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
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 little book deals with Hara-training.
By strengthening the "one point" or kikai tanden in the Hara (roughly two inches below the navel), by breathing from here, 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 ideology, although it is part and parcel of the "nonverbal" philosophical approach of old Japanese culture.
"Hara" refers to the area about two inches below the navel – the Seika 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.)
There have been several interesting books about Hara training in the context of Zen and the martial arts. I will refer to these in my own text where it seems helpful. I will also 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 Hara training shades into Zen. There is no real division between them. In Hara-training, one learns to attain "the thoughtless reality" at will -- not by means of some special power or talent, but via a cutting away or negation of "discriminatory 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 direct and clear. As Hakuin said of his kensho, "It was like looking at the palm of my hand. The rhinoceros 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 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 consciousness." In Taoist meditation, Hara is connected to the forehead via breathing and the result is the "circulation of the Light."
(Some 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" just below the navel. Otherwise, the Hara practice I describe is almost entirely the same for men and women. Generally, one should always do what feels most natural and vitalizing, rather than trying to force a 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, it is not a conceptt; 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." Bodhidharma, the so called First Chinese Patriarch, taught similar techniques to the Shaolin monks at the very dawn of "Zen."
This connection between the Hara and Zen seems to some people mysterious. 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 Master 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.
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.
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 Master 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. This is the “one point” or kikai tanden.
The reason this kind of "one point" mind training in meditation works so well to cut off anxiety 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 sometimes will, you bring it back to the "one point."
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.
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 painfully in the chest and/or throat).
By using Seiza along with "one pointed" concentration you can overcome any anxious thought or feeling.
Better still, you will soon directly realize that the nature of the mind is boundless space.
One way to test and refine the power of ki and to keep it from being an intellectual game: Misogi.
First thing in the mornings, Japanese yamabushi often took a freezing cold water bath. You can do this in your shower. Turn on the water cold. Standing outside the stream, steady your breathing, Focus on the kikai tanden (the point about two inches below the navel and an inch or so inside.) Visualize it as glowing and 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 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.
The first time you try Misogi, 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 mind on the sound.
My discovery of Ki as instantaneous reality took a roundabout route. Though I knew the word and had read about it in books on the martial arts, I'd had no direct experience of Ki. For some time, however, I had been working on the "one-point" 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, I began experimenting with shifting attention in clear awareness to different "places" in the body-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.
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 me. I had been trying to get the "empty mind" of Zen, but there seemed to be nothing 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 was the all beings and things in the "outside" world. It was 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 doing Misogi to test and develop the "internal heat" 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 Shakyamuni? 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.
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?
Hara-training works by negation, but it is not nihilistic. Once the ordinary mind gets annihilated, the universe regains its vivid, glistening freshness.
Every day I do Hara-breathing. I drop everything in my mind into the "belly cave." The effect is magical and shocking.
Most people live everyday life in a state of "flatness" and dullness imposed by the thinking head. Hara makes life fresh again.
"The ultimate stage is not attained by knowledge, nor known by presumption. Even Buddhas hold their tongues about this secret." -Takuan Soho.
With Hara Zen, one instantly "knows others' hearts" and is able to act and communicate in the most direct way possible. Even though there is no doer, everything gets done.
There are a thousand expressions having to do with Hara in Japanese. Strong Hara, for example, is a kind of spirit or charisma that can sway other people.
In the Rinzai Zen and old Taoist context, the "Hara" is just the experienced place to which the breath sinks when one is breathing naturally.
Though “breathing naturally” is one of the rarest things for a human being to do.
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.
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 bzhugs
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-like 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.
(translated by Hubert Guenther)
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, Zen without Ki is a stagnant pond.
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.
"Exhale to the ends of the universe; inhale to concentrate the universe in the 'one point' in your lower abdomen." (Inoue)
Zen cuts away mental fixations. This is the realization of wondrous original being. A bird's intense shrill in the big pine in the rain stops me in my tracks.
Who is this me? When was he ever born?
If I do not cover physical reality with mental 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?
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 energy sink down, and enter bare awareness without even a shadow of concepts.
Sit "like a great bronze bell, mouth contemplating eyes." (Master Hua)
Any activity that comes directly from the Hara is Enlightened activity. The Hara is Enlightenment Itself.
"The dark luster of the ancient Hall.
A temple rising amidst the bleak cedars."
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?
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." (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 just generosity. It allows "all things" to spring up in their original purity.
Empty, the jar can be filled. Filling and emptying again -- only the empty state is everlasting.
Empty is the primordial state of openness. Yet that doesn't mean one should choose or prefer 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.
Hara lets you leave everything alone and be the Dark Female, the Valley Spirit -- 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?
Expanding and contracting, rising and falling, are not It. They are just Its functions. What is it in itself? Nameless. Faceless. “Tao is older than god.” (Lao Tzu)
A flower gives its color to your eyes, its scent to your nose -- it gives everything, it does nothing but give. But even in giving it withholds the deepest secret of itself. Empty, full. Full, empty. For us the whole universe is this.
A famous ink painting by Musashi expresses his penetrating insight into the essence of Zen. It's just a shrike sitting on a long reed. Although the shrike is sitting still, 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
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-discrimination. 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 endless 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.
The deeply wounded have Olympian laughter -- one has only what one needs to have. -Nietzsche.
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.
In Hara 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 Hara-training.
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!
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."
This "misogi" breathing is the basis of all Hara training and it is worth practicing every single day.
This style of breathing is inexhaustible.
How should you begin? Why not begin with becoming more aware 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.
By dropping "energy" downward and relaxing your whole upper body, you will feel an immediate lightening of your "spirit.” Try it. Isn't that amazing?
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.
The Hara is the seat of the body’s Ki.
Ki is supremely alert, and supremely active.
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.
Nothing else is necessary but to learn how to drop body and mind.