World Transformation Through Self Transformation Essays

Aesthetic Experience and Transformation in Music Therapy

A Critical Essay

By Giorgos Tsiris


Searching the literature, I was surprised with the small amount of texts that explore the aesthetic dimensions of music therapy practice. Despite the fact that aesthetics has been acknowledged as an important dimension of music therapy in early publications (e.g. Gaston, 1964, 1968; Mueller, J., 1964; Mueller, K., 1964), such explorations have been ignored or restricted for a long period of time. This fact reflects some of the difficulties of considering artistic criteria in a health-promoting discipline and profession. More particularly, the small amount of texts acknowledging the relevance of aesthetic dimensions in music therapy might suggest the belief that aesthetics can interfere with the struggle of music therapy to gain recognition as a legitimate health-care profession and discipline (Aigen, 2007). This was the case especially in USA where music therapy tried to be recognized mainly through quantitative research and positivistic approaches to knowledge. From this perspective, aesthetics have been regarded as something subjective and therefore something with limited if any value, in the context of music therapy as an "objective" science (Aigen, 1995). However, a growing body of music therapists has started to challenge such perspectives and they have brought aesthetics in the forefront of music therapy discourse by adopting mainly qualitative and phenomenological approaches to knowledge.

One of the most recent contributions in this discourse is Aigen’s (2007) article "In Defence of Beauty: A Role for the Aesthetic in Music Therapy Theory." In this article, Aigen (2007, p. 127) asserts that "aesthetic experience involves and models processes of transformation that are necessary parts of successful music therapy." Three basic points that emerge from his premise are: aesthetic experience, transformation and successful music therapy. Taking these points as my point of departure, I develop the present essay in the following parts:

  • A brief retrospective review of the philosophical discourse of aesthetics.
  • Aesthetic experience and its relevance to music therapy.
  • Transformation and its relation to aesthetic experience.
  • Successful music therapy: The role of aesthetic experience and transformation.

Throughout this essay, my personal stance is supported by a literature review which draws from the fields of music therapy, drama therapy, and philosophy, as well as from humanistic approaches to psychotherapy. I should clarify that my survey of the literature is not intended to be exhaustive and it focuses on exploring some dimensions related in particular to Aigen’s afore-mentioned premise. I should also mention that my literature review is limited in texts written in the English language and consequently reflects theories and concepts that have been developed essentially in Western cultures and traditions. Therefore, it does not represent a broader range of views that have emerged in other traditions and cultures in the world.

I also want to clarify that despite the fact that my explorations are based mainly on Aigen’s premises, the meanings that I generate and the links that I make with other theories are not necessarily attributed to Aigen’s theory. My intention is not to explain or elaborate Aigen’s understanding of aesthetics, but rather to develop my own personal understanding as this is based on Aigen’s premises. So, both similarities and dissimilarities between Aigen’s view and my own personal view of aesthetic experience and transformation in music therapy may be identified.

Brief Retrospective Review of the Philosophical Discourse of Aesthetics

The root of the word aesthetics derives from the ancient Greek word aisthesis, which refers to the sensory perception. The initial meaning of the word, however, has been expanded and covers a range of contents including both the physical and emotional aspects which are present in immediate experience (Dewey, 1934/2005). This expanded notion of aesthetics has been a major part of the discourse of art and philosophy which explores issues concerning the nature and meaning of art, of beauty, as well as of sensory experience coupled with feeling (Stige 1998). This intrinsic connection of sensory experience with feeling and emotion is denoted also in the corresponding ancient Greek verb aisthanomai which has both the meaning "to perceive" and "to feel."

Aesthetics has been a major philosophical issue since the classical period in ancient Greece (5th and 4th centuries B.C.) that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – three of the most major Greek philosophers – laid a significant part of the philosophical foundations of Western culture. Plato, in particular, conceptualized music as a synthesis of mathematical and ethical conceptions. Similarly, his view of aesthetics was penetrated by the belief that beautiful objects incorporated proportion, harmony, and unity among their parts (Paul, 1988). This view was connected to his understanding of pure numbers as having cosmic power and to his belief that musical harmony relates to the harmony of the universe or to the harmony of spheres. For Plato beauty is "a Form, allied to Good, whose instances were objects of love" (Hamilton, 2007, p. 2). So, the notion of beauty is separated from the autonomy and subjectivity of aesthetic experience. According to him, the cosmos is the one definitely beautiful artifact and paradigm of phenomenal beauty, while all other things can be considered beautiful just insofar as they contribute to its beauty. In a similar way, Aristotle argued that the universal elements of beauty are order, symmetry, and definiteness. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that music has a direct effect upon the soul and actions of humankind, and that music was an embodiment of universal principles and truths. However, in order to understand these conceptions of aesthetics and music it is important to keep in mind that aesthetic value in ancient Greece was not separated from ethical, religious, cognitive or practical value. In a similar way, music was interwoven with political and social systems while it was considered to be a present from the Muses, the goddesses of poetic inspiration who sponsored every cultural or intellectual activity. Therefore, music (or mousikē) was used in a broader sense than we use music today. It was understood as reflecting unity of every artistic activity (e.g. poetry, dance) that each Muse represented and was expressed in music (Hamilton, 2007; Scruton, 1997; West, 1992).

Through a very brief retrospective review[1], an evolving interest in the discourse of aesthetics started anew in the eighteenth century. In 1750 Baumgarten (as cited in Stige 1998) focused on the qualities of the artistic object and argued that aesthetics should be able to explain beauty as a product of perfection (see also Frohne-Hagemann, 2001). On the other hand, in 1790 Kant (as cited in Stige, 1998) emphasized the subject’s role and active participation in the creation of all knowledge – a fact that gave an inter-subjective character to aesthetics. More particularly, Kant claimed that the person will never have an objective knowledge of reality as he always makes sense of the world by his perception of the world through his senses and through his pre-existing knowledge and past experiences. Therefore, he emphasized the importance of inter-subjectivity as people communicate on aesthetic judgments (Stige, 2002). It is interesting to mention that a central point in Kant’s view is the idea of "purposiveness without a purpose." Even if this idea initially did not intend to imply that art is functionless, Adorno’s radical view gave it a new direction by implying that autonomous artworks have a social situation, but no direct social function. Therefore, he implied autonomy of art which has as its purpose the creation of something without direct function (Hamilton, 2007).

Almost a century later, Dewey criticized the conception of art as an autonomous institution in the society; a fact that related to the development of capitalism in the nineteenth century. He opposed to the conception of art as a lonely, autonomous thing that does not belong to everyday life, as such a view implied a split between high and low art. In this framework, high art requires high levels of competency in the creator, the performer, as well as the receiver of art, while it is for few people and represents elitist and essentialist values (Stige, 1998). Such a view, however, was in contrast with Dewey’s naturalistic approach to aesthetics.

More particularly, Dewey argued that the split between high and low art is artificial and that aesthetic experience is closely related to everyday experiences. He criticized the split of means and ends in modern societies and he counter-proposed that the main characteristic of aesthetic experience is that means and ends merge. From this point of view, an experience is non-aesthetic when the means and ends are external to each other. In other words, an experience could be characterized as unaesthetic when it is not integrated into meaningful units, and therefore begins and ends in arbitrary places (Dewey, 1934/2005). In these terms, the unity of means with ends is a defining characteristic of aesthetic experience. The goal is the experience itself as it posses and reveals the unity of structure and purpose, the integration of parts.

Based on this perspective, Dewey (1934/2005) refers to two kinds of means: one kind is external to that which is accomplished, while the other kind remains immanent to the consequences produced. The first kind of means implies that the ends are cessations of what went before, as the means cease to act when the end is reached. On the other hand, the second kind of means implies that the ends are fulfillments of what went before, as the means belong intrinsically to their end. This second kind of means that is its own end, or is -in other words- incorporated in the outcome, is considered a medium and is an integral part of each aesthetic experience. The different nature of these two kinds of means can be better understood through the following example that Dewey (1934/2005, p. 205) gives: Sometimes we travel in order to get somewhere else and we would gladly avoid the trip if that was possible. Some other times, however, we travel for the delight of moving about and seeing what we see. In the first case the trip is just a means that is not incorporated in the end. In the second case, however, the trip is a medium as it is integral part of the end; our goal is the trip.

Aesthetic Experience and Its Relevance to Music Therapy

Aigen’s conception of aesthetic experience in music therapy is in alignment with Dewey’s philosophy. From this perspective, Aigen (2007, p. 124) considers music as "an experiential medium whose aesthetic qualities are an essential aspect of its clinical value." Music in music therapy is not used merely as a means toward an end which could be approached through alternate paths. Music is a medium which is the focus of the therapeutic relationship and is not separated from its clinical aims (Aigen, 1995).

In this context, Aigen supports that:

Music is inarguably an artistic medium that is defined by the elements of it that give rise to aesthetic experience. Unless the elements that define music as music are central parts of clinical applications it is difficult if not impossible to understand why the discipline of music therapy exists as it does and why it enjoys the dedication of the clients whole lives it was created to enhance. (Aigen, 2008, p. 17)

Aesthetic experience answers the quest for meaning and purpose in life that is common among many music therapy clients, as it provides a connection between the individual and the reality around him (Aigen, 2007). From this perspective, music therapy focuses on the process rather than the product. Music in music therapy is not a means, but a medium for interpersonal, emotional and aesthetic experiences (Aigen, 1995). This premise denotes a view of music as a process, as a moment-to-moment experience which provides the client opportunities to discover, experience, and transform various aspects of his self and of his self in relationship with the environment and other people around him.

Some ideas that I find illustrative to Aigen’s view are those of Clive Robbins, who claims that therapy processes are intrinsically artistic processes by stating that "the power of music in therapy stems from the reality that music is an art" (Robbins, 1993, p. 16). Bruscia also talks about music as artistic process. He states, "aesthetic values and beauty are pursued and achieved while improvising, composing, re-creating, or listening to music, in the creative process itself" (Bruscia, 1998, p. 149).

I argue that the significance of this concept of aesthetics in music therapy applies even when the clinical aims are non-musical (e.g. personal growth or self-actualization). This happens as personal change takes place through the person’s active engagement with the music. In this framework, the merging of means and ends in the aesthetic experience, as Aigen (1995, 2007) describes, leads to the development of a general sense of living a life with meaning and purpose. Consequently, this merging enhances greater personality integration and a sense of unity to the person. This unity and wholeness to our experience is the main quality that describes the aesthetic experience both in music therapy and in everyday life. This close interweaving of aesthetic experience with personal and practical concerns is a fundamental notion that we could verify by understanding how the person’s growth and self-actualization takes place through his active engagement with music (as we will discuss in more detail in the next part of this essay). This connection of aesthetics with personal and practical dimensions is one main rationale for its significance in the discourse of music therapy (Aigen, 2007) and refutes Smeijsters (2008) critique that music-centered music therapists ignore personal aspects.

Four other influential views of aesthetic experience in music therapy are those of Salas (1990), Kenny (1982, 1989, 2006), Lee (2003) and Stige (1998, 2002, 2008). Through a short overview, Salas (1990) supports that aesthetic experience is a manifestation and affirmation of the unity and patterns of existence itself, while it reflects the person’s discovery of meaning in life and his connection to the world. From this point of view, she sees "growth and healing [...] as closely related to an increased awareness of beauty and the capacity to create it" (Salas, 1990, p. 1).

In a similar way, Kenny (1982, 2006) describes aesthetics as an intrinsic human quality, as the notion of aesthetics is connected with the human’s need for beauty and quest for meaning in the world. "As one moves toward beauty", according to Kenny (1989, p. 77), "one moves toward wholeness, or the fullest potential of what one can be in the world." However, the use of the word beauty and its definition is controversial, especially in the framework of music and other form of art therapies. For this reason, I would like to comment on it briefly in the paragraph below.

As Aigen (2007) notes, there are two primary understandings of beauty. In one way, beauty has the same meaning with aesthetic value which is present in every aesthetic experience. According to the second understanding however, beauty relates to a view which implies "a fairly orthodox style or genre, pleasure unmixed with pain and the absence of bizarre or discordant elements" (Stolnitz, 1967, p. 266, as cited in Aigen, 2007, p. 114). The clinical relevance of beauty to music therapy is in alignment with its first understanding. More particularly, my personal understanding of beauty in this context is in accordance with Ansdell (1995: 216) who writes that "beauty is a quality which can happen between people, not just a quality of a musical object". Similarly, Small (1998, p. 219) suggests that "the sensation of beauty is not an end itself but a sign that the relationship is occurring." From this viewpoint, beauty (and aesthetics) refers to a relationship and a process of creating and understanding a shared meaning and value in the world. However, I support that the belief of aesthetic judgments on beauty as having universal validity, as Paul (1988) argues, needs closer and careful examination.

A third view of aesthetics in music therapy is this of Lee (2003) who supports the vital role of aesthetic experience in clinical processes by understanding both the musical experience and the therapeutic relationship as aesthetic in their nature. More particularly, in his book The Architecture of Aesthetic Music Therapy Lee (2003) develops his theory of Aesthetic Music Therapy (AeMT). He considers music therapy from a musicological and compositional perspective, as he proposes that new ways of exploring clinical practice can emerge when theories of music inform theories of therapy. Based on a music-centered approach to music therapy, Lee considers music as the core of the therapy and he argues that "the actualization of the client’s aesthetic individuality through music is at the center of AeMT" (Lee, 2003, p. 22). However, Lee’s (2003, p. 69) statement that "balancing the aesthetic and clinical features of improvisation is no easy task" implies a separation or externality between aesthetic and clinical thought in music therapy, which I personally find incorrect. I find that such a separation or externality tends towards an understanding of music as a means, rather than a medium in music therapy (as discussed above).

Stige (1998, 2002, 2008) on the other hand, criticizes the connection of aesthetics with the notions of wholeness and unity; a connection that is explicit in the afore-mentioned views of Aigen (1995, 2007, 2008), Salas (1990) and Kenny (1982, 1989, 2006). Coming from a culture-centered approach to music therapy, he considers these notions a set of values that are not shared by everyone and possibly repress other values. He argues that it is problematic to develop general criteria for distinction between aesthetic and unaesthetic experiences based on these notions of unity, completion or wholeness to our experience, as what is unity, completion or wholeness for one individual, is not necessarily for another person as well (Stige (2002). Stige therefore counter-proposes the acknowledgement of different "local" aesthetics and examines music therapy as a set of aesthetic practices. In other words, he refutes the quest for universal aesthetic qualities and focuses on the communication processes on values and value, related to specific contexts (Stige, 1998, 2008).

According to my understanding however, Aigen’s premises do not actually contradict with those of Stige. When interviewed by Stige, Aigen (2001, p. 90) suggested that music is "transpersonal with objective qualities," while he claimed clearly that "objectivity does not imply universality" in music (Aigen, 2001, p. 92). Combining this statement with his concept of music as a medium which is not separated by its ends (e.g. experience of unity and wholeness), I support Aigen when he refers to unity and wholeness not in a prescriptive way as a universal set of values. On the other hand, he refers to them as experiences which have objective qualities and which, at the same time, take place on an individual level through intra- and inter-personal processes of negotiating values, as Stige suggests. However, I suggest here that the development of a clear working definition of universality and objectivity could help us to deepen our understanding of aesthetics on the basis of shared meanings and it could possibly help us to develop an integrative model of aesthetics in music therapy.

Having the above context in mind, I will try to approach the question of "why aesthetic experience involves and models processes of transformation." This question brings us in the second points of Aigen’s (2007) initial premise.

Transformation and Its Relation to Aesthetic Experience

Transformation (as well as the equivalent concept in Greek, metamorphosis) means a change in form during development. It is a commonly used concept in the wider field of therapy and it usually describes processes of growth, self-actualization or re-formation of the person, while sometimes it is used alternatively with these words. Irrespective of how one may call it though, Rogers (1995, p. 35) claims that transformation is "the mainspring of life, and [...] the tendency upon which all psychotherapy depends."

In my exploration of the role of transformation in therapy, Porter’s (2003) viewpoint -as a drama therapist- appealed to me. She conceptualizes transformation as an intermediate stage between death and rebirth (in a broader sense); as a creative process, where each moment is new and is a process of becoming[2]. In order to describe this intermediate, transformative stage between death and rebirth, Porter (2003, p. 101) uses the notion of impasse that she defines as "any time in treatment when clients struggle to move to another level of development and / or are on the brink of that transition". From this perspective, impasse could be described as a bardo state, where bardo (in Tibetan) means a transition between one situation and the beginning of another.

Porter (2003) connects the impasse in therapy with the occurrence of death on a metaphoric level. This process in therapy can be seen as the same process in nature where one being dies and then re-emerges. This transformative process in therapy denotes a period of tension and suspension where the old aspects of the self deconstruct so that new dimensions and possibilities of the person can arise. The constant transformations that take place through improvisations encourage psychological growth, as the nature of improvisation challenges rigidity and encourages spontaneity. This transformative dynamic of improvisations represents a constant process of death/tension and re-birth/resolution. This transformative tension is a precursor of growth.

However, the process of death and rebirth, which is essential for personal change, is challenging and the person should allow space for it and be able to tolerate it. As Viktor Frankel said, "what is to give light must endure burning" (as cited in Porter 2003, p. 105). Such a view of the role of transformation reveals potential spiritual aspects, as all the spiritual traditions believe in the transformative nature of death. This connection of transformation and spirituality in music therapy becomes evident from Lipe’s article (2002) where she does a review of fifty-two articles from 1973 to 2000 relating to the topic of music, spirituality and health.

Based on Porter’s conceptualizations, I relate transformation with what Rogers (1995) described as the process of "becoming a person." In this process the individual becomes gradually more open and aware of his experience incorporating his own feelings and attitudes, as well as the reality around him. This openness of awareness is a basic element that usually characterizes the person who emerges from therapy.

Transformation describes the process of reorganization of the individual "at both the conscious and deeper levels of his personality in such a manner as to cope with life more constructively" (Rogers, 1995, p. 36). Therefore, transformation refers to a dynamic conception of the therapeutic process where the therapeutic outcome does not refer to a static state of being of the individual, but to a dynamic process which unfolds within the therapy. The individual’s involvement in this process is both the vehicle and the goal of the therapy (Aigen, 1995). In this way, the individual who strives to discover himself becomes "more content to be a process rather than a product" and he tends to accept that he is not "a fixed entity, but a process of becoming" (Rogers, 1995, p. 122).

From this perspective, I agree with Aigen (2007) that aesthetic experience does involve and model processes of transformation. Aesthetic experience is transformative in its very nature, as both aesthetic experience and transformation lie in a process of creating or participating in something where means and ends do not exist as independent entities; a process which activates processes of self-growth and self-actualization in the person. Aigen (1991), more particularly, argues that the central function of music is personal transformation. This transformation facilitates a healthy functioning of the person that is characterized by the "ability to maintain a flexible response to the ever changing demands of one’s own internal development, as well as to those of the external society" (Aigen, 1991, p. 90). Therefore, aesthetic experience involves the person’s "journey towards wholeness" (Bruscia, 1998, p. 42). This journey encompasses the elements of exploration, discovery, change and growth that are considered – both from Porter (2003) and Aigen (2007) – as basic characteristics of transformation.

In this context, Aigen suggests that:

... the clinical aesthetic context provided by the music therapist takes the emotional energy and facilitates its transformation into energy used in the service of the client’s growth, self-expression, self-awareness, and ability to commune with others. (Aigen, 2007, p. 125)

It is interesting to note that a similar idea of transformation is also reflected in Dewey (1934/2005) who claims that the change that physical materials (i.e. sounds or colors) undergo, relates to a similar transformation that takes place on the side of "inner" materials, memories and emotions of the person. More particularly, he states:

... between conception and bringing to birth there lies a long period of gestation. During this period the inner material of emotion and idea is as much transformed through acting and being acted upon by objective material [in music therapy this material is music] as the latter undergoes modification when it becomes a medium of expression. It is precisely this transformation that changes the character of the original emotion, altering its quality so that it becomes distinctively aesthetic in nature (Dewey, 1934/2005, pp. 78-79, italics added).

According to my understanding, this relationship between aesthetic experience and transformation is underpinned by their common tension-resolution dynamic. More specifically, aesthetic experience involves processes of transformation of the "old self" which resolve into a "new self." The resolution of the tension that lies between the "old self" and the "new self" is an essential ingredient of music therapy processes (Robbins & Robbins, 1991). In this way, the transformative dynamic in music therapy which represents a constant process of death/tension and re-birth/resolution creates a corresponding aesthetic dynamic – as I would call it – and vice versa. This tension-resolution dynamic is a basic characteristic of the personality’s development towards a higher level of integration (Aigen 1995, 2005).

The next major question which arises and leads to the third point of Aigen’s (2007) premise is "why processes of transformation are necessary parts of successful music therapy."

Successful Music Therapy: The Role of Aesthetic Experience and Transformation

In my endeavor to understand why transformation is an essential part of successful music therapy, I faced the challenge of defining firstly what makes music therapy "successful." According to Bruscia (1998), if the desired therapeutic results have not been achieved, therapy has not been successful. Conversely, music therapy is successful when it achieves the therapeutic results to which it aims. But if we try to define the therapeutic aims, we return to the root quest of actually defining music therapy.

In the appendix of his book Defining Music Therapy, Bruscia (1998) quotes sixty-one different definitions of music therapy. Despite the great diversity of these definitions, it is noteworthy that most of them refer to the improvement of the client’s physiological, psychological and / or mental health. Additionally, the enhancement of the potential for growth, self-actualization or well-being of the individual emerges (based on the afore-mentioned definitions) as a commonly used notion concerning the therapeutic aims. So, I propose that the notions of holistic health, growth and self-actualization can also function as a general framework for defining the therapeutic aims and, through their fulfillment, the effectiveness or success of music therapy.

Under this light, processes of transformation emerge – by definition(s) – as necessary parts of successful music therapy. Transformation, as I explained previously, describes processes of growth and self-actualization which are main therapeutic aims. Therefore, transformation – and consequently aesthetic experience – could be established as a vital part of a successful music therapy.

This inextricable relationship of aesthetic experience, transformation and therapy is central in the framework of music-centered music therapy, as the aesthetic experience in music is the means and the goal of therapy itself (Aigen, 1995). The transformation of the person, according to Nordoff and Robbins (2007), lies in the processes of self-discovery and results in a new way of connecting with the world. The experience of this self-discovery process is central to the therapeutic relationship and confirms aesthetic factors as an essential part of music therapy. As Aigen aptly describes in two of his texts, "the experiencing is the Nordoff-Robbins therapy [...] it is the actual living through in the moment that changes you" (Aigen, 2001, p. 99). "Experience in this aesthetic realm is not peripheral to the therapy but is the therapy" (Aigen, 1995, p. 241).

Similarly, Bruscia supports that music therapy (in general) is an experiential form of therapy where client and therapist develop their relationship within the music experiences. This means that music therapy "relies upon experience as both the agent and outcome of therapy" and therefore the "client accesses, works through, and resolves the various therapeutic issues directly through the medium" (Bruscia, 1998, p. 107). In other words, the client is transformed through music experience which is at the same time the primary aim, process and outcome of therapy. Therefore, transformation is viewed as an essential part of aesthetic musical experience and includes both musical and personal aspects (Aigen, 2007). The transformation of musical elements (through aesthetic procedures like development, variation or change of melodic shapes, rhythm, dynamics and / or harmony) that happens between client and therapist in clinical improvisation is directly linked with, and becomes, the transformation of the person’s self (through procedures of aesthetic dynamic that I described above). This merging of musical and personal aspects is accomplished as the person’s emotional energy (personal aspect) is transformed into creative expression (musical aspect) through his engagement in music.

Some Final Words

Based on this short exploration of aesthetic experience in the discourse of music therapy, I agree with Aigen’s (2007, p. 127) initial premise that "aesthetic experience involves and models processes of transformation that are necessary parts of successful music therapy." However, I believe that we need to continue our endeavors to understand in greater depth the multi-dimensional role of aesthetic experience in music therapy. In this regard, I believe that we need to be informed by current musical, biological, and psychological perspectives, but always base our theories of aesthetics primarily on our experiences and empirical knowledge as music therapy practitioners and researchers. Such an approach will help us to deepen our understanding of how human beings relate to each other and grow as individuals through their aesthetic experiences in music therapy. I believe that the acknowledgement and further exploration of aesthetic dimensions in music therapy will enhance our understanding of the transformative processes within the therapy and will generally open up new horizons in our practice and research.


[1] This retrospective review of the discourse of aesthetics is not exhausted because of the limited length of this essay. Therefore, I choose to refer mainly to Baumgarten, Kant, and Dewey as their ideas represent some basic ways of thought in aesthetics which have been appeared in the discourse of music therapy as well (Aigen, 1995, 2005, 2007; Frohne-Hagemann, 2001; Stige 1998, 2002).

[2] For a discussion of death and rebirth experiences in music and music therapy, see Scheiby (1995). For a discussion of myths of death and rebirth and their relevance in music therapy, see Kenny (1982).


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The Composition of Self-Transformation Thought in Classical East Asian Philosophy and Religion1

A. Charles Muller

December 4, 2011

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

I will speak here of three notions which are crucial for a thoroughgoing understanding of the three East Asian philosophical/religious teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The first I name integrated practice; the other two are already known to modern scholarship as essence-function and interpenetration. Despite the readily observable reliance on these fundamental and unifying elements by the major masters of the three traditions, through the past century of modern scholarly investigation in the West they have been paid almost no sustained attention. While they have occasionally been identified in a fragmentary and cursory way, they have not been examined from the perspective of their role as fundamental constituents of a holistic cultural worldview, or as a set of pan-East Asian metaphysical categories which are radically distinct from basic Western paradigms, and which have retained remarkable consistency throughout the long histories and wide range of schools of thought contained in the three traditions.

2. Integral Practice

By integral practice I refer to the character of religious practice in Confucianism, Taoism and East Asian Buddhism to be, from a variety of perspectives, non-dualistic and holistic. One of the foremost of the numerous aspects of the concept of integral practice is the intimate relationship of notions of personal transformation with the classical Confucian/Taoist/East Asian Buddhist2 (CTB) concept of “learning” or “study,” wherein one's level of scholarly attainment was recognized to be greatly contingent upon the degree to which one had achieved unity with, or embodied (體得) the object of study. I.e., the classical East Asian conception of scholarship was intimately connected with what is more sharply distinguished in modernity as “practice.” Or to look at it from the opposite side, the sharp distinction that modern scholarship makes between “study” and “practice” did not exist in such a manner for the East Asian classical thinkers. This understanding of “study” is evident in almost every branch of Confucianism, Taoism and East Asian Buddhism.

The primary objects of inquiry in the East Asian classical philosophical texts of the “three teachings” were the human mind and human behavior, and the most seminal of


the Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist texts were written for the explicit purpose of bringing about reflection on the nature of the mind and one's actions, in order to reveal their purity and dross, such that the purity could be enhanced and the dross eliminated. Moreover, in the sense that the texts, whether the Analects, Mencius, Tao Te Ching, Chuang-tzu, Awakening of Faith or Platform Sutra were considered to reflect the minds of the sages, they were understood to be agents of transformation in themselves. By studying the text with earnestness, one could embody its message such that his/her behavior might become penetrated by its underlying theme. In most East Asian philosophical streams, such embodiment of a text was a fundamental stage in the process of self-transformation.3 While this process was normally initiated by memorization of the text, memorization itself was not the final aim, but an important first step, a preliminary qualification allowing for the deeper investigation into the text and the apprehension of its principles. In this sort of “scholarship,” the criterion of achievement was not the breadth of knowledge of facts that one held at one's command about a certain area, but the degree to which one had assimilated the teachings of the sages into his behavior. It is for this reason that the “scholar of broad learning (多聞)” was, in all three classical traditions, considered to be of a lower level than one who could actually demonstrate the kind of insight and actions indicative of self-transformation.

Concomitant with this understanding of “study” as the process of attaining of a unity with its object, is the basic premise that such study includes a training and refinement of the person's character. This refinement, when assiduously carried out, contains the possibility of attainment of human perfection, since “perfection” (defined variously in different traditions) is considered to be an innate endowment of all persons.4 This view of the possibility of attainment of human perfection through “training” can be discerned in the earliest extant works of Chinese philosophical literature, such as the I Ching (易經, Book of Changes), Shih Ching (詩經, Book of Poems) and Li Chi (禮記, Record of Rites). Such a perspective continued to form the basis of the mainstream Confucian thought expressed in the Lun Yü (論語, Analects) and Meng-tzu (孟子, Mencius), as well as in the early Taoist literature. The possibility for the attainment of human perfection through refinement also served as an important basis for the strong East Asian affinity with the Buddhist religion when it was first introduced into the sinitic5 cultural sphere, and can furthermore be seen as a major point in common between sinitic Buddhism and the later-developing Neo-Confucianism.

Another connotation of this concept of integral practice is the high degree to which the process of personal transformation was related to the harmonizing of one's function with the realities of the mundane world. This tendency toward sacred/secular integration was a core component of the major streams of Confucianism and Taoism, and also made a significant impact in East Asian Buddhism, where, despite the importation of a highly mystical Indian tradition which placed significant importance on world-


renunciation, a noticeable amount of stress (most notably in the Ch'an/Sŏn/Zen movement) came to be placed on one's ability to act without hindrance in response to phenomenal situations.

3. The Indigenous Informing Principles: Essence-Function and Interpenetration

The two prominent metaphysical intuitions of classical East Asian thought which are bound to integral practice are essence function6 (Ch. t'i-yung體用; Kor. ch'e-yong; Jpn. tai-yū) and interpenetration (t'ung-ta通達; Kor. t'ongdal; Jpn. tsūdatsu). It is these two views which allow the non-dualistic yet corrective7 aspects of integral practice to simultaneously manifest themselves. And it is the mutual interdependence of the essence-function and interpenetration views which also allows each of them to operate in a meaningful way.

3.1. T'i-yung ("essence-function")

The translation of the sinitic concept of t'i-yung into English as "essence-function" is one that can benefit from a bit of initial clarification, especially in regard to the first part of the term, t'i (體, 体). Originally, t'i simply referred to the physical body as an assemblage of its parts. In the philosophical context however, thought to be first articulated as such by Wang Pi (王弼, 226-249)8 it refers to the deeper, more fundamental, more internal, more important, or invisible aspects of something. That “something” can be almost anything, any kind of being, organization, phenomenon, concept, event, etc. Its usage in the major East Asian thought systems is mainly centered in the realm of human affairs or human psychology—with t'i referring to the human mind, especially the deeper, more hidden dimension of the human mind—the mind as it is in itself before entering into the realm of activity. In terms of the objective universe, t'i is used to express the deeper, more fundamental or invisible aspect of things, the “principles” of things, as opposed to their more outwardly manifest, phenomenal aspects.

The translation of t'i as “essence,” in order to be accurate, must be purged of any kind of dualistic Platonic/Christian connotation of an other-worldly, unchanging nature, or an eternal “logos” of a higher order and distinct from the manifest world or inference to such a concept as the Platonic idea. It also does not refer to a reified hierarchical signified/signifier relation, nor to an eternal ātman-like soul, or brahmanistic substrate. Yet if the term “essence” is understood according to its everyday common sense usage, rather than through specialized Western metaphysical applications, there is no problem. We can then use the definition of “the most important, crucial element.”9 A good metaphor is also provided by the concept of “a concentrated substance which keeps the flavor, etc. of that from which it is extracted.”10 or “an extract that has the fundamental properties of a substance in concentrated form,”11 in the sense that t'i has strong


connotations of density (厚).

T'i is paired with the term yung (用), which has the basic meanings of usage activity function or means. In the present context, it carries all of these basic meanings, but also such connotations as apparent, manifest, and external. Together, t'i and yung refer to the internal/external, hidden/manifest, fundamental/superficial aspects of any person, thing, or situation. One of the most important aspects of t'i-yung usage is that it is not indicative of a dichotomy. Rather, it is a means of looking at one thing from two different perspectives. The metaphor of perfume is a good starting point for understanding the non-dualistic character of the essence-function structure, as the concentrated nature, the “essence” of the perfume is always intrinsically unified with the most distant perfumation of its odor.

The t'i-yung construction is not static or reifiable, as what is taken to be t'i (more internal, of greater priority) in one situation might be regarded as yung (more external, of lesser priority) in another. For example, in the first chapter of the Ta-hsüeh (大學; Great Learning), there is a passage which lists the priorities of a ruler in the process of bringing peace to his kingdom in the form of matters of greater and lesser importance. In this list, each of the elements can be seen to be the “essence” of the matter which comes after it, and as the function of the matter which comes before it.12

4. Macrocosm and Microcosm

4.1. Macrocosm

Despite the number of variations in manifestation of essence-function, we may characterize its usage into two general (but greatly overlapping) paradigms. The first is that which is seen in the macrocosmic view, typified by the role of "essence" as Tao (道), or organizing principle of the universe and “function” as the phenomenal activity of the Tao. A general view of Tao is evident in all forms of Chou period thought, with minor variations. Most obvious in this usage is the Tao of the Tao Te Ching, to which one may become gradually attuned by various methods of shedding of cultural conditioning. As one becomes attuned to the Tao, he, as in the disfigured characters of the Chuang Tzu, becomes filled with virtue (te徳)—his thoughts and actions become harmonious and natural (自然; tzu-jan). Although the methods and perspectives have significant differences, it is the case in both Confucianism and Taoism that the sagely king who is sensitive to the Tao will be eminently capable of rulership. If he pays due attention to t'i (his own mind, or the fundamental needs of his people), yung (harmony throughout the realm) will naturally proceed in a harmonious fashion. After receiving Buddhism, East Asian religious thinkers, far from inclined to let go of this paradigmatic symbol, utilized the term Tao extensively in their re-articulation of Buddhism, where it came to be equivalent to the concept of enlightenment.

As Mahāyāna Buddhism became fully absorbed into the Chinese cultural sphere, its


most basic ontological principle, emptiness (空śūnyatā), became recognized as the East Asian Buddhist “essence,” with form (色rūpa) as its manifest function. This East Asian appropriation and transformation of Indian concepts is enacted in many of the so-called “apocryphal” texts, and is consummated in the Hua-yen metaphysics, as śūnyatā is subsumed in the sinitic category of li (理 principle) and form is expressed as an aspect of shih (事 events, phenomena).

As Buddhism rose to a position of predominance in the East Asian intellectual arena, Confucian and Taoist thinkers were compelled to compete with the foreign religion in the realm of metaphysics, and the Neo-Confucianism which developed after this time showed a greatly enhanced level of metaphysical sophistication, marked by Taoist and Hua-yen influences. But the Neo-Confucian metaphysics was more clearly than ever framed by the t'i-yung construction, as the explication of the categories of principle (li理) and material force (ch'i氣) formed the basis of the entire discourse of the orthodox Ch'eng-Chu school. The founding Neo-Confucians, most importantly Ch'eng Hao (程顥; 1032-1085), Ch'eng I (程頤; 1033-1107) and Chu Hsi (朱熹; 1130-1200) borrowed heavily from this Hua-yen paradigm in constructing their “new” metaphysical categories of li理 and ch'i氣. The Neo-Confucian articulation of these categories was done overtly and in great detail through t'i-yung language, and the same is true of the later debates that took place regarding the relationship of these two categories of li and ch'i to the human mind, most famous of which was the encounter that took place in Korea between T'oegye (退溪 Yi Hwang 李滉, 1501-1570) and Yulgok (栗谷 Yi I 李珥, 1536-1584).

As Neo-Confucianism began to rise in stature and offer its own sophisticated metaphysical system, Buddhists were in turn forced to respond, and it was through these interactions that exponents of “the unity of the three teachings” (三教 合一, 三教統一) began to come to the fore. Although such thinkers were numerous, among those of greatest stature are Tsung-mi (宗密; 780-841) of China and Kihwa (己和; 1376-1433) of Korea, both of whom attained early proficiency in Confucian studies and later turned to Buddhism, but retained a deep respect for the content of their classical learning. Both men were also highly influenced by Buddhist essence-function and interpenetration metaphysics, and thus it is not surprising to find that t'i-yung and t'ung-ta were the hermeneutical principles by which these men and many other “three teaching” advocates articulated a unity of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Yet such three-teachings scholars also differed in their ways of comparing the three, and these differences can in turn be interpreted according to the degree to which essence-function thought played a role in their syncretism.

4.2. Microcosm

The second prominent usage of essence and function is that related to the traditional East Asian concept of the human being, which has its roots in antiquity, and which is


described formally in the Chou texts. Even though it is only defined specifically with the ideographs t'i and yung for the first time in the early third century C.E., an essence-function type of framework can be seen operating pervasively in the earliest Chinese classics. This view is that of human beings as equally possessed of an inherent nature of goodness as the foundation of the mind, but as differing greatly from each other at the level of function. Function, in this case, could indicate the person s physical appearance, facial expressions, speech and actions, as well as his/her thoughts. Thus, it is quite different from a simple mind/body or spirit/matter dichotomy. While there were occasional exceptions, in the prevailing intuition of the major thought traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, the human being was viewed as something inherently possessed of perfection, as highly mutable, and thus capable of consummating such perfection through following a certain course of action (or “non-action”).

The presence of this inherent perfection is intimated in the early Chou works, and fully articulated in the Analects and the Mencius. Of central importance in these texts is the basic human quality of jen (仁 “humanity,” "benevolence" in the Analects) which shows itself in various "functions" such as propriety (li禮) and filial piety (hsiao孝). The articulation of the relationship of the t'i and yung aspects of the human being expressed in these Confucian classics is important for the degree to which it is definitive for all three traditions. In this relationship, the goodness or inherent perfectibility of all human beings shows a strong “inner-to-outer” (or t'i penetrating yung) tendency. But there is also a vitally important outer-to-inner (or yung penetrating t'i) movement, as the originally pure t'i is to be brought to its fullest manifestation through proper yung. It is because of this fundamental conceptual view of essence-function in personal transformation that there is such a strong development in East Asian “integral-practice” language of rich and diverse metaphors of polishing, training, smelting, purification, accordance, harmonization (of, or with the essence), etc.

In the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu there is also clear implication for the human capacity for sagehood, but with its accomplishment through a via negativa approach, and with a greater emphasis on harmonizing with t'i rather than external training of and through yung. The human mind in its pure nature is alluded to variously in the Tao Te Ching as the “uncarved block (p'u樸),” which in improper function ends up becoming fragmented in the form of utensils (ch'i器), and the “newborn babe” (ch'ih-tzu赤子), originally soft and pliant but which becomes in improper function rigid and lifeless. The process of reaching to sagehood is a “return” (kuei 歸, fan反) to this pristine state. Instead of following Confucian norms such as benevolence, filial piety and respect for one's ruler, one is advised to free oneself from these worldly constructions.

Finally being defined in the t'i-yung hermeneutical formula as such by Wang Pi, t'i becomes the ontological ultimate of pen-t'i (本體) in Neo-Taoism, and commentarial works from all disciplines begin to rely on t'i-yung as an overt hermeneutical principle


for analyzing earlier literature. Neo-Taoism and Taoist alchemy will become much more systematic in their programs for the refinement of the “embryo of the Tao,” speaking exclusively through t'i-yung language.

The Buddhist religion owed the major portion of its success in East Asia to its strong inherent affinities with this East Asian conception of the person.13 In the Buddhist view, sentient beings, although varying greatly at the level of yung, or manifest activity, possessed a pure enlightened Buddha-nature at the level of t'i, their essence. This “innate-buddhahood” aspect of the Buddhist dharma, although present in the Indian doctrine, had not received near the attention that it would draw from East Asian practitioners of the religion, who became quite preoccupied with the clear articulation of the relationship of the innate (本) [t'i] and actualized (始) [yung] aspects of enlightenment. When the Indian Buddhist religion became fully assimilated in East Asia, its doctrines, although not counter to the original principles of the religion, were largely re-formulated in terms of essence and function, as can be seen in apocryphal texts such as the Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith (大乘起信論Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun), Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (圓覺經 Yüan chüeh ching) and Sutra of Adamantine Absorption (金剛三昧經 Kŭmgang sammae kyŏng). Sutras and treatises of accepted East Asian origin such as the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經Liu-t'su Tan-ching) as well as the works of numerous commentators to these texts also show a pervasive t'i-yung influence. The doctrines of the long-lasting schools which formed in East Asia, most notably Hua-yen and Ch'an, were also fully essence-function oriented.

In a sense, the new mixture of doctrine espoused by the Neo-Confucians was a compound effect of various strains of essence-function thought which were derived from I Ching, early Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist sources, with the t'i-yung structure of the human being brought into play in such forms as the Neo-Confucian “mind of Tao” (tao-hsin道心 ) which reflected the pure essence of humanity to be sought through Neo-Confucian practices such as “reverence” (ching敬), and “the human mind” (jen-hsin人心), mistakenly functioning and equivalent to the defiled mind of Buddhism. Most instructive in Neo-Confucianism is the degree to which the debates internal to the tradition are variations in interpretation of Confucian doctrine which lean to either the t'i or yung direction. This is the case in the debate between the Ch'eng-Chu orthodoxy and the Lu/Yang-ming “school of mind” as well as that which occurred in the “four-seven” debate between the schools of T'oegye and Yulgok.

4.3. Overlap

In actual practice, the distinction between the above “macrocosmic” and “microcosmic” aspects of the essence-function framework is often blurred, as the apprehension of the universal Tao, was, in all time periods and traditions fully contingent upon its apprehension and/or consummation at the personal level. I.e., it is precisely in the


mediating dimension of integral practice that the macro- and microcosmic were directly connected to each other.

The ability to metaphysically articulate this macro-microcosmic connection was especially enhanced with the advent of Buddhism and the influence of one of its most seminal t'i-yung texts, the Awakening of Faith, wherein the nexus between the universal Mahāyāna and the mahāyāna as the “mind of man” was reasoned out in great detail. The connections between universal and particular, intuitively well-grasped as early as the time of the writing of the I Ching, were expounded with rigor in the works of the Hua-yen patriarchs, in their li-shih (理事) scheme, and similar views constituted the central thread of the Neo-Confucian doctrine.

Such a view of intrinsic unity between universal and particular can be seen as closely related to the tendency of sinitic metaphysical discourse to be so fully connected with actual practice, as the phenomena of the universe as a whole were always seen to be connected to, acting upon, and receiving influence from the actions of individual persons. Thus, mere theoretical understanding was never accepted as sufficient when it came to such matters as the apprehension of the Tao. The non-dualistic understanding of essence-function also limited the extreme to which self-transformation, or religious practice, could acceptably be divorced from activity in the “real” secular world.14 This means that mystic absorption into the infinite was almost always considered to be far inferior to the “marvelous function” of the true sage, who was deeply and touch with, and greatly valued his t'i, but who superbly manifested that t'i in his function within the world of everyday phenomena. Numerous early Confucian texts reflect this tendency, but it is probably most succinctly summed up in the adage from Chapter 28 of the Tao Te Ching which says “know the white (知其白 everyday world, manifest world, yung) but cleave to the black (守其黒 the essence, the tao, t'i).” Down through time in the three traditions, it was this balanced approach to religious practice which would be the most respected. It becomes particularly manifest in the Chinese Ch'an school (as well as in Korean Sŏn and Japanese Zen), where, despite the intrinsic mystic tendencies of the meditational schools, great value comes to be placed on “skillful function.” Again, this is reflective of the meaning of integral practice, here adding the further connotation of yung being integrated with t'i and t'i being integrated with yung, in the course of a “practice” which is none other than daily living.

5. T'ung-ta (通達 Interpenetration)

While the above-broached avenue to the examination of East Asian philosophical trends in terms of “integral practice” and t'i-yung might be a relatively novel one in the area of this field in the West, it is by no means a radically new theory or discovery. It is merely a recognition of that which has been espoused by the leading CTB thinkers of the tradition for some two to three millennia. As I will show, there are numberless writers


and commentators whose works explicitly confirm the analysis that I will offer. Another part of my presentation, though, may raise some eyebrows, being an interpretation of East Asian thought that has not in the past been discussed by modern scholars, and only offered within the tradition much more implicitly. This is my hypothesis of the presence of the understanding of an “interpenetrated” worldview as being existent, and playing a prominent role in East Asian thought far earlier than is normally assumed.

The worldview of interpenetration, indicated in Chinese by such terms as t'ung-ta (通達 Kor. t'ongdal; Jpn. tsūdatsu) and yüan-yung (圓融 Kor. wŏnyung; Jpn. enyū), is normally associated with the Chinese Hua-yen school of Buddhist thought, understood to be a Chinese extension of the Indian Buddhist concepts of pratītya-samutpāda and śūnyatā, stimulated by the metaphysical discourse found in the Avataṃsaka-sūtra. Yet while certainly benefiting a great deal from these Indian Buddhist constructs, the origins of the Hua-yen concept of interpenetration can be found in indigenous intuitions about the universe that can be traced back to the earliest writings. Furthermore, some sort of understanding of transparency which is highly reminiscent of Buddhist emptiness and interpenetration in fact must be operating if one is to thoroughly and correctly grasp the implications of the essence-function worldview. An understanding of penetration of inner by outer and vice versa is necessary for the apprehension of one of the more basic aspects of essence-function usage, that of the mind of the human being and its apparent manifestations. That is, in order for essence-function to work as it does, it is necessary to see the human being as a continuum from inner to outer. There are also numerous textual passages in the I Ching, Analects, Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, etc., which, to be appreciated fully, necessitate an understanding of a worldview in which the thoughts and actions of an individual penetrate, and carry influence throughout the entire world, in a way that can only be compared to that seen in Hua-yen based metaphysics.

The concept of interpenetration is indicated by the Chinese binome t'ung-ta (通達), but is also commonly signified by the ideographs t'ung (通 Kor. t'ong) and ta (達 Kor. tal) by themselves. The basic meaning of t'ung, which has changed surprisingly little over three millennia of East Asian literary history, is to “go through,” or “pass through.” It especially possesses the connotations of passing, or going through a path, or moving along a course which is already opened and which merely needs to be traversed. The ideograph ta (達), is close in meaning, and is often combined with t'ung in Buddhist texts, but has an interesting and important etymological difference, as it originally signifies piercing through a barrier, or breaking open a passageway where there was none before. Thus, when the two are combined together as a binome a somewhat paradoxical connotation is being created which indicated both passing through that which is already open, and piercing through that which has been heretofore closed.

T'ung and ta are ancient concepts to which strong philosophical overtones were added in early Confucian thought, notably in such texts as the Analects, Book of Changes


and the Record of Rites. Especially relevant among these implications is the function of the mind of the sage, which is able to penetrate without limit in time and space. The sage's mind is capable of “penetrating to” (i.e., “understanding”) the principles of things." Other shades of meaning include “to unify” or “be the same” in the sense of the dissolution of barrier. Both t'ung and ta could mean to “apprehend,” “understand,” “grasp,” “permeate,” “fill,” or “influence.” They were used adjectivally and adverbially to the same effects. The nuance of “penetration” (even if not always specifically indicated by the words t'ung and ta) is ubiquitous in all the texts which reflect the early East Asian intuitively transparent worldview. It is a basic underpinning of both the Great Learning (大學) and the Doctrine of the Mean (中庸), in both of which the inner and outer aspects of the person are understood to penetrate each other such that quality of the person's inner mind is always discernible in his outer appearance.

The frequency of and variety of usage of these two terms in the classical texts is significant in understanding the worldview held by the ancient East Asians. As mentioned, t'ung and ta are used to indicate situations which are usually translated into English as “understand” or “to influence.” But while we may render these words as such in English, their etymology indicates the fact that in the consciousness of their original users, such terms actually reflected the operation of some form of “penetration” or “permeation.”

5.1. Interpenetration in Sinitic Buddhism

The classical pre-Buddhist intuitions of t'ung were rationalized and technicalized as they were used to facilitate Chinese expressions of Buddhism. The conceptual bases of t'ung in East Asian Buddhism could now be explained through the notions of emptiness (空) and dependent origination (縁起), since it is due to the lack of self-nature of things that they can mutually contain, reflect and comprise—or “interpenetrate” each other. Doctrinal classifiers such as Chih-i (538-597) used the term t'ung to refer to the type of Buddhist teaching that is “shared” or “understood in the same way” by students of varying predilections.15 The Sanskrit term for the supernatural powers of the Buddha or great Bodhisattva (abhijñā, literally “super knowledges”) was also translated into Chinese as t'ung, indicating that the mind of the Buddha penetrates to all places.16

The most important development of the meaning of t'ung came with the emergence of Hua-yen philosophy, where the metaphysics of interpenetration/non-obstruction became the hallmark of the school. The key usage of t'ung is in the discourse of the third and fourth dharmadhātus (“reality-realms” 法界) developed by the early Hua-yen patriarchs. These are the realms of li-shih wu-ai (理事無礙 “non-obstruction between principle and phenomena”) and shih-shih wu-ai (事事無礙 “non-obstruction between phenomena and phenomena,” or “perfect interpenetration of phenomena”). In the third realm, the conceptually differentiated spheres of principle and phenomena (emptiness)


and form 空, 色) are shown to be mutually containing. Since they are mutually containing, it follows that individual phenomena also contain each other without obstruction.

In view of the lack of attention paid to this concept of pre-Buddhist interpenetration in prior scholarship, much care will be devoted to its exposition in the chapters that follow. But it will also be shown that interpenetration is more than just another unexplored category. It is the vitally important link which allows for the concepts of integral practice and essence-function to manifest their complete meaning. Yet interpenetration possesses no ontological or metaphysical priority over the other two concepts, as each one of the three is vitally necessary for the proper enactment and understanding of the other two. They are endlessly intertwined. The only distinction that we might want to make at the outset is to say that interpenetration and essence-function are more metaphysically-oriented categories and that integral practice represents their implementation in the arena of actual human relationships and self-transformation.

From here we shall enter into this new examination in and through East Asian philosophy and religion, in a general order of historical development. We shall start with the earliest classical Chinese texts. We shall then proceed to examine the major figures of Confucianism and Taoism, and then to Neo-Taoism and Taoist alchemy. We shall then analyze East Asian Buddhism, especially from the perspective of its sinification, and the degree to which that sinification implies the assimilation of, and harmonization of these three elements. We shall then make a special examination into the works of some of the key thinkers of Korean Buddhism, where these three structures are most clearly articulated in their relationship as being explained here. We shall then move to the final major classical arena of Neo-Confucianism, where the notion of human transformation according to these three categories received what is probably its most complete expression. The final section, which will serve as a kind of appendix, will examine the possibilities of the usage of these three categories in examining other areas of interest, such as the fine and martial arts, East-West comparative culture, and modern/Western vs. classical/Eastern methodologies of scholarship.



1. The present essay will be developed into an introductory chapter which outlines the major themes of a planned full-length work, provisionally entitled Integral Practice, Essence-Function and Interpenetration: The Unifying Threads of East Asian Classical Philosophy and Religion.

2. A distinction is being made here in that some of the characterizations made in this paper regarding East Asian Buddhism may possibly not hold true for Tibetan and South Asian Buddhism.

3. It is no doubt because of this understanding that memorization played such a central role in the instruction of all three major thought systems. We also might note that even in the so-called “bibliophobic” streams of meditational Buddhism in East Asia, meditation sessions and various other rituals included memorized chanting of seminal texts such as the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra.

4. While there were occasional thinkers in East Asian history who did not subscribe to this view of “innate sagehood,” they remain by far an exceptionally small minority.

5. By the term “sinitic” in this paper, I mean to convey not only the concept of “Chinese” but also those cultures whose literature, philosophy and religion were deeply influenced by Chinese models, especially Korea and Japan.

6. I would like to use the word “informing” here with special connotations, in an attempt to convey the degree to which essence-function and interpenetration each possess two general aspects: they are formative principles, in the sense that they gave metaphysical form to the indigenous classical East Asian worldview. Yet they are also informative principles in the sense that they may be utilized as an interpretive frameworks—as hermeneutical models with which one may analyze East Asian classical texts.

7.  “Non-dualistic yet corrective” indicates a tension between two opposite tendencies in East Asian religious practice—the tendency toward equalization (or negation) through non-difference, and the tendency to make qualitative or concrete improvement by the use of discriminative faculties. The latter method is more obvious in Confucianism while the former is commonly associated with Buddhism. Nonetheless, all three traditions contain both dimensions.

8. In his commentary to the Tao Te Ching, entitled Lao-tzu chu (老子注). See especially his commentary to Chapter 38.

9. The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition.

10. Webster's New World Dictionary.

11.  The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition.

12. This passage will be treated in depth in a later chapter.

13.  Much of modern scholarship on Chinese Buddhism has tended to attribute its success to political fortunes. While there is no doubt that court relations were a major factor, too much attention to this aspect can result in the passing over of the great extent of metaphysical affinities between Buddhism and East Asian indigenous philosophies. These have been duly noted, but more as points of curiosity, or in the case of ko-i studies (格義 “matching the meaning,” an early translation methodology which rendered Indian Buddhist terms, such as śūnyatā or “emptiness,” into Taoist equivalents such as wu無 “nothingness”), as points of misunderstanding of Buddhism on the part of Chinese would-be Buddhists.

14.  Although a strong monastic system developed in East Asia, the practice of leaving home never became as culturally widespread as it had in India, and many East Asian monastic forms of practice (most notably in Ch'an) came to place strong emphasis on phenomenal activity.

15. Chih-i defines this term in his Ssu-chiao i. See T 1949.46.721 ff.

16.  See Nakamura Hajime, Bukkyōgo daijiten, p. 971a.

Copyright © Charles Muller— 2010

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