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Rita Gross: “Buddhism and Feminism have always shared a voice”

Professor Rita Gross. From

Although she is now retired, Professor Rita Gross cuts a familiar figure to her early days as an academic advocating gender equality. She remains a faithful Tibetan Buddhist, but fearless in critiquing the human-made power structures of Buddhist institutions. She can afford to be because she is acutely aware of the important difference she has made with her contributions to Buddhist-feminist scholarship. Her portfolio of publications (with ambitious titles like A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Reflection or Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues) is prolific to say the least, and evidence of her belief in feminism’s ability to serve the religion she loves.

“Buddhism is too profound to be boxed in with an ideology like patriarchy,” Rita remarks, but this pugilistic focus seems to me an expression of her Buddhist devotion. Beyond her personal faith, her sharp focus has helped her for many decades to articulate and express what it means to be a religious woman in a world that has done much to constrain women’s spiritual potential.

Plenty of research has been done since her groundbreaking book, Buddhism after Patriarchy (1990). “If we take feminism to mean the freedom from gendered roles and equality of dignity between men and women, then feminism has always has had a home in Buddhism, and the Buddhist voice has always been there. See the early Mahayana sutras that deconstruct gender with emptiness, like the sutras that have characters going through sex changes. Feminism is not original in this sense.”

She met Karma Lekshe Tsomo, current Branch Coordinator of the Sakyadhita Association for Buddhist Women, at a Buddhist-Christian dialogue in 1983. That was long before Sakyadhita’s founding, and there was not much of a feminist movement for Buddhism back then. But so much has changed for women in developed countries – birth control and technology have helped women to take control of their lives as well as contribute better to economies and society. However, social institutions (particularly traditional religious institutions) have not changed at the same pace as these technological shifts.

“Two views of gender have persisted in our ancient religion: one which does away with genders as a false, conventional distinction, which is freer and closer to the Dharma, and the second is the normative patriarchal view, which has been institutionally dominant for millennia,” she declares. “This hierarchy has affected all social structures, even between women. Last summer, some long-serving laywomen came up to me and privately complained about the subtle sense of superiority and preferential treatment of the nuns, as opposed to they who had been practicing much longer.

“Even as we fight for bhikkhuni ordination, we must not let the hierarchy dominate women’s relationships as well. Nuns are part of the bigger issue of institutional dominance by men and exclusion of women. If the root problem can be defeated, the nun issue could be cleared up much quicker.” 

For her, the critical lynchpin of all misogyny and sexism in Buddhism is the idea of female rebirth as inferior. Female rebirth is unpleasant because males are politically, socially, and economically dominant. It is the main ideological obstacle to gender equality. Historically, Buddhists believed that the best way to better the lot of women was to have them reborn as men. But like the clichéd chicken or egg image, Rita identified the social institutions that give rise to an unfavourable perception of women. The latter did not simply spring from a vacuum or biological fact; it was the result of thousands of years of conditioning and cultural control. Indeed, Rita is good at turning ideas of female inferiority on its head in more than one way.

“Female rebirth is necessary to have people in female bodies speak out against the injustice of patriarchy,” she insists, with an uninvested charm that only retired scholars can afford. “Had I not been born in a female body, I could not have likely walked the path I did, wrote the books I wrote, and made the difference that I made.”

But with ideas come institutions. Any literate cultural critic would concede that notions of female inferiority are intertwined with patriarchy. This has practical effects: men still dominate most Buddhist institutions and media, and female role models remain lacking at the higher echelons of authority. “Just look at all the male celebrity masters on the covers of Buddhist publications. This is a clear editorial choice and bias.” For Rita, meritocracy in the spiritual institutions of Buddhism is much more preferable and would give both men and women a fair chance, she argues. 

“Those who have earned authority and respect will certainly deserve it and gain it. Mahaprajapati, our original female role model, and the gender-neutral arguments in the Mahaparinirvana sutra make the case for this. And look at the traditional female role. It is economically and environmentally unsustainable. Better-educated and empowered women have fewer kids, easing overpopulation, and contribute more to society and help the economy. So men and women alike are harmed by their clinging to male privilege, and this also subverts Buddhism.” 

Rita’s work has been consistently targeted towards Buddhists in Western countries. And so she is relatively safe from critics who claim she is patronizing traditional Asian cultures with assumed universal values. What she wants to point out, however, is that Buddhist feminism needs not mimic the European, Enlightenment model of human rights. Buddhism is already equipped with the tools for authentic and eloquent social critique, she reassures me. Nevertheless, women in Asian countries have found her lectures and books immensely useful too. But it seems that Western Buddhism can never deny it’s European enlightenment tradition and needs to work within that framework. 

Her lifetime vocation is to articulate how a viable western Buddhism will be like, and she is certain that it is a Buddhism that must let go of misogyny and patriarchy. It is too early to say if Buddhist feminism is reaching full maturity. But Buddhism seems in many countries to be moving towards social sensibilities that feminism applauds. If one looks deeply into dependent origination, one can only conclude that positive change will always occur, given the right conditions.

Professor Gross’s forthcoming book is Religious Diversity: what’s the problem? Buddhist advice for flourishing with religious diversity.

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