Irigaray's Meditations on the Duality of Sexuality in Buddhist Ethics

Article excerpt

Luce Irigaray, like many contemporary feminist philosophers, reimagines the relationship between Woman and the body. She develops her theories about the "sensible transcendental" in response to the long-held notion that women, because the body and nature define them, are inferior to men. (2) Irigaray suggests that the physical and carnal can provide, rather than inhibit, access to the divine. By thinking the sensible and the divine together, the (female) body becomes valorized and serves as a model for relational ethics. Finding few resources in the history of Western thought, she turns to Buddhist traditions and their focus on breath, in particular, to help flesh out her ethical philosophy.

Because Buddhist meditations on breath have greatly influenced Irigaray's ethics, an understanding of how Buddhists draw ethical principles from such meditations would help elucidate why she worked to integrate Buddhist philosophy into her own thought. Exploring similarities between Irigarayan and Buddhist ethics also reveals her novel reading of Buddhism and her attempt to distance herself from the tradition of Western ethics, which--according to Irigaray--degrades the body and revolves around the atomized self. Irigaray, unlike many Western philosophers who want to read Buddhism through the lens of virtue ethics (3) or consequentialist theory, (4) uses meditation practices as a key to under stand Buddhist ethics and to develop an ethics that properly recognizes the body and makes room for the relational self.

Despite Irigaray's integration of Buddhist thought into her own, differences between these two should not be ignored because they can provide an even deeper understanding of both philosophies. Irigaray does admire how Buddhist meditation brings attention to the body as a foundation for ethics but she also criticizes traditional forms of Buddhism for not fully unlocking the potential of the body in building an ethics because they ignore sexuality or see it as a hindrance to ethical life.

Only practitioners of Tantrism, in Irigaray's view, incorporate sexuality into their meditation practices in order to create a dualistic self that affirms both the individual self and relational self while maintaining the difference between the two. Greater knowledge of Tantric culture, however, leads to the conclusion that Tantrism is much more conventional than Irigaray's reading may lead us to believe. Tantrism, like other forms of Buddhism, see sexuality as a problem and use sexuality to work towards the dissolution of the self. I suggest that the tension surrounding Irigaray's interpretation of Tantric sexual meditation practices, however, can be helpful for understanding how both Irigaray and Buddhist thinkers link sexuality to dualism, although Irigaray does this positively whereas Buddhist thinks do it negatively. Contemporary Western debates about the merits or demerits of Irigarayan ethics can obfuscate this integral connection between sexuality and dualism. A Buddhist critique of Irigaray, on the other hand, can point to the problems within her ethics while being mindful of the relationship that she sought to establish. Likewise, Irigaray's insightful reading of Buddhism can help show why Buddhists would resist sexuality not necessarily because it is associated with sin--as it often is in the West--but because of the dualism that they think accompanies it. In other words, contrasting Irigaray's ethics of sexual difference with Buddhist ethics can provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of both.

Lessons Learned from Buddhism

Irigaray proclaims that she has learned much from Buddhism through the way of breath. By meditating on breath, she explores an aspect of Buddhist ethics that she believes sets them apart from Western ethics. Western analyses of Buddhist ethics are hardly rare but I believe Irigaray's examination offers an important contribution to the field because meditation is seldom the focus for Western thinkers who engage in such comparative studies. …

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