Presence with a difference: Buddhists and feminists on subjectivity

by Anne C. Klein


Vol.9 No.4

Fall 1994


COPYRIGHT Hypatia Inc.

Postmodernist narratives about subjectivity are inadequate. (Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments) Without mindfulness there will be no reconstitution of already acquired knowledge and consciousness itself would break to pieces, become fragmentary. (Soma Thera, The Way of Mindfulness) What is a woman? Simone de Beauvoir initiated a fruitful period of reflection on this issue with her famous statement, "One is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one" (Beauvoir 1974, 301). Her emphasis on "becoming" can be seen as prefiguring an entire corpus of feminist postmodern reflection on the elusive nature of self and subjectivity. But, as Judith Butler puts it in her rejoinder to Beauvoir's comment, "How can one become a woman if one wasn't a woman all along?" (Butler 1990, 111). With this she expresses a crucial piece of the essentialist resistance to postmodern theories. Much of contemporary feminist theory falls somewhere between the essentialist and postmodern positions suggested by these statements.(1) I suggest that the apparently irresolvable antipathy between these positions rests in part on the incorporation of Western philosophical assumptions on subjectivity, that is, on categories associated with awareness. I also propose that two other elements in Western thought, incorporated by feminists, contribute to this antipathy: (1) the strong tendency in Western philosophy to structure inquiries into how things are and how they are known as separate branches of investigation, and (2) the profoundly embedded contemporary Western assumption that subjectivity is to be understood solely through its engagement with language. Although I focus here on feminist writing, much of what follows is relevant also to nonfeminist Western reflection. The central dilemma of the essentialist-postmodern debate among feminists is clear: How can contemporary Western women frame a sense of self that is neither overly essentialized nor so contingently constructed that its very existence and power are in question? The stakes of this debate are high. These are not questions of theory only, but speak to deeply rooted visions of what it means to be a "woman." How does one live with the powerful pulls toward the different experiences that "essentialisms" and "postmodernisms" suggest? How can a woman claim the kind of solid self that gives her strength while still recognizing the multiple social, economic, political, and gendered vectors that condition and constitute this self? Through postmodern perspectives, for example, I can articulate the complex processes of becoming by which identity is configured and thereby honor the endless movement and connections between my life and thoughts and those of myriad others, but I do not thereby recognize a depth or "place of her own" in any individual subjectivity. Essentialists tend to privilege such a place, thereby extolling the rootedness in self that many find crucial to a sense of well-being, but essentialists also tend to overlook social, political, or psychological particularities. Thus, naming an essential identity can be empowering but also limiting, and it is certainly philosophically problematic.(2) These issues of personal power, connection, independence, and relationship lie at the heart of the feminist essentialist-postmodern debate. The way a women understands subjectivity is critical to her understanding of the tensions between feminist essentialist and postmodernist orientations. By "subjectivity" I mean to include the specific functions and categories of knowing associated with the human mind. These, I propose, have been unnecessarily curtailed in recent debates between essentialists and postmodernists. I want to suggest a way of expanding the scope and vocabulary of feminist discussions on subjectivity by drawing from a religious and philosophical matrix especially rich in this regard. My pivotal thesis is that an expanded understanding of subjectivity can change the nature of the tension between feminist essentialist and postmodern perspectives and, in the process, uncover and challenge a bias toward mastery implicit in postmodern narratives. To explore this thesis I here use selected material from Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. I propose that these traditions recognize positions analogous to the essentialist and postmodern positions, yet read the relationship between these positions quite differently, understanding them as far more compatible than contemporary feminists tend to do. The difference in these readings is due largely to their different ways of understanding subjectivity. Fundamental to Buddhist characterizations of subjectivity is a mental state known as mindfulness, here meaning the ability to retain clear and stable attention on a chosen object. Mindfulness gives evidence of both essentialist-like and constructionist-like orientations, and will here serve as my prime example of how a Buddhist discussion of subjectivity can relate to feminist concerns. Mindfulness facilitates an "essential" type of centering and at the same time is compatible with constructionist or postmodern sensibilities because it perceives how the flux constitutes the mind-body complex. Paradoxically, the more one's mindful concentration develops, and the more grounded one is in present experience, the clearer one is about the fragile and constructed nature of the self. I say "paradoxically," but the tension of paradox is only in description, not in the experience. In this way mindfulness and associated states of calm and concentration can ameliorate the nature of the tension between essentialist and postmodern perspectives in feminist contexts. My discussion therefore begins with classic Buddhist descriptions of mindfulness. I then consider how the particular affinity mindfulness has with what Buddhists call the "unconditioned" relates to postmodern emphases on the complementary processes of deferral, differentiation, and supplementation as the only context in which narratives of selfhood occur. From most postmodernist perspectives, the fact that context and meaning is never complete and can always be further supplemented is evidence of the impossibility of any person, object, or narrative being fully present. Because meaning and subjectivity are in this sense never fully present, they are always deferred. This is a critical observation for feminist reflection on self and identity. Paul Ricoeur once said that in the United States deconstruction is especially prominent among literary critics but that it is in fact a way of addressing religious issues. In this context he described deconstruction as a way of unmasking the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition.(3) Can we speak of the mind in any way except in terms of what it knows? This is a question I see as implicit in Buddhist traditions and one that becomes explicit when we juxtapose Buddhist and feminist perspectives. A mental state such as mindfulness is not described in terms of what is understood, but rather in terms of the mode of awareness itself. When we look at feminist essentialist-postmodern debates through a Buddhist lens, it appears that what most feminist reflections on wubjectivity have in common is their focal concern with the contents of the subject: what she knows, what feelings she has, how she differentiates and constructs herself through these. Buddhist traditions also take enormous and explicit interest in what one knows and how one knows it. They differ from most feminist reflections, however, in devoting much attention to exploring the type of mind that knows various objects; this interest is to be distinguished from an investigation of the ideas, emotions, or other "contents" of the mind. Seldom discussed in Western feminist discourse on subjectivity, mental states such as mindfulness and concentration are difficult to map onto Western categories of subjectivity. DIMENSIONS OF SUBJECTIVITY Teresa de Lauretis says that subjectivity arises from "a complex of habits resulting from the semiotic interaction of 'outer world' and 'inner world,' the continuous engagement of a self or subject in social reality" (1984, 182).(4) Judith Butler, equating the subject with the "I," finds that identity is something that cannot pre-exist linguistic signification, and tlat identity is above all a practice. What kind of practice? One that "inserts itself in the pervasive and mundane signifying acts of linguistic life" (1990, 145). Both positions are in keeping with postmodernists' emphasis on the formative role of language in self-experience. I propose, however, that it is insufficient to conceive of subjectivity and selfhood only in relation to language and that the insistence on doing so is itself a particular construction of Western intellectual history. As Jane Flax has observed, philosophy privileges knowledge so exclusively that other alternatives are not explored (1990, 194). Moreover, knowledge in feminist postmodern contexts refers almost entirely to conceptually based knowing, as opposed to visceral knowledge of the body, for example, or a capacity to experience feeling vividly. Indeed, the split between feminist essentialist and postmodern positions is often a split between emphasizing the body (as do Mary Daly, Helene Cixous, and Adrienne Rich, for example) or the mind (Judith Butler, Chris Weedon, Teresa de Lauretis). In this way the feminist debate replicates a cultural tendency to bifurcate mind and body, even though most feminists decry this tendency. To go beyond this bifurcation requires that we recognize forms of subjectivity which are viscerally connected to the body and for which "knowledge" in the sense of information is not the sole criterion. There are sources in recent Western reflection for such visceral awareness, though they have not often been brought to bear on discussions among essentialists and postmodernists. Flax, for example, points to Melanie Klein's discourse on an infant's instinctive curiosity about her mother's body. I would mention also a telling passage in Emily Martin's discussion of the subjective state of women in the process of giving birth. This is a time when what is known is not the central experiential criterion. But what is? Michael Odent, whose clinic in Pithiviers, France, has pioneered an especially supportive environment for women giving birth, describes it like this: Women seemed to forget themselves and what was going on around them during the course of an unmedicated labor. They get a faraway look in their eyes, forget social conventions, lose self-consciousness and self-control. . . . I have found it very difficult to describe this shift to a deeper level of consciousness during a birth. I had thought of calling it "regression," but I know that the word sounds pejorative, evoking a return to some animal state. "Instinct" is a better term, although it, too, resonates with moralistic overtones. (quoted in Martin 1992, 163) Indeed, the terms we have are limited. The problem with words such as "instinct" is also part of the problem with essentialist vocabularies; they imply the demise of the kind of individual personhood valued in North American and European cultures, and they seem to identify the self with an "acultural" body. Martin herself suggests a more positive frame for what Odent describes: Instead of seeing the Pithiviers women as engaged in a "natural" lower-order activity, why can we not see them as engaged in a higher-order activity? The kinds of integration of body and mind fostered by the psychophysiological approach and others, the kinds of wholly involved activity captured by the metaphors of the journey and the trance, could well be taken as higher, more essentially human, more essentially cultural forms of consciousness and activity. Here, perhaps, are whole human beings, all their parts interrelated, engaged in what may be the only form of truly unalienated labor now available to us. (Martin 1992, 164) In order to encompass subjectivity more fully and to dissolve barriers between essentialist and postmodern positions, we need to include among our categories of subjectivity a dimension of mind that is not primarily linguistic or conceptual, and yet (unlike Klein or Martin's examples) is capable of being cultivated, and therefore is to be included among "higher-order" and "cultural" human activities. This is a possibility that promises to reframe many areas important to women--from how birthing and motherhood are valued, to relieving the ancient dualisms between mind and body, to gaining a new perspective on contemporary essentialist-postmodern antagonisms. MINDFULNESS: COHERENCE AND CONSTRUCTEDNESS In ancient India, would-be surgeons were presented with a leaf floating on water and a sharp cutting instrument. Their challenge was to sever the leaf without sinking it. Too strong a stroke, and the leaf was submerged; too timid an effort, and it remained uncut. "One who is clever shows the scalpel stroke on it by means of a balanced effort" (Buddhaghosa 1976, I: 141). The balance of the surgeon serves as a model for the balance required in mindfulness. This criterion of balance, like the related criteria of alertness, laxity, and excitement, suggests ways to reflect on how the mind is, apart from its knowledge or feelings. This is not to deny the profound intertwining of language and subjectivity, but to say that the mind is not only its linguistic associations; it has a depth and dimension to it not entirely governed by language or analysis. This dimension is not clearly accounted for in either feminist essentialist or postmodern discussions of subjectivity. In Indian, Tibetan, and other Buddhist traditions, however, subjectivity is not simply a concatenation of details, but has a "visceral" existence of its own. Mindfulness is also important because it is said to entail a focusing capacity beyond the level of ordinary flickering attention. Theravada, a Buddhist tradition still extant in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma, takes the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra as central to its meditation practice. This text teaches mindful observation first of the breath, in order to stabilize the mind, then of the body and mind, along with the existential attributes of these, such as impermanence.(5) This focusing capacity makes it possible to notice particular details to which one was previously impervious. For example, one's arm usually feels solid and constant. With practice it comes to feel, at least during a meditation session, like an ongoing flux of mini sensations with no overarching "arm" except as a name given to these myriad sensations. If one turns attention to other mental processes, "mind" too is experienced as only flux. Whether one places attention on breath, body, or mind itself, what was formerly experienced as solid and cohesive is revealed as quite the opposite, so that the object seems to dissolve, and "having seen the dissolution of that object, one contemplates the dissolution of the consciousness that had that as its object" (Buddhaghosa 1976, II: 751). As Buddhaghosa wrote in his fifth century work Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), a classic expression of Theravadin phenomenology, "all formations !e.g., the person's mental and physical constituents^ which keep on breaking up, !are^ like fragile pottery being smashed, like fine dust being dispersed. . . . Just as a man with eyes standing on the bank of a pond or on the bank of a river during a heavy rain would see large bubbles appearing on the surface of the water and breaking up as soon as they appeared, so too he sees how formations break up all the time" (Buddhaghose 1976, II: 752). Mind and body are revealed as nothing but a great disappearing act. The more one's mindful concentration develops, the clearer one is about one's fragile and constructed nature. At the same time, one is physically grounded in present experience. No matter how intense the insight into flux, one's own steady focus vouches viscerally for meaningful personal continuity. Fredric Jameson has suggested that modern Westerners, unable to grasp their social context in its entirety, instead satisfy themselves with focusing on their own particular place in that larger whole; coherence in terms of social situatedness has been replaced by this exercise of cognitive mapping. In feminist postmodern reflection as well, the idea that mind is always and primarily constituted by context crowds out the possibility of any sense of completeness, or wholeness; hence, perhaps the fascination with supplementation. By contrast, mindfulness, and the mental focus that develops from it, is described as a unifying dynamic and seen as lending coherence to the subject even as it reveals the endless flux of self and world. Put another way, mindfulness and the dimensions of concentration related with it simultaneously demonstrate the self's constructedness and its fully viable agency. This too is not just a theoretical issue; it is perhaps the fundamental existential oxymoron: all my life I am changing (getting older, dying) and at$the same time remaining the same (retaining a sense of identity). Mindfulness, even of dissolution, is grounding. It is an experience of being strongly centered in the present and in oneself. Such grounding in the face of dissolution is the beginning of constructive personal strength. In its function as a witness, mindfulness is characterized as a silent subject, saying nothing itself. This silence is not an inability to speak, but the ability to not speak, and thereby sometimes to be free from domination by the patternings of language and thought. If we can understand mind as having such a silent dimension, then mindfulness is not yet another voice, yet another information-bearing strand, in the internal dialogue.(6) It resembles the "evenly hovering attention" of a psychoanalyst (something no one in the profession would wish to call "instinctive" even though this is a subject state which, like that of the Pithiviers women, suggests a "shift to a deeper state of consciousness").(7) Again, what is important about such a mind is how it flows, rather than what it knows. And this importance resonates throughout the mind-body complex. A number of feminist women have written about the importance of mindful clarity. The wandering that Mary Daly chronicles requires immense awareness and self-knowledge (1985, xii, 89). Doris Lessing, herself influenced by the meditative traditions of Sufism, makes awareness the starting point of Martha Quest's spiritual odyssey in The Four Gated City. Martha learns how to make herself "alive and light and aware" (37) she knows the advantages, walking in the London rain, of having "her head cool, watchful, alert" (38). She knows too the sense of "a quiet, empty space, behind which stood an observing presence." Here also mindfulness is described in terms of mental characteristics other than knowledge. But from a Buddhist perspective there is little in the way of an epistemological clarification of what this is or how it is cultivated. Mindfulness is physically centering. Quieting the processes of distraction stills the breath and soothes the body. Indeed, acknowledging the intimate relationship between bodily and emotional or cognitive experience is vital to many meditative traditions. Physical and mental processes are not two halves of a whole, but two avenues of access into the fully integrated complex in which they participate. Subjective shifts, in this view, always involve the entire person. Calming, for example, is associated with a variety of pleasurable physical sensations, from feeling one's body as preternaturally soft or light, to--far more rarely but also more famously--intense sexual pleasure. Mindfulness, says Buddhaghosa, reveals mind and body as functions in constant communication, always shaping and responding to the other "like a drum and the sound of a drum" (1976, 690). Tibetan Buddhists describe mind as inseparable from the inner currents (rlung, prana) on which it rides. As the inner currents flow through the body, they facilitate physical as well as mental movement. Watching the breath affects the movement of these currents, as does regulating the breath through slow and rhythmic chanting, another important technique for soothing the mind. These traditions also emphasize that consciousness is never fully disembodied; it is always associated with the subtle physicality of internal currents.(8) This is why some esoteric traditions teach a variety of postures to enhance their meditation practices: the placement of body directly affects the way in which currents of energy course within it, and these energies in turn affect all manner of internal experience--emotional, spiritual, conceptual. Mindfulness is grounding because of the way it globally affects one's experience of self and world. Mindfulness allows one to accept the present and to accept oneself in the present. This is accomplished not by altering, accessing, or restructuring the contents of the mind, but by altering the tone of consciousness. For all these reasons, the subject is not to be understood only as a language-constituted instrument. Focused attention reveals depth as well as informational breadth, a depth not wholly navigable through the language-bearing coordinates articulated in postmodern reflections. The difference between experiencing one's state of mind and experiencing its "contents" is one of the most important subjective differences in Buddhism; it is a distinction that has no real parallel in contemporary theory. From a Buddhist perspective, postmodernists have a strangely disembodied notion of mind, precisely because there is no room to take account of the state of the subject, apart from the constructs that are its contents. The absence in contemporary feminist theory of specific attention to the kinds of subjective shifts Buddhist traditions describe partly results from the already mentioned separation, in the West, of investigation into how things are and into how they are known, that is, the distinctness of epistemology from ontology.(9) Feminist theory both perpetuates this separation and, in some quarters, protests it, observing that such separation contributes to the abstractness of modern philosophy, against which feminists seek theory anchored in experience.(10) Most Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions intimately and explicitly entwine ontological and epistemological issues. That is, the attention given to ontological descriptions of persons or things is generally matched by detailed consideration of what happens to the subject who knows this. Buddhists must have categories of mind which are not linked with language since they do not find all epistemological error to be a function of language.(11) Thus, in the Buddhist traditions considered here, silence in the face of language suggests a subjective dimension not primarily governed by language, a dimension that offers a coherence that is not necessarily a narrative or cognitive coherence. From a Buddhist perspective, the subjectivity described in postmodern literature as lacking a coherent narrative, or as emerging through a play of language-based differences, is inappropriately thin. Little attention is paid to its broader dimensions, meaning something other than its conceptual, ideational, or emotional activities. Failure to consider such dimensions seems to me a crucial factor in making the postmodern self seem too thin or monodimensional(12) to provide a proper basis for feminist agendas. If, however, subjectivity is not limited to conceptual and emotional functioning, there opens up a new dimension of performance, a new source of personal power, and a different arena from which to connect with the world's diffuseness. In these ways, mindfulness eases the sense of being caught "inside" oneself, as if isolated from the wider world. Its subjective space need not entirely be localized inside the body, because to go deep enough "inside" is also sometimes to touch a point that connects with a vast neither-external-nor-internal-world. For all these reasons I believe it is important for women to acknowledge and be on intimate terms with an experience of personhood that is not simply a constellation of learned codes, assorted information, and unique personal expressions. These latter must not be lost, but they cannot be the sole basis for selfhood either. Postmodern theories, unlike Buddhist theories, are very articulate about a subject's position among the coordinates of race and class and other historical, socioeconomic, and political realities. The kind of "constructedness" of which classic Buddhist forms of mindfulness take note is not this sort of constructedness. Mindfulness is not a matter of interpreting one's position. Thus Buddhists would be unlikely to find the subject reduced to a "site of competing discourses," as it often is in postmodern descriptions, both feminist and nonfeminist. There are no explicit Buddhist analyses of class, race, or gender, for example. Buddhist perspectives we consider here could agree that social positioning through race, class, or gender, combined with one's interpretation of these, significantly affects consciousness, but they do not understand the whole dimension of subjective functioning to be constituted by these. However, insofar as Buddhist philosophical traditions are often concerned with the process by which thoughts and images shape the self, the matter of culturally produced "ideals" is a form of self-construction important for both Buddhist and feminist reflection. Therefore let us consider the relationship between ideals and subjectivity from a Buddhist perspective. Might mindfulness and concentration suggest ways to avoid treating the self as a territory to be conquered, governed, or colonized by ideals? MINDFULNESS AND IDEALS I once overheard a conversation between two American Buddhist practitioners. An apparent newcomer asked a more seasoned student, "How has meditation changed you?" She appeared to expect a triumphal story of vanquishing unwanted personality traits by embracing a more ideal style of personhood. The object of this inquiry, responding not at all to her air of anticipation, said with mild surprise, "Change? I don't want to change. I just want to be there." Ideals are problematic philosophically as well as experientially. To assume any type of overly simple relation to an ideal is also to assume a unitariness of subject belied by both postmodernists and Buddhists; it also suggests, untenably from most feminist perspectives, that the appropriate ideals are already fully conceived. To have mindfulness, Buddhists often say, is to accept what is and to offset the unbalancing future-orientation that occurs when one is focused primarily on the ideal one would like to become, at the expense of noticing or appreciating what one is.(13) The potential disadvantages of a quest for self, or any religious quest, being dominated by ideals are fourfold: (1) hindering self-knowledge, (2) demeaning the self, (3) providing a means for manipulation, and (4) continuing the type of oppositional style that feminists explicitly seek to overcome. Merely a gentle observer, mindfulness is a way of being there. It does so by fostering a capacity to relate to oneself without trying to oppose, judge, or change what is observed. Because it permits self-knowledge without the crippling presence of an ideal against which one inevitably falls short, mindfulness can be understood as departing from the urge to master, override, rein in, or otherwise manipulate the self. In this way mindfulness' quality of self-acceptance provides an important counterweight to the narrative of ideals and to the paradigm of mastery often associated with the implementation of ideals. BEING THERE: PRESENCE WITH A DIFFERENCE Buddhist descriptions of subjectivity in connection with mindfulness and meditation suggest the possibility of a subjectivity not wholly governed by words and therefore not subject to the kind of fracturing associated with feminist postmodern or constructionist perspectives. The Buddhist descriptions of subjectivity referred to here also suggest a self that has the kind of unified strength described by essentialists yet, unlike the selves they describe, is also characterized by a coherence that does not deteriorate when one recognizes the self's constructed nature. These descriptions, and associated practices, offer one a sense of her mind as an extensive, even inexhaustible, resource of strength and fresh perspectives. Such a subjectivity is of particular interest to women, because women are today explicitly concerned with finding modes of expression and reflection that are as free as possible from the internalized cultural restraints on women's being. We have said that the silent subject of Buddhist epistemological description has an ontological analogue, which Buddhists variously call emptiness or selflessness, meaning the absence of existing independent of causes and conditions. All persons and things are qualified by this unconditioned absence. The category of the unconditioned is here, unlike in postmodern theory, considered compatible with a theory that emphasizes the conditionality of phenomena in general. Knowing emptiness requires a considerable measure of clarity, stability, and intensity,(14) together with associated shifts in breathing, posture, and other physiological processes. It is this absence which is engaged by the "wisdom" for which Buddhist traditions are so famous. Insight into emptiness is an experience replete with meaning because it is empty of content. This is not a matter of putting together conceptually organized bits of information, but of reorienting to a cognition that viscerally unites mental and physical dimensions. What kind of presence is possible in relation to this absence which is emptiness? Should Buddhists be judged naive for claiming that the "truth" of emptiness can be fully present to consciousness? What kind of "truth" is at issue here anyway? And what kind of consciousness?(15) Direct and full realization of emptiness does not mean that emptiness is completely known in the sense of the subject having mastered or observed some "thing" in a way that brooks no supplementation.(16) Developing an experience of emptiness does not involve further knowledge "about" it but rather increased concentration and focus on it. Concentration, like the mindfulness that makes it possible, is not governed by language. This concentrated and nonverbal witness does not have the same relationship to traces of difference as do other more language-based modes of awareness. Postmodern philosophers argue against what they characterize as the essentialist assumption that a thing is just what it is, and nothing else, and can be known as such (Derrida 1976, 7-8, 20, 158-9).(17) For Jacques Derrida, writing is the archetypal situation of shifting differences which characterizes every aspect of our lives; it is a performance of the impossibility of presence (Derrida 1982; 1981, esp. 17-32). For him, however, as for feminist theorists influenced by him, the impossibility of presence rests on premises not relevant to the Buddhist claim we are considering.(18) For Middle-Way and other philosophical traditions within Buddhism, the salient criterion is not how much of an object one knows, or how much information one has captured, but how focused, intense, and clear the knowing mind itself is. The unconditioned emptiness cannot be communicated fully through language, but neither can ordinary things be fully expressed by language or known by thought. Indeed, much of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism understands language to be a system of imperfect and indirect representation.(19) Both Buddhists and postmodern feminists reject naive theories of representation or "pipeline" models of meaning wherein a word or thought is considered "fully" to express or convey that to which it refers.(20) In this way, Buddhist epistemology agrees with feminist and other postmodern emphases on the limitations of linguistic representation. But when emptiness is known directly, thought and language are absent. At the same time emptiness, the absence of independent, unconditioned existence, is fully present to one's experience. Nothing about emptiness is deferred or differentiated from one's mind. Yet, there is nothing particular in emptiness to be assumed present in the first place. It is a mere absence. Buddhist descriptions of awareness suggest that no matter how many thoughts, feelings, or sensory impressions it accesses, these can never fully characterize or dominate the mind. There is always room for something else. In other words, as I have already emphasized, Buddhist traditions are inclined to understand a concentrated mind as fully "present" to its object, regardless of whether or not that object is fully known. This is because the critical issue here is stability and attentiveness, rather than the amount of information gathered. The fact that ordinary objects of the senses can never be fully known is in fact something on which most Buddhist and postmodern theories agree. However, this inability of the conceptual mind to fully know an object and the impossibility of an object being "just what it is" are for Buddhists not disruptive of subjective coherence, whereas they are often described as disruptive by feminist postmodernists. These latter do not accept presence because no matter how broadly the boundaries of a person are drawn, there is always something included and something excluded. Descriptions can always be further supplemented; they are never complete.(21) This is where the issues of presence and the problem of ideals converge. Both are predicated on mastery; both are philosophically problematic. On the other hand, a feminist such as Helene Cixous, whose work partakes of both essentialist and postmodern orientations, celebrates the impossibility of circumscribing woman. She rejoices in woman's "endless body, without 'end,' without principal 'parts'" (Cixous 1986, 87). Yet what she says is also a cause of concern. How can an endless and therefore shapeless subject shape an identity? How can one avoid being wholly colonized by a limited set of ideals or roles? MINDFULNESS AND MASTERY Only a tradition that acknowledges the significance of internal silence can feature its ontological analogue, the unconditioned emptiness, as part of a path to liberation. This kind of subject is yet to be situated within Western understandings of subjectivity. The silent subject united with an "emptiness" that is the absence of its own previously misconstrued status occupies a position distinct from either of the narratives which, according to Lyotard, have dominated the modern West: the Enlightenment narrative, exemplified by Kant, and the narrative of the Spirit, exemplified by Hegel. In both of these, knowledge of is key. Knowledge is the ideal, the legitimizer, and the redeemer. Who would deny the significance of knowledge? Not feminists, certainly, and not Buddhists either. Without in any way undermining the significance of various types of knowledge, the subject, need not be defined only by what it knows. The subjective dimension of silent concentration offers a space for the subject apart from its dominating knowledge, and the dimension of the unconditioned is the arena in which it functions. Women, and men as well, need an epistemology that allows room for multiple incoherences and incongruities. The type of coherence suggested by attentive focusing in no way contradicts engagement with a multiplicity of ideas, stories, histories, of race, class, gender, or personal style. One remains physically centered and focused in the midst of observing this. When the mind is understood as an open expanse, there is always room for something more. When that same mind has a dimension that retains its open, unlanguaged status even--or especially--in the face of dissolution and multiplicity, its dynamic of coherence cannot be interrupted by particularity or incongruency. This dimension is greatly facilitated by an ontology which expresses the inessential essence--for example, emptiness--considered an attribute of persons and things but which is not itself governed by their particular qualities. In brief, such subjective spaciousness becomes available through subjective processes not rooted in language and through engaging an object not governed only by particularity. This points to a sharp distinction between Buddhist and contemporary feminist sensibilities. Again, the crucial issue for the Buddhist traditions is not the extent to which one is master of the details of an object, but the way in which one is centered in awareness itself. By contrast, agency and mastery are focal concerns for those who propose language and writing as the governing metaphor of experience, as evidenced by the near-hysteria (highly intellectualized) at the possibility of their dismantling or demise. From a Buddhist perspective the contemporary fascination with differance suggests an intellectual history that did not take sufficient note of the interdependent and conditioned nature of persons or things in the first place.(22) To that extent, Buddhist philosophers would be in sympathy with the kind of correction postmodernists seek. But, why make such a fuss about differance except for the desire of complete possession thwarted by it? The bias toward "mastering" against which postmodernism poses itself resurfaces here. Partly because of this fascination with mastery, the unmasterability of the textualized world becomes, in postmodern reflection, the most mysterious and interesting thing about it. This at least is my reading of the "question" behind the "answer" of differance, including its insistence on not really being an answer. Such fascination is a compelling undercurrent of the postmodern deconstruction of Enlightenment sensibilities. The glory days of old when individuality, agency, and truth could be enshrined as cultural icons only lend drama to their present dethroning. I agree with Flax that women are by definition left outside this story-line (Flax, 1990, 215).(23) Like the unconditioned and the nonverbal, women too are "other" to the deconstructive network, for the unconditioned and the nonverbal, like women, are unmasterable through the ordinary channels of power, especially language; they all lie outside the male-ordered fascination with agency, legacy, and its demise. Is it an accident that women, mother, mater, maternal ground, and foundations are all excluded or severely limited by contemporary theory? As Nancy Hartsock put it, "Why is it, just at the moment in Western history when previously silenced populations have begun to speak for themselves . . . that the concept of the subject and the possibility of discovering/creating a liberating 'truth' become suspect?"(24) Useful as some of Derrida's observations and other postmodern insights have been to feminist theory, women and others who would think new thoughts must make claims outside this "story-line" by swimming past its boundaries into the deeper dimensions of subjectivity. The Buddhist story-line we are following here is different. It requires the possibility of subjective silence and objective absence. Silence and its analogue, the unconditioned emptiness, as well as the compatibility between the conditioned and unconditioned, suggest a constellation of connections that contemporary theory as presently constituted does not recognize. Its suspicions of foundationalism conspire against this. The subjective dimensions proposed in Buddhist materials suggest a centeredness that is essentialist-like in its power and uncomplicated identity, and yet avoids the overly narrow definitions of "female essence" that lead many feminists to cast aside essentialist aspirations. At the same time, I believe it is critical for women to acknowledge the need for groundedness and for some degree of personal "presence." Yet, when capturing or occupying is not at issue, the question of presence loses its punch. So does the poignancy of women's position as object. Feminist descriptions have yet to develop a vocabulary for functions other than capture or knowledge by which subjects engage their objects. Perhaps here lies a clue to a unique womanly gesture, one that, like mindfulness, proceeds in ways other than through the differential of frustrated mastery. I call it a gesture, because in gestures, words are not all that matter. Persons communicate through language, but also through the flesh, blood, and rushing currents of feeling and energy by which they are also constituted. This womanly gesture, in which language may participate without becoming the ruling metaphor, neither masters, succumbs to, nor even excludes, its male audience. In this way, it avoids being a "master" narrative. Postmodernists in general and feminist postmodernists in particular have opened up an enormous intellectual space in which to reconsider the relationship of self and knowledge. Feminists have integrated gender concerns into this space as well. But a subjective experience that moves from textuality to a different style of subjectivity altogether is not available in postmodern thought as currently constituted. Feminist appropriations of postmodernist structures have, by and large, conceived of themselves as opposed to essentialist feminist perspectives.(25) For Buddhists, the possibility of subjectivity not anchored in language or oppositionality suggests a way in which the strength and agency associated with essentialist perspectives can be integrated with a full acknowledgment of the complexity of a woman's identity in the contemporary climate. Thus, I think it extremely worthwhile to recognize a dimension or category of subjectivity that is not bounded, constructed, or defined solely by language. Contemporary women's lives, replete with incongruous elements of culture, race, religion, or worldview, can be a cause for celebration so long as one's entire possibility for coherence does not lie with a verbalized narrative coherence. The mastery of detail and nuance that this would require is impossible. But this impossibility need not stand in the way of subjective or personal coherency, for keen and focused attention inevitably reveals that multiplicity makes the only kind of whole that can be one. NOTES Condensed from my forthcoming book, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self (Klein 1994), which discusses Buddhist and feminist understandings of self, subjectivity, and compassionate relationship in the light of their respective cultural contexts, and introduces ritual and philosophical elements associated with a female Buddha known as the Great Bliss Queen (bde chen rgyal mo) in order to express and sometimes bridge critical differences between modern secular feminist voices and traditional Buddhist ones. In attempting to mark out major connections and dissonances between Buddhist and Western ideas of subjectivity, it is impossible to find language not already embedded with either Western or Buddhist philosophical intent. Nonetheless, one proceeds. I am grateful to readers of the chapters of my book from which this article is drawn: Harvey Aronson, Lauren Bryant, Elizabeth Long, Helena Michie, Michael Fischer, Janet Gyatso, Katherine Milun, Meredith Skura, Sharon Traweek, and Philip Wood. In addition I am grateful to the two anonymous readers for Hypatia and its editors. I also thank Steven D. Goodman for very helpful comments on a penultimate draft of this article. 1. It is, of course, well known that there are many differences among essentialists themselves, as among postmodernists. See, for example, Schor (1989). In my references to these positions, I extract principles that are common, though not necessarily universal, to feminist essentialists or postmodernists respectively. Some writers, for example, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous reflect both essentialist and postmodern orientations. Luce Irigaray describes a kind of postmodern essence when she writes: "Woman is neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, in-finite, form is never complete in her" (Irigaray 1985, 229). Julia Kristeva, on the other hand, flatly finds any sort of coherence to be a mistake, observing that "the belief that 'one is a woman' is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that 'one is a man'" (Kristeva 1981, 137). 2. Linda Alcoff observes that minority voices in the West are particularly sensitive to the dangers of essentialism, and for this reason Black, Hispanic, Chicana, and other women of color overwhelmingly to reject essentialist conceptions of gender (Alcoff 1988, 412). See Anzaldua (1987), Walker (1982), and Moraga (1987). My colleague Angela Valenzuela has pointed out in conversation the complexity of the one hand, minority persons' need to define themselves in opposition to a majority, and, at the same time their objections to having an identity solely defined by that context. Nonetheless some theorists such as Paul Smith call for a reassessment of essentialism's political efficacy (see Smith 1988, 44). See also Fuss's discussion of this in connection with Irigaray (Fuss 1989, 70ff). 3. Paul Ricoeur in colloquium with Harvard Divinity School Faculty, Fall 1983. 4. For de Lauretis's main sources for her interpretations of Lacan, Eco and Peirce see Alcoff (1988, 424 n. 45). 5. For a translation and discussion of this sutra see Thera (1984). For further discussion of mindfulness by modern Theravadins see Thera (1984) and Rahuala (1980). 6. Mind is then not to be understood only through the metaphor of "conversation" and the differentiating play of words as it often is today, as, for example in the work of Bakhtin (the "dialogic consciousness") and Rorty's work on Freud. See Flax (1990, 217) with reference to Rorty (1986). 7. This is a kind of quiet mental scanning that allows the analyst to listen closely and clearly to the analysand, and allows the analysand to be aware of what is coming to her own consciousness. (Thanks to Meredith Skura for this observation in the course of a seminar sponsored by the Rice Center for Cultural Studies, Fall 1990.) 8. This internal energy, however, does not fit into the usual categories by which contemporary feminists consider the extent to which thought or consciousness is affected by bodily experience. Therefore, whereas in some contemporary theories the acknowledged difficulty of locating any aspect of mind that is not affected by bodily experience is associated with skepticism regarding the possibility of "pure" consciousness, in the Buddhist traditions considered here it is not. See Flax (1990, 62). Consider also Cixous's emphasis on the body and Kristeva's alignment of feminine and masculine uses of language with feminine and masculine libidinal energy. See discussion by Weedon (1987, 70ff). 9. For an excellent discussion of this see Jane Flax (1980, 21ff). See also Bateson (1982, 313-14). 10. Jane Flax observes that, given the repressive contexts that Western women are likely to encounter, feminism has a special interest in theories that construct self while taking account of the full complexity of subjectivity (Flax 1986, 93). 11. This is because Buddhist traditions are not simply philosophical systems that purport to describe the world and knowledge of it, but are soteriological systems that claim the ability to describe the world in such a way that one can become freed from it (conversation with Steven Goodman, March 1, 1994, Houston, Texas). Language is not the only reason one is caught up in the world. For example, the Gelukba Consequentialist (Prasangika) school regards the errors it seeks to correct as not only mental or conceptual but also as pervading sensory perception. Moreover, sensory perception can, at least in Buddhist theory, operate without conceptual overlay. For a discussion of Buddhism's claim to deal with a level of error more primal than language, see Napper (1989, 92ff). 12. This term derived in conversation with Steven Goodman. 13. In the literature on calm abiding, "mindfulness" is distinguished from the function of introspection (samprajanaya, shes bzhin); this latter is the factor of mind that notices whether faults such as laxity or excitement are present. See Hopkins (1983, 74-76). A classic Mahayana distinction between mindfulness and introspection is made in Shantideva's Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds, Chap. 4. See Cox (1992, 67-108). 14. These are characteristics classically associated with calm abiding, the minimal level of concentration required for actual insight into the unconditioned emptiness. See Lodro (1986, 166). Calm abiding is acquired developmentally, culminating the "nine mental states" (sems gnas dgu). Facility with mindfulness, "the power of mindfulness," is said to be completed at the fourth of these states. 15. Indeed, a synonym for a nonconceptual mind is a "complete engager" sgrub 'jug, (viddhi-pravrti) because it is considered to engage every aspect of its object. In this sense it is fully present to the aspects of the object which present themselves to consciousness. Discussed in Napper (1980) and Klein (1986 Chap. 3). For a detailed discussion of the idea that sense consciousnesses "take on the aspect" of the objects they know, see Klein (1986, Chap. 3). 16. I draw here primarily from the Middle Way (Madhyamika) philosophy in the tradition of the Indian scholars Nagarjuna and Candrakirti as interpreted by Tsong-khapa, founder of the Gelukba order, and other scholars in his tradition, who incorporated many elements of the epistemology of the Indian scholastics Dignaga and Dharmakirti. 17. For an interesting discussion of this aspect of presence see Culler (1982, 105). 18. As Flax observes, for Derrida writing is not bound up with the myth of an "originary or modified form of presence." See Derrida (1978, 211-12). 19. Words do not elicit the actual emptiness, any more than the word "table" elicits a complete table. See Klein (1986, 134-40). 20. See for example, Culler (1982, 92ff) and Derrida (1976, 12ff). See also Derrida (1976, 7-8, 20, and 158-59. Indeed, presence and absence derive from the same Latin root es. (American Heritage Dictionary !1973^). For an accessible discussion of this aspect of presence see Culler (1982, 105). 21. Derrida discusses this under the rubric of two well-known topics: supplementation and differance (1982). 22. And indeed Derrida is partly reacting against Hegel's idea of an absolute subject, or absolute spirit. 23. This, as Flax observes, does not arise due to the logic of language, but through a failure of gendered analysis (1990, 214-15). She eloquently describes how Derrida's system mirrors the exile of women, and all she represents, from the world of "man," "culture," and "center" (213). 24. Nancy Hartsock (1987, 186-206; paraphrased and discussed by Di Stefano (1990). 25. For highly articulate critiques of this opposition, see Fuss (1989) and Schor (1989). REFERENCES Alcoff, Linda. 1988. Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: The identity crisis in feminist theory. Signs 13(3): 405-36. Anzaldua, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute. Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps toward an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books. Beauvoir, Simone de. 1974. The second sex. Trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books. Buddhaghosa. 1976. Path of purification (Visuddhimagga). Trans. Bhikkhu Nyanarnoli. Berkeley and London: Shambhala. Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clement. 1986. The newly born woman. Trans. by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Cox, Colette. 1992. Mind and memory. In In the mirror of memory. See Gyatso 1992. Culler, Jonathan. 1982. On deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Daly, Mary. 1985. Pure lust: Elemental feminist philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press. de Lauretis, Teresa. 1984. Alice doesn't. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Di Stefano, Christine. 1990. Dilemmas of difference: Feminism, modernity, and post-modernism. In Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York and London: Routledge. Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. -----. Writing and difference. 1978. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. -----. 1981. Positions. Trans. and annotated by Alan Bass Chicago: University of Chicago Press. -----. 1982. Differance. In Margins of philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Do-drup-chen (rdo grub chen III, a.k.a. Jig-may-den-ba-nyi-ma !'Jig-med bstan-ba'i nyi-ma, 1865-1926^). 1975. Rig 'dzin yum ka bde chen rgyal mo'i sgrub gzhung gi zin bris bde chen lam gzang gsal ba'i gron me (Notes on the basic text for emulating the mother knowledge, Bearer, the Great Bliss Queen: A lamp clarifying the good path of great bliss). In Collected works of Do-drup-chen. Vol. 5. Gantok, Sikkhim: Do-drup-chen-Rinboche !IV^, Vol. 5. Eisenstein, Hester, and Alice Jardine eds. 1980. The future of difference. Boston: G.K. Hall. Flax, Jane. 1986. Remembering the selves: Is the repressed gendered? Michigan Quarterly Review 26(1). -----. 1980. Mother-daughter relationships: Psychodynamics. In The future of difference. See Eisenstein and Jardine 1980. -----. 1990. Thinking fragments: Psychoanalysis, feminism, and postmodernism in the contemporary West. Berkeley: University of California Press. Fuss, Diana. 1989. Essentially speaking. London and New York: Routledge. Gyatso, Janet, ed. 1992. In the mirror of memory : Reflections on mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press. Nancy Hartsock. 1987. Rethinking modernism: Minority vs. majority theories. In Cultural Critique 7: 186-206. Hopkins, Jeffrey. 1983. Meditation on emptiness. London: Wisdom Publications. Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the other woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Klein, Anne C. 1988a. Non-Dualism and the Great Bliss Queen. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1(1). -----. 1985b. Primordial purity and everyday life: Exalted female symbols and the women of Tibet. In Immaculate and powerful: The female in sacred image and social reality. ed. Clarissa Atkinson, Constance Buchanan, and Margaret Miles. Boston: Beacon Press. -----. 1986. Knowledge and liberation: Buddhist epistemology in support of transformative religious experience. Ithaca: Snow Lion Press. -----. 1994. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, feminists, and the art of the self. Boston: Beacon Press. Kristeva, Julia. 1981. Woman can never be defined. In New French feminisms. See Marks and de Courtivron, 1981. Lessing, Doris. 1980. The four gated city. New York: Bantam Books. Lodro, Geshe Gedun. 1986. Walking through walls: A presentation of Tibetan meditation. Trans. and ed. Jeffrey Hopkins; co-edited by Anne Klein and Leah Zahler. Ithaca: Snow Lion Press. Marks, Elaine, and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. 1981. New French feminisms. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Martin, Emily. !1987^ 1992. The woman in the body: A cultural analysis of reproduction. Boston: Beacon Press. Moraga, Cherrie. 1987. This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press. Napper, Elizabeth. 1980. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca: Snow Lion Press. -----. 1989. Dependent arising and emptiness. London: Wisdom Publications. Ngawang Denzin Dorje (Ngag-dbang-bstan-'dzin-rdo-rje, 18th century). 1972. kLong chen snying gi thig le'i mkha' 'gro bde chen rgval mo'i grub gzhung gi 'grel pa rgyud don snang ba a.k.a. Ra Tig (Commentary on the practice for emulating the Sky Woman, the Great Bliss Queen, from the "Very essence of the Great Expanse" tradition of Long-chen-rab-jam). New Delhi: Sonam Topgay Kazi. Rahula, Walpola. 1980. What the Buddha taught. New York: Grove Press. Rorty, Richard. 1986. Freud and moral reflection. In Pragmatism's Freud: The moral disposition of psychoanalysis, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Schor, Naomi 1989. This essentialism which is not one: Coming to grips with Irigaray. In Differences 1(2): 38-58. Smith, Paul 1988. Discerning the subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Thera, Nyanaponika. 1984. Heart of Buddhist meditation. New York: Samuel Weiser. Walker, Alice. 1982. The color purple. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Weedon, Chris. 1987. Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ANNE C. KLEIN is an associate professor at Rice University, where she teaches in the Department of Religious Studies and in the interdisciplinary Women's Studies major. In 1982-83 she was a Research Associate and Lecturer in the Women and Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. In addition to a number of articles in the area of women and Buddhism, she has published three books on issues in Buddhist philosophy and epistemology, including, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen.