by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part IX
The Refinery

It is said that enlightened men cleanse their hearts with stillness
And withdraw into the Treasurehouse of this secret place, the hara.

Stillness and the Hara

The instructions on how to meditate can make it look like a physical and mental exercise rather than a religious act: "Sit in a position with the spine upright and the abdomen relaxed; keep the eyes at least partly open; put the left hand in the palm of the right hand with the thumbs touching tip to tip, forming an elongated oval; then sit still and let your thoughts come and go, and every time you notice that you have got "hijacked" by a thought, bring your attention back to just sitting in the present moment." But, of course, there is much more going on right from the beginning than meets the eye.

It is not uncommon for meditators to experience a shift in the perceived center of meditation in the body from the head to the hara. (Caution: This happens naturally: it is very unwise to try to make it happen. It happens quite suddenly for some people; for others it may be so gradual that they never even notice it.) The hara is the region of the body extending from the sternum to the lower abdomen. The stillness of meditation is experienced--eventually, if not necessarily at first--as centering in the hara.

In deep meditation--"samadhi"--the hara can be experienced as a great cave or reservoir of stillness. This stillness is an aspect of the Buddha Nature and is not created by us, nor can it be destroyed: it is. Down through the ages, Buddhist teachers have spoken of "entering samadhi", or "being drawn into deep meditation": they never say--because they never experience it this way--"I made a great stillness with my mind."

The stillness is not a thought or a feeling (or sensation), but it does not require the absence of thought and feeling. Rather, thought and feeling arise and pass as waves arise and pass on the surface of a great ocean, the depths of which are still. When meditation goes very deep, the thoughts and feelings coming and going on the surface seem far away and unreal in comparison with the stillness. No one can experience the vastness of this stillness without awe and reverence.

Why do we experience this stillness as centering in the hara?--All I can say in answer to this question is that there is a spiritual dimension to every aspect of the body. Every aspect of our being, and of all existence, is of the Eternal.

Attachment to Stillness

Just as we cannot create or destroy the stillness, we also cannot hold on to any experience of it. The stillness is: our experience of it, like all our experience, is transitory. A willful effort to cling to the experience of stillness results in a delusional state that, from the point of view of genuine spirituality, is like living death. This is called "quietism."

In How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, Rev. Master describes her choice to keep going in her training beyond "delusive peace" (Plate XII; Plate VIII, first edition). It is not an accident that Rev. Master's great Commentary on the Precepts makes up the main body of the text accompanying the Plate entitled "The Lake of Quietism". The choice came down to this: "Do you want to spend what time you have left attempting to clutch at an illusion of peace? Or do you want to continue walking a difficult path, but one that leads to the true cessation of suffering?" Rev. Master chose the latter option. To walk that path, she had to understand Preceptual Truth at the deepest level.

Stillness and Activity: The Twofold Practice

In the Homerian epic poem The Odyssey, Penelope, the wife of Odysseus waits for her husband's return from the Trojan war. Odysseus's return is delayed and eventually he is presumed to be dead by most people, but not by his wife. Penelope is pestered by suitors who wish to marry her and gain control of Odysseus' lands. Penelope tells the suitors that she will choose one of them when she has completed work on a tapestry. She works on the tapestry each day, but each night she secretly picks apart most of that day's work so that the tapestry never gets completed.

Practicing meditation without taking the Precepts to heart is like Penelope's making and unmaking the tapestry: any progress in meditation is undermined by non-Preceptual action. On the other hand, training in meditation and training in the Precepts strongly reinforce one another, for they are really two aspects of one spiritual process. To truly meditate is to take refuge in our own Buddha Nature. To take the Precepts to heart is to follow the Eternal--to willingly allow It to guide our actions--through all the twisting and turning of daily activity. The Buddha Nature and the Eternal are one and the same. The term "Buddha Nature" emphasizes the Refuge within ourselves to which we turn in meditation--the immanent nature of the Eternal. The term "the Eternal" emphasizes the transcendent nature of the Eternal: while it is true that we possess the Buddha Nature, it is also true that the Eternal is infinitely greater than ourselves.

When we take refuge in the Buddha Nature in meditation, we see more clearly how to refrain from doing that which is not good to do, and how to do that which is good to do. Thus meditation helps us live the Precepts. When we take the Precepts to heart we are reminded to keep turning for refuge to our True Nature in the midst of activity, and thus training in the Precepts helps us hold fast to the mind and heart of meditation. This is called "the twofold practice of living from the Buddha Nature and following the Eternal."

Rev. Master's Commentary on the Precepts is the best and most detailed description of the twofold practice of which I know. She writes, "Do not do anything unless it is 'good;' do not do anything unless I have first asked the Lord of the House if it is good for me to do it. Do nothing whatsoever in a hurry; do nothing whatsoever on the spur of the moment unless I know the certainty given by the Lord of the House; know that I must take the consequences of what I do if it is not a full-digested act . . ." (Plate XII; first edition, Plate VIII). For "Lord of the House" we can read "Buddha Nature." For "asking the Lord of the House", we can read, "turn for help and guidance to our own Buddha Nature in pure meditation." Later in the same paragraph she writes, ". . . when the still, small voice within my mind and heart says, 'Yes,' I must obey that teaching. When it says 'No,' I must not disobey that teaching. When the Lord speaks, spring up joyfully to answer; then, indeed, it is good to do anything whatsoever; know that the Lord will never break the Precepts." The "still, small voice within my mind and heart" is the guidance of our own Buddha Nature. The "springing up joyfully to answer" is the following of the Eternal through all the challenging circumstances of our daily life.

The twofold practice of taking refuge in the Buddha Nature and following the Eternal harmonizes the seeming opposites of stillness and activity. We are drawn into stillness when it is good; we go out into activity when it is good. This "going in and out" is as natural and vital to our spiritual life as inhaling and exhaling are natural and vital to our physical life. Without the "going in" we become scattered and impulsive and do things that are not good to do; without the "going out" we get stuck in passivity and inaction and fail to do the things that are good to do.

The Cave of Transformation

In How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, Rev. Master describes certain key events as happening in the hara. Plates XXV-XXVI (Plate XIV, first edition) are particularly important in this regard. She also depicts the receiving of teaching in a number of illustrations showing a monk sitting in meditation with the hara represented by a building with open doors. Inside the building (a temple, I am sure) are different symbols representing different aspects of training and enlightenment. (Plates L-LII; Plate XXXII, first edition.) The open doors represent body and mind being open to the Eternal.

Since the stillness of meditation is experienced as centering in the hara, the general spiritual context of experiences described in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom as happening in the hara is a context of deep meditative stillness. This stillness should not be mistaken for a kind of negative void in which nothing is happening. Important spiritual work happens within the stillness. It is deep work and it is quiet work, and the Doer of the work is the Eternal.

The Eternal does not force Its Compassion upon us. If we occupy ourselves exclusively with external things, we get stuck in activity and end up mistaking relative unrealities for True Reality. When we let go of external things for a while and drop down beneath the flow of thought and feeling, we allow the Help of the Eternal to flow to suffering's cause--our true spiritual need.

When the causes of suffering are brought to the stillness of the Buddha Nature in meditation, the "ore" of our spiritual need is worked upon by the Compassion and Wisdom of the Eternal and transformed into aspects of enlightenment. Therefore stillness (and, thus, the hara) is called "the cave of transformation."

Initiating the Refining Process

The causes of suffering--greed, hate and delusion--always manifest in pairs of opposites: willful (impulsively non-Preceptual) action and willful inaction; lust and revulsion; clinging and hatred; complacency and inadequacy; dogmatic belief and sceptical doubt; elation and despair. We tend to swing between these opposites. But when we bring the opposites into the stillness of meditation, the swinging diminishes greatly. When this happens at a deep level, it is as if the opposites are contained, and orbit, within tranquillity. The opposites do not destroy tranquillity; tranquillity does not destroy the opposites. And neither of the opposites destroys the other. The selfish self is not killed, but converted.

Once the opposites are contained within stillness, we are not being run around by our karma: the Eternal can get a word in edgewise. Now our spiritual need (the opposites, karma) must be brought together with the residual Buddha Nature--our innate capacity to look up--which is the aspect of our Buddha Nature that can never be fully buried in ignorance and pain. To exercise faith is to hold fast to our residual Buddha Nature. (See Part VII of these Reflections for a discussion of the residual Buddha Nature.)

Our body is the repository of spiritual need. The spiritual need (karma, the opposites) is the ore that is to be refined--the raw material of enlightenment. The residual Buddha Nature is the source of the fire of faith and longing that will work upon the ore. The stillness of meditation is the spiritual context within which the process of conversion happens. Therefore, the ancient teachings say that "body, karma and residual Buddha Nature meet in the all-embracing womb [of stillness--the hara]."

In Part X of these Reflections, we will look in more detail at the greatest of all mysteries--the process of spiritual conversion.


Click here to proceed to Part X, "Refining the Ore"


Click here to go to meditation instruction videos

Click here to return to the Table of Contents of Book One: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections



Click here to go to Table of Contents of Book Two: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life

Click here to return to Home Page