Rita Gross (1988) from Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism. Photo used by permission of Sandy Boucher.
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The Auspicious Coincidence of Buddhism and Feminism: A Visit with Rita Gross
By Sandy Boucher
While Rita Gross was a true daughter of Wisconsin, land of cheese curds and beer and sturdy northern European folk, she claimed allegiance as much to the Hindu goddess Kali as to the German parents who raised her in a log cabin on a dairy farm.
That was my estimation thirty years ago after spending a few days with Rita in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the university town where she taught almost until her death. She was a fierce, brilliant advocate for the full humanity of women in the Buddhist path.
I stayed with Rita in her home, where I interviewed her for my Turning the Wheel (1988). Looking back over the portrait of her in my book, it seems to me that early on she defined her vision and stated her intentions. Revisiting my contact with her since—at women and Buddhism events, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, with friends in Minneapolis, at the Sakyadhita International Conference in Viet Nam—I see how true she stayed to her original insights as her wisdom developed.
On a warm summer day in Eau Claire, I learned about her growing up with parents who were Lutherans of a strict and dogmatic variety. When she was a senior at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, she dared to question the authenticity of some parts of the New Testament. She put forth some basic questions raised in biblical scholarship, which were, however, not acceptable to the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran church. The Church promptly excommunicated her for heresy.
“I remember a particular confrontation with my minister,” she tells me, “and I bring this up because it’s really critical for my whole life pattern, for how I view religious pluralism, which is, along with feminism and spiritual path, [my emphasis] the third issue I’m concerned with. The minister answered a question I had about Muslims by strongly stating that only Wisconsin Synod Lutherans could understand the true god. I could not accept that belief.”
Her affinity for religious pluralism showed itself again a few years later when, after earning a B.A. in philosophy she went for graduate study in the history of religions to the University of Chicago. At Chicago, in search of a spiritual path appropriate for her, she formally converted to Judaism.
“The Unitarians were too purely intellectual for me,’ she told me. “I loved the Catholic liturgy but didn’t want to get into another dogmatic trip. In my first visit to a synagogue I was surprised and moved not by the strangeness but by the familiarity of it.” As a member of B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation, the Jewish student organization, she strongly lobbied for sexual equality. She was one of the first scholars to use the term “androcentric” to describe the male-centered model of humanity.
Rita found Buddhism in a class taught by the great religious scholar Mircea Eliade at Chicago. Leaving the class, she thought, “If I ever practice an Eastern religion, that will be it.”
After graduation, she took a position as Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. She began teaching courses on religion, some of them about Buddhism, but she never sat down on a meditation pillow. Then in 1973, grieving over the death of a lover, she realized that the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths really do describe our human condition. It was then Rita decided that if she were going to teach about Buddhism she should experience Buddhist meditation. With characteristic enthusiasm, she plunged in. Within a few years she had begun sitting, gone to India, taught and studied at Naropa Institute in Boulder, and found her teacher in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa was a charismatic and challenging Tibetan teacher, creator of the Buddhist organization that has evolved into Shambhala International.
That was not so much a beginning, for Rita, as a continuation of the journey begun in that rural Lutheran Church. She went on to earn her place as an internationally recognized scholar and feminist visionary. She published ten books, including the highly influential Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism; she edited almost as many anthologies, and authored hundreds of articles. She became universally respected for her insistence on truth and her courage in confronting the misogynist leanings of both the Asian and American Buddhist establishments. As well, she continued to pursue her Buddhist practice and in 2005 was named a senior teacher in the lineage of Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche.
Rita recognized, early on, her role in opening possibilities to women within Buddhism and always encouraged the questioning of assumptions. Back in Eau Claire, in 1985, as we sat in her yard under welcoming trees, she fixed me with her serious, challenging eyes behind her glasses. “I keep talking about this tendril, the auspicious coincidence of Buddhism and feminism. We talk in my sangha about creating enlightened society. For all of the stereotypes of Buddhism’s not having a social ethic, and for all of the passivity that we have had vis-à-vis social causes, there is also very active concern with creating an enlightened society. And I contend that it’s pointless to talk about an enlightened society that does not consciously reform gender roles and relationships between men and women. I want to show feminists what Buddhist practice can offer to provide some depth and grounding and some kind of long-term energy: I think movements like feminism are very high on short-term energy, but they tend to burn out. Our practice, and touching-in to that essential core of reality—the spiritual depth of existence—is what can provide feminism with vision and gentleness and sustained energy. Then, looking in the other direction, I want to show the Buddhist world that patriarchy and an enlightened society don’t go together.”
This was always her message. Her consistent developing and expressing of this view has contributed immensely to our experience of American Buddhism. We will miss her intellectual clarity and gritty Midwestern persistence.
Sandy Boucher, MA, is a Buddhist writer, editor, and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Northwest. She is author of nine books, including Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism, a groundbreaking exploration of women’s participation in Buddhist practice; and continues to chronicle the participation of Western women in Buddhism. Her most recent book is She Appears! Encounters with Kwan Yin Goddess of Compassion.
Sandy leads retreats and workshops, conducts an online course on the feminine divine, and offers private writing consultation sessions. For information on her activities, email her at Sandyboucher9@gmail.com.