Tanden: Source of Spiritual Strength
Rev. Kongo Langlois, Roshi

[This text was first published in The Diamond Sword, a collection of talks by Kongo Roshi, Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, first edition 1987, second edition 1992, pp 31-36.]

I'm constantly surprised by various elementary questions that are asked by regular Temple attendants, and others who have been practicing zazen for some time and who are still lost, really, as to what they're doing, why they're doing it, and where they're going. There is one particular aspect of zazen that is just glossed over: this is Zen breathing and the tanden. Sekai tanden in Japanese means spiritual field. The tanden, itself, is a point located about two inches below the navel. Here, in the Western world, we don't think in terms of having a point of gravity, a vital center. During our zazen instruction, this is rarely touched upon, and if it is, as I said, it is just glossed over. General instruction is given as to the posture and correct breathing: "Breathe from the abdomen!" But what does this mean, "Breathe from the abdomen?"

I remember in the army - and you needn't have been in the army if you've seen a couple of World War II movies, or better yet, a couple of Abbott and Costello World War II movies - the old bit about the drill sergeant: "Shoulders back! Chest out! Stomach in!" Ladies and gentlemen in this position, you are ripe for being toppled over. You are top-heavy. Another thing I recall: when I was young and became angry, my mother would say, "Don't get so hot-headed. Don't be so hot-headed." Again, top-heavy. Hot headed. This is very important. Stick with me, there is a point here. Now we often say to ourselves, to each other, "Cool. Be cool. Hey, cool it." Cool what? Within each of us, there is a vital center of gravity. If we are to make any progress at all in realizing our cool inherent nature as human beings, of really fulfilling our lives as human beings, we must find this point and touch it. This is the tanden.

Don't get me wrong. Don't jump ahead of me. I'm not speaking about some occult experience, some magical happening. Those of you who know me know my feelings about such things. I don't play with that; I totally disregard it. I'm talking about reality! We here in the Western world are top-heavy. "Shoulders back! Chest out! Stomach in!" The center of gravity is elevated. But in zazen, in Zen training, in Zen thinking - not only in Zen, but throughout all of the Orient - the idea is tanden, or another Japanese word, hara, meaning bodily strength, abdominal strength: living from the center point of gravity.

Don't be so hot-headed! What happens when we become angry? We're all familiar with this. It's a common everyday occurrence. We become angry, become excited, become anxious. We bubble upstairs! We completely lose our cool. Right? Hot-headed! Now the idea is to draw this energy down, and to live from the hara, the tanden. When you do so, you discover a power, a confidence, a strength in your lives that is incomparable to anything you've experienced before. And remember, I said I'm not talking about occult experience. What I'm talking about is everyday life! It's just that we Western people never talk about this, we don't realize this, we're totally ignorant of this power. What I'm talking about is the other side of the coin - what we have inherited from our Eastern tradition.

You are all adherents of Zen. Those of you who may just be visiting today are at least familiar with some form of Eastern philosophy; be it Zen, be it yoga, be it anything else. Now this power, this confidence that I'm referring to, is not something that one has; it's something in which one stands! That's a big difference. A lot of people really are looking for power to overwhelm others, though many of us would be satisfied with the power, the strength just to get through our daily lives. But, remember what I just said, this is not power that one gets. It is a power, a confidence in which one stands.

This comes about through a very specific training method - the practice of zazen - which on the surface seems very simple. A few weeks ago, a newcomer was here, and he was quizzing me as to Zen philosophy, Zen practice. He stayed for the zazen service, and we talked afterwards. I could tell that he was dissatisfied. He then put on a little smile and said, "Is that all? Is that all there is to it?" I said, "Yes. That's all." And it is all, if you look at it superficially. But those of you who have put work and effort into your practice know that outwardly that may be all, but that's not all! A Zen temple is a spiritual battlefield. It requires a life of diligence, of hard work, as all of you who are sincere know. You know that much. What I'm trying to do today is take you one step further and make you more conscious, more aware of a life lived from the hara.

So we practice zazen and we ask, "What is the instruction as far as the mental disposition, the disposition of the mind in zazen?" And Dogen Zenjii instructs us, "Look inwardly at the rise and fall of thoughts as they occur. Do not try to suppress your thoughts, do not attempt to direct your thoughts - do nothing. Just observe." Just observe. Then we come to the instruction for breathing, "Breathe from the diaphragm." But after sitting for awhile, after your sitting becomes ripe and you realize an integration between body and mind, there is one step further that you must go. And this is putting strength into the tanden. Because there is a state of mind, that some of you have experienced, but some of you haven't yet. There is a point that you reach in your Zen practice where there is thoughtlessness. There is not thought. You experience a state of no thought. Then from this point, go one step further. Without thinking, feel the strength in the tanden. Tremendous power opens to you: you live, you breathe, you act, you go through life, and all decisions come from the sekai tanden, this spiritual field. This is that one step beyond. Until you develop this through your sitting, through your breathing, you will always be on the outside looking in. Things will always be problematic for you in your sitting. You'll always hanker for that strength, that freedom, that confidence that you know is somewhere. You've always known that it exists - that's what brought you to Zen in the first place!

When sitting in zazen, keep thinking in terms of hara - of living, of emanating from this spiritual field. The first thing you want to do is lower the shoulder. So many times, when observing people sitting in zazen, I see this. Always relax the shoulder. The next thing is to loosen the belly. Forget about your beautiful Western posture with the flat belly. Allow the belly to expand. And then, the third step, put strength into the belly - not thought, because all preconceived notions will be wrong. You will just create another bind for yourself. So, now we have SITTING. See! Live from the center of gravity: sit, breathe, be in the hara.

Now let me say a few words about the breath. This is very important because this is really the key to the development of hara. As I've said many times to you, when instructing you in zazen, most of us breathe from the thorax. Here in the Western world, we breathe from the upper portion of the body. When we become excited, how do we breathe? From the chest. Breathe from the tanden, the hara. How? Don't breathe, let the breathing happen. Again, this is very simple, but listen to what I'm saying. We're always too conscious of breathing during zazen. We are doing the breathing. The breathing is being done by us. We are, in a sense, manipulating our breaths. I'm talking about sitting and reaching a point within our beings where we have the guts to let go, to let the breathing happen. This is the same thing as Dogen's instructions, "Observe the rise and fall of thoughts as they occur." But now, I'm transferring this to the breath. Observe the inhalations and the exhalations as they occur without interfering, without guiding. When you do this, very casually, but very definitely, you put strength in the abdominal area. So when you breathe from the tanden, you let the breath occur. Try that. Try that in your practice and see what happens. See if your perpetual hunting and looking, despite the fact that you've been practicing, many of you, for years, doesn't resolve itself somewhere.

I choose to talk about the hara because it is so important and yet so rarely discussed. In none of the books that are available, whether they be Zen theory, Zen philosophy, general conversations by Zen masters - never is this point mentioned. It was certainly mentioned by my teacher, Matsuoka Roshi, to me. And I took it so much for granted in my practice that only now do I realize that it is just glossed over, probably because it is such a difficult point to deal with. It's very easy to give basic instruction - do this, do this, do this. There you have the technique! But try to grasp the essence of what I've been saying to you this afternoon. Those of you who are not just here looking around, but who are sincere practitioners, try developing this kind of strength, this kind of confidence. That's enough. It will give all of you something to think about.