Rita M. Gross has long been acknowledged as a founder in the field of feminist theology. One of the earliest scholars in religious studies to discover how feminism affects that discipline, she is recognized as preeminent in Buddhist feminist theology. The essays in A Garland of Feminist Reflections represent the major aspects of her work and provide an overview of her methodology in women's studies in religion and feminism. The introductory article, written specifically for this volume, summarizes the conclusions Gross has reached about gender and feminism after forty years of searching and exploring, and the autobiography, also written for this volume, narrates how those conclusions were reached. These articles reveal the range of scholarship and reflection found in Rita M. Gross's work and demonstrate how feminist scholars in the 1970s shifted the paradigm away from an androcentric model of humanity and forever changed the way we study religion.
A Garland of Feminist Reflections Forty Years of Religious Exploration
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How Did This Ever Happen to Me?
A Wisconsin Farm Girl Who Became a Buddhist Theologian When She Grew Up
Given current conditions of backlash, I have sometimes commented that it is important for those of us who are old enough to remember why the second wave of feminism ever emerged to record our memories. Most people are astonished at how dismal things were only a few years ago, in the 1960s in the United States, when women could not establish credit in their own names and almost no women went into advanced training in any field.
Feminist reflections have always included the personal location of one's work as a matter of honesty. Claiming that one feels something to be true does not make it so, but it is also the case that no one does the work they end up doing or comes to the conclusions that they derive completely abstractly either. Personal experience is a factor in everyone's scholarly and theological work, period. "Objectivity" is better served by declaring one's perspectives as honestly and completely as one can, not by pretending that one has no standpoint. I am utterly clear that, for better or for worse, I would not have done the work I did, had I not been a woman who entered a male-dominated field, religious studies, in the 1960s. How I got to be one of the very few women who entered that field at that time is more of a mystery, as is how that woman ended up being a Buddhist theologian. Very few other women who entered the field at that time ended up as Buddhist theologians.
I have written autobiographies before and have always included autobiographical elements in my work when relevant, as I did in the introduction to this volume. There is always a principle of selectivity that goes into writing a sketch of one's personal life. In this case, the principle is to try to illuminate aspects of personal experience that may have led to my doing the work that is collected here. However, when I reflect on my life, it remains mysterious to me how I could ever have ended up as a leading Buddhist feminist critical and constructive thinker, given where I started out. Sometimes it seems to me that Indian notions of karma inherited from previous lives work as well as any other hypothesis to explain how one takes on certain elements of one's work and life. How else to explain an immediate affinity for things Indian and Tibetan, even very early in my life in northern Wisconsin, where those places were virtually unknown? When I was about eight or nine, my parents went to visit friends in a nearby town. I was supposed to play with their child, but I found some cast-off books in the toy bin. Always hungry for books and never being able to find ones I hadn't already read, I ignored my playmate, focusing instead on the books. Among them was a half-intact geography book which included a chapter on Tibet—certainly rare for an already cast off book in northern Wisconsin in the 1950s. From reading this book, I learned that Tibetans were dirty people who rarely bathed, but this supposed lack of cleanliness was explained by lack of water. I became indignant saying, "That's not true. We're not dirty." I also remember somehow understanding from AM radio news in 1959 that the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet. Why did I search out books about India for high school book reports in the 1950s, well before the countercultural Indian craze?
I suppose Western social science would say that as an alienated and lonely, socially inept teenager, I was compensating for my social misery by imaginatively identifying with places my peers would likely not venture. But sometimes it seems just as likely that karmic memories were inserting themselves, given how many socially maladjusted teenagers there are and how few of them gravitate to India or Tibet as a result, or at least how few did in the 1950s in northern Wisconsin. Today, I still live in Wisconsin, one hundred and fifty miles from where I was born and grew up. It may seem that I have not moved very far, but internally that is not the case.
I grew up in rural poverty, milking cows on a very marginal dairy farm. Indoor plumbing, central heating, telephone, and television were unknown luxuries. Nevertheless, that farm was imaginably beautiful and rich. I would not trade that rural childhood deeply immersed in nature for anything, despite its other travails. I have written about it elsewhere. The cultural environment was less rich. Neither of my parents went to high school, and education was not valued at all in my home. In another context, I have told the stories of how difficult it was for me to obtain books to read as a child. In the 1940s and 1950s, northern Wisconsin was remote, culturally impoverished, and monolithic. I never saw a black person until I went to college in Milwaukee. As a child, I never left northern Wisconsin. My world literally consisted of an area of about fifty miles in any direction from the farm.
Religiously, that childhood consisted of indoctrination into an extremely rigid and literalist form of Lutheranism. I was taught that God put dinosaur bones into rocks to deceive later unbelieving scientists, who would reject the Bible and go to hell as a result. I was taught to laugh at and scorn all other religious beliefs and worldviews. The indoctrination was thoroughgoing, and I have reacted very negatively to it throughout my adult life. It was also intense enough that I later managed to pass several comprehensive exams at the University of Chicago mainly on what I had learned in that Lutheran day school. I also developed an intense appreciation for symbolism from being taught the meaning of tiles on the church ceiling, and an equally intense appreciation of sacred music from endless hours of singing in various choirs.
I suppose it is important to relate that in that rural environment I grew up very alone, as an only child whose overprotective mother would not allow me to have a bicycle or play with nearby children because she was afraid I might get hurt. In the redneck culture of northern Wisconsin in the 1950s, intelligence, especially in economically impoverished, not especially attractive girls, was more likely to result in social shunning than in friendliness or admiration. The combination of forced isolation and precociousness made for a miserable childhood and enduring social awkwardness which persists to this day, in some ways. I really had no friends except for my animals, who were very dear to me, but I had plenty of time and the incentive to speculate deeply. Very early on, I developed the habit of constant introspection, reflection, and imagination.
The loneliness of my early life was made up for in part by the joy I took in being out of doors much of the time, working hard with farm machinery and animals. Farmwork is physically demanding, and because there was only one man around, my father, my mother and I did a great deal of heavy work that women usually did not do in the 1950s. I suppose that experience had something to do with the disregard for gender roles that I developed early. I also never liked to play with dolls, preferring real and toy animals instead, and I always knew I did not want to have children even while I knew I would always have animals. Only during my four years of college and the first year of graduate school did I lack animal companionship. As soon as it was possible for me to have a cat of my own, I got one and am now surrounded by some rather wonderful and devoted felines.
Quite early on, my introspectiveness led me to resent what being female seemed to mean. So many times as a teenager wandering about in my wilderness, I exclaimed in misery to myself, "Why did I have to be a girl? Girls don't get to do anything interesting!" In the culture of the 1950s, that was an accurate observation. Females, at least as I was taught, had only one purpose in life: to get married and have children. My frustration with my expected role was not due to lack of experience with tasks defined as "female." Very early on, when I was about thirteen, I had to take over most of the housework because my mother was too immersed in the farmwork she preferred and thought more essential. I learned to sew very early, made all my own clothes for years, always cooked, and did all the other housework. I came to feel that I didn't want to look forward to a future as a housewife; I had done that already, and it was not enough to provide an interesting life.
I had also been taught male dominance and female inferiority by my religious teachers. Somehow, though, very early in my life, I had an experience that I think demonstrates that young children can be very good observers. My parents had hung a small framed picture of two children crossing a dangerous ravine on a rickety bridge, with an angel hovering in the background, protecting them. (This is quite a popular Protestant picture which one sometimes finds done up as garish velvet wall hangings. This was a small, tastefully framed picture.) One day I thought to myself, "Hum, God is male and so is Jesus. I wonder what that means about me, because I'm a girl." Then I looked at the picture and said, "But the angels are women! I guess that means I'm okay." That experience was strong enough that years later in confirmation class, when I was about twelve, I used that insight to object to what I was being taught about proper gender roles. "Christian women should be married if possible—not that single women can't do good work in the church, but it is better to be married. Women must submit to their husbands because men are superior to women. We know that because God is male and Jesus was a man." I put up my hand. "But the angels are women," I said. The reply: "No, that's not correct. Artists don't paint angels correctly, so they look like women, but actually all the angels are men too."
I am very grateful that somehow, from some unknown source, one day I came up with the insight, "There's nothing wrong with me! There's nothing wrong with being a girl! It's the system! It's the system!" From then on I hated the system, but that was healthier than hating myself. However, it is very easy to remember how painful it was to grow up with such a self-image and with such religious doctrines, which helps explain my lifelong passion for finding freedom from the prison of gender roles and for helping others find that freedom. It probably also helps explain why my mature reflections on gender led me to conclude that the problem is the very existence of gender roles, rather than the inadequacy of any specific set of gender roles. (Incidentally, some years ago, in an antique store, I found a large version of the angel picture from my childhood. It now hangs in a hidden corner of my house.)
Other things were not going well in my religious indoctrination either. My habit of inquiry was strengthened by the fact that I became a philosophy major in college, with a passion for philosophy of religion and other ways of exploring religion. I had always been quite drawn to practical religious experience, and so my explorations were not completely theoretical. I became a member of the best Lutheran choir in Milwaukee, where I did my undergraduate degree, even though the church belonged to a forbidden, heretical version of Lutheranism, at least according to the very conservative church in which I had been brought up. (Lest one think that this church had been chosen by my parents for its doctrinal positions, let me make clear that was not the case. The church in which I grew up was the "German" Lutheran church in town. When I was a child in Rhinelander, there were three Lutheran churches within three blocks of each other—the German Lutheran church, the Norwegian Lutheran church, and the Swedish Lutheran church. Each belonged to a different Lutheran organization, but their ethnic identities, rather than any theological claims, were their primary markers. The German Lutheran church also happened to be extremely conservative, a member of what is still one of the most conservative religious organizations in North America—the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran church.)
To make matters worse as far as my religious indoctrination was going, I also began to attend the Reform Jewish synagogue across the street from the university. This was a rather radical move, given what I had been taught to believe about Jews, but I was exploring other religious options as well. I wasn't necessarily shopping; I was just exploring. Some years earlier, things had already come to quite a painful point. Disobeying orders, I had played the piano at my high school's baccalaureate service when I graduated from high school. We had always been taught that we should never engage in any interfaith activities (which included girl and boy scout programs) because we had been commanded not to be "unequally yoked together with unbelievers," which meant anybody who did not completely share the "one true faith" held only by Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. When I was hauled in to be reprimanded, I asked if it was not the case that everyone was striving for the same thing that we were striving for, using different language. I was told in no uncertain terms that my idea was wrong and that everyone else worshipped idols, false gods.
To make a long story short, at least for this context, soon after my mother died and while a senior in college, I was excommunicated for heresy at the advanced age of twenty-one. I had not yet done any of things I later did, which would definitely have severed my connection with the church of my youth. I was exploring, but because I was exploring I also refused to close my mind to what I was exploring and refused to affirm what I was told to affirm by an extremely authoritarian pastor. At that time, I wasn't denying any of those contentions; I was simply refusing to affirm them. The similarity to the positions I hold today, essentially Buddhist positions, is striking and uncanny. In any case, because of my refusal to agree with this pastor, I soon received a letter informing that I had "sold my soul for a mess of academic pottage" (a reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau) and that unless I "repented and apologized," I would face a very hot residence in the future. (Was he predicting global warming? Surely my religious ideas aren't that powerful.) I was also told, to quote the man, "I always knew I'd have trouble with you someday. You asked too many questions." These stories are indicative of a thread that is as strong in my life as the thread of feminism—the thread of seeking sane ways of understanding religious diversity, which is why I went into comparative studies in religion. This concern is represented by the twelfth bead on this "garland."
Formative Experiences in Graduate School
The threads of this narrative now bring me to the point of entering graduate school, which is a formative period for any scholar. I had decided I did not want to go on in philosophy because it seemed to be completely head-oriented, but I did want to pursue studying ultimate issues of meaning and relevance. Religious studies seemed the perfect field for that, even though the college professor who had paid the most attention to me, a woman professor of English, begged me not to go into the field of religion because, as she put it, "a woman can't make it in that field." Given what I have narrated above, it is not surprising that I had also decided it was meaningless and irrelevant to pursue only the answers to ultimate questions that had been proposed by culturally familiar religions. I wanted to study the world's religious options.
When I opted for the then-famous program in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, I was not really aware of that program's reputation. I only knew that it seemed like a good program, and I was too poor to apply to multiple programs, so I applied only to the University of Chicago. When I think now of that risky behavior, I am impressed by two things. First, no one bothered to really mentor me about graduate school and career options. I was a girl and, therefore, was not expected to continue with any serious advanced training. I had been told not to expect to receive any prestigious fellowships, because I should understand that such money could not be wasted on a woman who would get married and have children instead of really pursuing an advanced degree and a career. (I did receive several prestigious fellowships as a graduate student.) Second, I was still very naive and really believed that intelligence and hard work mattered more than social class and party lines.
I was also extremely angry about options for women, but I tried hard to keep that under cover, because it was a deadly sin for women to be angry in those prefeminist days. Though I was very angry, I had not yet developed any interest at all in studying women and religion, nor had I really become angry about sexism in religion. Those concerns developed soon thereafter. I entered the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in 1965 at the age of twenty-two, intending to pursue a degree in what the university called the "history of religions." When I entered, the student body of the Divinity School consisted of about four hundred students, twelve of whom were women. Six of the twelve entered with me in 1965. At that time more women had PhDs in physics than in religious studies. The professors were overwhelmed that so many women wanted to study religion, worrying about what could be done with them all. In some cases, they changed the content of their lectures because of the presence of a single female (me) in their classrooms.
In graduate school, many of the concerns that would mark me for life came together, though I did not become personally interested in Buddhism until somewhat later. How did I end up writing the first thesis in women's studies in religion in the country? First, I became painfully aware of male dominance in my newly chosen religion—Judaism. I had not yet converted to Judaism when I entered the Divinity School, though I was thinking seriously of converting if things went well after a trial period in a new setting. I did not think it was a good idea to make such a radical change based on an experience with a single Jewish congregation that happened to have a very charismatic and appealing rabbi. (Though I had had many disagreements with the pastor of my home church, after my comment about angels in confirmation class, the topic of gender did not come up again. I never went through a phase of trying to deal with Christianity as a feminist.) I became part of an extremely wonderful Jewish community at the University of Chicago Hillel Foundation and had many fruitful and rewarding discussions with people there. But I was still frustrated. I decided to write my required graduate school papers on women's religious lives in the area we were studying in that course, which turned out to be Aboriginal Australia, "to find out if things are as bad everywhere else as they are here." (This work began in early 1967.)
What I discovered was quite amazing to me. Western scholars had no interest at all in women's religious lives, but if they did talk about them, their theories did not match their field notes. Western scholars said that women had no religious lives to speak of, while their field notes reported a religious life that was different from that of men and practiced separately. This was when I first began to frame the thesis that Western scholars operated with an inadequate, androcentric model of humanity which could never guide research that would really illumine the human world, as opposed to men's lives in societies characterized by sexual segregation, though that thesis was not stated that clearly and succinctly in 1967. I also reported on a lot of fascinating information about women's religious lives that I had found in various sources, even that early. Mircea Eliade's response to that paper changed my life, drastically. He was very impressed with the paper and said, "You're going to do your dissertation on this material, aren't you?" My reply: "No. I want to do my dissertation on something important." Clearly, I had been socialized well enough into patriarchy to think women were less interesting and important than men, even though I was furious about that "fact." His reply to my rejection of his suggestion was very interesting. He said that I was seeing things in the data that he, as a man, would never have seen, and that it was very important that I should continue the work I was doing. As a result of that conversation, I decided, for better or for worse, to continue my research into women's religious lives.
Was that a wise choice? I'll never know. What I do know is that it caused me endless grief in graduate school and later. The discoveries I was making were quite significant and came very early in the development of a concern that has been important in academic discourse for more than thirty years. I expected my mentors to be as excited as I was. Wasn't this what the intellectual life of research and scholarship was all about? Wrong again! My research proposal turned out to be extremely controversial, and I barely made it out of the University of Chicago with a degree because the study of women couldn't be "real scholarship." Perhaps I should have known that mere graduate students do not challenge established methodologies, but I was still naive. My research also elicited the comment, mentioned earlier, that "the generic masculine covers and includes the feminine, thereby making it unnecessary to focus specifically on women." In retrospect, I think that this experience soured me for life on academia. That men in such prestigious positions would react so defensively and with such little regard for the well-being of a student is still difficult for me to comprehend. As a result of my treatment as a graduate student, I have never contributed money to the University of Chicago, and I never will, though I still support the Hillel Foundation there years after becoming primarily involved with Buddhism.
These experiences again point to the question of gender essentialism. Could a man have figured out what I did? Is there anything essentially feminine that led to these questions, these concerns? I think not. I don't think my discoveries are located in my XX chromosome configuration but in the social conditions to which XX chromosome configurations are subjected. Being a woman entering the field at the time I did has colored my career and life immensely, because being a woman with some modicum of awareness who entered when I did meant that I was forced to think specifically about women and religion to survive. That's not what I intended or wanted to do, but what I ended up doing anyway, willy-nilly. What I really wanted to do was what led me into the field—to think about meaning and ultimate reality.
As a convert to Judaism, my spirituality seemed settled. I had been utterly fascinated by what I had heard about "Vajrayana" in graduate school classes, but Vajrayana also seemed utterly inaccessible, even though I had read almost everything available in the late 1960s about "Vajrayana." I had a very satisfying experience with the Upstairs Minyan, a Jewish ritual community at the University of Chicago, and wrote some of the very early pieces in Jewish feminist theology (see chapter 10). But after I left Chicago and tried to mingle with more ordinary Jewish congregations, I quickly became disillusioned with them. Furthermore, after I moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I began to discover, in the absence of a strong Jewish community, how communal Jewish life is. I was becoming tired of words as my spiritual medium and began to long for genuine silence. I was also finding it more and more difficult to take the notion of a personal God seriously. But, as I had spent a number of years moving into a Jewish identity, I spent a number of years moving on. I always emphasize when I talk about this chapter of my life that the time I spent deeply involved in Judaism was fulfilling and nurturing. I have no regrets about it.
I have told the story of how Buddhism imploded into my life before, but it bears repeating in this context. In 1973, when I was thirty, I moved to Eau Claire, where I have lived ever since, for my second full-time teaching position. After ten years in urban environments and the intellectual stimulation of the University of Chicago, I was concerned about moving to such a backwater, such a provincial place. (Eau Claire is no longer so provincial, but it was very different thirty-plus years ago.) I feared that I would be lonely and dissatisfied in this place, and for many, many years, I was. More was going on, however. I had just spent two years at an extremely frustrating teaching position in Florida, where I had been very badly treated. I was also in love, but my lover had been diagnosed a year earlier with an inoperable, terminal brain tumor, and I had just spent the Labor Day weekend seeing him for what I knew would be the last time. I was lonely, afraid, and miserable, as miserable as I have even been.
The new semester had just started, and I was teaching a survey course on Buddhism for the second time. I didn't understand Buddhism very well at that point, but I was trying hard to understand it better. It was the day for the lecture on the Four Noble Truths, which I was struggling to understand. I was walking toward my office on the sort of fall day that makes northern Wisconsin take one's breath away. I remember so plainly the blue sky and maple leaves beginning to turn, my overwhelming misery "inside," and the "outer" beauty. They seemed to be in such contrast. If only I could just drop the misery for one moment and experience only the beauty of the fall day, unimpeded! Something snapped. I realized that I was so miserable only because I couldn't have what I wanted, and that was what was preventing me from enjoying the early fall day. I stopped and said to myself, "The Four Noble Truths are true. Our desires are the cause of our misery. If I didn't want something so fiercely, I would not be so miserable, and I could appreciate the beauty around me more fully."
That single moment is the clearest and most memorable experience of my entire life. It changed my life even more than had my conversation with Mircea Eliade on my paper about the role of women in aboriginal Australian religion. Though I did not realize it at the time, that moment also added another difficult dimension to my life as a scholar and an academic. I had always written from experience, not just from theory and information, which has always seemed to me to be necessary for scholarly integrity. I had already made the arguments for doing so as a scholar of comparative religions and as a feminist. I simply assumed that those arguments would transfer into the context of discourse on Buddhism, and I also assumed that feminist commentary on Buddhism would be welcomed, both by Buddhists and by scholars, given Buddhism's obvious gender problems. Wrong again! I must still have been naive and idealistic about both scholarly and religious institutions, despite all my experience to the contrary. When I began to write about Buddhism, an old prejudice that adherents of (Asian) religions could not possibly be accurate or trustworthy reporters on their own traditions was rampant, a prejudice to which I was often subjected. Additionally, nobody wanted to hear about gender issues in Buddhism, neither scholars of Buddhism, feminist scholars, nor Buddhists. Today, younger scholars are more interested in Buddhist critical and constructive thinking, whether feminist or otherwise. It is unfortunate that this change of heart was so little, so late.
Instantaneously with that insight into the truth of the Noble Truths, I said to myself that if the Four Noble Truths were true, that would include the fourth truth, the truth of the path of disciplined ethical conduct, meditation, and the pursuit of wisdom. Then and there, I realized that I needed to learn to meditate, though I put some academic qualifications around that decision at that time. Learning to meditate in northern Wisconsin in 1973 was not so easy, and it took some time before I actually accomplished that. However, I had studied Buddhism enough that I knew I wanted to practice in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. At the time, Chögyam Trungpa was big news, and a close graduate school colleague had already become his student, so it was easy enough to figure out where I should land. The practicality of finding my way there was more difficult. Besides, I still had a doctoral dissertation to finish, and I had never been to India. With those tasks accomplished, in 1977 I finally landed in Boulder, Colorado, then the capital of Trungpa's world, though I had begun to meditate under the direction of the graduate school friend some years earlier. I did not intend to "go for refuge" (the act of formally becoming Buddhist), because I didn't think I needed a third trip through a sexist religion, and I was very aware of Buddhist patriarchy. However, I fell hard for what we then called "the scene," and I did "go for refuge." So that meant I would have to write Buddhism after Patriarchy, and I knew that from day one of my life as a Buddhist.
Having made up my mind to take on Buddhism, I worked hard at my practice, and my progress through the required practices was quite rapid. Having so much academic knowledge before I ever began to practice meditation was also a tremendous advantage, and I always encourage my meditation students to learn a lot about Buddhist doctrine and history.
Buddhism has made the difference between life and death for me, I truly believe. I cannot imagine today how I would have survived everything I've been through were it not for the profundity of the Buddhist view and the effectiveness of its practices. Buddhist meditation practice had an early, and initially very frightening, impact on me. I had been extremely angry for years about sexism and patriarchy, and though I tried to keep it in check, that anger frequently found expression. After I began a serious meditation practice, I simply did not find that anger so accessible or attractive. Expressions of anger just didn't work or happen so much, which was frightening. In Buddhist terms, I was losing the ego I had developed as an angry feminist, and such loss, though positive, is also frightening. Strangely, I also found communication much easier. I became much clearer in my expressions, and people began to listen to me much more easily. This was a profoundly transformative experience that I have written about many times (see chapter 14).
I still live in northern Wisconsin, and I love it now. My culture has now been made famous internationally by Garrison Keillor's radio program A Prairie Home Companion. I don't intend this as a commercial for his program, but I often tell people that I live in Lake Wobegon. It's easier than trying to explain why I still live in northern Wisconsin, given that I could move somewhere else now that I have retired from academia. However, given that I was so unhappy in Eau Claire for so long, a legitimate question is, what happened?
It's hard to say exactly, but things have changed dramatically in the last ten years of my life. It is very difficult to disentangle all the threads, but three things seem predominant. I was offered and took early retirement from my academic position. After that, life in Eau Claire improved dramatically. I finally learned to be happy alone and gave up on seeking "Relationships." That led to a vast improvement in my quality of life. Finally, I also began working with a different Buddhist teacher, a young and thoroughly extraordinary Tibetan women, Venerable Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, who seems to understand me better than anyone I have ever encountered except for an extraordinary psychotherapist I worked with here in Eau Claire. Nothing very dramatic ever happened. I just noticed that I felt much better, was much less discontented, and didn't always want things to be different, though it seemed nothing major had really changed in my life. I was still in Eau Claire, I still didn't have the kind of position I had always dreamed of, I still didn't have a relationship that was satisfactory in the way that we think relationships should be, nor was I a member of a community that delivered what we hope for.
But, in verbal terms, the word I found that seemed most accurate was "contentment." Eventually, I spoke with Khandro Rinpoche about this feeling, and she told me that contentment was the fruition of the journey. In the years since then, as I have learned more of the really profound levels of Buddhist teachings, I understand much more why this is so, and what it means. We really do create all our sufferings by wanting things to be different from what they are and by wanting things that we cannot have.
The Trials of Being an Academic
Though I love reflection, contemplation, and teaching, which seem to be some of the most meaningful and relevant things one can do with one's life, academia has been mainly disappointing to me, and I have no regrets to be much less involved with it. Some of this attitude is undoubtedly due to my disappointment that I never received a satisfying academic appointment in spite of my achievements. Actually, the dissatisfaction has much more to do with a lack of collegiality and appreciation at my institution than from its lack of prestige. I was the only woman, the only feminist, and the only person who cared about anything "non-Western" for most of my twenty-five years at the institution where I taught. I was also the only person in the department who was professionally active, who kept current in my field, or who published widely.
I was often told that students really didn't need to know about the so-called non-Western world, or that it was much more important for them to learn more about "their own" heritage than to learn anything about other cultures. I was frequently told that it was rather extreme of me to expect my students to call me "Dr." or "Ms." rather than "Miss" or "Mrs.," that such language made my students uncomfortable, causing them to drop my courses, which was bad for the department. I was told that success at writing and publishing only proved that I wasn't doing my "real" job at a teaching university. (I had plenty of students and most of the better students in the department took every class I taught.) If I ever talked about my work, I was told that I was "bragging again," so I learned to keep quiet about what I was doing.
What I missed most, though, being a reflective person who cares about communication, was students who really wanted to think about things, just as, when I had been a student, I keenly missed the presence of such fellow students, except during my years at the University of Chicago. I missed such students much more than I missed having graduate students. An appointment at a research university didn't matter much to me, but it would have been nice to teach at a liberal arts college where I would not have been confined to teaching "general studies" courses in a service department with few majors and minors. Regional state universities are, in many ways, vocational training institutions and do not really support or stimulate deep appreciation of reflective thinking in the humanities disciplines. It would have been wonderful to spend my teaching life at an institution where student evaluations were not mainly based on how easy the course was, but rather on how thought-provoking the course was. However, most students did not want their conventional thinking about either religious diversity or gender to be disturbed by a college professor. I often remarked that I didn't mind that students who came into my classroom were rather provincial in their thinking; I minded that they wanted to leave the class that way. Having come from the same utterly provincial culture in the same part of the country and having eagerly sought out much wider views, I did not have, and still do not have, much sympathy for such emotional and intellectual inertia.
The problems I experienced at my particular university are more generic, however, and seem to pervade academic culture. Having an alternative institutional world and reference point, the larger Buddhist sangha, which is not without its own discomforting, dysfunctional foibles, has given me some perspective on academia. I also trust impressions of outsiders about academic culture, and their impressions are often more critical than mine. Academia is extraordinarily competitive and uncompassionate. Criticism, not for the sake of making any overall improvements, but only to further one's own position and agenda, is the norm. Everyone tries to tear down and discredit anyone who has any credibility, mistakenly thinking that such a wholly negative outlook furthers knowledge and understanding, but failing to realize that the fresh insights of later generations depend on the work of those who have gone before. Even more sadly, what were once fresh insights harden into doctrinaire positions with their own arcane jargon and established orthodoxies. The feminist movement, as well as other expansive movements in the new scholarship of the 1970s, turned into a race to claim the status of "most victimized of all," what I call the "victimer than thou" mentality. People then think that such history justifies their holding a grudge against the world.
Buddhist psychology is familiar with the mind-set that dominates academia; it is called the "asura realm," one of six modes of "rebirth" that prevail in our world system. Though it is difficult to find an English equivalent for this term, many translate it as the "jealous god" realm, which means that it is occupied by beings who are actually quite well off but who nevertheless eagerly discredit and fight with anyone and everyone. In academia, part of that jealous fighting includes the hostility toward genuinely creative and insightful thinking that seems so curious, given what the academic claims to be about and which I first encountered as a graduate student. I have long thought that the way Buddhist psychology describes the "jealous god" realm is a perfect description of the competitive, cold, and uncollegial environment that characterizes academia.
I still wonder if I could somehow have made years as a professor in Eau Claire into a happier lot, and I am sure that if I had been more spiritually mature, I could have been more contented and less unhappy. Nevertheless, my contentment would not have actually undone the inadequacies of academia or my specific situation. In my view, one of the great difficulties of spiritual and intellectual life is being able to call a spade a spade, in the popular phrase, without resenting it for being a spade. A discovery of spiritual contentment should not make us deaf and dumb to the inadequacies still around us and within us. I now understand much more fully than I did in those years why Buddhism consistently claims that we can never find happiness in something else, somewhere else, outside ourselves. Maintaining a critical stance without being miserable and unhappy because of one's keen, accurate analyses is a great challenge. No wonder Buddhism claims that realizing the inseparability of wisdom and compassion is a supremely difficult and supremely essential task.
Nevertheless, despite finding academia frustrating in many ways, I am grateful that I managed to maintain an academic career despite all the odds against a woman of my generation. I can think of no other situation that would have allowed me to accomplish what I know is the purpose of my life, making the intellectual and spiritual contributions that I have, especially writing Buddhism after Patriarchy. In 2005, I was invited to contribute a paper to a celebratory conference in Korea. While I was there, a Korean nun to whom I had never been introduced, approached me, took off her wrist mala, and put it around my wrist. I have never taken it off. This wordless tribute is more telling than a prestigious academic position or the feedback of American students that my courses made them think too much.
Transcending the Need for "Relationships"
Regarding relationships and community, my thinking has changed more drastically than about any other topic. Much of my adult life was characterized by excruciating loneliness, longing for a satisfying relationship, and for membership in a supportive, workable community. I have written a great deal about these topics over the years. I wouldn't exactly retract those statements. I'm sure that those who have satisfying relationships or membership in supportive communities do benefit greatly, but these things simply were not in the cards for me. Basically, over the years, I kissed a lot of frogs, and for the most part, they remained frogs. I never found what I thought I wanted and needed, at least not for very long at any one time.
However beneficial it is to be in a long-term relationship that works or in a supporting community, needing such things, which I certainly did for many years, is another matter. Such need only increases misery. It is another case of assuming that one's happiness is dependent on something else, somewhere else, on something one does not have, which only increases one's misery. One may indeed live in less than ideal circumstances, at least as many people conceive of ideal circumstances. But resentment, self-pity, and longing regarding those conditions only increase one's misery without improving the situation in any way.
When I began serious study with my current major teacher, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, in 1998, I was still quite miserable about my social situation. In those days, she frequently taught that, while on the one hand one's true family is one's vajra sangha, not one's biological family, she also taught that, on the other hand, one should be content with one's situation, whatever it is, whether one is in a relationship or alone, and that it doesn't really matter what that situation is. She also taught that one of the most difficult things to learn, and also one of the most important, is how to be happy alone. I vividly remember complaining to myself, "How can she say that when she has such a close relationship with her sister!" The two of them were virtually inseparable, and she also had a strong relationship with her natal family and her sangha of nuns. How could she say that I should be able to be contented with my life as it was, a life without a satisfying relationship!
Things changed only very slowly. My last relationship had broken up not long before I began to study with Khandro Rinpoche. I still had my antennae out and thought that I wanted to find a new relationship. But after a while, I began to notice that, without all the drama and trauma of a relationship, I was actually becoming less miserable. The turning point was one day when I reflected that while I might be happier if I was in a good relationship, the chances for that to happen were actually quite low and I was quite a bit happier than I would have been in a stressful relationship. I don't remember exactly when that happened, but I have a visceral memory of that insight. I pulled in my antennae and started moving as far as possible away from the bouquet tossing at weddings. It was around 2003 that I really made peace with being alone and told Khandro Rinpoche, "You said one of the hardest and most important things to learn is how to be happy alone. Well, I'm there! I have absolutely no interest in another relationship." She clapped her hands, laughing with happiness. I think that was the only time she has had that particular response to something I have said. By that time, I had also realized that my future did not hold membership in the kind of local community I had dreamed about for so long.
I must acknowledge two relationships that were different. Enough of the story of the first, the lover with the inoperable brain tumor, has already been told. It ended with the insight that basic Buddhist teachings actually made profound existential sense. The second was a very happy but very brief relationship with a colleague at UW, Eau Claire, a man some years my senior. He died the day I was finishing Buddhism after Patriarchy, and the book is dedicated to him. During the few years of that relationship, I could feel the toxins resulting from having experienced quite a bit of emotional abuse leaving my system, and I could feel healing taking place within the experience of being appreciated and valued for being who I am. This relationship had a life span of only about three years. I learned a great deal in the process of grieving after his death, and I recovered quite well eventually, but thanks, I think, only to Buddhist practice. Earlier, I somehow railed against the Buddhist advice not to get completely attached in relationships because all meetings end in parting. That seemed to me to be unfair. Now nothing seems more reasonable.
Today, I live alone in Eau Claire, in an old house in which I have lived since 1977 and have renovated extensively, with my cats, many houseplants, and extensive gardens. I am much more contented than I have ever been before, which does not mean there are not frustrating days, but they are simply part of the whole mosaic. However, I somehow seem to have more friends than when I was so desperately lonely and in search of relationships. For example, my neighbor sometimes gives insulin to my diabetic cat, and I sometimes walk her dog.
Actually, such a life is not very different from my teenage fantasy of what life would be like, except that, as a country girl, I always imagined living in a more remote location. I spent a lot of time alone growing up, and while I was often bored because books were so hard to come by, I was seldom lonely. Rather, because I was teased and shunned a lot, I preferred to be in my own world. Being an intelligent, not-too-attractive girl in the boondocks is rather difficult. I did not date at all in high school and very little in college, nor was I really interested in dating for a long time. I have often wondered if I might have easily moved into a celibate and solitary lifestyle if I had lived in a society that promoted and tolerated a diversity of lifestyles, rather than relentlessly pressuring everyone into the two-by-two situation of being in a couple. It now seems to me that skipping all the anxiety and drama of always looking for a relationship that would work and would last could have made life a lot simpler and more enjoyable. Of course, I was the one who believed that I needed a "relationship" to complete my life and continued to act on that belief again and again.
Working with Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche
The third component of my life in the last ten years involves my relationship with Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Many of the stories about my relationship with her are told in part 5, so I will not focus on them now. But from my first meeting with her in 1995, she seemed to understand me and what I was trying to do in my work more than anyone else ever had. I already had a long-standing involvement in the Shambhala community, which had been founded by Chögyam Trungpa, and I had taught within it for many years. In 1998, I began to attend Khandro Rinpoche's two-week advanced retreat every year and even spent some time in India at her nunnery and at Mindrolling Monastery, her late father's monastery. In 2005, when Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche first appointed lopons, or acharyas (senior teachers) within her community, I was one of the six who were selected. In that position, I have been able to fulfill my heart's desire to teach fully and completely, incorporating all the perspectives on knowledge that I have collected through scholarship and Buddhist practice. I also still teach within the Shambhala sangha from time to time when I am invited.
As a lopon, I have teaching responsibilities at programs and retreats held at Lotus Garden, Khandro Rinpoche's North American center in Virginia. I also lead several retreats a year in the Midwest for students of Khandro Rinpoche. My niche, however, is teaching a sequence of courses on the history of Buddhism at the shedra, or scholastic studies program, which takes place each spring at Lotus Garden. For years I had nurtured the dream of teaching a rigorous course on Buddhist history for Buddhist practitioners, a course that would combine all the tools of the academic study of religion with all the tools available to dharma practitioners. This course would go into much more depth than the one-semester survey course on Buddhism which was the most advanced course on Buddhism I had been able to teach at the university. Western converts to Buddhism tend to know very little about Buddhist history and almost nothing about schools of Buddhism other than their own. This course would be nonsectarian, unlike most of what little training in Buddhist history convert Buddhists usually have acquired. Using academic tools, it would teach people the value of both legend and history, and more important, how not to confuse them.
I tried for a long time to get the Shambhala community to sponsor this course as a month-long study program at one of their retreat centers, but there was no interest. I also tried to convince the Minneapolis sanghas to combine forces and offer the program as a sequence of courses with weeknight lectures. But if one center sponsored a course, almost no one from any other center attended, and people were not interested in overall Buddhist history; they only wanted to study "their" history. I taught several five-week course segments, but my dream was not coming true at all.
In one of my letters to Khandro Rinpoche, I described my project to her, and a few weeks later in India, I asked her opinion of the project. "I like it," she replied. "Should we do it at Lotus Garden?" I ventured. "Yes," she replied. Later that evening, I approached her again. "Before we teach that history of Buddhism course at Lotus Garden, I want to tell you that most Tibetans would find much of what I will teach quite heretical." She threw her head back in one of her most characteristic gestures, laughing uproariously. "That's good for us! It makes us think!" she replied. It took a few years for things to come together. At the 2006 shedra, we finalized arrangements. She asked me what I needed, and I replied that I wanted five two-hour slots and that these classes not be pushed into lunch hour or some other unworkable slot, as was happening with one of the enrichment classes at the 2006 shedra. She said not to worry. In May 2007, I became the first Westerner to have a major teaching role in a program taught under her auspices. I taught the most in-depth history of early Indian Buddhism it has ever been my luxury and pleasure to teach, using all the tools of academic and dharmic methods of teaching and understanding at my disposal. It was extremely successful, and Khandro Rinpoche was really happy with the result. The enterprise is to be continued, for at least another five or six years before we repeat the sequence.
Conclusion: The Utility of Obstacles?
Much Buddhist practical advice counsels people to appreciate the obstacles they encounter in their lives because obstacles that are dealt with well deepen a person in ways that would not otherwise be possible. In other words, obstacles are teachers, to be learned from, not rejected and reviled. Yet, while one is experiencing obstacles, advice to appreciate those obstacles does not seem very helpful. When I was actively dealing with loneliness, professional frustration, and the death of those close to me, I wanted to hit anyone who told me to appreciate those obstacles as teachers. Now I am trying to figure out how to be more effective in talking with people whose obstacles are very active, for I do realize that I could not have accomplished what I have accomplished without at least some of the obstacles I have faced.
As I reflect on my life, the most useless obstacle I faced is being in so many situations in which relevant others would have preferred that I be more conventional and less thoughtful, that my vision be much smaller. My mother would certainly have preferred a less intelligent child who wanted to stay on the farm to milk cows. The University of Chicago would certainly have preferred that I not discover the androcentrism of conventional scholarship as a graduate student. The University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, would certainly have preferred that I be an ordinary professor who did not continue with scholarly activities or develop an international reputation. (Professors in my department got tenure and promotions without publishing even so much as a book review.) And I suspect that the Shambhala community would have preferred that such a well-known feminist critic of Buddhism not be from their ranks. It is still hard to make sense of this obstacle. Why would people and institutions prefer conventionality to achievement of something noteworthy and meaningful?
Not being able to make use of and contribute one's gifts and talents is truly painful, and it is still difficult to make sense of such an obstacle. However, for many years I have studied spiritual teachings which claim that one's concern should be doing what is appropriate, without concern for the immediate outcomes or results. I have always been inspired and impressed by such teachings, but learning to be less ambitious and more content with what transpires has not been easy. No wonder the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, with its well-honed psychological wisdom, regards concern with fame or negative reputation, praise or blame, as among the most seductive barriers to true spiritual development. It is also an obstacle that is wholly internal and self-made; no amount of external approval would really satisfy a need for more praise and fame. Therefore, it can only be overcome through true confidence and contentment.
Traditional Buddhism does regard being a woman as an obstacle, usually an obstacle that cannot be overcome, at least in this lifetime. Much of my work has been about defusing that belief, showing its utter incompatibility with the most basic Buddhist teachings. As for myself, I had ceased hating my female body long before I became a Buddhist, though anger over what is done to women became less intense only after considerable meditation practice began to teach me that anger solves nothing while making the angry person even more miserable. I do not speculate on how life might have been different if I had not been a woman, though it is completely clear that my career would have been totally different had I been a man doing creative scholarship on something men care about. Nevertheless, such speculation is totally beside the point. In any case, whether or not being a woman is an obstacle, I am satisfied with what I have done with a female rebirth in this lifetime. I was both lucky and perseverant. I did manage to avoid the conventional female gender role that I dreaded so much as a child and have helped many others to have more self-determination as well. I can't think of anything better to do with a precious human birth.