Working with Obstacles: Is Female Rebirth an Obstacle? by Rita M. Gross

Rita GrossBuddhist teachings recommend appreciating obstacles because they are helpful to our practice.  Without obstacles we would never develop profound understanding or compassion.  Buddhists have also frequently claimed that female rebirth is an obstacle.  If obstacles are of great benefit, shouldn’t women, who encounter more obstacles than  men, rise to the top of the hierarchy of  revered Buddhist teachers? But that has not happened.  Is this obstacle actually of benefit to women, as teachings on the helpfulness of obstacles would suggest? After practicing Buddhism for almost forty years, I have come to appreciate how much the many obstacles I faced over the years have taught me.  For a woman of my generation (born 1943), none has been greater than the limitations placed on me as a woman, both by Western culture and by Buddhism.  

Several years ago, colleagues offered a panel celebrating my lifework at meetings of the American Academy Religion.  It was a sweet, joyous, and vindicating event, for I have certainly experienced more than my fair share of having my work be ignored, despite its significance for the academic study of religion and for Buddhist studies.  On the last day, I had breakfast with a male colleague.  As we reminisced, he said, “You know, Rita, if you had been a man, you would have gone straight to the top of your field.”  (“Straight to the top” means a position at a prestigious university, something I never had.)  I replied, “But who knows if I would have found such interesting and important work if I had been a man?”  I am quite sure that I would not have pursued the work I did 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 over the last forty years is as interesting or important as gender studies.  Does that constitute benefiting from an obstacle?

Looking straight into this obstacle, consistently and fearlessly, for my whole life has transformed the obstacle into a source of blessing, not only for myself but for many people who have been helped by my teachings on the topic.  In this puzzle, being willing and able to look straight into the obstacle, acknowledging its obstructiveness without flinching, is overridingly important.

Nothing could have been accomplished had I followed the advice given by so many. “There’s no real problem.  Just ignore your feelings and the facts.  They are all irrelevant because enlightened mind is beyond gender.”  How could ignoring, thereby indulging the deepest and most persistent of the kleshas, be relevant Buddhist advice? Fortunately, I always had the insight not to follow such advice.  I knew that trying to ignore or repress something so obvious would only make it re-appear in even more disruptive forms, as so often happens with women’s low self-esteem, poverty mentality, depression, and lack of significant achievements.

What I am describing is the process of dealing with kleshas discussed in Mahamudra teachings.  One is instructed to focus on troubling emotions, such as grasping or aggression, and to look directly into them without either accepting or rejecting them, thereby liberating their enlightened clarity and energy.  The phrase “looking nakedly” is critical in these instructions, which say nothing about acting out on the basis of the emotion, nor do they advise ignoring the whole situation.  Unfortunately, fear of  acting out on the basis of strong emotions often leads people to be advised to ignore them instead.

I didn’t need to conjure up the obstacles of male dominance and my anger with it.  They were glaringly omnipresent.  Nor could I have ignored them, even if I had thought that was good advice.  However, several years of working with these obstacles, using what I now recognize to be mahamudra vipashyana, yielded surprising results, taming my anger and releasing a great deal of clarity about male dominance, both in Buddhism and in general.  I began to write about this process in the early 1980’s.  This work culminated in Buddhism after Patriarchy.  Something that occurred shortly after the book was published is instructive.  Another male colleague reported to me that a mutual acquaintance who had discussed the book with him noted that I had interpreted many familiar texts in ways that were startlingly new to him.  This acquaintance said, “Her interpretations are obviously correct! Why didn’t any of us ever see them?”  I ached to tell him that it hadn’t been in his self-interest to notice how male dominant the conventional interpretations are! Or, as realtors like to say, “Location, location, location!” Painfully, 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.

So what does this mean for those of us who have the obstacle of female rebirth in male dominated Buddhist systems? It is mandatory, when talking on the social, rather than the metaphysical level, that we admit that common Buddhist stereotypes and practices surrounding female rebirth are, indeed, an obstacle.  They are also profoundly embarrassing, marring Buddhist claims to be a rational, humane, and compassionate  religion.

Whether or not our dharma brothers will admit what clear seeing plainly reveals, it is critical that we act on our own clear seeing with wisdom.  We must not slide into the temptations provided by the three poisons, the most dangerous of which is ignoring, which often takes the form of not recognizing that gender has always been contested in Buddhism, that 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 women’s ordination, some Buddhist women and men have promoted Buddhism’s ideals about gender neutrality and inclusiveness rather than its tendencies toward sexism and misogyny.  It is truly sad when Buddhists ignore that splendid heritage, as old as Buddhism itself, and instead claim that contemporary movements promoting Buddhist women’s interests and needs are somehow “foreign” or “modern,” the result of “western feminism.”

This is a highly edited version of the paper I gave at the conference about women and Buddhism about which I reported in my last post.

 Rita M. Gross, Ph.D. is a Buddhist scholar-practitioner who teaches Buddhist dharma and meditation nationwide and who has published on many aspects of feminism and religion.  She received her Ph. D. from the University of Chicago and is Professor of Comparative Study of Religions, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire.  In 2005, she was named a lopon (senior dharma teacher) by Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, head of the Mindrolling lineage of Nyingma Tibetan Buddhism.  Her books include Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of BuddhismFeminism and Religion: An IntroductionSoaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues, and A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration.  She co-authored Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Buddhist-Christian-Feminist Dialogue with Rosemary Radforth Reuther and co-edited Unspoken Worlds: Religious Lives with Nancy Auer Falk.  Her forthcoming book is Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity.  She live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where she leads a small Buddhist dharma study group.  With her live three Siamese cats and a Border collie.  She gardens extensively and has about five hundred house plants.

Categories: Buddhism, Feminism

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12 replies

  1. You are a women “after my own heart” I wish I lived in Wisc and could attend your study group….even that my local dharma group is very good, it lacks any feminist understanding and is full of “male mind” (as I call it) Gardening, growing plants, cats and dog……lovely.Breathing in Breathing out great gratitude you bring what you do to the conversation


  2. This eloquently expresses what I felt years ago when I explored and ultimately rejected Buddhism as my spirituality. I came upon this blog only recently and am really enjoying it. My personal spirituality is a “web-of-life” sort of thing, with every living thing being connected to one another and therefore important to the health of the whole. Perhaps I will learn more from others with similar beliefs at this site.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Terrific story! Thanks for writing this.


  4. Rita, I remember a conversation we had some 10 years ago about whether anger is a work of love (Harrison) and whether Daly is right that rage is not a stage. Your answer was that it was important not to deny anger but that it is equally important to transform it. I was puzzled by this answer and it took me a while to figure out what you meant. Now I see that you were exactly right. Christianity’s turn the other cheek and our own feelings of powerlessness as children taught many of us to deny the hurt that provokes anger. Learning to express anger is an important stage in overcoming denial. Figuring out how to transform the feeling of anger without denying the hurt that led to it is not easy. But this is the best route to real change. Expressing anger can be a first step to change, but acting out anger again and again or taking anger out on innocent victims changes nothing, and often make matters worse. Thanks for your insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is what I live for a few months, barriers which requires me to work on a lot of patience

    Thanks for you article


  6. Thank you for the honesty and clarity with which you address the sensitive issue of male dominated religious institutions. Until we see this shadow we cannot address it. Congratulations and brava for bringing it into the light. May it stay there!


  7. Thank you Rita for this beautiful and honest post. I like Tara’s vow: “Until all suffering in all worlds and all universes has ended, I will manifest in a woman’s body”. The obstacles presented to her by denying that a woman can attain enlightenment, became her strength.


    • My Buddhist teacher also taught that Tara was like “the first feminist” because of her vow. I appreciate that vow, but then the interpretation and application are all filtered through the tradition – which is of course tediously Patriarchal. The story of White and Green Tara being “born” from the tears of Avalokiteshvara as “helpers” of his compassionate task echoes the “rib” situation – Eve as docile helpmate. Perhaps this sounds reductionist or is mixing metaphors, but the impulse is the same: The feminine is constructed out of the male imagination, and not defined from her own authentic experience. I am beyond frustrated that most of the people I studied Buddhism with for over 20 years do not seem to “get” what I was even complaining about, instead parroting the talking points about Buddhism and gender as a non-issue for us modern Western practioners. Meanwhile, the dharma seems permanently parked in the brain – with no way to make it down into body or application to actual lived life. There is a great deal of talking about “negative” emotions needing to be transformed. Yes but. Again, the nuance is completely glazed over because our own culture is so disembodied, body shaming, and logic preferring, that most are only too eager to smite “unspiritual” “negative” emotions and think that if they have them, they are “failing” at their practice. Buddhism has been translated from culture to culture, but has always retained the Patriarchal bias. I just wish there was no pretense that it was otherwise.


  8. Thank you, Rita, for this inspiring post. It makes very clear how a feminist can help to bring about change in a male-dominated religion. Like Betty (in her above response), I discovered Buddhism and its sexism at the same time and discarded them as well. Like Betty, my path is earth-based, matrifocal, and feminist. You could say I’m a Starhawk witch.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dear Rita,

    Turning negatives into positives and working through/with/around the obstacles is liberating and, as you say, can be a means of grasping creativity and making lemonade from lemons.

    Women have been the walking wounded for too long and once we have recognized the hows and whys as all feminists have done, it can change our perspectives and then change the world.

    I call myself a Buddhist-Catholic because Buddhism speaks to me in ways that informs my Catholicism, enrichiing deepening it. I have not know about kleshas, something new for me to learn, thank you. I identify heavily with the Taras, Avalokisteshvara and Guan Yin. My biggest question is how did this Boddhisattva morph from a male to a female in Tibetan and Asian Buddhism. I find is fascinating. I hope one day to be able to research it and find out.

    I am presenting in a couple of weeks on sections in your Soaring and Settiling in Karen’s class and so this will inform that discussion.

    In the trajectory of my anger at male dominance, which I agree must be transformed, but not denied because it is useful, I wonder, and perhaps you addressed it Buddhism after Patriarchy which I hope to read for this class discussion, if anyone has ever taken Buddha to task for abandoning his wife and child. And for that matter also Augustine for doing the same to the woman he never married, yet had a child with? Romantically, I guess we’d all like to have our desert or Bodhi tree experience, but most of us have had to try to find it working around the responsibilities of our lives, not abandoning them as these men did. Or you have done by facing what was difficult and turning it around into a productive maneuver of another kind of enlightenment.

    Well said, thank you!


  10. Hello, Rita! I am so happy to say hi to you on this blog! I am working through your book and if you have any time you will see that I quote from it almost in each of my posts here. I also based a session I led during Manchester Buddhist Convention 2013 on your book. Thank you so much for all your work, this post and best wishes to you!


  11. I haven’t read this in full yet because I just found it. The link from the article that was sent to my email seems to be broken. Just an FYI. Thank you. Now off to read the article.


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