Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 9 Winter 2016

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 Buddhist perspective. Her book Soaring and Settling most expresses this body of work. Rita came to this work through the influence of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, in which she has been active for the last several decades. Thinking with Christian theologians has required that she articulate Buddhist perspectives on environmental issues, abortion, procreation, and consumerism. She has also written extensively on personally working with anger, depression, and death and loss issues.


Buddhist theology, of course, is a long-standing tradition in Tibet, with extensive training in memorization, tenet systems, debate, and refutations. Even though Rita has not been trained in these traditional systems, having only recently begun shedra training with her current teacher, she has a natural ability to reflect on current issues from a theological perspective. She also understands the controversies in religious studies that make theological thinking transgressive for an historian of religion, and she has addressed this in her work.


In 1996, she coauthored a proposal for a Buddhist Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion with John Makransky and Roger Jackson. The proposal was rejected, but this work led directly to the publication of an edited volume that remains the standard for the field to this day, Roger Jackson and John Makransky’s Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections from Contemporary Buddhist Scholars (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon, 2000). In Rita’s contributions to that work, she writes that Buddhist practitioner-scholars have “responsibilities to use our knowledge to address those problems, rather than to leave troubling issues of social and environmental justice to those less knowledgeable, with less respect and good will for diverse and alter- native world-views. . . [W]e scorned Buddhist theologians are now writing what will become primary texts for future generations of Buddhologists.” This expresses beautifully what Rita has contributed. She understands that there are Buddhist scholars who confine themselves to the scholastic debates of fifteenth- to twentieth-century Tibet, and while she appreciates their scholastic training, she is committed to thinking through the contemporary issues that face Western Buddhists who are living in a differently conceived cosmos. In doing so, she often draws generically from Buddhist teachings rather than from specific texts, lineages, or traditions, and this has sometimes brought criticism from her Buddhist studies colleagues. She has remained undaunted in this work and continues her intrepid journey of creative theologizing.


In all of Rita’s theology, she has kept the feminist method of first-person narrative as a cornerstone of her theological work. As a result, Soaring and Settling is full of accounts of her personal journey, and this generosity has been inspiring to many young Buddhist women who have been empowered by her work. They witness her willing to ask penetrating questions, carve out alternative paths, think through thorny issues, and develop a strong and clear voice for matters they care about. This is a tremendous service to contemporary Tibetan Buddhism in the West.


History for Buddhist Practitioners

The last, emergent area of Rita’s contribution is her articulation of the need for Buddhist practitioners to understand Western historical studies of Buddhism. For the last four years, she has been teaching courses in Buddhist history within the shedra curriculum of her community at Lotus Garden retreat center, with the complete encouragement of her teacher, Ven. Khandro Rinpoche. This has been the first opportunity in her career to teach detailed Buddhist history in India, and it has become her most recent passion. She teaches, for example, that the Mahayana teachings surfaced hundreds of years after the death of the historical Buddha, meaning that these teachings could not be traced to him historically. This has caused some consternation from her current saṅgha (but not from her teacher), as some members feel that this has shaken their faith in the authenticity of the dharma teachings of the sutra tradition.


Why has she done this? She has articulated two reasons. First, she is concerned about the incipient fundamentalism that plagues Western Buddhism—which she defines as “the urge to interpret literally the words of favorite narratives” from the life of the Buddha. Second, she is concerned about the exclusivism that is rampant in American Buddhism that comes from ranking traditions based on ignorance of the context and authenticity of the original sources. She summarizes these concerns this way: “Fundamentalism and sectarianism often combine in highly unpleasant ways. Some Buddhists readily dismiss other forms of Buddhism because, they claim, these other forms developed later and thus are not really the Buddha’s teaching. Other Buddhists claim that the teachings followed by some are not the Buddha’s full and final teachings but were merely provisional teachings intended for those with lower potential.” Historical studies bring a kind of critical and educated eye to many assumptions Western Buddhist practitioners bring to their own traditions, showing the ways in which they are conditioned by historical circumstances and identifying that many teachings are entirely contextual, not to be understood as having definitive meaning.


 Altogether, Rita is attempting to deconstruct any habitual disjunction between historical consciousness and Buddhist practice, in order to avoid the dual pitfalls of sectarianism and fundamentalism in western Buddhism. She offers guidelines for how Western Buddhists could read historical sources in a way that opens their perspectives to diverse interpretations and to appreciation of the multifaceted aspects of Buddhist history and texts. Most of all, she is intent upon providing a “seamless account of Buddhist modernity,” the same demand she made upon the German Lutheran tradition of her youth. This time, there will be no excommunication—indeed, we are indebted to Rita for her contributions to a vital, informed, and intelligent religiosity within Western Tibetan Buddhism.


Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University. She has expertise in Tibetan Buddhism, Women and Buddhism, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, Western Buddhism and Contemplative Education. She is an Acharya — a senior Buddhist teacher — in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and was a senior student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She serves on the Board of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies, and is on the steering committee of the Contemplative Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion. Previously she was a member of the Lilly Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter. (From Wikipedia, "Judith Simmer-Brown." Online. Accessed 3/2/2016.)


*Republished by permission of the author and Buddhist-Christian Studies 31 (2011) 69-74, University of Hawai'i Press.



Sakyadhita USA Encouraging Inclusion Across American Buddhisms

SUSA is the USA National Branch of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women

Sakyadhita USA

P. O. Box 1649, Ridgecrest, CA 93556