Rita Gross's Contribution to Contemporary Western Tibetan Buddhism

By Simmer-Brown, Judith | Buddhist-Christian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Rita Gross's Contribution to Contemporary Western Tibetan Buddhism


Simmer-Brown, Judith, Buddhist-Christian Studies


I first met Rita Gross on 2 January 1978, on the day of my arrival to take a professor's post at Naropa University. She opened the front door of Reggie Ray's house, where she was a houseguest. Little did I know how long and active our friendship would be, and I'm delighted to contribute to this very special panel on her work. During the decades since, she has been the only person in my life who has intersected academia, dharmic realms, feminism, and interreligious dialogue, the four most important areas of my life; still, I think it is in the area of her scholarly and personal contributions to Tibetan Buddhism that I can speak most directly.

When I met Rita, she was new to Tibetan Buddhism and had faced many challenges in her religious and spiritual journey. When she was excommunicated from the German Lutheran Church at age twenty-one, it was because she asked too many questions and expressed too many opinions. She has never stopped. She briefly explored Judaism, and then became enamored in her feminist studies with the goddess traditions of India, also an interest of mine. She has been able to bring her critical mind, her devotional heart, her connection to practice, and her appreciation of community directly into her life as a Tibetan Buddhist, and I have had the privilege of being by her side during most of it.

After Rita began her meditation practice in the mid-1970s, she became a student of the great Kagyu-Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who is also my teacher. She and I have done meditation and study retreats from a few days to three months in length, sharing ritual practice, teachings and discussions, and challenging lives together as members of a vibrant spiritual community around a charismatic teacher. Together we served as the senior members of the Task Force on Women and the Feminine Principle in the large, international Shambhala community. Eventually, she took on another teacher, the female tulku Ven. Khandro Rinpoche, whom I also dearly love, and she has become one of her senior dharma teachers, or lopons. All of this has occurred while I became a senior dharma teacher, an acarya, of Shambhala, where we both began.

In her time in these two lively Western Tibetan Buddhist communities, she has served as an accomplished dharma teacher and at alternating times a scholar, activist, and critic, while committing to thousands of hours of service to the development of a genuinely Western dharma. While doing this, she has made many contributions equivalent to those of many dedicated dharma students. My comments address the unique contributions she has made as a feminist scholar, historian of religion, and theologian to this western dharmic world.

Ironically, our areas of specialty have also intertwined. Early in the 1980s we began a book project with SUNY that was to be a feminist critique of Buddhism (hers) and a Buddhist critique of feminism (mine). After several years of conversation and discussion, Rita and I decided that our agendas were sufficiently different and our styles sufficiently independent to warrant separate books. As our books emerged (mine two babies later than hers), our friendship has continued its evolution.

THE PROPHETIC VOICE

The first of Rita's unique contributions to Tibetan Buddhism in the West revolve around what she has called her "prophetic voice," a notion that first appeared in her landmark book, Buddhism after Patriarchy, in 1993. Rita has consistently asserted that the prophetic voice is "the missing element" in Buddhism, leading Buddhists to a kind of double standard in which teachings concerning compassion coexist with Buddhism's traditional disregard for social and political inequities in society. She claims that "Buddhists have generally not been willing to engage in social action to see the realization of that ethic" in these social and political realms, and speculates that for the Buddhist, individual liberation has taken precedence over societal transformation. …

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