Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown.


Rita Gross’s Contribution to Contemporary Western Tibetan Buddhism


by Judith Simmer-Brown

Naropa University


Republished by permission of Buddhist-Christian Studies

31 (2011) 69-74, University of Hawai'i Press*


I first met Rita Gross on 2 January 1978, on the day of my arrival to take a professor’s post at Naropa University. She opened the front door of Reggie Ray’s house, where she was a houseguest. Little did I know how long and active our friendship would be, and I’m delighted to contribute to this very special panel on her work. During the decades since, she has been the only person in my life who has intersected academia, dharmic realms, feminism, and interreligious dialogue, the four most important areas of my life; still, I think it is in the area of her scholarly and personal contributions to Tibetan Buddhism that I can speak most directly.


When I met Rita, she was new to Tibetan Buddhism and had faced many challenges in her religious and spiritual journey. When she was excommunicated from the German Lutheran Church at age twenty-one, it was because she asked too many questions and expressed too many opinions. She has never stopped. She briefly explored Judaism, and then became enamored in her feminist studies with the goddess traditions of India, also an interest of mine. She has been able to bring her critical mind, her devotional heart, her connection to practice, and her appreciation of community directly into her life as a Tibetan Buddhist, and I have had the privilege of being by her side during most of it.


After Rita began her meditation practice in the mid-1970s, she became a student of the great Kagyu-Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who is also my teacher. She and I have done meditation and study retreats from a few days to three months in length, sharing ritual practice, teachings and discussions, and challenging lives together as members of a vibrant spiritual community around a charismatic teacher. Together we served as the senior members of the Task Force on Women and the Feminine Principle in the large, international Shambhala community. Eventually, she took on another teacher, the female tulku Ven. Khandro Rinpoche, whom I also dearly love, and she has become one of her senior dharma teachers, or lopons. All of this has occurred while I became a senior dharma teacher, an ācārya, of Shambhala, where we both began.


In her time in these two lively Western Tibetan Buddhist communities, she has served as an accomplished dharma teacher and at alternating times a scholar, activist, and critic, while committing to thousands of hours of service to the development of a genuinely Western dharma. While doing this, she has made many contributions equivalent to those of many dedicated dharma students. My comments address the unique contributions she has made as a feminist scholar, historian of religion, and theologian to this western dharmic world.


Ironically, our areas of specialty have also intertwined. Early in the 1980s we began a book project with SUNY that was to be a feminist critique of Buddhism (hers) and a Buddhist critique of feminism (mine). After several years of conversation and discussion, Rita and I decided that our agendas were sufficiently different and our styles sufficiently independent to warrant separate books. As our books emerged (mine two babies later than hers), our friendship has continued its evolution.


The Prophetic Voice

The first of Rita’s unique contributions to Tibetan Buddhism in the West revolve around what she has called her “prophetic voice,” a notion that first appeared in her landmark book, Buddhism after Patriarchy, in 1993. Rita has consistently asserted that the prophetic voice is “the missing element” in Buddhism, leading Buddhists to a kind of double standard in which teachings concerning compassion coexist with Buddhism’s traditional disregard for social and political inequities in society. She claims that “Buddhists have generally not been willing to engage in social action to see the realization of that ethic” in these social and political realms, and speculates that for the Buddhist, individual liberation has taken precedence over societal transformation. Instead, Buddhists have a long-standing history of acceptance of the status quo, and that this is not truly an expression of the teachings of compassion so central to the Buddhist tradition. From this critique of Buddhist traditions in Asia, Gross goes on: “to tak[e] permission to use the prophetic voice as a Buddhist feminist, . . . seeking to empower compassion, . . . by direct infusion of concern for righteousness, for the actual manifestation in Buddhist societies of Buddhism’s compassionate vision.” She further states that a prophetic voice is the “greatest, most necessary, and most useful resource for a Buddhist feminism.”


Indeed, she has used her prophetic voice most vigorously on behalf of Buddhist feminism, especially in her “love child,” Buddhism after Patriarchy. In explicating the contradictions between the soteriological inclusiveness evident in the earliest texts of Buddhism and the institutional androcentrism and ascetic misogyny that characterize texts of the monastic and communal traditions, Rita deftly analyzes the social and political factors that generated such contradictions. She then endeavors to reconcile these contradictions through a “reconstruction” of Buddhism liberated from the patriarchal influences that came from larger Indian society, “revalorizing” the contributions and perspectives of women in the early tradition.


One of the most insightful contributions in the book is her model of “quadruple androcentrism,” in which the patriarchy of Buddhism can be excavated in four distinct layers. These layers each contribute to the obscurity of an “accurate and usable” past in identifying the contributions of women to Buddhism. First, the hierarchs who chose which texts and records to preserve were more likely to choose those reflecting androcentric values and authored by men. Second, even when accounts of women practitioners were preserved, later Buddhists continued to favor men’s accounts, further marginalizing texts like the Therigāthā, or songs of the nuns. Third, Western scholarship has continued the androcentric pattern, minimizing the contributions   of women and even ridiculing the early nuns, ignoring their achievements. Finally, contemporary Buddhism in both Asia and the West has continued the androcentric emphasis of the tradition, favoring the leadership and spiritual authority of men over women.


As a Buddhist scholar and practitioner, I have learned much from this formulation and have introduced it, and Rita’s work, to every generation of graduate students    I have taught in the last two decades. This tool has helped my students and many contemporary scholars excavate the contributions of women in Buddhist traditions, especially Tibetan Buddhism, as there are so very many erudite and realized women who have almost disappeared into oblivion. It is also a useful paradigm to apply to the continuing patriarchy of contemporary Tibetan Buddhist communities.


Her book also wonderfully applies women’s studies methodology in analyzing sources of Indian Buddhism in particular in order to identify promising strands and sources for constructing a feminist paradigm of a patriarchy-free Buddhism. While she touches on Tibetan sources, they are not so evident in her study. However, because Tibet drew so heavily on the Indian sources, her work has had an impact on Tibetan Buddhists, especially those practicing in the West.


It has been difficult for Tibetan Buddhism in the west to fully absorb the power of her analysis. Because of the diaspora and threats to the very survival of their culture, Tibetan lamas have been more resistant than most Asian Buddhist teachers to feminist and other social critiques. Tibetan gurus have been hesitant to authorize Western teachers, to bestow full transmissions and empowerments, and to hand over the leadership of their saṅghas to Western students. Added to that, new converts have continued to feel that ethnic Tibetans hold wisdom of the tradition more than Western practitioners, regardless of their training, realization, or status. Many have not been willing to acknowledge the patriarchy of their own communities. Some of the more established and conservative Western members of the Shambhala community were initially hostile to her book, and this was very painful to her. Outside of Tibetan Buddhism, such as in American Zen communities, however, the relevance of her analysis has come to be appreciated more and more, and Rita has presented the core arguments of her book in many settings.


It is especially in Asia that Rita’s analysis has been welcomed. The Asian Buddhist establishment has been, for the most part, entrenched in patriarchy, and women have little access to education, practice instructions, and leadership positions. Rita’s feminist writings have been translated into Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, and she has been repeatedly invited to speak to Asian Buddhist communities. She has been a consistent voice in Sakyadhita, the International Association of Buddhist women, with strong representation in Asia. The 1995 conference on her book held at Trinity College of the University of Toronto was initiated by a Sri Lankan Buddhist professor who saw the landmark nature of the book for Asian and Western Buddhism.


In the seventeen years since the publication of Buddhism after Patriarchy, I have come to understand Rita’s book and her subsequent work in Buddhist feminism as a leading example of socially engaged Buddhism, an international movement of Buddhists like the Liberation Theology movement in Christianity. Certainly there are streams of socially engaged Buddhism that are not so prophetically wired, but Buddhist leaders throughout the world have acknowledged that the prophetic voice plays a role in addressing social and political issues, and that Buddhists have a great deal to learn from Christianity on this. Oddly, engaged Buddhists have turned to other social and political issues in Asia and the West as the defining concerns of its focus, such as ecology, peace work, consumerism, and globalization. It has seemed myopic to me that feminism has not been a central part of the engaged Buddhist movement. Feminism has a major role to play in identifying saṃsāric obstacles to manifesting basic goodness and enlightened mind, and Rita has been the leader in this area. In her own reflections on this omission, Rita brings the unfailing eye of the historian of religion: “Engaged Buddhism often directs its comments and critiques outside, toward large systems of development, colonialism, and globalization. But internal critiques, such as those brought up by Buddhist feminists concerning patterns within Buddhism itself, are less likely to find a voice within the Engaged Buddhism movement. Such blindness to internal problems is often characteristic of movements of social protest and criticism.” Certainly, there is some evidence of the engaged Buddhism movement including feminist issues, but in surveying the last fifteen years of the Turning Wheel magazine, the primary venue for engaged Buddhism articles, only one issue is devoted to the topic of Buddhist feminism.


Buddhist Theology

The second area of Rita’s significant contribution to Western Buddhism is her pioneering work in Buddhist theology. In its Western manifestation, Buddhism has needed to articulate a theological response to contemporary issues from Bu