In Search of Hara – Part 5

Part V: Hara from a Spiritual Perspective

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I view hara as the unification of  the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the human experience.  I have already covered the first two in previous installments and will now focus on hara from a spiritual perspective.

By spiritual, I am referring to the significance of hara in Zen training.  As I have also mentioned in an earlier post, the tradition of Zen I practice puts great emphasis on the development of hara.  To understand why, it is important to understand term samadhiSamadhi is a Sanscrit word that has no direct English translation.  It is often translated as “intense concentration” or “relaxed concentration”.  A translation I prefer is “absorption”, as that implies a state of concentration in which one loses the distinction between oneself and the object of concentration.  Actually, it is helpful to view samadhi as a continuum, with shallower and deeper levels of concentration, with absorption being the deepest level.

Yet another way to describe samadhi is to view it as freedom from or, in Zen terms, lack of attachment to, unnecessary thought.  My teacher used to describe Samadhi as a state in which you see through your thoughts as if you were looking through a spinning propeller.  If you were to focus on an individual blade, your mind would be spinning around with it.  But, if you ignore the individual blades, you can look right through them.  Samadhi allows you to have a direct sensory experience of the world without the distraction of unnecessary mental chatter.  To be in samadhi is to be “in the moment”.

The qualities of concentration in samadhi differ from the typical Western idea of concentration.  If you tell someone to concentrate on something, he or she will most likely think of narrowing his or her awareness to that object.  Samadhi involves seeing that object as well as expanding awareness to a broader field.  In Zen terms, we say that samadhi enables you to “see 1800”.  Samadhi opens up a panorama of vision as well as a heightening of other senses.

One of the most formative lessons I received about samadhi was in the context of learning kyudo, the “Zen art of archery”.  My teacher hold me repeatedly that, when aiming, I was not supposed to simply focus on the target but to see the target AND everything 1800 around it.  However, in my intent to hit the target, my vision continually became constricted, as I focused solely the target.  One day, he took me on hillside on the temple grounds and told me to gaze at a distant mountaintop (we were in Hawaii).  He then told me to look at it while breathing as in zazen.  After a while, my field of vision expanded.  I could not only see the mountaintop, but an entire panorama.  He then said, “There, that’s how you should look at the target”.   After that, I was increasingly able to recreate that experience when shooting.   Without using the term, he had taught me to enter samadhi in order to aim properly.

This brings me to the relationship between hara and samadhiSamadhi is not just a mental experience.   Rather, it is intimately connected to breathing and posture and, thus, to hara.  As I have written before, there is a saying in Zen, “You cannot wash off blood with blood”.   It refers to the fact that it is difficult to control one’s thoughts with other thoughts.  Rather, in our tradition of Zen, we learn to “see through the propeller”—that is to enter samadhi—through our bodies, specifically through hara breathing and the posture that fosters it.

While I understood intellectually that there was a close connection between hara and samadhi, I did not understand it on an experiential level until I had been training for a year or two.  It took place in the context of a sesshin, a several day intensive training retreat.  This was probably the first time I experienced deeper levels of samadhi.  As the sesshin progressed, I noticed that my samadhi waxed and waned with my breathing.  When my breathing was slow and my hara was set, I experienced what I had come to know as marker of samadhi: panoramic vision, a sense of brightness and clarity, restful alertness, and an ability to concentrate without distraction.  But, when I noticed my samadhi was weaker or absent, I observed that my breathing was faster and shallower; I had lost my hara.  I then noticed that I could regain my samadhi by setting my hara, slowing my breathing and adjusting my posture.

As desirable as samadhi might be, it is not itself the goal of Zen.  Rather, Zen enables a person to resolve basic existential questions.  There is an old saying that it takes 3 things to successfully train in Zen: Great doubt, great faith and great will.  The “great doubt” is the existential question.  In the case of the story of the historic Buddha, his doubt was to understand how to face suffering.  “Great faith” refers to trust that the method of Zen will help resolve the doubt.   Once the decision is made to resolve the doubt through Zen training, it takes “Great will” to see the training through.  Resolution of the doubt comes as sudden flash of insight; in Zen terminology this referred to as kensho—seeing into one’s true nature. One of my teachers used to say that the depth of one’s kensho is in direct proportion to the quality of one’s breathing.  The deeper and more refined ones breathing—in other words the depth of hara—the deeper the samadhi and, thus, the deeper the Zen realization.

It may seem strange to people steeped in Western culture that spirituality lies in breathing, posture and concentration.  Yet, this is fundamental to Zen, as I understand it.  The canon of Chozen-ji, the lineage of Zen I practice, begins by stating “Zen is to transcend life and death (all dualism), to truly realize that the entire universe is the ‘True Human Body’, through the discipline of mind and body in oneness.”  And, in our tradition, hara is the key to the unification of mind and body.