The Three Dantian

A reader asked me recently to say more about the three dantian.  I touched on this topic in my second blog post, but this request gave me an incentive to elaborate on it.

I’ll begin by defining terms.  The Chinese characters for dantian are 丹田.  From what I have read and discussed with Chinese speakers, the first character (“dan”) can be translated into English as “red,” “cinnabar,” or “pill.” Traditional Chinese medicine views cinnabar (a form of mercury) as an elixir that extends life.  To this day, mercury compounds are administered, sometimes in pill form, to patients receiving traditional Chinese treatments.  Cinnabar is vibrant red and is still used to make ink.  The highest quality inks for Chinese seals are made with cinnabar.   

The second character, “tian,” means “field” or, more specifically, “rice field.” There is no single English translation of dantian.  I have seen it translated as “elixir field,” “red field,” “pill field,” and “cinnabar field.” All of these translations connote an area (field) that produces something beneficial for life. 

According to Daoist thought, there are three dantian:

  • The lower dantian, located approximately two-three inches below the navel;
  • The middle dantian, located roughly at the heart;
  • The upper dantian, located between the eyes.

Diagrams of the dantian often give the appearance that they reside on the surface of the skin.  However, they are situated inside the body, as can be seen in the following illustration (the smaller circles refer to acupuncture points):

The dantian have critical significance in the Daoist concept of qi (“vital energy”).  They are viewed as areas in which qi is both generated and stored and through which qi is circulated throughout the body.   The roles the dantian play in the creation and circulation of qi are particularly important in the Chinese traditions of naidan (“inner alchemy”), medicine, qigong, meditation, and martial arts.  

While there are three dantian, the lower one plays by far the largest role in generating and storing qi.  For that reason, the lower dantian is sometimes referred to as the “dantian proper,” and the term” dantian” by itself typically refers to the lowest one.  In my experience, this is particularly true in Japanese traditions.  Tanden, the Japanese pronunciation of the character for dantian, almost always refers solely to the point below the navel and is situated within the hara.  In my 40 years of training in Zen and the Japanese martial and cultural arts, I seldom heard mention of the two higher dantian.  There is one possible exception, however:

My Zen teacher used to draw on Daoist theory when discussing the role of ki (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character for qi) in hara development.  He explained that the lower abdomen is viewed as a reservoir of water and the chest as a realm of fire.  He would use a drawing such as the one on the left to illustrate this.  If the fire stays high and the water low, ill health will result, just as a fever results in a hot forehead and cold feet, as illustrated in the middle drawing.  If you brought the water to the chest, you would put out the fire, extinguishing the life force.  But, if you brought the fire to the lower abdomen, you would boil the water, making steam that would infuse the body, as illustrated in the drawing on the right.  That steam represents ki, the vital life force, permeating the body, resulting in health and strength.   While my teacher didn’t use the terms dantian or tanden in this explanation, it’s clear that the reservoir of water referred to the lower dantian and the realm of fire to the middle.  Through hara development, we bring the focus of breathing from the chest to the lower abdomen, from the second dantian to the first dantian. 

But what about the upper dantian?  While it didn’t figure in my teacher’s explanation, I can speculate based on my own experience.  The upper dantian is often associated with the pineal gland and with vision.   In samadhi, the intense but relaxed form of concentration developed through Zen training, there are distinct visual changes:  things look clearer; the visual field expands; we say that you can see one hundred and eighty degrees.  And, as I have written in an earlier blog post, samadhi is fostered by hara breathing.  This establishes a connection between the three dantian.

There is another way that the three dantian are connected in Zen.  In taking a cross-legged seated posture (e.g., full or half lotus), the hara forms the base.  The deeper the hara breathing, the more stable the base.  The chest (middle dantian) and head (third dantian) should be in alignment with the first dantian, and there should be a sense of lift up through the nape of the neck.  As we often say, the upper body’s tension is “taken up” by the hara.  The more tension taken out of the upper body, the deeper the breathing and, the deeper the breathing, the deeper the samadhi.  The same alignment of the three dantian, and the importance of the hara as a base, are also central to the Japanese martial arts. 

Yet another perspective on the three dantian in Zen is more recent.  As I wrote in an earlier post, my colleague, Ginny Whitelaw Roshi, has a new book called “Resonate: Zen and the Art of Making a Difference.” She refers to three “energy centers” in the body:  the hara, the heart, and the head.  While she doesn’t use the Chinese term, these centers obviously correspond to the three dantian.   She discusses their importance in the body’s energy flow and the importance of learning how to get them to resonate with each other and with the outside world.   She also relates the three centers to the chakra system.  In addition to being a Zen teacher and leadership trainer, Ginny has a fifth-degree blackbelt in aikido and a doctoral degree in biophysics. The book is as broad in scope as her background.  She does an impressive job of interweaving contemporary neuroscience with ancient wisdom.  So, rather than paraphrasing Ginny, I suggest you read her book. You can learn more about it here.

I also want to let you know that I am offering another webinar on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, 7:30-8:45 PM Central Time.  This program will be geared towards people who already have some familiarity with hara and hara development.  As a reader of this blog, you automatically would qualify for that.  You can find more information about the webinar here.  And, keep the questions coming. I’ll do my best to answer them on the blog.  You can send them to