On the last day of his retreat in upstate New York, newly minted Buddhist Lama Rod Owens was ready to celebrate.
Friends and family gathered for the occasion, anxiously awaiting their first glimpse of Owens in over three years. A feast was laid out, offerings were gathered, and the open road beyond the property was so inviting that Owens can still hardly believe it wasn’t all a dream.
“The world was new. It felt like a gift,” said Owens, a second-year MDiv candidate at Harvard Divinity School. “It felt like getting a new iPhone. You know, you get a new iPhone and you don’t want to use it, you don’t want to get it scratched—that’s how I felt about the world.”
Perhaps an unlikely analogy for a man who spent three-and-a-half years in the same fenced-in property in near-complete silence, free of technology, department stores, and the trappings of contemporary American life. Owens, however, rejects the idea that there is a “typical” Buddhist practitioner.
“It’s not magic,” Owens said. “Buddhist practice doesn’t mean you become a kinder person—it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. It’s more about authenticity. There are people who have done years and years of retreat in my tradition and they’re still a pain. So, it doesn’t make you less of a pain—it just makes you more aware that you are one. What’s so amazing about having had this experience is that I can love my flaws.”
For Owens, authentic practice also means addressing the flaws of modern society, from environmental degradation to racial trauma to our institutionalized fear of death. While Owens has long devoted himself to social and environmental activism, it was not until he paired those efforts with Buddhist ideologies that his life’s path became clear to him.
The three jewels of Buddhism—the Buddha, the dharma, and the Sangha—represent the pillars of the practice: one’s teachers, wisdom itself, and one’s support system as one walks the path. After growing up in a Christian church in the South, Owens was drawn to Buddhism’s candor.
“Buddhism really galvanized me because it didn’t deny the fact that it was really hard to live,” Owens explained. “At the same time, it offered a profound method of achieving mental, physical, and spiritual liberation.”
Suffering and liberation presented themselves as worthy co-conspirators as Owens embarked on the three-year silent retreat that would earn him the title of Lama. A unique feature of Tibetan Buddhism, silent retreat is an opportunity for a practitioner to immerse him or herself in the teachings of the tradition without distraction. The highly structured but monotonous days—Owens woke up at 2:30 every morning to begin his meditation sessions—presented a challenge unrivaled by any other that Owens has undergone.
“In retreat, you are psychologically getting broken down. You are completely raw and open in a way that I can’t even articulate,” Owens said. “But I just refused to leave. That’s how you get through it—you refuse to leave.”
The tenacity and self-discovery Owens has acquired through his practice is clear in his ambitious daily schedule at HDS. A chaplaincy intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a teacher at the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Cambridge, Owens is also finishing up a book deal on radical dharma. In his spare time, he participates in the Racial Justice and Healing Initiative at HDS. While such a busy schedule leaves less time for silent contemplation, Owens sees his work as a crucial part of his beliefs.
“The work has to become the practice,” Owens said. “As someone who is both a spiritual leader and an activism organizer, my activism is an extension of my practice.”
Lately, Owens’s studies at HDS and his experience interning at Brigham and Women’s has given him the opportunity to reflect on impermanence—a key aspect of Buddhist philosophy—in light of contemporary society’s pervasive fear of mortality.
“We’re living in a culture with a staunch unwillingness to look at death,” Owens said. “We have hospitals and hospices and nursing care facilities where we can just put people away, where we don’t have to see sickness and old age and dying.”
Buddhist practice, for Owens, means facing that which “scares people”—death, climate change, racial and gender oppression, and one’s own flaws. Owens said, “In many ways, fear becomes the path. Whatever we habitually avoid actually becomes what we have to do. You can’t deny the fact that you’re going to have to feel real discomfort before you can do anything else.”
A tall order, but studying at HDS has reminded Owens how essential Buddhist ideologies are to his ongoing activist work. From assisting dying patients as an intern chaplain to engaging in racial healing sessions around campus, Owens’s own career path has broadened and diversified.
“My time at HDS has helped me to completely revise how I see my purpose—I’m not so limited and focused on just end-of-life care. I’m really focused on what oppression means and how to strategize within religious traditions to transcend oppression. How do we think about that in a way where we are informed by tradition, by spirituality?”
Owens’s understanding of the world’s need for love and compassion has helped him to discern his next step after HDS: pursuing a degree in social work and counseling. Witnessing the effects of racial and gender trauma in his and others’ lives, Owens realized that Buddhist principles could bring a healing voice into the conversation.
“Anger is always the bodyguard of our woundedness. There’s the trauma, there’s the anger, there’s the rage, but healing is about moving through that. Not distancing, not distracting, but moving through it to that really fundamental sadness and hurt that’s beneath the anger,” Owens said. “In a way it is about hope, because there is a solution. You don’t just have to suffer; you can transcend suffering.”
Owens knows there is great potential for burnout in activism, but with his extensive training, he is confident in his ability to stay the course.
“Many people rely on rage to do the work. But that rage is actually extremely depleting,” Owens said. “I don’t show up out of anger or rage. I show up out of love and compassion.”
—by Caroline Matas