Buddhism After Patriarchy
By Rita M. Gross
 Book Review  by Cynthia Cavalcanti
In a highly ambitious, personal, and scholarly treatise aptly titled Buddhism After Patriarchy, Rita Gross attempts to revalorize the ancient tradition of Buddhism with the stated intent of bringing it more in line with what she believes to be its "fundamental values and vision" (p. 3). 


Perhaps in justification of such an objective, especially for a feminist who might view religious traditions as the hallmark of patriarchy, Gross reasons that however sexist Buddhist tradition is or as has become, it is not irreparably so. One can and should, she asserts, salvage a belief system that holds such clear promise for embracing all of humanity.

To revalorize Buddhism, as Gross would have it, means to repair and reconstruct it, an endeavor made plausible given her unique insight that this ancient discipline is fundamentally coherent with feminism-- notwithstanding claims to the contrary by some feminist scholars and traditional male Buddhist practitioners. Buddhism and feminism are bound by their respective views that attaining an androgynous identity - a process which Gross argues is actually the undressing of self and ego - is necessary and ultimately allows for and manifests the desired higher states of consciousness and spirituality. Such a revalorization, involving the synthesis of Buddhism and feminism, could create a model of practicality and empowerment to be used by modern-day Buddhists to lead rewarding lives here on Earth.

One cannot help but admire the accomplishment of Gross in producing such a groundbreaking text which critics have hailed as a magnum opus of revisionism. In bringing together, at least on paper, seemingly disparate world views about relationships, spiritual fulfillment, and the meaning of life, Gross is clearly demonstrating that she is a formidable voice and one to be reckoned with in the various fields of scholarship embraced by Buddhism, religious studies, and feminism. This synthesis may not be accepted by mainstream Buddhists who are devoted to privileging the male, and who are so opposed to feminism, given its revolutionary reputation for wanting to place women in those most sacred and reified places on reserve for men and the male image. This opposition is exactly why, of course, Gross intends to challenge it. Such a state of affairs is what is wrong with Buddhism, she reminds us throughout her book.

To help illustrate her argument, Gross surveys the images and stories about women in the three major periods of Buddhist intellectual development: early Indian Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Indo-Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. In this analysis, Gross searches for a "usable past" (p. 4) as defined by feminist historians--that is, a past that can validate the presence and worth of women within the birth and flowering of major spiritual traditions. Gross performs a feminist analysis of key Buddhist concepts, drawing a distinction between the historical context which is likely to exhibit sexism, and core teachings of Buddhism which do not. She asserts that the key concepts in all three periods are incompatible with gender hierarchy and male privileging. She explores the disparity "between the egalitarian concepts of Buddhism and its patriarchal history" in order to rectify the contradiction. Such a progressive stance by Gross aims to take Buddhism beyond its "current institutional form" and its "conceptual structure."

Emphasizing methodology, Gross includes appendices describing her unique three-pronged approach that brings together religious studies, Buddhist studies, and feminist scholarship, drawing methods, insights, and assumptions from each. While seldom considered together by other scholars, for Gross the synthesis is inevitable, representing the culmination of her own "social vision". Gross brings an insider's understanding of Buddhism, an understanding which imbues her analysis with an authenticity that would otherwise be lacking in a purely sophist view. In her concluding remarks about methodology, Gross hopes to persuade us that her multi-disciplined approach can serve as a "most basic arbiter, judge, and peacemaker between divergent points of view about religion" (p. 5).

Gross presents a key discussion of egolessness, a Buddhist concept which promotes acceptance of the impermanence of all things--the changing, and hopefully evolving, nature of individuality and its interdependence on all things and others in the universe. While she is careful to differentiate between egolessness in Buddhism and egolessness in modern psychology, as the latter carries a negative association, Gross affirms that both views are central to the discussion of whether it is desirable and healthy to have an ego--that is, a clear sense of self, an awareness of one's individuation.

She has it right when she points to the error of monotheistic religions in attaching male ego to immortality and omnipotence. In this context, she asserts that major obstacles to spiritual fulfillment are erected by these patriarchal power moves. In addition, she makes a fine and useful distinction between androcentrism, patriarchy, and misogyny, making it clear that while Buddhism is influenced by all three, it is essentially patriarchal. Further, she argues, such a turn in the foundational intentions of spiritual movements is common and characteristic of all major Eastern and Western religions. And so it is patriarchy, rather than misogyny, that is mainly impeding the full participation of women in religious society. It appears that Gross intends us to infer that patriarchy is less immutable than, say, misogyny.

Interestingly, Gross does not employ her various arguments to deconstruct modern psychology itself as a patriarchal institution, using the concept of egolessness as her entry point--not of course to launch a treatise on modern psychology, but to provide insight as to how and when supra movements and seminal arguments become co-opted by the male ego. This would have been of interest to many feminists, like Gross, whose agenda is to hasten the demise of the already self-destructing patriarchy and to supplant it with an androgyny-laden universe. Even so, Gross' excellent scholarship offers to various disciplines, beyond her intended Buddhist anthropology, an abundant and complex work that is destined to fuel further debate, understanding, and agreement for a more enlightened post-patriarchal humanity. Her discussion and language are amply rich, affording much room for recasting and advancing key arguments, not only as they relate to agenda, but to strategy as well.

As a lesbian feminist scholar I recognize the opportunity to use Gross' work as a springboard for arguing that the integrity of a religious discourse necessarily entails the experience of lesbians. Beyond merely informing a body of scholarship, the inclusion of female-centered relationships could have practical implications as well, i.e., a greater understanding of how Buddhism, in this case, could accommodate the spiritual needs of all women, including lesbians. Gross opens the way for and invites this discussion, tying together as she does the Buddhist concepts of egolessness, androgyny, and taking refuge in the Three Jewels.

The Three Jewels, or Three Refuges, are axial to Buddhism and are expressed as an affirmation: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma; I take refuge in the sangha. The Buddha represents the embodiment of human potential; the dharma is the Buddha's teaching; the sangha is the Buddhist community. After the death of the Buddha, and before the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism, the monastic sangha came to privilege itself over the lay membership, emphasizing separation from society as the necessary path to enlightenment. The glorification of aloneness is evident in the poem by the Tibetan poet Mila Repa:

I have lost my taste for crowds 
to gain my freedom in solitude 
have given up bother 
to be happy in loneliness (p. 260).

Gross charges that "detachment dependent on being alone" (p. 260), not unlike celibacy achieved in the absence of potential sexual partners, is no great feat and, hence, not a true measure of enlightenment. Aloneness is counter to the foundational Buddhist practice of taking refuge in the sangha, as the third Jewel encourages one to be a companion and to find companionship.

Clearly, Gross takes the sangha to heart as she emphasizes in her scholarship the primacy of relationships over individuation and the images of gender more apt to reside in the other refuges. She informs us that unfortunately for women, and perhaps for men as well, that the sangha has generally been regarded as a "poor third" while lavish attention has been bestowed on the other two refuges. The sangha needs to be viewed instead, says Gross, as the "matrix necessary for the accomplishment of Buddhist concerns, especially freedom" (p. 259). She reasons that the goal of Buddhism is liberation from suffering, a suffering which comes from fixation on ego; furthermore, the greatest obstacle to obtaining egolessness is the institutionalization of patriarchy, its privileging of gender, and reification of gender roles and individuation. She asserts that the reification and extension of male ego and phallocentrism are in fact manifestations of the false belief in an "external savior" and a "vicarious enlightenment" (p. 259) presumably eschewed by Buddhism. Such beliefs remove women from their own spiritual center and establish men as the gatekeepers of fulfillment.

Traditional Buddhist interpretations have failed to grasp the importance of the sangha for those who want to "emulate the Buddha [and] understand the dharma" (p. 260). The necessary "instructions and... emphasis on how to be a ... sangha member" (Ibid.) have been omitted as well. Gross seems to accept the conventional premise of religious disciplines that we are fundamentally good and, at same time, that we are not in touch with that good necessarily. She rejects the notion, however, that aloneness and separation from others is the path to getting in touch with our goodness. Rather, she sees the path as allowing oneself to accept that "life conditions are fundamentally sane and satisfactory" and are the ongoing goal of Buddhism (p. 284). This is a feminist view, Gross tells us, which fundamentally sees joy instead of sorrow in life. The goal of spiritual practice is to allow "ourselves to be fully human" (p. 284). But, she adds, there must be discontent with things as they are conventionally (such as the corruption of Buddhism by patriarchy), so that we can attain things as they are in reality (p. 286). Gross moves away from exalted states of consciousness glorified by patriarchs in favor of a "sane" and earthly consciousness. She illumines the beauty and potential in realizing divinity vis-a-vis community:

"When we look out our windows, we will see the palace  of the deities. When we confront each other, we will  converse with the deities. To become sane, to live in  community with each other and our earth, is to experience  freedom within the world--the mutual goal of feminism and  of [post-patriarchal] Buddhism" 
(p. 288).

Buddhism After Patriarchy by Rita M. Gross, State University of New York Press, 1993, 317 pp

Reviewer Cynthia Cavalcanti is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Social Ethics at the University of Southern California. Her general area of interest is the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and religion. Currently her focus is upon the religious/spiritual experience of lesbians, particularly in Buddhism.

Review from the International Gay & Lesbian Review,  ONE Institute Press, Los Angeles, CA