‘Review of Rita M. Gross Buddhism After Patriarchy’ (1995)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

In 1995, Lucinda Joy Peach, assistant professor at the Legal, Ethical, and Historical Studies division of the University of Baltimore, published a review of Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (1992) by Rita Gross. Her full discussion of the book in the special issue ”Sex, Lies and American Buddhism‘ of Cybersangha can be read here.

Peach focuses part of her review on Gross’s take on misogyny and sexual abuse in Buddhism:

“Dr. Gross’s discussions are generally informative, clearly presented, and cogently argued. She skillfully brings together and builds on other feminist critiques of Buddhism, describing how aspects of the tradition have discriminated against women while simultaneously valorizing images of the feminine. Gross directly addresses the blatant or explicit aspects of sexism in Buddhist history: its views of women as mere sexual objects and as second-class members of monastic institutions. She also observes some of the less conspicuous results of patriarchy, such as the male-centered character of Buddhist scriptures and the painfully small numbers of recognized women teachers, gurus, adepts, etc., whose presence can provide role models for other women. The distinctions Gross draws among sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are a useful corrective to the undifferentiated consideration of male attitudes towards and treatment of women that is at work in some feminist theology. However, Gross’s conclusion that there is little, if any, misogyny in Buddhism is refuted, at least in part, by the scriptural tradition, in which the denigration and asserted inferiority of women is a frequent and recurring feature. An example of how Gross downplays the misogynistic aspects of Buddhism is embedded in her understatement that ‘the belief that women could not attain enlightenment grew popular’. This statement is not supported with basic historical information about the cultural situation of B.C.E. India that might shed light on the reasons for the arisal of such a sexist outlook. Other scholars, such as I.B. Horner, have excused the historical Buddha’s reluctance to admit women into the sangha (the Buddhist monastic community) on the grounds of the patriarchal conditions existing in the surrounding society.

Naively accepting the historicity of this account, Gross herself surmises that probably the most significant reason for the Buddha’s reluctance to admit women into monastic life was the unconventionality of such a move, and the fact that the Buddha was not a social reformer. Yet, paradoxically, as Gross conveniently neglects to mention, the Buddha was a radical enough reformer to reject caste distinctions and admit even (male) outcastes into the sangha without resistance. So why not women? A broader explanation of the cultural context of the Buddha’s historical period in India than Gross provides might have shed light on this lack of consistency. In addition, she argues that Buddhism inherited sexist gender institutions from the surrounding culture and merely ‘willingly maintained’ them, and that Buddhist teachings remain ‘untainted’ even when they are used in support of the oppression of women. Some of Gross’s assertions apparently have no support apart from her own feminist sensibilities. For instance, she argues that one of the ‘thirty-two’ marks of a Buddha, that of having a hidden penis, was meant ‘not to emphasize the Buddha’s maleness, but to emphasize his asexuality—a point that would seem clear to all but misogynists bent on finding any arguments, no matter how undignified, to disqualify women from high spiritual attainments’. Gross’s interpretation may be valid, yet in the absence of historical support for her interpretation of the Buddha as asexual, the sexist interpretation has no more or less claim to validity than her own feminist one.

Similarly, Dr. Gross interprets scriptural passages indicating that one should strive to be reborn as a man, not a woman, and that no one is reborn in the Pure Land (a Buddhist heaven) as a female as motivated not by ‘misogyny, but pity and compassion’. Such claims require more than mere assertion to be sustained, especially given the attitude prevalent in much Buddhist Mahayana literature that heaven was a place lacking in members of the female sex. Dr. Gross’s claim that ‘it is clear that Mahayana authors were seeking to correct and overcome, not to increase, negative attitudes toward women’ is likewise an unsupported assertion. These tendencies have the unfortunate result of undermining Gross’s purported effort to achieve an ‘accurate’ past.

Another shortcoming of Patriarchy is Gross’s failure to even acknowledge, let alone discuss in any detail, the phenomenon of male Buddhist leaders abusing their spiritual authority and power to obtain sexual favors from mostly female students. This very sexist and patriarchal practice has been exposed in recent years in a number of American Buddhist communities, including Gross’s own, and has been widely reported both within Buddhist communities and to the general public. In fact, several Buddhist groups have formulated guidelines for appropriate relations between Buddhist teachers and their students, and the Dalai Lama recently spoke at a conference of Western Buddhist teachers about the issue.

Given the pervasiveness of this kind of patriarchal abuse of power and authority within American Buddhist communities, how widely reported such incidents have been, and how central this issue is for feminist consideration, Gross’s failure to even acknowledge this problem of sexual misconduct within Buddhist organizations can only logically be explained as motivated by an apologist agenda, one which sadly compromises her integrity as an objective scholar.” (Footnotes and original page numbers omitted.)

In Buddhism After Patriarchy, Rita Gross limits her discussion of abuse of power to the following remarks:

“Seeing the essential problem as gender roles and the essential vision as freedom from gender roles also puts the feminist critique of patriarchy as ‘power over’ in another light. The abuse of power is certainly a major human problem and patriarchy is rife with abuse of power. But one of the most abusive aspects of patriarchal power is men’s automatic, rather than earned or deserved, power over women. Though one wants to guard against and be wary of abuse of power, a totally egalitarian society in which no one has more influence or prestige, or even wealth, than anyone else, seems quite impossible. The issue is not abolishing hierarchy, which is impossible, but establishing proper hierarchy. This is a complex and difficult topic, which cannot be fully explicated in this context, but it is important to state that proper hierarchy is not the same thing as what feminists mean by ‘domination’ or ‘power over’ in their critique of the patriarchal use of power. It connotes the proper use of power that has been properly earned, a topic not much explored in feminist thought—a serious omission, in my view. But if the essence of post-patriarchal vision is freedom from gender roles, then there is no possibility of men automatically receiving any power, prestige, influence, or position simply because of their sex. Though following this guideline would not, by itself, guarantee proper hierarchy, it would abolish the worst abuses of patriarchal power.” (p. 301.)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.