During this time of uprising and reckoning, disillusion and disorientation, pain and loss, it’s hard to think of a more relevant voice than Lama Rod Owens’s.
In his own words, Lama Rod Owens is a “Black, queer, cisgender, and male-identified, fat, mixed-class Buddhist teacher and minister, yoga teacher, and shit-talking Southerner.” He is also a Harvard Divinity School graduate and the co-author of the seminal 2016 book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation. In 2018, Lama Rod co-founded Bhumisparsha, an inclusive online sangha, with fellow Vajrayana teacher Lama Justin von Budjoss.
Lama Rod’s new book, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger (June 2020, North Atlantic Books) serves as a guide for transforming our anger with love and grace in a moment when collective calls for freedom are ringing ever more loudly.
Tricycle spoke with Lama Rod about his new and timely book and how he approaches Buddhist teachings with an activist spirit.
Your experiences of activism, racial struggle, and queerness play a prominent part in Love and Rage alongside formal knowledge and practice. How did you go about bringing your whole self to this project? I looked at my life and I looked at the way in which the world—and by world I mean people, organizations, family, friends, lovers, and so forth—was always trying to help me to be myself. We’re born into systems, and these systems are informing us; they’re shaping our development. Some of us will die never figuring out who and what we are outside the system. But I tuned into those messages from the world, because I’ve been looking for freedom my whole life. I took small steps [toward liberation], bit by bit. My coming out [as queer] was a major thing. That opened the door wide open. And every few years there’s been a major coming out.
What are you “coming out” about now? I’m more than just Buddhist. There are other spiritual paths and traditions I’ve trained in that shape how I see the world, including yoga, Hinduism, and plant medicines. (I recently wrote a chapter for the upcoming book Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom about my experiences with ayahuasca and plant medicine.)
Buddhism is definitely my root practice, but I also practice other indigenous, ancestral religions—I consider myself a tantric shaman. For a while, the dharma explained everything, but then I saw that there were things that Buddhism was saying that didn’t line up with certain experiences in my life.
The theme of what you call “brokenheartedness” and the struggle to survive it runs throughout the book. Can you say more about that? We’ve been running away from our collective heartbreak for centuries and centuries—particularly in this country—and now we’ve reached the breaking point. We have to choose to be embodied; we have to choose to touch into and metabolize that brokenheartedness. That’s going to usher us into a new place.
Dr. King said, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” I take it further. [Riots are] also the language of people who are hurting and don’t know how to take care of themselves. Energy is popping and exploding, and I think that is an important sign that we must shift into a culture of care, a culture of mourning, and a trauma-informed culture.
We can’t make this shift if we’re perpetually disembodied. Disembodiment is at the root of body shaming and sex shaming, and it’s at the root of systemic oppression. A majority of the issues we’re facing are due to that lack of touching into the brokenheartedness or our deep feelings of suffering during times of instability.
Was there a section of the book that was particularly challenging to write? Probably the biggest risk I take in the book is Chapter 8, titled “#MeToo and the Guru.” I think cisgender men have to do more work in the [#MeToo] movement, particularly as we experience the backlash [against teachers accused of abuse]. We have to step forward and talk about how we feed into the system, even if we may consider ourselves the “good guys.”
Writing that chapter was liberating for me. I wanted to articulate the complexity [between harm and accountability]. I was tired of being told that I had to either bypass [a teacher’s harm] or completely renounce [the teacher]. If you want to do love and rage together, then the love has to hold the complexity. I think Buddhists—particularly dharma practitioners in typically white-dominant communities—enjoy being comfortable and don’t want to deal with complexity. It’s that part of liberal progressive whiteness that says, “I’m afraid to say the wrong thing.” There’s no risk taking.
You write so beautifully about the transhistorical rage around the trauma of enslavement of Africans by white people, the disembodiment that comes out of that trauma, and your own journey to reclaim your body. You recently posted a shirtless image of yourself on Instagram and offered a prayer in the caption: “Dear Beloved, if you are to bless me, it must be in this body or I will need to take a pass.” What did that mean to you? The picture I posted of my body was a big step forward. I used to think, I will never be on social media without my shirt. Now I’ve gotten to a place where I can post this semi-nude picture on Instagram because my body is an offering. I love my body. That love disrupts all the narratives that other people have attached to my body about how I should be ashamed. Or how I’m fat. Or how I’m ugly. While I’ve done a lot of the work myself, I’ve also had transformative moments in relationships, when people have told me, “No, you’re beautiful.” I hold onto those moments; they’re like metta moments, lovingkindness moments, that I tuck away in my memory.
What are other key elements in your spiritual practice right now? Everything I do is about really wanting to get free. I’ve created this structure in my practice where I’m always being pushed forward. Being born in a Black, queer body has made it so that it’s never been easy for me to be comfortable. When I came to dharma, I realized that I could use this discomfort to get free.
In Love and Rage, many of the practices about working with anger involve invoking a kind of spaciousness. Why is that? It’s because the anger wants to be cared for. Space itself is an expression of the feminine principle, and I am a devotee of the feminine principle, or “the Mother,” which is something I came to through my study of Hinduism. The Mother expresses herself in the forms of female deities, like Tara [a female deity in Tibetan Buddhism], and spreads herself among a wide range of religions, spiritual paths, and traditions.
In my practice, the Mother offers a spiritual step to instantly becoming anti-capitalistic, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist. When I feel myself contracting and shutting down, I’m getting farther away from the Mother’s spaciousness. A system—such as capitalism, patriarchy, or white-supremacy—isn’t about space; a system is about containment. When we can step back and see everything, that’s when we start experiencing realization and enlightenment. We see the nature of everything because we have the flexibility and the adaptability; we can spread out.
That’s the heart of the dharma for me. If we don’t have space, we’re not breathing. We can’t breathe without space. And, of course, we know that we can experience that lack of breath physically and we know we can experience that lack of breath socially.
Right. I’m thinking of protestors yelling, “I can’t breathe.” Experiences of oppression and marginalization, prejudice and discrimination, create this rigid tight contraction that many of us don’t escape from.
What is the most basic way to practice with anger? First and foremost, I notice the anger. I notice the physical experience, I notice the mental experience. Both the physical and mental experience are talking to one another, pointing to one another. So if I feel something in my body, such as tightness, I know that’s often anger. That points me back to looking at the mental experience. Learning to notice it in the moment: I’m experiencing anger. The basic practice is to say on the spot, I am angry. Then I say, I’m experiencing anger. And that helps me transition to spaciousness.
The book is Buddhist, but also so deeply queer. I was so happy to see that you included passages about sex work, BDSM, kink, polyamory/nonmonogamy, and fat bodies being sexual, which is often still considered transgressive. People need to be seen. It’s one thing to have this conversation with folks who are in certain scenes, but it’s another to have this conversation within Buddhist spaces. I think there have been attempts to do so in the past, but they’ve been really heteronormative attempts. My intention was to say, “Listen, there’s nothing wrong with how we’re seeking to experience sensual pleasure.” Of course, for me it’s all about seeking consent.
You quote a line from RuPaul: “I come from a place of love, but sometimes you have to break it down for a motherfucker.” When do you break it down and when do you let it go? When you’ve tried every other way of explaining it, you’ll get to that moment where you break it down through the skillful use of violence. I’m talking about verbal violence—when you have to cuss people out because it’s the only way they’ll hear you. When you “break it down,” you’re actually expressing boundaries. And that’s what we call reading someone: you’ve gotten read, because you haven’t gotten it any other way. If you want to be nice you just throw shade. After that, if shade doesn’t work anymore, then you start reading.
What’s the next book? I don’t know. I’m always writing. I’m thinking about what it means to be a contemporary bodhisattva. I think that we’re entering into a new age. I’ve been talking to folks—you know, astrologers and people who do readings, mediums—and they are saying that we’re going to see something really significant happen, maybe at the beginning of next year. So I’m thinking about how we can enter into that new period with a new ethic. Currently, the bodhisattva path is taught as just a lofty road to sainthood. And I want to change that.
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