Hara, the Vital Center of Man

Hara, the Vital Center of ManRochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004. Originally published in 1956. Translated from German by Sylvia-Monica von Kospoth in collaboration with Estelle R. Healey.

Hara is essential reading for all who inquire into the spiritual principles and practices that are fundamental to all wisdom traditions and natural healing professions.

—Don Stapleton, Self-Awakening Yoga

About the Author

Karlfried Graf Dürkheim (1896-1988) spent eight years in Japan before World War II and was a professor at the University of Kiel until Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. In Japan he discovered Zen Buddhism in its various expressions and subsequently became a Western authority on the subject.
—From: Backcover

About this Book

When we speak of an individual’s state, we are actually referring to something that transcends the duality of body and soul, something that reflects the entirety of a person’s being. Because each of us is a unity of body and soul, there is no psychic structure or inner tension that is not reflected outwardly in the form and order of the body. When we find the physical center of the body we also find the psychological center of the soul. According to Zen masters, by correcting posture and breathing to balance this center, one can cultivate inner tranquillity and balance: the state called Hara.

Karlfried Graf Dürckheim
Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

Karlfried Graf Dürkheim shows the Western world how to overcome the physical and spiritual decay of modern life by adopting the age-old techniques of Japanese Zen masters. By leaving behind the ‘chest-out-belly-in’ posture and attitude of the West and adopting the belly-centered posture and attitude of Hara, individuals can live a calm, grounded, and more balanced life. Included in this classic text are vital life force practices and translations of the wisdom teaching of three Japanese Zen masters. This book also explores how the practice of Hara emphasizes empirical learning and the cultivation of self-knowledge through the perfection of arts such as painting and archery.
—From: Backcover


In this mind-boggling book, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim provides a brilliant analysis of the concept of Hara, known from Japanese culture and wisdom, but not limited to Japan. In fact, the author writes that if the concept was only of value for the Japanese, he would not have written the book. As the lecture after about half the book shows, the author has in fact trained in Hara in Japan, during the eight years of his stay, prior to WW2, and thus the book is also a practical manual how to ‘Sit with Hara’ and ‘How to Breath with Hara’ and even how to walk with Hara. In fact, no area of life, including sexuality, is excluded from the effort of the Hara practitioner to bring the conscious and unconscious forces in man into harmony and collaboration.

As a psychotherapist, the author also has the authority to assess where people with a dominance of the ego end up in life: he describes at length their struggles with an ego-based worldview and how such an attitude negatively affects the human body, leading to a suffocation of the vital instincts, a ridification of the muscles, breathing problems later in life, arteriosclerosis, loss of memory, and premature aging.

In this sense, then, without the author claiming it, Hara meditation is also a rejuvenating and tonifying practice that, as shown exemplarily in the author’s long life and radiant health even in later years, has a life-sustaining value.

There is no other study than Dürckheim’s about Hara in Japanese philosophy. It is really very different from Indian philosophy for Japanese philosophy is totally life-affirming while Indian philosophy is more or less life-denying.

I have myself practiced Zen meditation for more than ten years which simply consists of concentrating your energy on the hara point. It’s all but that. When your consciousness descents from the ‘upper parts’ of the body (brain and heart) to the belly, a whole new dimension opens which has these effects long-term:
1) Integration of emotions and sexual desire into one streaming energy flow and absence of any highly bothering ‘urges’ and their fantasies;
2) A totally different way to sit, stand and walk, as the axis point of the body is shifted from the middle of the spine (very weak) to the lower spine (very strong). It is told as a tale in Japan that Western people standing at a party could easily be toppled by just prodding a finger into their spine, for they have no Hara stand. A Japanese can even be pushed with both hands and he will not fall, for he’s grounded in the Hara point, the lower belly, and this is even so for ordinary men and women
3) Hara consciousness is different from Ego consciousness in that it is integrated into a greater ‘group’ or ‘cosmic’ consciousness which is why the Japanese are so excellent on the social level and Western people generally so poor.



—Western ways of life have come to an end of their fruitfulness, rationalism has made its final contribution and modern man will succumb increasingly to physical and spiritual decay unless he finds some new way of coming back to his essential self and the true sense of life. /1

—Religion today can withstand neither rationalism nor can it satisfy man’s longings for inner safety. The predominance of the ego with its self-centered structure of consciousness, as well as all its claims, which obstruct and distort man’s connection with the ground of Being, is also the cause of his incapacity for any real faith. /1

—By Hara—and we hold to this name—the Japanese understand an all-inclusive general attitude which enables a man to open himself to the power and wholeness of the original life-force and to testify to it by the fulfillment, the meaningfulness, and the mastery displayed in his own life. Knowledge of Hara is valid not only for the Japanese. It has universal human validity. /2

—Immaturity, unripeness, is the cancer of our time, the incapacity to ripen the specific mark of our time. The neurosis which drives the spiritually sick to the therapist is simply the clearest expression of the universal suffering, the suffering due to man’s estrangement from Being! /3

[Hara in the Life of the Japanese]

—Where the center of gravity shifts upward to the chest and the middle of the body is gainsaid and constricted; the natural alternation of tension and relaxation is replaced by a wrong one which forces a man to swing between hypertension and slackness. /6

—Man, as a living being, is not rooted in himself. Rather is he nourished, sustained and held in order by Nature whose laws operate without his knowledge and assistance. Man sets himself in opposition to the order of life which fundamentally sustains him if, by an unnatural shifting of his center of gravity, he denies that vital center in his bearing which testifies to this order. /7

—Intellect, will and emotion, the powers of head, chest and heart with which man as a conscious being has been endowed will prove his undoing if, caught in the net of his concepts, in the brilliance of his achievements and in the web of his entanglements he forgets his anchorage in the weaving and working of the Greater Life. Just as the growth and unfolding of the crown of a tree depends directly on its root-system, so also the vital development of man’s spirit depends on his being true to his roots, that is, to an uninterrupted contact with the primal unity of Life, from which human life also springs. If, forgetting this, man diminishes the realm of his primal life by artificially pulling himself upwards physically he disturbs the balance of his natural forces, and the inflated I then bars access to that higher development which real function is to humbly prepare, protect, and serve. /7

—The integration of these two poles—the unconscious, and the conscious life of the mind, as well as between life in space time reality and the Reality beyond space time—constitutes the way to human maturity. Maturity is that condition in which man reaps the fruit of the union he has regained. /9

[Hara in the Everyday Life of Japan]

—I remember a large reception, the guests European and Japanese, stood around after dinner drinking coffee and smoking. A Japanese friend of mine who knew of my interest in the ways of his country joined me and said, ‘Do you see that the Europeans standing here could be easily toppled over if one were suddenly to give them a little push from behind? But none of the Japanese would lose their balance even if they were given a much harder push.’ /13

—Upright, firm and collected—these are the three marks of that posture which is typical of the Japanese who knows how to stand, and taken altogether, show the presence of Hara. /13

—A Buddha is not a transcendental god, but a human being into whom the Great Being has penetrated bringing transformation and liberation into the bright light of consciousness. /17

[Hara in the Japanese Language]

—The man with center has calm, unprejudiced judgment. He knows what is important, what unimportant. He meets reality serenely and with detachment keeping his sense of proportion. (…) The mark of it is an inner elasticity which enables him to conduct himself with the utmost matter-of-factness and composure in any situation. /38

—Hara is only in slight measure innate. It is above all the result of persistent self-training and discipline, in fact the fruit of responsible, individual development. That is what the Japanese means when he speaks of the Hara no dekita hito, the man who has accomplished or finished his belly, that is, himself: for he is mature. If this development does not take place we have the Hara no dekita inai hito, someone who has not developed, who has remained immature, who is too young in the psychological sense. /39

—The Japanese are not fond of making moral judgments, except in rare instances. But their characteristic attitude is to affirm life as it is, to accept it and give it its due in its uniqueness, instead of trying to compose it into rational and ethical systems. Such at least is the popular ideal, in the face of which pointless grumbling is considered weak, and narrow-minded judgment despicable. /40

—Thus ‘Hara’ is something which puts the whole man in a specific condition (state), indeed one could say, that he is a ‘whole man’ only because of Hara. Where, however, Hara is lacking, man is not yet ‘whole.’ This idea is also very obvious in other popular sayings. If one says of an action that it is done ‘with the belly’ one means that it is not done by any separate function, not by any specialized organ but by the ‘whole’ of the person, even though he may make use of his or that particular organ. /40-41

—Hara in the true sense has nothing to do with being corpulent, that is, with having a big physical belly. Thus people with no outward belly may have belly in the psycho-spiritual sense and vice versa. /41

—So it can be seen that, through the increase of Hara and its culmination in haragei, an all-round transformation of all man’s faculties takes place. He perceives reality more sensitively, is able to take in perceptions in a different way, assimilates them and therefore reacts differently, and through a different power. The three fundamental reactions to life and the world—perception, assimilation and response—change in the direction of expansion, deepening and intensifying of the whole personality. It becomes altogether wider, deeper and more powerful. /44

[Hara in its General Human Significance]

—In all that has been said until now Hara has appeared as a phenomenon of Japanese life only. But if Hara were nothing but an aspect of Eastern life it would be of merely ethnological interest and the purpose of studying it would be only to obtain a deeper understanding of Eastern people and their way of life. But the longer one studies Hara as understood by the Japanese the more obvious it becomes that the term expresses not just a specifically Japanese phenomenon but one that is universal and valid for all mankind. It is a prime factor of all human life, the realization and practice of which is of equal concern to ourselves. /52

—In every case where a Western man reached the highest development it was possible only because he had first traversed the ‘deep dark.’ The descent into the center of the earth must always precede the ultimate ascent of the spirit. /54

—Despite individual differences, Western man today is generally afraid of being too stout; he seeks a harmony which has its center of gravity in the upper part of the body, and he clearly prefers the confined to the too expansive. All this manifests itself in a universal rejection of the belly. Nothing is more opposed to the modern Western ideal of beauty than the big belly. /54

—The unpopularity of the belly is due to two converging factors. One is simply the unthinking acceptance of fashion, while the other is rooted in an intellectual notion. A big belly, or even a tendency to one, is regarded as a sort of mental fatty degeneration, a coarsening tantamount to a decline of all the mind’s faculties. Secondly, it is equated with a loss of elasticity, particularly of mental energy; in fact, with increased materiality and cumbersomeness—things which modern man dislikes beause he is always aiming at agility, at speed and the upward thrust. High heeled shoes and padded shoulders stress these up-going tendencies. The urge to transcend gravity is quite natural to man as a spiritual being, but the desire to break loose from the vitalizing bond with the solid earth is in conflict with the law of this terrestrial existence. /55

—The present day rejection of the belly is unnatural and betokens a misguided way of thinking. It shows that the natural instinct for the true bodily center of gravity has been lost. /56

—This sustaining, ordering and healing strength rooted in the fundamental unity of life is veiled, however, as soon as a man, relying on his rational powers, falls into the delusion that he can do everything by and through himself. Therefore we usually find natural Hara where rational life-consciousness is not yet formed, as for instance in the healthy-minded child whose uninhibited self and life-consciousness do not rest upon his ability or his knowledge but are simply ‘given.’ /58

—The right weight shows rather in a firm fullness, an inner solidity, and mature breadth. The ‘man of good standing’ and the ‘sedate person’ have their center of gravity in the lower body. The supporting width of the trunk from the waist downward is what often gives to old gentlemen and to matrons their essential dignity of bearing, the marks of the tranquil mind and of inner maturity. /60

—In the Romanesque and Gothic sculpture the belly is clearly stated and expresses strength, achieved self-renunciation and calm acceptance of the bond with earth. It shows the humility in which man, from the weakness of his I and from his bondage to the earth, opens himself to the Eternal. The Gothic belly seems to say: ‘You cannot win heaven if you betray Earth.’ /60


[Man with Hara]

—Man’s right relationship to himself is lost where in the interplay of inner life and outer form a disparity appears, either as an excess of the driving force of life or as an exaggerated reserve and self-protection. /69

[Hara has Secular Power]

—Hara reestablishes man’s unity with himself. In regard to his body thi means that he is not in constant opposition to his elementary impulses which require freedom and action, nor is he obliged to be constantly deciding whether to affirm or to deny them. It is as if Hara opened within us a completely new region where our tangled energies can swing easily without necessarily discharging themselves in action. Many life-impulses which for one reason or another have to be suppressed, can, with Hara, be dismissed into a secret inner region whence they return as increasaed overall strength. When this is understood Hara gives man a legitimate power over his sexuality. When the I with its imagination takes possession of a man and demands particular forms of fulfillment his sexuality creates an unbearable tension which has to be either repressed or lived out—alternatives often equally damaging. With Hara an inner door seems to open. Going through this door he lets fall his ego-based imagination-ridden idea of fulfillment, destructive tensions are resolved, and the dammed-up forces acquire positive creative significance. To summarize: anchorage in the vital center which is Hara guarantees man enjoyment of a power which enables him to master life in a new and different way. It is a mysteriously sustaining, ever renewing, ordering, and forming power, as well as a liberating and integrating one. /86-87

[The Strength, Breadth, and Closeness Engendered by Hara]

—The Self he now knows is clearly no longer the old I but a wider, more comprehensive one. He becomes conscious of a new inner breadth, he feels an increase of inner volume as if he had burst the bonds confining him in his physical body. A strange feeling of boundlessness arises, a lierating breadth. He does not lose himself in it, on the contrary, truly finds himself. A new breathing space, scope, and sphere of action opens up and he realizes only then how confined he had been before, how imprisoned and isolated. The man without Hara has only a very small space within, and around him. /96

—The man who gains Hara enters into a new relation with the world which makes him both independent of it and yet connected with it because he has found within himself a broader base of action. He can embrace the world and let himself be embraced by it because in his being he feels at one with it, and yet he can detach himself from it because his new Self, as distinct from his old I, is no longer bound down by it. The man without Hara is dependent on the world precisely because he lacks real connection with it; the man with Hara is constantly connected with it because he is independent of it. /96

[The Order of Life in the Symbolism of the Body]

—For the I-centered mind, with its moral values, the blind natural drives constitute a repellent and unworthy contradiction. The resulting conflict erects barriers against the natural life striving upward from the unconscious and obstructs the way to an all-round human development, more particularly the unfolding of that mind which transcends the overlordship of the purely rational. Instead of a hierarchic order based on the Way leading to the full unfolded Self, a conflict arises in which the mainly rational man excludes and represses that part of his nature which he feels to be irrational, less valuable or even value-destructive. ‘Above’ and ‘below’ are then evaluated as high and low, noble and base, spiritual and material, light and dark. /100

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