Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at risk youth, prisoners, veterans and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Lama Rod Owens. Lama Rod is an author, activist, and authorized Lama or Buddhist teacher in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. He completed the traditional three-year silent retreat to earn his title as a Lama and he holds a Master of Divinity Degree in Buddhist studies from Harvard Divinity School where he focused on the intersection of social change identity and spiritual practice. Lama Rod is also one of the featured presenters in a new 30-part free online series from Sounds True called The Wisdom of the Body. It runs from August 12th through the 21st and features presenters such as Seane Corn, Caroline Myss, Peter Levine, Reggie Ray, and others. We hope you’ll join us. You can learn more about The Wisdom of the Body free 10-day series, starting on August 12 at SoundsTrue.com.
Get ready to listen to my conversation with Lama Rod, who is really a next-generation Vajrayana teacher, opening wide the doors of inclusivity and making the Dharma fresh by bringing his whole self to the task at hand. And making the Dharma fresh by bringing his whole entire queer black self to his role as a contemporary teacher.
To begin here, Lama Rod, I want to thank you for being part of this podcast and also being part of Sounds True’s new Wisdom of the Body 10-day series that launches on August 12th. And I wanted to start off talking a bit about Vajrayana Buddhism and the teachings within Vajrayana Buddhism that relate to the body. But before we get there, I just want to introduce our listeners of Insights at the Edge to Vajrayana Buddhism. And with that, I’m going to throw it over to you and ask you, what is the essence of the Vajrayana teachings from your point of view?
Lama Rod Owens: Yes. Absolutely. Thank you, Tami, for having me on. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. So, Vajrayana, Vajrayana Buddhism is an expression or a tradition of Tantric Buddhism. And tantra began, really, in Southeast Asia roughly. And tantra is a system, that I would say is a system of very swift, rapid enlightenment. It’s a contact with our innate mind, or our innate Buddhahood in a way that utilizes the skillful means of mantras, and energy, and yoga, and guru devotion. And these principles were practiced both in Hindu Tantric communities as well as in Buddhist Tantric communities. But these principles were also transferred into Buddhist tantra, and took root within the primary country of Tibet and Bhutan, and several other countries.
But Vajrayana, particularly in the Buddhist Vajrayana, is defined as the quick path, the diamond vehicle, the swift path toward enlightenment, through the skillful means of the principles I just mentioned before.
TS: What makes it particularly swift and rapid? I imagine a lot of Insights At the Edge listeners are very intrigued, and they’re interested in that. Let’s accelerate. What does that?
RO: Well, it’s the focus on the body, it’s the focus on subtle energy of the body. And learning how to channel and work with subtle energies like prana for instance. And prana is light force and energy, sometimes we call it chi in Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, we call it lung.
So this energy is directly related to how our bodies and our minds are within union right now in this moment. So to have an agency over our prana means that we begin to impact our life force, and the quality of our awareness. So the stronger our prana becomes, the more likely we begin to experience liberation. So many of our practices within Vajrayana Buddhism are Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is an expression of Vajrayana.
A lot of our practices within the tradition are really about connecting to that energy and accelerating the experience of awareness and introduction to the true nature of our minds, which we would call Buddhahood and enlightenment.
TS: Okay. One of the things I’m really interested in, Lama Rod, as an African American queer man who’s very out, and you’re very public with your gender and sexual identity, race identity, you’ve talked about in various writings separating out the Tibetan cultural influences in Vajrayana, so we can practice the essence without the Tibetan cultural forms, which are very hierarchical, in terms of the relationship of the teacher and student. How do we make those separations without distorting the essence of the teachings in some way?
RO: Well, one of the ways that we do that is by examining the roots of tantra in southeast Asia. So we just go back to a period before Tibetan Buddhism, and we begin to look at how the communities were forming. And many of the Tantric communities were actually forming and practicing outside of monastic communities. So these were early communities of lay practitioners who loosely, within practice communities, many of whom would practice alone and would on occasion come into community to practice. They would practice the Ganachakra, or the sacred feast. Or they would chant, or do other kinds of practices together.
And that’s actually what I’m more interested in examining. What did tantra look like before Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly before the organization of monasticism, and how monasticism actually impacted the practice of tantra. Because the way that many of us are introduced to the tantra Buddhism, or Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism, is actually through the lens of monasticism. And many of us are not monastic. I would say a great majority of practitioners are not monastic.
So looking at my identity as a queer black American, Christian good man, it’s really important for me to ask myself, “How can I create a space for myself within this practice?” Because I’m more than just a practitioner, I’m a member of the clergy class. So I specifically have an aspiration, and also a mandate in many ways, to make my tradition accessible. I have to, first and foremost, make it accessible to my life and my needs, and the things that I care about and am passionate about.
So that’s the work that we’re doing, and this is all just an experiment right now. So I don’t have a guide book or a textbook at all, to guide me in trying to figure out how to do this. But what I am being guided by, however, is my practice.
So looking at the impact of the choices that I’m making, in terms of how to think about rituals and practice, and then looking at the results of that in a real, direct way. And then I begin to collect that data and begin to make other decisions about how to proceed forward. And I think Radical Dharma for me was one of the first efforts I made in trying to figure out what my voice was. And then because of Radical Dharma, I have a deep sense of my voice within the Dharma world, and now I’m moving forward to understand what my life can look like within Tantric Buddhism, fully expressed in every aspect of my life.
And this is really important. And I always say that Tibetans, they got the opportunity to express their whole life and their whole culture within their practice, and I get that right as well.
TS: Okay. I’m very inspired by what you’re saying. When it comes to expressing your whole life as you, your voice, your body, what have you had to say, “No, this part of the way I was trained in Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t fly with me, this doesn’t work with me,” what have you had to reject?
RO: Oh, so many things. And the things I’ve had to reject, I find to be very superficial, but other people view it very differently. For instance, I gave up wearing robes as a teacher. And I remember, I was running my Dharma center in D.C. in 2012-2014, When I was making that decision, and people were very upset. But they actually didn’t know how to relate with me if I wasn’t wearing robes.
At that point, I just gave them a really straightforward kind of, not ultimatum, but I challenged them to actually start relating to me, not the robes. And to challenge them to understand that it is the expression of the Dharma from the teacher and how the teacher embodies Dharma, that’s what we should take refuge in. Not any superficial wearing of robes or clothing that signal someone to be a teacher. So that was the first thing that I did.
The second thing, I just started privileging my personality. In every tradition of Buddhism, there are ways that one offers Dharma, ways that one gives a Dharma talk and teaches. And I started breaking away from that model. I wanted to have fun when I was teaching.
TS: What? What? What?
RO: Yes, I know! It’s radical! I wanted to talk about life, I wanted to talk about pop culture. I wanted to talk about the things I struggle with. I wanted to talk about all kinds of stuff, because that’s where we live.
I remember years ago, years ago, right at the beginning of my entrance into meditation practice, I remember there was a Buddhist teacher, Naan. I think it was Venerable Redeemer. And she had a documentary I think that was produced in the late 90s or early 2000s.
And in the documentary, I think she was teaching in New York City during this period. She would give Dharma talks flipping through People magazine. And I was so influenced by that. I still have that image in my mind. She would go pick up the magazine at the news stand, come to the Dharma talk, and just start reading through it, through the Dharma talk, and just start talking about pop culture and how Dharma related to pop culture. But she was like, “This is where you are. You’re in culture, you’re in the stuff, I want to bring Dharma to where you are.” And that is what I try to do in my Dharma teaching.
Another thing that I do is also centering justice in the work that I do. I don’t just want to talk about Dharma, I want to talk about Dharma as we are experiencing it within the relative. And so often, our teachings are so ultimate, so absolute. But in its basis, and that’s beautiful, that’s wonderful and I want to apply that. But I firmly believe that I can’t experience the ultimate until I begin to work with the relative. So I need my Dharma to meet me in the relative world. So I need my Dharma to talk about identify, I need my Dharma to talk about politics, I need my Dharma to talk about sex and gender, I need my Dharma to talk about Donald Trump. I need my Dharma to talk about ICE raids and the #MeToo movement, all of that, and that’s where I place my Dharma.
And then working through those issues, this is how we begin to experience these ultimate, these absolute experiences. Those are just a few things. But I think the biggest thing, and I think this is something that may be out of my control, but the biggest thing that I experience as being radical news, but I teach in all traditions. More precisely, I teach at centers for all traditions. I teach a lot of Insight Theravada a lot of spaces. I teach in Zen centers and monasteries, and I also teach on occasion in Tibetan Buddhist centers. But Tibetan Buddhist centers are rare, ironically. I’m mostly teaching in Insight and Zen centers around the world.
TS: I’m curious, why have you decided to keep the term Lama as part of your name?
RO: Yes, well, I want to reclaim that. When I say reclaim it, what I mean is that, first and foremost, I earned it. And I need people to understand that when I use the term Lama, when I am called Lama, I earned that title. I didn’t name myself Lama, I didn’t just wake up and say, “I’m a Lama now,” I went through the three-year retreat, I’ve studied for almost 20 years now. I have earned the right to situate myself as a teacher.
And this is even more important as a black queer teacher, because being both black and queer in this country, I am perpetually devalued, and mistrusted and misunderstood. One of the things I’ve had to do in my work in Dharma is to overexcel, overachieve. I don’t necessarily identify as an overachiever, but in order for my work, my Dharma and how I present myself to be taken seriously, I have to come in with a load of credentials.
So I needed to be in the three-year retreat, I needed to have a master’s degree from Harvard, I needed to have books and articles and podcasts, and all this stuff. People need to see that I’m not a joke. Because it’s so easy for me to walk into a space and people be like, “Oh, who in the hell is this guy? What kind of Dharma teacher is this guy?”
I usually walk in, I’m black, and I walk in, usually, to a Dharma talk and I have no idea what the Dharma talk is supposed to be about. So usually the first minute of the Dharma talk is me asking someone what I’m supposed to be talking about. So all of this can get really shaky for folks, and their taking me seriously.
I have to claim that and own the title Lama, because it signifies that I have put in the work to be on the teacher’s cushion, and again, for people of color, for queer people, for trans people as well, we need our credentials and our work to be recognized. Because it’s so easy for us not to be recognized in the Dharma world, and the society in general, not just the Dharma world.
TS: Lama Rod, can you tell me a bit about the process you had to go through to enter into the Vajrayana as a black queer man, and find the space for you in it? What did you have to do? What kind of inner process did you have to go through?
RO: Well, you know, it’s really interesting, because I just felt like Vajrayana chose me. And when it chose me, I thought, “Wow, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for my whole life.” So coming into practice was like remembering something that I’d forgotten, something that I knew really well, but it just escaped my mind. And then it came back and I was like, “Oh there you are.”
So the inner process, initially in our practice, I didn’t really have a practice, I just fell into it. By moving deep into the systems, actually moving into a monastery environment, where I had to move in order to begin the three-year retreat process, that was a period where I really actually had to start really thinking deeply and getting really critical practice around how I was being asked to assimilate into a culture, into Tibetan culture, which I felt really at odds with.
I say this not to say there’s anything wrong with Tibetan culture, it’s actually not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is that I already had a culture. I already had a culture, I already had history, and I worked really hard within a super-homophobic, anti-black country to claim that culture for myself. So when I came into the monastery, it was as if I was being re-colonized with another culture, a culture of another community of people of color.
So my problem wasn’t with the culture, but I just said, “Oh, I have a culture already. So thank you, but no thanks.” So when I went into training, specifically when I went into three-year retreat, I just felt as if I was wearing a costume. I didn’t really jive with changing my name to a Tibetan name. I had to have one during my training, but after that I gave it up. Because I didn’t know who that person was. I knew who Rod was. And I was beginning to understand who Lama Rod was.
So that process that I went through, it was really about just staying very clear about who and what I was, but coming into a Dharma practice that I struggled to channel who and what I was. And that is how I was able to occupy the space of being authentic and being myself. I think ultimately, that’s all I’m trying to do is to be myself. To inhabit my body, to inhabit the culture that I come from, to inhabit race and to inhabit gender. To see it as being very important, but also to see the illusion of it at the same time. And the illusion and the reality of identity is important for me to hold both of those views. It is not my path to privilege one view over the other, but to hold both views as one. That was really altering the kind of clergy I came into deeper in my practice.
TS: You know, I asked you, Lama Rod, what about Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan cultural trappings, did you have to reject? And equally, I’m curious about your own cultural upbringing in the black Southern church that you wanted to maintain and keep intact as part of your authenticity, and how you’ve done that.
RO: Well, initially what I think about is the black oral tradition and communication style within black communities, which all derived from early West African communication styles.
When I was growing up, talking shit was a practice that deepened our belonging to the community. But from the outside, people would look at that and say, “Oh, that’s so mean, that’s harsh. That’s inappropriate.” But for us growing up, it was how we identified each other, that’s how we determined who was safe and who we could trust. So that kind of communication style, I weaved directly into my Dharma, within Dharma circles.
Of course we have the eight-fold path. And one of the things along the eight-fold path is appropriate speech. And that can get really rigid, particularly in a Dharma culture that’s dominated by white folks and Asian teachers, and Asian practitioners. And it can seem especially rigid for those coming out of the black community, where speech was very playful, it was very direct, it was very colorful.
I know people get really shocked—mostly white people get really shocked by the way that I talk. But for many people of color, particularly black folks, it is inviting. It is something that they trust.
From how we were raised, I also really value community. And a lot of Dharma communities don’t actually understand what community is. I grew up in a black neighborhood, as well as a black church in the South. And that was necessary, because we had to live together, we had to worship together, because of systematic oppression. We had to be together in order to survive the system. We had to survive the Klan, we had to survive Neo-Nazis, we had to survive Jim Crow, we had to survive the remnants of slavery. All of that, we had to survive together. So we formed this kind of community where people really relied on one another, and we really engaged with one another.
And that was hard—I’m not saying it never happens, but I want to say it was hard—for us to exclude people, to really marginalize people and put people out of the community, because we knew that that often meant death for members of the community. So I embrace this idea of a really intimate, close community, but it’s something that I don’t see a lot of in Dharma communities.
And a third thing that I will just briefly mention is, from my community, from my church especially, I embrace this, I would call the sense of struggle. And also relating to struggle, resiliency. I was raised to struggle, which is to say I was raised to work. I was raised to understand that usually I’m starting from the bottom. So I have nowhere to go but up. So I’m used to work. I come from a family where everyone worked, very hard, several jobs, where people sacrificed so much so that my generation could have everything that we needed.
And it’s hard to have this kind of attitude of struggle within white-dominated sanghas right now, because everyone is so interested in comfort. And I was born into a situation where I was never comfortable. I’m never comfortable. That doesn’t mean I’m unhappy but it means that I know I’m in this really tense situation moving in the world. And I actually remember that and I bring that into my practice, and that informs how I teach Dharma.
TS: Lama Rod, I want to be a little more confessional with our audience here for a moment, and share that I myself studied and taught within a Vajrayana meditation community for close to 15 years. And one of the things that was always confusing to me was how to relate to guru devotion. You talked about it as one of the skillful means of this rapid path.
How to sort out, what aspect of being devoted to the guru teacher is true for me, and what aspect is part of Tibetan patriarchal imperatives, where the teacher is up on the throne at the front of the room, and you give yourself over totally. So sorting that out has been very, very difficult for me. So I’d love to hear your thoughts about that.
RO: Absolutely. This guru model has been something I’ve been thinking a lot around and about. I think from my perspective, to me guru devotion is first and foremost about how the guru, how this teacher is influencing me to trust my own practices and to trust myself. And that was something that I sensed early on in my practices around gurus.
So we have a practice in Vajrayana called guru yoga, and traditionally it’s a very early practice that we do, as a way to introduce us to the Vajrayana path. So going through that early guru practice, it was just really startling for me, because I wasn’t raised to trust anyone, including a guru, a teacher, or even a minister. I always had to reserve something, because it always felt dangerous to really trust people. So as I continued this practice, I really began to see that the guru, as this person, has this ability to mirror back my own wisdom back to me, my own devotion, or rather, my own compassion, my own love, my own kindness, and so forth.
And I just felt like that was what I was taking refuge in. That was what I was devoted to. I was devoted to the ways in which the guru was showing me something about myself that was incredible. My relationship to the actual teacher themselves, I had to understand early on that the teacher was human. But there were aspects of a teacher’s mind that function as a mirror, that kept showing me things about myself that I could start trusting, and start loving and celebrating.
So my devotion was both to myself, and also to the mind of the guru. My devotion necessarily wasn’t to the humanity of the teacher. Which I saw as being fallible, quite honestly. I saw particularly my group’s teacher making all kinds of mistakes and later on, there were so many other mistakes I had no idea about in the beginning of our relationship. And that was deeply hurtful, and that was a tough period for me to move through. But at the end of the day I realized that I had always been taking refuge in what my teacher had been showing me about these innate qualities in my own experience.
So I actually learned how to fall back into being held by these aspects in my life, and my mind, that my teacher had shown me. I didn’t have any doubt necessarily in the Dharma, because I knew that to me, the Dharma wasn’t the problem. It was simply our struggle to embody the Dharma, that’s where we could get into trouble. And no matter how enlightened in real life someone may be, they’re still showing up and manifesting with earthly sorrow. That enlightened being still has to have a relationship to their ego in order to be in a relationship to us, so they can teach us, they can guide us, they can offer us instruction.
So I saw all this complexity early on. And I think that—who knows, I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I do know that this is something I feel really deeply consoled by. And I do experience a deep decreasing of violence in my own experience, and a deep increase of love and compassion for myself and others. So something has to be working about this.
TS: One of the things, Lama Rod, that I was moved by in this conversation we’re having right here, is when you said that when you first started getting introduced to the Vajrayana practices, it felt like a remembering to you, of something that was innate in your body, your body knew it. So I’m curious if you could share with us some early practice experiences you have that related to the body, that felt like a remembering to you.
RO: Well, I think first there was an awareness of the body practice too, that we’re just learning how to recognize the physical reality of a body. And that was something that was so radical but also really familiar, where I would go, “Of course I can feel the body. Of course I can focus on these aspects of my physical body. That makes sense, who wouldn’t do that?”
But there were practices like tonglen, thinking and sending, which is a body-based practice. So when I first started casting that, I was like, “Oh, this is so simple.” I breathe in the suffering around me, and I breathe out this enlightened attention, this bodhicitta, into the world around me, and I just felt grateful to have a practice where my whole body was being invited into the practice.
And then there were practices around our system of physical yoga within Tibetan Buddhism, and I learned those really basic practices as a lay practitioner. And then when I went into the three-year course. I was introduced to the whole physical aspect of Tibetan yoga. And again, that was something that I felt helped to complete disciple teaching for me.
I think one of the things I was looking for early on in my practice was somehow to make friends with my body. And I came into practice because I was struggling with mental illness—severe depression precisely. And I have started really getting into physical practices, so I was jogging, and running, and going to the gym, and doing a little bit of yoga. And I felt as if coming into meditation actually complemented everything I was trying to do in terms of coming back into my body, and using my body as a means to ground my awareness within the relative.
So those were some of the practices there, and then over time, from the beginning of the practice up until now, I’ve really gone deeper into the sense of what it means to be embodied as a practitioner and how to engage an aspect of embodiment in all the practices that we have in the tradition.
TS: You mentioned you came to the practice and that you were suffering as a young person, from severe depression. And if I can ask you, do you still fall into severe depression, or do you feel that since you’ve been engaged regularly within the Vajrayana practices, that doesn’t come up for you anymore?
RO: It doesn’t. Clinical depression does not come up for me anymore. I may have experiences of sadness or hopelessness, but those are just experiences, and I feel very clearly that those are very different than clinical depression.
But for me, clinical depression, it was something that I worked with, without medications and pharmaceuticals. And I used exclusively lifestyle changes—nutrition, exercise, yoga, meditation, to work through that. And that was just in my case. But I feel that so many people need to honestly examine what they need in order to work with any form of mental illness, and that includes meditation. Both pharmaceuticals, but also natural modalities that are available to us more and more now. And it’s even more powerful when we put that into conversation with Dharma practice.
So I don’t believe Dharma practice should be exclusively used for mental health, but I think it should be just a conversation with other modalities, including medication.
TS: Do you have a perspective now on the severe depression, clinical depression you experienced, that maybe is different in retrospect, how you see it?
RO: For me it really was, it was biological, it was chemical, and it was also energetic. And it was something, it was an experience I’d had for years. So I realized that I had been depressed for years, even I guess since high school or even before that. And I had come into relationship with depression maybe about age 24, 25. And that’s when I started addressing the depression. And that’s also when I started getting really interested in meditation at the same time.
So I think bringing all of those modalities together with nutrition and exercise and meditation, I’d also been in therapy for a little bit. I think all that came together to pull me through this experience, to bring some stuff into balance. And I couldn’t have done that without the body, I couldn’t have done that without the focus on the body and actually starting to take care of my physical self.
TS: Yes. Okay, so I want to talk more about this embodiment. There’s a quote from one of your blog posts: “When we feel at home in our bodies, we feel at home in the world.” And I think so many people are drawn—I know I was drawn—to deep spiritual practice because I didn’t feel at home in the world. I felt like an alien of some kind.
And finding my way into the body did help me feel at home in the world. What I’d love to know is, for people who have specific challenges feeling at home in their body, maybe it’s because of trauma, or maybe it’s because they somehow feel that their body won’t be accepted in the world, because it’s a certain shape, size or sexual orientation. Talk about how the Vajrayana approach helps you, even if you feel challenged in some way to be in your body in the world.
RO: I feel as if Vajrayana has this unique practice in which we’re able to transform the energy of hate and aversion into love and appreciation for ourselves and for others. And I think it does that transformation by helping us understand that we are not our egos. That the ego itself is an illusion and we are Buddhas, we’re walking, talking, living breathing Buddhas in this moment. And practices, like visualization, for instance, helps us to relate to a more compassionate, more loving, more enlightened expression of who we really are.
And for me, that was so important. For instance, we have the deity, female Buddha, Tara. And our practices associated with Tara partially is about, let’s imagine ourselves as Tara. Imagine ourselves as the very embodiment of compassion. Imagine ourselves as beautiful and radiant, and divine, and sacred, and feminine. These for me are qualities of deep healing, because they actually bring a space to my experience of contracting around the sense of self.
So when I go into a deity practice, when I am imagining myself like the deity, I am actually being encouraged to relax. And as I relax, my fixation on ego begins to dissolve more and more, and I begin to have the capacity to turn my attention away from the ego, into these experiences of wisdom and love and compassion, and joy. And those are qualities that are naturally pervasive in the mind, and these are the same qualities that I begin to more consciously connect to, even outside of a deity practice. So these are things that I rely on now because they’ve been made apparent to me through practice.
So that’s how I’ve slowly over the years come into a deep appreciation of my body. And this is something I’ve practiced all day, and every day, and all the time. When I go out into the world, you know, I’m a person of size. So I’m a big guy, I identify as fat. So when I go out into the world, I know that there are images, assumptions, prejudice, there are feelings of contractedness in my body.
And I’m able to hold that and at the same time, I’m able to say, “I’m not that. I’m not these projections. I’m much more than that, I’m Tara, or I’m Chenrezig, or I’m a whole list of other deities that I can think about and embody. But I am still in this body.” So my body, my color of my skin and my fatness, everything. Everything is an expression of the deity, of a divinity, of a sacredness, of a compassion, of a kindness. And that’s how I embrace my body now, as someone coming from a place of deep, deep shame around bodies. Not just my body, but also the expression of sexuality from this body as well.
TS: So this idea that we could meditate with Tara and become Tara, could we actually do that together, Lama Rod? All of us, all of us listening, whatever shape, size, gender, orientation, right now. Could we do that? No matter how I feel about myself, whatever. Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Guide us through it.
RO: Okay. Okay, great. So we’ll start just by getting comfortable, coming into a position that’s comfortable for you. And just starting with a few deep breaths, and I want you to breathe through the nose and out from the nose. So breathe in deeply into the nose, down into the lungs, the diaphragm, filling the chest, right. And just releasing that breath again through the nose. And doing that three times, at your own pace.
And so after our breathing, bringing our attention to our mind and for a moment, reflecting on what it feels like to be the recipient of kindness, of compassion. And you can think specifically about situations where someone has been really kind or compassionate towards you. And I want you to remember that experience, but even more so, I want you to remember what it felt like for someone to express this kindness and compassion towards you.
And imagine that this feeling of compassion and kindness is an experience that you begin to feel as warmth within your heart center. And slowly begin to feel that warmth spread throughout the body. So again, this warmth is the energy of compassion that you generated for yourself, having remembered being the recipient of kindness and compassion.
So stay in that energy circling into the body. I want you to contemplate Tara. And when I say contemplate Tara, I want you to start telling yourself, repeating to yourself over and over again, “I am Tara. I am Tara.”
And Tara is the female Buddha of compassion. She is often portrayed as a young, beautiful woman, she is green in power, adorned with all kinds of silks and jewels. She wears a crown, a diadem, necklaces and chains of gold. She is wearing really fine, colorful silks. And she’s sitting on a lotus. And she is sitting with her right leg extended, as if she is ready to jump off of the lotus to be a benefit to anyone who calls her name. She is glowing with this radiance, and that glow is radiating from her whole body. And that glow, that radiance fills up the entire space around her.
So when we say, and tell ourselves, “I am Tara,” allow ourselves to slowly become Tara herself. And to slowly transform into Tara, or in an instant we become Tara. A radiant woman sitting on a lotus, green in color, adorned in silks and jewelry, her right leg extended. “I am Tara.”
And deities do not appear as solid entities. They are the experiences of energy and light, so our bodies become very lucid, very spacious, very open. It’s like the body is a balloon, filled with this air, this energy of compassion. So for a few moments, resting our mind within being Tara in this moment.
And now slowly, turning our attention back to our minds. And as you sit as Tara, in this energy of compassion, I want you to imagine that you begin to dedicate the merit of this practice out to all beings by saying, “May I, as Tara, liberate all beings from the cycle of old age, sickness, death, through a power of my deep intrinsic compassion. And my compassion is my deep wish that all beings, including myself, that we all may be free in suffering.”
So in this moment, we slowly begin to let go of our identification as Tara. And we come back to ourselves, to whomever we are in this moment, in this life. But as we come back to ourselves, we are remembering that at any point, whenever we need, we can become Tara.
TS: Lama Rod, the fast path indeed. Thank you.
RO: Yes, absolutely.
TS: Thank you. What a great practice to introduce our listeners to. I just have two final questions for you.
TS: One is that I was reading in Tricycle magazine how along with Justin von Bujdoss, you have launched a new virtual sangha that’s aimed at a type of radical inclusivity. And I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about it, and what you’re up to with this.
RO: Yes, absolutely. So this new project, this new sangha is called Bhumisparsha. And Bhumisparsha is the earth-touching mudra that the Buddha initiated upon his entrance into enlightenment, where he asked the earth to validate his right to be enlightened.
So Bhumisparsha is something that Lama Justin and I have been thinking about for a couple of years. And last year, we really started thinking more critically about what this could look like. Both of us come out of the Karma Kagyu Lineage school of Buddhism, and we were getting really, really frustrated with the amount of violence that we were witnessing. The amount of correction, the levels of hierarchy, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, anti-blackness. You know, we were really getting deeply triggered by that.
And we decided to think about a way for us to create something for our students, initially. For our students to be a part of where we could continue these teachings, but it was in a context where there were stronger ethical guidelines and paths, and also where we would openly and unapologetically censor the work of justice within the teachings.
And that gave rise to Bhumisparsha, and we had our first on-site residential retreat last December down in North Carolina. And we called it Healing the Heart of the Past. So one of our main practices was chu, so chu is the practice of severing, passed down from Tibetan lineage, but also has reached within India as well.
But mostly chu is a Tibetan practice. And we wanted to have this experiment, which is, how do we use chu to address the reality of racial trauma in the South? So we gathered folks together for a retreat, and one of the practices that we did was actually bringing in the history of racial violence within the order that we were practicing, into the practice itself. And then we went out into the world and we went to a couple sites, where racial trauma may have occurred, or racial violence may have occurred, including cemeteries, and abandoned properties in the area that we were in.
So that’s the ethic that we want to continue with in the work, is to always bridge these traditional practices within the tradition, with the things that we’re facing together, as communities and as individuals.
TS: That is so righteous, Lama Rod. What good work. Okay, last question for you. I heard you’re working on a new book that’s about love and anger, and I thought, that’s an interesting combination. Tell me a little bit about it.
RO: Yes. So the book is called Love and Rage. It comes out of all the dialogues and frustration that people have brought to me since the 2016 election. And for me, I had no intention of writing a book on anger, because I felt as though I had nothing to say. I may still have nothing to say, it depends how people receive the book.
I wanted to write a book where I didn’t just talk about anger, because I don’t think people need that book right now. There are plenty of books about anger and working with anger. But Love and Rage is really about the woundedness and the hurt beneath the anger, and how we’re able to take care, or how we should be able to take care of the woundedness beneath the anger, in order to have agency over energy and anger itself.
So when we have agency over anger, then we’re much more likely to channel the energy of anger to benefit others, and promoting the greater good, instead of just responding to anger habitually and creating a lot of harm and violence.
This work is rooted within tantric anger within Vajrayana Buddhism, where tantric anger is viewed as an expression of compassion, only because of the presence of bodhichitta which allows us to have a sense of compassion within the anger that we’re experiencing.
TS: Lama Rod, I love what you’re up to. I feel really connected with you and your work, and grateful. Grateful that we’ve had this conversation and that you’re participating in our Wisdom of the Body series. Thank you.
RO: Awesome. Thank you so much.
TS: The Wisdom of the Body free online summit takes place between August 12-21. Come join us, you can find out more at SoundsTrue.com. Lama Rod Owens is one of the presenters, along with Seane Corn, Reggie Ray, Peter Levine, Carolyn Myss, and many others, 30 presenters in all. And Lama Rod Owens is the co-author of the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, co-written with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, and Jasmine Syedullah.
Lama Rod, if people want to find out more about what you’re up to with this new virtual sangha and other activities, how do they stay in touch with you?
RO: They can go to my website at LamaRod.com, and for Bhumisparsha we have a website, Bhumisparsha.org. Bhumisparsha.org. Or you can just Google us. I’m not responsible for any drama that comes up on a Google search about me!
TS: Very good. Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.