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women, conditions have greatly improved since the Buddha’s time, she argues that the idea that this comes from karma is no longer valid.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.

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