Turbo-charging your vitality and longevity in Zen practice
Zen is famous for its iconic meditation practices: the ungraspable, mysterious 'just sitting', and the intense, seemingly illogical questions of koan practice.
Less well known, however, is a rich tradition of working with the energy of the body to develop vitality and longevity. But Zen master Hakuin regarded this second side of practice as so important that he used the image of the two wings of a bird to describe his approach to teaching: one wing is rikan, contemplation of reality (which, for Hakuin, primarily meant koan practice); the second wing is naikan, inner contemplation (energetic/body-centric practices).
(You might have heard the term 'wings of a bird' used differently in the spiritual world - Tibetan Buddhism, for example, often talks about the two 'wings' of wisdom and compassion. In Zen, however, wisdom and compassion are seen as ultimately inseparable, which leaves us with a spare wing to use for something else...)
But who is Hakuin anyway, and why did he place so much emphasis on energetic cultivation?
Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1769
Hakuin is up there with Dogen as one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is widely regarded as having revived the Rinzai Zen tradition after a period of stagnation, and his systematisation of the huge number of koans has shaped the way Zen in practised in Japan ever since.
As a child, Hakuin attended a fire-and-brimstone lecture given by a priest of the Nichiren Buddhist sect, which warned him of the danger of ending up in the Eight Hot Hells if he wasn't careful. This terrified the young boy sufficiently that he became obsessed with becoming a monk and practising to escape this dreadful fate.
He threw himself into his studies, and over the years had a number of significant awakening experiences, but continued to feel that his practice was incomplete, because he was unable to manifest his awakening in the course of interaction with others. He continued to work harder and harder, constantly striving for further breakthroughs.
Eventually, this level of exertion took its toll on his health. He describes how, at the age of 24, he felt that he was close to death:
My feet and legs were always ice-cold: they felt as though they were immersed in tubs of snow. There was a constant buzzing in my ears, as if I were walking beside a raging mountain torrent. I became abnormally weak and timid, shrinking and fearful in whatever I did. I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted. Strange visions appeared to me during waking and sleeping hours alike. My armpits were always wet with perspiration. My eyes watered constantly. I travelled far and wide, visiting wise Zen teachers, seeking out noted physicians. But none of the remedies they offered brought me any relief.
At this point it's worth mentioning that Hakuin is known to have been prone to exaggeration for the sake of a good yarn. Nevertheless, clearly he was in quite a state, and something had to be done.
(As an aside, you'll often come across the term 'Zen sickness', and this is one possible meaning of that term - a significant depletion of energy brought about through intense meditation practice. Having said that, I've also seen the term used to describe all sorts of other things, so don't assume that anytime you see 'Zen sickness' it's talking about this kind of thing. Hooray for consistent terminology...)
Anyway, Hakuin's search for a solution led him to hear about a hermit called Hakuyu who lived in the mountains to the north of Kyoto. Hakuin's autobiography recounts a long and perilous journey to meet the great hermit. (Here again we can see Hakuin's tendency to embroider his stories - my Zen teacher Daizan has been to what's left of Hakuyu's cave, and describes it as a gentle 40-minute walk out of Kyoto.)
After a kind of 'encounter between seeker of wisdom and hermit master' that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a Kung Fu movie from the 1970s, Hakuyu finally agreed to help Hakuin with his problems, and taught him a set of techniques for rebalancing the body's energies. With characteristic vigour, Hakuin jumped into these practices, and found relief from his suffering very quickly.
That isn't quite the end of the story, though. Later on, when his practice had matured further, Hakuin began to attract other seekers who were keen to find the kind of peace of mind that Hakuin now embodied. Hakuin's training regime was harsh and strict, and soon he found that many of his monks were also beginning to show signs of Zen sickness. So Hakuin shared the energy practices he'd learnt from Hakuyu, and his monks' health showed the same kind of improvement that he'd seen himself.
From this point on, he was convinced that this energetic work is a vital part of a balanced spiritual path, and hence the 'two wings of the bird' were born. And, 250 years later, these practices are still being taught in Rinzai Zen.
What the heck is 'energy'?
For whatever reason, most of the students who come to my classes tend to fall into one of two camps. They're either totally on board with energy practices from the beginning, without any explanation or justification required, or they're intensely sceptical of the whole thing and start giving me the side-eye when I talk about this stuff in class.
Whichever camp you're in, I'll offer my thoughts on this deep and complicated subject. For me, there are a couple of ways of looking at it that I've found useful.
The traditional explanation is that all living creatures possess a kind of vital energy, called ki in Japanese (qi or chi in Chinese), which circulates around the body via a system of meridians and vessels. (This is the same system that acupuncture uses.) In the traditional Asian model, the body is seen as a kind of 'community' of organs, and if the community is in harmony - if the ki flows around the whole system without obstruction - then the body will be in good health. However, if the energy in the system is imbalanced - particularly if there's too much energy drawn up into the head, which can happen as a result of intense meditation practice - then physical symptoms such as those described by Hakuin can start to manifest.
Through meditative practice, we can learn to experience this flow of ki quite directly, and we can begin to work with the body's energetic system to dissolve blockages and encourage a healthy, nourishing flow around the whole system. Grounding techniques help to bring energy down from the head to the tanden (equivalent to the dan tien in Chinese), a point about two inches below the navel right in the centre of the body, which is seen as the body's 'battery pack' - so, rather than frying our brains with too much energy, we instead nourish the whole body, and ensure a long and healthy life.
Modern Western science has a pretty ambiguous relationship with these ideas, however. There's been some work to try to map out the acupuncture meridians via measuring electrical currents in the body, and there's some very provocative work which maps the myofascial network in the body and shows that the key meridians line up precisely with key fascial lines. But it would be claiming altogether too much to say that Western science and the traditional Asian model of the body are in agreement, because - at least for now - they really aren't. The Western medical establishment is pretty sceptical about all this, on the whole. (That's a bit of a generalisation, and these days you can get acupuncture through the NHS, but I don't want to pretend that these practices are totally an accepted part of the Western medical paradigm, because they aren't.)
So here's another way to look at it. Honestly, I have no idea what energy 'is' or what these practices are 'doing', but I can say with total certainty, both from my own experience and the experience of others, that by doing these practices we can come to experience something that feels exactly like energy moving around the body. Perhaps we really are learning to experience directly the truth of the Asian model of the body; maybe we're simply tuning into the body sensations in a different way, with the result that we perceive this sense of moving energy.
Either way, this is a useful thing to do. As I mentioned in my previous article, a big part of Zen practice is discovering how malleable our perceptions are - how the seemingly 'objectively real', 'just-as-it-is' nature of things is a mental fabrication. With this in mind, learning to experience your body sensations in a totally different way is a perfect illustration of this principle, and so provides us yet another way to explore emptiness in our practice.
If you'd like to investigate this some more, the late Rob Burbea offered a beautiful way in to energetic practices with his talks and guided meditations on the 'energy body'. Rather than reproduce that content here, I'll simply point you to his talk and guided practice on the subject.
Zen energy practices
If you're keen to get straight into the practice, I have a variety of guided Zen energetic practices on my Audio page. (One has an accompanying video, too.)
A good place to start is either naikan (that's the one with the associated video) or nanso no ho, both of which are grounding practices designed to bring energy down from the upper body (where too much energy can cause problems like headaches, not to mention Hakuin's whole laundry list of maladies) and to energise the lower half of the body, making us more stable, grounded and powerful in daily life. Naikan starts standing, then moves to lying down; nanso no ho is usually done as a sitting practice. Quite often people seem to have a preference for one or the other, so I'd suggest you try both and then go with the one you like best.
(Astute observers might have noticed that earlier I said that 'naikan' was a term for 'energy practices in general', and now I'm using the same word differently, to describe a specific practice. That's true. Sorry. I didn't come up with the traditional terminology.)
Both naikan and nanso no ho are good for cleansing the system and preparing it for further work - like cleaning a bike chain before oiling it, rather than just spraying more oil on top of the dirt (which is what I usually do with my bike, I'm ashamed to admit). Once we've given ourselves a bit of a spring-cleaning, it's time to start cultivating our energy.
As I mentioned, the tanden is considered the body's energetic centre. A really nice exercise for connecting us to and strengthening our tandens is the practice of ah-un breathing, which my teacher Daizan learnt from a wandering sword master in Japan (no, really - Daizan tells the story in his book Practical Zen).
Once you've established a solid connection with the tanden, move on to the practice of naitan, aka 'inner transformation'. (This practice also has a number of other names, and is basically the same as the microcosmic orbit in qigong, although I'm not a qigong teacher so don't take my word for it.) In the naitan practice we begin by energising the tanden, then begin to sweep the attention up the back of the body and down the front of the body (following the governing and conception vessels), in time with the breath.
Hakuin was a big fan of this last practice. He said:
If the practitioner maintains this without distraction, one morning, the elixir furnace will turn over and everywhere, within and without, will become one great circulating elixir. The practitioner will realise that they themselves are older than heaven and earth, deathless as space. This is true alchemy. It is not a trivial method for flying in the sky on the wind and mists, or walking on the water. The true immortal can churn the ocean into cream and transform earth into gold.
So there you go. Get on it!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!