Rita Gross is a feminist scholar, Buddhist practitioner and Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin. In her book, Buddhism After Patriarchy, Gross offers us a feminist analysis of key concepts in Buddhism, as well as ideas about how to move forward together.
Feminism offers ways to analyze and identify sexism in institutions, policies and behavior. The feminist analysis of Buddhism in Buddhism After Patriarchy yields results similar to analyses of other major traditions; none have escaped the major hindrances of sexism and patriarchal cultures. What would Buddhism look like if it were true to its values and vision? Gross cogently reasons that Buddhism’s major teachings “mandate gender equality” and “are much more compatible with feminist than with patriarchal manifestations of Buddhism.”
In Buddhism After Patriarchy, we learn that androcentrism may be defined as male-centered consciousness, “a thought-form, a method of gathering information and classifying women’s place in the [male-female] defined ‘scheme of things,’” a “one-sex model of humanity” where “the male norm and the human norm are collapsed and become identical.” Applied to Buddhism, Gross notes that:
The words of dharma-texts we now have are men’s words. . . . The men who wrote Buddhist texts lived in patriarchal, not androgynous, societies and had little access to women’s experiences. Therefore, it is quite likely that their words are incomplete, however accurate they may be.
While androcentric thinking and institutional patriarchy are hindrances for Western Buddhism, Gross presents a compelling case demonstrating that androgyny must be part of the path of liberation. Androgyny includes and values both female and male; it goes beyond a sex-neutral approach. For example, the often quoted phrase, “the dharma is neither male nor female,” is sex-neutral. An androgynous view would begin with “the dharma is both female and male.” Gross’s book offers optimism by pointing to the enormous opportunity for Buddhism to emerge in a more authentic way, truly inclusive of women.
Buddhism After Patriarchy is much more than sound research and analysis. Applying the perspectives illustrated in this book can benefit both teachers and students. For example, the Jataka Tales are often used in dharma talks. Those featured in the Spring ’94 issue of Inquiring Mind offered an example of how pervasive androcentric conditioning can be even in the presence of attention and care. One of the two male authors wrote that these tales don’t “teach dharma so much as they are dharma.” A tale of a “Brave Little Parrot” (male) followed. Next, another male teacher wrote that the “tales humanize the teachings,” and that there “are many modern day Jataka heroes and heroines.” This was illustrated by a story of a male Hawaiian surfer.
Furthermore, The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Legends and Jataka Tales, which is listed for further reading, is comprised of stories told from the male perspective about males in both animal and human forms. Females (animal and human) are rarely included or, when they are mentioned, they are usually portrayed negatively. For example, in “Monkey and Crocodile,” a crocodile wife (the villain) wants to eat the monkey’s heart. In “Golden Goose,” a wife makes a monumental mistake in plucking all of the feathers of a goose after disregarding her children’s warnings; even her children are wiser than she is. In “Most Lovely Fugen,” a bodhisattva takes form as a female dancer and courtesan. When Shoku learns that bodhisattvas can take any form, we are told not to “despise the lowly and ignoble.”
Gross sums up the implications of androcentric teaching tales as follows:
To see more affinity between male humans and male animals than between female and male human beings must be an extreme of androcentric consciousness in which, more than is usually the case even for androcentrism, women are seen as outside the norm, as a foreign object not a human object.
Buddhism After Patriarchy provides a way to help Buddhism fulfill its promise as a powerful liberation movement for everyone. The book is very rich in content and accessible to people who are not scholars. Rosemary Radford Ruether referred to it as “the magnum opus of feminist critique and revisioning of Buddhism.” Joanna Macy wrote that, “The ‘prophetic voice’ that Gross openly brings to the Buddhist tradition is welcome, moving and appropriate.” It should be at the top of every teacher’s and practitioner’s reading list.