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Paper presented at the 21st International focusing Conference, Awaji, Japan, May 2009




                                                Campbell Purton


Focusing-oriented therapy has its roots in both client-centred therapy and in Gendlin’s philosophy of experiencing.  As a philosopher I have always been interested in the philosophical background to focusing, and my interest in Buddhism has recently led me to look at a philosophical system that is not well-known in the West – the Chinese philosophy of Hua Yan Buddhism, known in Japan as Kegon.


The aspect of Hua Yan Buddhism which especially interests me is its emphasis on interconnection, or what it calls the ‘interpenetration’ of things.  This notion seems to me to be similar to the notion of ‘interaffecting’ that Gendlin develops in A Process Model.  There also seem to be similarities between Gendlin’s concepts of the ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ and the Hua yan notions of  li    and shi .


Li  and shi need some explanation, which I will come to later, but very roughly li is the ultimate, and in a sense ‘empty’, nature of things, which is beyond concepts, while shi refers to particular existing things or events for which we do have concepts.  In Hua Yan philosophy the relation between li and shi is discussed in detail, and so is the relation between particular shi’s.   


The question arises of what – apart from academic interest –  the value of this investigation may be might be.  I think that the value arises through the possibility of each system throwing a new light on the other.  If we look at Hua Yan from a Focusing perspective we may see things in Buddhism that we would not otherwise see, and similarly if we approach Focusing with Hua Yan in mind we may get new insights into what Focusing involves. 


Hua-yan Buddhism flourished during the Tang dynasty (CE 618 – 917).   ‘Hua Yan’ in Chinese means ‘flower ornament’. It was originally the name of a vast Buddhist text known in Sanskrit as the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Hua Yan philosophy draws its inspiration from this work. 


My main involvement in Buddhism has been with the Tibetan tradition, and I came across the Hua Yan philosophy through reading a book by Garma Chang, a Chinese scholar who studied for many years in Tibetan monasteries, and is best known for his English translations of the poetry of the 11th century Tibetan master Mila Repa.  Chang begins his  book The Buddhist Teaching of Totality (1971, p. ix) by saying:


During my thirty-five years of association with Buddhism, I have always asked this question: “Of all the Buddhist Schools – Hinayana, Mahayana and Tantra alike – which one truly holds the highest teachings of Buddhism?” The answer is now a clear-cut one: it is the Hua Yan School of China.


There is no other Buddhist scripture, to the best of my knowledge, that is superior to Hua Yan in revealing the highest spiritual inspiration and the most profound mystery of Buddhahood.  This opinion is shared, I believe, by the majority of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist scholars.


Hua Yan (Kegon) philosophy has a special relation with Buddhist meditation, especially the kind of meditation known in China as Chan and in Japan as Zen.   The well-known Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki has said “The philosophy of Zen is Kegon and the teaching of Kegon bears its fruit in the life of Zen” (quoted in Dumoulin, 1963).  Thus Hua Yan is the philosophy behind Zen, in the way that Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit is the philosophy behind Focusing.



Some features of Hua Yan philosophy


Hua Yan philosophy developed through bringing together the earlier schools of Buddhist philosophy into a remarkable synthesis.  It therefore can’t be understood without making some reference to earlier Buddhist thought, which I can only do very briefly here.


One central theme is that from very early in the Buddhist tradition much emphasis was place on the doctrine of anatman, or ‘no-self’.   It was held that human suffering arises from our attachment to our sense of a self, and that release from suffering comes about through the realisation that there is no self.


But if there is no self, what does exist?  In earlier Buddhist traditions it was held that what exists is human experiences  -  sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc.  These are real, but there is no self that has the experiences.  The self is literally nothing, the concept is empty. 


 In the later Mahayana traditions it was held that the same applies to everything, not just to people.  Everything  is empty – nothing really exists.  Yet clearly this cannot be quite the right way of putting it  -  in some sense people and everyday things exist.  And so there developed the idea of two levels of reality.  There is the everyday reality, in which we live and suffer, but there is a ‘deeper’ level at which nothing exists; this is referred to as ‘emptiness’ or ‘the void’.  The everyday reality arises out of  the void, so that there is some sort of connection between the two realms.  In an early Buddhist scripture the Buddha says:


There is an unborn, an un-brought-to-being, an unmade, an unformed.  If there were not, there would be no escape made known here for one who is born, brought to being, made, formed.   Udana suta VIII, 1 -3   Nanamoli, p. 223


So from the beginning it would seem that Buddhism had this notion of an ‘unborn’ out of which the world as we know it is born.  This seems to me to be rather like Gendlin’s notion of the implicit.  The implicit is what things come from, but is not itself a thing.  It is hard to talk clearly about this, but my point is that there is an ancient tradition in which the attempt has been made, and that we may be able to learn from it.


The notion of ‘no-self’ is common to most traditions of Buddhism, but has been interpreted in different ways.  As we have seen, the early Buddhist traditions interpreted no-self in terms of there being no self distinct from the experiences that people have. The Mahayana tradition, which denies that there are, ultimately,  any entities at all, gave a different formulation of the no-self doctrine.  In this tradition, a self, a person, has no existence as a separate, independent entity.  A person exists only through their relations with other people and with the rest of the world.  And not only people are like this -  everything exists only in and through interactions with everything else.   There is no self – there are no entities – in the sense of separately existing entities.  Everything exists only in and through its relation with everything else.   In this tradition the emptiness of things is not the same as non-existence: emptiness is the same as interconnectedness.


It was this notion of interconnectedness that was emphasised and developed in Hua-yan philosophy. This philosophy developed from the attempt to express in philosophical terms what the Flower Ornament Sutra portrays in metaphor and imagery.


Perhaps the most famous image from the Sutra is that of Indra’s net.  The Buddhist scholar Francis Cook (1977, p. 2) gives the following summary:


Far away, in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions.  … [T]he artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number.  There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number.  Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.


This is an image which helps to convey something of  the Hua-yan notions of the interconnection and interpenetration of things.  The Hua-yan philosophy, as developed by thinkers such as Tu Shun ( 557-640) and Fa Zang (643-712), attempts to set out the vision of Indra’s net in a conceptual rather than in an imaginative way.  Of course this is not easy to do, since our ordinary concepts are geared up to thinking of the world as composed of distinct entities. 


Hua Yen philosophy draws first on the idea of the ‘two levels of truth’, or ‘two levels of reality’.   There is the level of ordinary reality in which there exist separate things and individual people; this level of reality can be formulated in concepts and put into words.  Then there is the level of absolute reality which can be referred to as ‘emptiness’, in the sense that it is empty of distinct, conceptualisable things.  However, the other aspect of emptiness is the aspect of Indra’s Net, that is, the aspect of an interconnected reality in which everything is inseparably involved in everything else.  Hua Yen philosophy refers to the absolute reality of emptiness and interconnection as li , and the distinguishable things on the relative level as shi.


 Li  and shi are related.  In an important sense they are opposites, yet in the Hua Yan philosophy they are also held to be identical.  In this respect Hua Yan is following faithfully the teachings found in Buddhist scriptures such as the Heart Sutra.  In that brief sutra, which is chanted daily in many parts of the Buddhist world, it is said that ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’.  This means that each individual thing – each shi – is also the totality, the li.  An enlightened person would see the li in seeing the shi, an experience perhaps similar to that expressed by William Blake:


To see a World in a grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand,

And Eternity in an Hour!


Much of Hua Yan philosophy is about the relationship between li and shi.  It is emphasized again and again that the individual is the totality, and vice versa.  This involves more than the ordinary notion of interconnection.  A machine  is an interconnected system of parts, but the parts can exist on their own.  The Hua Yen totality – the li – is such that there are no separate parts.  As in a hologram everything is present in everything else.  This is very similar to Gendlin’s notion of an interaffecting order.  In A Process Model (p. 30) Gendlin writes:


We think of two people living separately into adulthood; then they meet.  A good deal of their interaction is explained by their antecedent lives.  But not all of it.  To an important extent it is their interaction which determines how each acts…..You and I happening together makes us immediately different than we usually are…..How you are when you affect me is already affected by me, and not by me as I usually am, but by me as I occur with you.



Some features of Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit



In Gendlin’s philosophy all our explicit, conceptually-organised experience rests on a mass of experiencing that is implicit.  When we formulate a problem in a particular way we make the problem explicit.  We give it a form, we say ‘That’s what the difficulty is’.  But then the person listening to us may say  ‘Yes, I understand, but I’m seeing it a bit differently’.  If the person is well attuned to us, what they say may resonate with us.  We then may say ‘Oh…I hadn’t thought of looking at it like that…yes…that feels right...I hadn’t seen it that way…’  Here a new aspect of the problem has become explicit.  In a sense that aspect had been there all the time.  It was there – but only in that mass of previously undifferentiated experiencing which constitutes the process of our life.  It was there only implicitly.


The distinction between the implicit and the explicit is crucial in focusing-oriented therapy and in the philosophy on which this therapy is based.  Our experiencing is differentiated into explicit aspects only to a very limited degree.  Most of our experiencing is there in a vast inter-connected mass of  implicit feelings, ideas, expectations, beliefs and so on.  At the level of the implicit there is not even any sharp distinction between feelings, thoughts, expectations and beliefs.  These distinctions only arise as we attempt to give some conceptual form to our experiencing.


At the level of the implicit everything is together.  There is the whole person in their whole situation, but the different elements are not separated.  Gendlin refers to this as a ‘pre-separated multiplicity’.  It is a multiplicity, but its elements are not yet distinguished from one another.  They exist, all together, as a whole.


The notion of an inter-affecting system goes beyond that of a system made up of interconnected parts that are linked in complex ways.  In a system of interconnected parts, the parts still exist as separate entities.  Whereas in Gendlin’s conception of an interaffecting system the elements are not independent entities; they are what they are only through their interactions with other elements.  It becomes misleading to refer to ‘parts’ here; a new way of thinking and talking has to be developed.


Gendlin’s philosophy gives rise to two important themes.  One is the theme of how the implicit level relates to the explicit level.  In the context of focusing, this is the question of how explicit meanings arise from implicit experiencing, and how they change the experiencing.  The other is the theme of interaffecting – how we are to think of ‘things’ that exist only in relation to other ‘things’.


It is these two themes that form the core of Hua Yan philosophy, but rather than trying to set out the philosophy in an abstract way I will approach it though some issues that can arise when we think about Focusing.



Hua Yan philosophy in relation to focusing issues



The first issue is to do with the fact that in teaching focusing there is sometimes a problem in getting across what a felt sense is.  Ann Weiser Cornell (1996, p. 29) writes:



There’s no need to be particular about what you are looking for….Sense anything: an emotion like ‘sad’ or ‘scared’, a sensation like ‘tight’ or ‘jittery’, an image like ‘a knot’ or  ‘rock’ – anything at all…. The biggest barrier to successfully finding a felt sense is wondering if you are doing it right – if you “really” have one.  In fact, it might be a good idea at this stage to forget you ever heard the words “felt sense”.  We don’t want the concept to get in the way of your experience.  Just think of yourself as looking for “something”.  Anything can be something.


I have in the past been rather doubtful about this.  In practice it seems to be good advice, but it seems to go against the crucial distinction that Gendlin makes between a felt sense and specific contents of experience such as emotions, sensations or images. In his book Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, for example, Gendlin devotes six whole pages to distinguishing felt sense from emotion.  Much psychotherapy involves working with emotions, but in working with the felt sense focusing-oriented therapy is doing some genuinely different.  So it would seem that we do need to be particular about what we are looking for – we are looking for a felt sense and not for an emotion.


Thinking about this issue with Hua Yan in mind, what comes to me is the principle that li (the totality) and shi  (the specific thing) are the same, yet also different.  An emotion is a shi, a nameable specific content;  the felt sense is more like li:  it is the whole, the totality, of which the emotion is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you feel angry, that is shi, but focusing invites us to sense around or beneath the anger, to sense what is ‘in’ this anger, what sort of anger it is.  As we go further into ‘all that’ in or around the anger we experience the anger differently.   We experience that whole situation as it is for us now, and that situation ultimately involves all that we are and have been, and all our relationships with others and with the world.  From the specific thing (the shi) we move into the indefinite complexity and subtlety of our life and of the world.  Then from there, from the whole, from the li, we may find that a new way of experiencing the situation emerges, a new image or emotion, a new shi.


The question of whether felt sense and emotion are different now seems less straightforward than it did originally.   Felt sense and emotion are related like li and shi.  In Hua Yan philosophy terms are developed for this relation that are more intricate than simply ‘same’ or ‘different’.  It is said, for example, that li and shi ‘interpenetrate’ and are ‘interdependent’.  The 7th-century philosopher Fa Zang explains these terms with an analogy (Cook 1977, pp. 70, 83):  Rafters form part of a house.  In the ordinary way of looking at things a rafter is a necessary part of the house, along with bricks, tiles and so on.  But we can think of the rafter in a different way:  it is not just necessary for the house but sufficient for it.  In Gendlin’s terminology the rafter implies the house.  This initially seems untrue – for surely the rafter could exist without any of the other components of the house existing.  However, Fa Zang argues that if the other components were not there, so that the house did not exist, then there would be no rafter.  There would be a piece of wood, but not a rafter. A rafter can only exist as a component of a house, hence if there is a rafter there will also be a house.  The same is true for all the other components of the house: the roof tiles, the doors, the chimneys and so on.  Each element, each shi, implies the totality, the li.   Conversely, the house (li) implies all its elements (all the shi’s).  If there are no rafters or chimneys then it is not a house, or at least not that house.  So a shi implies the li, and the li implies the shi. Or, in the Hua Yan terminology, shi and li ‘interpenetrate’.


Applying this to the Focusing example, we can conclude that the anger implies the felt sense in the same sort of way that the rafter implies the house: this anger would not be what it is without its whole context.  At the same time the felt sense – this felt sense -  implies the anger:  it would not be this felt sense if it didn’t imply the anger.


So when we sit down and focus we will often start with an emotion such as anger.  But rather than staying with the anger as a shi we let our awareness broaden or deepen so that we begin to experience the li (the felt sense)  that the anger is.   Just as it is not easy for us to say that the rafter is the house (because we naturally think in terms of the rafter as a separate thing) it is not easy for us to say that the emotion is the felt sense.  But that is what the Hua Yan philosophy invites us to try out – it is an invitation to see ‘a world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour’.   The Flower Ornament Sutra, with its rich imagery of  interpenetration, seems to have as its main function the encouragement of such a way of seeing things.   And if we can approach that way of seeing things then Ann’s suggestion may seem right after all: that  ‘anything can be something’ – that is, any particular emotion or other experience, can be taken as a felt sense.  Any shi is also a li.


My second suggestion about how the Hua Yan philosophy might change the way we think about focusing is this:  Gendlin (1968, p. 211) suggests that it can be helpful to respond to a client who is not focusing, as if they were: 


…the therapist responds to the felt meaning and uses some word like "angry" or "furious" or "mad." But it makes all the difference if the therapist, in responding, points at a felt sense that is really more complex. No matter how precise and clear what the client says may be, we must always assume and refer to a concrete felt sense.


For instance, if the client says they are angry, then rather than simply reflecting this emotion, the therapist might say ‘Oh… I see…you are feeling something quite strong there… something angry”.   I think that in practice this sort of response can be helpful, but it has until recently struck me as theoretically a bit odd.  Shouldn’t the therapist respond to what the client is experiencing now, rather than to what the therapist thinks the client might experience?  But if we approach the client’s experience in the Hua Yan way it is not odd at all.  The client is speaking from the shi, in this case a feeling of anger.  But any shi implies li, the totality of experiencing, so that the anger is not simply anger – it really is ‘all that’ which it implies and which implies it.  The therapist can respond to the li of the anger rather than to its shi.  The li is the ‘something’ which the client is expressing in the specific form of anger.  But the therapist doesn’t have to respond to the specific form; they may respond to the ‘something’, to that from which the specific form arises. 


Before ending I’d like to ask again whether this Hua Yan way of talking really makes sense.  Suppose we consider the example of the felt sense of a painting.  I often use this as a way of helping students to get hold of the difference between noticing such things as the colours, shapes, and patterns in the painting, and noticing the ‘feel’ of the painting as a whole.  In the Hua Yan terminology, the colours, shapes and patterns are shi;  the overall felt sense is li.  What I try to get across to the students is that they can be aware of the li (the felt sense) as well as of the shi (the colours etc).  I want to get across to them that the felt sense is different from the colours, etc.


But now the Hua Yan philosophy says that in some sense each shi  is the li.  For example, we are supposed to be able to say that this blue here is the whole felt sense.  But that seems untrue – the blue is just that shade of blue.  Colour and felt sense are different.


Yet that could be because we don’t look deeply, or in the right way.  The poet Rainer Maria Rilke would spent hours in front of a single painting.  In writing to his wife about Cézanne’s paintings he says:


Meanwhile I’m still going to the Cézanne room. …I again spent two hours in front of  particular pictures today; I sense this is somehow useful for me… I remember the puzzlement and insecurity of one’s first confrontation with his work…And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes… (p. 37).


Rilke stands before a portrait of Madame Cezanne in a red armchair:



A red, upholstered low armchair has been placed in front of an earthy-green wall in which a cobalt blue pattern (a cross with the centre left out) is very sparingly repeated…Seated in this red armchair, which is a personality in its own right, is a woman, her hands in the lap of a dress with broad vertical stripes that are very lightly indicated by small, loosely distributed flecks of green yellows and yellow greens, up to the edge of the blue-grey jacket …In the brightness of the face, the proximity of all these colours has been exploited for a simple modeling of form and features: even the brown of the hair roundly pinned up above the temples and the smooth brown in the eyes has to express itself against its surroundings.  It’s as if every part were aware of all the others  - it participates that much; that  much adjustment and rejection is happening in it; that’s how each daub plays its part in maintaining equilibrium and in producing it: just as the whole picture finally keeps reality in equilibrium.  For if one says, this is a red armchair…it is that only because it contains latently within itself an  experienced sum of colour which, whatever it may be, reinforces and confirms it in this red…a colour will come into its own in response to another…In this hither and thither of mutual and manifold influence, the interior of the picture vibrates, rises and falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part.  Just this for today….You see how difficult it becomes when one tries to get very close to the facts’ (pp 70-72).


It seems to be through sustained attention to the particular colours in their context that Rilke comes to a view of the picture in which the particular elements (the shi’s) have not disappeared, but are seen as also the whole (the li.)  The red, for instance, is not just red but something that comes into its own only in response to all the other colours.  That red is not describable without describing the whole picture.


What we are talking about here is not a whole that is made up of parts.  In a whole made up of parts the parts are necessary for the whole, but in the relationship that we are talking about the shi is sufficient for the li.  To see the colour as precisely that, is to have the felt sense of the whole.  As I understand it, this is how the Flower Ornament sutra encourages us to see things;  not as separate, and not as merged, but as relating to the whole of reality in the Hua Yan manner of interpenetration. 


If we apply this way of looking things to Focusing, then we start with an emotion such as anger, and through waiting, and giving it sustained attention in its context, we come to sense that the emotion (the shi) is also a felt sense.  Then what we can say is not ‘Oh, its not anger it’s that’; rather, we can sayOh, the anger is that!’  The anger doesn’t disappear when the felt sense comes  - They can both be there at the same time, not the same exactly, and not different exactly, but interpenetrating.


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