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The Japanese Hara Theory & its Relations to East & West, Part 1

hara_r [1]4,045 words

Part 1 of 2

On first receiving Karlfried Graf Dürckheim [2]’s book, Hara: Man’s Terrestrial Center,[1] we had thought of writing one of the usual reviews, calling attention to it as an interesting contribution to our knowledge of the psychology, the behavior, and the “existential morphology” of the Far Eastern, or rather of the Japanese, man; indeed, in one respect it is a development of things already set forth by the same author in a previous work of a more general character on Japan.[2]

Dürckheim offers us a parallel case to that of Herrigel, author of a well-known and valuable little book Zen Archery[3]; like Herrigel, he is a German scholar who went to Japan at first with a program of academic studies but was led during his sojourn there to identify himself with his environment and to get into direct touch with spiritual and also initiatic traditions that still live in that country. These traditions are, above all, the source of the material set forth in Dürckheim’s new book.

But after carefully examining that work it seemed to us that the main subject is deserving of fuller treatment, both because the matter is almost unknown to the general public, and because the problems connected with it, especially some of the questions formulated by the author, also involve the problem of the diverse attitudes assumed in relation to the spirit, and to the task of human reintegration, as seen by the East and by the West. Moreover, some technical questions are touched, that come within the field usually considered as related to Yoga, which, considering the attention now paid by the West to that field, will perhaps not be without interest for many readers.

The central point of reference of Dürckheim’s work is the Japanese notion of hara. In addition to the explanation and interpretation given by the author, the book contains extracts of the doctrines of three Japanese masters of modern times—Okada Torajira, Sato Tsuji, and Kaneko Shoseki. It is regrettable that the schools to which they belong are not clearly stated for, as we shall see, one of the problems that arise is whence comes the doctrine of hara, in view of its special character which corresponds but little to the teachings of other traditions—Asiatic and non-Asiatic—relating to similar subjects.

The doctrine of hara cannot but strike a Westerner at first sight as decidedly eccentric, for, strictly speaking, it might be defined as the doctrine of the importance, not only ethical-existential but also mystical and initiatic, of the belly, or rather of the lower belly. The literal meaning of hara is, indeed, belly. Another word used also in this connection, tanden, denotes an area of the body “about 4 centimeters below the navel.” Yet another word, used always in the same connection, koshi, denotes the lower part of the trunk, from the navel downwards.

The fundamental idea of the doctrine in question is that this is the zone in which resides not only the basic strength of the life of the body, but also the primordial unity of man; and that it is therefore the natural basis of all truly “centralized” human types, or that which must be assured first of all for carrying out the existential reintegration of man. Hence we have, on the one hand, hara as a natural fact, on the other as the object of a special discipline.

A chapter, written by Dürckheim on the basis of data collected by a Japanese collaborator of his, Prof. Fumio Hashimoto, shows how this concept is reflected in a current linguistic usage, which strikes a European as very strange. As, for instance, to act or think with hara—literally with the belly: hara de kangaeru—means to think or act thoroughly, like a whole man, a truly “centered” one. “Hara no aru hito or hara no nai hito” means literally a man who has or has not a belly, but it also means a man with a center, or a man without a center, unstable, slippery. And many other interesting examples of curious locutions are adduced.

Considerations on general somatic behavior follow. The Westerner is centered upward; more especially the type considered “virile” holds the head erect, the shoulders are thrown back, the chest forward, the belly drawn in. On the contrary, in the Far Eastern type the upper part of the body is relaxed, the line of the shoulders slopes Raglan-wise, the body centers in the lower portion, in the hara.

This is so even in the case of soldiers and wrestlers. Dürckheim points out that this is the case even with the Sumo masters of wrestling; they give an impression of obesity and heaviness, because the seat of their strength is placed low; but at the same time they possess a truly feline agility and swiftness of spring.

Here is another observation; if you give a sudden push to a Westerner he will nearly always fall on the ground because he is “centered upward.” It would be much more difficult to do this to an Easterner because his center of gravity is below.

In the third place, come considerations referring to the inner man. First of all there are the views held by the schools such as Zen, a form of Buddhism combined with Taoism: to which the special theory of hara is added. From this standpoint, to have hara is to dispose of an efficient super-individual strength which is obtained when one succeeds in excluding the direct intervention of the Ego. It is more than physical strength, a strength which starts not from the Ego but from the “center.”

And here an order of ideas intervenes of a nature more or less known to those familiar with Far Eastern disciplines. It is the Buddhist theory of the “absence of the Ego,” and the Taoist conception of “acting without acting” and of the “Void” as signs of a perfection which, in this case, however, is not abstract but also gives practical evidence of itself in the range of the most varied human activities.

It is said: when a man really has hara he does not need physical strength, indeed, he has no need to act himself; it is another mysterious strength that acts for him; without effort, in a natural sure and perfect manner, and, in the case of struggling it is irresistible. When the hara is not natural but is the result of a discipline followed to obtain it, all tension must be abolished; the individual desire and ambition to succeed must be excluded as well as the fear and anxiety of failure; one must exclude, in short, all intrusion of the Ego. Then an energy that can act much better than the most concentrated will and the most intense effort will make itself manifest.

It is thus that in the several arts, as in that of wrestling and archery, but also in painting and in the crafts and such like, perfect skill acquires in the Far East a symbolic value. The master of the art becomes such by realizing a different existential dimension, by a spiritual fact to which his mastery of the art bears witness.

As we have said, the specific and singular feature of this ensemble is however the literal reference to the hara, to the lower belly. Being centered on the lower belly is said to be the key. It is said that in their highest forms the way of the tea, the way of the knight and of the warrior (budo), the way of art (gedo), the way of sitting and contemplating (sado), like the way of drawing the bow or using the sword, are all an art of the belly (haragei), an art of ancient times: or they have at least had relations to that art.

In particular, he who has hara, even when he acts, moves, struggles, “does not really move.” Hence an ethical extension of the order of ideas in question. Dürckheim uses in this connection an image of Meister Eckhart’s: the door may even slam, the hinge does not move. Hara thus becomes synonymous with inner firmness, the impossibility for any circumstances of life to shake the inmost self.

As is known, one of the purposes of Zen, when associated with Bushido, with the life of the Samurai, was not to stifle but to destroy existentially the fear of death. Having let the ego fall and having shifted and anchored your center in the “base,” the hara, makes itself felt, in the military as in other fields, in natural heroism, quite free from pathos, emphasis, or sentimentality. Very probably a phenomenon which Westerners find it difficult to understand, that of the corps of the Kamikaze, the suicide bombing pilots of the last World War, is not unrelated to the effects of hereditary formation along these lines of the Japanese man.

So far we have considered the theory of hara affecting a differential type of man, existential behavior, the arts and ethics. We must now examine a loftier sphere, the purely spiritual one of a training of yogic and initiatory type. It is here more especially that both the information contained in Dürckheim’s book and that directly gathered from the extracts given in it of the teachings of the Japanese masters themselves, give rise to some perplexity.

One of these masters, Okada, begins by distinguishing three types of men. The first is that centered in the head, which, as such, may be said to be decentralized, unstable, “like a pyramid turned upside down.” Spirituality for him is naught but the accumulation of knowledge. Then comes the type centered in the region of the heart, who is compared to one who tries by an individual effort to discipline himself, who struggles with himself and masters himself. But he has not yet real strength. Superior to all are those who are centered in the lower belly. “The lower belly is the most important region, the fortress in which divinity may grow, the casket of the divine. Such men have developed in the right way both the body and mind. They radiate strength, creating the spiritual disposition needed for a higher detachment. Without violating the laws, they do all that they wish to do.”

Another Master, Sato Tsuji, says that the tanden (=hara) is “the center of man as a unit.” “From the physical standpoint it is the center that holds together the body of flesh. In its human significance it is, indeed, also a point, but it should be understood as the original source of strength, and not as a point that can be anatomically identified. It is the seat of life, materially unseizable, which must be experienced internally by the subject himself.” It must be made the solid cornerstone on which all else, body and spirit, rest.

Let us quote from a third Master, Kaneko Shoseki: the hara is for him “the center of the body where the Origin resides.” He says: “What belongs to the head and to the heart is already on the outer edge and therefore far from the essence.” “When all the outwardly directed activities of the mind—representation, judgment, feeling, will-power, in short, all physical energies are calmly collected in the center of the body, that is to say in the tanden, then a sphere of perception opens entirely above the antithesis between subject and object, between outer and inner, and therefore also above the ordinary fluctuating consciousness.” When consciousness is transferred to that seat—he adds—“that which alone rules is the universal, primordial force of life, which, as through an iron pipe, flows swiftly and whirlingly from eternity to eternity, in the lower part of the body.”

On this basis, for the realization of this end, understood as the reintegration of man in the One, or the realization of the Absolute One, various practices are contemplated, some of the Yoga kind, for they make use of breathing, the position of the body, and of a special form of concentration. To all this we will only make a brief reference. Breathing in the ordinary man is dispersed and decentralized, frequent and irregular, it no longer reaches the hara: by subtilizing it, slowing it down (less than 10 breaths per minute) it must again be brought into contact with the hara, detaching it, so to say, from the Ego and from all efforts of the Ego. One will then experience what may be described as a rebirth of breathing, which regenerates physically and spiritually.

In the matter of concentration one must get accustomed to accumulating all one’s strength in the region of the hara, the tanden, or the koshi—which, as said above, are more or less equivalent expressions. Sasto Tsuji says: “The strength with which the koshi is filled must be a strength that acts as though the upper part of the body was non-extant. So the energy of the whole body must be gathered in the base of the trunk, as if the vertical body sprung up from the center of the earth.”

This is more or less associated with the seiza, or art of sitting motionless, a practice of which we have evidence in several ancient Chinese and Japanese schools, given as “a path for transforming the spirit and the body.” In this practice, it is said, “one must not struggle to drive away thoughts, but keep awake, holding one’s strength in the lower belly.” Seiza means “the relinquishment of one’s own Ego.” “Some believe that seiza is a form of hypnosis. But, seiza means instead to become such that one will no longer be subject to any hypnotic power, however great.” If it be rightly practiced, it will reveal the true figure of man, and the false Ego will be eliminated, “To sit in the right way and to think of the true figure” is like bringing to light, little by little, the statue which is already contained in the block of wood” (Sato Tsuji).

Here too the regulation of breathing is of great importance: “ninjutzu itself, the art of rendering oneself invisible, and other arts of ancient times, are derived from the mastery of breathing,” breathing with the hara (Okada Torajiro). The vertical position of the body becomes the act of standing erect, i.e., the vertical arrangement, of the whole being. Hence originate “both detached calm and daring strength.” The general experience of man is then transformed in the sign of the Great One. An eternal springtime is felt in this world, everywhere, in heaven and on earth.

We have now given the essential points of the Japanese doctrine of hara and of all connected with it. Let us now see what position we should take up towards it. Seen from the more external point of view, related to the somatic behavior and to morphological anthropology, the man with hara, i.e., centered and developed in the lower part of his body, can evidently only be considered as a specifically Far Eastern type.

Dürckheim, who would like to attach general human importance to the hara theory, believes that the human type to which it refers, while it is in complete antithesis to the physical ideal of the modern Westerner, has in other ages been considered normal in Europe also. In his book, which contains several illustrations, he offers in proof of this some figures from Gothic statues in which the lower part of the body is considerably developed or in relief, and compares them with similar figures from the statuary of the Far East. We do not think, however, that this kind of thing can be taken seriously.

We may ascribe solely to the more recent Western civilization the human type centered unilaterally on the upper portion of the body, the chest thrust forward, the broad shoulders and stomach held in, as though to emphasize physical individuality and the Ego. But, even in other periods the prevailing somatic ideal of the West, starting from that of the Hellenes, has been definitely different from that of the Far East above referred to. To say that to be centered in the head is “contrary to the order of life,” while to be centered low down, in the hara, is in keeping with it, is an idea which cannot be valid beyond a very limited area.

If we could limit ourselves to the symbolic level, we could find in China an antecedent of the Japanese theory of the hara. The Chinese images of divinities, of Buddha, and of sages, in which the stomach is particularly pronounced, are well-known. This has a purely symbolic value. The belly, indeed, was held to be the “empty” part of the body, as compared to the remaining sections. Thus the figure with a big belly is to express symbolically a being who has developed the “void,” and has made it predominate over the “full.”

Here the “void” stands for the metaphysical principle spoken of by Lao-tzu, and the Mahayana itself, imported into China and mixed with Taoism, i.e., the super-substantial “Non Being” that conditions Being. In Lao-tzu (Tao-te-ching, 12) we read “Shih i sheng jen wei fu wei mu” (The sage is for the belly and not for the eye), that is to say, he does not turn to the reality revealed by external experience (to “seeing”) but to the essential principle.

But, as we have seen, the Japanese doctrine of hara is not mere symbolism, and we may also exclude the idea that it is derived from a gross materialistic interpretation of the symbolic content just referred. We have indeed seen that the hara, the tanden, and the koshi are spoken of as a definite part of the body, physically and occultly considered, which fills a clearly defined part in practices of a yoga type. Now we have here a doctrine to which it is not easy to find anything really corresponding not only in Western traditions but even in those of other Oriental civilizations.

The hara, taken not only in a physical sense, is called both the center of man in general, and the earth-center of man (this is the subtitle of Dürckheim’s book) and also the seat of the One, the “basic center,” designations which do not fully agree one with the other. In the first place, “to be centered” and “to be centered below” are evidently not synonyms. It would be more logical to place the center in a median zone of the psychophysical being. It is for this reason that in the concordant traditions of West and East the heart, taken in a non-physical sense, has been considered as the center of being. This doctrine, as is known, is specially attested in the Upanishads; nor is it absent from the secret and mystical traditions of the West and of Islam. In other cases it has been the solar plexus, likewise not considered only physically, to which the meaning of “center” of man and of human life has been attributed. It would thus seem that by the doctrine of hara as “center” one abnormal and unilateral dislocation (upwards, towards the head) has been replaced by another of the same kind (downwards, in the belly) and in this case one could not speak of a real centrality, of the hara as the “middle center.” Moreover, the expression “basic center” is misleading, as the notions of “base” and of “center” or “middle point” are different.

A hint given by Sato Tsuji that the head is Heaven, hara the Earth, and that it is a question of actuating the “void” of heaven and the “fullness” (plenitude) of Earth by means of the practices spoken of before, is interesting but does not adequately clarify the problem.

Another difficulty is that the “seat of the One” and “center of the earth,” of “strength,” or of “Life” cannot either be identified. The Tantric yoga doctrine about the hyper-physical structure of the body contains teachings some of which might be approximated to those on hara. That doctrine speaks indeed of the “basic center,” muladhara, which is placed in relation to the earth, protivi, and is considered as the seat of Shakti, the power or life of the One, under the form of kundalini. Symbols of stability and weight are also mentioned, expressed by the square and by the elephant.[4]

But these parallels are very imperfect. In the first place, the muladhara is situated at the base of the spinal column. Whereas the hara is just below the navel. In the second place, the center dealt with is the seat of Shakti, of life or power, and not of the One. According to the Tantric Yoga the Absolute One is achieved not at the base but at the summit of the head, in the sahasrara cakra, where the reawakened Shakti joins and merges completely with the opposite principle, the Eternal Male, Shiva. And the Yoga process of the descent of the conscience into the inner part of the hyper-physical corporeality, to come into contact with Shakti and reawaken kundalini, is openly subordinated to this ascending process. But above all it should be noted that in Hindu metaphysics Shakti is considered to be the principle of movement and mutation, not of stability and immutability, that is to say of “centrality”; which is assigned instead to Shiva or to another analogous principle of the “purushic” type: Shakti corresponds to “Life,” not to “Being.”

It may, however, be objected that the comparison with the ideas of Hindu metaphysics is not suitable, because of the duality which is its theme; that a more suitable comparison could be made, if any, with the ideas of Chinese metaphysics, more especially with those of Taoism, which have as their background what might be termed an “immanent transcendency.” Now, if we refer to the secret Taoist doctrines, we find that they are nearer to those of the Hindus than to those of the Japanese.

In the process of spiritual regeneration, called sometimes the formation of the Flower of Gold of the Great One, sometimes the creation of the immortal embryo, special importance is given to the lower part of the body, but the value of basis or center is not assigned to it. It corresponds to the “yin” part of the body and of being, and the whole process—whatever be the means used, breathing or other—always follows the pattern of the junction of opposites, of the yang and the yin, for this alone leads to the One.

As yang corresponds to Heaven, yin to Earth, one might also draw a comparison with hara, there where hara is defined as “the center of the earth”; a further correspondence might exist between hara as the center of strength and the “yin” region of the body (which is that below the diaphragm), known also as the “Field of the Lower Cinnabar” because this is also held to be “the space of strength.” In the secret Taoist doctrine it is indeed considered essential to reach this region, crossing a threshold “which the gods do not lightly open,” but the process does not end there. The last stage is an ascending one in which the “Field of the Upper Cinnabar” is attained and the “center of the brain” is regenerated. Here is located the Palace of Ni-huan (the Chinese transcription of the Sanskrit word Nirvana) and till the time of the Hans was also placed there the Great One. The scheme is thus similar to that of the Hindu Yoga.[5]


[1] K. Dürckheim, Hara, die Erdmitte des Menschen (Munich-Planegg: O. W. Barth-Verlag, 1956).

[2] Japan und die Kultur der Stille (Munich-Planegg: O. W. Barth-Verlag, 1954).

[3] In addition to the German edition published by the same House, this book has appeared in a French and in an Italian translation (Turin: Rigois, 1956).

[4] See the reproductions of Hindu miniatures of the chakra in A. Avalon, The Serpent Power (London, 1925). Cf. my Lo Yoga della Potenza (A Study of Tantra) (Milan, 1949).

[5] See the material collected by H. Maspero, “Les procédés de nourrir l’esprit vital dans la religion taoïste ancienne,” Journal Asiatique, April–June, July–September, 1937. In addition, the T’ai I Chin hua Taung chih, translated in more than one European language under the title “The Mystery of the Golden Flower” and also again Maspero, Le Taoïsme (Paris, 1950), pp. 110–11, 115, etc.