The Power To Be Radical, Vulnerable: An Interview with Lama Rod Owens

 -Bernat Font in conversation with Lama Rod Owens

Lama Rod Owens profile is surprising: young, belonging to the African-American and LGBT+ communities, recognised by the Kagyu tradition after a three-year retreat, and social activist. He likes to talk openly about issues that make us uncomfortable, without vulgarity but also without trying to be ‘correct’. According to his website, he works to be as vulnerable as possible. I wrote to him and we had a one hour conversation by Zoom. It’s condensed just a little, having needed very little editing.

Bernat Font: You live in Boston, but now you’re in New York, right?

Lama Rod Owens: Yes, I’m visiting NYC to teach a workshop titled Undoing Patriarchy with male-identified practitioners. The idea is to begin to understand the concept of privilege. That is to say, that our interactions occur in a power dynamic which is situated within identities, and how systems created around gender or race, and also within systems that provide context for how power is associated with identities.

Bernat: Interesting. How do you begin to see this? Because I can have very good intentions but, when trying to understand the point of view of communities to which I do not belong, I see defensiveness arising.

Rod: You have to put your attention there: Why do I get so defensive? What am I protecting? Why can’t I relax and listen and create space for what others are telling me about my own patterns of behaviour? It’s normal to be defensive, but we have to understand why we protect ourselves. You need to care about the person you’re in conversation with enough to take their position seriously and thus begin to challenge your beliefs. You need to be willing to divest yourself of these identities of power; but this is difficult because, for example, I am very comfortable being a cisgender man, and being a large one, because I can go down the street and usually I don’t get harassed. I need to realise that I enjoy this body and the privileges I get from it.

Bernat: Is not being harassed a power? It seems to me like a basic norm of civilised coexistence.

Rod: Ideally, it should be a basic norm. But one of the reasons we are so obsessed with being powerful is because we don’t want to be hurt. If you are weak, then others hurt us. We have conditioned us to think that we are not valid members of society if we do not accumulate power, whether it’s through status, roles, wealth, properties and then we are considered weak or not valid. We are also working with the reality that we give our power over to others without realising it. For example, beauty is a power; we tend to follow or consent very easily to people who are attractive, or who show some success. In the same way my gender performance and body size are expressions of power. I can non-verbally influence people to leave me alone.

Bernat: What opens up when we let go of this need to protect ourselves?

Rod: We begin to see who we really are, because the defensiveness prevents us from tapping into a lot of discomfort. When they tell you that something you do is harmful, defensiveness comes first because we don’t wanna take responsibility for our discomfort, and secondly because we don’t know how to interrogate this sense of identity that we’re so deeply invested in, especially an identity of being a good person. If I’m a good person, how can I do anything wrong? This idea prevents me from really living in ways that are ethically right.

Personally, I may consider myself kind, compassionate, or loving, but I don’t know what being ‘good’ is. Despite my love, my compassion and my kindness, I still do things that hurt others, and that calls into question my understanding of social goodness. I see social goodness as being equated with making people comfortable. You are good because people tell you you are good. I’m not so interested in that any more. I am interested in connecting with my basic goodness or that part of myself that is inherently good which I believe all people possess. This perspective allows for a continuous improvement, instead of the feeling that I do the right thing because I cling to a rigid moral code or the approval of people around me.

You have to be fluid, and many of us are very static, we are stuck in identities. Or we are invested in the way we don’t know how to let go of the people that we think we are and allow this process to happen, as you say, continuously.

Bernat: Speaking of fluency, or relational identity, these days I’m travelling with people I had not associated with for years, and not only do I recognise dynamics of the past but sometimes I discover myself slipping back into those dynamics. What can I do when I see myself being someone I’d rather leave behind?

Rod: Look at your priorities. It seems that you depend on being validated by your friends, you want to belong to a group and not be marginalised, so you behave in a certain way. If you disrupt that priority you’ll see the way you want to be and you’ll be willing to accept the consequences of how that disrupts your sense of belonging to this particular group. That’s why in Buddhism there’s so much caution around the company that we keep, because we’re mammals and we’ll do everything to belong. Throughout history, many of the violent and stupidest things have been done because of peer pressure. If you don’t like how you are around certain people, you need to create boundaries so you don’t do things that are not who you are and that you might regret.

Bernat: You said ‘consequences’, that’s where the fears come in. You say that on the other side of fear is liberation.

Rod: Ask yourself: What am I afraid of? Is it a legitimate fear? Is this something I should be afraid of really? These are the choices that we’re presented with in our practice: do I keep doing the same old shit or do I make a different choice? What are the consequences? I’ve had to move away from certain people, even good friends, because I don’t know how to be myself with them, and because I’m more interested in being free.

Bernat: But don’t we aspire to be ourselves and be with others, for example with neighbours we cannot choose?

Rod: That’s also a statement of privilege: some people can’t be with their neighbour because their neighbour wants them dead. That’s why I’m talking about setting boundaries: without them I put myself or others in danger. I can deal with people I disagree with, I can be in communities that are completely opposed to everything that I stand for, but I know where the boundaries are: I know certain conversations we’re not going to have, places I won’t go… To coexist we must realise that the goal isn’t to be friends, to like everyone, although you aspire to love everyone.

When there is political divide and unrest, conversations are great but boundaries are even more important. An interesting way to talk is to say: This is what I believe, and that is what you believe, but can we have some clarity around how your beliefs create violence for me? Or ask: What set of beliefs actually kills people?

Bernat: We have that divide right now here in Catalonia. Having dinner with a good friend from the opposite political view, I realised that we could explore our disagreements but only up to a certain point, because I value our friendship. I’d like to be more able to hear certain opposing views; but if I’m not, now, I’m not.

Rod: This is a very good example. You have to be clear about where the limits are because if you pass them violence begins to happen. And that’s an expression of kindness and compassion in a relationship, because it’s promoting your better self instead of wanting to go to this territory where you know you’re emotional or hurt. Also I don’t think that the goal is to agree with everyone. Just as my ideas about social justice aren’t gonna change, I understand that people with very different positions than me also feel this way.

Bernat: Agreeing with others easily becomes convincing others, and that’s already violent.

Rod: Exactly. Also, relationships don’t necessarily change with arguments. I prefer to communicate how I’m living my life and how things affect me. But to create change there has to be a courage that for me is about vulnerability and being authentic.

Bernat: How does this vulnerability manifest?

Rod: Ask yourself: How do I feel? Where is my pain or discomfort? You can’t be vulnerable if you’re always bypassing where the discomfort is. Being in tune with that discomfort begins to guide you and help you understand that other people experience the same discomfort. This softens our hearts and our interactions. Maybe I need to put up boundaries, but I also understand that you’re suffering as well. This creates another way of communicating with one another.

Bernat: If I can’t be in touch with my pain, I can’t be in touch with yours.

Rod: Right. And so much of my work is about identifying that I am both a victim and a perpetrator, I have multiple positions. If I’m angry or pissed off, I know that beneath these experiences there is just basic woundedness and this is where we can connect. Connecting through anger can be destructive, but connecting through our woundedness is much more transformative. People are being themselves when they’re sitting alone in their suffering, there is no effort to perform or put on a mask. If you’re able to sit in that discomfort, raw and out there for others to see, you give people the permission to sit in their discomfort too.

Bernat: It’s interesting to me that you teach from vulnerability, since you come from vajrayana, a tradition whose central idea is that the teacher is perfect.

Rod: Which is an illusion. But I came out of activism, direct service and communal living. I came into Buddhism because I was suffering, so it felt natural to be in contact with that suffering, I never got indoctrinated with this idea that I was perfect. However, I did learn that I have this basic goodness, this Buddha nature, or that I am already a Buddha, or intrinsically pure … however you want to think about it.

And I believed that I had layers of ignorance I had to dissolve in order to experience that basic nature. What also helped was being black and queer-identified because it gave me an understanding of power, so I never had an interest in accumulating power in the way that is emphasised in the vajrayana.

Bernat: But just as I have the potential for goodness, I also have the potential for aggression … I’ve always had difficulty with considering one of those potentials as ontologically privileged, more ‘true’. Is that because we need to convince ourselves that we can really do it?

Rod: We need to know that we’re not the violence we commit, but that there’s more. Despite what I do in the world, I have this potential to connect to something that is not violent, that it takes time to connect to but that it’s completely possible. If we don’t have that, how are we going to commit to reducing violence? What’s the point then? You need to see your goodness reflected back to you. This happens all the time, not only in meditation: we gravitate towards mentors or heroes because they reflect something interesting to us that we then seek in ourselves.

But I’m more concerned people who’ve never experienced that, that all they see reflected back to them is their own violence, and that breeds more violence. To communicate what Buddha nature is, I tell people to imagine the best food they’ve ever eaten and the ways they try to get back to that perfect dish. It’s having a glimpse of something you never forget and that you spend your life trying to recover. But if you’ve never had this before, how can you possibly recognise it if no-one points it out to you?

Bernat: What would you say to someone in a position of power or privilege who doesn’t see it and who says he does not care, who doesn’t see the need to change anything or do any personal work? How to make him see that certain things cause suffering to himself and other people?

Rod: On the one hand, it’s as if they’re saying that there’s a part of themselves they’re not willing to look at. On the other, I would communicate how what they do is impacting me. But I also get to that place where I don’t care any more, I have to recognise that sometimes I do as much as I can but that person is not gonna change, and that’s fine, it’s okay. There has to be some spark of willingness for the change to begin.

Bernat: And it’s not your job, or my job, to make that person want to change.

Rod: Well, because it becomes violence. I can enter into a gentle relationship where we’re just sharing or talking; but just as I don’t like it when they cross a certain line with me, I don’t want to cross it with other people. Sometimes it shuts people off even more. But vulnerability disarms people, you’re just honest and not talking politics, ideas or concepts, you only explain how your life is and what your experience is like. This forces other people to drop down into this way of thinking about their lives as well.

Bernat: As a secular Buddhist, I am used to Vipassana-oriented reformist discourses, a return to the pre-Theravada Pali canon, etc., and I was surprised that you have a similar discourse but from the Vajrayana. In another interview you said that Tibetan Buddhism has a certain colonial attitude, which I believe can be extended to other traditions.

Rod: Tibetans are colonised, although in the past they have also been colonisers (Sino-Tibetan history has been very complex). Coming into the West, what has happened is that because power and hierarchy are such a strong part of that tradition, it has drawn a lot of white practitioners because white communities are not really that hipped to power and hierarchy interrogation. So these practice communities have been created in which there is very little diversity, and they’re set up in a way that Tibetans maintain much of the power and authorising abilities, and they become the gatekeeper and you’re told that you have to learn things exactly as they are taught to you.

However, much of what is being taught is cultural tibetanism, and of course this is what tantra has been channeled through in that tradition. But in the West, Tibetan cultural practice is not sustainable. It’s more sustainable for white people because part of whiteness is about assimilation and appropriation. I have white practitioner friends who changed their names and wear Tibetan clothes, and that’s wonderful if that is the best expression of their practice and aspirations to get free from suffering and not bypassing the violence of whiteness through appropriation. But as someone who comes from the black community, who is also very colonised, I kinda rejected all of that, it wasn’t even a thought for me. Changing my name and wearing robes would only frustrate my practice to get free.

I think it’s important to think of what an American or Western tantra would look like. I want to engage in tantric practices that reflect my culture and how I grew up, and I have the authorisation to do that. Also, tantra has such an indigenous base that you find similar practices in cultures all over the world, even in Africa.

It’s also true that Buddhism is all Tibetans have now, that’s what makes them important in the world, so if they start giving that up and telling westerners that they can do whatever they want, they would lose something very important to their culture. And I totally get that, I’m not judging that. But I think there are ways we can work together instead of being in those hierarchies. Another issue is that Tibetan teachers don’t have a language for power, patriarchy or misogyny, and that’s one of the reasons teacher-student abuse is so rampant.

Bernat: Now that we get into the subject of abuse, statistically these incidents happen more where less emphasis is placed on monastic vows, as is the case with certain Tibetan or Japanese traditions – although the problem is not exclusively theirs. And in the West, Buddhism is, and will be largely, a lay movement, so there’s a potential danger there.

Rod: Right. Well, we have to start talking about these issues in spiritual communities. There are topics that are not encouraged to be discussed in sangha spaces and we have to push against that. We can’t expose these behaviours if we don’t have a language to talk about it. We need to provide more support for teachers, around ethics in particular, and we need more women and people of colour in power and teaching. But mostly we need to cultivate sangha spaces where these conversations can happen.

Bernat: In comparison with other Buddhist traditions, I associate tantra with the idea of transforming negative energies. What could you say about the positive force of anger?

Rod: We must understand that anger is an experience that points us to hurt and woundedness. When it is ego-centered it becomes destructive and violent; we’re back to the idea of protecting the ego. The tantric perspective is that we can decentre the ego from the energy of anger, and then that energy can easily be channelled towards benefiting other people, not just yourself. It becomes an act of compassion.

Bernat: In Barcelona, you will offer a weekend workshop entitled Radical Dharma, which is also the title of the book you wrote with Angel Kyodo Williams and Jasmine Syedullah. Why ‘radical’?

Rod: The dharma has always been radical, it’s about disrupting systems of violence by cultivating wisdom and compassion. Once those are cultivated we move to this incredible freedom: it’s inherently radical. What isn’t radical is how we restrict the dharma from getting into every single part of our lives. There’s a lot of compartmentalising: the dharma is good in these places, but I can’t be dharmic when I’m having sex, when I’m getting high, or getting drunk… We have to push ourselves to bring our practice to the things we’re shameful about, and that’s radical.

Bernat: But isn’t that like removing the role the dharma may have in challenging our behaviour? This is not about doing everything you already do but just a little more mindfully: the dharma changes what you do.

Rod: Yes, your behaviour may change but it may not. Maybe some of the things we do are socially not acceptable but are actually good for encouraging deeper wisdom and freedom.

Bernat: Do you think there is a kind of ‘spiritual correctness’?

Rod: Absolutely. There’s definitely a way we’ve been told that a dharma practitioner should be. And in the United States, this is dominated by this white, middle-class aesthetic that suggests that everything comes easily: you don’t have to get angry, or struggle, or be creative, because you’ll just get everything. My activist friends, especially of colour, tell me ‘ahh, Buddhists are white, quiet, apathetic…’ and I reply that Buddhism is not like that, even if that’s the prevailing image. Radical dharma disrupts that. And there are other Buddhist traditions that are beginning to do the same.

Bernat: Well, we’ll wait for you to investigate all these ideas here in Barcelona in March 2018.

Rod: Yes, it will be the first time that I’ll go to Europe to teach: I will also go to England, Finland, Spain and Holland. I’m really excited!