Rod Owens earned the title “lama,” or teacher, from his own root teacher, the Venerable Lama Norlha Rinpoche, after completing the traditional three-year silent retreat program at Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery outside of New York City. During his retreat he dealt with years of past pain and trauma and found forgiveness and compassion for himself, which he views as critical to being truly able to help others.
After completing his retreat he earned a Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School. As well as being a tantric Buddhist teacher, he also practices, studies, and teaches secular mindfulness and is a teacher with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education. He is active in social change work and co-authored a book with Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Jasmine Syedullah entitled Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation.
His gentle demeanor and willingness to bare his heart and soul make it safe for others to do the same. As he shares his stories and struggles with openness and gentle humor, he enables listeners to feel genuinely good about themselves. As his website says, “With all your flaws and foibles, you’re lovable and deserving of happiness and joy.” As a Black, queer male, born and raised in the South, and heavily influenced by the church and its community, he understands our often conflicting identities. He describes himself as “a formally trained Buddhist teacher working to be as open, honest and vulnerable as possible and help others do the same. Because on the other side of fear is liberation.”
Lama Rod spoke with me for over 90 minutes by phone. At first our conversation explored navigating the edge between sexual attraction and commitment to social justice, then evolved into a conversation on sexual wisdom. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: Can you start by telling us a little bit about what it means to be a lama?
Lama Rod: “Lama” is the Tibetan word for the Sanskrit word “guru.” So lama in the Tibetan tradition means “teacher.” It connotes a certain spiritual weight, or gravitas, usually conferred after completing a three-year retreat by the teacher who guided you through the retreat.
The MOON: What motivated you to pursue that path?
Lama Rod: Honestly, I wasn’t motivated. [Laughs] I say that because it was something that just awoke in me. I was reading a book, Cave in the Snow, about a woman, Tenzin Palmo, who did a 12-year solitary retreat, and I suddenly had the knowledge that “Oh, yes, I’m going to do that too.” It was as clear as daylight; a split-second download. I’d never thought about it before; had no aspirations; no discernment process. All of a sudden I understood that this was what I was going to do. I simply accepted it and started planning to do a long retreat, confounding everyone in my life.
The MOON: What had you been doing?
Lama Rod: I’d been living in an intentional community called Haley House in Boston, which was a community in the spirit of the Catholic Worker Movement. All the people in the house were engaged in activism and social justice and a lot of them were either Buddhists and/or meditators. When I eventually started meditating it was just a very natural thing in the house to do.
The MOON: I’ve had other Buddhists tell me that monastic life, although celibate, really amplifies, or puts a lens on, sexual preoccupations because none of that energy is being expressed.
Lama Rod: Absolutely. People think becoming a renunciate is somehow avoiding the world, along with our instincts, appetites, and desires. That’s not the case. You’re actually moving deeper into the nature of these instincts and desires. So going into retreat I came face to face with my sexuality. Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism; they’re all synonymous, though these days I prefer the term Tantric Buddhism. It’s a tradition that really confronts ideas of gender and sexuality through practices that help you to realize that these attributes, and identity in general, are quite fluid, and actually quite illusionary. You’re brought into that realization very intimately and told to sit and experience what fluidity feels like. You come face-to-face with the ways in which you struggle really aggressively to solidify sexuality and gender, and the ways in which you believe in it so earnestly.
Fluidity challenges all of that. The rug keeps being pulled from under you. The message you keep getting and the experiences you keep receiving are that no, this is just an illusion. You’re actually not this idea of a man, you’re much more than that. You’re these other things as well. Your suffering sometimes comes from the ways in which you’re desperately trying to plant yourself somewhere so that you can have an identity. It can be easier to be in the world if you can just name yourself.
The MOON: Is that an assignment on retreat: to imagine yourself another gender?
Lama Rod: Yes. We become various deities. Sometimes the deity is female so you become a female deity. The point is to disrupt the ego; to realize that you’re not who you think you are, so you pretend to be something else, even for a second. Soon it starts dissolving your fixation on this self that you think you are.
The MOON: It seems like it would also develop empathy or compassion.
Lama Rod: Absolutely. When you associate with a deity and ask to take on the qualities of the deity, be they compassion, love, kindness, fierceness, equanimity, or whatever, your own essential fluidity becomes quite apparent. Even coming out of the retreat I noticed how my attraction, my sexuality, was wider. My own self-love was also deepening. As you get more and more glimpses of the vastness of your true ultimate nature, you realize, “Oh, all this shit I’ve been believing about what people said I was is actually a lie.” Then you start having a direct, deeper experience with your true nature. I realized that my attraction was so much broader and wider after leaving retreat because I loved myself enough and trusted myself enough to appreciate how everyone around me was attractive in certain ways.
I also think that the self-love I experienced in retreat began to decolonize my sexuality and my sexual desire. For many years prior I didn’t see people like me as attractive. I often found myself very much attracted to white men and to slim, muscular men, rather than to heavier-bodied black men like myself. That was something I was ashamed of. But in retreat I realized that idealizing this one masculine form was just another aspect of my cultural conditioning; it didn’t have any inherent reality in me. For the first time I really began to love and value my own body and my own sexuality.
The whole process enabled me to see beauty in all kinds of bodies—in all races, all body types, and in different gender expressions and performances. But ultimately what I have to deal with, too, is that I am attracted to masculinity—to this basic, raw expression of masculinity, which can be performed in all kinds of bodies: cisgender men, masculine-performing women, transgender men. Wherever masculine energy is expressed I find myself attracted to it. But to be clear, this attraction isn’t always sexual.
I’ve come to consider one of the primary benefits of my time in retreat—and perhaps it is the radical revolutionary practice of our time–that is, embodiment. I am now a person at home in my body. My body and mind are partners; they’re linked. I bring both of them together into every interaction and situation. This definitely slows me down, but it also keeps me grounded and healthy. I now listen to my body as much as my mind, because my body has its own wisdom, which is just as important as the wisdom of my mind.
The MOON: You mentioned that you find yourself attracted to all kinds of bodies now, but being a spiritual teacher I’m presuming you’re not able to act on all of those.
Lama Rod: Absolutely. I think it’s really important to admit that we’re attracted to people. As a spiritual teacher my practice is first and foremost acknowledging and accepting that I do have physical, sexual attractions to many people. However, as a spiritual teacher there’s an ethic concerning how I relate to bodies that I’m attracted to. As a Buddhist, my basic ethic is to do no harm; to limit the violence that I commit towards myself and others. So as a teacher I cannot engage in any kind of sexual relationship with a student or a mentee because there is a power hierarchy.
That means when I seek sexual relationships it’s always outside of my spiritual communities. This, actually, is a big part of how I maintain boundaries with my students—by having a satisfying personal life with others.
The MOON: Does it create a kind of split in your life, not being able to be a sexual being within your spiritual community?
Lama Rod: I don’t see sexuality and sexual expression as being outside of my spiritual practice, even if it’s outside my spiritual community. All of my relationships become a container where compassion and care can be practiced—even if the relationship is short-term and primarily sexual. That’s how I understand sexual relationships—as an expression of compassion and care. I am concerned for the pleasure of my partner as much as I am concerned with my own. Part of my contract is to ensure that my partner enjoys the experience as much as I want to enjoy the experience.
The MOON: Obviously sexuality and social justice are two important reasons people come together. Do you have a hierarchy of needs that governs that?
Lama Rod: My hierarchy of needs actually is sleeping and being alone; being silent. But beyond that, when I’m not doing those things, sex is important for me, but not imperative. Sexual expression is a profound way that we can connect with someone and share an experience of body and mind. But it’s not the only way I experience intimacy in the world. I think when we come together in communities we’re ideally building a kind of intimacy because it involves vulnerability. Sexual expression is also based on vulnerability; about opening up to someone and showing parts of yourself, both physically and emotionally, that you don’t show to everyone.
Community is the same way. We come together and practice vulnerability. Social justice communities, especially, should be places where we can practice vulnerability and get assistance dealing with the discomfort and pain we experience being in the world. The danger is that when we open up and show our most intimate, deepest struggle, we can get hurt and traumatized when our partner or our community does not know how to be a safe container for our truth.
The MOON: I don’t know too many communities where people have the time and emotional capacity to be there in that way for each other.
Lama Rod: Exactly. I advise people all the time to “go where you’re loved.” For most of us, there aren’t a lot of places that qualify. That’s why so much of my work in the world is helping to create these communities of authentic love and vulnerability. To do that, I have to model what it looks like to be loving, to be in love with myself, to be in love with others around me, and to be vulnerable.
This is the primary teaching of the communities I’m forming around me, that of radical presence. How can we be radically open? How can we take risks? How do we have the conversations that begin to build communities where we can actually be ourselves? And how do we leave communities where we’re being hurt over and over? If you don’t have a community where this kind of radical openness and vulnerability is being practiced then you leave and you may have to create your own.
It’s the same thing that we have to do in intimate relationships too: stop settling for all the bullshit. If you keep getting hurt, then leave. Do the work so that next time you seek partnership, it’s with people who are able to meet you where you are. It’s not impossible, but you have to know that’s what you want, and you have to know you deserve it. And sometimes it means you have to be alone. I have learned the most when people have stopped putting up with my own bullshit and have walked. The walking throws it back in my face as work I need to do.
Even if I have a one-time sexual hookup I’m always going to communicate as much as possible, I’m going to practice love and compassion as much as possible, and I’m going to have fun. If I can’t express compassion, and love, and vulnerability then it’s not fun, and I can’t go through with it. Because it’s not just about sex; it’s actually about experiencing this kind of intimate exchange.
The MOON: So what might it look like to be able to constructively hold another person’s vulnerability in a community setting?
Lama Rod: In a community setting it means that we’re witnessing, we’re being present to someone’s opening. We’re not flinching, we’re not arguing, we’re not judging; we’re just witnessing. Basically, if someone starts sharing something then you start listening. You’re not planning an argument, but you’re inviting the opening to continue by being interested in what they have to say.
That’s where we need to get to: where everyone feels as if they’re safe enough to share something and not get marginalized, judged, or criticized. Which is not to say that people can’t offer feedback, but first and foremost they have to allow space for someone to present their experience. Once that has happened, others can share their experience, and there doesn’t have to be conflict if the experiences differ. It can just be people sharing the same space together.
The MOON: You’ve said that on the other side of the fear of vulnerability is liberation, but it sounds like it’s excruciating.
Lama Rod: Of course. If liberation were easy everyone would be doing it.
The MOON: Okay, but you signed up for 24/7 excruciation.
Lama Rod: Yes, but the pain and suffering isn’t where we stay. We move through it. But you actually have to move through it in order to see that it’s teaching you how to make different choices and become free. Otherwise we waste our pain and suffering, instead of listening to it. Our suffering is telling us, “I’m here because you chose for me to be here. You chose to be in certain relationships, in certain spaces, you’re choosing to buy into certain narratives and get lost in certain kinds of mentalities. You can make a different choice and have a different experience.” So we begin to make different choices and we see that the experience of suffering begins to change.
By the way, pain and suffering are two different things. Pain is a sensation that’s very cause-and-effect. If I break my leg it’s going to be painful. That’s always going to be the reality. Suffering, however, is optional; it’s a layer we add on top of pain. You can see it in the way someone becomes aggressive because they don’t want to be present for the pain. That’s a choice they’re making. Once we start making the choice to be present to the pain, our suffering begins to decrease.
The more we’re able to let go of the roots of our suffering, the more space begins to open within us and around us. Within that space is a kind of wisdom that involves seeing clearly the ways in which we are really, deeply uncomfortable with so much of life. Seeing it helps us to actually form strategies for being present. As you’re willing to experience uncomfortable moments instead of running from them, you enter longer states of happiness.
In other words, happiness emerges from the space that we gain as we begin to work with our suffering. That is actually how we’re able to move through the world, embracing the difficulty that arises, because you have this spaciousness and this happiness that actually supports the movement itself. So you don’t get stuck in the suffering; you notice that it is wrapped in spaciousness and happiness.
This is how people die happy. As a hospital chaplain I sat with a lot of people at the time of their death and I saw a lot of people celebrating dying. I was floored. “Wow. How?” Because yeah, it’s painful. There’s some suffering. But there was also such a contentment, a peace, in people who had lived their lives in a way they felt so good about that they were ready to move on. There was very little clinging. There was a kind of faith that they had done everything they could do and they were welcoming the next stage. I was so moved by that.
The MOON: Can you tell us how you negotiate coming together with a partner out of sexual attraction versus coming together out of shared vision for social justice? Does one of these take precedence over another in your personal life? Do you look for the conscious, social justice person and then hope to be attracted to them? Or do you let who you’re drawn to lead and hope that the conscious partnership will come later?
Lama Rod: I think attraction is complex and multilayered. I can initially be attracted to someone whose values and ethics don’t line up with mine, but it’s not going to last very long. If I am just hooking up, I’m not so concerned with that. I will strive to do no harm in the experience and have fun and help my partner have fun. Yet in longer-term relationships, what’s most important is alignment in ethics and vision for one’s life. For me, being in a conscious relationship means that I’m not spending a lot of time fighting you or educating you. We have to share a commitment to living a just life and working towards just communities. If that’s not there then I can’t communicate safely; and if I can’t communicate safely then I can’t be with you.
This is another way that embodiment shows up for me. When our awareness is in tune with our physical bodies then they’re collaborating. They’re speaking together. The body doesn’t lie. It always tells the truth. So as I move through the world I use my body to pick up cues that my thinking mind can’t discern. What is my gut telling me? What is my intuition telling me that I feel in my body? I listen to that information. If I feel relaxed in my body when I’m with someone, that’s a really good sign. If I feel tension in my body, especially in my gut, when I’m around someone, then maybe that’s a clue that something’s not right for me.
Some people believe that we can’t always bring our politics into relationships. I think we absolutely have to. If our politics are really important to us, we have to be with people who understand our politics and share them. Otherwise, there will be ethical conflicts. Ultimately I think that once you invest in being embodied and you listen to both the mind and body together, you begin to discern a kind of truth about people, or about a relationship. The earlier you’re able to listen to your mind and body together, the less likely you will find yourself in a relationship that is unsuitable for you. And the sexual expression within a relationship is even more fulfilling when we are with people who align with our politics, our ethics, and so forth.
The MOON: Well, I agree now, but I’m 64. [Laughs] My life could have turned out differently if I’d been more discerning earlier on.
Lama Rod: Absolutely. When I started listening to my body I started having really different experiences. I started making different choices. And I started actually learning what partners I should be with and which ones I shouldn’t. The relationships that have been really important for me have started off talking about how we feel about the world, about justice, about gender, about the work we’re doing in our lives to be better people. During that period of discernment my body and my mind were really relaxing into the experience. And the physical attraction deepened as I realized how aligned we were in other parts of our lives. I think so many of us are settling because we feel as if, “This is the best I can do.” I used to feel that, because of the body I was born into and other circumstances, I could only have certain kinds of relationships and I had to be okay with what I was given. That came from a severe lack of self-esteem and depleted self-love and self-compassion. I had this energetic mentality that no matter how out-of-sync someone was with me, if they were attracted to me I had to be grateful for that, because so many other people weren’t attracted to me.
As I began practicing, and moving through retreat, and coming back out into the world, I had to really challenge that mentality and assert that I deserve to be with someone I’m compatible with. Maybe I’ll have to be really patient, but that’s okay because I’ve also taken on some of the tasks people often rely on their partners for—like appreciating myself, and loving myself more and more. Of course, it’s wonderful when someone else shows up and appreciates you; but I’m not in need of it because I can give it to myself.
So now I seek relationships because I want to take care of someone and I also want to be taken care of. I want there to be a balance of care.
The MOON: Is that hard?
Lama Rod: As a teacher it’s easy to fall into the role of giving, which can become my default setting, which gets in the way of being cared for myself. It’s easy to minimize my own need for care. I’ve noticed, however, that it’s my mind that tells me, “Oh, you don’t need help,” but my body is more likely to say, “Actually, you could use some.”
Another edge for me is being in a relationship where a partner offers support and care that I don’t usually get and then we fall into roles. I do all my caregiving in the world and then rely on my intimate relationship to replenish what I have given to others.
So then it might become a practice for me to be conscious of how I accept generosity from a partner. That can be such an incredible lesson. The flip side of it is to learn how to be really attentive to the ways that you return care. In conscious relationships we should be asking, what do I need and what does my partner need? And you communicate with one another. Maybe you’re in a situation where you can’t possibly give what your partner needs and then you have to discern together whether certain needs can be met beyond this particular relationship. All of it—communicating and listening to our bodies—becomes a space for discernment to happen.
The MOON: Can you give us an example of that?
Lama Rod: I think open and polyamorous relationships are interesting. They’re two different practices, but a core that links both of them is the recognition that we may have needs and desires that are important to us that maybe are not met in our primary relationship. So we may have to create ways to honor and explore our connections to other people while protecting our primary relationship. People have to communicate what the needs are, what the boundaries might be, and so on, so that the primary relationship can be protected while the partners explore different relationships.
It’s incredibly important to have these conversations if indeed people have these desires. I’m not saying everyone should be in an open or polyamorous relationship. They take an incredible amount of maturity, and there has to be mutuality; it can’t just be the interest of one partner. Multiple significant relationships take time and communication. They require openness, vulnerability, processing, all of which takes a lot of energy. You have to be honest with what you need and you have to be honest with what you’re willing to give.
If you are not in a relationship and just enjoy sex with different partners, it’s still important to have some clarity about how you define being safe. This is different for everyone. We also have to be honest about our reasons for engaging in this kind of practice. Does it stem from sexual trauma or sexual addiction? No matter what choices you’re making in terms of expressing your sexuality you have to be honest. You have to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sex can then become a profound way that we shape our character and our moral selves. My sexual relationships have helped me develop a sense of what’s healthy for me, how I have valued or devalued myself, and how I can make choices to protect and value myself and others.
Sex positivity is important too. We’re not a sex-positive nation at all, even though sex is everywhere. We’re sex-saturated but not sex-positive. That comes from a lot of sexual trauma, and a lot of body shame. The dharma has helped me to critically examine my own body shame, my shame around sexuality, and to do some healing work around both. And of course this led me to teaching and providing resources for other people doing the same work for themselves.
The MOON: That’s a lot to take on.
Lama Rod: It is. It’s a lot of positions to hold. I found myself recently bordering on sounding judgmental towards people who weren’t thinking about open relationships. [Laughs] It would have been easy for me to dismiss them saying something like, “Well, you’ve just been colonized by the white supremacist, hetero, able-bodied, monogamous culture and you need to break out of that.” That’s judgmental.
Instead, as a spiritual teacher I try to help people make the best decisions for them at this point in time. I want those decisions to be supportive of their ethics, and I hope that their ethic is about getting free. I can’t tell you what to do, or what choices to make, but I can help you develop a meditation practice, an awareness practice, and through it you will begin to discern what’s right for you.
The MOON: There’s a high level of anger and animosity out in the world today. As a queer Black Buddhist activist do you even attempt to engage it? Or do you only engage with people who are willing to meet you where you are?
Lama Rod: To an extent I don’t have a choice. I feel as if I’m going to be among people who might be hostile no matter what I do, even if I’m not actively arguing or pushing back. Yet my primary activity is actually just being myself. I can be in spaces that are really aggressive, violent and full of anxiety, and I don’t have to engage in it. I can use my awareness practice to erect barriers within which I can just be myself—happy and at ease. This is how I get so much attention in the world. People see me maintaining my presence in a toxic room and ask, “How do you do that? How can you go sit and talk about racism with all-white audiences?” And I say it’s because I don’t take on their work. I’m just showing up and expressing how I see things. I’m not trying to convince anyone else. I give the work back to them. That way, I don’t get drained and depleted. I’m just pointing out truths; it’s up to them to decide what to do. Afterwards, I’m going to go do something to have fun and I’m not going to think about it.
I also don’t carry certain experiences in my body, mind and spirit like some people do. I know how to let things go. I understand that change takes a lot of work, so I don’t expect people to transform just because of an experience with me. It has taken an incredible amount of self-examination on my part to get where I am, and how many people have devoted full-time effort to it? I’m committed to providing the same teachings that helped me to everyone else, but it’s up to them to go and figure out how put it into practice in their own life.