Radical Dharma

January 10, 2017
Lama Rod Owens
Lama Rod Owens / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Established with a 2011 gift from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, HDS’s Buddhist Ministry Initiative (BMI) has become a major draw for students from and of that tradition.

In fact, there are now more Buddhists at HDS than Unitarian Universalists. According to the Rev. Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, the BMI has had a profound influence on the School’s ministry studies program.

“Studying pastoral care and counseling and studying chaplaincy at HDS now is very highly inflected by Buddhism, and I think that may be a permanent development,” she says. “It’s not just that we’re preparing for Christian ministry and we try to understand other people’s traditions. If you’re going to be a Christian minister, you need to know something about Buddhist practices of death and dying, Buddhist wisdom about mindfulness, Buddhist wisdom about caring, showing compassion to other beings. That, to me, is very exciting.”

Although his serene demeanor would indicate otherwise, third-year MDiv candidate Lama Rod Owens is a big part of the excitement. A teacher at the Natural Dharma Fellowship of Cambridge, Owens works with the students there to “connect their own inner wisdom back to them.” This means shifting away from the usual day-to-day focus on the negative behavior of others—and ourselves—and onto the goodness within us all.

“In a teacher-student relationship, my job is actually to cut through the faults that you manifest,” Owens explains. “We get so wrapped up and distracted by the things we struggle with that we don’t know how to celebrate and to nurture the things that are inherently positive about us.”

Owens’s innovative approach to ministry integrates social media platforms to extend the reach and impact of his teaching. He uses Facebook and YouTube in particular to help those who feel isolated find community online. His posts are designed to start conversations with people he might not ordinarily meet and to create new collaborations.

Lama Rod Owens with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa
Lama Rod Owens with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on the HDS campus, April 2015. / Photo: Kris Snibbe, Harvard Staff Photographer

Owens’s use of social media started in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the unrest that followed. At the prompting of Buddhadharma magazine, Owens engaged in dialogue about the violence with the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, an author and Zen priest. They recorded their conversation and posted it on YouTube, where it got thousands of views.

“We were very surprised at the way people gravitated to that video,” he says. “It was shared and viewed all over the place. People felt like we were speaking to something important.”

The conversation that caught fire on social media yielded others between Owens and Williams in different locations around the country. When they were finished, they collected their thoughts in a book released last spring: Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.

“For me, the book was the initial articulation of how I have survived a social context that has been more violent than kind,” says Owens, who grew up African American in the deep South. “Radical dharma is about recognizing the interconnectedness of life— and therefore the part we play in everything that goes on around us. It’s about having conversations that seem impossible to have and to saying the words we have been too afraid to say out loud. And it means transforming ourselves through knowledge into the kinds of people who are capable of changing the world.”

Owens, who will finish his studies at HDS in 2017, plans to pursue studies in social work.

“I will always be a spiritual teacher,” he says. “Being at HDS has taught me to translate that work, to think about it and write about it. Now I want to take that foundation to work with people formally around trauma. We need to examine our feelings, our emotions, our trauma—as well as the ways in which each of us may help create the conditions for violence. That’s the radical dharma approach.”

—by Paul Massari