What is Tanden? 丹田とは何ぞや？
Tanden (丹田) is a popular Japanese word in the areas of martial arts, Zen and far-eastern medical tradition. This is a very unique subject and also an involved one. I could write a book on this but here in this article I will attempt to introduce this concept and also give a brief explanation of the concept. As this is an important concept, maybe some time in the future, I may write a longer article to explain Tanden.
Though it is a very popular term in Japan, strangely (at least to me), this word cannot be found in Webster’s Dictionary. The word is not listed in Wikipedia either. What is listed there is another Japanese word, hara (腹). It’s literal meaning is abdomen or belly. Wikipedia cautions that the word should not be translated as “stomach” to avoid confusing it with the organ. The reason why the western world adopted hara instead of tanden may be that the very concept was introduced to the western world by the Japanese Zen monks. As it is very difficult to explain tanden, they simply pointed to the belly area (hara) to identify where tanden was. Coincidentally, in the Japanese martial arts traditions, Hara is extremely important. It is somewhat related to tanden but also this was the area where the samurai thought their spirit existed. Regardless, I will continue using the term, tanden in this article.
Let’s first try to understand the literal meaning of tanden. Tan (丹) has several meanings. One is red clay that is a compound of sulfur and mercury. Another is an element that was made from lead with sulfur and saltpeter added. The third meaning is a particular medicine that is supposed to be an elixir of life.
Den (田) means field or farm. So with those two kanji together, tanden, it is used as a technical term for a specific area (physical/anatomical) or energy field (physiological/energetic) where one cultivates or produces one’s Ki (気 or 氣) and its energy force. In the Chinese medicine, they regarded tanden (particularly of the lower one, getanden) as the body oven. The life essence, Ki was considered as fire. By bringing the air in through breathing with the consciousness to rotate Ki in your body the life energy, Ki would “burn” or strengthened.
The history of tanden is quite old. We find this word in some ancient books from the 3rd and 4th centuries. This word was recorded at that time but its history may be even older but we have no way of knowing the precise history.
Many Shotokan practitioners especially the senior ones may know about Tanden and they refer to the area just below or directly behind the umbilicus in the lower abdominal area. However, few know that there are three (some believe five) tanden. The one we are familiar with in martial arts is the lower tanden or Getanden (下丹田). It is also called Seika tanden (臍下丹田) or Kikai tanden (気海丹田). The other two tanden are Jo tanden (上丹田 ) and Chu tanden (中丹田).
OK let me give you the brief explanation of these three tanden.
Upper tanden (上丹田, Jo tanden): It is supposed to be located deep inside the forehead between the eyebrows. Some people call it the third eye. This cauldronis supposed to store shin (神) which literally means god but the real meaning is closer to inner spirit. You may want to consider this tanden as Brain tanden. By developing the strong Jo tanden, you can coordinate the right and left brain parts resulting in creative mind and possibly achieving higher perception ability (third eye). The examples of the persons who developed such tanden may be Edgar Cayce, an American mystic who answered questions on subjects as varied as healing, reincarnation, wars, Atlantis, and future events while in a trance. Another example may be Michel Nostradamus, a 16th century French apothecary, reputed seer and prophet. One more example may be Teresa of Ávila, a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint.
Middle tanden (中丹田, Chu tanden): It is located in the middle of the chest. It is also called “the crimson palace”, associated with storing life energy or Ki (氣). Chu tanden can be translated as Heart tanden. When you develop strong Chu tanden, you will also develop strong love and aspiration. The excellent examples of the persons who, I consider, had developed strong Chu tanden may be Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple), Bruce Lee (a famous martial arts movie actor) and Mother Teresa (Teresa of Calcutta).
Lower tanden (下丹田, Ge tanden): It is located below the navel (about three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel). This tanden is supposed to store Sei (精), energy or vigor. Ge tanden is also called “the gold stove” (kin ro 金炉) or “the god stove” (shin ro 神炉). The examples of those who developed tremendous Ge tanden may be Sagawa Yukiyoshi (佐川幸義 a famous jujitsuka), Yamaoka Tesshu (山岡鉄舟 a famous samurai who helped the Meiji Restorations), Hida Harumichi (肥田春道 the founder of Hida Breathing and Health method) and Rickson Gracie (a famous Gracie jujitsu champion).
These three elements; Shin (神), Ki (氣) and Sei (精) in essence are the same thing or different stages of Ki. These three elements are called three treasures of life as they vitalize our life. There are no physical organs in those three areas. These three tanden must be considered as the consciousness or our mind in those areas.
Out of those three tanden, Ge (lower) tanden is considered to be most important especially in the martial arts and Zen. Ge tanden is, thus, called as Sei tanden (正丹田) which means the true, correct or main tanden. When we say tanden in martial arts context, it refers to Ge tanden.
Ge tanden exists deep inside of the lower inner abdominal region. By having the consciousness there, it can bring, at least, three effects and benefits.
1) It stimulates autonomic nerves that enables peaceful mind. It is also proven that stimulation of autonomic nerves leads to better immunity.
2) It also stimulates the inner organs that normally do not get the “exercises”. By deep diaphragm breathing the inner organs are being pushed down and pulled up thus receiving the massaging stimulus that will benefit us by having healthy inner organs, thus good health in general.
3) It stimulates the inner muscles that tie the spine to the lower limbs that are critically important and necessary in the martial arts skills.
So, now you have a better understanding of tanden. I am sure you wish to improve not only your karate but also your general health. It is better to coordinate your deep breathing with meditation to get the best result. If you are not into a meditation routine, then introduce a slow and deep breathing in your daily activities. As you slowly breathes, just focus on the lower belly area where you can develop your Seika tanden. There is not much to lose by trying this ancient method of health improvement remedy. What do you think?