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 however, 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 practitioner is supported to go deeper in their self-enquiry. Having studied and practiced Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ dyad practice for many years, I have come to see it as a model that Western Buddhists might wish to draw upon – staying firmly rooted in Buddhist philosophical principles, and using aspects of the ‘Focusing’ method to engage in direct experiential enquiry into the bodily-felt experience of those 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 conviction about the value of the insights that ‘Focusing’ can bring to Buddhist self-enquiry, 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 Phenomenological Approach to the Nature of Mind
Professor Eugene Gendlin’s primary area of scholarly expertise was in the area of phenomenology – which, in the context of modern philosophy, is that approach which values the actual reality of human experience over any abstract conceptualisation of that experience. It is an approach in which concepts must serve our experiencing and not take us away from our experience – as conceptualisation so often does. Buddhists who are familiar with Eugene Gendlin’s work, and with his Focusing dyad practice, will therefore inevitably tend to develop a deeper and more experiential understanding of the nature of mind than those whose engagement is more intellectual and philosophical.
The Buddha, it can certainly be argued, certainly shared Gendlin’s phenomenological focus, and the Buddha’s ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ teaching can be thought of as an example of him taking an established ancient Indian conceptualisation of the nature of mind, and subjecting it to a rigorous phenomenological analysis. He appears to have reframed the teaching completely – highlighting its erroneous concretisation, or reification, of the functions and data of our cognitive and perceptual processes. Indeed, he presents the ancient Indian five-fold framework in a fresh new way. He presents it as what, in modern terminology, might be called a dynamic ‘open system’ model of mind and experience – one in which everything is process, and nothing is fixed, or personal, or separate.
So, Gendlin was engaged in the very Buddhist activity of investigating his experience in a very penetrating and objective way. If we define meditation broadly, as direct engagement with the body-mind in order to achieve its transformation and recognise its ultimate nature – then Gendlin was certainly a meditator. But he brings attitudes to his approach that Buddhists may sometimes miss. Indeed, 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 resting as Consciousness; or as gaining familiarity with the relational nature of the body-mind. All of these attitudes or approaches are implicit in Buddhist approaches to meditation, whereas Gendlin’s Focusing makes them explicit.
A Relational Understanding of the Body-Mind
Gendlin’s rigorous phenomenological approach led him to a relational understanding of the body-mind – by which I mean that he came to the recognition that Consciousness exists in relationship with the functions and processes of the body-mind. This is entirely intrinsic to Gendlin’s approach to the body-mind – as it is to Buddhist meditation and self-enquiry – but this conceptualisation is much less well-known to many Buddhists.
It is my conviction that Buddhists – especially those Buddhist who have been seriously engaged with the task of locating the central Buddhist philosophical principles in their bodily-felt experience – while they may find the ‘relational’ emphasis initially unfamiliar, have a great deal to learn from exploring the practice of Focusing. The potential for Focusing practitioners to learn from Buddhism, may be even more significant however. Gendlin established the practice of Focusing only a few decades ago, in the 1960s, whereas there has been deep engagement with self-enquiry and meditation practice within the Buddhist tradition for twenty-five centuries.
Despite the obvious common ground between the two, and the common motivation, the dialogue between Buddhism and Focusing can easily fail before it gets started. Focusing practitioners may reject Buddhism as too conceptual and philosophical – and as too ‘heroic’ and ascetic in psychological terms; too disinterested in the mind’s contents. Similarly, Buddhists can reject Focusing, regarding Gendlin’s philosophical framework as a narrow one, relative to that of Buddhism. Also, while the logic of Buddhist wisdom warns us against this, many Buddhists, because they have a great need to affirm their Buddhist identity above all else, will absolutely limit themselves to practices that are expressions of their chosen strand of Buddhist culture and history – and maintain and attitude of disdain towards anything outside of that purview. So, there are several obstacles preventing modern Buddhists connecting with Gendlin’s Focusing. To miss the many direct parallels however, between the philosophy and practice of Gendlin’s Focusing and the philosophy and practice of self-enquiry and meditation within the Buddhist tradition, would be a missed opportunity for both traditions, in my view.
Focusing and Buddhist Wisdom
It could be argued that Buddhists have an 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 both of these poles in the subject-object relationship of our experiencing, is the cause of our egoic dysfunction. This sort of understanding is implied in Gendlin’s approach, and experienced in the course of Focusing practice, but not highlighted. This ’emptiness’ of both subject and object however, is spelt out much more explicitly in the Buddha’s teachings – especially in his ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ teaching.
Many modern Buddhists, it needs to be acknowledged, do however find the five skandhas formulation impenetrable, and find themselves discouraged from engaging with it – which is a tragedy, given the absolute centrality of this teaching for the Buddha, and for the Buddhist tradition. One of my main aims in my various writings on the ‘Mandala of Love’ website, and indeed in this article, is to support a deeper engagement with the idea of the ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ among modern Buddhist practitioners.
The five skandhas teaching is very complex. It is probably not surprising that we should find it so often placed in the ‘too hard’ basket. There are many established confusions and mistranslations that get in our way. In Buddhist tradition, the cognitive-perceptual relationship between that which is observing and that which is observed, is described very comprehensively by the ‘five skandhas’ formulation, but because this is what may be called a ‘process model’ it does not make a clear distinction between the cognitive-perceptual ‘functions’ of Consciousness and the cognitive-perceptual ‘data’ of Consciousness. Additional confusion is introduced by the fact that each of the five skandhas was described by the Buddha as functioning in two ways – ‘internal’ and ‘external’ (as are each of the ‘Four Foundations of Mindfulness’ incidentally). This is a very important detail of the teaching, that it is only very rarely acknowledged – but it is an aspect of the skandhas model that I personally find fascinating and deeply engaging.
Most fundamentally, it is vitally important that we understand that in his frequent discourses on the ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ the Buddha is taking an erroneous ancient Indian model of the self, and critiquing and deconstructing it – not merely repeating it and affirming it, as many modern teachers do. In this teaching he is fundamentally distinguishing his own understanding from the five-fold model of mind that went before, and demonstrating that each of the five components of that model are ’empty’ of self-nature. In more modern language he is saying that each skandha is better understood to be of the nature of a cognitive or perceptual process rather than as a fixed ‘heap’ (skandha literally means heap) – like the heaps, or aggregates (sand, clay, gravel, etc.), from which a house was constructed in ancient India.
There is much that needs to be said about the ’emptiness of the five skandhas‘ teaching and the various common errors that have come into modern understanding of it. The insight that comes most forcefully as we study both Gendlin and the Buddha, is that the five skandhas teaching describes the relationship between Consciousness and the four cognitive-perceptual functions of Consciousness. This perspective is clearly borne out by the mandala psychology that we see in the Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thodol texts – where the the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha is place in the centre of the mandala.
If as, many modern commentators do, we place the ’empty’ rūpa skandha in the centre of the skandhas model, as a physical component relating to four mental components (including Consciousness) we immediately run into problems – and we depart from the Buddha’s core assertion that mind is primary, and end up with a model which looks very much like the scientific materialist paradigm that we so desperately need to get away from. Also, the ’empty’ rūpa skandha in the context of the Buddha’s critical analysis, does not denote the objective and usually material component of the self and world. Rather it denotes that ’empty’ cognitive-perceptual process that mentally creates and concretises the ‘form’ of our identity and of our world. The apparent ‘objectivity’ of these creations is an egoic delusion. We are never what we think we are, and everything in our world is also ’empty’ in this sense – entirely subject to our conceptual description of it.
I find it very significant that Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha) is acknowledged to have both ‘external’ and ‘internal’ dimensions – and there is great value in our making a serious effort to identify and find more explanatory words for the reality that this descriptive label is pointing to. The ‘external’ aspect of vijñāna appears to be that ‘knowing’ which is directed outwardly towards perception and cognition of the experienced world; while the ‘internal’ aspect is that which is directed towards that ‘clear space’ at the centre of the self-illusion, which is assumed to the central component a separate ‘self’ – but in fact does not.
Like Gendlin’s Focusing model, the Buddha’s skandhas model invites us to engage in a fundamental reconciliation of these subjective and objective dimensions. We are being invited, it seems, to notice that there are subjective and objective aspects of ’emptiness’, inseparably present at the core of our experience. The ’emptiness’ of the ‘external’ aspect of Consciousness that is ‘looking’ and is the apparent ‘knower’ of an apparently objective world, is difficult to recognise if we have not first recognised the ‘internal’ aspect – the vast and ’empty’ ‘clear space’ within, which may be regarded as the ultimate psychological container in which the processes of cognition and perception appear.