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Rita M. Gross
  1. Buddhism After Patriarchy
  2. Soaring and Settling
Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993 
This is the book which enabled me to understand the Buddhist concept of ego, and as a result finally begin to watch some of the most interesting programs my mind is in the habit of running. I had been struggling to be clear about my values, set personal boundaries, see through my projections, own my feelings, dare to have my own opinions, and make conscious choices and decisions--you know, all the "ego-strengthening" repertoire of Western psychotherapy and feminist self-help--because, obviously, I had a weak ego. So any spiritual path that advocated letting go of ego, or anything resembling that, made no sense at all to me.
 
Reading Gross, I realized that the Westerm concept of ego is unipolar, ie, ego is a construct which is necessary to sanity: a strong ego is good and a weak one is dysfunctional. If you don't have a strong ego, you need to strengthen it. The Buddhist concept however is bipolar: what a Westerner would call a weak ego, a Buddhist would see as strong also, just in a contrasting manner...what you might call a strong negative ego.
 
(Similarly, aversion may superficially seem like the opposite of attachment--but it's still a tightness, a constriciton in the life force, an unwillingness to flow with change: it's just a negative attachment.)
 
Ego is a pattern of conditioning which we think is who we are. From the Buddhist point of view, this kind of limitation keeps us from living life fully, and it would be good to get out of the programming, whether it's self-agrandizing or self-abnegating, because either way it's all illusion and leads to suffering. From this point of view there is nothing wrong with my ego, at least no more wrong than there is with the the people with "strong egos;" the only problem was that they interpreted my style of ego as a deficiency of their style--and I believed them.
 
This insight allowed me to be compassionate toward my mind in a whole new way, and has led to exciting changes.
Here are some reactions to the book:
  • A review by Lucinda Joy Peach, Assistant Professor, Legal, Ethical, and Historical Studies Division, University of Baltimore. Peach points out aspects of Buddhism which Gross conveniently does not pay attention to, and also does not accept Gross' vision of "essential" Buddhism, or Gross' authority to speak prophetically.
  • A review by Judith Johnson is titled Why I am not a Buddhist.
  • A review by Cynthia Cavalcanti, then (in 1997) a Ph.D. studet in Religiona nd Social Ethics at the University of Southern California. Cavalcanti pays good attention to Gross' emphasis on sangha as a critical (and neglected) component of Buddhism.

Anyone interested in a discussion about this book? Let me know at catherine@loudzen.com.

Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues
New York: Continuum, 2000. Here's the Table of Contents (courtesy of Barnes & Noble).
Part 3 struck me most strongly: "Buddhist Perspectives in Feminist Theology" — especially Gross' report of her own Vajrayana practice: careful to describe only what is publicly available, thoughtful about what feminists need from a religion, enthusiastic about what this path offers her.
On yidam practice [sometimes called 'deity-yoga']
  • "An anthromorphic representation of enlightened mind is quite helpful and relevant spiritually."
  • "The notion of 'deity' is brought up only well after the student should no longer be capable of objectifying the deity as a solidly existing independent form or external savior." (p. 205)

A definition of "ego" she gives in passing: "in the Buddhist sense ... a defense mechanism against basic existential groundlessness." (p. 209)

But I have a problem with her analysis of Vajrayana's use of the concepts of feminine and masculine principles. She starts fine with "Why do we need to differentiate experience into a masculine and a feminine principle? (p. 188)" but when she decides that there must be something useful in them because they're so prevalent, and the real problem with them is when they are imbalanced — she loses me. She goes on to carefully analyze how Vajrayana is mostly balanced, and contributes to balance — and I admit her description is encouraging.

But when she says there's no relationship implied between the qualities of the "feminine principle" and the nature of women, I think she's unrealistic. If not, then what does it mean to attribute those qualities to the feminine? Why not call it the x principle or the orange principle or some descriptor that has relevance to what's described?

I think it's obvious that the "feminine principle" is named that because of some assumed relevance to females, or to femaleness. Regardless of Gross' assertion to the contrary, that's what the language communicates. It encourage an essentialist habit of assuming that females share certain qualities that culture assigns to them. Like any mental habit, this is not only sloppy but deadening.

I'm not against all essentialism, I think you have to posit some sense of women as a group in order to think what will be commonly useful for women. I'm against unexamined essentialism. Each specific manifestation of essentialism needs to be separated from the habit, examined on its own merits: why is this useful to associate with females? And if you don’t want it thus associated, why are you using that term?

Nevetheless I was inspired by Gross' testimony of finding her spiritual home in an ancient, living tradition that values women.

© Copyright Catherine Holmes Clark 1996; last updated 4 July 2004