Excerpt: Hara, The Vital Center of Man

A good story starts In the middle. Karlfried Graf. Durckheim, a German, spent 8 years in Japan before WWII. Years later he wrote a book entitled, HARA: The Vital Center of Man”. The “center” related here is synonymous with the Chinese idea of the Tan Tian (at least conceptually). Since the days when K.G.D. brought his attention to the vital center in question his book has become one of those classics passed from person to person, one book at a time and quite the opposite of the Amazon consensus-nonsensus system.

KGD does a beautiful, holographic presentation of just how the concept of Hara infuses Japanese life. He breaks down the mechanics and from there renders the principles. Then he circles all of  Japanese life showing how deeply buried is their common well water.

In this presentation there is a neat section on the relation of ego to Hara. He reminds us of the connection between a contorted being and a contorted ego. A well balanced ego, as you will read below, has three attributes. Rereading this section I was surprised to see how closely Kung Fu training matches these ideas starting with Right Standing (stance work), moving to Right Form and then to Right Limits (morality, but natural morality).

And then, as quick as satori but not as bright, it came to me. Any art to be mature must encapsulate the growth, passage and maturation of its host culture. If it just fights it is deficit. We want, desperately, sports to teach sportsmanship not because life always gives in to right over wrong but because life, if we wanted out children to learn rank opportunism, there would be no need for the morality of sports. Real martial arts contains its own moral progress, even in something as simple as learning to stand before showing off. Maybe it’s the difficulty of studying, maybe its running around the track till the coach blows the whistle, but there is always something. More than the dishwater TV morality where just examples of right actions are needed a true, martial morality know the place of forbearance. It doesn’t encourage, it corrects, it straightens up that posture, slaps those shoulders, encourages instead of inviting or weakly suggesting.

As KGD put it, over fifty years ago…

There are three things that belong to a well grown ego (1) the right stand, (2) the right form, and (3) the right limits. And as the component factors of living man must have necessarily not only a (1) static but also a dynamic significance, the right individual stand implies both the ability to swing back into the I-axis and to regain balance; (2) the right individual form, a  preserving of the fundamental form throughout all changes; and (3) the right limits, the capacity for self closing and self opening. So the successful ego is (1), not a rigid  point but the capacity for movement around a firm standing axis, and (2) a capacity for change without the loss of individual forms; and (3) a penetrability which yet permits no breakdown of its boundaries.

With a well grown I the individual is confident of being equal to life. He also believes in an enduring sense, an established order of life in accordance with unvarying laws and values he can deal with. And thirdly he feels in contact with the world that shelters him without extinguishing his individuality. Also with a well aspected-I a man lives by values that are true and firm for him. He can deal with the never ending changeableness and transitoriness of life because his reactions are flexible. His adaptability comes from a deeper level not limited to his I. So his life, because of its deeply mysterious flexibility, swings around an axis which is firm. All this is lacking in the handicapped ego. In this case the axis as well as the I shell are either too rigid or non existent.

However the man with the correctly formed ego by no means lives solely from the strength of his I. It is true he lives in an I, but his existence springs from a level of being which reaches beyond it. Certainly the center of his consciousness pattern is his ego, but a deeper, unconscious force is also at work.

Durkheim, after the war ended, was installed for a year and a half in a U.S. controlled prison in  Occupied Japan. During that time such seekers as Philip Kapleau visited him thus connecting him to the growth of the Zen movement in America. This profound influence of Durkheim’s writings has made him a favorite for many decades with seekers, psychologists and writers.  This book, HARA, is a favorite among his works and really one of the first introductions of these concepts to the Western world.