The question has been asked of me about Zen “Hara” Meditation as if this is a practice or not.
Now “Hara” Meditation is described as ‘drawing your breath through a spot that is just two inches below your naval, and centering your mind there’. This is taught to new people as ‘Zazen’ practice, and they are instructed to imagine the breath flowing in and out of this spot termed ‘The Hara’.
The Japanese Zen patriarch Dogen, though he writes volumes about Zazen, fails to even discuss any sort of ‘Hara meditation’, nose tip awareness, or breath counting as some Zen centers have taught. Looking further back to the Chinese Ch’an, we see find shikantaza, ‘Still sitting’ yet it is only described as non-purpose activity, and even the old Zen Masters did not view such practices as valid or useful.
The master Huineng said, “One is enlightened to the Way through the mind. How could it depend on sitting? A sutra says, ‘To say that the Tathāgata sits or lies down is to practice a false path. Why? Because he is without coming and without going.’ To be without birth and without extinction is the pure meditation of the Tathāgata. For the dharmas to be quiescent is the Tathāgata’s pure sitting. Ultimately there is no realization, so how could it possibly [depend on] sitting?”
So, where did this Japanese practice of Hara meditation come from? The answer lies within the Samurai class and those who practice Martial Arts, for this sort of ‘breathing practices’ are very old, and often taught to young men as a way to center themselves and to balance and calm their mind. Zen monks prior to the Meiji Restoration (1868) did not sit Zazen, it simply was not a practice. Though in January 3rd, the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and Buddhism was outlawed, Zen monks were ordered to return to lay life, eat meat, and those who held temples were ordered to marry and produce an heir. Further, the Samurai were disbanded, and many of those men took refuge in the old Zen temples becoming Bodhisattvas, as allowed by law, under the Tendai organization overseen by the official religion of Shinto. It is likely that with the influx of former samurai, that many of the breathing practices found their way into the Zen traditions, as a more militant temple life was created that became the backbone of today’s Japanese Zen, a very militant Monastic institution.