Most people talk about American Buddhism as if it has not quite arrived, but Lama Justin von Budjoss (Repa Dorje Odzer) thinks that real dharma is already here. Von Budjoss, who is the first dedicated staff chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction, is a dedicated Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner and is outspoken about bringing his tradition into the 21st century. Along with fellow tantrika Lama Rod Owens, last year von Budjoss founded Bhumisparsha, an experimental sangha with a mission of inclusivity that welcomes practitioners who feel uncomfortable in traditional dharma centers. 

With his new book, Modern Tantric Buddhism: Embodiment and Authenticity in Dharma Practice (North Atlantic Books, October 29, 2019), von Budjoss argues that issues that affect and impede the practice of contemporary practitioners––like white supremacy, patriarchy, and ideas of cultural superiority––are not being addressed openly in Tantric Buddhist settings. A dynamic mix of translation, teachings, memoir, and critique, Modern Tantric Buddhism aims to position Vajrayana in the present moment while staying true to its core energy. 

Tricycle spoke with von Budjoss about updating tantra, his relationship with his teacher, and his quest to reassemble a lineage of engaged lay practice in the present day.

You describe this book as a “loving critique” of the Vajrayana tradition. Who is this book for? 

I wrote this book for a growing body of students who come from disaffected sanghas where they have been hurt––sexually assaulted by teachers in a few cases, or financially taken advantage of in others. Often dharma centers rely on volunteers when they grow, and some students were manipulated into working long hours for no pay or minimum wage in a labor system that doesn’t really reflect Buddhist values. I wrote it for them, and as a love letter and a show of gratitude for my teachers, and also for myself, as a way to express my concerns about the Vajrayana tradition and Buddhist tantra in the West.

While the rest of the dharma world has changed, and people now talk about “American Buddhism,” Vajrayana sanghas remain very isolated. Part of the reason for this is that Tibetan Buddhism in the West was born out of a refugee situation of genocide and cultural destruction. Preservation became the most important thing, which makes total sense. No one saw the need to change anything. Lama Rod [Owens] and I have been trying to model a new path that’s not at odds with the tradition itself but a conscious outgrowth from the tradition. 

What does that mean, exactly? Where are we at, and what needs to change? 

I think Vajrayana needs to meet the needs of the generations that have gone by since that of the boomers––my generation, Gen X, millennials, and now people who are even younger than that. The first wave of practitioners did a lot to establish the sanghas and ensure the transition of the canon, but I think the actualization of the tradition requires us to get up and experiment. That’s messy, and it’s challenging. But that’s what all the great Himalayan masters did, male and female. We need to bring that same level of creativity. 

What are some of the ways that contemporary Vajrayana is failing to meet practitioners’ needs?

Across all [American] Buddhism, we see that it’s white-dominant. But in the Vajrayana world, [whiteness] is also very unconscious. When you bring up topics like white supremacy, people get angry and say you’re being politically correct or bringing politics into dharma. It’s a problem when you have people you love and care about who are not able to feel comfortable in those sanghas.

The problem is that Vajrayana Buddhism tends to cloister itself away from things that are hard, when it should be doing the opposite. I admire the late Zen teacher Bernie Glassman and the things he did to encourage his students to make not only a spiritual impact on the world, but financial and social impact as well. Vajrayana can often make “compassion” very intellectual and about your own training. You visualize yourself as the bodhisattva [of compassion], Chenrezig, or recite the mantra––but you keep yourself away from the chaos of 6th Avenue and 23rd Street.  

Can we use this tension to fuel a tantric practice? 

In terms of making spiritual use of that dissonance, for me it’s about coming back to a non-monastic set of ideals and gleaning inspiration from the mahasiddhas of medieval India, who were a funky blend of yogis, yoginis, householders––people who just had jobs and were teachers and great practitioners. 

I want to take the mahasiddha tradition and make it applicable for regular people today, and shake the image of these people with long hair and skull bowls running around. Although I came very close to becoming a monk at one point, I think the ideas behind celibate monasticism and retreat need to be parsed out––I can’t do that necessarily, because I’m not a monk, but I think there should be feminist monks and nuns who actively write about and analyze the tradition, to try to make sense of what monasticism should look like in our modern world. 

In the book, you say that we need to write our own commentarial literature. What would contemporary commentaries look like? 

A Western commentarial tradition would look at itself and the tradition critically, acknowledging both the past and the present need for change. Believe me, I’m a big nerd, and I spend a lot of time reading old texts, and I find such great meaning. But I always translate the text into terms that make sense for me. 

Some of our commentaries would be more traditional, and some would be about acknowledging and honoring who we are. There are some people who want the equivalent of the Catholic mass in Latin, and others who think we should have beat box or hip hop in our ganachakra [tantric ritual gathering]. Seriously––if we’re really celebrating who we are––why can’t we include, like, Beyoncé in our services? Why can’t we adapt the foods that are being eaten to our own cultural background, or do our own ancestor practices? Any kind of cultural lens should be able to be transposed onto dharma and find value and meaning in it.

In my own Karma Kagyu tradition, everything seemed to have stopped in the 19th century with Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye––the canon ended there, with the last recognized terton [revealer of hidden teachings] Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa, whose Nyingma practices were blended to some extent with the Karma Kagyu tradition. But there’s been other stuff––and other tertons––since! It’s strange to me that people will go back to a mid-19th century text and just stay there. In other traditions, like Zen and Theravada, the challenges of today are being hashed out with new content. The books are still being written. 

You had a very familial relationship with your root teacher, the Sikkimese Tibetan Buddhist nun Ani Dechen Zangmo. Can you tell me about how you met her? 

As an undergraduate I went on the Antioch University program in Bodhgaya, and it was there I met my friend Erik Bloom, who went to college with Dekila Chungyalpa, Ani Zangmo’s daughter. Erik told me that he had plans to travel to Sikkim while we were in India, and that his good friend Dekila’s mom lived out there. That’s how I met her originally. She was my teacher until she died in 1997. 

Ani Zangmo is a great example of what I’m talking about in terms of creatively making the tradition your own. She was a nun who gave empowerments, which is quite rare. A mother and powerful female presence in a predominantly male dharma world, she chose to live by herself instead of in a nunnery. She knew that there was a politics to that, but it wasn’t born out of politics. 

Also, Ani Zangmo was passionate about empowering me; she found those spots where I felt broken and leaned into them so much that they hurt, but it was only through that process that I began to realize that I could let go of those things, that they don’t define me. 

I think it’s really rare to be able to have this close relationship with someone. In my opinion, most Vajrayana sanghas suffer from a lack of this kind of empowerment, embodiment, and authenticity. This is rooted to some degree in fear of one’s own power and fear of the power of the practice. I see a problem with the way most people relate to the lama––they say things like, “The lama is perfect, an absolute expression of wisdom mind.” But the lama is human. The teachers that I’ve spent the most time with are normal people who have doubts, fears, and anxieties. Relating with them on that level doesn’t take anything away from the realization, but maybe it lowers the realization to my level, and makes it approachable. 

You’re the staff chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction, and you were also a hospice chaplain for a long time. In the book you compare chaplaincy to Buddhist practice, and say it contains the seeds for liberation and transformation in difficult circumstances. 

Formal Buddhist practice is rooted in an authentic religious imperative. It’s helpful to remind ourselves every day that we’re going to die. Chaplains are forced to engage with spirituality in an everyday kind of way, which is helpful because it takes dharma practice off a pedestal and makes it about everything. 

Related: Watch Justin von Budjoss Teach on Caregiving as Dharma Practice

Two nights ago, my phone went off at 4:00 in the morning because a correctional officer died in a car accident. I had to drive out to Long Island to tell this family that their son had died, and be there for them as the mother is screaming and the father is just kind of shutting down. In dealing regularly with all of that visceral emotion and in helping people connect to themselves when they go through these incredibly traumatic experiences, the mind-training aspect [of practice] becomes very important. It’s like doing retreat in heavy emotion. 

In chaplaincy, practice becomes like a very well-oiled bicycle, so effortless that it’s a part of you, because you’re living in close quarters with death, and anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, and rage. I would never choose to just have an intellectual relationship to those emotions.

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