For all the talk of an emerging American Buddhism that embraces diversity and inclusion, the reality falls short of the ideal. People of color still often find themselves the lone representative in a meditation hall or segregated in “people of color” retreats. The LBGTQ community fares no better. Women, as teachers and practitioners, are more visible and influential these days, but the hierarchy in many Buddhist sanghas remains white, heterosexual, male—and, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, bound by centuries-old lineages and monastic forms.
That may be about to change. Two American teachers in the Kagyu tradition—Lama Rod Owens and Repa Dorje Odzer (aka Justin von Bujdoss)—have launched a virtual practice community, Bhumisparsha, that is turning Vajrayana on its head. Eschewing the top-down organization of most Buddhist sanghas, Bhumisparsha bills itself as an egalitarian “safe space” for those who have felt marginalized or unwelcome in traditional dharma settings. Separating Vajrayana from its Tibetan cultural trappings, Lama Rod and Justin, as they’re known, are evolving a dharma more accessible to Westerners and more responsive to the growing pool of practitioners underserved in today’s multicultural, gender-fluid, #MeToo world.
Bhumisparsha—Sanskrit for “touching the earth”—refers to the mudra, or gesture, made by the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment when he asked the earth to support his awakening. “Touching the earth is about coming back to the body, to the ground of our experience,” Lama Rod says. Through tantric practice, Justin adds, “we confront all the layers of our being—our identity, our appearance, our relationship to society, and all the experience that arises in relationship to that: tentativeness, fear, anxiety, not being in the in crowd.” He calls Bhumisparsha a “supportive container” that allows a practitioner “to go deep in a balanced way.”
“Safety” has become a cultural cliché, but for dharma practitioners whose race, sexual orientation, or gender identity has made them a target of prejudice, abuse, or clumsy efforts by sanghas to be politically correct, feeling safe isn’t an abstract concern. “There’s a difference between safety and discomfort,” Lama Rod notes. To him, feeling safe rests on trust that a community is truly inclusive and welcoming. “Safety allows for a sense of protection so students can,” Justin adds, “authentically engage the dharma.”
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If anyone could upend tradition and create something like Bhumisparsha, it would be these two. A core value of Bhumisparsha is “disrupting” systems of patriarchy, misogyny, power, and dominance that stir up conflict in Buddhist sanghas. “I’m a black, queer, Southern American Buddhist, so I’m already disrupting heteronormativity and white supremacy and all that,” explains Lama Rod, who feels a duty to inspire others like him.
The path for Lama Rod began with a traditional three-year silent retreat at Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery in upstate New York and ordination by the late Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who encouraged him to teach: “He said I could reach people that he couldn’t.” Lama Rod ran the KTC affiliate in Washington, DC, before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned a master’s degree in Buddhist ministry from Harvard Divinity School, with a focus on identity, social change, and spiritual practice. He is now the guiding teacher for the Radical Dharma Boston Collective and a teacher and teacher trainer with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, a program for teens. An outspoken activist and author, Lama Rod is a popular and peripatetic teacher who at 39 is a leading dharma voice for Generation X.
The community bills itself as a safe space for those who have felt unwelcome in traditional dharma settings.
Justin is Lama Rod’s polar opposite—a “cisgender white male” (that is, his gender identity matches his birth sex), who is a 44-year-old husband, father of three, and longtime New Yorker—but he’s just as committed to engaged Buddhism and social justice. Justin studied with teachers in India and Sikkim, and was ordained as a repa—lay tantric yogin—in the Karma Kamstang tradition by Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He worked as a home hospice chaplain and served as the director and resident lama at New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center in Brooklyn, New York, until it closed in 2017. He taught meditation to inmates as a volunteer at Rikers Island before becoming the first staff chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction. Now Justin develops meditation programs for officers and guards; he also ministers to department staff and designs health initiatives.
Lama Rod and Justin met on Facebook in 2013, bonding over frustration with the structure of traditional Vajrayana. Other practitioners struggling in traditional sanghas began to seek them out, and over the next few years they discussed the need for change. Both serve on the advisory council of the biennial Gen-X Buddhist Teachers Sangha Conference, and at the 2017 conference in Crestone, Colorado, they decided to stop talking and take action.
They first announced their plans on Lama Rod’s Facebook page in February 2018. Now, more than a year later, Bhumisparsha is an established virtual sangha, with a website, a following, and future plans that tentatively include a yearlong online course on tantra. There are no plans, however, for a brick-and-mortar center anytime soon. More important than building a center is “creating a healthy, sustainable community of practitioners,” Lama Rod says.
There could be no better demonstration of Bhumisparsha’s mission than its first retreat, held over four days last December at the Thomasville Buddhist Center in Thomasville, North Carolina. The 21 participants included 9 people of color and ranged in age from 23 to 68 and in sexual orientation from heterosexual to queer, bisexual, and pansexual. There were more women than men, plus a few gender nonconformists. Billed as “Healing the Heart of the South,” the retreat explored racism, racial violence, and community-based trauma—not the usual Buddhist fare. The central practice, chöd, was also an unexpected choice.
A rigorous Tibetan Buddhist method for cutting through ego, chöd is often practiced in cemeteries and other fearsome places. It turns out there were plenty of ghosts for practitioners to work with: behind the center was a former plantation.
Early buzz about Bhumisparsha is encouraging, but Lama Rod and Justin remain cautious about the future. They insist on calling the sangha “a huge experiment,” inviting both input and criticism to help it grow. Neither intends to be the sole guiding force going forward. Both plan to keep their day jobs, and as the community evolves, leadership and teaching will be shared. For the moment, Bhumisparsha is content to be a refuge—albeit one that isn’t afraid to disrupt the status quo.
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