The words people use give us a clue as to how they experience the world. As the culture changes, so does the language. Take the word hara, for which there are over 150 expressions listed in a Japanese dictionary. When a word has different nuances, it may be pronounced the same, but written with a different character.
Hara written with the character 腹 (belly, abdomen) is in most common use today, and generally refers to the shape or state of the abdomen, as well as the seat of common emotions. Get hungry (hara ga heru), get angry (hara ga tatsu), be overweight (hara ga deru), be famished (hara peko), beer belly (bīru bara), eat to 80% of your fill (hara hachibunme), be determined (hara wo kimeru), be firmly resolved (hara wo kukuru).
Hara written with the character 肚 (center, root) is associated more with mastery and maturity, rooted in Samurai culture. To have accomplished hara is to be a master (hara no dekita hito), to have large hara is to be big-hearted and magnanimous (hara no ōkī hito), to think with hara is to think deeply (hara de kangaeru), to have seated hara is to be calm under pressure (hara ga suwatteiru), the art of communication with hara to be intuitive (haragei), to train the hara is to develop yourself through a discipline (hara wo neru), to seek out hara is to know real intentions (hara wo saguru), to speak with presence is a hara voice (hara goe).
Both characters use the left-hand radical 月 (here meaning flesh, or body), but belly 腹 is a body shaped like a bulging container, whereas root 肚 is a body which is grounded to the earth. In the latter case, it refers to the center of the mind and body, and the seat of the soul.
The word hara as center or root (肚) has a long tradition, which is captured with clarity in a classic book called Hara: The Vital Centre of Man, written by Karlfried Graf Von Dürckheim (1896~1988) English translation: http://budurl.com/2r95 , Japanese translation: http://budurl.com/2pzy
Dürckheim was a German diplomat and psychotherapist, who studied Zen in
But even as the West was discovering hara, mainstream Japanese culture was in the process of forgetting it. Though it is still an integral part of the martial arts and many traditional disciplines, it is fast fading from daily life. The vital center for many people seems to be shifting upward.
In Japanese the original expression for losing your temper was hara ga tatsu (the hara stands up). Today you more commonly hear expressions like atama ni kita (it comes to the head), or even worse, kireru (to cut loose, or lose it). The English equivalent might be blew a fuse, or burst a blood vessel. If the mind is centered in the lower abdomen, even if you lose your temper, it is still possible to calm down, count to ten, or sleep on it to regain your composure. A person with a low center of gravity is grounded and composed, and can recover calmness quickly. The preferred way to be is to have a cool head and warm feet (zukan sokunetsu).
Think how this compares to the opposite, having a hot head and cold feet! If you lose it, you’ve lost it. A person with a high center of gravity tends to be proud, self-righteous, argumentative, and inflexible, or even violent when things do not go their way. You see it on the evening news, and it’s not a pretty sight.
The discovery of Zen in
However, like a prodigal son, the culture of hara has traveled to the West, changed our psychology, and is ready to return home. As Japanese witness the unravelling of good things in their culture that they once took for granted, they will become more receptive to the echos in their own cultural heritage.