Vajrayogini Is My Body & Mind
A Tribute to A Trailblazing
By Pema Khandro
Dr. Rita Gross embodied a courageous leadership in her effort to place multiple perspectives in conversation—the viewpoints of dharma practitioner, feminist and scholar. She also intermingled the theoretical and practical framework; the abstract and personal perspective. To do such work, in Rita’s words, is to do critical and constructive thinking. Though she wrote openly about her disappointments and trials as an academic, the discomfort and resistance she faced in initiating these conversations have broken barriers for the next generation of scholar-practitioner-feminists (may there be many). This is a tribute to Rita's scholarly contributions and a reflection on the first article of hers I ever read.
When Rita set out to enter graduate school, it was with the wish to think about meaning and ultimate reality. (Gross 2009, 31) Once in school, her work in feminist theory emerged organically from her circumstances. She said, “being a woman with some modicum of awareness who entered when I did meant that I was forced to think specifically about women and religion to survive.” (Ibid).
In A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration (2009), Rita encapsulated the historic nature of her academic pursuits in her autobiographical reflection. She writes of a conversation with the very influential religious scholar Mircea Eliade. He responded favorably and encouraged her to pursue her theoretical agenda to illuminate the limits of androcentric models for religious studies. After writing the first dissertation ever on women’s studies in religion, Rita graduated from the University of Chicago in 1975, which eventually led her to become a Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Rita’s work demonstrates that looking though the lens of multiple discourses is challenging yet fruitful. Buddhism has a rich intellectual tradition and yet modern research brings to light new perspectives on history, polemics and culture that aren’t necessarily included in traditional narratives. Rather than shy away from these areas of friction (and potential) Rita Gross gave voice to them. She understood the value that learning Buddhist history would have for Buddhist students. Furthermore, she acknowledged that engaging views as a dharma practitioner, feminist and scholar would have a transformational effect on all three aspects.
The first article of Rita’s that I read was “I Will Never Forget to Visualize that Vajrayogini Is My Body & Mind” (1987). In light of Rita’s passing, I would like to celebrate three important aspects of that work. The article is a personal reflection of Rita’s experience of the yidam practice of Vajrayogini. It reflects the personal tone that inflected much of her work. One of the most important methodological assertions she made in her work as a theologian is that it is impossible to approach religious phenomena from an objective ’neutral’ point of view. Instead, scholars must acknowledge and investigate their own presuppositions. She saw a denial of subjectivity as counterproductive. Thus, this stance led her work to step outside standard scholarly descriptive models. This is why her article “...Vajrayogini is my body and mind...” speaks in the tones of an intimate, first person account of her experience of Vajrayogini practice in 1987.
The first important element of this article is her discussion of the Yidam practice. The “Yidams” are the images that are depicted in Tibetan thangka paintings that include Buddhas, dakinis and other figures. In Vajrayana meditation, a practitioner goes through a transformational practice meditation, ritual and mantra practice where they end up merging with these Buddhas. This practice is often translated ‘deity yoga,’ the core practice of Vajrayana meditation. The problem with the title of ‘deity yoga’ is that it can be confusing for Western practitioners because of equating “deity” with gods and therefore Buddhism with theism. Therefore her pithy definition of that deity (Tib. yidam)—is valuable. She says, a yidam is a non-theistic deity, “an anthropomorphic representation of enlightened mind” (Gross 1987, 84).
How do we talk about gender and Buddhism without it being offensive to our Buddhist sensibilities or feminist sensibilities? A second important element of this work is that she provides a very useful framework for discussing Buddhism and gender issues. It takes skill and awareness in order to express appreciation for the tradition while also taking a straightforward look at the patriarchal elements of its history.
She reflects on this challenge in Garland:
In my view one of the great difficulties of spiritual and intellectual life is being able to call a spade a spade, in the popular phrase, without resenting it for being a space. A discovery of spiritual contentment should not make us deaf and dumb to the inadequacies still around and within us. I now understand much more fully than I did in those years why Buddhism consistently claims that we can never find happiness in something else, somewhere else, outside ourselves. Maintaining a critical stance without being miserable and unhappy becomes of one’s keen, accurate analysis is a great challenge. No wonder Buddhism claims that realizing the inseparability of wisdom and compassion is a supremely difficult and supremely essential task. (Gross 2009, 38)
The Vajrayogini article presents a succinct example of how we can do this critical-constructive thinking that she advocates. She identifies the social and institutional fabric of Buddhism as the fuel for feminist critique. Meanwhile, she identifies the theoretical and meditational practices as the zones for constructive contributions to feminist engagements with Buddhism (Gross 1987, 80). The article itself is an appreciation of the constructive and healing power that Vajrayogini meditation has had for her. Indeed, it seems to be one of the most attractive elements of Buddhism for women—the positive female iconography. Feminists can draw comfort and inspiration from images such as Tara, Vajrayogini and Kurukulla. Meanwhile, we can look at examples of institutional exclusion or sexist literature critically. It is possible to do both, and we will not be the first to do so. There is a traditional basis for this endeavor. As Sponberg points out, there was never any one universal view of Buddhism and gender, as reflected in Buddhist literature.
Third, what does it mean to empower women? Rita offers a crucial reflection of Buddhist perspectives on what is “empowerment.” “It is important to be clear what is being empowered and what is being undercut” (Gross 1987, 87). She specifies the importance of not empowering the ego, and not empowering defensive mechanisms against groundlessness. In a first person narrative, she describes the transformation from limited identity. Her Vajrayogini practice led her to an expanded sense of identity, one going beyond gender dichotomies altogether. She says,
As much as possible, one rises out of emptiness as Vajrayogini, i.e., as all that she symbolizes—not as Rita Gross, or whomever, feeling empowered by identification with a powerful transcendent other. She empowers me—but not me as any conventional or limited identity whatever. She empowers me as seed of enlightenment, no one in particular, neither female nor male, neither feminist nor non-feminist, yet without limit.
Thank you Dr. Gross, Lopon Rita, for your courage and trailblazing contributions. May the future see more Buddhist-feminist scholars.
Gross, Rita M. 1987. “I Will Never Forget to Visualize That Vajrayoginī Is My Body and Mind”. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3 (1). [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc]: 77–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002058.
———2009. A garland of feminist reflections: forty years of religious exploration. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.
Love, Barbara J. 2006. Feminists who changed America, 1963-1975. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Print.
Sponberg, Alan. 1992. “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism.” In Buddhism Sexuality and Gender, ed, Jose Cabezon, 3-36. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Print.
Pema Khandro is a Buddhist teacher, scholar and humanitarian in the lineage of Buddhist Yogis from Tibet, the Nyingma ngakpas. She is the founder of Ngakpa International, the Yogic Medicine Institute and Ngakpa House, a charity for Himalayan Children. To learn more visit: www.PemaKhandro.org