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Lions Roar : May 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2009 83 Free from the Prison of Gender Roles reviews A GArlAnd of feminist reflections forty Years of religious exploration By Rita Gross University of California Press, 2009; 352 pp.; $60 (cloth), $24.95 (paper) Reviewed by Joan SUtheRLand FOR dECAdES, RITA GROSS HAS BEEN a unique and pro- vocative voice in religious studies and feminist theology. The title of one of her books, buddhism after Patriarchy, was a bright jolt, the simple juxtaposition of those words obliging us to take a hard look at the relationship of one to the other. This new collection of essays places her writing about Bud- dhism in the context of a lifetime of thinking about religious studies and feminist theology. A couple of autobiographical piec- es also look at what it’s like to be both an uncompromising critic and a devoted practitioner of a tradition like Tibetan Buddhism. dr. Gross has argued forcefully for what she calls the femi- nist paradigm shift. She initially defined feminism as “the radical proposition that women are human beings.” In scholarship, the paradigm shift comes when you fully include the thoughts and experiences of women in whatever you’re studying, rather than assuming, as one of her professors put it, that the generic mas- culine covered and included the feminine. She explains in her introduction to a Garland of Feminist Reflections: Truly “getting” the feminist paradigm shift is like putting on a new pair of glasses crafted with a vastly improved prescrip- tion. Everything looks different—what we thought we knew about the culture or religion in general, what we thought we knew about men, and certainly what we knew, or more usu- ally, did not know, about women. Two sections of the book apply this feminist paradigm shift to scholarly method, and then use that method to examine sub- jects from menstruation rituals among Native Australians to the Hindu pantheon. A third section focuses on feminist theology, looking at Judaism, Hinduism, Vajrayana Buddhism, and the feminist theology movement itself. yet over time Gross has shifted her focus from feminism as aca- demic method to feminism as social vision. It has become about “life free from the prison of gender roles,” a definition that grew out of her experience of Buddhism, with its exploration of the causes of suffering and its promise of liberation. yet even as Gross applies the methods and insights of Buddhist philosophy, she challenges Buddhist institutions and practitioners to live up to them: How could a religion that has such a clear understanding of nonduality, such a strong realization that gender is illusory and unreal, get things so completely wrong on the ground, in the everyday world, and in its institutional life?... Though Buddhism has the best tools I know of to deconstruct and dis- mantle attachment to gender roles, to demonstrate their dys- functionality, and to demonstrate how they cause suffering, Buddhists have yet to apply those tools to their own literature and institutions in any consistent and thoroughgoing fashion. This failure has a profound effect. It constricts and deforms Buddhist practice, which means it has the potential to constrict and deform practitioners, and that’s a pretty big moral issue. It denies the tradition a richer range of wisdom and skillful means by limiting women’s participation, repelling women who might have a lot to contribute, and marginalizing nonconforming wom- en. It’s becoming apparent that some pretty interesting things are happening out on the margins, where there’s some benefit to a Joan SUtheRLand is founder of the open Source. before becoming a Zen teacher, she worked as a scholar and teacher in the field of archaeo- mythology, and for nonprofit organizations in the feminist anti-violence and environmental movements. PAINTINGByCyNTHIAMOKU