Women, Gender, and Buddhism: Q&A and Audio with Rita M. Gross


If you have a copy of our May 2009 issue, you know that in it, Joan Sutherland reviews A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration, the new anthology of writings by Buddhist and feminist icon and scholar, Rita M. Gross. Well, I’m thrilled to let you know that Rita recently joined me for a talk in which she discussed her work, what she might do next, and what we each can do to make sure that the dharma is more inclusive of women, more harmonious, and that “when the rubber meets the road” in our practice, we’ve got a firmer grip on the wheel.

PLUS: in the following Shambhala Sun Audio clip, Rita sets the most welcoming of tones for a Q&A about Buddhism, women, and gender in the comments section below. Just click the player below to listen:

Thanks, as always, for listening to Shambhala Sun Audio.

PS: For more from Rita, you can visit her newly revamped website, here.


  1. Sylvia says

    Hi Rita, so happy you're doing this discussion!
    I'm curious where you think Buddhist sanghas in the West now 'stand' in their efforts to empower women. How have we done, like in the Shambhala and other communities?
    Thanks for any impressions you'd share.

    • Rita Gross says

      it's hard to genearlize, but by and large, i think Western sanghas have come a long way. most of the time, leaders and teachers are amenable to suggestions. and i think that it is up to us to point out any remaining deficiencies and work togther to correct them

      • Sylvia says

        Good to hear. My next question would be: What's the evidence that we've come a long way… and from where, to where? Perhaps you've been around long enough to be able to evaluate that. I'm sure you've outlined all this in your many articles and books, but if you care to comment here, I'd appreciate that.

        • says

          I have written about this question, so rather than retype a lot of infomration, i'll refer you to the aritcle. it's called "Is the glass half-empty or half-full? A Feminist Assessment of Buddhism at the Beginning of the wenty-first Century." it's easily found in my new book "A Garland of Femininst Reflections."

  2. Pam Rubin says

    Hi Rita! I'm always glad you're there, speaking and writing.
    For most of my working life I have been a feminist lawyer consulting with governments and NGO's on gendered violence. I have also taught women's studies at both intro and graduate levels in the women's studies, anthropolgy and sociology/criminology departments at 2 Halifax universities.
    One thing I have concerns about is the renewed use of the terms "masculine priniciple" and "feminine principle." These terms are used by Trungpa Rinpoche and others to describe the universe's conventional appearance of duality, perceived and perceiver, emptiness/appearance, etc. The use of these terms creates confusion on several levels, in my view. (continued…)

  3. Pam Rubin says

    "Feminine principle" is conflated with the idea of valuing women – not that there is anything wrong in unconditionally valuing women – but paying attention to emptiness teachings is not the same as actual day to day gender equality.
    The use of these terms also posits an essential and universal feminine and masculine paradigm, even though their use is sometimes accompanied by disclaimers as to gender role expectations for particular individuals, and an assurance that "both" are present for all humans. What this approach lacks is an awareness of 20th century anthropology which demonstrates that any universality for human gender roles is very questionable, and that there is diversity among cultures that reverses, negates or asserts for both sexes the gender qualities commonly associated respectively with "male" and "feminine" in the dominant Asian and European cultures. (cont…)

  4. Pam Rubin says

    The masculine/feminine principles" approach also posits gender/sex as essentially dual – but other cultures have up to seven genders, (which is very hard for our culture to even conceive of), and further, the line between male and female sexes is not truly findable (as with all pairs in Madyamaka analysis, but here i am speaking purely from the relative point of view i.e. indeterminate genitals, and even DNA).

    This use of feminine and masculine also reinforces the norm of the "male gaze" = perceiver is male, perceived is female; male subject, female object. Or sometimes male as "ego", "female" as "other, lover."

    Given how central Trungpa Rinpoche's teachings have been in forming the framework for understanding Buddhist practice in the Euro-centric world, these usages are especially problematic, and reinforce clinging to gender roles, in my experience. I have tried to seek Tibetan launguage correlates for the current use of these terms, in consultation with translators, but have not been pointed to any true correlates.

    Thanks Rita for your many contributions over the years!

    • says

      i am quite sceptical about the use of "masculine" pricniple and "feminine" principle as one often finds them in a certain popular strand of Tibetan Buddhism. to my mind, Masculine and feminine principles are symbols and name certain energies, but they have little to do with enbodied human beings. as aymbols they are unproblematic, but the problem is that so many people do talk as if the feminine principle pertained to women and the masculine to men. used that way, they participate in the prison of gender roles, rather than help free us from it.

  5. JFT says

    Dear Rita,

    If we look at American history, we see the intertwining of women's movements and anti-slavery / anti-racism movements. The interaction is an interesting one to study and at times sadly has been viewed as a zero sum game where the advances of one can only come at the expense of the other. The most recent chapter of which were the last Democratic presidential primaries.

    How do you view the relationship between feminism and diversity or more racial awareness in American Buddhism's history? By American Buddhism I mean not only convert Buddhism but also strains that have been brought over and mostly perpetuated by immigrant communities.

    In a previous reply you stated you feel feel most Western sanghas have come a long way in empowering women. What if anything additional would you say about women of color? Where are they at? Where are they going?

    Many thanks!