Simple Zazen: What is the Hara?

Simple Zazen: What is the Hara? July 17, 2009

Jon asks in a comment to my last post: “…The hara point always escaped me. They say it is about 3 inches below the navel, but HOW EXACTLY does on concentrate on it? How do you teach it? Is this something that one should try to feel for? What does it feel like?”

For zazen, especially for beginning students, I recommend first sitting upright. Here’s how I put it in Keep Me in Your Heart Awhile: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri:

The legs, either in a full- or half-lotus position (or as close as you can reasonably get), are like the roots of water lily, grounded in the earth, settled in the muck of this life. The spine is relaxed and straight like the stem of the lotus, supported by the water and inclining upward toward the sun, leaning neither forward nor backward, neither left nor right. The head, the flower of the water lily, sits softly on the top of the spine, eyes gazing downward at a forty-five-degree angle. The mouth is gently closed and the tongue rests on the roof, just touching the upper front teeth. The left hand rests in the right palm, thumb-tips lightly touching, forming an elliptic-shaped zero, expressing boundless openness.

Then allow the breath to be natural, not forcing any particular type of breath.

Most Zen teachers recommend that beginners count the breath but I’ve found that for many people counting is quickly co-opted by their inner critic. Therefore, I’ve come to recommend becoming one with the breath at the hara point, about 3 finger-widths below the navel. It is our anatomical center and really helpful for thinking types to come out of the metaphorical head.

Of course, the mind wanders off. That is simply what the mind has been trained to do. Bringing the mind gently and directly back to the hara point is the practice, not attaining any particular state of mind.

One of the virtues of resting in the hara point is that it is a neutral sensation. Especially at first, there are no particular feelings there to reject or crave. Trying to feel it is like trying to ride a bike – the trying is extra and gets in the way. But without trying the wheels don’t go round. What can you do? Simply, gently, directly, bring the mind back to the hara point. After a while, the energy of the hara point becomes palpable and it can become a burning sensation, like a little moxi just below the belly.

Katagiri Roshi told me to “just be one with the breath.” After I could follow the breath for longer periods, especially in sesshin, he told me that shikantaza wasn’t following the breath. “Don’t be attached to anything,” he admonished me.

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