Distinguishing between problems of human birth and problems of human making
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?
The personal story of how the “obstacle” of female birth has haunted and limited me throughout my entire life and career does not need to be recounted. It need only be said that much of my scholarship and work as a Buddhist critical-constructive thinker involves women’s studies scholarship and feminist thought and that, through that work, I made significant contributions to human knowledge. Had a man made discoveries that were as significant and interesting to men, he would definitely have gone “straight to the top.” Instead, I spent my career at a regional state university. Even after I had published three books of note, my situation did not change, except that, ironically, I was often invited as a guest lecturer to well-known colleges and universities where others were teaching my work.
What does such a story have to do with investigating whether obstacles are helpful to one’s practice or the specific obstacle of female rebirth? First, one must ask: what exactly is the obstacle? It is not lesser ability or fewer accomplishments on the part of women; it is not a flaw in women’s bodies or minds. The obstacle clearly lies in the system itself, a system that for no rational or dharmic reason privileges men’s perspectives over those of women and does not bother to explain its prejudices. To my mentors and colleagues in academia, it seemed obvious that men’s perspectives were the only interesting or important perspectives. What seems to be normal often does not seem to need justification in the eyes of those who hold such perspectives. It is the same in Buddhism. Traditional Buddhist texts actually acknowledge, though not explicitly, that the real obstacle faced by beings with a female rebirth is male dominance, not their female bodies. The traditional lists about what’s wrong with women include the “three subserviences” and the “five woes,” which all involve either social male dominance or male evaluations of women’s biology that may not be shared by women. Commonly in such thinking, what is cultural—namely, male dominance—is confused with nature itself, as if it were necessary and universal.
Regarding this confusion, Buddhists, with our sophisticated Madhyamaka resources, should have easily recognized it for what it is: taking what is relative to be absolute. Granted, this mistake accounts for the whole of deluded existence, or samsara. But traditional Buddhist analysis, which is quite aware of numerous other ways in which this mistake is made, has not acknowledged in any way that the assumptions that make social male dominance seem natural are dependently arisen mere appearances rather than anything truly and inherently existing.
Our greatest obstacles can indeed be our best allies on the path of practice, but there is a necessary caveat: This perspective only applies if the obstacle doesn’t kill us first. Obstacles can be deadly rather than helpful, and probably most often that is just what they are. We should not excuse overlooking serious obstacles to dharmic practice such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth by naively reciting that obstacles can be one’s best friend on the path. Presented unskillfully, such comments truly are merely superficial and mean. One of the greatest weaknesses of traditional Buddhist thought is its unwillingness to address structural violence, often attributing it to karma and advising people to accept injustice as karmically appropriate.
In my case, it was only because I inherited a female body that I was motivated to thoroughly explore issues of dharma and gender at both relative and absolute levels. The purported obstacle was like a sword wound to the heart, a debilitating impediment to the Mahayana goal of utilizing my precious human birth in service to sentient beings. Nevertheless, looking straight into the obstacle, consistently and for my whole life, has transformed the obstacle into a source of blessing for myself and a way through which I have been able to help others. But this would have been impossible if I had listened to those who advised me that I was overreacting, that there was no real problem, that what I saw and felt was irrelevant. I was fortunate not to follow such advice. I knew that trying to ignore or repress something so obvious would only make it appear in even more disruptive forms, as it so often does in women’s low self-esteem, poverty mentality, depression, and lack of significant achievements.
In the Mahamudra teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, one is instructed to look directly, deeply, and nakedly into a troubling emotion, such as grasping or aggression, without either accepting or rejecting it, thereby liberating its enlightened clarity and energy. The phrase “looking directly and nakedly” is critical in these instructions. The instructions say nothing about reacting to or acting out on the basis of the emotion, and they certainly say nothing about ignoring the whole situation, which would all be unfortunate choices. Unfortunately, fear of acting out on the basis of strong emotions often leads people to be advised to ignore them instead. That may be safer, but only in the short run.
Several years of working with the obstacles I encountered, using Mahamudra-based vipashyana meditation practice, yielded the surprising results of taming my intense anger and releasing a great deal of clarity about male dominance, both in Buddhism and more broadly. When I began to write about this process in the early 1980s, I soon heard that other women practitioners were angry with me. I think this might have been because they found the approach of finding “the clarity in the anger,” the title of one of my recent articles on the topic, as threatening to their own comforting anger. Anger can be very comforting, because it provides a reliable and seemingly justifiable sense of who one is: “I’m someone who is angry about injustice!”
Shortly after my book Buddhism after Patriarchy was published in 1992, a colleague reported to me that a mutual acquaintance had called him and noted that I had interpreted many familiar texts in startlingly new ways, saying, “Her interpretations are obviously correct! How come none of us ever came up with those interpretations before?” The reason, I think, is simple: It hadn’t been in his self-interest as a male to notice how male dominant the conventional interpretations are. It is, as realtors say, a matter of “location, location, location!” The painful truth is that the only person who can unlock the liberating potential of an obstacle is the person who has the obstacle. But an obstacle is, by definition, debilitating and extremely difficult to transmute.
It is well known that, out of self-defense, those on the underside of worldly power and privilege often are double-sighted. We can see things from the dominant perspective, the one that is publicly taught and promulgated, but we can also see things that those who participate only in the privileged perspective cannot see. This tells us that, on any topic in which we mainly operate out of privilege, we should be humble. That is why white people are so often so blind to racism or straight people blind to homophobia. That is also why Buddhists should be much more careful about dismissing issues of social justice as irrelevant to dharma. But the knowledge gained from the double-sightedness possessed by those of us on the underside of privilege is so painful and infuriating that freeing its insight is difficult and often lost in self-defeating aggression.
What does this mean for those of us who have the obstacle of female birth in a Buddhist system that is male-dominated? First, it is critical that when we are talking on the social, rather than the metaphysical, level, its obstacle-ness be admitted. Given Buddhist history and current conditions in most of the Buddhist world, anything else would constitute blatant denial. Buddhist male dominance does harm Buddhist women, and, to a lesser extent and in different ways, Buddhist men. It is also a profound embarrassment marring Buddhist claims to be a rational, humane, and most of all, a compassionate religion.
This is a point on which we women should expect respect and help from our dharma brothers and they should give both to us. When the insights that have been painfully gained by our double-sightedness are ignored or discounted by the dominant group, the pain of facing obstacles of sexism and gender discrimination is greatly intensified. We should expect our teachers and dharma brothers to look at the evidence with clarity and honesty. We should expect and insist that men and teachers stop telling us that because enlightened mind is beyond gender, male dominance in Buddhist institutions is therefore not a problem. Such a claim is a misguided confusion of absolute and relative. Even more, we should refuse to be done in when some Buddhists tell us that our insistence on egalitarian dharma institutions and women’s dignity is based on our egos and that, if we were more realized, we would accept socially oppressive conditions. No socially dominant Buddhist group has ever taken up that ethic for itself. It is only for subordinated groups. Rather than being done in by such twisted dharmic logic, we can turn it around and ask male Buddhists to apply their advice to themselves, to demonstrate their egoless realization by not taking advantage of their institutional privilege.
For example, once I was in Bhutan with my teacher, Khandro Rinpoche, and her other students. We were at a sacred site guarded by male door guardians, though we didn’t think anything about that. It turned out, however, that their function was to keep women out of the sanctuary. Rinpoche, her sister, and the nuns traveling with them simply entered anyway. Because of our teacher’s prestige, no one dared stop them. When we students, however, started to enter the enclosed space, we were abruptly stopped and told, “No women allowed.” The few male Westerners in the group were waved forward.
We women were furious. The men not only took advantage of their male privilege but were totally uncomprehending about why the women were angry—as much at them as at the Bhutanese door guardians. Our teacher took us to an isolated spot to discuss the incident with us. There, one of the women in our group asked, “When we visit the nunnery, is there going to be a room that the men can’t enter?” One of the men had the gall to reply, “Yes, the women’s room!” Another man asked me what I thought they might have done. He didn’t seem to get it when I replied, “You should also have stayed out of the sanctuary with us.”
Whether or not our dharma brothers will calmly admit what clear seeing plainly reveals, it is critical that we act with wisdom on our own clear seeing. We must not slide into the temptations provided by the three poisons, the most dangerous of which, in this case, is ignoring. We face a great deal of pressure from men and Buddhist leaders simply to ignore Buddhism’s historical record of prejudice against women and the present configurations of male dominance. Women raised in patriarchal cultures, whether Asian or Western, are socialized to value pleasing men and to defer to them. As a result, avoiding conflict with local men is more important to women than recognizing and defending our own interests and needs or solidarity with other women. That is why, for example, women are often so tentative about promoting monastic ordinations for women in their own lineages, deferring to male opinions about the matter instead of recognizing that they have the weight of normative Buddhism on their side.
Ignoring often takes the form of denying or not recognizing that gender has always been contested in Buddhism, that in fact Buddhist texts are full of stories and comments that undercut or ridicule Buddhist misogyny and male dominance. From the time that Mahaprajapati refused to take no for an answer in her quest for a women’s monastic institution, Buddhist women and some men have promoted Buddhism’s ideals about gender neutrality and inclusiveness rather than its tendencies toward sexism and misogyny. It is truly sad, to the point of being incomprehensible, when Buddhists ignore that splendid heritage, as old as Buddhism itself, and claim instead that contemporary movements promoting Buddhist women’s interests and needs are somehow “foreign,” the result of Western feminism. That is how far women socialized to please men and defer to them will go in ignoring our heritage as well as our own interests and needs. It’s time to stop ignoring the great deviousness and destructiveness of that part of the Buddhist heritage that makes female birth an obstacle.
If one breaks through one’s tendency to ignore Buddhist claims about female birth, then fierce anger can easily come to the fore. Buddhism generally regards anger as detrimental to spiritual well-being and something to be avoided. That assessment is correct. One of the most difficult issues in working with obstacles is the mistake of thinking that there is no alternative to anger over injustice; that if one is not angry, one will be apathetic. If one truly practices Buddhist meditation disciplines, anger will be relatively short-lived, replaced by clarity about the issues. But having tamed one’s anger, one should not return to ignoring; rather, one should express clearly and carefully exactly what is wrong with Buddhist male dominance.
The relationship between anger and clarity is one of Buddhism’s most helpful teachings as we learn how to deal with obstacles. A woman once asked my teacher how to deal with anger. She replied, “Anger is always a waste of time.” The questioner was shocked and mumbled in response, “But what about things you should be angry about, like physical abuse?” Instantly, my teacher replied, “I told you anger is a waste of time. I didn’t tell you to give up your critical intelligence!” Retaining critical intelligence is essential. If others dislike hearing the results of critical intelligence and become angry themselves, that is their issue. We should not suppress our own insight, expressed rationally and without rancor, because others become upset and don’t want to hear unpleasant information. We are not “genderizing the dharma” when we point out Buddhist sexism, misogyny, and male dominance, and demonstrate how harmful they are. The only reply to such an accusation is to point out that the dharma was genderized long ago by those who first set up male-dominated Buddhist institutions, claimed that female rebirth is unfortunate, and proposed that rebirth as a man, rather than creating more equitable Buddhist institutions, is the solution.
There is another, very different dimension to working with any obstacle, but especially with an obstacle involving injustice. Buddhist human beings born as women have often been denied the full potential of their precious human birth. That is unfortunate and unfair, but every human life involves, for no apparent reason, some intense frustration, some denial of something important. How one copes with that denial is a measure of one’s success as a practitioner. After one has done everything one can to overcome the obstacle and, nevertheless, does not attain one’s heart’s desire, can one maintain equanimity, contentment, and cheer, avoiding self-pity and complaint? Doing so is not easy, but it is one of the greatest benefits of practice. If one can accomplish contentment in the face of obstacles, one knows that one’s ease is not conditional, not dependent on positive circumstances alone. This accomplishment brings tremendous peace and joy. Surely this is what our teachers mean when they say that obstacles are a blessing in the long run.
A final point needs to be made. Some obstacles, such as old age, sickness, death, loss, and personal grief go with the territory of having a precious human birth. Other obstacles, such as sexism, racism, poverty, homophobia, religious intolerance, environmental degradation, and nationalism are not attributable to the inevitabilities of being human but are caused by human greed, hatred, and ignoring. Therefore, they can be overcome. It is difficult enough for us to cope with the obstacles inherent in having taken birth. Because some of us manage to cope with socially created obstacles in addition is no excuse or justification for anyone to promote or benefit from them. Buddhists, especially Buddhist teachers, should never suggest that simply because a few people manage to cope well with socially created obstacles, it is permissible for Buddhist leaders and institutions to continue such practices. That would be a perversion of the inspiring and helpful teaching that we appreciate obstacles as a blessing.
Rita M. Gross is an author, dharma teacher, and professor emerita of comparative studies in religion. Her best-known books are Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism and A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration.
Photography by Luis González Palma
All images courtesy Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix, Arizona.
Image 1: Möbius Acrílico 4, 2013, handpainted photograph and acrylic on hahnemuhle watercolor paper.
Image 2: Möbius Acrílico 2, 2013, handpainted photograph and acrylic on canvas.
Image 3: Möbius Acrílico 5, 2013, handpainted photograph and acrylic on canvas.
Image 4: Möbius Grafito 1, 2013, photograph and graphite on hahnemuhle watercolor paper.
Image 5: Möbius Grafito 3, 2013, photograph and graphite on hahnemuhle watercolor paper.