Lama Rod Owens has long been fascinated by the relationship between social liberation and ultimate freedom. As an author, activist, and authorized lama in the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, he has worked at the intersection of social change, identity, and spiritual practice, exploring how activist work and contemplative practice can support each other.
In his new book, The New Saints: From Broken Hearts to Spiritual Warriors, Owens draws from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the legacy of Black liberation movements to put forth the notion of the New Saint. “The New Saint is a rethinking of what it means to be a bodhisattva right now, with a particular focus on relative justice and its relationship to ultimate liberation,” he told Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen. “It’s about the contemporary experience of people in a world that seems to be on the edge of catastrophe.”
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Shaheen sat down with Owens to discuss the multiple lineages of the New Saint, the power of connecting to our ancestors and unseen beings, and how Buddhism has transformed his relationship to freedom.
“Freedom takes work. It takes prayer. It takes connecting to the unseen.”
In describing the New Saint, you draw not only from Buddhist understandings of the bodhisattva but also from the Old Saints who have influenced your path, among them the organizers and activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Audre Lorde. Can you tell us about how you draw together the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and Black liberation movements? I think that social liberators and ultimate liberators are actually two sides of the same coin. These great activists and organizers like Fannie Lou Hamer and Audre Lorde were deeply connected to an ultimate expression of what they considered the divine, and they were pointing people back to that experience through the work of organizing folks and bringing awareness to systemic injustice. I identify Harriet Tubman, for instance, as a bodhisattva who chose to incarnate as a Black enslaved woman in order to teach us what freedom actually looks like. She was deeply connected to what we might call the ultimate source or the divine or the sacred.
When I think about the great saints from India and Tibet and so forth, I feel like these beings were emanating as people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Audre Lorde. At this point, I don’t see any difference between the Tibetan saints and the social activist saints in Black liberation movements. They cared about people, and they wanted people to be free. That’s it.
You write that your first experiences of freedom came in church when you learned about Jesus and about the Exodus story. How did those stories influence how you think about freedom and abolition? I grew up in the Black church, and my mother is a United Methodist minister, so these stories were quite potent for me—and for a lot of Black folks growing up in this country. These are the stories my ancestors were given and allowed to think about. My ancestors deeply identified with the ancient Hebrews, who were being held by Egypt until God delivered the Jewish people from captivity. My ancestors were praying to be delivered out of slavery, just like the ancient Hebrews were. That’s the foundation of liberation theology, and that became so important for me in forming my understanding of spiritual freedom.
Freedom takes work. It takes prayer. It takes connecting to the unseen. It takes devotion and trust in the sacred or the divine. But if we can do that, then we will get free. And I still believe that. Even as a practicing Buddhist, this is one of my core beliefs: if I trust and have devotion in emptiness, which I often describe as an expression of God, then I will get free. It feels like an attunement to how things actually are.
Can you say more about the experiences of prayer you encountered growing up in church? How did these experiences shape you, and how has Buddhism helped you return to prayer? Buddhism gave me permission to embrace the value and the importance of my ancestry, primarily because I was trained by Tibetans, not by Westerners. I saw how my teachers incorporated their ancestry and culture into the practice of dharma, and I wanted to do the same for my ancestry. For much of my life, I felt a lot of shame around having descended from enslaved people. My Tibetan teachers gave me permission to understand that I am only here because of the spiritual practices and prayers of my ancestors. That transformed my relationship to my ancestry.
I grew up in a culture of prayer in the Black church, which was rooted in the reality that we were not free and that there was a lot more to do before we experienced real freedom in this culture. That yearning to be free was beautiful, but over time, it just felt too heavy. I was tired of yearning. I wanted to do. I wanted to actually do the things to get free, which led me to radical social movements like the Catholic Worker Movement and Black Power Movement. The yearning for freedom turned into a yearning for social liberation.
When I started practicing dharma in my 20s, that yearning transformed back into the yearning of ultimately wanting everything to be free—not just Black people, not just queer people, but everyone, including the people who cause violence and harm. Everyone needs to be free from suffering and delusion. And so that yearning is what I channel into my prayers and my rituals and ceremonies. My primary goal in everything I do is wanting people to be free, and my primary prayer is that everyone get free.
Prayer of the New Saint
I evoke all those beings and sources of refuge who have ever loved me to come sit with me because it is now that I feel most alone. I evoke the Blessed Mother, the Sacred Father, the Spirits of Light, the essence of wisdom, my teachers and elders, the communities who have always caught me when I have fallen, the ancestors who have never stopped holding me, all the elements including the sacred earth who helped me to stand, and silence that wraps me in a space to be with my heart, and I call upon my own innate compassion.
To all those I have evoked, I offer my grief and what seems like my perpetual mourning in this body. I offer my fear, my numbness, and my inability to dream beyond shutting down. Most of all, I offer my fatigue. I am tired.
Today, precious earth, let me lie upon you and be reminded of my body and my heart. I want many things, but I need only one thing now: to give up to you what I cannot hold. I pray that I evolve past my belief that my pain is mine alone to carry. To my sources of refuge who have been evoked, you have taught me repeatedly that this is not the truth.
You have taught me that it is not my pain but our pain. You remind me that my worship of isolation is not conducive to my liberation. I want to be free, and so I offer to you what I struggle to hold right now knowing that you are only here to share this heaviness with me and to love me. . . .
Today, my precious sources of refuge, in your love, offer me rest. In your love, never abandon me. In your love, haunt all others who feel lonely and tired. Please continue to haunt me in this life, in death, and into all my lives to come until one day I become a source of refuge for other beings. Yet it is also my prayer to become a source of refuge for beings right now in this life. May I and all others in this realm and beyond be blessed forever. I dedicate this labor to my descendants who will one day lead me into my ancestorhood.
Excerpted from The New Saints: From Broken Hearts to Spiritual Warriors by Lama Rod Owens. October 2023; published by Sounds True.
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