Visiting black queer Buddhist scholar Lama Rod Owens gave a stirring and personal keynote lecture around the theme of “Fierce Love” about his work in liberation theology, healing through trauma and the power of love. Speaking with a grounded presence from an armchair on the stage of Eaton Chapel the evening of Friday, March 24, Owens was then joined by five local religious leaders and scholars in a panel discussion, including Salih Erschen of the Janesville Muslim Dawa Center, Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies Dr. Sonya Johnson, Beloit Life Center pastor Reverend Terry Morehouse, Political Science and Health and Society professor Ron Nikora and Sister JoAnn Persch of Sisters of Mercy in Chicago.
Owens, a formally trained Buddhist teacher in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, is currently studying at Harvard Divinity School. His book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation co-authored with Jasmine Syedullah and angel Kyodo Williams, was published in 2016.
The keynote event came at the tail end of his residency, which began Wednesday and included visits to clubs and classes, two open mindfulness workshops, informal open hours and a mindfulness retreat on Saturday. Sponsored by a grant from the Mindful Leadership Institute, his residency was organized by the Spiritual Life Program, spearheaded by director Bill Conover and Spiritual Life Assistant Meg Kowta’18 alongside the Health and Wellness Center, with leadership from Coordinator Namoonga Mantina’16 and Wellness Programmer Macy Tran’17.
In his opening remarks, Conover noted to the audience that “you all have a seat at this table,” adding “I thank goodness that we do not have the be the same to be together. We do not have to apologize for ourselves in any way. This is an open space we’ve inviting you into.”
Kowta and Tran introduced the panelists, who sat on couches and armchairs bounded by a table, two lamps and a rug.
Owens began his talk by acknowledging the “narrative that comes with the physical land that we’re walking on,” saying “the land is not secular.” He asked the audience to invite the indigenous ancestors of the land into the space.
He then invited the audience to “remember those in our lives who have been important, who have loved us,” including deities or those you may not have met before. “Remember all the people who need help right now; aspire that someday you’ll be able to help and alleviate suffering.”
After a moment of silence, he added “may all the beings who have joined us in this space be welcomed.”
This practice of acknowledging history is important in Owens’s work. “I am a product of a lineage of fierce loving,” he said. “Love has kept us alive. Love has contained us. When we remember that, we remember ourselves, we remember who we are. And when we remember who we are, we are no longer caught by the ways the world attempts to … label us.”
Understanding love comes out of painful life experiences for Owens. “I only understand love because I understand hate. … I have been hateful. … Not just for others around me but for myself,” he said. He has also survived a “journey through darkness of alienation, loneliness, and suffering” and “struggled in a system that’s conspired to perpetuate hate.”
While he is a “product of centuries of trauma,” he also called himself a “product of the love that has helped me to survive.”
“Love is the strategy” against systems of oppression and violence, but, he added, “you have to be fierce.” He chooses the word “fierce” to acknowledge the ancestors in the black gay community who “embodied fierceness” in being “out and proud.”
While Owens said he grew up with love, he didn’t know what it was until he began practicing Buddhism, which told him “love was the wish for others to be happy and the wish for myself to be happy.”
“Working for others’ happiness allowed capacity for my own love to be deepened,” he said. This fierce love is unapologetic, he said, and “can be so forceful that is almost seems violent. [It means] to be so loving of oneself that you make others uncomfortable. Inspire people. Make others ask, why are you so different? The kind of love that becomes dangerous.”
The work of loving fiercely is about wanting to be free, Owens said. “If you’re not interested in being free, then don’t bother with fierce loving. It comes with a great responsibility. You have to be sure. … Once we love fiercely, there’s no turning back,” he said.
This love is demanding, Owens said. “Be prepared to move beyond and above the places you’ve been put. Prepare to give up relationships. … You can no longer compromise. To compromise in loving something would mean to engage in a violence.”
He added that “It’s okay if you’re not [ready]. It’s a process. This is how I honor my ancestors.”
Owens then invited the panelists to join him in a dialogue about three questions, including“How do you find the fearlessness and strength to live in a time of instability? How can you be hopeful and resilient in the midst of unpredictable change and conflict? And how can you protect yourself and those you love, yet remain open to the other?”
Persch said Owens’s remarks helped her realize that while the convent made her “holy and humble,” a grounding of love came from her family.
Morehouse urged the audience to challenge their own assumptions of others based on physical appearance. He said he doesn’t like the word “tolerance,” because it is not good enough. “I don’t wanna be tolerant, I wanna walk in fierce love,” he said.
Johnson spoke of “walking in inheritance,” saying each person represents the “multiple millions of choices” ancestors have made. This prompts her to ask, “what are our choices in regard to loving?”
Rather than thinking of each of us as an individual, she prompted the audience to consider, “how are we intersecting with multiple others?” and to consider how we are choosing love “at every point of contact in those relationships.”
Part of that work is recognizing what emotions arise. “If I am fearful of someone or angry at someone, there is a seed in that. And in that seed is a choice [to love fiercely],” she said.
In rooting ourselves in history, Johnson said it is important to recognize “we’ve been here before.” Courage is not about a lack of fear, but “being full of fear and doing it anyway.”
Erschen spoke of the Qur’an, which teaches that “god is love.” One of his practices is educating himself about something new before making judgements.
Nikora recognized the fierce love of his mother, who raised him in central Virginia in the early 1970s. “My ancestors’ and mother’s struggle shaped a path that made me more loving and understanding of folks,” he said. He was struck by Owens’s idea that “all of us need a certain type of healing … both oppressors and oppressed are in need of healing.”
Persch, whose work centers around supporting incarcerated immigrants, added that she is driven by fierce love. “God calls each one of us to do something in this love,” she said. “We cannot not respond; the reason we did it is because every man, woman and child is a child of god. What impacts them impacts all of us. … We have to be willing to take the risks.”
Johnson spoke to this idea of individual responsibility, saying it can be difficult to figure out what you are called to do. “There are so many, many dimensions of work that need to be done – for our personal humanity and what are we working toward inside of humanity,” she said.
While working for the big picture liberation, liberation can also come in the form of day to day actions like holding a door open for someone, or practicing self-care in healing and releasing traumas.
Owens noted that the work is difficult, that “so much of practicing fierce love isn’t about being happy,” as “love takes us to some depressing places, and you have to be willing to go there.”
This love has power. “People get really disillusioned when they start loving because it changes situations. When I started to love fiercely, I found myself moving very quickly through relationships, through all different situations. People would ask, what’s wrong with you? All I was trying to do was love myself, and once I started doing that, I stopped accepting people’s stuff,” he said.
As an act of love, Erschen intends to educate himself and his children about the country’s violent history.
Nikora described the country’s situation as a sickness that needs to be cured. “Everybody here is sickened by it. Some suffer certain symptoms at a greater amount than others,” he said.
Individual action is paramount, he said, as “the only person you can actually change is your own.”
Owens brought in the ideas of black writer James Baldwin, who wrote of the moral corruption of the country after the murder of black power leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. That violence “dissolved an ethic of love,” Owens summarized, which caused people to “become fixated on the material. We begin to fixate on the object over human life.”
Johnson responded to Nikora’s idea of the sickness, saying, “if there is sickness, there is an opportunity for healing, a choice for wellness.” She found direction when she began to act on her values rather than only speaking. One sustainable strategy for her is to teach.
The first audience question asked what the opposite of love is. Johnson responded, “I automatically think fear. Not hate, because hate is just a symptom of fear. Some kind of rejection of the aspect of the other, or perceived other, that for some reason you have not been able to come to terms with yourself. It’s often more comfortable.”
An example she gave is someone saying “that person is a racist and I don’t like them,” which can avoid doing the actual work of anti-racism. “Race work is everybody’s work. That kind of statement can be a retreat into self-serving spaces,” she said.
For Morehouse, the opposite is “evil”.
Asked about how to continue in the current political situation, Nikora said he makes sure he has “lots of laughter” and makes time to do what he enjoys. He also remembers that “My people came before me and got through it.”
For Johnson, she thinks of sustainability, which is “about acknowledging limitation.” When she notices her symptoms of overriding her body’s limits, she sometimes retreats to a silent practice without stimulation. Persch similarly relies on prayer and quiet reflection.
Erschen draws on a teaching of Islam that orients him with God. Instead of asking “what am I going to do?” he asks himself, “what is God gonna do with me?”
For Owens, being a descendent of slaves reminds him “resilience and adaptability is transferred from generations,” adding “I was not gifted fragility, I was gifted determination to survive on any cost.”
Through his Buddhist meditation practices, he does not think of thoughts and emotions as “real” but part of a larger truth.
The last question prompted panelists to share how they find empathy and compassion for themselves.
Johnson never asks anyone to do anything she is not willing to do, acknowledging “overextension is not good for anyone.” Religious Studies professor Debra Majeed taught her to consider that each time she says “yes” to one thing, she is “inevitably saying no to something else.” She tries to be “honest” with herself about her needs and makes time to be “rigorous” with her self-care.
Erschen is inspired by “human interaction” creating empathy. He avoids the automatic check out lane at the grocery store, preferring to talk to a human being.
Owens acknowledged that “In order for me to be benefit to others, I have to understand myself.”
Conover offered some closing words. “A circle formed — as the panel can see you too as you see them.” He then invited the audience to express gratitude in whatever way they wish, and to receive it back. The audience sat in silence before breaking out into immense applause.