The Message of the Human Body
To say that man, and consequently the human body, is made in the image of God,” means a priori that it manifests something absolute and for that very reason something unlimited and perfect. What above all distinguishes the human form from animal forms, is its direct reference to absoluteness, indicated by its vertical posture; as a result, if animal forms can be transcended— they are by man, precisely — such could not be the case for the human form; the human form marks not only the summit of earthly creatures, but also — and for that very reason — the exit from their condition, or from the Samsâra as the Buddhists would say. To see man, is to see not only the image of God, but also a door open towards Bodhi, liberating Illumination; or let us say towards a blessed fixing in the divine Proximity.
Being absolute, the supreme Principle is ipso facto infinite; the masculine body accentuates the first aspect, and the feminine body, the second. On the basis of these two hypostatic aspects, the divine Principle is the source of all possible perfection, this is to say that, being the Absolute and the Infinite, It is necessarily also Perfection or the Good. Now each of the two bodies, the masculine and the feminine , manifests modes of perfection by definition evoked by their respective sex; all cosmic qualities are divided in fact into two complementary groups: the rigorous and the gentle, the active and the passive, the contractive and the expansive. The human body, as we have said, is an image of Deliverance: now the liberating Way may be either “virile” or “feminine,” although it is not possible to have a strict line of demarcation between the two modes for man (homo, anthropos) is always man; the non-material being that was the primordial androgyne, survives in each of us.
This allusion to the primordial androgyne — which divided in two well before the successive entry of its halves into matter(1) — permits us to insert a parenthesis here. The human form cannot be transcended, its sufficient reason being precisely to express the Absolute, hence the untranscendable; and this cuts short the metaphysically and physically aberrant imaginations of the evolutionists, according to whom this form would be the result of a prolonged elaboration starting from animal forms; an elaboration which is at once arbitrary and unlimited. Materialists, even those who consider transformist evolution inexplicable and even contradictory, accept this hypothesis as an indispensable idea, which moreover carries us outside of science and into philosophy, or more exactly into rationalism with its reasonings cut off from the very roots of knowledge; and if the evolutionist idea is indispensable to them, it is because in their minds it replaces the concept of a sudden creation ex nihilo, which to them seems the only other possible solution. In reality, the evolutionist hypothesis is unnecessary because the creationist concept is so as well; for the creature appears on earth, not by falling from heaven, but by progressively passing— starting from the archetype — from the subtle to the material world, materialization being brought about within a kind of visible aura quite comparable to the “spheres of light” which, according to many accounts, introduce and terminate celestial apparitions.(2)
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With all deference to certain ancient moralists who had difficulty reconciling femininity with deiformity, it is nonetheless quite clear that the latter essentially implies the former, and this for simply logical as well as metaphysical reasons. Even without knowing that femininity derives from an “Eternal Feminine” of transcendent order, one is obliged to take note of the fact that woman, being situated like the male in the human state, is deiform because this state is deiform. Thus it is not astonishing that a tradition as “misogynist” as Buddhism finally consented — within the Mahayâna at least — to make use of the symbolism of the feminine body, which would be meaningless and even harmful if this body, or if femininity in itself, did not comprise a spiritual message of the first order; the Buddhas (and Bodhisattvas) do not save solely through doctrine, but also through their suprahuman beauty, according to the Tradition; now who says beauty, says implicitly femininity; the beauty of the Buddha is necessarily that of Mâyâ or of Tara.
The “misogyny” of Buddhism is explained by the fact that its method, at its origin and in general at least, essentially appeals to the characteristics of masculine psychology, which is to say that it operates basically with intellection, abstraction, negation, strength and with what Amidism calls “power of oneself’; the same observation applies, if not to Hinduism as such, at least to certain of its schools and doubtless to its general perspective, which perspective culminates, as in Buddhism, in the excessive, and at the very least schematic, idea that woman as such cannot attain Deliverance, that she must first be reborn in a masculine body and follow the methods of men. Ancient discussions on the question of knowing whether or not woman possesses a “soul,” have an analogous meaning: it is a question not of the immortal soul, but of the intellect in its most specifically masculine aspect. However that may be, what is decisive is not that woman be capable concretely of given methods, it is simply that, being human, she is clearly capable of sanctity.
There is yet another reason for the antifeminine ostracism of certain traditional perspectives, apart from the question of qualification for a given yoga deemed unique, namely the idea that the male alone is the whole man. There are two ways in fact of situating the sexes, either in a horizontal or in a vertical sense: according to the first perspective, man would be to the right and woman to the left; according to the second, man would be above and woman below. On the one hand, man reflects Atmâ according to Absoluteness, and woman reflects it according to Infinitude; on the other hand, man alone is Atmâ and woman is Mâyâ;(3) but the second conception is relatively true only on condition that one also accepts the first; now the first conception takes precedence over the second, for the fact that woman is human clearly takes precedence over the fact that she is not a male.(4) The observation that specifically virile spiritual methods are scarcely suited to the feminine psychism becomes dogmatic in virtue of the second perspective which we have just mentioned; and one could perhaps also make the point that social conventions, in the traditional surroundings in question here, tend to create — at least on the surface — the feminine type that fits them ideologically and practically; humanity is so made that a social anthropology is never a perfect good, that it is on the contrary always a “lesser evil,” or in any case an approximation.(5)
It is one of the paradoxes of Buddhism that even the Amidist way, although founded on Mercy and the “power of the Other” — not upon metaphysical meditation and the “power of oneself”— accepted, through pure conventionalism and without insisting thereon, this idea of woman having to be reborn as man; this is all the more contradictory in that the Mahayâna — in Lamaism above all — has peopled its pantheon with feminine Divinities. The same paradox exists in Hinduism, mutatis mutandis, wherein one of the greatest personalities of Shivaism is a woman, Laila Yógishwari; it is unthinkable that a “masculine body” would add anything whatever to her from the point of view of spiritual wholeness.(6)
What we have just said results moreover from the bodily form: first of all, the feminine body is far too perfect and spiritually too eloquent to be no more than a kind of transitory accident; and then, due to the fact that it is human, it communicates in its own way the same message as the masculine body, namely, we repeat, the absolutely Real and thereby the victory over the “round of births and deaths;” thus the possibility of leaving the world of illusion and suffering. The animal, which can manifest perfections but not the Absolute, is like a closed door, as it were enclosed in its own perfection; whereas man is like an open door allowing him to escape his limits, which are those of the world rather than his own.
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In an old book of legends, the chronicler who recounts an apparition of the Blessed Virgin with the Child-Jesus observes that the Virgin was sublimely beautiful, but that the Child was “far more beautiful,” which is absurd in more than one respect. First of all, there is no reason for the Child to be more beautiful than the Mother;(7) the divine nature possessed by the Child indeed requires perfect physical beauty, but the supereminent nature of the Virgin requires it equally as much; what the Christ possesses in addition to what is possessed by the Virgin could not determine a superior degree of beauty, given precisely that the beauty of the Virgin must be perfect; physical beauty of the formal order, and form is by definition the manifestation of an archetype, the intention of which excludes an indefinite gradation. In other words, form coincides with an “idea” which cannot be something other than what it is; the human body has the form which characterizes it, and which it cannot transcend without ceasing to be itself; an indefinitely augmentable beauty is meaningless, and empties the very notion of beauty of all its content. It is true that the mode or degree of divine Presence can add to the body, and above all to the face, an expressive quality, but this is independent of beauty in itself, which is a perfect theophany on its own plane; this is to say that the theophanic quality of the human body resides uniquely in its form, and not in the sanctity of the soul inhabiting it nor, at the purely natural level, in the psychological beauty of an expression added to it, whether it be that of youth or of some noble sentiment. Hence it is necessary to distinguish between the theophanic quality possessed by the human body in itself— beauty coinciding then with the wholeness and the intelligibility of this message — and the theophanic quality possessed in addition by the body in the case of the Avatâras, such as the Christ and the Virgin. In these cases, as we have said, bodily beauty must be perfect, and it may also distinguish itself by an originality emphasizing its majesty; but beauty of spiritual expression is of an altogether different order and, if it presupposes physical perfection and enhances it, it cannot, however, create it. The body of the Avatâra is therefore sacred in a particular sense, one that is supereminent and so to speak sacramental in virtue of its quasi-divine content; however the ordinary body is also sacred, but in an altogether different respect, simply because it is human; in addition, physical beauty is sacred because it manifests the divine Intention for that body, and thus is fully itself in proportion to its regularity and nobility.(8)
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There is not only the beauty of the adult, there is also that of the child as our mention of the Child Jesus suggests. First of all, it must be said that the child, being human, participates in the same symbolism and in the same aesthetic expressivity as do his parents — we are speaking always of man as such and not of particular individuals —and then, that childhood is nevertheless a provisional state and does not in general have the definitive and representative value of maturity.(9) In metaphysical symbolism, this provisional character expresses relativity: the child is what “comes after” his parents, he is the reflection of Atmâ in Mâyâ, to some degree and according to the ontological or cosmological level in view; or it is even Mâyâ itself if the adult is Atmâ.(10) But from an altogether different point of view, and according to inverse analogy, the key to which is given by the seal of Solomon,(11) the child represents on the contrary what “was before,” namely what is simple, pure, innocent, primordial and close to the Essence, and this is what its beauty expresses;(12) this beauty has all the charm of promise, of hope and of blossoming, at the same time as that of a Paradise not yet lost; it combines the proximity of the Origin with the tension towards the Goal. And it is for that reason that childhood constitutes a necessary aspect of the integral man, therefore in conformity with the divine Intention: the man who is fully mature always keeps, in equilibrium with wisdom, the qualities of simplicity and freshness, of gratitude and trust, that he possessed in the springtime of his life.(13) Since we have just mentioned the principle of inverse analogy, we may here connect it with its application to femininity: even though a priori femininity is subordinate to virility, it also comprises an aspect which makes it superior to a given aspect of the masculine pole; for the divine Principle has an aspect of unlimitedness, virginal mystery and maternal mercy which takes precedence over a certain more relative aspect of determination, logical precision and implacable justice.(14) Seen thus, feminine beauty appears as an initiatic wine in the face of the rationality represented in certain respects by the masculine body.(15)
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A priori, virility refers to the Principle, and femininity to Manifestation; but in an altogether different respect, that of complementarity in divinis, the masculine body expresses Transcendence, and the feminine body, Immanence; the latter being near to Love, and the former to Knowledge.
Much could be said concerning the abstract and concrete symbolism of the different regions or parts of the body. A symbolism is abstract inasmuch as it signifies a principial reality; it is concrete inasmuch as it communicates the nature of this reality, that is, makes it present to our experience. One of the most salient characteristics of the human body is the breast, which is a solar symbol, with an accentuation differing according to sex: noble and glorious radiation in both cases, but manifesting power in the first case and generosity in the second; the power and generosity of pure Being.(16) The heart is the center of man, and the breast is so to speak the face of the heart: and since the heart-intellect comprises both Knowledge and Love, it is plausible that in the human body this polarization manifests itself by the complementarity of the masculine and feminine breasts.
The human body comprises three fundamental regions: the body properly so-called, the head, the sexual parts; these are almost three different subjectivities. The head represents both intellectual and individual subjectivity; the body, collective and archetypal subjectivity, that of masculinity or femininity or that of race or caste; finally, the sexual parts manifest, quite paradoxically, a dynamic subjectivity at once animal and divine, if one may express it thus. In other words, the face expresses a thought, a becoming aware of something, a truth; the body, for its part, expresses a being, an existential synthesis; and the sexual parts, a love both creative and liberat ing: mystery of the generous substance that unfolds in the accidents, and of the blessed accidents that flow back towards the substance; glory of self-giving and glory of delivering. The human body in its integrality is intelligence, existence, love; certitude, serenity and faith.
One of the functions of dress is, no doubt, to isolate mental subjectivity, that which thinks and speaks, from the two existential subjectivities which risk disturbing the message of thought with their own messages; but this is nonetheless a question of temperament and custom, more or less primordial man having in this respect reflexes other than those of man too marked by the fall; of man become at once too cerebral and too passional, and having lost much of his beauty and also his innocence. The gait of the human being is as evocative as his vertical posture; whereas the animal is horizontal and only advances towards itself— that is, it is enclosed within its own form— man, in advancing, transcends himself; even his forward movement seems vertical, it denotes a pilgrimage towards his Archetype, towards the celestial Kingdom, towards God. The beauty of the anterior side of the human body indicates the nobleness, on the one hand of man’s vocational end, and on the other hand of his manner of approaching it; it indicates that man directs himself towards God and that he does so in a manner that is “humanly divine,” if one may say so. But the posterior side of the body also has its meaning: it indicates, on the one hand the noble innocence of the origin, and on the other hand the noble manner of leaving behind himself what has been transcended; it expresses, positively, whence we have come and, negatively, how we turn our backs to what is no longer ourselves. Man comes from God and he goes towards God; but at the same time, he draws away from an imperfection which is no longer his own and draws nearer to a perfection which is not yet his. His “becoming” bears the imprint of a “being”; he is that which he becomes, and he becomes that which he is.
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We have alluded above to the evolutionist error which was inevitable in connection with our considerations on the deiformity of man, and which permits us here to insert a parenthesis. The animal, vegetable and mineral species not only manifest qualities or combinations of qualities, they also manifest defects or combinations of defects; this is required by All-Possibility, which on pain of being limited — of not being what it is — must also express “possible impossibilities,~~ or let us say negative and paradoxical possibilities; it implies in consequence excess as well as privation, thereby emphasizing norms by means of contrasts. In this respect, the ape, for example, is there to show what man is and what he is not, and certainly not to show what he has been; far from being able to be a virtual form of man, the ape incarnates an animal desire to be human, hence a desire of imitation and usurpation; but he finds itself as if before a closed door and falls back all the more heavily into its animality, the perfect innocence of which, it can no longer recapture, if one may make use of such a metaphor; it is as if the animal, prior to the creation of man and to protest against it, had wished to anticipate it, which evokes the refusal of Lucifer to prostrate before Adam.(17) This does not prevent the ape from being sacred in India, perhaps on account of its anthropomorphism, or more likely in virtue of associations of ideas due to an extrinsic symbolism;(18) this also would explain in part the role played by the apes in the Ramayana, unless in this case it is a question of subtle creatures— the jinn of Islam— of whom the ape is only a likeness.(19) One may wonder whether the intrinsically noble animals, hence those directly allowing of a positive symbolism, are not themselves also theophanies; they are so necessarily, and the same holds true for given plants, minerals, cosmic or terrestrial phenomena, but in these cases the theomorphism is partial and not integral as in man. The splendor of the stag excludes that of the lion, the eagle cannot be the swan, nor the water lily the rose, nor the emerald the sapphire; from a somewhat different point of view , we would say that the sun doubtless manifests in a direct and simple manner the divine Majesty, but that it has neither life nor spirit;(20) only man is the image-synthesis of the Creator,(21) owing to the fact that he possesses the intellect — hence also reason and language — and that he manifests it by his very form.
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Let us return now to the question of traditional misogynist viewpoints: Buddhism, as we have noted, is es sentially a masculine, abstract, negative, ascetic and heroic spirituality, at least a priori and in its broad outlines; the feminine body must appear to it as the very embodiment of seduction and thereby of samsâra, of the round of births and deaths. But here we are in the presence of that inverse analogy to which we referred above: what pulls downward is in this case what, in reality, lies above; and femininity, inasmuch as it seduces and binds, has this aspect precisely because it offers, in itself and in the intention of the Creator, an image of liberating Bliss; now a reflection is always “something” of what it reflects, which amounts to saying that it “is” this reality in an indirect mode and on the plane of contingency. This is what the Buddhists grasped in the framework of Mahayanic esoterism — the Tibetans and the Mongols above all — and it is this which permitted them to introduce into their sanctuaries nude Târâs and Dakinis in gilded bronze; the corporeal theophany of feminine type being intended to actualize in the faithful the remembrance of the merciful and beatific dimension of Bodhi and of Nirvana.
What is true for a certain Buddhism is true a priori for Hinduism, the sacred art of which exposes and accentuates the message of both human bodies, the masculine and the feminine: message of ascending and unitive verticality in both cases, certainly, but in rigorous, transcendent, objective, abstract, rational and mathematical mode in the first case, and in gentle, immanent, concrete, emotional and mus ical mode in the second. On the one hand, a path centered on the metaphysical Idea and Rigor, and on the other hand, a way centered on the sacramental Symbol and Gentleness; not to mention diverse combinations of the two perspectives, temperaments or methods, for the absolute male cannot exist any more than can the absolute female, given that there is but one sole anthropos. Thus, there are spiritualities, and even religions, which could be qualified as “feminine,” without this character signifying that their adepts lose anything whatever of their virility;(22) and the converse is equally true, for there have been women in paths which are the least representative of their mentality; both possibilities seem sufficiently evident so as to dispense us from entering into the meanders of this paradox.
One may wonder why the Hindus, and still more so the Buddhists, did not fear to furnish their sacred art with occasions for a fall, given that beauty— sexual beauty above all— invites to “let go of the prey for its shadow,” that is, to forget the transcendent content through being attached to the earthly husk. Now it is not for nothing that Buddhist art, more than any other, has given voice to the terrible aspects of cosmic manifestation, which at the very least constitutes a “reestablishing of the balance”: the spectator is warned, he cannot lose sight of the everywhere present menace of the pitiless samsâra, nor that of the Guardians of the Sanctuary. Darshan— the contemplation of the Divine in nature or in art — quite clearly presupposes a contemplative temperament; now it is this very temperament that comprises a sufficient guarantee against the spirit of compliance and profanation.
The morality and mysticism of the West see carnal sin exclusively in concupiscence, which is one-sided and insufficient; in reality, sin here lies just as much in the profanation of a theophanic mystery; it is in the fact of pulling downwards, towards the frivolous and the trivial, that which by its nature points upwards and towards the sacred; but sin or deviation is also, at a level which in this case is not deprived of nobility, in the purely aesthetic and individualistic cult of bodies , as was the case in classical Greece, where the sense of clarity, of measure, of finite perfection, completely obliterated the sense of the transcendent, of mystery and of the infinite. Sensible beauty became an end in itself; it was no longer man who resembled God, it was God who resembled man; whereas in Egyptian and Hindu art, which express the substantial and not the accidental, one feels that the human form is nothing without a mystery which on the one hand fashions it and on the other hand transcends it, and which calls both to Love and to Deliverance.