Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 17 Fall 2018
Rita Gross at home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, tending her garden. Visit the ABW issue devoted to Rita Gross, Winter 2016.
Carol Winkelmann, Ph.D. is a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she teaches linguistics and gender & diversity studies courses She belongs to the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She’s interested in Tibetan nuns in India and the development of Buddhist women’s leadership.
Buddhism Beyond Gender:
Liberation From Attachment to Identity
by Rita M. Gross
A review by Carol Winkelmann
Buddhism Beyond Gender: Liberation From Attachment to Identity
by Rita M. Gross
Shambhala, 2018, 172 pages.
Buddhists worldwide experienced deep loss with the passing of Lopön Rita Gross, a brilliant feminist scholar, incisive dharma teacher, committed mentor, and exemplary practitioner in the Kagyü Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Rita passed away on 11 November 2015 at her home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, attended--even from afar--by friends, students, and teachers.
Rita advocated tirelessly—in her voluminous writings, conference papers, and sangha teachings—for the recognition of women’s contributions, roles, status, and service in the sangha. For this, she was often criticized by both traditionalists and, in twists of irony, some younger feminists.
Rita’s most acclaimed work was Buddhism After Patriarchy (SUNY 1993), a work that will long be recognized as the groundbreaking scholarship on Buddhism and gender. Buddhism Beyond Patriarchy (2018), the text under consideration here, is based on Rita’s unfinished manuscript, edited and published posthumously by Shambhala, a community in which she had been early involved as a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
In this book, Rita analyses scriptural evidence and refers to the lives of early Buddhist women to argue, as she has so enduringly done, that there is no valid reason to make secondary women’s roles as teachers and leaders. She lifts up the difference between relative and absolute truth to expose how Buddhists with stakes in the largely male-dominated status quo refer to absolute truth (an unchanging truth, e.g., gender has no relevance to achieving enlightenment) to keep women sidelined. When women practitioners assert their equal capacity to be spiritual leaders in the sangha, they have often been deflected or chastised. The actualities of ordinary male-dominated relative reality—including gender discrimination and the obstructing of women’s full spiritual aspirations and potentials are secured.
Further, in a brilliant turnabout, Rita pointedly critiques contemporary identity politics—from both male and female vantage points. She contends, citing the words of Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), that “to study the way of enlightenment is to study the self” (3). To study and address how one clings to the self is the first motion towards being able to let go of the self. This is the path to realizing emptiness. Both women and men are challenged by the task. Yet the hard-to-hear lesson, Rita asserts, is that it has been male teachers who have been unable to “forget the self” when they cling to their gender privilege while, simultaneously and strategically, referring women who question their secondary status to notions of absolute truth. Forget the self! Don’t cling to gender! Rita once again tells the hard truth: It is not skillful to give absolute truths as answers to relative questions as generations of teachers have done.
Any practitioner, male or female, who clings to their gender identity—that is, holds onto any aspect of ego, is a person who cannot forget the self and move forward on the path to enlightenment. This is particularly the problem of males who present obstacles to the full education and ordination of Buddhist nuns, who cling to their roles as major teachers or leaders while sidelining women’s wisdom and experience, and who thus keep even western Buddhism under the purview of mostly men. Here Rita recognizes—as she has always done—other sociodemographic variables (race, class, sexual orientation, age, and so forth) while centering her own attention on gender.
Clinging to gender identity causes suffering, Rita contends, a manifestation of the First Noble Truth. This has been a tough message to some feminists who study, for example, LGTBQ and transgender issues—issues that Rita acknowledged but, for practical and methodological reasons, bracketed as she delved into her main concern—the suffering caused by clinging traditional gender expectations.
In my own experience as a teacher and colleague, I have often witnessed acerbic critiques leveled at elder feminists by younger feminists for not having adequately addressed issues of intersectionality. I remind my own students and colleagues, however, that second wave feminists were addressing the intellectual questions of their own time that concerned gender theories of difference and dominance in a particular historical moment when male academics and intellectuals simply assumed their own superiority. Because of their courage and insight, gender theory, practice, politics, and conditions were pushed forward in ways that made possible the questions of the next generations of feminist scholars and activists in both secular and religious domains.
Rita recognizes the contributions of second wave feminists in the struggle for gender equality in sangha and society; yet, she pushes forward the Buddhist path by delving into the suffering caused by clinging onto absolute notions such as gender dualism or any other aspect of identity, a concern of third wave feminists and feminists of color. In this way, she avails herself of shifting ideas about gender within the context, the conditions, of this present time: a time when black feminist thinkers and practitioners in particular have challenged white feminists with more complex renderings of intersectionality. And, while Judith Simmer-Brown intimates in her introduction to the book that Rita did not work the theoretical challenges of transgenderism, for example, many if not most white feminists hold very superficial notions of intersectionality—a point repeatedly made by feminists of color in both secular and religiously-inflected conversations. Queer feminists and activists, of course, have also leveled important challenges to the blinders of heteronormativity. Rita faces the criticisms forthrightly (see esp.145) and returns to her focus and passion—demonstrating that the basic ideas of feminism are in no way foreign to classic Buddhism.
Not surprisingly, then, another challenge Rita takes on in Buddhism Beyond Gender is the charge aimed by male teachers that feminism is a western innovation not relevant cross-culturally. Rita argues, while “feminism” is a western term, that what is means and encompasses is “not only compatible with Buddhism but is already deeply embedded in many Buddhist texts from virtually all periods of Buddhism through its history and all schools of Buddhism” (107). She refers to the words of Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta emphasizing the fourfold sangha, the lives of Pajapati (Buddha’s foster mother and the first nun), Yasodhara (his wife), and other texts and figures to show how interpretive practices throughout the years have both hidden and highlighted notions of gender parity—and how new interpretive skills yield new possibilities for understanding that ideas we would call “feminist” are indigenous to Buddhism.
In short, Rita persisted throughout the years, and throughout this work, to face and address criticism from wherever it came both tirelessly and fearlessly. She was aware that, in the struggle for gender equity, criticisms could come from feminists and those suspicious of feminism. Nevertheless, she persisted. She carefully circumscribed in methodological fashion her work and directed it toward the needs of particular audiences. Her brilliance comes from speaking her own truth—like in Buddhism Beyond Gender—as it aligned with the profound teachings of Buddhism. Indeed Rita’s wisdom in these matters comes through firsthand experience in both academia and sangha. Her trials in academia to have religion and gender studies appropriately recognized as worthy of academic attention are widely known, not least of all through her beautiful book, A Garland of Feminist Reflections (UC Press 2009), which explores her trials with both academics and religious leaders. Her transition away from Shambhala where she had been a meditation instructor and senior teacher was stirred in no small way by the capacious vision of her teacher, Jetsün Kandro Rinpoche. At Rinpoche’s center, Mindrolling Lotus Garden in Virginia, Rita’s knowledge, wisdom, and experience were deeply appreciated. Jetsün Kandro Rinpoche honored Rita’s gifts by making her a lopön, an empowered teacher, a well-deserved honor given her intellectual and spiritual prowess.
Buddhism Beyond Gender is a gift to both those new to gender studies in Buddhism and those who have been walking the feminist walk for many years. Rita was a beloved board member of our own Sakyadhita USA, a good colleague, and to many of us, a personal friend. We honor her contributions here and always. It is so good to once again hear her voice—strong, loud, and clear.