Rita Gross (1943–2015) was Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. An important figure in the study of women in religion in general, she was also a Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner and teacher, appointed a lopon by Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche. She was the author, co-author, or editor of eleven books including her classic Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism.
Helen Berliner from Mindrolling sangha warmly remembers Rita Gross, paying homage and sharing some of her life story, qualities, as well as her input into spreading Buddhadharma in the West.
“An only child, she was born in 1943, on July 6 — a birthday she delighted in sharing with the Dalai Lama — to parents of pioneer stock. She was raised in a log house with no modern plumbing or electricity. She knew how to milk a cow. It was a good life, she said, but not an easy one. In her teens, she rebelled against her parents’ fundamentalist beliefs and local pastor, whose view of a young girl’s intelligence and independence was dim. Rita struck out on her own, literally and philosophically.
Bravery and determination took her to the halls of academe and set her eventually upon the path of Buddhadharma. At the University of Chicago, she studied History of Religion with the legendary Mircea Eliade. This became the foundation of her personal and professional life. Before turning her sights to Asia, she took up Judaism and learned to pray in Hebrew. These studies and practices were not intellectual trophies; they were a heartfelt quest for spiritual meaning and engaged in accordingly. In that spirit, Rita fell in love with the teachings of the Buddha, which led her eventually to Tibetan Buddhist masters, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and, after his parinirvana, Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche and the Mindrolling mandala.
These studies and practices were not intellectual trophies; they were a heartfelt quest for spiritual meaning and engaged in accordingly.
Professionally, most of you know that Rita went on to become Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies of Religion at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; that she was known to Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars internationally for feisty, caring, and uncompromising discipline; and for her innovative work on gender and religion, and religious diversity. You may know that she defined herself as a “scholar-practitioner,” who prided herself on bringing academic research and Buddhadharma together.
You may know that as past president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, she was a recognized feminist, theologian, and tireless advocate of “genuine inter-religious dialogue”; and that her many articles and books — including Buddhism After Patriarchy and most recently Religious Diversity: What’s the Problem? — have been called engaging, provocative, penetrating, challenging, and enlightening. You may also know that she was well known and loved as a senior teacher in the Shambhala mandala.
What you may not know is that Rita had many great loves in her life — besides her books, of course. There were fascinating people; exotic places; and on the domestic front, gardens, cats, and an excellent collection of thangkas, textiles, rupas, and jewelry. She was shyly proud of her aesthetic sensibilities. “People don’t know this about me,” she once shared as we ventured out to shop.
Lopön Rita was always venturing out to validate something wonderful. She was a brave pioneer and sangha treasure, whose mind and heart will not soon or easily be matched.”
Lopön Rita Gross passed away on November 11, 2015 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
In her interview to The Yogini Project, Rita speaks on the context of women in Dharma and the relevance of gender issues, essential to be addressed to be able to be transcended. Avoidance is not the way, Rita indicates wisely.