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Lions Roar : May 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2009 85 more open creative field, but this hasn’t yet had much of an im- pact on mainstream Buddhist culture, and that’s a loss. In the fifth and longest section of the book, “Buddhist Femi- nism, Feminist Buddhism,” Gross takes up the failures and the potentials of contemporary Buddhism and suggests some ways forward. The section opens with “The Clarity of Anger,” one of her best-known and most helpful essays. She discusses ambiva- lent Buddhist attitudes toward political and social action and then her own experience of how meditation transformed intense aversive anger into clarity. She suggests that practices that help us maintain equanimity while caring about a cause, in the midst of conflict and in the face of failure, are among the most important contributions Buddhism can make to political discussion. The next chapter is “Why (Engaged) Buddhists Should Care about Gender Issues.” Short answer: because gender issues are social justice issues, and attending to them is essential if Buddhism is to live up to its transformative po- tential. “The dharma of Gender” examines the fundamental empti- ness of gender, the uses and misuses of gender in Buddhism as it’s prac- ticed—for example, the difference between transcending something and ignoring it—and a critique of essentialism, which is the belief that each gender has inherent attributes such as relatedness or aggression. The chapter on the Tibetan figure yeshe Tsogyal is an inspired and inspirational tell- ing of the great teacher’s life. The way Gross sees it, this is a story about an extraordinary woman who rejected traditional roles and found her own way in both awakening and relationship. An insightful essay on Buddhist women teachers explores the tension between dharmic authority and Western egalitarian- ism, and the great loss to practitioners and the tradition when women’s experiences, viewpoints, and particular paths to real- ization aren’t part of the teaching. From her perspective, the lack of women teachers remains the key feminist issue in Buddhism. “Is the Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full?” looks at the current state of Buddhism from a feminist perspective. Much has been accomplished—books on Buddhist women, a worldwide Bud- dhist women’s movement, more women teachers, and “a grow- ing consensus that the traditional male dominance of Buddhism is a problem”—but institutional changes have been slow, and Buddhism’s tremendous potential for deconstructing gender has not been fully realized. There’s an interesting discussion of what happened when the first generation of Western convert Bud- dhists started to have children and the women declined to with- draw from formal practice to raise them. A welcome survey of Buddhist women around the world reminds us that just as there are actually many Buddhisms, Buddhist women’s circumstances vary greatly from culture to culture and tradition to tradition. It’s a virtue of this collection that each piece stands alone, containing ev- erything the reader needs to follow the discussion. But when the pieces are read together this also leads to a lot of repeti- tion, as chapter after chapter make the same or similar arguments. Gross is a reformer, not a revolutionary. She makes her critiques from within an academic discipline or practice tradition with the hope of spurring it to live up to its potential. A reformer first has to point out what’s wrong, often repeatedly and over a long period of time. This can be a lonely position, and while her work has been welcomed by many, it’s also been met with indifference and hostility. There’s an embattled quality to some of the writing that’s heightened by repetition, and it would be too bad if some readers grow weary of it and fall away. Successful reformers need to be certain about the merits of their cause, and when certainty meets a natural forcefulness of temperament, as it does in dr. Gross, the result can be a gem like “feminism is the radical proposition that women are human be- ings.” It can also be a sweeping generalization. For example, the chapter “What Went Wrong?” opens with a moving quote from Elie Wiesel about how “the liberation of the one [is] bound to the liberation of the other,” followed by Gross’ intriguing idea that freedom from rigid gender roles in Western societies has stalled because women have gone about as far as they can un- der the current circumstances. For things to continue to change, men will have to make as radical a shift as women have. But then the argument unfolds in a series of generalizations that miss the nuances and complexities of life as most people experience it. Here and elsewhere she contends that “most of the unnecessary suffering in human life ... is due to the prison of gender roles...” But for decades many women of color have been saying that, in their experience, racism looms at least as large as sexism. This is followed by a series of pronouncements on how men have failed to free themselves from the prison of gender. Here’s the problem: It just isn’t true that, while women have been taking on male traits, “...there has been no correspond- ing eagerness on the part of men to escape the prison of the male gender role.” Gross concludes, “It is men who are trailing behind in their self-inflicted prison of fear and avoidance of anything feminine in themselves.” Gross has a keen eye for how certain meditative investigations are powerfully deconstructive of our ideas about the self, and how helpful it would be to turn that deconstructive light on our ideas about gender. discussion. But when the pieces are read together this also leads to a lot of repeti- tion, as chapter after chapter make the same or similar arguments. Gross is a reformer, not a revolutionary. She makes her critiques from within an academic discipline or practice