(Above & below) Rita Gross participated in the 8th Sakyadhita International Conference in Seoul, Korea, 2004. Photo: Sakyadhita.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Photo: University of San Diego.
Rita Gross: Blazing the Trail in Buddhist Feminist Studies
Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Some of the clearest expressions of the Buddhist teaching on interdependence are our interrelations with others. I was first introduced to Rita Gross at a hotel in Waikiki just before we spoke on a panel about Women and Buddhism in Honolulu in 1984. The panel was part of a four-day event sponsored by Maitreya Institute, inspired by Tai Situ Rinpoche and organized by Kagyu Thekchen Ling, a Tibetan Dharma center then located in Mānoa Valley. Coming straight from India, my perspective was shaped by my experiences with women in the Indian Himalayan region and traditional Buddhist studies. Rita’s perspective was shaped by her experiences as a Western feminist and scholar of religious studies. Another panelist, Deborah Hopkinson, a practitioner at Honolulu Diamond Sangha and author of Not Mixing Up Buddhism: Essays on Women & Buddhist Practice, spoke from the perspective of an American Zen practitioner. These different perspectives resulted in a rich and fruitful dialogue that shook the foundations of many of our assumptions about women and Buddhism. Our relationships continued for many years to come.
The idea of a panel highlighting the position of women in Buddhism was quite novel at that time. Whoever thought up the idea deserves a prize. In those days, anyone interested in the topic of women in Buddhism was still reading I. B. Horner’s Women Under Primitive Buddhism, published in 1930, a book that is still one of the finest studies on the topic. Almost all of the teachers and scholars that Buddhists encountered in the 1980s were male and few people had considered the idea of women taking a place among them. Women scholars and practitioners were finding our way in a hazy, potentially controversial, hugely important, and inevitable turn within the Buddhist tradition. With her academic background and straightforward mid-western intelligence, Rita became a key player in a movement that has transformed the way people think about Buddhism.
Rita was a stalwart supporter of Sakyadhita from early on. She attended numerous Sakyadhita International Conferences on Buddhist Women in a variety of Asian countries and presented a paper each time. She loved to travel and saw in the Sakyadhita conferences opportunities both for exploring new religious landscapes and for networking with Buddhist women from around the world. She had always wanted to make the pilgrimage to the Buddhist sacred sites of India and Nepal, so in 2013 she joined us for the 13th Sakyadhita Conference held in Vaishali, the village where Mahaprajapati became the first Buddhist nun, and the temple tour that followed. Even though the distances were great and travel conditions sometimes a bit rough, she braved the cold and completed the pilgrimage with hundreds who, like Rita, were awed by Buddhist history unfurling before their eyes.
The list of Rita’s publications is long and impressive, including both academic studies and popular articles. She is best known for her work on women in Buddhism, especially her groundbreaking book, Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (1993). In addition, she published on religious diversity, women in world religions, Buddhist Christian dialogue, religion and ecofeminism, teaching Buddhism, and many other topics. In recent years, she frequently taught at American Dharma centers, where she unfailingly extolled the qualities of her female teacher, Khandro Rinpoche.
Rita’s memoir, A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Reflection (2009), records key moments in her remarkable journey. She frequently questioned aloud how a farm girl from a poor Christian family in Wisconsin emerged from such parochial roots to unexpectedly become a religious studies scholar with connections around the world. The answer no doubt lies in her determination and her courage in challenging cultural norms and expectations.
Rita’s insightful analysis and indomitable spirit have inspired a new generation of scholars and practitioners. A glimpse of her daring can be seen in a Tricyle blog post (August 20, 2014) titled, “What Were They Thinking? A Buddhist-Feminist Scholar Responds to an All-Male Panel on the ‘Risks and Benefits’ of Opening Buddhist Leadership to Women.” As an American Buddhist scholar practitioner, she played a prominent role in feminist interpretations of religious experience, especially from a Buddhist perspective. No doubt the best tribute Buddhists can offer her is to continue the pioneering work she began.
Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo is Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She is a co-founder, past president and current conference coordinator of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, an international alliance of Buddhist women that works to foster international communications among Buddhist women, to promote harmony and understanding among the Buddhist traditions, to promote the physical and spiritual welfare of the world's Buddhist women, to encourage education and training projects for Buddhist women, and to encourage compassionate social action for the benefit of humanity. (http://sakyadhita.org) She is also founder and director of Jamyang Foundation, an innovative education project to foster the learning potential of girls and women in developing countries. (http://jamyang.org)