Buddhadharma: The generation of teachers before us is largely reaching retirement age; we’re approaching a changing of the guard. What do you feel that generation has accomplished in terms of establishing dharma in the West? And what do you see as coming next?
Rod Owens: The older generation of teachers in my tradition literally built our monasteries and retreat centers here in the West. My own monastery was built, by hand, by the first group of senior practitioners in my sangha. The first generation of Western lamas had to overcome such tremendous obstacles to enter into training. I’m deeply grateful for that, and awed by it. They made it possible for me to enter into retreat and get exposure to these particular teachings.
While they’ve given us a lot and established a lot, I’m also very sensitive to how this first generation of lamas has reproduced certain kinds of power structures that are very much a part of traditional Tibetan Buddhism but are problematic for Western communities. I think the next stage for us is to interrogate how we have reproduced different kinds of power abuse within our sanghas, and to really question the structures of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism so we can move toward a more liberating, diverse, community-based dharma.
Buddhadharma: Do you see yourselves continuing your teachers’ work, or is your task something different?
Rod Owens: Right now I see my role as modeling a new way of being in the world as a teacher. Especially for my Tibetan lineage, I want to model how we can still embody the core of our tradition while being actively involved in helping with people’s suffering. That’s easier for me to navigate because of the communities I’m a part of. My focus is on trying to be a role model and a mentor for teachers who feel like they don’t fit into the traditional ways of being a teacher. Essentially, I’m trying to model authenticity; I have to practice Buddhism where I’m at and where I’ve been put in this life. I’m not a Tibetan—I’m a black man who happens to practice Tibetan Buddhism. That’s a very important distinction for me.
Buddhadharma: So far, Buddhism in the West has been an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class phenomenon. Do you see that changing? How can we actively expand that demographic?
Rod Owens: I’ve spent a lot of time working on this issue. One thing that I confront pretty constantly is the need for people to stay comfortable in sanghas. When we start talking about racism, or more broadly how we embrace difference in sangha, the dominant group has to embrace discomfort, to look at aversion and its unwillingness to change. Creating a place at the table means you have to get up, scoot around, and get some more chairs. Many sanghas are unwilling to go there. They’re not that serious about diversity.
That being said, we have to confront this issue head-on. We have to acknowledge that Buddhism exists in the West largely as a white upper-class structure. From there, we can ask how we can challenge the way Buddhism has been constructed around the needs and aspirations of white practitioners and how we can shift that bias to create an inclusive environment for everyone. I know of a few centers looking for new locations, and I say to them, “You’re looking for a new place to meet—why don’t you go to a black community or to a really diverse part of town? Why don’t you set up there?”
Buddhadharma: In that teacher role, in dealing with racism, there can be an instinct to want to assert, “I’m not racist.” But we’re also beginning to see teachers with the courage to say, “Well, if I’m honest, maybe I am.”
Rod Owens: There is a lot of unwillingness to talk about difference, to authentically engage it. Instead, most people say, “Oh, we’re all the same.” There’s a conversation in our country right now around whiteness and how it’s a tool that’s been used to devalue other identities. This is happening in our sanghas, and it will continue to happen in our sanghas until we integrate the dharma with these painful issues. This will be one of the next great challenges for our generation.
I experience a lot of fatigue talking about race, especially in dharma communities, because there’s such a tremendous resistance to go there. I’m usually the only person of color in the room, and I’m at the front of the room. Trying to push through the dynamics and have that conversation is like trying to push through a mountain. I have a great need to see white-identified teachers start talking about racism. Not necessarily trying to do anything about it, but just to be very vulnerable around some of their feelings of helplessness. Perhaps some wisdom will arise out of that.
Buddhadharma: What do you feel it might mean for Buddhism in the West that young teachers from across traditions are in dialogue and are intentionally building frameworks for supporting one another?
Rod Owens: One of the things I struggle with in my tradition is the attitude that we need to remain separate—that if we collaborate, we’ll be contaminated and the essence of the teachings will be compromised. That’s something that I reject, because if we’re deeply internalizing and embodying the essence of our tradition, we shouldn’t have to worry about that. There’s so much wealth of insight that we can share across traditions. This model is so important for us moving forward as a generation of teachers—the future of dharma in this country, I think, will be about collaboration.
My teacher is a realized Tibetan master in his late seventies who escaped from the Communists in Tibet and established our monastery in America. After I finished my training with him, he told me I would be able to reach many people that he couldn’t, and that I should rely on that quality. I think that’s the most important thing he’s ever told me. It really empowered my practice. He knows that I’m teaching about contemporary issues like race, sexuality, gender, and integrating social change back into dharma, and he’s supportive of that.
Buddhadharma: Does technology play a role in how any of you are teaching?
Rod Owens: Facebook has recently become an important tool for me around practice questions. I’m not sharing dharma itself as much as the issues that I’m struggling to think about in terms of dharma. It’s important for people to see that I’m not just a Buddhist; I also still occupy different identities that are meaningful for me and that help me deepen my wisdom and connections to other people. You won’t see posts about what I’m having for dinner or how my day was—you’ll see posts about how I practice with racism or gender violence or trans violence or poverty, because these are the issues we have to bring into our sanghas and create a space to dialogue around.
Buddhadharma: It would seem that there are still very few dharma teachers from Generation X. Why do you think that is?
Rod Owens: Because the training in my tradition is so difficult to complete, we don’t produce a lot of teachers. Many practitioners who attend our traditional three-year retreats do so because they want to deepen their practice, but that aspiration does not necessarily include being a formal, authorized teacher. For those of us who do want to teach, many structures within Tibetan Buddhism make it difficult for Western teachers to be fully authorized and supported. Western Tibetan Buddhists are still very tied to what we call the “culture of origin”; we are deeply reliant on the support of Tibetan lamas and institutions. The only way Tibetan Buddhism will survive in America is if Western teachers become fully authorized and empowered to continue the teachings. The work is underway to develop a form of the tradition that Westerners can truly embody, so I’m optimistic we’ll get there.
Buddhadharma: The majority of Buddhist practitioners, too, would seem to be in their sixties and beyond. In some sanghas, it’s a serious concern. What are the factors that make a community feel accessible to younger people?
Rod Owens: Tibetan Buddhism struggles to be accessible because people walk in the door and are presented with a whole mythology, one that I hear over and over is an obstacle for newcomers. I’ve shifted my teaching style to lead with the essence of dharma rather than with our whole system of ritual and mythology. And since the attention span of younger practitioners is pretty short, the goal is to get to the heart of the matter and help them work with overcoming the intense discomfort that brought them to our door in the first place.