerful and stable posture, and even more so if you completely relax into it by dropping your energy downward -- always downward to the Hara, to the lower body, the knees, the feet, the hands (assuming they're resting on your knees or making a mudra).
Always drop Ki downward, because in anxiety attacks the body's energy rushes upward and overloads your head (or, even worse perhaps, gets choked and knotted up very painfully in the chest and/or throat).
By using Seiza along with "one pointed" concentration you can overcome any anxious thought/feeling.
Better still, you will soon directly realize that the nature of the mind is infinite space.
One way to test and refine the power of ki and to keep it from being an intellectual game:
First thing in the mornings, Japanese yamabushi often took a cold water bath, the misogi. You can do this in your shower. Turn on the water cold. Standing outside the stream, steady your breathing, Focus on the Hara (the point about two inches below the navel and in inch or so inside.) Visualize it as glowing and then as spreading warmth through your body, up through the crown of your head. Extend your Ki higher with each breath. Step into the stream of water and crouch under it, keeping your head high and your back absolutely straight. If you are breathing and using your mind correctly there will be no shock, your breathing will remain calm and steady, and the flowing water will seem to merge with your skin -- the cold will feel blissful and purifying, not painful.
You may have to practice this many times. The first time, you will almost certainly lose your breath. Stay under the water and shout (or just exhale, forcefully), "Hah!" Do it as many times as you need, focusing all your mental energy on the sound.
My discovery of Ki as instantaneous reality took a roundabout route. Though I knew the word, and even the kanji, and had read about it in books on the martial arts, as yet I'd had no direct experience of Ki. For some time, however, I had been working on the "one-pointed" contemplation technique used in Zen. Stabilizing the body and calming down the thoughts into smaller and smaller waves so that only a clear awareness remains is just the gateway. Once I was able to do this reliably, I began experimenting with shifting attention in clear awareness to different "places" in the body and mind. Feeling my heart beating, my lungs taking in and letting out breath, subtle currents of air on the skin, seeing mental images rise and disappear. &c.
But the real adventure began when I started to pay attention to sounds. (Note: ringing a wine glass is a particularly good way to practice this one pointed contemplation. Since there is no clear instant when the sound vanishes, your attention follows the vibration a long way, and you can still hear it ringing long after another listener might say it had gone silent.)
Listening with clear awareness to a burst of birdsong, wind blowing in a treetop, a truck horn blaring on the street, I sometimes felt projected out of my body into the sound. Sometimes it went even further, and I lost all sense of time and space and entered what I called "the arena of infinity."
It had taken me two or three years of hard walking, an hour and a half or more every single day, to be able to feel balanced and relaxed while moving forward in a state of clear alertness. At the peak of alertness, I stopped paying attention to details: but if another person even glanced at me from across the street, I felt the glance. I dodged obstacles without noting them consciously or slowing my pace. I could come out of these walks sweating lightly, refreshed, with my mind bright.
One day, walking under a wind-shaken tree, I suddenly heard the wind rushing in its leaves like a ringing through my whole body and I stopped still, absorbed into vastness, clear and blissful like a sky suddenly blown clear of clouds. This kind of hearing was not the usual experience of briefly noting a sound and locating its source, then moving on. It was as if that sound had stripped away my thinking mind.
A few days later, as I sat on the edge of my bed with my shoes on, getting ready for a walk -- I remember that I had just straightened up after tying the laces on my left shoe -- I felt a sudden intense flow of energy through my body, up from a vortex below the navel to the shoulders and then the neck and the head -- and then I suddenly felt as if I were streaming light from the forehead (the dime sized spot there actually became painfully hot).
This startled the hell out of me. I had been trying to get the "empty mind" of Zen, but there seemed to be nothing conventionally empty about the blissful, clear, very strong energy that was now flowing up through my body, from my feet to the crown of my head, with a particularly intense vortex just below the navel.
The Ki continued flowing, with the powerful force of water through a hose, all through my walk. At some point, I lost all sense of anyone doing the walking. It was just a body moving through space without any special effort, not trying to get anywhere, untroubled by any thoughts, and this was a blissful experience in which linearly ordered "time" seemed to disappear. Everything that offered itself to my senses was vivid, direct and brilliant. It seemed that the energy flowing "in" and through my body was no different than the energy that manifested itself as all the other beings and things in the "outside" world. It was all instantaneous and it was also blissful.
I found could extend or contract the flow of Ki by merely shifting my glance. If I shut my eyes, it was especially powerful. I compromised by walking with my eyelids slightly lowered. I had the sense that I was blazing with light.
Gradually, the spot between my eyebrows cooled down a little, but it would get blazing hot again if I relaxed in a certain way.
It was not long after this that I began taking cold water showers in the morning to test the "internal heat" aspect of Ki.
As the Taoist hermit told Hakuin, who had arrived at the hermitage half dead from "Zen sickness": "Sir, your fire heart has been going the wrong way upwards, hence your chronic sickness. Unless you bring it down again, even though you were to exhaust all the secrets of the three worlds, you will not be able to stand. And is my plan, which is so like that of the Way (Tao), to be considered very different from that of Sakyamuni? It is Zen. When suddenly it starts working you will find yourself laughing. For surely meditation through non-meditation becomes true meditation. Too much meditation must be said to be heretical meditation. Sir, facing your previous over-meditation, you are now seeing these severe sicknesses. Now, in order to save yourself from these (sicknesses) it must be by non-meditation, do you not think so? Sir, gather together the flames of fire of your heart and place them under your navel and below your feet, then your whole chest will become cool, you will not have a single worrying thought, no single drop of a wave of desire will disturb the waves of consciousness. This is the true and pure meditation. Buddha said: A hundred and one diseases are cured by putting your heart in your feet."
Directing the flow of cosmic energy, or Ki.
Do this from about two inches below the navel --
This Ki flow, from a seething vortex, gets replenished as soon as you project it.
(You can practice this. Sit still and extend your Ki a thousand miles ahead of you, then a thousand miles behind. No matter how far you project it, you will never feel it weakening. You will feel even stronger and clearer Ki gathering in the vortex.)
The more Ki you give out, the more flows in.
Up from the earth, through the feet.
Down from the sky, through the top of the head.
And what about dropping it all, cutting through with one blow, and becoming the whole universe?
Haragei works by negation, but it is not nihilistic. Once the ordinary mind gets annihilated, the universe regains its vivid freshness.
Every day I do Hara-breathing, and I drop everything into the "belly cave." The effect is instantaneous, magical, and shocking. Most people live everyday life in a state of "flatness" and dullness imposed by the thinking head. Hara makes life shockingly vivid again.
"The ultimate stage is not attained by knowledge, nor known by presumption. Even Buddhas hold their tongues about this secret." -Takuan Soho. Even a strictly philosophical understanding of Buddhism does arguably provide some benefits. Relief of stress, realizing "there are deeds but no doer thereof." With Hara Zen, benefits go far beyond accepting any thesis at all; one instantly "knows others' hearts" and is able to act and communicate in the most direct way possible. Even though there is no do-er, everything gets done.
There are a thousand expressions having to do with Hara in Japanese. Many of them conflict with each other. That's Japanese for you. Strong Hara, for example, is a kind of spirit or charisma that can sway other people. In the Zen and Ki-training context and in the martial arts and yoga it is clear that "Hara" refers to the area about two inches below the navel -- Tanden, the same as the Chinese Dantien, or "cinnabar field." The seat of life and wellspring of the body's vitality. (When you commit Harakiri, you don't cut your stomach -- technically you cut your lower intestines. This is to open your Tanden to the world and show your sincerity.)
In the Rinzai Zen and old Taoist context, the "Hara" is just the experienced (I am tempted to write, "objectively experienced") area to which the breath sinks when one is breathing naturally. If you sit still, shut your eyes and let your in breath sink to the depths like a tile falling into a deep pond, the Hara is the lowest point it hits before it rises and expands in exhalation.
Let's look at some of the Japanese expressions using the word Hara. Hara is also referred to as Onaka, "the honored middle," which contains both the stomach and below the navel. Haratsuzumi wo utsu means "to beat the belly drum," meaning to live a contented and happy life. (This usage may refer to a famous ancient Taoist treatise which referred to the "original men" living in the state of nature who did nothing but "wander around happily drumming on their bellies.") "Hara no aru hito" is "the man with belly," while Hara no aru nai hito is "the man without belly." The first is respected, and the second is not. "The man with belly" is good in a conflict, because he always knows what to do and he does it calmly. "The man without belly" cannot be trusted to do anything right. "Hara no okii hito" is the man who is fully developed as a human being and can "swallow the pure with the impure" -- he is all-accepting, all embracing. He not only speaks with the belly (Haragoe, "belly voice") but even thinks with his belly (Hara de kangaeru).
It is overflowing, not existence.
Padmasambhava, the Indian Guru who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, might as well have been teaching Haragei when he wrote in one of his treatises:
ye-nas yongs-khyab.kun-gyi gzhal-yas-nasnying-po rang-bzhin g.yo-med chos-sku bzhugsAlso:
In a palatial mansion (that) as the all-ground
has been all-encompassing since time before time,
There is seated (Being's) energy (in) its own most unique ability-to-be, unmoving,
bodily felt as his/her meaning (by the experiencer).
klong-nas rtsal-zer klong-du grolstong-las kun 'byung stong-par grolmed-las sna-tshogs med-par grol
From (Being's) vortex-(Iike swirling) the rays of its creativity erupt and in it they dissolve;
Out of (Being's) nothingness the universe arises and in it it dissolves;
Out of (Being's) non-existence the manifold (of our empirical world) arises and in it it dissolves.
(Tibetan translated by Hubert Guenther)
Hara yoga, or "internal energy training" is taught in various Rinzai Zen schools. Hakuin used it to relieve "Zen sickness" and prolong his life so that he could point people to Enlightenment. I myself have been doing Hara training for about fifteen years. When I first started it, I was suffering from intense anxiety and melancholy and I wasn't in a particularly good physical condition either. Koichi Tohei's book, Ki in Daily Life -- still the best basic handbook on Ki training -- woke me up to what was really going on. Actually, Ki training saved my life, but it would be a worthless life if I hadn't also turned into the spirited, joyful person I am now.
As Master Hua often said, zazen without Ki-raising is stagnant. I know people who have been doing it for twenty years and they are just as worthless and stupid as when they started out, maybe even more so. "Zafu zombies," I call them. And you have only to look at the nuisance careers of various online Zen commentators to see what getting your Zen from books will do to you.
Scrap everything, every thought and every inclination, drop it all into the Hara with total resolve and visualize it as being obliterated. Then go even further -- drop your whole experiencing mind and the whole universe into the Hara, and see it all as instantly obliterated. Start from zero every time.
You've tried in the past to master reality by deliberating, anticipating, reflecting, projecting, obsessing -- in a word, thinking. Drop all that, seeing that your instinctive reactions to events are always finer, fresher and all around more effective ("wiser") than your considered ones. Admit the total defeat of any attempts to corral, compel, force and measure reality in terms of your system of expectations and ideas. The unexpected will always happen, while the anticipated may not ever come. -Nisargadatta.
The naked Deep Mind is always superior to the thinking head. Wake up to the Noble Truth of Instantaneousness.
The quiet, circumspect yet imposing effulgence of your clear nature as original awareness plus energy (dynamic, spontaneous action) independent of concepts and categories cannot be claimed by any sect; it is not "Buddhist," unless you believe that Buddhists (those competing schools speaking for the heart of a man who taught over two thousand years ago) own "Buddha" -- Awake-nature.
Of the greatest help to me personally was following Koichi Tohei's no-nonsense pragmatic advice on "Ki training," along with Zen. Even though I didn't really know what "Ki" was. This includes Mokuso (resolute Seiza-sitting), combined with certain breathing and visualization methods. "Exhale to the ends of the universe; inhale to concentrate the universe in the 'one point' in your abdomen (Hara)."
Tohei -- a war veteran -- himself trained in classic "misogi-kyo," which is dousing yourself with ice water every morning, and he claimed that if you attained the right state of concentration (on the "one point" in the Hara, as in classic Taoist yoga) you wouldn't feel a shock of cold or lose your breath. What's more, you could apply this principle to any unpleasant experience. Simple! Seemed too good to be true. I tried it and found he was 100 percent right.
By doing Tohei's Ki training I began to realize that I didn't have to be a victim of my own mind, my past experiences, &c. I could take positive control of my mood swings and not react with chagrin or despair to painful circumstances. This was world changing.
Here is what happened when I began dedicating myself to doing this type of effort for just a little while every day (or night): I suddenly woke up, refreshed and vivid, energetic and alive. There is always a strange moment in real Zen when you are startled to realize you've dropped your usual remembering-obsessing-agonizing-projecting-hoping-fearing mind and you're full of brilliance, lightness, and joy.
Here is how Hakuin describes the rentan no ho method taught to him by the Taoist hermit, which he claimed saved his life (from Hakuin’s Yasen Kanna, "Evening Chat on a Boat"):
“Happily, I say that I have a secret way of becoming like the hermit in the mountains. Perhaps you might like to try it, for if you do you will be amazed to see the clouds opening before you to reveal the brilliant sunlight. If you think you might like to try, then pause, for a moment, your seated meditations and your contemplation of koans. Instead, drop off into a short sleep; but before you do, before you close your eyelids, extend your two legs and fill your lower abdomen, hips, and legs with all your vitality, all the way to the arches of your feet. Then meditate as follows: ‘My lower abdomen, hips, and legs, and the arches of my feet are my true nature. My face cannot exist as part of my true nature. My lower abdomen is my original home. There should be no news or letters from home. My lower abdomen is all my heart and it is the Pure Land. There is no majesty of the Pure Land other than my heart. My lower abdomen is the Amitabha who exists within me. If my body is Amitabha, then I need no other Amitabha to preach the truth.’ Constantly and repeatedly meditate in this way, and when the effect of meditation has accumulated, the vitality within your body will fill your lower abdomen, hips, and legs, to the arches of your feet before you are aware of it. Your lower abdomen will be expanded and firm, like a ball that has never seen the game and you will be brimming over with energy. You will be cured of the ki illness of the five viscera and six entrails within five or six days time, or two or three weeks at most if you meditate exclusively as I have just said. If you find my method ineffective, why, you may cut off this old man’s head and carry it away!” (For a slightly different translation, see here.)
Hakuin's rentan no ho is the same as Haragei. It involves putting strength (mind) into the "one-point" in the Hara, about two and a half inches below the navel. One sends "fire" down to "water." Here the "fire" is the energy of thoughts, visions, ideas and so on, which tends to concentrate in the upper body and especially in the head. Hakuin's before-sleep visualization method causes this energy to sink down to below the navel, where it results in an upspringing vitality of sheer life-awareness.
A famous swordsman in Edo-era Japan ruined his health doing "misogi" baths in cold water without using the Ki-strengthening method I've described. But he recovered by following Hakuin's instructions. In his Heiho Michishirube, Toru Shirai wrote: “At the age of thirty-three, on January 18, 1815, I abandoned cold-water ablutions once and for all and adopted the abdominal training method. I had previously read a number of the posthumous works of Hakuin and I had heard from my teacher Terada about the effectiveness of rentan no ho, but I had neglected it in favor of the more arduous practice of ablutions. Now I practice rentan no ho exclusively. I have rallied my spirit and, as Hakuin did, integrated rentan no ho into every part of my life and ways—into my prayers to Buddha, into my studies, into my swordsmanship. Within two short months of such practice I felt my health return as energy flowed into me and filled my abdomen (seika.) My illness has melted away and I feel myself as bouncy as a brand-new ball.” See here.
Like many other people in the world, I was brought up enslaved to words and to conceptual ideas. This is why I do Hara-training Zen -- to drop the mind that puzzles over this and that and to be free of the small self illusion in a space of great clarity. Even to say so is ridiculous. So it is! Zen cuts away mental fixations. This is the realization of the truth of our wondrous original being. Every instant is the revelation of this truth if you do not freeze it into subjects and objects. A bird's intense shrill in the big pine in the rain just after I've finished jumping rope stops me in my tracks. Who is this me? I was never born. If I do not cover physical reality with illusions, what is it? Physical reality is mystical. The head doesn't see itself. In what mirror do "you" appear? Who was watching you swim in the sea that hot summer day? It's all a resonance of the Infinite. Knowing it beyond words is bliss.
At any instant there can be different methods and approaches for "cutting off the way of thinking" and reverting to the natural state. One day, I discovered the method of just dropping "mind" into the Hara. Instant no-mind with clear senses. I've taught this to a few other people. It seems to work almost too well! Finally, one day you just "see It clearly" and you know, with great joy and confidence, that there is nothing beyond This to ever "attain." Then the world becomes so much greater, more beautiful and interesting. After this, one sees that the various "techniques" and all the struggle were not really necessary, yet the abilities one has developed by doing Mokuso or practicing one-pointed attention or exploring Ki energy and Hara Zen have created a wellspring of strength and endurance.
If one's mind is running away after external things and getting caught up in ideas and words, this is a good time to settle breathing firmly into the Hara, let your body weight sink down as if made of iron, and enter into bare awareness without even a shadow of concepts. The "mad dancing monkey mind" that plays with flames and shadows can't touch this state, sitting "like a great bronze bell, mouth contemplating eyes." (Master Hua) Deep samadhi. But one can't stay in deep samadhi forever. One has to integrate "naked Awareness" with all of living.
Any activity that comes directly from the Hara is Enlightened activity. The Hara is Enlightenment Itself.
"The dark lustre of the ancient Hall.
A temple rising amidst the bleak cedars."
I tried for a long time to intellectually understand Buddhism. I thought such understanding would help to liberate me from unease, or at least give me a calm mind. But I found that the more I read of Buddhist texts, the more I was perplexed. I was trying to grasp Buddhism conceptually, and I soon found that "Buddhism" as a system is so internally contradictory that it can't be said to even exist. At least not at a philosophical, intellectual level. The Buddha Way is a Way to Enlightenment, which is instantaneous and transcends words. Not only does it transcend words, it dispenses with "time" and "space"! How can such a thing be grasped? It can't.
Koichi Tohei's Ki in Daily Life is for me the supreme exposition of how to integrate mind/body with Ki training. It is charming in its naivite, a training handbook without philosophical sophistication, containing pictures and diagrams showing how you can do specific exercises to prove to yourself and others that mind really can control the body and perform surprising feats of "strength" as soon as one attains the right kind of concentrated relaxation that is attained by "letting weight settle downward" and "holding the one point"about two inches below the navel.
Hui-Neng didn't teach an intellectual system, but showed people how to directly penetrate into the essence of all appearing, which is Mind itself. To begin by keeping the energy of "thinking" fixed and perfectly still in the Hara helps to get the bonfire of enlightenment roaring. When the mind doesn't move, grasping-clinging doesn't arise. This corresponds exactly to the Sixth Patriarch's direct Zen instruction, "Hold your mind still and do not think of good and evil. In that instant, tell me straight out: What was your original face before your parents met?" In that state one sees the Mind-nature and wakes up to the clear sky of Zen. This leads, sometimes not right away but over time, to liberation -- not to liberation from "karma," which dies off by itself, but from the ignorance of taking names and forms for clear reality. Bodhidharma also taught and practiced this "immovable mind" -- it's the same as his "wall-gazing" meditation.
One day I saw it as it is, without any conceptual fog or emotional grasping at this or that isolated straw. I saw that you cannot cut it into parts. Of course I had always known this. But had it ever been so clear? My head felt as light as space. "Walking at ease under the blue sky," says Tesshu.
Try to find your head in space. What's your reference point? A distant galaxy? Headlessness is the freedom to be a nothing that makes space for everything to be. So, in a sense, Haragei is the supreme generosity. It allows "all things" to spring up in their original purity.
The principle is that dropping stagnant energy into the Hara results in the complete annihilation of any sense of "self/other." This no-state persists only briefly. It is timeless and spaceless, infinite. It is nothing. Out of that no-state, the tiger-ki of earth reappears, and the ascending dragon flies straight to the clear blue sky, feeding on sunlight.
Empty, the jar can be filled. Filling and emptying again -- only the empty state is everlasting. That's just logical. Empty is the primordial state of openness. Basic space, kun-zhi. Yet that doesn't mean one should choose it. It's right to be full, then empty. Full, then empty again. The shishi odoshi pouring water from its bamboo mouth. Clack! The bare mountain, golden shoulder of the Buddha. The rushing stream, elegant voice of the Buddha.
It begins with a pure nothing -- a singularity. It ends -- where? And who knows? You can also visualize it as a vibration. A string is plucked and vibrates the air around it. Slowly the vibration subsides. Then the string gets plucked again. Except there is nobody to pluck the string. You might say that the string plucks itself. You can also say that it doesn't move at all. That only mind moves. There is no moving from one point to another -- only mind imagining movement in retrospect and projecting movement in future. Mind moves itself. This is energy, Ki, activity. Let it alone and be the Dark Female, the Valley Spirit that is the fulcrum of it all.
When the Tao hides itself in the Tao, the universe appears. The "Universe" -- what is that? What do you see, hear, smell, touch and taste? Beyond this a "Universe" is strictly an object of someone's imagination or belief.
Expanding and contracting, rising and falling, are not It. They are just Its functions, its performance. What is it? Nameless. Faceless.
Don't add Awareness to Awareness. It's already vividly realized, so what is it that you think you have to do? There is nothing to grasp, as in Its immediacy it is ungraspable. It exists, perhaps, only to be loved and appreciated. A flower "gives" its color to your eyes, its scent to your nose -- it gives everything, it does nothing but give. It gives to itself, and in giving it withholds the deepest secret of itself. Empty, full. Full, empty. For us the whole universe is this.
This ink painting to the left is by Miyamoto Musashi and expresses his penetrating insight into the essence of Zen. It's just a shrike sitting on a branch. Although the shrike is sitting still, totally relaxed, one feels that it is also ready to move fast in any direction at any instant.
In Master Takuan Soho's terms, the bird's mind is "immovable." But it is also spontaneous and mobile. When the mind moves, the bird moves. This is the "one mind" Zeami spoke of, the mind that instinctively and effortlessly unifies all the body's movements.
When the "immovable mind" moves, it isn't caught by a net. It doesn't fall into forms. It doesn't cognize "the ten thousand things." It is "the true flower" -- mushin, emptiness, clarity, freedom itself.
When the clouds of bewilderment clear away, when the mind is free from all confusion, that is the true Void. -Musashi.
Merge together with all things. Everywhere is just right. - Zen Master Hongzhi.
Begin by doing susokkan (contemplating breath), the best possible way for entering deep samadhi, focusing your Ki in your tanden (Hara). -Hakuin-Zenji
Cast off completely your head and skin. Thoroughly withdraw from distinctions of light and shadow. - Zen Master Hongzhi
One way to attain the state of the shrike sitting on the withered branch is to practice some Hara Zen. What is Hara Zen?
Taking a strong, stable posture sink "mind" into the "one point" in the Hara. Every time mind starts to move toward a thought or an external form, keep "it" fixed resolutely in the Hara.
When the untrained mind moves it becomes "partial." As Takuan Soho told us, it then "sticks" to an object, a movement, a sound. It becomes the "abiding mind," the mind of delusion and ignorance.
This form of mind brims with internal struggles and thought-discriminations. It's the painful mind of emotional conflicts and regrets, of rigid and proud ideas, of "unease" and "anguish." It's distracted and enslaved by external "events." It causes us unceasing suffering.
When mind doesn't move from the Hara, the grasping-clinging problem that causes "dukkha" and karmic effects can't arise. So, at least while you are doing Hara Zen, you are not creating any more delusions.
But there is an even stronger reason to do Hara Zen. After all, one can't sit in Zen all the time. What does Hara Zen help one to accomplish?
If you learn to resolutely put your "mind" into the Hara, you will find that you can make your thoughts vanish. When your thoughts vanish, you no longer cognize "forms" as separate things isolated in space. Subject and object disappear. The mind becomes empty and its perceptions clear and vivid. This is samadhi.
Once you can attain this state at will, you can also relax and let the mind be everywhere and nowhere.
By resolutely keeping mind in the unborn state, as Huang-Po instructed, you will soon experience and realize "the unborn Mind-nature," the "Buddha-Mind," for yourself, "like drinking water and knowing instantly if it is hot or cold."
Hara Zen is energetic even in stillness. That's because the Hara region is the spring of the whole body's Ki strength.
So, concentrating on the Hara "one-point" will enable you to drop thoughts at will.
But it will also liberate your mind to move, unfettered and unobstructed, throughout the whole body in a lightning quick, natural and responsive way, just as Master Takuan Soho recommended in his famous letters to Yagyu Munenori dealing with the Zen sword.
"Stamp quickly and pass through a wall of iron." -Yamamoto Tsunemoto.
Mokuso Zen -- energetic sitting Seiza in an energetically "unborn" state to fix and silence the untrained, incessantly thinking mind -- is not a goal. It is a clear and direct means of realizing the True Self. A blazing realization that will upset and amaze you and transform your life completely.
Sit in Seiza; become aware of the deepest and lowest point your breath-energy goes to and rises from. This is the tanden in the Hara. Focus on this place with strong one pointed attention as you breathe in and out and you will find that something amazing happens. A good diagram and explanation of Mokuso Zen: here.
The deeply wounded have Olympian laughter -- one has only what one needs to have. -Nietzsche.
Those who need to develop Hara strength, and penetrating direct perception via Ki, will certainly develop it, no matter what I say or don't say. Still, these notes may be of short-term use.
Compared to the "mirror mind" of classical Zen, Ki ability is somewhat "obscure," "dark," "Yin," "awe-inspiring" even.
The "Ki one-point," which one can locate in the Hara, is the definitive no-place where there is nothing. It's the no-point that gives all energy, and all Enlightenment.
In Ki Zen one sinks "mind" into this point, the Tanden. This leads to clear perception, naturalness in breathing and action, and a lightning-like ability to handle confusing situations.
Likewise, Master Soho instructed people to "let go of thought after thought" as the best way of "striving" (kufu) to attain satori.
Achieving clear direct perception and a natural way of activity is the goal of Haragei.
Sitting up late with my shadow
and the foggy full moon,
drinking cold sake
out of an earthenware bowl.
Mountains and rivers are Ki,
and so is the Starry Sky.
Look with your ears,
listen with your eyes!
It's just as the poets said:
"The wild geese of Luzhou;
the piercing crickets of Shangyen."
One's way of breathing is one's way of Being. To do Ki breathing one should "allow one's outbreath to flow out naturally, and one's inbreath to enter the body freely." Also, "exhale so as to reach the far ends of the universe, and inhale so as to concentrate breath infinitesimally in the Hara" (Masakane Inoue Sensei).
This "misogi" breathing is the basis of all Hara training and it is worth practicing every single day.
You can test whether or not you are doing "misogi" breathing correctly by taking a cold shower or pouring buckets of ice cold water over your head. If you are doing it correctly you will be able to withstand the shock of the cold without tensing up or shivering.
Once you are breathing to and from the Hara in this way you will begin to experience great resilience, strength and mental clarity and you will be able to find ways to integrate this style of breathing into all of your daily and nightly activities; you will be able to breathe this way even during sleep, and it will refresh your dreams. Nobody will be able to take control of your emotions from you. You will even be able to transmit your positive Ki energy to other people wordlessly. Eventually you may even learn to transmit Ki across great physical distances. This style of breathing is inexhaustible.
"Musoku" breathing, or "the breathing that transcends breath," is an even deeper and more refined method especially suitable for sitting Zen that entails the loss of any particular sense of self and absorption into "the formless Ki of the universal." Koichi Tohei Sensei describes how to attain this way of breathing here.
In Zen we say that Awareness is the Natural Buddha.
Innately, Awareness is unstained and is operating constantly; it's the Light by which one sees everything to be seen. As a Taoist meditation manual tells us, this Light is also the intrinsic "Hearing" power by which we discern sounds. The sense organs, body, brain and its electrochemical reactions are nothing to This.
Does this sound mystical? Okay, it is mystical. So let's turn to Ki training.
The aim of Ki training is to reverse-anti-engineer the factors that have made you harried and stressed out all the time.
How should you begin? Why not begin with becoming more aware (in the "mindfulness" sense) of how you are holding your body right now. What is the relation of your chin to your chest, for example? Where is your gaze set? Is there any tension in your jaw?
Negative emotions correlate with tenseness in the chest, shoulders, neck, and jaw. Note how feeling "anger" instantly makes your ribs feel tight. Note how feeling "scorn" makes your lips purse and eyes narrow, and how in a disgusted "sneer" your lips draw back from your teeth. Note how "worry" furrows your brow. Note how longing makes your eyes moist. Note how sadness causes your solar plexus to tighten and cut off your breathing.
So, how do we fix this? Do you try to change the way we feel about life, our ideas about life, or do we work directly with the body and awareness? Ki training takes the route of working directly with the body and awareness. Wonderful! This way you don't need to change your whole personality and you can get instant results.
By dropping "energy" downward and relaxing your whole upper body, you will feel an immediate lightening of your "spirit" -- almost like levitation. Try it. Isn't that amazing?
Someone is shouting at you, trying to disturb you and make you angry or tense. Focus on your eyelids. Put all your concentration there. Suddenly a light feeling of calmness spreads through your face, doesn't it? Did you laugh? Some people start laughing happily as soon as they try this experiment. Note how just this focus on the eyelids makes your whole body feel strangely "clarified" in a kind of "dark awareness." Why? It's because the energy you put into focussing on your eyelids suddenly freed you from inner dialogue and its turmoil, from painful feeling and trying to evade or repress them, and from any concern with "what should I say to make this asshole suffer for making me suffer like this"?
Focusing on your eyelids made you free. You can now respond to a painful "external" situation however you want. You didn't even have to struggle to control your emotions. You didn't have to read a book about happiness written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
If you've read even this far, and tried out even one of the techniques I've suggested, you are now launched on the path of Pure Yoga, and you can advance as slowly or as quickly as you like, depending on your needs.
Q. What should I do if I lose the Ki point?
A. Don't fret about it. You are not out to create more tension for yourself. Sometimes even masters of Haragei get overwhelmed by some emotional or physical shock. Koichi Tohei describes how someone who was using focus on the Ki point to bathe in a freezing river lost that one-point and immediately began to shiver uncontrollably. If this happens, instead of despairing and becoming even more tense and frantic, learn to return your mind and emotions to the tanden -- the "one point" in the Hara. No doubt it is a challenge but so is every other aspect of life. Only the greatest masters can keep the Ki point all the time.
Q. What is the Ki point or "one point" or tanden you're talking about?
A. It is a theoretical point with practical applications. That is, we speak of it as a "point" in order to provide a focus for visualizing and feeling your bodily source of universal Ki. Koichi Tohei says to visualize this point at first as the size of a golf ball, then reduce it by half and so on and so on until it ceases to have any real physical dimension. Yet he also says that we have to stop reducing it by half at this precise moment in order not to lose it, at which time (if we do lose it) we've got to start all over again. Again, success is a matter of repeated practice. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? As to the question of whether it "exists," we know it exists only because it performs its function when we concentrate our minds on it correctly. Do the practical excercizes -- the "unbendable aikido arm" for instance -- in Tohei's manual Ki in Daily Life and you'll see what I mean.
Q. What is Ki?
A. Similar to the Prana of Indian yoga, it is the energy of the breath conceived as a kind of divinity, or spontaneous and primordial infinite resonance, that gives birth to all matter and energy. In Chinese theory, chi (qi) is somewhat more materialistically imagined than the Japanese sense of Ki, which includes a strong component of "mood" and "open awareness." But this does not mean that Taoist Qi Gong is inferior to Haragei. Only the theory is slightly different -- the practice and results are the same. The same is true of Indian Yoga. We depart from theory at the time that we become able to actually feel the flow of Ki in the body. After this there is no more doubt. We find that we can change our own mood by "extending" Ki as Koichi Tohei-Sensei describes. In fully developed Haragei one also uses Ki to subtly influence other people without verbalization. It goes without saying that this influence should be positive. There may be negative uses of Ki but that is beyond the scope of this book. It could be argued that the samurai use of Ki -- to win in battle -- was negative, in that it entailed killing. But I would maintain that in most cases (where a warrior had actually cultivated Haragei) this use was still positive, in that winning a battle meant saving one's clan, family and lord from slavery or death.
Q. Why the strange word, Haragei?
A. The Hara is the belly region, especially the lower belly. By cultivating this in meditation we gain stability and a sense of well being, as well as dramatically refined senses. "Gei" -- have you heard of "geisha"? Gei means art. A geisha in old Japan was a woman who was artistically accomplished. Hara-gei is the art of Hara.
In Haragei we seek to become harageisha.
Q. What relation does all this have to Buddhism?
A. All and none. None at all, insofar as Buddhism is a collection of rituals, sutras, beliefs, and so on. All, in the sense that Buddha achieved Enlightenment by meditating with a clear "open" focus that dispensed with emotional conflicts and various types of obsessive thinking. In China, many Buddha statues and paintings portray the Enlightened One as having a big belly. This doesn't mean that Buddha let himself get fat. It's a way of symbolizing the power of his Hara.
Zen priests and monks have traditionally used the Hara in meditation (dhyana) practice. One breathes to and from the Hara and eventually the breathing takes over to the point that "I" am not the one breathing, the universe is breathing and "I" am merely a word that is, to be honest, somewhat laughable in its imprecision. Where is this "I"? Try to do Zen without raising Ki from the Hara and you will find yourself merely bored and in pain.
Hara and Zen go together.
Q. Nothing ever goes right for me in life. Nothing I try to do ever turns out the way I forsee it or believe that it should, and I never get what I want. Can Haragei help?
A. Would a clear mind help? If the answer is yes, Haragei can help because it can turn off your obsessive emotional thinking and allow you to consider the situations you enter cooly -- and even, if you like, somewhat ruthlessly. Many of us are in trouble because we've been drawn into negative relationships with family members and so on. By extending positive Ki in a conscious manner, we can change this negativity into positivity, engaging with conflicts as they arise but without selfishness or any other distraction. If you feel "stuck" Ki training can unstick you. What are you most afraid of? Ki training can help you confront it without the sick feeling of fear.
Q. What's your personal investment in this?
A. Naturally, I want to help people realize what I've realized in my Zen and Hara training and make the world more pleasant and entertaining. Negativity is dark and dull. Ki gives us limpid brightness, brightness that doesn't dazzle and blind yet it penetrates everywhere.
Q. What is "dragon samadhi"?
A. This is a Zen term but I use it in relation to the power of Hara which is like a dragon. It is also like an empty sky. It is energetic yet it is the quiescent universal source of all activity. These descriptions may sound poetic but I assure you they are real.
Q. Why do you say Haragei can solve life's problems? Don't we have to use thinking to solve problems, by looking at them rationally?
A. Some, perhaps, yes. But using the head for everything gives you a headache. Would you use your head to pound nails? Tension cannot be resolved by thinking it away. Tension causes one to make mistakes, to lose control of one's behavior, and to do regrettable things. You can resolve most of your tension with Ki training and afterward live a happy life, laughing often. You've driven yourself crazy trying to think yourself into some superior state of being. It won't work. It never has worked. Maybe you feel terrible that you can't succeed in certain ways. Why? Because other people expect it of you? Ask: do they really want you to succeed because they love you, or do they merely push you to succeed because they enjoy seeing you fail and punish yourself with depressions and sadness? Maybe your parents want you to succeed so they can boast about it, or feel better about their own (perceived) failures in life. We are trained in this society to cause each other as much anxiety as possible. I don't know why. There is something sadistic and also masochistic about the whole rigamorole.
Let's drop out of the rat race. We're not rats, and life isn't a maze.
The method of Zen/Ki training is direct and it is clear.
Zen/Ki method is founded on combining Koichi Tohei-style "Ki training" (which is itself a refinement of old Japanese Zen-related and Taoist energy building techniques) with Zen (open-awareness meditation).
Depression of the Ki is what prevents Reality from appearing to you in its multifariousness and beauty.
Shrinking Reality into concepts has led to a perception of being isolated from other beings and from objects.
Being itself is the source of beings and objects. It appears IN and AS beings and objects, which are quite literally nothing apart from It.
Ki is supremely alert, and supremely active. It is also supremely aware.
Naked Perception and Spontaneous Action are one. But in the human realm they've been broken up. This sundering of what is innately Itself leads to pitable anguish and weakness.
This Zen/Ki method will save you much anguish, heartbreak and "searching."
It can be adapted and adjusted to your particular circumstances.
Ki itself is universal and was considered in old Japan to be synonymous with "Spirit." It is the vibration of Being-Awareness itself.
Though this may sound mystical, it is pragmatic.
Everything happens in the Absolute.
You are already in the fourth dimension living your life timelessly. Only thinking plunges you into despair.
Wake up to the evident truth of This!
Nothing else is necessary but to learn how to drop body and mind.