Kika Dorsey: Embodied Language: Julia Kristeva's Theory of Poetic Language and Tantric Buddhism According to Reggie Ray

Fall '08 TOC

            At first glance, it's hard to imagine two more different ways of seeing the world than Tantric Buddhism and the heady world of the French feminists. Tantric Buddhism is an ancient religion with practices that predate Buddhism, for example the mantras, rhythmic chants that go back at least to the Vedic tradition and were used to identify and communicate with deities. The Tantric tradition focuses on mantras, mandalas (illustrated circular pictures), and mudras (hand gestures), all to inspire the practitioner to be in touch with some aspect within him or herself, or to identify with a Boddhisvatva of an essential quality, like wisdom or compassion. Contemporary Buddhists like Reggie Ray have especially embraced Tantric Buddhism's emphasis on the individual's embodied experience. This body-centered philosophy values our own experiences of breath and attention during meditation over ancient texts and rituals. Oddly enough, French feminist Julia Kristeva's theory of poetic language calls for a similar return to bodily experience and importance of rhythm in the creation of language, which I translate as breath and heartbeat. I say oddly enough because the world of the French feminists and critical theory has traditionally been extremely intellectual, with a specialized language that is virtually unreadable to the uninitiated.
            In Ferdinand de Saussure's discussion of linguistic structure, which established the foundation of the poststructuralists, language is comprised of a signifier (sound/image), signified (concept), and finally the linguistic sign, the word, which is arbitrary in nature and differs in different languages. In the process of forming language,
he writes:

Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition. Neither are thoughts given material form nor are sounds transformed into mental entities; the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that "thought-sound" implies division, and that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses. Visualize the air in contact with a sheet of water; if the atmospheric pressure changes, the surface of the water will be broken up into a series of divisions, waves; the waves resemble the union or coupling of thought with phonic substance.1

These waves then represent the formation of language in the union of thought and sound, an experience of movement, an ephemereal creation. He then writes, "Linguistics then works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine; their combination produces a form, not a substance."2 This combination of sound and thought is not a substance. Language is a pattern, not an essential element like a the ground under our feet.  The word, the sign, is an arbitrary unit, and only in relationship does it acquire meaning. Thought is chaotic and only finds order in the structures we place it in. Saussure was later criticized for leaving out the world, the reference, and making language a closed system. However, he established a foundation for talking about language as a structure that imposes meaning through relationship between its parts. Ideas do not exist in language prior to their combination and the pattern, or form, that they make. His work gave the poststructuralists new ways of exploring and looking at language, eventually forming a larger science of signs called "semiology."
            Roland Barthes took this new science of semiology and explored what he called a  third term of signification, beyond that of the sign, or word. In Mythologies, he explores what he calls the metalanguage we superimpose on reality in order to divest it of history and give the world meaning and substance. He gives the example of an image of a saluting black man next to the French flag. The signification is that the image symbolizes French imperialism, and the symbolism becomes an unconscious assumption of the reader of that image. The true history of the black man is erased for the conceptual and ideological framework of the nation. The image itself becomes propaganda; it inspires a consciousness of identification with the state, the support of wars, an ego that can then define other nationalities as "other." In his work, Barthes calls for a language that is not mythical, but one of man as producer, language that makes the world and no longer preserves it as image, where language is linked to the "making of things."3 He believes in a language that speaks of immediate experience and presence, devoid of the mythological structures that limit it. 
           Buddhism, too, calls for an abandonment of this "imaginary nature." "Form is emptiness," states the 1st skandha, pointing to a transcendent quality beneath the forms we create in language. Reggie Ray, in Secret of the Vajra World, writes,

There is no such substantial and definitive thing as "form." We may think that form exists in some substantial and objectifiable way, but this is a false projection upon reality; this is no different from the way in which we may imagine the existence of the "self," which also is a fallacious and finally empty projection.4

Because the vajra world is empty, "...it is exactly how it presents itself to be in each instant."5 Applied to language, this would be Barthes' ideal—a language that creates the world without a conceptual overlay or system of interpretive power behind it, a kind of woven fabric that is transparent to the emptiness beneath it, where, in Barthes' words,  the "I" is never more than a "paper I."6 The ego, like language, is a limiting structure that can dissolve in the process of meditation. All one's interpretation about reality, the definitions one imposes upon oneself—for example that one is smart, stupid, creative, not mathematical, patriotic—fall away in the practice of letting go of projections and opening up a space for the perception of reality as it immediately presents itself. This would be an empty, still center.
            But there is a kind of creativity based on letting go of the ego that is somatic and is particularly explored by Julia Kristeva. Kristeva, like Barthes, says that to express meaning in any symbolic form is a function of social identity. Literature, however, and poetic language in particular, is where the social code is both destroyed and renewed through a heterogeneousness, a multiplicity, of meaning and signification—what she calls "semiotic meaning." For example, if one took the simple image of a rose, it could symbolize something like love, but the rose would reappear in many different contexts to change its meaning, moved through rhythm and repetition until one cannot simply say that the rose symbolizes love. There is an aspect of language that is relational, and this aspect, according to Kristeva, reveals itself through the quality of rhythm and musicality.
           The rhythm in language comes about in the writer's experience of what Kristeva calls the chora. This terms comes from Plato and is associated with the mother, specifically the maternal body:

This heterogeneousness detected genetically in the first echolalias of infants as rhythms and intonations anterior to the first phonemes, morphemes, lexemes and sentences; this heterogeneousness to signification operates through, despite, and in excess of it and produces in poetic language 'musical' but also nonsense effects that destroy not only accepted beliefs and significations, but, in radical experiments, syntax itself, that guarantee of thetic consciousness (of the signified object and ego).7

Through rhythm, the writer calls to the "chora, receptacle, unnameable, improbable, hybrid, anterior to naming, to the One, to the father, and consequently maternally connoted to such an extent that is merits not even the rank of syllable."8 The writer is negated through this borderline experience and language, like a mantra, continues in the rhythm that destroys thetic consciousness, which normally imposes a linear structure of interpretation or representation. Language becomes mobile and provisional and not representational and spatial. In other words, it is a force of constant change, not a static creation. An example would be Anne Waldman's "Matriarchly." Whenever her language begins to end a sentence, create a complete idea, the moment is transformed by rhythm in the constant repetition throughout the poem of the last line:

so it's a tract elevated to the point of outstanding
melodies of all the ones you'd ever hope to hear, that is,
human
            & does it come back to me does it does it9

And her mother in this poem has multiple identifications: "you be my milk, my book/my tigress, my sparrowhawk, my steed..."10 The rhythm creates multiple identifications and a subject that is plural. Through accessing the experience of the chora, the writer's ego dissolves into multiple identifications, and the language drives forward by always returning "from nothing to the root of the tongue/ from nothing to speaking of empty space."11
            Just as in Tantric Buddhism, there is an element of reality that has yet to be created and comes from an empty source. But to hearken back to an older Buddhist text, the Buddha himself defines the chora:

There is, O monks, an unborn, not-become, unproduced, not-compounded. Were it not, O Monks, for this unborn, not-become, unproduced, not-compounded, no escape from the born, become, produced and compounded would be known. But, O monks, since there is an unborn, not-become, unproduced, not compounded, there is an escape from the born, become, produced and compounded. (Udana, 81)

This "escape" is the experience of nirvana, the complete transcendence into nothingness. Kristeva's ideas of poetic language bridge samsara, our karmic life, with the cycle of birth and death and ceaseless suffering, with those experiences of nirvana, transcendence and enlightenment, and in their relationship new forms arise and old structures of signification are destroyed and renewed. This bridge between our individual experience and transcendence is in our bodies, in the instinctual drive.  
            According to Kristeva, this space before meaning, where the self has not yet learned to recognize his or herself, is associated with the maternal body. It is through the rhythm of the heart beating, the breath, that musicality in language creates new forms through its brush with emptiness. It is a primordial experience analogous to that of the newly born infant that has not developed its ego yet. Reggie Ray, in Touching Enlightenment, suggests that one must conceive of the body as subject instead of detaching from it or objectifying it, because each body part has its own "living truth."12  He believes one must become embodied through meditation and writes exercises in which, for example, one focuses just on the toe, breathing into it, and then achieves a whole new awareness of it. Instead of a cerebral attempt to experience the emptiness, it is in paying attention to the body that one heightens awareness:

In the classical Buddhist traditions, meditation is deeply somatic—it is fully grounded in sensations, sensory experiences, feeling, emotions, and so on. Even thoughts are related to as somatic—as bursts of energy experienced in the body.... In its most ancient Buddhist form, meditation is a technique for letting go of the objectifying tendency of thought and of entering deeply and fully into communion with our embodied experience.13

This experience, compassion for the body, is the foundation of compassion for others.

            The "karma of result" is the unlived life from the ego, and if one pays attention to the body directly, the unlocked energy burns the structure of the ego. The body returns its history to experience, and the interpretive, unconscious assumptions that have repressed it are like a building that has burned down, "a fire of all the vivid and intense pain held by these previously rejected aspects of experience."14 By becoming subject, the body has been given voice. By focusing on releasing energy from one's unconscious, and "according to Buddhism, the unconscious is the body...,"15 one experiences the chora, the empty space from which form is drawn. Anne Waldman writes, I'm fire. Got fire. Will be fire. Was fire and I was ashes too.16 The dakini Machig Lapdron is associated with an inner fire, called gtummo, one of the yogas of completion described as fusing all polarities. Philippa Berry writes:

If the siddha responds thoughtfully—and compassionately—to the encounter with the dakini, the result seems at one level to be a purification of the ignorance of dualistic thinking. This is replaced by a non-referential mode of thought—a thinking from the heart in which thought is integrally related to compassionate action.17

The body's experience becomes a vehicle for the experience of multiple identifications, which is the source
of compassion. Its "otherness" has become "self" in the continual rhythmic process that bridges samsara
and nirvana. 
            The Buddhist story of the initiation of Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, by the chief of the dakinis in the canto 34 of the dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, describes a visit to the "cemetery of sleep." The maidservant, also a dakini, is outside the closed door of the "castle of the skull," in reference to the dakini's  attribute of a skullcap filled with blood. The maidservant cuts open her chest with a crystal knife, and Padmasambhava sees the inner nature of the body, which contains the mandalas of both the peaceful and wrathful deities. He is then swallowed by her and transformed into the syllable HUM and in her body he obtains "the power of binding the highest gods and genies."18 By becoming one with the feminine, the complex and circular images of the mandala reveal creation in all its complex attributes, and the duality of self and other are dissolved by his merging with the feminine body that fuses all polarities. 
            The parallels between these two schools of thought implicate in the end a spiritual practice for the creative artist that is revolutionary and compassionate. No longer creating works of art to support institutions of meaning, for example the ideology of the state, the artist who explores language through embodied transcendental experience would explore multiplicity of meaning and identifications. And it is an experience of the body, of the other, the Not-I, given voice, a compassion for this mortality and form that always drinks from the reservoir of emptiness. This experience is the irrational, the world of feeling, and not just a collage of disparate parts. It is Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisattva of compassion, with her many arms that embrace plurality, her body extending to a language that is grounded in the movement of breath. 


1 Ferdinand de Saussure, "Course in General Linguistics," Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 967
2  ibid
3 Roland Barthes. Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, (Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1972), 146
4 Reggie Ray, Secret of the Vajra World, (Boston, London: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2001), 93
5 ibid, 128
6 Roland Barthes, "From Work to Texts," Leitch, Vincent B. ed., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 1474
7 Julia Kristeva, "Revolution in Poetic Language," in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949).
8 Ibid, 133
9 Anne Waldman, Makeup on Empty Space. (The Toothpaste Press: West Branch, Iowa, 1984), 6
10 ibid, 11
11 ibid, 21
12 Reggie Ray. "Touching Enlightenment." (Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 2006), 45
13 ibid, 40
14 ibid, 125
15 ibid
16 Anne Waldman, Makeup on Empty Space. (The Toothpaste Press: West Branch, Iowa, 1984), 28
17 Philippa Berry, "Sky-Dancing at the Boundaries," in Healing Deconstruction: Postmodern Thought in Buddhism and Christianity, ed. David Loy (Scholars Press: Atlanta, 1996), 66
18 The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, by Yeshe Tsolgyal, trans. into French by Gustave-Charles Toussaint (1912), into English by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolen Bays (Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Press, 1978), vol. 1, 220–1

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