Reflections on the Five Wisdoms Mandala as a Framework
for an Approach to Buddhist Self-Enquiry Practice Informed by
the Experience of Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ Dyads
I have been reflecting for some time that in the Buddhist tradition, self-enquiry (in Sanskrit: dharma vicaya – pronounced ‘vichaya’) generally tends to be thought of as a solitary practice. To support and develop a culture of dharma vicaya within Western Buddhism, there is a need for us to explore effective forms of meditative self-enquiry dyad practice – practices in which Buddhist friends sit together and take it in turns to ‘hold space’ for each other, so that each one is supported to go deeper in their self-empathetic self-enquiry. Having studied and practiced Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ dyad practice for many years, I can see it as a model that Western Buddhists might wish to draw upon, while staying firmly rooted in Buddhist philosophical principles. Western Buddhists, not being constrained to traditional forms, have the freedom, after all, to adopt any practice that is an expression of the core values, principles and insights of their tradition. I know I am not alone in this thought, so I would like to share some reflections. This is partly for my own clarity, but I hope that others will find it stimulating also.
Part 1 – Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Clear Space’ and the Brahmavihāras
A Relational Understanding of the Body-Mind
Buddhists who are familiar with Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ dyad practice will inevitably tend to develop a deeper and more experiential understanding of the nature of mind than those whose engagement is more intellectual and philosophical. It is common for even passionately engaged Buddhist meditators not to see meditation in terms of self-enquiry, or self-discovery, or self-empathy, or as gaining familiarity with the relational nature of the body-mind. This relational understanding of the body-mind – a recognition that Consciousness exists in relationship with the functions and processes of the body-mind – is however, entirely intrinsic to Gendlin’s approach.
On the other hand, Buddhists, especially those who have been seriously engaged with the task of locating the central Buddhist philosophical principles in their bodily-felt experience, have a great deal to bring to any community that is practicing Focusing. The dialogue between Buddhism and Focusing can easily fail however, mainly because Buddhists can tend to regard Gendlin’s philosophical framework as a narrow one relative to that of Buddhism – and in taking that view can miss the direct parallels between the practice of Gendlin’s Focusing and the practice of self-enquiry at the highest levels of practice within the Buddhist tradition.
Focusing and Buddhist Wisdom
Buddhists also have a significant advantage over other practitioners of Focusing, because they are open to the idea that both that which is observing, and that which is observed, are ’empty’, or non-personal, and that our personalising identification with one or other, or both, of these poles in the subject-object relationship of our experiencing, is the ultimate cause of our egoic dysfunction. This sort of understanding is implied in Gendlin’s approach, and experienced in the course of Focusing practice, but spelt out much more explicitly in the Buddha’s teachings.
In Buddhist tradition, the relationship between that which is observing and that which is observed, can be described by the ‘five skandhas’ formulation. Importantly, each of the five skandhas was described by the Buddha as functioning in two ways – ‘internal’ and ‘external’ (as are the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ incidentally). This explains, at least in part, why the skandhas sometimes appear to be describing the five subjective components of Consciousness and its four cognitive-perceptual functions (i.e. the internal skandhas); and sometime appear to describing five objective components (i.e. the external skandhas) – Consciousness as an objective and collective appearance, or space, in which four categories of objective cognitive-perceptual ‘data’ come together to create the appearances of persons and things.