Among non-human forms of life, the vegetal stands out in the writings of contemporary French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. “All my work develops as a plant grows,” she has admitted in a recent letter to me. This will not have been the first time when plants have provided Irigaray with a model for thinking, living, and cultivating subjectivity. A recurrent image, which crops up time and again in her writings, is that of Buddha contemplating the flower. The image of thinking attuned to the sensible,
Buddha’s gazing at the flower is not an inattentive or predatory gaze […]. It is both material and spiritual contemplation, furnishing thought with an already sublimated energy. […] Indeed, Buddha contemplates the flower without picking it. He gazes at what is other to him without uprooting it.
Buddha’s gaze, respecting the integrity of the flower, could be symbolic of Irigaray’s philosophy that proposes to bridge matter and spirit, nature and culture, without betraying either the one or the other. Material-spiritual contemplation is a part of cultivation, which cares for whatever or whoever grows: the flower as much as the one who gazes at it.
The image of contemplation we are now contemplating is certainly not frozen; the flower does not appear as a still life. At the height of non-domineering attention, Buddha’s gaze accompanies the growth of the flower without indifference, grows with it, and welcomes it in all its otherness (unless the flower is not altogether foreign to him, considering his history of incarnations). Cultivation, then, is not the molding of nature in accordance with the predetermined parameters of reason, or, worse yet, the violent uprooting of what grows by itself. Quite the opposite, it is the culturing of nature, for instance, by putting ourselves in its service, protecting, sharing and promoting the myriad of growths that comprise it.
But what is this flower that invites such intense contemplation? Before hinting at its species, Irigaray relates Buddha’s teaching that encouraged each one “to awaken his own skin,” just as Buddha “breathes and even laughs, with all his skin.” She has not mentioned plants yet, but the unstated premise is clear: in order to be initiated into this essentially superficial way of breathing, supplementing the activity of the lungs, we must seek guidance from vegetal respiration. Totally exposed to the atmosphere, which they replenish with oxygen, plants breathe throughout their entire extension and, most of all, through the leaf. Inhaling with the skin, perceiving the world with our whole bodies, we grow a little plant-like. “If we were more attentive,” Irigaray adds,
we would be flowers capable of opening ourselves to the light of the sun, and also of love, and of reclosing ourselves in the interiority or the intimacy of the heart, as can be observed in tantric iconography, where the nymphaea opens or closes in accord with places of the body and the movement of energy, of breath.
Nymphaea, or the water lily, makes its fleeting appearance, bordering on a spectral apparition.
The most iconic portrayals of Buddha depict him as sitting in the corolla of a lotus flower, which resembles a water lily despite certain undeniable dissimilarities between the two, especially in the carpels, the flowers’ female reproductive organs. (One of the outmoded botanical designations for lotus is Nymphaea nelumbo.) But nymphaea is precisely not a lotus. Its name alludes to the nymphs, Greek nature goddesses dwelling in and caring for a particular locale. The word origin of nymphaea points back to the Greek nymphē, “a bride,” or literally “a veiled one,” and contributes to the formation of the Latin nūbere, “to take in marriage,” the source of the English nuptials. Transgressing traditional boundaries, it is a flower that fuses the vegetal, the human, and the divine.
As a “bride,” the water lily is a symbol of femininity. Its aquatic environment is distinct from the purported stability of the soil, in which most other plants are rooted. Like air, liquid cannot be arrested in the molds of identity, and it cannot be divided against itself, in the manner of a furrowed earth. It is as prone to transformation as the feminine in Irigaray’s thought.
Ultimately, the water lily instructs us on how to breathe, how to be attentive and exposed to the world while keeping close to “the interiority or the intimacy of the heart,” where we can re-gather ourselves. The exteriority of the skin and the interiority of the lungs are the mutually complementary organs and figures of breath. Between East and West, woman and man, the one and the other, the rhythmic vacillations of the flower opening and reclosing are indispensable for the cultivation of subjectivity receptive to the world. That is the lesson of the water lily.