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  • The Crisis of AuthorityBuddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners
  • Rita M. Gross

As a Buddhist scholar-practitioner who is also a feminist, I have multiple loyalties. The potential for conflict between different standards could be great, and I have often been asked whether my fundamental loyalty is to Buddhist standards and Buddhist teachers, to the values of feminism, or to standards of academic scholarship. This is a question I always refuse to answer because I myself do not experience any irreconcilable conflicts among these loyalties. Nor is this lack of conflict due to my keeping these three interests separate in my thinking or my work. Clearly, I have been more than explicit in the way that I have brought feminist concerns into my writings on Buddhism, my work as a Buddhist dharma teacher, and other issues I have taken up as an academic scholar. Though most scholars would be much less familiar with how I teach when I function as a Buddhist teacher at a meditation center, I am well known in those circles as someone who brings nonsectarian, feminist, and academic perspectives to Buddhists teachings. Finally, I was “out” as a Buddhist practitioner in academia long before the current younger generation of Buddhist studies scholars who do not hide their Buddhist identities came to the fore. I was also explicit about the fact that I was using Buddhist ideas as tools with which to think about various contemporary issues long before the new movement to regard Buddhist critical and constructive thought as academically respectable emerged.

The fact that it seemed natural to me to combine these various concerns in my work does not mean that others approved of these unorthodox combinations. I suspect that in worldly terms, I could have been far more successful had I not insisted on blending these concerns in my work. Certainly in my generation, feminists did not do well in the academy, as is witnessed by the fact that almost none of those pioneering feminists ever secured a prestigious position from which they could influence the next generation of scholars. Nor is there a place in the academy for Buddhist critical and constructive thinkers; neither theological schools nor departments of Buddhist studies want to hire us. I have also faced frequent marginalization in the Buddhist world, both for being an academic and for being a feminist—though what success I have in [End Page 59] that world is also due to the unique perspectives I bring to Buddhist teaching as an academic and a feminist. Finally, as one of the very few Buddhists among the feminist theologians, I have frequently been extremely frustrated by an establishment that is far more conventional, Western, and Christian than it thinks it is.

In this paper, I have been asked to focus on issues of authority in Buddhism, and I will focus specifically on issues and experiences related to working within Buddhist systems as a Buddhist thinker and teacher. This paper will consist almost entirely of an “insider’s” perspective on Buddhism and authority, rather than a paper looking at Buddhism from the outside, though this insider is a scholar-practitioner, not a practitioner who gets all her information about Buddhism only from Buddhist sources and Buddhist teachers. Needless to say, as a Buddhist critical-constructive thinker who has taken on several nontraditional issues, I have my own tales of brushes with Buddhist authority. One of the themes I wish to follow in this paper is a discussion of how I have managed to say what I want to say, even when it contradicts traditional Buddhist understandings, while also managing to do a great deal of dharma teaching and attain status as a relatively senior teacher in two Tibetan Buddhist organizations in North America. In fact, very few Westerners who practice in a Tibetan lineage have a higher title than the title “Lopon,” which is much better known to Westerners by its Sanskrit equivalent, ācārya. This title was given to me by Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. (Westerners practicing other forms of Buddhism have far more teaching authority than is generally the case for Westerners practicing a Tibetan form of Buddhism.) Nor have I survived as a...