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?