The Man-made Obstacle

Distinguishing between problems of human birth and problems of human makingRita M. Gross

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Obstacles can aid the practitioner on the path of awakening. This perspective, which is found often in Buddhism, teaches appreciation for the obstacles we encounter, because it is by learning to work with them skillfully that wisdom and compassion can be developed. Seen this way, obstacles are the very thing that make awakening possible. At the same time, throughout Buddhism’s history, female birth has been seen as something unfortunate, an obstacle, but not an obstacle that is an aid to awakening; rather, it is said to make awakening extremely difficult, if not impossible. But if obstacles are beneficial on the path, why is the particular obstacle of female birth regarded differently? Shouldn’t women, who have the many “advantages” that come with female birth, be more likely to attain prominence as revered Buddhist teachers? Though there have been important exceptions, that has not been the rule throughout Buddhist history. Instead, we women have most often been told that we should not concern ourselves with awakening but should try to accrue enough merit to be reborn as men in a future life. These two claims—that obstacles are helpful on the path but that female birth is not—are hard to square with one another. They entail a contradiction at the heart of Buddhism.

Many Western convert Buddhists are largely unaware of this contradiction or are uncomfortable with it. They might deny it. They might ridicule and express hostility to those of us who address it. Many dismiss traditional Buddhist misogyny and male dominance as irrelevant to Western Buddhists, because we live in a relatively egalitarian society. Such attitudes ignore how recent and fragile Western women’s greater equality actually is. The “war on women” now in full force in the United States should disabuse anyone of the idea that male dominance is a thing of the past.

Buddhist feminist thought has deconstructed the claim that female rebirth is an intractable obstacle, explored what is really at stake in this strange doctrine, and explained some of its historical origins. Buddhist feminists have rejected the claim that female rebirth is negative or unsatisfactory and shown that this claim contradicts many fundamental Buddhist teachings. Yet the stubborn fact remains that Buddhist women face obstacles that men never face. Buddhist men have never been told that they have limited spiritual capacity simply because they are males. Buddhist women, though, have frequently been told that we are inadequate for no other reason than that we are females.

People who have practiced Buddhism for several decades will probably come to appreciate how much they have learned from the many obstacles they have faced. They probably have also experienced someone telling them, while they were in the midst of such a difficulty, that they should just appreciate it because it will be helpful in the long run. Such advice was frequently given to me and almost always sounded superficial, even mean. Nevertheless, I do now appreciate how much I have learned from some of the obstacles I have worked through, and I wonder how to help students appreciate such things without sounding condescending or out of touch.

Whether and how that appreciation extends to the obstacles I have faced simply because I am a woman is an important dharma question, and my answer is far less clear. I was born in 1943, and for a woman of my generation, female birth was definitely an obstacle. Was it an obstacle for which I should be grateful? Did I accomplish more because of that female birth than I could have accomplished any other way?

Several years ago, at meetings of my professional organization, a number of my colleagues offered a panel in honor of my life’s work as a scholar of religion. On the final morning of those meetings, I had breakfast with a male colleague with whom I had for 10 years coedited a journal on Buddhist-Christian studies. As we were reminiscing, he said, “You know, Rita, if you had been a man, you would have gone straight to the top of your field.” By “straight to the top” he meant having a position at a prestigious university, something that, despite many noteworthy academic accomplishments, I never received. I replied, “But who knows if I would have found such interesting and important work if I had been a man?” I doubt that I would have pursued the work I have done on gender had I been a man, and I’m not sure that any other topic that has emerged in Buddhist circles or in academia in the past 40 years is as significant as gender studies. That is the puzzle. Being a woman involves arbitrary and irrational obstacles, but can anyone except those who actually experience those obstacles defuse them?...

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