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Published in:  Client-centred and experiential psychotherapy: a paradigm in motion (1996).  Eds: R. Hutterer  Frankfurt: Peter Lang, pp. 455-467



The Deep Structure of the Core Conditions:

A Buddhist perspective






In this paper I explore what seem to me significant parallels between views of the person, and of therapy, in Buddhism and in the work of Carl Rogers. The background parallels involve similar aims, recognition of the essential trustworthiness of human nature, the importance of an internal locus of evaluation, the ‘process’ view of the self, and the therapeutic process which involves a reduction of ‘incongruence’ or ‘delusion’. Given this background I look in more detail at the nature of the core conditions, relating these lo what is seen in Buddhism as the overcoming of the three ‘afflictive emotions’. I then explore how both in Buddhism and client-centred therapy the process of therapeutic change can be seen as centred on the ‘softening’ or dissolution of the self(-concept) insofar as this is experienced as a ‘rigid’ structure. I conclude with a theoretical reflection on why, given my analysis, there are just three core conditions, and a clinical reflection on the implications for which of the core conditions should be given preferential emphasis in different forms of psychological disturbance.


This paper is an attempt to explore the relationship between some central themes of Buddhism and client-centred therapy.  I am conscious of the great gulf in time and culture between Buddhism, an ancient Asian path of liberation, and client-centred therapy, a modem Western school of psychotherapy; yet having been struck by what seem to me to be important parallels (Purton, 1993), I feel impelled to explore them further. I also want to use the parallel with Buddhism to explore some specific themes in the client-centred approach which seem to me worth exploring, especially what it is about the human situation which makes the core conditions of empathy, respect and genuineness so important. Finally, having developed at least in sketchy form a view of what the core conditions amount to when approached from a Buddhist point of view, I return at the end of the paper to some empirical or clinical consequences of what I have said.


Clients typically come to therapy because they are confused, depressed, anxious, lacking self-

confidence, experiencing difficulties in relationships and so on. In short, they come out of a

sense of deep unsatisfactoriness, out of a feeling that all is not well with them as per

sons. Successful therapy is therapy which helps clients to move to more satisfactory states of

being, where clarity replaces confusion, depression lifts, anxiety abates, and respect and un

derstanding both of self and of others improve.

This is the common sense, and phenomenological, picture of the therapeutic progress. How

ever, the client-centred approach also has a theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenol

ogical changes (Rogers, 1959).Very briefly stated, it is that we tend to lose touch with who we

really are through the development of a self-concept which does not adequately represent our

experience. This happens partly because of the conditions of worth which are imposed by sig

nificant others, and partly because of our need for a coherent sense of self. In a word, our self-

concept becomes increasingly incongruent with our experience, and this state of incongruence

lies at the root of our state of distress or felt unsatisfactoriness. It is incongruence which results

in our sense of alienation from ourself; it destroys the possibility of genuine self- respect and

self- understanding; and it interferes with our capacity to respect and understand others. In

short, from a theoretical point of view, if there is a single aim of therapy it is that of client con

gruence. The therapist’s task is the simple, though difficult, one of helping the client to become

what he or she really is.


In the Majjhima Nikaya (i, 130) the Buddha says: ”Today and formerly, monks, I teach just two

things - suffering and the release from suffering”. The word translated as ‘suffering’ here is

duhkha, and from the contexts of its use it is clear that duhkha doesn’t just mean suffering in

the sense of pain. It is not exactly the pain, but the ‘unsatisfactoriness’ of things which

Buddhism aims to reduce, just as in therapy we know that on the path to a more satisfactory

way of being there may well be as much, or even more, pain than before. 

The pervasiveness of duhkha is the first of the four ‘Noble Truths’ of Buddhism. The other truths

deal with the cause and alleviation of duhkha, and what is said is that duhkha is essentially rooted

in ‘craving’ and in ‘ignorance’. Both these terms need explanation, and I shall say more about

them shortly, but I will just remark that although ‘craving’ is often presented as the cause of

duhkha the Buddhist writings emphasise that craving itself is rooted in a deep misperception of

the nature of oneself and of the world. It is not a simple matter of suffering arising from our not

getting what we want; the deep source of duhkha, it is said, lies in our emotional misconception

of our self as having a certain fixed nature. We experience ourselves as being essentially such-

and- such, and then suffer as a result of the discrepancy between our picture of ourself and

what we really are. . I will try to explain this Buddhist approach to the notion of the self more

clearly later, but here just want to indicate the sort of parallel that exists with the client-cen

tred approach:  it is that both Buddhism and the client-centred approach begin with the person

(client) in a state of unsatisfactoriness (duhkha), and while the superficial cause of this may be

certain attachments or fear, the deep cause, as identified by the respective ’theories’, is that the

person misperceives and hence mislives what they really are.


It is central to Rogers’ conception of the person that human nature is fundamentally sound,

though this soundness almost inevitably becomes obscured. The corresponding theme in Bud

dhism is that of the original Buddha-nature. In the Tathagatagarbha Sutra the Buddha says:

...all the living beings, though they exist among the defilements of hatred, anger, and ig

norance, have the Buddha’s wisdom, Buddha’s Eye. Buddha’s body sitting firmly in the

form of meditation. - Thus, in spite of their being covered by defilements...they are pos

sessed of the Matrix of the Tathagata [Buddha-nature], endowed with virtues, always

pure, and hence not different from me.” Having thus observed, the Buddha preached the

doctrine in order to remove the defilements and manifest the Buddha- nature within the

living beings. (Williams, 1989, p. 97)

This parallel needs little comment. For both Buddhism and Carl Rogers the basic nature of hu

man beings is trustworthy; if there is neurosis or duhkha in human life this is because there has

been distortion or obscuration of what is at heart good and sound.


In Rogers’ view we lose touch with our experience largely through the pressures of the condi

tions of worth that are imposed on us. There develops an ‘incongruence’ between what we

really are and how we perceive ourself. That which we call our self is not truly our self, but a

distorted version thereof, a mask. We come to value things not from our own internal locus of

evaluation but from that of others. The mask develops out of the pressure we feel to be what

others want us to be, and once established it constitutes our sense of identity. Yet this ‘self’

which we feel to be ourself is illusory;  it is not who we really are. We are in a state of incongru


Buddhism emphasises  the importance of an internal locus of evaluation in passages such as


And whosoever, Ananda, either now, or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto them-

selves. and a refuge unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding

fast to the truth as their lamp, and holding fast as their refuge to the truth, shall not look for ref

uge to anyone besides themselves - it is they, Ananda....who shall reach the very topmost

height - but they must be anxious learn. (Mahaparinibbana Sutta, II, 31-5, in Foy, 1978, p. 


Of whatever teachings you can assure yourself in this way: These teachings lead to

calmness, not to neurotic passion;.... to individuality, not to immersion in the group; ... of

such teachings you may affirm with certainty: This is the Dharma. This is the ethical

life. This is the Master’s message.’ (Vinaya, II, 10)


Given that we have lost touch with what we really are, it is crucial, if we are to regain our re

ality, that our nature should be open to change. If the illusory self (or self- concept) is of the

nature of a fixed thing, then there is no hope for us, but if on the other hand the self is a flux, a

process, this process may lead back to our original nature. The latter, optimistic view, is shared

by Rogers and Buddhism. The Buddha says in the Samyutta-nikaya (35, 43): “All is imperma

nent. And what is the all that is impermanent? The eye is impermanent, forms are imperma

nent.....The mind is impermanent, mental objects, consciousness, whatever is felt.... is imper

manent.”    And in the Lalitavistara Sutra: “The three worlds are impermanent like autumn

clouds: the birth and death of living beings is similar to viewing a dance; life is gone like a flash

of lightning in the sky, quickly passing like a mountain waterfall. “ (Batchelor, 1987, p.219)


Thus far the picture presented both in client-centred therapy and in Buddhism is that of the

person as basically sound, but suffering from illusory self- perception. The illusory self is open

to change, however, and I want to consider now what is involved in such change.

The central theme of the client-centred approach is that therapeutic change consists in a

movement from a state of incongruence of self and experience to one of congruence, and that this movement is facilitated by the presence of three attitudes in the therapist, i.e. empathy, respect and genuineness. However, before continuing some remarks are needed about terminology.


(a) Congruence and genuineness

In the definitions section of his major theoretical paper Rogers (1959. p.206) writes

that “when self- experiences are accurately symbolized, and are included in the self- concept in

this accurately symbolized form, then the state is one of congruence of self and experience.”

A person in a state of congruence is thus genuine or authentic, in the sense that they are them-

self, that they are not acting out of any self-deception. Now congruence in this sense is com

patible with various forms of untruthfulness, hypocrisy or play-acting. If someone judges in a

particular situation that it is best to lie, or consciously decides to play a particular role, that

does not in itself detract from the person’s congruence or authenticity, since there need be no

incongruence here between self-concept and experience. Conversely, it is quite possible to be

open and honest with someone to the best of one’s ability and yet be incongruent. 

Now from the point of view of therapy, both incongruence and dishonesty in the therapist are

detrimental. The client needs to experience genuine respect and empathy, so that if they sense

that the therapist is either pretending or self-deceived the conditions for therapeutic change

are not met. It is combined congruence-and-honesty which is important in the therapist, so

that it is useful to have a word which covers this combination. ‘Genuineness’ or ‘transparency’

seem satisfactory terms, since being genuine (or ‘transparent’) seems to rule out both pretence

and self-deception.

The aim of client-centred therapy is client congruence (i.e. the client becoming him- or her-

self). It is not the aim of therapy to facilitate client honesty, for whether or when to be honest is

a matter for the moral judgement of the client.

(b) Acceptance

I need also to say something about the relationship between ‘respect’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘empa

thy’. Person-centred writers often use ‘respect’ as synonymous with ‘acceptance’; however I

think that there are significant differences between the two.

Respect involves the acceptance of individuality and difference. When Kahlil Gibran (1964, p.

16) says in connection with marriage “let there be spaces in your togethemess. And let the

winds of heaven dance between you” he is touching on just this. However, respect does not

necessarily involve any personal closeness or warmth in the usual sense of the word. We may

not like the other person much or feel we have much in common with them, but this is imma

terial since we don’t come into the picture. We respect them for what they are, independently of


By contrast, when we feel close to someone, when for the moment we share their world, when

‘two hearts beat as one’, then we are accepting our lack of individuality; it is as though the

boundaries between us have temporarily dissolved. This is also a kind of ‘acceptance’, but

clearly we are here more in the territory of ‘empathy’ than of ‘respect’. 

Although Rogers usually distinguishes rather sharply between the respect and empathy condi

tions he acknowledges the link between them in his paper ‘Empathic: an unappreciated way of

being’ (Rogers, 1980, p. 152):

A second consequence of empathic understanding is that the recipient feels valued, cared

for, accepted as the person that he or she is. It might seem that we have here stepped in

to another area, and that we are no longer speaking of empathy. But this is not so. It is

impossible to accurately sense the perceptual world of another person unless you value

that  person and his or her world - - unless you, in some sense, care.

Empathy thus involves a degree of respect, but equally we might argue that respect cannot be

real unless it includes a degree of empathy. I can’t really respect you unless I have some under

standing of who you are. Respect and empathy can interpenetrate, I suggest, because they are

both aspects of acceptance. As I am using the terms, respect involves accepting and valuing

people for what they are in themselves, as a reality separate from me, while empathy involves

accepting and valuing our commonality, our sharing of a perspective on the world.


With these clarifications let us return to the process of therapy. Rogers (1980, p. 159) writes in

this connection:

The self is now more congruent with the experiencing. Thus the persons have become, in their attitudes towards themselves, more caring and acceptant, more empathic and understanding, more real and congruent. But these three elements are the very ones that both experience and research indicate are the attitudes of an effective therapist.


Looking at the therapeutic process in this way, what the client is doing, with the therapist’s

facilitation, is overcoming his or her own lack of respect, empathy, and congruence. I stress this

way of seeing it so that the process can be compared more easily with what it is that Buddhists

are trying to overcome in themselves, namely the three kleshas or ‘afflictive emotions’ known by

the tags of ‘greed’, ‘hate’ and ‘illusion’. In Buddhism it is held that it is these three which in all

their varieties and combinations obscure our inherent Buddha-nature.


Buddhism, no less than client-centred therapy, has its problems over terminology and, while

the term kleshas has been translated in a variety of ways, in what follows I will simply speak of

the three ‘troubles’.

First, some explanation is needed if we are to grasp what these ‘troubles’ really amount to. 

‘Greed’ is a common translation of the Sanskrit/Pali ‘lobha but other renderings can be ‘at

tachment’, ‘desire’, ‘clinging’, etc. Lobha is greedy possessiveness, having to possess things or

people, a devouring of the world so that I have everything within me. Lobha cannot tolerate

independence or separation, the valuing of something or someone for what they are independ

ently of me.

‘Hate’ is the common translation of ‘dosa’ but it is better translated as ‘aversion’, since ‘dosa’ can cover fear as well as hate. Dosa is in a way the opposite of lobha; in another way it is very similar. It is the opposite in that while lobha insists on ‘getting’ and ‘holding on to’, dosa insists on ‘getting rid of’ or ‘expelling from’ oneself. What they have in common is the insistence, the having to get or to get rid of. Hence they are often regarded as two aspects of the craving which leads to duhkha.


‘Illusion’ is the translation of ‘moha’ , also translated as ‘delusion’ or ‘ignorance’. It can seem

odd, on first acquaintance with Buddhism, that moha is  regarded as a form of craving, along

with lobha and dosa. If moha is ignorance it is clearly a special form of ignorance, a motivated

ignorance. Moha is the craving not to see clearly, and is thus closely linked with the Western

psychological concept of repression. It also has the aspect of ‘inertia’ or ‘stupidity’, the clinging

to fixed or stereotyped ways of seeing oneself or others. According to Buddhism the central

illusion involved in moha is that of seeing one’s self as a real, independent, ‘solid’ entity. I will

return to that point shortly, but here for purposes of comparison we just need to note that moha

essentially has to do with illusory self-perception.

I suggest that the parallels between the three ‘troubles’ and the three core conditions go some

thing like this:

Moha (‘illusion’) seems to be related to incongruence. Incongruence is essentially self-misper

ception which involves denial or distortion of some aspects of what is really experienced. In

congruence, like moha , is motivated, and like moha is to do with illusion in the sphere of self-


The overcoming lobha (‘greed’) is the overcoming of attachment to things, people, ideas, the overcoming of the sense of having to have something, to possess, to own. Overcoming lobha  means coming to accept that other people have their own reality, that they can’t (without duhkha) be possessed. It means accepting life as it is, situations for what they are, not insisting on changing them into what we must have. It means not being attached rigidly to our own views, accepting that others see things differently. Hence what will counteract  lobha is respect for people as they are.  I suggest that this comes close to what Rogers refers to as ‘unconditional positive regard’, ‘prizing’ or ‘respect’.


The overcoming of dosa is the overcoming of aversion, whether aversion from others or from

aspects of oneself. The feel of dosa that of cutting off, cutting out, expelling, getting away

from. Overcoming dosa means ‘bringing together’, ‘sharing’, ‘feeling at one with’. It means ac

ceptance of connections and relationships, of the fact that ‘No man is an island’. This is different

from the sort of acceptance which overcomes lobha  -  it is the acceptance that I am not entirely

separate from you, that we can move in and out of each other’s worlds. I suggest that it is

significantly related to the concept of ‘empathy’.

To summarise the comparison I am drawing up, I am linking the Buddhist moha (‘illusion’) with

‘incongruence’, Buddhist lobha (‘greed’) with lack of respect, and Buddhist dosa (‘aversion’) with

lack of empathy. It is interesting that in both systems of thought there is a tendency to focus on

one of the three troubles as being in a sense more fundamental than the other two. In client-

centred therapy it is incongruence which is the underlying trouble, while in Buddhism it is illu


So if we have to say in a single word what troubles people who are appropriately seeking

counselling, the answer in both systems is illusion/incongruence. Similarly the goal is enlight

enment/congruence. In Buddhism the way to enlightenment is through the elimination of crav

ing in its twin forms of greed and aversion. In client-centred therapy the way to self-actuali

sation or congruence is through acceptance in its twin forms of respect and empathy.

I am inclined to think that while ultimately enlightenment or self-actualisation has to do with

overcoming illusion and becoming congruent, the path to this involves acceptance or the over

coming of craving. What the therapist needs to do is to respect and empathise with the client. Of

course, the more genuine the therapist is the better, and this means that the therapist needs to

work at being as self-aware and as honest as he or she can be, but for all its importance

therapist genuineness comes into the picture in a different way from the other two condi

tions. Therapist genuineness comes in through the necessity that the therapist’s respect and em

pathy be genuine. This point may be more obvious if we reflect that an encounter with a very

genuine person need not be therapeutically valuable if their genuineness is expressed in ways

which have nothing to do with respect or empathy.


What craving amounts to is the sense of necessity, of having to do/not do (or be/not be)

something. The general notion of necessity is one which has been explored in various ways in

Western philosophy, but the particular insight we need here is due to Schopenhauer (1813), i.e. 

the insight that all necessity is relative. That is, while there are indeed things which we must do

or be, this necessity is always relative to something else which for the moment goes unques

tioned. For instance I must get to the railway station by eight o’clock, but this is so only rela

tive to the fact that I must catch the eight o’clock train. And that is relative to the fact that I

must get to London by tomorrow morning.

Now there is a problem here about where the chain of necessities ends. It can hardly go on in

definitely, yet if it comes to a stop it seems that we are back with an absolute necessity. So in

our example of catching the train, let us look at where the chain of necessity does end. I must

get to London by tomorrow morning. - What if you don’t? - Then I won’t be able to meet An

nabel for that concert in the evening.  - Why must you meet Annabel?  - Well, I said I would meet

her, and I must keep my word .- Why must you keep your word? - Because otherwise I would

be an untrustworthy person. - Why mustn’t you be untrustworthy? - Well, I’m not like that,

that’s not me – and I’m not answering any more stupid questions!

It is somewhere around here that the chain seems to end: “I can’t be untrustworthy” - Why

not? - “Because then I wouldn’t be me”. I stop the questions where I feel that my self-concept

is in question. Surely, I say to myself, I am a particular sort of person, and that sort of person

doesn’t do that sort of thing. That is how we naturally see it, but from a Buddhist point of view

this perception is illusory. There is no fixed essential ‘self’. I don’t have to be trustworthy be

cause I don’t have to be any way at all. I may choose to act in a trustworthy way in this situa

tion, I may believe that it is always best to act in a trustworthy way, but I don’t have to act like

that and I don’t have to have that belief.  There is no absolute ‘have to’. Lessing (translation: 1972, p. 16) put it beautifully in his Nathan the Wise. Nathan the Jew is talking to his dervish friend Al-Hafi: “What’s this I hear?  Must? - A dervish must?  Kein mensch muss mussen (no one should live by must), and certainly not a dervish.”

To summarise this section, duhkha arises from craving, and craving arises from the illusion that

there is a fixed self which I am, a self that has to be a certain way. In the Buddha’s words (Nanamoli

1972, p. 132):  “When a man perceives impermanence, perception of not-self becomes estab

lished in him; and when a man perceives not-self, he arrives at the elimination of the conceit ‘I

am’, and that is nirvana here and now.” Removing the sense of a self results in removing the

sense that I have to be any particular way, I don’t even have to be good. And with the release

from this necessity comes the sense of freedom: “Just as the Great Ocean has one taste, the

taste of salt, so too this Law and Discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation.”(Nanamoli

1972, p. 162)

As a parallel to this sense of the fluidity of the self let me quote the following passage from

Rogers (1967, p. 171):

Clients seem to move toward more openly being a process, a fluidity, a changing. They

are not disturbed to find that they are not the same from day to day, that they do not al

ways hold the same feelings toward a given experience or person, that they are not al

ways consistent. They are in flux, and seem more content to continue in this flowing cur

rent. The striving for conclusions and end states seems to diminish.



For Rogers the dissolution of the self-concept returns us to the experiencing self, but this ‘self’

is not a fixed entity; nor is it isolated from other selves. Rogers (1951, p. 520) remarks

that “it is one of the unexpected findings that have grown out of the client-centred approach”

that self-acceptance leads to greater acceptance of others. He goes on to suggest a theoretical

explanation for this, which is, roughly, that the denial of experiences incompatible with the

self-concept leads to defensiveness and distorted ways of seeing other people. Conversely,

with the elimination of the self-concept we become more accepting of (respectful towards)

our experiences, and feel less need to defend ourself against other people’s views of us. “When

there is no need to defend, there is no need to attack” (Rogers 1951, p. 521)

It is the reduction of the sense of the ‘fixed self’ which leads to the improvement in personal

relationships, and this theme is echoed in Buddhist teachings on the relation between ‘wisdom’

and ‘compassion’. ‘Wisdom’ is essentially the realisation of the illusory nature of the self, but

such realisation is held to be indissolubly linked with the growth of compassion. Even in our

ordinary unenlightened state we sometimes quite naturally lose our sense of having a separate

identity. A door is slammed and someone catches their fingers in it: here we may quite naturally

respond emotionally as if we had been hurt. From a Buddhist point of view there is no separate

self that has the pain, hence there is no important difference between me having it and you

having it. ’Selves’ drop out of the picture, so that for the enlightened person concern for ‘others’

arises as spontaneously as concern for ‘self’ . As Schopenhauer, that most Buddhist of Western

philosophers put it, “ ...the better person is the one who makes least difference between himself

and others, and does not regard them as absolutely non-ego; whereas to the bad person this

difference is great, in fact absolute.”  (Schopenhauer, 1844; translation in Payne, 1974, p. 

507). It is no doubt right to acknowledge that the idea of the dissolution of the self in Buddhism

goes well beyond the idea of the dissolution of the self-concept (or persona) in counselling

practice. Although I cannot discuss the matter here, I believe that the difference is closely

linked with the distinction between therapeutic and spiritual change. Therapy, I would say, aims

to soften or dissolve the persona (the mask, the self-concept), so as to allow the real experi

ential self or ego to emerge. The traditional spiritual paths, as I understand them, aim to soften

or dissolve the ego  - the self-centred self itself.


The parallels I have discussed so far have centred around the conceptual frameworks of Buddhism and client-centred therapy. But there also seem to be parallels between what Buddhists and client-centred therapists do in their respective quests for increasing enlightenment and congruence.


I can do little more than touch on this comparison in the space available, but it is interesting

that in both approaches the basic procedures can hardly be called techniques, or even means to

an end: what we have, rather, are certain ways of embodying attitudes that are intrinsically

valuable. In client-centred therapy the central procedure is that of reflection by the therapist of

the client’s expression of feelings and thoughts. One function of this reflection, according to

Rogers, is to establish an empathic link with the client, but it also seems clear that close listen

ing and reflection manifest a high degree of respect for the client. Thus reflection is a simple

way of embodying the two aspects of acceptance which clients need if they are to become

more congruent. That is, the necessary closeness to the client’s world is manifested in the accu

racy of the therapist’s empathy, while the necessary distance is manifested in the way the

therapist respects the client’s view of things. What is so effective in close listening is the combi

nation of respect and empathy.

In Buddhism there are various types of meditation, but the two central practices are those

known as ‘tranquillity’ (shamatha) and ‘insight’ (vipashyana), or ‘stopping’ and ‘seeing’. Tran

quillity meditation involves simply focusing one’s attention on a particular experience, such as

the sensations involved in breathing. In this kind of meditation one does not make any judge

ments about one’s experiences, although one may notice that judging is taking place. The point

is simply to stay with the experience, allowing the mind to become still. In client-centred lan

guage tranquillity meditation involves respect for one’s experience in its immediacy and

uniqueness. (It is - in the traditional imagery - like the flickering flame of a lamp becoming

steady).  Insight meditation is usually introduced after some proficiency in tranquillity has been

attained. When the meditator can ‘stay with’ an experience, the experience can then be reflected

on, and understood for what it is. (The steadily burning flame now becomes brighter and

clearer). In client-centred language this ‘insight meditation’ could well be called self-empathy,

a clear seeing into one’s own being. It is said that it is the union of tranquility and insight which

leads to, or constitutes, the enlightened state, a state of deep acceptance free of all craving  (see

e.g. Namgyal, 1986; Thrangu, 1993; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991).

It seems then that Buddhism and the client-centred approach use similar methods as well as

seeking essentially the same goal. The only really significant difference in method is that in cli

ent-centred therapy the client’s increasing congruence is facilitated by the empathy and respect

embodied in the therapist’s presence, whereas in Buddhism the meditator is developing self-

respect and self-empathy in a more direct way. (But I should add that it is a very common view

in Buddhism that meditation is difficult to learn without some  personal contact with a teacher

who has attained a measure of tranquility and insight themself).


One of the advantages of theoretical understanding over simple empirical knowledge is that it

enables us to see not just that things are the way they are but why they are so. I would like now

to apply this principle to a question which may seem trivial at first, but which leads quickly into

quite deep waters. It is the question of why there are just three core conditions. Why not four,

six or more? It is true that fourth and further conditions have been suggested by several writ

ers, including myself (Purton, 1989), but none of these have quite caught on, whereas the three

original conditions have maintained themselves in therapeutic theory and practice far beyond

the confines of the client-centred approach. It is curiously the same in Buddhism. The list of

three troubles (attachment, aversion, ignorance) runs all through Buddhism. There is, it is

true, an extended list which includes two extra troubles, and it would be interesting to link these

with possible fourth and fifth conditions of therapy, and then there are ‘secondary afflictions’

such as laziness, spitefulness and so on, but the original list of three has remained at the core of

Buddhist thought. The question arises of whether there really is something significant about

there being just three?

I think there is, and that it has to do with the fact, as I maintain, that the three conditions (or

the three troubles) are not just a list of facilitative conditions for therapy (or just a list of afflic

tive emotions). Rather they are aspects of what could be called the structure of the personal. I

mean that to think about persons essentially involves thinking of relationships, and a relation

ship involves two people (or possibly two personal elements within a single person). Now

where there are two people their relationship involves either closeness, distance, or neither-

one-nor-the-other. Two people in a relationship are either together or apart, or they are in

some in-between or muddled state. There really are no further possibilities at this most basic

level of analysis.

Now we have seen that client-centred therapy, or the Buddhist path, involves moving from

states of greed, aversion and illusion towards states of empathy, respect and congruence. But

what this seems to amount to in terms of relationship is the following:

(1)        A person moves from an unsatisfactory form of closeness (e.g. greed, possessiveness, at

tachment) to a more satisfactory form of closeness (i.e. empathic communion).What was unsat

isfactory about the initial closeness was that it had no element of distance or respect in it. The

person involved was not prepared to let the ‘winds of heaven’ dance through the relationship.

(2)        A person moves from an unsatisfactory state of separation (e.g. aversion, fear, hate) to a

more satisfactory form of separation (i.e. respect). What was unsatisfactory about the separa

tion was that it had no element of togetherness or communion about it. The person involved

was not prepared to acknowledge or experience his or her common humanity with the other



These two situations are clearly opposites, where an extreme of either separation or closeness

is rectified by the therapeutic admixture of something of the opposite quality. What helps with

suffocating closeness is the distancing of respect; what helps with cold separation is the togeth

erness of empathy. The basic idea here is very familiar in Buddhism; Gampopa, a twelfth-cen

tury Tibetan teacher put it succinctly ; “...when we have found out which is our strongest emo

tion, we must seek its remedy. This is done in each case by meditating on the opposite quality”

( translation 1959, p. 191).

But what of the third, and most central, therapeutic movement, the one from illusion to congru

ence? In terms of relationship I think it involves the movement from an unsatisfactory state of

not knowing where one is in a relationship, a state of painful confusion, to a satisfactory state

of not knowing where one is, i.e. a sparkling relationship where nothing is certain because

nothing is fixed, where we don’t quite know, perhaps, where our boundaries are, but where

that is a delight, a dance, a depth of relationship which defies any classification into ‘together’

or ‘separate’.

A glimpse of this might be seen in the remarks of a participant in one of Roger’s workshops

(Rogers, 1980, p. 197):

it was like a meditative experience when I feel myself as a center of consciousness, very much part of the broader universal consciousness. And yet with that extraordi

nary sense of oneness, the separateness of each person present has never been more

clearly preserved.

In Buddhist terms the path leads away from fixed categories to the unfixed. Where there is

fixed closeness we need some separation; where there is fixed separation we need some to

gethemess. Paradoxically it is as if we need a degree of confusion, an alchemical mixing of the

opposites, and it is only out of the confusion, muddle, illusion, moha that  the lotus blossom of

the enlightened mind emerges. In Nietzsche’s words: “0ne must still have chaos in oneself to be

able to give birth to a dancing star”. (Nietzsche 1883, 1, 5)

The structure of the personal, then, is the structure of relationship, and the basic form of rela

tionship is threefold: Together, Apart and Uncertain. Each of these modes of relation can exist in

a satisfactory or an unsatisfactory form. The unsatisfactory form of togethemess covers the

area of collusion, smothering, overprotection, infatuation and so on. The satisfactory form of

togethemess covers such things as sharing, communion and empathic understanding.

The unsatisfactory form of separation takes us into the region of hate, fear, rejection, isolation,

loneliness and so on. The satisfactory form of separation is the sphere of respect, independence,

valuing, prizing, etc.

The unsatisfactory form of uncertainty is confusion, muddle, ambivalence, self- deception,

mixed messages, etc. The satisfactory form of uncertainly is flexibility, idiosyncracy, openness,

freedom, and so on.

Looking at it like this, the movement along the therapeutic (or Buddhist) path consists in

moving from the unsatisfactory to the satisfactory version of each of the three modes of rela

tionship, i.e. from possessive closeness to empathic closeness, from aversive separation to re

spectful separation and from confusion to freedom.


I will end by returning from these rather ethereal heights to a question of therapeutic practice. 

As client-centred therapists we try to offer our clients the core attitudes of respect, empathy

and genuineness, but we often have to make choices about which of these attitudes should

have priority with particular clients at particular times. Getting a balance between the core atti

tudes, a balance which is appropriate to the individual client, seems a comparatively unex

plored area in the client-centred approach. Rogers (1980, p. 160) does suggest ways in which

the balance may helpfully be tipped in different kinds of personal relationship, but he does not

ground these suggestions in his client-centred theory.

I want to suggest now some rough guidelines based on my previous discussion. It is that the

core attitude which is especially likely to be therapeutic is that which tends to balance out the

trouble which prevails in the client at the time. While all the troubles are to some extent with us

all the time, it seems likely that in particular clients, or during particular sessions, one or other

of the troubles may predominate. That is, the client’s difficulties at the time may be especially

rooted in either lobha, dosa or  moha , so that the preferential emphasis would be respect for

the lobha client, empathy for the dosa client, and genuineness for the moha client. 

The lobha client is one whose difficulties are rooted in such things as over-involvement, pos

sessiveness, demandingness, perfectionism, clinging to relationships, loving too much, and

maybe compulsions and addictions. Also in this territory, I think, is depression, which arises

when the demands of lobha are not met, when we lose what we feel we must have. Lobha is a

disorder of ‘closeness’, and the ‘antidote’ is a degree of separation. Hence my suggestion is

roughly that with depression, for example, or with clients who ‘love too much’ the preferred

emphasis in therapy should be on respect, rather than empathy. What the client typically needs

is to regain a sense of their own vitality and worth, so that the therapist’s respect, valuing or

prizing of the client seems crucial.

The dosa client will be one whose difficulties are rooted in such things as under-involvement,

social isolation, suspiciousness, fear, coldness, ‘loving too little’. Dosa is a disorder of separa

tion, and the ‘antidote’ is a degree of closeness. Hence my suggestion is that with dosa the pre

ferred emphasis in therapy should be on empathy rather than respect  -  I do not mean of course

that dosa clients should not be prized and respected, but that the ‘distance’ that is involved in

respect is something that these clients probably have enough of already. In dosa clients there is

often beneath the surface a tinge of arrogance, a sense of being ‘special’ and set apart from other

people; in other words a kind of self-respect is already there. What is deeply missing is the

sense of relatedness, of sharing, of being-with-others, and it is this sense of isolation which

the therapist’s empathy can begin to dissolve. (It is tempting to see schizophrenia as involv

ing an extreme form of dosa , and in this connection it is interesting that Rogers found in an

extensive study of schizophrenia “that those patients receiving from their therapists a high de

gree of accurate empathy as rated by unbiased judges, showed the sharpest reduction in

schiozophrenic pathology”.(Rogers, 1980, p. 151)

The moha client will be one whose difficulties are rooted in such things as confusion, aimless

ness, uncertainty, lack of a sense of what one wants, lack of a sense of meaning or purpose in

life, lack of a sense of identity, and so on. It is hard to empathise with confusion, and it is also

hard to get a sufficient sense of who the person is in order to prize and respect them. So with

moha , I think, the therapist is thrown back on his or her own genuineness or authenticity. With

moha everything is uncertain, there are no tracks to follow, and the therapist can only trust in

his or her ability to be at home in trackless country, to trust that it is out of chaos that the

dancing star will be born.

These are of course only suggestions, and rather impressionistic groupings of types of counsel

ling problems. Nevertheless it does seem to me that the suggestions are in principle open to

empirical assessment. If it should turn out in practice that depression responds best to high

levels of empathy, and schizoid states respond best to high levels of respect, well, then I would

have to do some rethinking!


In comparing two paths as remote from each other in time and geography as Buddhism and

client-centred therapy, there is clearly a danger of spinning a web of connections which is not

very solidly grounded. However, I hope I have done enough to show that the connections be

tween Buddhism and client-centred therapy are real and substantial. Both, after all, are con

cerned with the general aim of relieving the unsatisfactoriness of our lives; both see this unsat

isfactoriness as rooted in our failure to be ourselves. Both take as axiomatic that our nature is

inherently trustworthy, though it has in various ways become distorted or obscured. Both see a

significant part of this distortion as arising from our adopting an external locus of evaluation,

an external refuge in the views and attitudes of other people. Both see this unfortunate situa

tion as remediable, since both conceive the human being in terms of process and flux, rather

than in terms of a substantial unchanging essence.

So much is the backdrop; what I have tried to do in this paper is to explore the question of

whether there are important parallels in the finer details of the path that leads away from

duhkha. Such parallels do seem to exist, and I am beginning to find them helpful in my counsel-

ling work. I am more aware now of the difference it may make when I lean more towards re

spect than towards empathy, or vice versa. But also I feel more sure about what I am doing as a

client-centred counsellor. Given the lack of solid empirical support for the effectiveness of

client-centered counselling (Levant & Shlien, 1984), I am glad to be able to ground my work

in a tradition tried and tested over so many centuries. I do not for a minute doubt that other

groundings are possible for client-centred practice; I suspect that such groundings can be

found in any genuine spiritual tradition, though not necessarily in the mainstream expression of

the tradition. Let me close with a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore:

The night has ended.

Put out the light of thine own narrow corner smudged with smoke.

The great morning which is for all appears in the East.

Let its light reveal us to each other who walk on the same path of pilgrimage.


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