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Sexual difference and self-understanding – a comparative perspective on the liberation of bodily conditioned human beings

Li Jianjun
p. 48-62


In this article I will argue that the feminist theoretical paradigm in approaching the issue of sexual difference should be adjusted. Feminism at present mainly relies on phenomenology of the other and pays much attention to the significant ambiguity of the human body. But I will explain that the phenomenological argument for the sexual asymmetry is invalid. All human beings with gender are bodily conditioned. Gender issues must be integrated into the universal human impulse of liberation which is based on a self-understanding. The gendered self is culturally shaped. An intercultural comparative perspective can allow us to obtain a wider horizon to explore the relationship between a person’s sexually conditioned being and his self-understanding. In my discussion of gender and self, the contrast between China and the West is exemplary. Despite different self-understandings with regard to sex, the pursuit of freedom can be universally noticed. Notwithstanding the sexually embodied existence, human beings in both the West and East have generally theorized and practiced the spiritualization of self in metaphysics and religions. In order to make this point clear I take early Indian Buddhism as an example. My argumentation may seem intercultural and comparative, but fundamentally I am problem-oriented and point to the dimension beyond cultural comparison.

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Feminist philosophy as background 1

  • 1 For a comprehensive introduction of feminist philosophy cf. Nagl-Docekal 2004 and Wendel 2003.
  • 2 Stoller 2005: 7.
  • 3 Cf. Beauvoir 1953.

1In its early stage, feminism strove for equal standing, equal rights, and equal treatment because of the inequality of sexes in political sense. Where political inequalities are concerned, the pursuit of symmetry stands as the idea in women’s studies, gender studies, or the political activism of the women’s movement. Symmetry here means equality, and “in a certain sense it constitutes the leitmotif of feminist theory and practice.”2 Simone de Beauvoir was the most famous representative of the “feminism of equality”.3 Politically, this idea’s significance remains; but philosophically, it is problematic.

  • 4 Cf. Irigaray 1993.
  • 5 Stoller 2005: 9.

2Luce Irigaray noticed that the pursued agenda of symmetry was actually the continuance of traditional European male philosophy of identity.4 In the framework of the feminism of symmetry women were identified with men. “Irigaray’s critique of the Western logos as critique of identity confirms that her ethics of sexual difference is based on a fundamental rejection of the idea of symmetry.”5 What’s more crucial in Irigaray’s re-examination of feminism was her concept of radical asymmetry that is comprehended as “a lived relation of sexes”.

  • 6 Cf. Merleau-Ponty 1962; Levinas 1969; Waldenfels 1997.

3The Zeitgeist for the re-affirmation of the sexual difference and the lived asymmetry between men and women was aroused through the phenomenology of the other, represented by Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Bernhard Waldenfels.6 What I want to point out is that, firstly, the phenomenological reflection on sexual difference with its reduction of the opposite sex to an “other” has in effect eliminated the necessity of feminist philosophy, and secondly, the phenomenology of the other paradoxically cannot get rid of the traditional philosophy of self. Self and others are of simultaneous origin (gleichursprünglich), because self-understanding is unavoidability integrated in every experience of the other, and, the bodily sexual existence of a human being has exercised overwhelming influences upon his self-understanding. The combination of sexual difference and self-understanding is an inspiring approach to reflecting feminist projects.

4The unavoidability of the self problem in discussing sexual issues actually means a return to the original goal of feminism – the liberation of women, which must nevertheless be examined in a wider perspective, because the liberation of women is rooted in the liberation of human beings in general. That is what I will argue for in the following. Methodologically, I will interculturally approach the relationship between sexual difference and self-understanding, paying attention to the lived experiences from Chinese and Indian cultures.

The invalidity of the phenomenological argument for the sexual asymmetry

  • 7 For an overview of the relationship between phenomenology and sexual difference cf. Stoller, Vetter (...)

5The argument for the sexual asymmetry from the phenomenological perspective is twofold: the racial otherness of the other and the bodily conditioned existence of human being.7 I draw on Stoller’s article further, because her summary shows clearly what the new orientation in feminism has been based upon and provides us an outline of rich theoretical contributions in this direction. But I will explain that her theoretical basis, namely the phenomenology of other and the human body, is unconvincing. The sexual asymmetry belongs actually to the domain of traditional philosophy of self that is intellectual or rational, and therefore constantly knowing. Knowing at every moment presupposes a subject-like self who knows. Ultimately speaking, for a self-centered subject all aspects of his life activities cannot be symmetrical. The lived asymmetry is so near to our everyday life.

6But knowing means as much as possible to overcome personally conditioned asymmetry, which is also the root of biases and prejudices. To be rational is therefore to be detached from personal biases and prejudices, and try to share with others what is common to us. Knowledge is just what is common to us. Stoller’s question of comparability and her arguments for nonsymmetrical relationships rely on the radical otherness of the other. But the exaggerated highlighting of the radical otherness of the other cannot be consistent.

  • 8 Giuliani 1997: 111.
  • 9 Stoller 2005: 11.
  • 10 Psychosexual disorder such as gender identity disorder, transsexualism, and all forms of paraphilia (...)
  • 11 The indispensability of comparison is rooted in the temporality and intentionality of consciousness (...)

7As to the question of comparability, she refers to Giuliani’s phenomenological critique of “a position beyond or outside of the sexes”8 in every form of comparison of sexes. In her argument for the incomparability between sexes, she appeals to “a neutral discourse about gender or sexual difference”.9 Of course as sexual beings we are always situated in some sexual form,10 but can we therefore conclude that comparison is impossible? For Stoller “the same measure” common to both sexes doesn’t exist. The neutrality or an outside position is just an assumption, but not the fact of experience. In her grounding of incomparability, not only the comparison between sexes but compassion in general is denied. Following her reasoning, we cannot take a neutral position to compare any two things. The reason is very simple. Before I compare any two things, I have at first to get a relation between I as the knower with each of the two things. In this primary relation my position cannot be neutral, too. The seeming neutral position in the secondary comparative relation in face of the two things is only an illusion. In short, Stoller’s radical skepticism of comparison is based on skepticism of reason in traditional European philosophy. The work of reason is but to find out the common measure in order to make comparison and furthermore knowledge possible. Comparison is the necessary mechanism in the knowing activity of consciousness.11

8If we accept that knowledge is comparison-based, we can come to realize that the comparison between sexes is also reasonable; otherwise we have to stop talking about men and women. The heterosexual body exercises great influence on our perception of the opposite sexes and the world in general, but reason helps us more or less transcend sexually conditioned biases. The appeal to the phenomenology of the other cannot avoid this difficulty: not only the other sex or the other people in general are exterior and alien to me, but everything in time and space that become objects of my knowledge are exterior and alien to me.

  • 12 Stoller 2005: 12-17.

9Stoller’s arguments for nonsymmetrical relationships between sexes move just in the framework of the phenomenology of the other. Her highlighting of irreversibility, non-reciprocity, non-substitutability, and irreducibility,12 which are the extended aspects of the nonsymmetrical relationships, can be applied to all relationships which are based on a knowing I. If the phenomenologically oriented feminist philosophy with its emphasis on the sexual asymmetry goes to extremes, its concern cannot be confined to women any more, but must be extended to the more relevant self problem.

  • 13 Li 2016: 20-24.

10The reduction of the relationship to the opposite sex to the relationship to the other must abolish feminist philosophy in fact, as I’ve shown above. What’s more, the radical otherness of the other touches a more profound problem: the problem of self. Only on the basis of a self can we distinguish between men and women and get more knowledge of the world. But what makes a self possible? According to Bernhard Waldenfels’ responsive phenomenology, self and other are of simultaneous origin, and in one’s constant, unavoidable responses to the claims or demands (Anspruch) of the alien (das Fremde) his self is grown up.13

  • 14 Stoller 2005: 18.

11Therefore, the problem of sex or gender is intrinsically connected with the problem of self. This necessary connection can be seen more clearly in Stoller’s recourse to bodily being of humanity, which is “a further, decisive argument in favor of gender asymmetry.”14 Apparently, a bodily being is sexually distinguished. And surely the heterosexual humanity very strongly experiences the impulse of the opposite sex. This is a truth in the lived relation between sexes. What’s more, the generally experienced sexual temptation is the powerful proof of the bodily conditioned being of humanity. In this sense any position of neutrality in our perception of the opposite sex is just an assumption, not the fact. But here we have the same reason as above that the bodily conditioned asymmetry is general in human life, not merely confined to the field of sex.

  • 15 The identity of the self is the result of boundary drawing, which cannot avoid the problem of the b (...)
  • 16 Li 2016: 39-58.

12I see in the bodily conditioned sexual asymmetry a more essential issue, that is, the mind-body problem.15 I’ve argued in another work of mine that, ultimately, the human body (Leib), being different form a dead corpse, must be seen as embodied mind.16 A conscious self with mind is very personally embodied, and sex is only one aspect his embodiment. Form this point of view I try to re-establish the significance of sexual difference, which, as explained above, has necessarily to be canceled in the phenomenology of the other. For an embodied self his one-sided sex is doubtless a great matter, and his or her freedom is surely conditioned through his or her sex. In the following I will discuss the relationship between sexual difference and self-understanding of human being, with special reference to Chinese and Indian discourses on freedom or liberation.

Gender Issues and Human Liberation. Gender and self in the contrast between China and the West

13Human liberation is inseparable from his self-understanding. People are gendered, and this inherent physiological bias is implicitly or explicitly infiltrated into human self-understanding. Human beings with some self-understanding in their consciousness have created cultures, including gender culture. In the history and at present, various gender cultures in turn affect and adjust people’s self-understanding, which conditions people’s liberation. Therefore, in modern academic discourses, human gender differences include two dimensions: the biological sex and the cultural gender. In the current society, physiological gender identity disorder, homosexuality and even asexuality are not new topics, so the seemingly natural sex distinction based on physiology has become complicated; and, parallel to the liberation movement of people, especially women, the cultural gender distinction has gradually become a social public issue. However, I want to emphasize that gender issues are inherently related to human liberation. This point not only directly results from our reflection on the feminist movement; actually liberation is a long-standing issue of life.

  • 17 Hall, Ames 1998: 79.

14There is a difference in the understanding of “self” between Chinese and Western civilizations. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames believe that this difference is most noticeable in the different views of the relationships between the two sexes.17 How a “self” which is sexually conditioned accepts its own gender and treats the opposite sex plays a decisive role in the self-understanding of the person. The problems resulted from a sexually conditioned self-understanding are hidden in the everyday routine. The reason for this is that the fact that “people are gendered” is uncritically accepted by the everyday consciousness of men who are in a superior position than women.

  • 18 Ivi: 81-82; 86-88.

15The history of human civilization is the history of the male’s domination over the female. Our interest in the “prehistoric” matriarchal society is becoming more and more intense, which will further deepen our research on this issue, but the current discourse is based on the comparative view of sex / gender between China and the West by Hall and Ames. What the history of the male’s domination over the female has left to us is a record of how men have understood themselves as human beings and how they have treated women. In such a progress toward freedom the so-called human freedom is often equated with the male’s freedom. Men see themselves as the embodiment of reason, regarding women as being enslaved in emotion or even irrational. According to this, Hall and Ames believe that in the Western civilization the view of the gendered “self” is based on “dualistic sexism” that men and women stay in contradiction to each other. Although the Western civilization admits that women are also human beings in their essence, the so-called human beings must be of “masculine gender traits.” Therefore, for women, to become a fully developed person must be at the expense of overcoming and giving up their female characteristics.18

  • 19 C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology touches the female side (anima) of a man and the male side (animu (...)

16Hall and Ames believe that the views of the relationship between the two sexes and the ideal personality in Chinese classical philosophy can make up for the insufficient understanding of gender and self in Western civilization. In contrast, the views of the male and female on the background of yin 陰 and yang 陽 philosophy in ancient China regard the seemingly opposite male and female poles as internally related, mutually penetrated and complementary to each other. The gender distinction is not once and for all naturally given, and therefore it is not static. Such a point of view is called “correlative sexism” by them. Both the human body and the spiritual activity are results of the manifesting life energy, which is always in the process of change and transformation. In this sense, people may transcend gender conditioning. Individuals with gender, both physically and psychologically, are often in a state of non-equilibrium and non-harmony with certain biases. Therefore, for a man e.g., the ideal personality is not only rigid but also soft, and can develop and integrate the female energy in his body and consciousness, not one-sidedly depreciating and repressing it.19

  • 20 萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以爲和。Cf. Roberts (Laozi 2001)’ translation of this sentence: “Each [of the myriad is] hold (...)

17In Chapter 42 of Laozi 老子 it’s said: “All things contain yin- and yang-energy, and [are sustained] in the harmony of the two”.20 A human being is one of the myriad things, but the yin- and yang-energy that a specific person is endowed with is often in a non-equilibrium status due to various disturbances. In addition to the energy disproportion caused by innate physiological gender difference, each culture has a strong shaping effect on human self-understanding. When gender discrimination or prejudices that are blended with discourses of power penetrate into the self-understanding, the individual who is shaped by this culture will also be in a state of yin and yang energy disequilibrium.

  • 21 Cf. Mengzi 2004; Confucius 1979; Laozi 2001.
  • 22 Hall, Ames 1998: 88-100.

18The ideal personality consciously maintains itself in a life state of yin and yang energy balance; they are rigid and soft, principled and flexible, benevolent and righteous, and sometimes manly and sometimes womanly. Unlike Mengzi (Mencius) 孟子 who is full of moral enthusiasm and heroic, the Confucius 孔子 in The Analects represents the image of a jade-like harmonious gentleman. The text of Laozi emphasizes the importance for a male life to develop the female energy in him; this energy is likened to supple water, weak babies, and empty valleys and so on.21 Therefore, Hall and Ames disagree with Joseph Needham’s view on the relationship between Daoism and Confucianism in Chinese tradition, because the latter one-sidedly regards Daoism merely as the yin representative of life temperament while Confucianism merely as yang.22

19Of course, Hall and Ames emphasize that this insight in Chinese life philosophy cannot be equated with China’s reality, both historically and at present. It was true that women have been equally recognized that they are possessed of the potential to balance their inner life energy. That means, they can develop and integrate the male energy in them to realize the existential harmony, and so they can like men become ideal individuals. But Hall and Ames believe that, in fact, Chinese tradition has even deprived the possibility of women to become human beings. The historical reality was extremely cruel. Although in the history of the West the rationality of the female was denied, it at least recognized that they are human beings and allowed them to become human beings, even though to become human beings means to become men.

  • 23 «Nu’er shi shui zuo de gurou, nanzi shi ni zuo de gurou, wo jianle nu’er bian jue qingshuang, jianl (...)

20In the traditional Chinese political narrative, women are demonized and even become synonymous with scourge; in political and military struggles, and in highly institutionalized official battles, women are largely squeezed out of the stage (Lv Hou 吕后, Wu Zetian 武則天 or Cixi 慈禧 are a few exceptions of women who have mastered powers in reality). An obvious fact is that the ancient history of China is the history of men (although there are also historical narratives about queens, moral women, female immortals or bhikshuni, but they are only embellishments of men’s stories). Men who have mastered power have been constantly distorting themselves while distorting women. They generally have symptoms of yang surplus or yin deficiency. In the era of Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 the men who fought for their fame and profit and strove to achieve personal success in the Chinese historical arena have become extremely turbid and smelly in personality. Cao Xueqin said through the mouth of Jia Baoyu賈寶玉: “The ladies are the flesh and bones made of water. The men the flesh and bones made of the mud. When I see the ladies, I feel refreshed. When I see the men, I feel them turbid and smelly”.23 Jia Baoyu in Cao Xueqin’s story is possessed of gentle nature and delicate feelings that are traditionally regarded as female temperament. This image clearly reflects Cao Xueqin’s dislike of men, who are also distorted in the patriarchal society, and his cherishment of women.

21Of course, the history of the entire human race is almost always a history of patriarchal society. The protagonists of history and the people who write history are men. China is not a special case. This widespread differentiation between men and women in human history is difficult to interpret with a biological or physiological explanation. The concept of men and women based on gender differences is constantly entangled with the cultural customs, becoming an increasingly complex snowball of meanings and rolling into everyone’s self-understanding who comes to the world with sex. People’s survival, living, and thinking about how to maximize freedom are constrained by the gender consciousness that is contained in their culturally shaped self-understanding. Here, how to grasp the roles of men and women in social life or family life, or whether the saying “men are responsible for affairs outside familiy, women are for affairs inside” is reasonable, etc., is not what really matters, because these issues are the affiliates of self-understanding. Therefore, how the gender difference brings forth obstacles and disturbances to human self-understanding is the real focus.

22So what I want to stress is that, given that the basic structure and values of patriarchal society are still dominating the human life, women still need to continue to fight for liberation. But fundamentally, the liberation need of women also means that men are not yet free. If women’s self-understanding is distorted by gender culture, it also reflects that men’s self-understanding is equally problematic. Gender relations between men and women should be considered from a more fundamental and broader perspective of human liberation.

23Based on this, the ideals of “being not only rigid but also soft” and “the integration of the energy of the opposite sexual potential into oneself” in Chinese classical philosophy can indeed inspire us to explore the possibility of freedom and liberation of people with gender. The problem is that how we as biological species that are destined to be male or female can understand this ideal personality. In fact, the ideal personality that is characterized with “the combination of rigidity and softness” and “the integration of the energy of the opposite sexual potential into oneself” includes the understanding of the subtle relationship between reason and sensibility, body and mind. When we go deep into the essence of the problem, we will find that if we regard philosophy and reason as gendered, namely as male, it actually means that we are still not free from the sexual conditioning.

24People with gender are destined to face their own gender bias and strive to achieve a physiological and psychological balance. The freedom of human life cannot be achieved without the realization of this balance. Therefore, with regard to the human self-understanding, our thinking of the freedom of a gendered self is guiding us to deepen the comparison between China and the West, and also surpassing the comparison between China and the West.

The pursuit of freedom and the spiritualization of self in spite of the sexually embodied being – an Indian example

25In the philosophical thinking and religious practice devoted to the freedom of life, the self problem is extremely prominent. In order to enter the freedom without reliance and so to win as much of its independence as possible, a self tries to complete various transcendences. But a self is related. This is first manifested in self-consciousness. A self-conscious person must be in a relationship with himself. This is the basis of all other relationships that are centered on the self. In other words, the relationship between a person and his self is a prerequisite for his relationship with others and with nature. For this reason, the relationship between man and nature and the relationship between man and man are always intertwined with the relationship between man and himself. Being bodily and physically tied up in the triple relationship gives no room for freedom. In order to win independence and to realize freedom despite the triple relationship, the “self” in the extremely rationalist philosophy and religion is gradually spiritualized, because only the spiritualized self can complete all kinds of transcendence and still maintain its own “identity” and “fullness” in the face of complex and diverse changes. The spiritual self seems to have got rid of the shackles of the heavy body, and of course there is no gender. All forms of spiritual transcendence beyond the flesh are basically based on such a train of thought. For instances in Buddhism and Catholicism we see celibacy, misogyny, and asceticism. And in the extremely rationalism-oriented philosophical tradition the mind-body problem has never been ceased to be a point of controversy. Nevertheless, does a spiritual man in religion and philosophy, who is sexually conditioned because of bodily being in everyday life but tries to forget his body in order to become purely spiritualized in thinking, get caught in a kind of self-deception or even schizophrenia?

26In some sense the rise of phenomenology is a return to the sensibility based on the flesh. Most phenomenology-oriented feminist theorists are actually skeptical of rationalism in philosophy on the one hand, and despise the anti-body and anti-women practices in religion on the other. But in reality the sexually conditioned human body has never been ignored in the general tendency of the spiritualization of self on the way to freedom. The point is that the philosophical or religious people believe in a freedom that is beyond the sexually bodily conditioning. In order to illustrate it I take early Indian Buddhism as an example.

  • 24 Cf. Webster 2004’s investigation of the philosophy of desire in the Buddhist Pali canon with specia (...)

27I understand the spiritualization of self in early Buddhism as the spatialization of self-consciousness. A gradually spatialized self can be gradually freed from the temporally conditioning in consciousness that is the root of the karmic enslavement of a bodily sentient being (sattva). The main problem that the Buddhist practitioners make great efforts to solve is the overcoming of fire-like desires that dominate the living of a sentient being in the material realm of desire (kāma-dhātu). All desires are rooted in human body, and among which the sexual desire is the most notable problem. The Buddhist meditation practice calms down the body and purifies the mind.24 The body of a sentient being is regarded as embodiment of consciousness. In this sense we can call it body-mind which is disturbed by desires in kāma-dhātu. The technical term for the Buddhist meditation is dhyāna (Pali jhāna; the Chinese Chan 禅 stems from it; the popular concept Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese Chan). Along with the deep-going of dhyāna meditation, the bodily conditioning in the desire realm would be transcended, and a bodiless spatiality can be experienced. It probably sounds metaphysically absurd, so I need to explain the threefold existential spatiality (tridhātu) in early Buddhism and its relationship with dhyāna that can be understood as a process of spiritualization of sentient beings.

28Quantitatively speaking, there are countless worlds which co-exist according to Buddhist understanding of spatiality. The cosmos in one’s present view is just one world among them. Qualitatively speaking, all spatial possibilities of existence are divided into three realms. Besides the material realm of desire (kāma-dhātu) mentioned above, there are the realm of form (rūpa-dhātu) and the formless realm (arūpya-dhātu). The idea of the three spatial realms of existence is basically integrated into the Buddhist philosophy of consciousness, which is centered on the conception of karma. Karma is the subtle mechanism that determines the cause-and-effect continuum in conscious life. Accordingly, the present life, its specific spatial horizon of existence, is the result of karmic conditioning. The Buddhist cosmology, its classification of meditation levels, its doctrine of rebirth, and its hierarchical categorizing of psychological situations, etc., are all based on it. The three spatial realms of existence in Buddhism is a radical challenge to our ordinary perception of space which is confined to our personally experienced concrete spatial surroundings at the background of the intuitively assumed boundless cosmos. According to Buddhism the movement from life to life is a cycle of life-and-death, which is called samsāra. The life in the three realms is still in samsāra and subject to the circle of life-and-death. The aim of the spiritual practices in Buddhism is to be freed from it, the actualization of which is called nirvāva, the ultimate state of peace without the fire-like unease.

  • 25 Buddhaghosa 1984.
  • 26 Lusthaus 2002: 83-109.

29As with the tridhātu most commonly encountered elucidation of it is that given by Buddhaghosa in his Visudhimagga.25 In the following I will provide a detailed illustration of the threefold spatiality of being with the help of Dan Lusthaus’ research that draws very much from Visudhimagga, while integrating phenomenological language into the analysis,26 so that we can see how far the spiritualization of a self on the way to freedom can go, by which the sexual relation and the bodily conditioning is not ignored, but gradually transformed.

  • 27 As sentient beings the humanity belongs to the realm of desire, in which the principle of pleasure (...)
  • 28 This world is usually subdivided into six regions, which from the lowest to the highest are (1) the (...)
  • 29 According to Buddhism there are two types of desire in this realm: kuśala (beneficial, wholesome) a (...)

30Firstly, I introduce the realm of desire. It consists of six existential regions (sometimes the kāma-dhātu is subdivided into five or seven regions. It depends on the texts, but the difference is not essential now), namely (1) the hellish world (naraka), (2) the world of animals (tiryagyoni), (3) the world of hungry ghosts (preta), (4) the human world (manusya),27 (5) the world of jealous divine beings (asura), and (6) the world of heavenly beings (kāmadeva).28 We see that, except for the worlds of animals and humans, the other four worlds are out of normal experiences. Actually six existential regions correspond to six qualities of mental state in the realm of desire.29 The sentient beings of each realm are characteristic with one specific spiritual state, through which their life is conditioned. In this sense, we should not positively understand the six realms. They are symbols for spatial qualities of mind.

  • 30 Cf. Lusthaus 2002: 88-91.

31If the meditative detachment from bodily conditioned desires is realized, a person can experience the realm of form. Usually it is subdivided into four levels (or five, it depends on resource texts, but for our present discussion the matter is not important). By entering this realm the meditative state of mind has begun. Generally speaking, it is about grades of being freed or being detached from the material realm of desire. The four stages of meditation in this realm are (1) initial focusing of consciousness on a mental object and therefore intense pleasure and enjoyment, (2) one-pointedness of mind arising through samādhi (meditative concentration) and therefore inner joyful serenity, (3) detaching from intense joy and dwelling in equanimity, mindfulness and happiness, and (4) actualization of the purified neutralized mindfulness through abandoning both sukha (pleasure) and duhkha (pain).30

  • 31 Ivi: 90.
  • 32 Ivi: 90.

32It is emphasized that, without personal meditative practices, it is hard to understand the mental changes in one’s own life and the specific experiences of the corresponding spatiality. It is very comfortable in the realm of form. But sentient beings in this realm are still subject to the cycle of life-and-death. That means that they are still not really free. Nevertheless, “the realm of form is a formal abstraction from the kāma-dhātu. Whereas the kāma-dhātu operates as and through an appropriational desire predicated on and conditioned by vedanic experience [that means an experience is either pleasant or painful or neutral, therefore it’s bodily conditioned], the rūpa-dhātu involves the neutralization of this conditioning.”31 In the meditative realm of form, “the charged appropriational milieu of kāma-dhātu gradually [sometimes suddenly] gives away to a clarified, purified formal mental realm removed from hedonic bipolarities such as pain and pleasure or sadness and delight.”32 In short, the qualitative difference of mental state in the realm of form from that in the realm of desire lies in the “equanimity by divesting bipolarity”.

  • 33 The Sanskrit ākāśa is different from another concept deśa (area), it means “an all-pervading space- (...)
  • 34 “In the awareness of boundless consciousness, ākāśa has become nothing more than one type of potent (...)
  • 35 Boundless space underpins the structures by which we perceive the world(s); Boundless consciousness (...)
  • 36 Lusthaus 2002: 95.
  • 37 Ivi: 98.

33At last, the formless realm “involves the progressive erasure of formal boundaries”. In this realm it is intensively concerned with the radical experiences of spatiality which correspond to another four different levels of dhyāna. The four arūpya-dhyānas are (1) the subtle experience of the boundlessness of space (ākāśānantya),33 (2) the subtle experience of the boundlessness of consciousness (vijñānānantya),34 (3) the subtle experience of “nothing”(akimcanya),35 and (4) the final meditative state “neither with nor without associative thinking (naiva-samjñā-na-asamjñā)” places itself on a vacillating margin, a switch-point, between a cognitively constructed world [samjñā] and the erasure and negation of that world [asamjñā].36 In any case, the subtle experience in this realm cannot be stable or constant for a sentient being whose life is temporally conditioned, too. His mental state is subject to change as time flows; he has to face the changing “beings” in his experience. Lusthaus calls this spatiality finally experienced in the last meditation stage as “the effervescent contingency of the world”,37 whereas I prefer to the expression “the creative manifestation of reality”.

  • 38 Cf. Webster 2004: 187-205.

34All in all, the threefold existential spatiality in early Buddhism must be understood with reference to its concrete meditation practice. It is proper to say that in the Buddhist discourses of consciousness and spatiality it is ultimately concerned with the freedom of human beings.38 In our everyday life, we talk about physical space, geographical space, political space, economic space, etc. Actually they are all relevant with the spatiality of mind. The ordinary expressions in our language like narrow-minded or open-minded get then a spatial dimension. This spatial dimension refers to the freedom of mind. Accordingly, the Buddhist meditation should be comprehended in a broad sense as being freed from all forms of attachment in spatial consciousness and mindfully keeping the awareness of the spatiality of mind. This provides us another perspective to approach issues of self, sex, and body.

Open end

35Sexual difference or gender asymmetry is a very important issue, but not for itself. It must be placed in a wider context to review, so that it can become obvious that its significance lies in its connection with self-understanding and self-liberation. With this open-minded view we can approach this issue interculturally on the one hand, and take into account the ancient metaphysical and religious discourses on the other. Men in ancient times never eliminated the female side of being, because like us today, they were all subject to the conditioning of the sexual body or gendered mind. In this sense, for people on the way to freedom, the human body and sex have always been and remain important themes.

36Wuhan University

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Beauvoir, S. de , 1953, The Second Sex, trans. by H.M. Parshly, New York, Vintage Books.

Buddhaghosa, 1984, The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga, trans. by B. Ñānamoli, Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society.

Cao, X., Gao, E., 1999, A Dream of Red Mansions, trans. by Y. Xianyi and G. Yang, Beijing, Foreign Language Press.

Confucius, 1979, The Analects, trans. with an introduction by D.C. Lau, New York, Penguin Books.

Giuliani, R., 1997, Der überganene Leib: Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, und Judith Butler, “Phänomenologische Forshungen”, Neue Folge 2, 1: 104-125.

Hall, L.D., Ames, T.R., 1998, Thinking From the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture, Albany, State University of New York Press.

Irigaray, L., 1993, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. by C. Burke, G.C. Gill, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Laozi, 2001, Dao De Jing: the Book of the Way, trans. and commented by M. Roberts, Berkley, Los Angeles - London, University of California Press.

Levinas, E., 1969, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. by A. Lingis, Pittsburgh, Duquesne Press.

Li, J., 2016a, Leben als kreatives Antworten: eine Untersuchung der responsiven Phänomenologie von Bernhard Waldenfels im Hinblick auf den Dialog der Religionen in der Lebenswelt, Munich, Herbert Utz.

Li, J., 2016b, Von der phänomenologischen Hervorhebung der Leiblichkeit zum Denken der Grenze im Taijiquan, in R. Altenburger, E. Bentmann (eds), Raum und Grenze in den Chinastudien. Jahrbuch der deutschen Vereinigung für Chinastudien, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, vol. 10: 233-254.

Lusthaus, D., 2002, Buddhist Phenomenology. A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun, London, Routledge.

Mengzi, 2004, Mencius, trans. with an introduction and notes by D.C. Lau, London, Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, M., 1962, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by C. Smith, London - New York, Routledge.

Nagl-Docekal, H., 2004, Feminist Philosophy, trans. by Katharina Vester, Boulder, Colo, Westview Press.

Sanford, J.A., 1979, The Invisible Partner: How the Male and Female in Each of Us Affects Our Relationships, Mahwah, Paulist Press.

Stoller, S., 2005, Asymmetrical Genders: Phenomenological Reflections on Sexual Difference, trans. by C.R. Nielsen, “Hypatia”, 20, 2: 7-26.

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Webster, D., 2004, The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon, London, Routledge.

Wendel, S., 2003, Feministische Ethik zur Einführung, Hamburg, Junius.

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1 For a comprehensive introduction of feminist philosophy cf. Nagl-Docekal 2004 and Wendel 2003.

2 Stoller 2005: 7.

3 Cf. Beauvoir 1953.

4 Cf. Irigaray 1993.

5 Stoller 2005: 9.

6 Cf. Merleau-Ponty 1962; Levinas 1969; Waldenfels 1997.

7 For an overview of the relationship between phenomenology and sexual difference cf. Stoller, Vetter 1997.

8 Giuliani 1997: 111.

9 Stoller 2005: 11.

10 Psychosexual disorder such as gender identity disorder, transsexualism, and all forms of paraphilia is taken into account in my discussion. These phenomena are very significant for our understanding of the complexity of sexual body. The distinction between natural sex and cultural gender is therefore blurred.

11 The indispensability of comparison is rooted in the temporality and intentionality of consciousness. Cf. Li 2016: 78-81.

12 Stoller 2005: 12-17.

13 Li 2016: 20-24.

14 Stoller 2005: 18.

15 The identity of the self is the result of boundary drawing, which cannot avoid the problem of the body-soul split and eventually leads to the fundamental suffering of human beings. The drawing of the sexual boundary is part of self-constitution and therefore should be integrated into the thinking of self. The human body through which a self is embodied needs to be cultivated in order to experience the existential freedom beyond boundary. In another article I demonstrate the deep implications in the cultivation of the human body through Taijiquan, a form of the Chinese martial arts, which is based on the philosophy of Taiji and focuses on the cultivation of Qi energy, and which is described as a bodily meditation on the subtle relationship between boundary and boundlessness (cf. Li 2016b).

16 Li 2016: 39-58.

17 Hall, Ames 1998: 79.

18 Ivi: 81-82; 86-88.

19 C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology touches the female side (anima) of a man and the male side (animus) of a woman. Cf. Sanford 1979.

20 萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以爲和。Cf. Roberts (Laozi 2001)’ translation of this sentence: “Each [of the myriad is] holding yang / And held by yin / Whose powers’ balanced interaction / Brings all ten thousand to fruition.”

21 Cf. Mengzi 2004; Confucius 1979; Laozi 2001.

22 Hall, Ames 1998: 88-100.

23 «Nu’er shi shui zuo de gurou, nanzi shi ni zuo de gurou, wo jianle nu’er bian jue qingshuang, jianle nanzi bian jue zhuo chou bi ren». The citation is to be found in Chapter 2 of Hong Lou Meng 紅樓夢 (A Dream of Red Mansions). Cf. Cao, Gao 1999.

24 Cf. Webster 2004’s investigation of the philosophy of desire in the Buddhist Pali canon with special reference to the discourses on desire in Western thought and in the non-Buddhist Indian religion.

25 Buddhaghosa 1984.

26 Lusthaus 2002: 83-109.

27 As sentient beings the humanity belongs to the realm of desire, in which the principle of pleasure is the motive for all actions and interpretations. That means we experience and interpret everything through our senses.

28 This world is usually subdivided into six regions, which from the lowest to the highest are (1) the realm of the four heavenly kings, (2) the realm of the thirty-three gods, (3) the realm of the god of death, (4) the realm of delight, which is considered as the abode of Maitreya, the future Buddha, (5) the realms of gods who rejoice in their own creations, and (6) the realm of gods who lord over the creations of others (cf. Lusthaus 2002: 85-88).

29 According to Buddhism there are two types of desire in this realm: kuśala (beneficial, wholesome) and akuśala (unbeneficial, unwholesome). The two types of desire correspond to spiritual states of two different qualities. The mind whose consciousness is constituted by and constitutive of akuśala desires results in the lower three worlds (hells, animals and hungry ghosts), and the mind with kuśala desires result in the upper three worlds (human, asura and kāmadeva).

30 Cf. Lusthaus 2002: 88-91.

31 Ivi: 90.

32 Ivi: 90.

33 The Sanskrit ākāśa is different from another concept deśa (area), it means “an all-pervading space-ness or spatiality in which everything […] may be located” (Lusthaus 2002: 92). Ākāśa is not identical with the key idea śūnyatā (emptiness) in Buddhism either, although they are usually mixed up in the Chinese translation. In some sense the always present awareness of the boundless space helps us to understand the emptiness of all conscious contents. But ultimately, the latter refers to the principal Buddhist insight of “the interdependent co-origination of all phenomena to consciousness”.

34 “In the awareness of boundless consciousness, ākāśa has become nothing more than one type of potential cognitive object. It is the ubiquity and limitless abilities of consciousness that one becomes aware of” (Lusthaus 2002: 93).

35 Boundless space underpins the structures by which we perceive the world(s); Boundless consciousness is the basis of the meditative state of boundless space; the subtle experience of “nothing” entails an awareness that consciousness, even though boundless, is always subject to contingency.

36 Lusthaus 2002: 95.

37 Ivi: 98.

38 Cf. Webster 2004: 187-205.

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Li Jianjun, «Sexual difference and self-understanding – a comparative perspective on the liberation of bodily conditioned human beings»Rivista di estetica, 72 | 2019, 48-62.

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Li Jianjun, «Sexual difference and self-understanding – a comparative perspective on the liberation of bodily conditioned human beings»Rivista di estetica [Online], 72 | 2019, online dal 01 mars 2020, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Li Jianjun


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