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  • A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration by Rita M. Gross
  • Jan Willis
A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration. By Rita M. Gross. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 352 pp.

Rita M. Gross is well known for her innovative and challenging work on Buddhism and gender. She is the author of the influential book Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism as well as many other books and articles on Buddhism, comparative religions, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, religious diversity, and gender studies. A student and teacher in the Shambhala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, she holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, studied and practiced with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and was recently appointed as a lopön (senior teacher) by the renowned Venerable Khandro Rinpoche. Gross’s own renown [End Page 222] is well deserved; she has been working at the intersections of several disciplines and subdisciplines within religious studies for four decades and working very hard. And she just happened to begin her scholarly career at the beginning of the so-called second wave of feminism.

Taking a personal measure of her life and career, Gross has now given us A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration. It is at once an overview of the kinds of academic work she has engaged in and an intimate reflection on the source, and costs, of those endeavors.

In addition to an introduction and a marvelous short autobiography, there are nineteen articles and essays gathered here that span the length and breadth of Gross’s academic and practice interests. One will find essays here on methodology and on Hindu and Tibetan goddesses, on Australian aboriginal women (the subject of her PhD dissertation at Chicago), on Judaism, and on Buddhism’s failure to put into practice what its core values suggest it ought. A much longer space would be needed to address each of these topics in turn, though each is informative of a subject and a means of studying it at a given time and with a feminist lens. Here, I focus only on the book’s introduction and its lovely autobiography.

The introduction tells us that it is her feminist vision, or the “transformation of consciousness effected by the feminist paradigm shift,” that is the “thread” upon which her seemingly disparate academic interests, the beads of the garland, are all strung. Regardless of specific foci, Gross has always been concerned with the difference it makes (and, we might add, the freedom it affords) if one can free oneself from “the prison of gender roles.” In her introduction, as in other essays throughout the work, Gross repeats what she calls her two most basic definitions of the term “feminism.” She writes, “When one really gets the fact that women truly are human beings, to put the essence of feminism one way [Gross once had T-shirts emblazoned with this motto!], or when one really gets the fact that any set of gender roles whatsoever is still a prison, no matter how ‘reformed’ and ‘fair’ it might be, to put the essence of feminism another way, conventional perspectives on virtually everything seem limited” (6, italics mine). Thus, regardless of the specific topic investigated, Gross’s work has always been concerned to show that “virtually all subject matters, including some of the most abstract, will involve gendered data, and one will ‘see’ different things, or ‘see’ the same things differently, if one has internalized the subtle transformation of consciousness involved in the feminist paradigm shift” (5). One could say that this has been Gross’s lifelong pursuit: to move academic discourses and disciplines—whether those of religious studies, history, or theology—away from androcentrism and then beyond gender prisons altogether.

Gross’s autobiography seeks to tell us how she came to the conclusions articulated in her introduction. As anyone who has read my memoir, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist, will know, I am drawn to personal narrative, and I think this brief (twenty-one page) memoir is a gem of a reflective piece and a model for the well-examined life story. (There is also, of...


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