The Gift of Rita Gross

Dr. Rita Gross’s writings on religion, women and religion, feminism and Buddhism, and spirituality have offered me guidance, clarity, and understanding over the past several years.  When I was starting to write my dissertation, her book Feminism and Religion was immensely helpful. All of her writings (and there are many) display her keen insight, superior scholarship, and willingness to address and work through thorny issues. Reading her books always gave me courage and comfortwhen I was struggling with how to write about patriarchy, mythology, and feminism. She is an intellectual powerhouse and her work has been a true gift to me.

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Dr. Gross at the 2013 Gender Studies Symposium, “Divining Meaning: Meditations on Gender and Religion” held at Lewis & Clark College where she gave the opening keynote speech. The campus is lovely. I got there early with a friend and enjoyed a fabulous organic meal in the student union.

symposium brochure Rita Gross

Gross’s talk, “How Clinging to Gender Subverts Enlightenment,” highlighted the large discrepancy within and throughout Buddhist practice of working to attain egolessness—an attainment which leads to enlightenment—while still adhering to thoughts and practices of gender norms and roles. Egolessness means releasing our identities, unbinding our obsessive clinging to a permanent self, and thus, removing the suffering and ongoing murky consciousness that is tied to such clinging. Achieving egolessness is key to enlightenment.

Gross pointed out that gender is intimately tied to ego, and that for all the practice, teachings, and deconstructive exercises used in Buddhism to aid egolessness, Buddhists are typically adverse to looking at “the overbearing importance gender plays in Buddhist institutional [and lay] life.” So affirming the goal of egolessness, yet strongly supporting and enforcing stereotypical, patriarchal gender norms, roles, and expectations puts Buddhists (and Buddhism) squarely at odds in actually achieving real enlightenment.

She said that she normally gives this talk to Buddhist audiences who are very familiar with Buddhist terminology and concepts, and who are also most impacted by this particular issue. Therefore, she took the time to give definitions prior to her talk and generously answered questions at length after the talk despite dealing with some laryngitis.

As Dr. Gross said, “We are all trained to adhere to gender roles, gender norms, and gender expectations.” As a result of her talk, I feel led to look at further areas in my life where I am just caving to all of that. Where are those showing up in your life, in your religious life?