Its meeting with contemporary Western culture has brought many innovations to Buddhism: a more equal role for women, a concern for social issues, and methods of Western scholarship and Judeo-Christian theology. Fortunately, it has also brought us Rita Gross, a self-described “lay Buddhist feminist scholar-practitioner and theologian”—lucid, articulate, passionate, personal, rigorous and inspiring. What drives her, she says, is “a passion to contemplate reality and live a really useful life, and a conviction that there had to be a more sane and humane way to live than in the prison of gender roles in a patriarchal society.”
Unlike her earlier book, Buddhism After Patriarchy, this new collection of essays, most previously printed elsewhere, doesn’t make a single, linear argument. Rather, it rings changes on her major themes of Buddhist practice and scholarship, feminism, and social change as she addresses a wide range of topics.
In keeping with the premise of feminist scholarship that our specific situations affect our concerns and work, Gross tells us her history in the first part of Soaring and Settling. She grew up on a farm without electricity, in a fundamentalist Christian family with stringently traditional ideas about girls. She found freedom in reading—which girls weren’t supposed to do—and eventually, in the realization that the “system,” not her female body, was at fault for the tension between what she wanted to do and what she was told was allowed.
She entered a Ph.D. program in religious studies. Dissatisfaction with the histories of religions that talked always about the men and not the women led her to feminist scholarship, then a radical break with tradition. Finally, as a scholar of Buddhism, when her own deep experiences of suffering, impermanence and joy showed her the fundamental truth of the teachings, she again broke scholarly norms, this time of “objectivity,” by becoming a practitioner.
Gross then engages in her work of “construction,” using “the wisdom and compassion we have learned in our study and practice of Buddhism to construct religious thought that speaks to contemporary issues and problems.” The second part of the book brings a Buddhist-feminist analysis to the issues of consumerism, pro-natalism (excessive reproduction, which she links to consumerism), children and their rights, the environment, authority, over-work, friendships and community. She deals mostly on the social and psychological levels rather than the political and economic, on the premise that social and systemic change begins (but does not end) with personal transformation, a premise she identifies as both Buddhist and feminist.
The last section contains Buddhist perspectives on feminist theology, bringing some of the “profound comfort and intelligence I have found in Buddhist thought and practice to feminist discourse concerning some of the most painful issues women have faced in their religious lives.” She talks of goddesses and bodhisattvas, the feminine principle in Vajrayana Buddhism, and immanence and transcendence.
Throughout Soaring and Settling, we hear Gross’s own voice, deeply informed by both study and Vajrayana meditation practice, bringing the wisdom of the dharma to life—this life, in this time and place. We are inspired by both her intellectual and emotional understandings of the teachings. For instance, having visited for the last time her partner, dying of a brain tumor, and on her way to teach the Four Noble Truths to her university class, she recounts:
[O]n the kind of unbearably beautiful fall day that makes living so far north pleasurable . . . there I was, experiencing at one and the same time both intense misery at my own situation and intense appreciation for the beauty in which I was immersed. . . . [T]heir co-emergence rather than their contrast impressed itself upon me. Something suddenly snapped in my mind and I thought, The Four Noble Truths are True!
Integrating her multiple identities, in life and in this book, Gross crosses boundaries. Boundary crossings are unsettling, but each one enriches her understanding and ours. As a Buddhist-feminist, she tells us how practice transformed her anger into clarity, her tenseness into ease; as a feminist-Buddhist, she addresses the contradictions of a traditional belief that “when a precious human birth occurs in a female body, that birth is less precious.” As a practitioner-scholar, she argues that the “value-free” methodology of scholarship is a fiction, and that some aspects of religious traditions can only be known from within. As a scholar-practitioner, she demonstrates that the comparative study of religions aids an intelligent understanding and practice.
As a scholar, feminist, and Buddhist practitioner myself, I am touched both intimately and personally by this book. But this comes not so much from the alignment of our interests as in Gross’s willingness to be intimate with her own experience. She speaks freely of both the joys and difficulties of trying to live a life in which “scholarship, core issues, and practice form a seamless web.” She sees with open eyes and then tells us what she learns.