The process of contemplating and the encouragement to investigate for
oneself mean that Buddhism is alive and that its insights can be
applied to any situation or problem one might encounter.
In this informal essay, I would like to reminisce about some of my key experiences and insights as a North American Buddhist woman and scholar-practitioner. How did I become a Buddhist in the first place? What was it like thirty years ago to be both a Buddhist and a feminist? Why do I think that Buddhists still need to be feminists? What has been most important to me about being a Buddhist? I would also like to reflect on what I have always considered the most important topic for Buddhist women - the presence of women teachers.
One may well wonder, given Buddhism's dismal record on equity and equality for women, why a Western woman already well grounded in feminism would choose to become a Buddhist. Indeed, after I began serious Buddhist practice in 1976 and took refuge in the Three Jewels in 1977, most of my feminist friends and colleagues were totally mystified. They could understand Jewish and Christian feminists who would decide to work for change within their inherited traditions, but they could not understand why someone would convert to a foreign tradition not known for its support of women's equality.
Buddhism caught up with me in the fall of 1973. I was teaching a college-level survey course on Buddhism for the second time, struggling to understand its basic doctrines more adequately. I was also extremely unhappy. I had just moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I have now lived for almost forty years, and had quickly realized it was going to be a very lonely place for me. I was also mourning the terminal illness of my lover, whom I had seen for what I knew would be the last time just days earlier. As I walked to my class on a beautiful fall day, trying to better understand the Four Noble Truths, I longed only to be able to appreciate the beauty of that day unburdened by my misery. Suddenly things became very clear. I could not appreciate the beauty of my immediate surroundings because I so desperately wanted things I could not have. Buddhism's second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering, became completely clear. I did not need to be convinced of the first noble truth, that suffering pervades conventional life. But the third noble truth, that suffering ceases when its cause - attachment - is given up, also became utterly clear in a vivid instant of complete detachment and openness. I stood still and said to myself, "The Four Noble Truths are true!" Unlike most academics, who might hold ideas philosophically without taking their practical consequences to heart, I immediately thought that if the first three truths were actually true, then the fourth truth, which details Buddhism's specific path, must also be true. That would mean that I should learn to meditate, something not easily accomplished in northern Wisconsin in 1973.
I did find a way to learn to meditate, and several years later, in 1977, I finally found my way to one of the major centers for Buddhism in North America - Boulder, Colorado - to receive deeper training in meditation. I had decided before I left Wisconsin that, while meditation was valuable, I would not become a Buddhist. The main reason was that I had already been through two sexist religions (Christianity and Judaism) and didn't need a third trip through a religion that preferred men to women and limited women severely. So what happened? I can only say that the experience of living in a Buddhist environment thoroughly captivated me. I remember crying as I decided that Buddhism was simply too profound to let the patriarchs have it without protest. But I went into Buddhism with my eyes wide open. I knew that taking refuge in the Three Jewels meant that I would also be writing Buddhism after Patriarchy.
It was not easy then, nor is it especially easy now, to be both a Buddhist and a feminist. Many seem to believe that a white North American cannot authentically be a Buddhist, a viewpoint my Tibetan woman teacher scorns. Buddhists generally are not very sympathetic to feminism. Many North American Buddhists, having little knowledge of Buddhist history or of Asian Buddhism, deny that Buddhism has any patriarchal baggage, citing the usual naive claim, "I've never experienced any discrimination." To them, somehow this claim seems to prove that male dominance has never existed in the past or the present. In addition, Buddhists have problems with "causes," especially when they are voiced in an aggressive manner that suggests self-clinging and attachment. However, issues of equity for women and women's equality are especially avoided. Even the engaged Buddhist movement, which self-consciously takes up contemporary political, economic, and social issues, almost never concerns itself with gender analysis or women's issues.
Sometimes people try to corner me into declaring a primary loyalty. But to me, the Buddhist way of hyphenating its most profound wordings about reality solves that dilemma. Rather than prioritizing deep insights, Buddhists usually claim that, though different, they are of equal value. Thus, we talk of the inseparability of form and emptiness as emptiness-luminosity. Neither word by itself really captures what Buddhists say about the ultimate nature of our experience, and both are necessary. But the hyphen makes them, in a sense, one word. I would say the same of Buddhism-feminism. When both are properly understood, there can be no hostility or division between them.
Having taught and written about Buddhism so much for so many years, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what about Buddhism makes me so committed and enthusiastic. It would be easy to say, as do so many Western Buddhists, that Buddhist meditation practices are what make Buddhism so appealing. A meditation practice involving silent sitting for considerable periods of time was the completely new ingredient in our lives. Early on, it was meditation that made all the difference. It had a profound effect on me in only a few years, making my rage over sexist injustice unworkable. But one doesn't really have to be a Buddhist to practice the basic discipline of mindfulness-awareness, or samatha meditation. Many Christians also practice that form of meditation, which was common in India before the Buddha's time.
In the long run what brings joy to me and what keeps me in Buddhist orbit is what is unique to Buddhism - vipashyana. This term is impossible to translate accurately, though "special insight" is a common translation. For most people, Special Insight does not occur without the formal meditation practice of samatha, without the many types of mindfulness-awareness practice, but Special Insight is not limited to times of formal meditation. The experience that first turned me to Buddhism was an experience of Special Insight, a penetrating and clarifying breakthrough to a different level of understanding. For me, a verbal person, those experiences cry out to be put into words, but the pith of Special Insight is always beyond words and concepts, which is not to say that verbal, conceptual formulations are useless. Buddhism has an immense repertoire of verbal, conceptual modes of pointing to the contents of Special Insight, all of which delight me because of their profundity and the way they point to what really does matter, what really is real. Initially, the Buddhist view illumined my suffering, an experience that is not an unusual route into Buddhist practice. Along the way, it provided a great deal of insight into how to think about gender issues effectively. Now it provides me with cogent ways to think about one of the pressing issues of our time, religious diversity. In all cases, the words and concepts that can be so helpful arise out of experiences of utter stillness and equanimity that are so central to Buddhist sensibilities. This process - the insights that arise when one practices Buddhist disciplines and the way these insights illumine core issues of human existence - is, for me, the enduring delight of being a Buddhist.
That enduring delight, however, comes from something quite different from the sheer intellectual agility that dominates many academic contexts. Verbalizations of Special Insight are not quite the same as debating points, nor is their purpose to solve intellectual puzzles in which one is not personally invested. Rather, they are the tradition's best distillation of the experiences of its best minds - to be contemplated and investigated thoroughly, until one knows for sure, for oneself, whether they ring true or not. The process of contemplating and the encouragement to investigate for oneself mean that Buddhism is alive and that its insights can be applied to any situation or problem one might encounter. Thus, as I intimated earlier, I find Buddhist teachings too profound for me to be deterred by Buddhism's historical male dominance. And in the long run, it has always been the Buddhist view that compels me to continue the journey, whatever other frustrations, especially reluctance even to acknowledge that Buddhism has gender issues, may continue to accompany me on my path.
In authentic Buddhism, that profound view and the accompanying practices are transmitted by a teacher. Nowadays, most or all of these teachings and practices are also available in books, but without personal instruction from a teacher, it is difficult to grasp these teachings at a deep level. Like many other wisdom traditions, Buddhism doubts the ability of written materials, by themselves, to convey deep insights and does not give final authority to texts. They are too easily perverted by the self-interest of the naive reader, as any consideration of the religious fundamentalisms common today in religions that give ultimate authority to a text should quickly indicate. Relying on their texts, religious leaders claim to have direct access to the mind of God and seek to dominate all people on the basis of their conviction that they have the truth for everyone. Buddhist teachers do not operate in this manner.
Buddhist teachers, including myself, often say that Buddhist teachings are extremely simple and basic - so simple that they are easily missed. Thus, it is as difficult to overestimate the importance of teachers in Buddhism as it is to overestimate the importance of personal verification of the relevance of what one has been taught. Though Buddhists regard teachers very highly, the purpose of a teacher is to help one discover what one is unlikely to discover on one's own, not to provide beliefs or ideologies for the student. Without personal verification through examining one's own experiences, any profound teachings remain fundamentally irrelevant to the student. Thus, in Buddhism, as in many religious traditions that emphasize personal transformation through spiritual practices, the teacher-student relationship is subtle and profound. It is up to the student to discern that the teacher is trustworthy, not a spiritual fraud, and then to practice assigned disciplines seriously. The teacher has the responsibility to discern the student's needs accurately and not to be gratifying her or his own ego needs through having disciples.
In my work as a Buddhist feminist, I have always emphasized the importance of women teachers, for many reasons. I have argued many times in the past and I would still argue today that the most serious indicator of male dominance in Buddhism historically has been the relative absence of female teachers. I would also argue, as strongly as possible, that the bottom line determining whether or not Buddhism has overcome its patriarchal tendencies is the presence of female teachers. It has been argued that because the Dharma is beyond gender, it doesn't matter whether women or men are the teachers of that timeless, genderless Dharma; the message would be the same in any case. But I would argue that because the Dharma is beyond gender, therefore, one should expect that there would be about equal numbers of women and men Dharma teachers unless humanly constructed social barriers are placed in the paths of women (or men). No other manifestation of the claim that Dharma is beyond gender makes sense. Why would there be more men than women teachers of the timeless Dharma that is beyond gender? Yet throughout Buddhist history, women Dharma teachers have been relatively rare, though in contemporary North American Buddhism about half the teachers of Buddhism are women.
In my own life as a Buddhist practitioner, I have worked with both women and men teachers, though early in my practice life, my primary teacher was a man whose activities were problematic to many women, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. My own position has always been that, while theoretically, I would like to work with a woman teacher, ideology does not determine my choice of teachers. I would always become a student of the teacher with whom I felt the closest relationship, the teacher who I felt offered the clearest and most profound instruction in Dharma, rather than seeking out a women teacher simply because she was a woman.
Nevertheless, I was curious about the few women who did teach in the Tibetan tradition, and I made an extra effort to meet them. Contrary to ideology, but consistent with good sense about Dharma, I did not feel especially compelled by these women as teachers. This pattern persisted even when I met the woman who is now my principal teacher, and for whom I now function as a senior teacher, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Eventually many things converged, and somewhat against my earlier expectations, I began to realize how much I had learned from Khandro Rinpoche, how much major issues had been transmuted, and how much I was really in her world. At that point I began to consider her my primary teacher, though my other teachers also remain important. Now my relationship with her fits the classic description of the teacher-student relationship in Tibetan Buddhism, and I am very happy about this development, which really did not occur with either of my primary male teachers, despite years of serious study and practice.
But despite my feminist viewpoint that the presence or absence of women teachers determines whether Buddhism is overcoming its heritage of male dominance, I am not convinced that my relationship with Khandro Rinpoche developed because she is a woman but, rather, because she is the teacher that she is, as well as because of an apparent karmic link between us. That is as it should be. I think that this whole process is highly instructive regarding the actual relationship between ideology and authentic experience. It was good for me to learn that whatever my belief system might be, I could regard a male teacher as my primary teacher even when a female teacher was also present. It is also good to know that when I came to regard Khandro Rinpoche as my primary teacher, it was because of her being the teacher she is, not because she is a woman. I am also delighted finally to have the kind of relationship with an authentic teacher for which I had always longed.
In sum, what is it about being a Buddhist that delights me so much? The profundity of its view, the transformative power of its spiritual disciplines, and the results - real change, a transformation from unhappiness to contentment. On the one hand, Buddhist disciplines bring taming of ideology and anger, and on the other hand, they bring a deepening of nonfixated passion for liberation - at all levels. Who could ask for more?
Rita M. Gross, professor emerita of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, is internationally known for her innovative work on gender and religion. She is also a Buddhist Dharma teacher, having been appointed to that position by Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration (University of California Press, 2009).