Something Important

The evolution of a Buddhist feminist

Andrew Merz

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 her efforts to push Buddhism to redeem itself on gender issues, Gross offers new perspectives on familiar teachings. In her telling, the famous Buddhist idea that birth as a woman is the result of one’s bad karma, and that a woman’s spiritual progress depends on rebirth as a man, becomes an admission of a basic feminist idea about the world:

To be a woman in a male-dominated world is unfortunate and painful! Buddhists admitted that long ago, defining the woes of female rebirth as, among other things, being subject to male authorities and having to work taking care of their husbands.

Buddhism isn’t saying there is anything inherently wrong with women, Gross explains—just that a woman’s life is more difficult than a man’s, in part because men have power over women. But since, for most women, conditions have greatly improved since the Buddha’s time, she argues that the idea that this comes from karma is no longer valid.

Gross devotes one fascinating essay, “The Clarity in the Anger,” to the resources that Buddhism offers anyone engaged in a political struggle. She credits Buddhist practice for her liberation from the harmful “emotionalism and attachment” with which she once delivered her feminist critiques. It did nothing, however, to weaken those feminist views themselves. “Friends mistakenly assured me that as my practice matured, my caring about feminism would vanish, but what vanished was my own rage, leaving the clarity of what I had already seen much sharper and more vivid.”

In A Garland of Feminist Reflections, Gross illuminates the gender troubles of Western Buddhism— indeed, of the West—with far greater impact and intimacy than the straightforward scholarly analysis of Buddhism usually offers. We’re left with admiration for Gross, and women like her, who have taken on one of the most deeply entrenched and pernicious delusions of our age and made astonishing progress in this one lifetime.

Contributing editor Andrew Merz is pursuing a master of divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.