The Theosophical Society in America

Buddhism beyond Gender

Printed in the  Fall 2018  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Gross, Rita M., "A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism" Quest 106:4, pg 29-34

Can Buddhist practice go beyond male and female identities? A feminist and dharma teacher reflects on gender-based thinking as an obstacle to enlightenment.

By Rita M. Gross

What does freedom from the prison of gender roles look like? Some deny that such roles are a prison, arguing that they are simply accurate descriptions of men and women, or try to construct a better, fairer set of gender roles, or try to elevate “femininity” into parity with “masculinity.” But these alternatives will still be prisons for some. It is not possible to free people from the prison of gender roles by proposing a different grand plan that should work for everyone, which has been the solution most often proposed to date. That simply will not work. As with issues of religious diversity, people are simply too distinctive for one system to be universally appropriate or applicable.

We could, then, simply admit there is no one grand solution. In a society free of the prison of gender roles, there will not be much uniformity about what people do with their sexed bodies. All the relevant ethical options for utilizing the “precious human birth” that Buddhists love to talk about will be available to all, whatever their sexed bodies may look like, whether or not those bodies were born with their current sexual equipment. What else could it possibly mean to talk about enlightened mind beyond gender, neither male nor female? If every sexed body is forced into the gender role deemed appropriate for it, how could anyone ever break free to a state of mind that is no longer obsessed with gender roles and no longer clings to them, either to their own perceived roles or those of others?

It’s quite simple. If the problem is clinging to the conventional given set of gender roles, the solution cannot be imposing a different, “new and improved” set of roles. That would simply be clinging to a different set of conventions. But if we give up clinging to gender identity, there is no longer anything inside or outside of oneself that compels someone to be or feel a certain way because of the shape of one’s body.

For Buddhists, clinging is always what causes suffering. Thus, while different visionaries may have different worthy ideas about better ways to organize society and male-female relationships, we all need to remember not to absolutize our relative solutions and suggestions. Feminists are just as guilty of forgetting this requirement as anyone else. Clinging to a feminist set of ideas about gender subverts enlightenment just as much as clinging to any other set of gender roles would be.

It’s not the content of these roles that is all that bad. Neither “men’s work” nor “women’s work” is inherently dehumanizing or to be avoided. The dehumanizing happens when the specific task is linked with either men or women. Cooking can be skilled and interesting work, and it has to be done. I enjoy it sometimes. But I would resent being required to do it three times a day every day of the year for the men and children I’m supposed to take care of just because I have a female body. Nor would I want to be forced to enter military service if I had a male body, or to be prohibited from it because I am a woman. As an adult, I willingly dust my many beautiful antique lamps, even though I dreaded being condemned to a life of dusting lamps when I was a girl. To cite another example, I now type quite well, but when I was a young woman I made sure that I didn’t type too well; otherwise I would have been forced into a secretarial role. But now that computers are so omnipresent, men have to be able to type as well.

I’ve spent my entire life in a “male” field, a field so “male” that when I entered it, more women had Ph.D.s in physics than in religious studies. (Physics was then labeled a “male” field.) When I entered the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, twelve of the four hundred students were women, and the professors were horrified. “What are we going to do with all those women who now want to study religion?” they asked. Some of them changed the content of their lectures because of the presence of women in the classroom.

Nevertheless, this “male” field suits me perfectly. It and my female body get along quite well. The “male” role of dharma teaching suits me even better. Am I more male or female? Who knows? Who cares? I’ve often been told I’m too masculine for a woman, which usually means I’m too confident, competent, and successful. Or I’m told that I have a male mind and a female body! That comment strikes me as quite ridiculous. My vagina marks my body as female, but how can a mind be either male or female? It seems increasingly ridiculous to label anything except penises or vaginas male or female, or to assume anything about what goes with either of them.

All these examples demonstrate the difference between being gendered—being male or female—and the prison of gender roles. Being gendered does not subvert enlightenment, but clinging to gender identity does. Such a conclusion should not surprise anyone even with modest Buddhist knowledge. The second of the Noble Truths tells us that clinging is the cause of our suffering. How could it be different when we are fixated on what the shape of our bodies must mean or how it must limit us, or when we cling to gender identity so strongly that we are willing to limit what others with differently shaped bodies can do in the name of dharma? Our clinging to our notions of gender can cause us suffering, but it can also cause others to suffer—something that should bother any Buddhist committed to Buddhist ethics.

Whenever I have proposed such freedom from the prison of gender roles and someone argues in response, “But men and women are different! That has to mean something! There have to be limits!” usually that argument is coming from a man trying to preserve some arena of male privilege. Men and women are different! What does that mean? Women and women, men and men, are also different! All women are not the same as all other women, and all men are not the same as all other men—a fact that is never taken into account by those arguing on behalf of definite gender roles. For myself, I accept that biologically I am a woman, a fact that is readily obvious to others. But as I’ve already said, that doesn’t give you much reliable information about me. So stop projecting your version of the gender role onto me. Recognize, as the Buddha taught, that such thoughts are not really “you” or “yours,” so stop identifying with them. Abandoning them would be for the “welfare and happiness” of both self and other.

Some will ask, “But isn’t there something we can prescribe, some rules we can insist upon?” I would answer that question in the affirmative. The relevant question to ask of any option or set of practices is whether or not it promotes everyone’s ability to recognize that natural state of mind that is beyond gender, that is not bound by relative references. Practices, whether social or individual, that do not should be abandoned. There may be some guidelines about that, but they do not involve gender roles specific to biological males and females. Discipline and deep contemplation will be necessary. Renunciation of many things valued in the conventional world of “ordinary worldlings” will be necessary. But dividing people into groups based on biological sex has never proved to promote discipline, contemplation, or renunciation for biological women or men. Nor does dividing people into groups, some of which are defined as servants of other groups, whose only role is to take care of them, promote recognition of the natural, enlightened state of mind beyond gender. If Buddhists want to be serious about the purported enlightened state of mind, beyond gender, neither male nor female, then I suggest we have to stop advocating any version of the prison of gender roles.

Some may still be uncomfortable and may want more precise, detailed rules governing gender-specific behavior and interactions between women and men. How will people know how to behave if they don’t have clear rules? Won’t we have too much disorder if we don’t have precise, specific rules? But how to prevent a set of rules specific for each sex and their interactions from degenerating into a prison? It seems to me that would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. Additionally, I would suggest that we Buddhists already have all the guidelines we need in the form of the Eightfold Path and the basic precepts. The guidelines are exactly the same for each gender. Don’t harm. Don’t misuse sexuality, using it in ways that harm self or other. What more do we need?

Predictably, whenever someone suggests that it would be good dharma practice to stop promoting any version of the prison of gender roles, someone will complain that such a proposal “genderizes the dharma” and makes a big deal out of gender. It leaves me shaking my head in incredulity. How can making gender less determinative in Buddhist life and institutions be genderizing the dharma? I would have thought that relying on gender to determine, for example, which people, women or men, can become monastics would be genderizing the dharma. Or I would have thought that practices such as giving even the most junior monk precedence over the most senior nun is genderizing the dharma. Such practices make an irrelevant factor—one’s sex—the criterion for taking on roles and practices that are valued in Buddhism, while at the same time ignoring much more relevant factors, such as seniority or fitness for the monastic lifestyle. Isn’t that making a big deal out of gender?

I have often been accused of genderizing the dharma for doing nothing more than pointing out how genderized the dharma already is. One can only reply that dharma became genderized when one’s sex became a determining factor in what one could or couldn’t do in terms of dharma practice. Those of us who point out such things had nothing to do with genderizing the dharma! In fact, if the suggestions we put forward were taken seriously, dharma would be far less gendered. The way to stop genderizing the dharma is to stop treating men and women so differently! That so many prominent, well-known teachers with a great deal of authority have such difficulty grasping this simple point demonstrates how unreflective and conventional they have become. In studying the self and accomplishing the way of enlightenment, it is crucial to remember that the samsaric ego binds us by convincing us that what we do habitually is truly “ours” and can be trusted.

Many commentators worry that women who point out how genderized dharma already is and would like dharma to be less genderized have an “ego problem” and that therefore our dharmic well-being is in serious jeopardy. Their solution is that we should not object to the prison of gender roles that is already in place; we should just pay more attention to our dharma practice. After all, we are reminded again, enlightened mind is beyond gender, neither male nor female. But since when is it more dharmic, more demonstrative of some realization, to acquiesce mindlessly to an inappropriate status quo than it is to use the prajna, the finely honed, detached intellect that practice brings, to improve the dharmic situation for everyone, male as well as female? Perhaps the clarity with which we see that the prison of gender roles is dharmically inappropriate is evidence that we have some acquaintance with that nongendered, awakened state of mind! Because we have taken bodhisattva vows and wish to help others, we wish to dismantle practices that obviously are of no help to anyone, female or male, who wishes to study the self and attain the way of enlightenment. It would be impossible to demonstrate that gender hierarchies help male practitioners study the self and attain the way of enlightenment, but it is quite easy to demonstrate that they hinder women greatly.

I find it amusing that the same commentators who worry about women damaging their dharma practice by not acquiescing to the status quo have no similar worries about men who argue vociferously for retaining their gender privilege. If women who don’t accept a status quo have an ego problem, why don’t men who defend that same status quo also have an ego problem? Insofar as the status quo gives them advantages, one would think that men would be in greater danger of lapsing into egoistic self-grasping.

I once heard a story about a female student who asked a female teacher if it was true that a senior nun had to bow down even to a baby monk. The teacher replied that if a woman experienced difficulty bowing to a male baby, she definitely had an ego problem. No problems so far, and this student may have needed a bit of a dharmic slap from a teacher. But problems remain. Why aren’t men expected to bow to girls under similar circumstances? Are there even any such circumstances? The double standard is the problem, not asking women to bow to men when appropriate. Any woman who couldn’t is definitely out of line.

Buddhists defending the status quo often cite karma as the reason why no one should object to current conditions or try to improve that situation in the future. Teachings on karma are at the heart of the Buddhist understanding of the world and are considered to be nonnegotiable by all teachers. One cannot deny that there is karma and still be Buddhist. Karma, dependent arising, is a difficult topic, often seriously misunderstood and misused. The most prevalent misunderstanding is that karma involves unalterable fate to which one is subject and about which nothing can be done. Teachings on karma are sometimes said to be about cause and effect, but when I teach about dependent arising, I often suggest that it is much more appropriate to think of karma as being about “effect and cause.” This difference is subtle but important. Any present situation is as it is; it is an effect and obviously cannot be altered. But what one does with this present situation is not predetermined. What one does with the present is the cause that helps determine future outcomes. The key point in Buddhist discipline is to work wisely and proactively with present circumstances so as to alleviate difficulties in the future. Because we Buddhists have inherited a situation of male-dominated institutions does not mean that is the way things should be, or that things should stay that way.

While individuals can take personal comfort in teachings about karma when confronting difficult circumstances, and they can take responsibility for their part in bringing about the present situation, such teachings are easily misused, especially when directed at others to justify their present suffering—as in saying, “It’s your karma to be poor, to be abused, to be subjected to male dominance, so just submit to it.” It is common to misuse teachings about karma to discourage people who live in difficult circumstances from trying to change their situations, claiming instead that they should just accept these situations because they are appropriate and are something they “created” themselves. Certainly teachings on karma have been used in this way to reconcile women to male dominance by claiming that to be born female in a male-dominated system is the result of “karma.” So rather than trying to change the system, one should submit to it, hoping to be reborn as a male in a future life.

Thus privilege is claimed to be the result of karma and, as such, appropriate, even justified. But privilege involves a hierarchy in which others are less well off in some way. Some are “up,” while others are “down.” Often the “up” status of some is directly dependent on the “down” status of others. Traditional Buddhist thought usually finds that situation unproblematic. So, in fact, does much non-Buddhist thought. In many situations of interdependent hierarchies, for some to have privilege, others must be underprivileged. But those who are on top feel strongly that they have “earned” their privileged status and “deserve” it. Such claims are especially strong regarding hierarchies of wealth and privilege. Even more problematically, people who inherit advantageous circumstances sometimes fail to recognize that they are privileged. But one could also think quite differently about this dynamic. If one uses one’s privileged status to oppress others, would that not create negative karma for oneself, using traditional ways of talking about and understanding karma? So if one is on the “up” side of a hierarchy, what does that mean about how one should behave?

Among some social critics, including many feminists, hierarchy is regarded negatively. However, some hierarchy is required in Buddhism. Liberating Buddhist teachings are subtle and cannot be subjected to acceptance by popular acclaim. The historical Buddha hesitated to teach what he had understood during his enlightenment because it is not what most people want to hear. Therefore teachers cannot be elected, and there must be a hierarchy between those who understand the teachings more well and less well. That kind of hierarchy is not a problem. The problem is arbitrary hierarchies, those based on criteria irrelevant to the task at hand. Obviously men have no real advantage over women when it comes to being able to understand the dharma and teach it well. Nonetheless, throughout Buddhist history, men have monopolized roles of dharma teaching. Recognition as a teacher is not necessarily the same thing as deep realization of the awakened state of mind. Probably there have been many unrecognized, unacknowledged teachers throughout Buddhist history. But that situation is to no one’s benefit. Thus, from my earliest days as a dharma student, I have insisted that the acid test of whether Buddhism has transcended its historical male dominance for something more appropriate is whether or not approximately half the dharma teachers are women.

Some Buddhist circles discourage any critical inquiry into current events. Students are made to feel guilty about their interest in things such as engaged Buddhist movements. It is claimed that such concerns cannot help anyway but instead compromise one’s meditation practice. One of the arguments is that because social problems are intractable, they cannot be solved, leading to frustration, depression, and anger, all attitudes at odds with the enlightened mind. Alternatively, it is argued, one cannot avoid developing attachment if one tries to promote social reform or any kind of social betterment. And attachment, also known as clinging, is even more problematic than anger or depression for one seeking the way of enlightenment. So better just to focus on one’s own practice.

These warnings have genuine validity. Students still in training who also become involved in one cause or another often do develop all the tendencies listed above. They easily fall prey to emotionalism. In the West, language of justice and rights, terms not easily found in more traditional Buddhism, is common and has often been influential in the earlier formation of those newer to Buddhist practice. Such students often develop strong ideologies about their causes and become quite opinionated.

For a dharma teacher, such students can be challenging to work with. Opinionatedness and ideology are discouraged in meditation students for the practical reason that they solve nothing and only make the situation worse for both the student herself and those about whom she is concerned. It is difficult to watch someone be in as much pain as the newer student who is still entangled in overly emotional concern with some cause. Yet there is also a lot of good heart and some wisdom in the student’s passionate involvement. What will the outcome be? Some teachers recommend, even insist, that the student renounce her concern for anything other than dharma and, perhaps, her own everyday life. Great skill on the teacher’s part is required at this point. In trying to tame the student’s ideology, one does not want to veer into promoting apathy, which is also not appropriate dharmic advice.

Given Buddhism’s emphasis on the problems with attachment and the virtues of detachment, outsiders often think that Buddhism must promote apathy. But apathy easily falls into the category of one of the “poisons of emptiness,” mistakes often made by students who have some insight into emptiness. This mistake often takes the form of saying something like “Because everything is empty, nothing matters, so I can do whatever I want or not take responsible action.” One must be careful not to promote the incorrect assumption that the only alternatives are either ideological, angry entanglement in a cause or withdrawal from involvement into apathy or indifference.

Practice, however, provides a middle path between angry ideology and apathetic withdrawal. This is one of the most useful contributions Buddhist disciplines can make to contemporary discussions. The language of “self-righteous anger” is deeply entrenched in Western discourse on social issues, and many otherwise competent and wise thinkers remain plagued by it for many years, in some cases even after they have acquaintance with Buddhist thought and practice. Often they still fear that the only alternative is apathy. They still fear dualism—if I’m not this, I’ll be that. Unless I’m angry, I won’t care at all.

From the other side, some Buddhists find it difficult, especially when they disagree with someone about a controversial issue, to recognize that it is possible to hold a viewpoint and yet not be angry or ideological, that a viewpoint can be held with equanimity. Penetrating insight undoes both apathy and attachment with one blow of Manjushri’s sword. This should not be surprising. Enlightened mind beyond gender is not a blank state of mind. It is intelligent but without ideology. Because it recognizes that its verbalizations of insight can never be fully adequate, it holds them lightly. Therefore it is completely flexible. The verbalization of insight will change without struggle when further information and better reasoning make such change appropriate. But insight is also fearless and fully able to respond to attack and confrontation with equanimity, and to stand its own ground without resort to aggression.

I have discovered this dynamic many times in my presentations of Buddhist feminism. Sometimes others insist that my only motivation for not supporting male dominance must be that I am angry. But those days are long over. What I have often found is that those who dislike my feminism think I should automatically defer to them, I suppose because they are so used to having women defer to them. When I don’t, they become extremely angry.

In one notable encounter, a man demanded in an aggressive and authoritative manner that I give in to his position, which was that generic masculine language in Buddhist liturgies was not a problem. He was not at all willing to rationally discuss the issues I was bringing up. Instead, he did his best to egg me into an angry response to him. Then he would be justified in simply rejecting me and my position: “See! I told you she’s just an angry feminist bitch!” But I didn’t take the bait, demonstrating both steadfastness and equanimity. Eventually he caved in and said that he wanted to discuss the points I was making. After several hours of discussion he conceded, “You’re right!” The next day he announced to those assembled for a large dharma program that if they preferred to change the language of an important text from generic masculine to gender-inclusive and neutral language, that was acceptable.

Would it not have been much simpler to discuss the issues from the beginning instead of asserting male privilege and dominance? It takes a good bit of training neither to become angry (thus losing the discussion by default) nor to simply give in because that’s what women are trained to do when men assert male dominance.

Need I report that this confrontation involved a male Buddhist teacher whose position in the teaching hierarchy was higher than mine? I tell this story to demonstrate that insight paired with equanimity can be far more effective than anger when faced with aggression. I also tell this story to illustrate that giving up on anger as the fuel that maintains one’s sense of urgency about something that needs to be changed does not mean that one becomes apathetic and just gives in to convention and the status quo.

So, in the final analysis, what does freedom from the prison of gender roles look like? It has nothing to do with whether one is a man or a woman, or even whether one lives a more traditional or a more radical lifestyle. It has everything to do with one’s state of mind. Is it starting to approach that enlightened state of mind, which is beyond gender? If so, it will not be characterized by anger and will not strongly hold any ideology. One’s mind will be utterly flexible and will dwell easily in equanimity, but it will not confuse equanimity with apathy. The mind state of someone who insists that male dominance and the prison of gender roles in any of its forms are unproblematic doesn’t qualify. She or he still holds an ideology. Nor would holding a “feminist” position necessarily mean that one is approaching that freer state of mind. It depends on the flexibility and ease of his or her state of mind. Whatever one comes up with, one holds that position and that identity lightly. Its relative character is clearly recognized. It is not made into an ultimate. If one has truly studied the self, then one can forget it, and relax.


Rita M. Gross (1943̶ 2015) was professor emerita of comparative studies in religion at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. She was also a Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner and teacher. She was the author of eleven books, including Buddhism beyond Patriarchy.

This article has been adapted from Buddhism beyond Gender by Rita M. Gross; © 2018 by the Estate of Rita M. Gross. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado. www.shambhala.com.