What I learned from Rita Gross was to question what I had been taught. I knew this about secular subjects–but Tibetan Buddhism pretty much overwhelmed me when I encountered it. If this awe-inspiring tradition was leading me to enlightenment, surely to criticize it was small-minded. When texts I was taught straight-faced by male lamas called women repulsive, I kept my thoughts to myself, only wondering why these brilliant writers couldn’t see that their disgust at bodies would equally apply to their own–or why the lamas didn’t point that out. When I asked one lama whether he really thought women were less clean, worse behaved, and stupider than men, he dodged the question rather than admit a flaw in the texts–or perhaps reveal his own biases: a red flag I ignored. After all, he was a holy being. Because I had devotion, I also didn’t question the authoritarian structures or teachings that granted male lamas the divine right of kings, leaving women to do the bulk of the work while getting neither credit nor say.
When I first met the Dharma in the mid 1990s, because I was quite serious about it, someone told me I should be a nun. At the time, I laughed it off: I hadn’t worked my way up in the world to fall to the low level I could see that Tibetan nuns inhabited. Later I did ordain, brushing off my own earlier concerns as “just ego”–only to find myself treated as badly as I had feared. For years I worked devotedly for a lama, overseeing a retreat center, fixing tax and finance problems, translating prayers and sadhanas, managing various projects, and giving money–while being regularly denigrated, devalued, and excluded, and not receiving much Dharma education or guidance. When I expressed doubts about whether this was helping my spiritual development, I was called “proud” and told it was the path to losing my ego and becoming enlightened. Instead, it turned out to be the path to losing my health and becoming demoralized.
Into this mess of misogyny fell a book by Rita Gross. In her I found a true warrior: someone who had the ethical sense, intellect, and nerve to question texts and teachers when they veered off course, while continuing to be a serious practitioner of what is good and inspiring in the Dharma. She was a beacon of light, an unsurpassed guide, and her work helped me piece together a Buddhism in which no one had the right to denigrate, exploit, or oppress anyone else. She earned my undying respect.
Donna Lynn Brown is a freelance writer on Buddhist issues living in Portland, OR. She has been a Dharma practitioner since 1995. She has an MA in Economics and is currently completing an MDiv in Buddhist Studies.
Sakyadhita USA Encouraging Inclusion Across American Buddhisms
SUSA is the USA National Branch of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women