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The evolution of a Buddhist feminist
A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration
Rita M. Gross
Berkeley: University of California Press
2009, 352 pp.; $24.95 paper
In 1967, the religion scholar Mircea Eliade read an unusually astute paper on women and religion, written by Rita Gross, then a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and assumed that the young scholar would do her dissertation on the topic. When he approached Gross with this idea, though, she told him that she was uninterested: “I want to do my dissertation on something important,” she said.
Such was the status of women in those days; even Gross had trouble acknowledging the importance of her realization that the all-male field of religious studies was leaving women out of the religion equation. Eliade, Gross tells us, “said that I was seeing things in the data that he, as a man, would never have seen.” As a result of that conversation, Gross made the decision to continue what would turn out to be very valuable research into the religious lives of women.
The fruits of Gross’s labor are collected in A Garland of Feminist Reflections. Now a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire—and a senior teacher in the sangha led by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Khandro Rinpoche—Gross has become one of the groundbreaking voices of feminist critique in religious studies, and in what is sometimes called “Buddhist theology” (using academic insights into the history and doctrines of Buddhism to inform and inspire the contemporary shape and practice of the tradition). Spanning forty years of research and writing, the pieces collected here form a garland, Gross says, because they are “strung on a single thread—the transformation of consciousness effected by the feminist paradigm shift.”
Gross tells us straight off that the book “represents my lifelong concern to live deeply immersed in exploring and understanding questions of ultimate significance.” In the remarkably self-revealing first chapter, “How Did This Ever Happen to Me?”—the only chapter written expressly for the book; the others were selected from the 150 articles and essays she produced over the years—she marvels at the unlikely direction her life has taken, given where she started out. Raised on “a very marginal dairy farm” in Wisconsin, by strict Lutherans who never attended high school, Gross describes an isolated, alienated adolescence as a young woman with a hungry intellect in a world deadset against her developing it. By the time she was excommunicated by the Lutheran church for heresy at age twenty-one, she had already begun a process of religious exploration, and converted to Judaism not long after. As a young professor, a sudden awakening to the Four Noble Truths lead her to meditation, and in 1977, she took refuge with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Up to that point, Buddhism had not been her academic specialty. But it would be. She had no inkling, though, of the resistance to feminism that she would encounter in the Buddhist world.
In this one case, ignorance seems to be preferred over insight. Many with the power to determine Buddhism’s future are extremely defensive on the topic of gender, being unwilling even to discuss it, let alone concede that some common Buddhist practices concerning gender may reinforce rather than undercut ego-clinging.
In the eight essays from her book that deal directly with Buddhism, Gross approaches this contradiction from many angles, mining Buddhist history and doctrine to make her case for bringing its institutions and practices into alignment with its teachings, which again and again insist that gender is irrelevant. The work she does on Buddhism is bolstered by the other essays in the book, which, written with clarity and forthrightness, unify diverse topics and make seemingly obscure academic material accessible to the nonacademic reader.