Feminist foremother in the field of women and religion and Buddhist feminist theologian Rita Gross died on November 11, 2015 in her beautiful home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, surrounded by symbols of Buddhist art and the loving presence of her cats. Rita suffered a massive stroke in late October, and in accord with her wishes to refuse extraordinary care, she was provided with hospice care in her home, which kept her comfortable as she died. Those who were with her said that she entered into an advanced meditative state in her last days.
In gratitude for her life and work, FAR republishes her reflections on the Buddhist notion that female rebirth is an obstacle.
Buddhist 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 (mental states that cloud the mind) as 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.”
A longer version of this essay was published as “The Man-made Obstacle” by Tricycle.