Continuing Divinity Dialogues—a special edition podcast series from Harvard Divinity School that puts conversations on faith, purpose, and bearing witness at the center of today’s most pressing issues.
Today, we hear from HDS alum Rod Owens, MDiv ’17, author, activist, Buddhist Lama, and one of this year’s Gomes Distinguished Alumni Honorees. Considered one of the leaders of the next generation of Dharma teachers, Lama Rod blends his formal Buddhist training with experiences from his life as a Black, queer male, born and raised in the South, and heavily influenced by the church and its community.
In the interview below, Owens talks about practicing non-attachment, seeking spaciousness rather than rigidity, and finding freedom.
"The future is bright with promise because you’re in it. And my word to you is don’t give up, don’t give out, don’t give in! It is yours to make, and those who come after you will be very grateful for your witness.”
AMIE MONTEMURRO: The voice you just heard belongs to the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes speaking to Harvard University in a 2010 Keynote Address on “Harvard’s Transition to a More Diverse Community.”
Distinguished faculty member for four decades. Senior minister at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Rev. Peter J. Gomes is remembered fondly for his spirited take on the world and serving as a moral compass for the community.
I am Amie Montemurro with Harvard Divinity School, and this is Divinity Dialogues—conversations on faith, purpose, and bearing witness. Today, we continue our series of special edition interviews with this year’s Gomes Distinguished Alumni Honorees.
Each year, the Alumni/Alumnae Council honors the legacy of Reverend Gomes by recognizing graduates whose excellence in life, work, and service pays homage to the mission and values of the Harvard Divinity School.
From investigative journalism to intersectional poetry and Buddhist ministry to bioethics in medicine, this year’s honorees bring the Divinity School’s vision—working in service of a just world at peace across religious and cultural divides—to fruition.
Each week in June, we’ll hear the stories of our honorees.
This week, we’ll hear from Lama Rod Owens, who earned his Master of Divinity degree in 2017. He is an author, activist, and authorized Lama (or Buddhist teacher) in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. And he is considered one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers.
A production note: This interview took place in April 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lama Rod and I met over Zoom to avoid travel and practice good public health measures.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: To get us started, can you say a little bit about your relationship with religion and/or spirituality? And particularly, the role it may have played before you joined us here at the Divinity School.
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I would say religion has been an incredibly important part of my life. I was born into a very religious family. I grew up in the South. And so,
And so having said all of that, I also have to say that I didn't actually really get religion at the same time. I didn't—particularly Christianity and theology, it didn't appeal to me. It wasn't the theology that was really important, it was the community. So, as I grew older, particularly as I started college, I just drifted away from regular attendance at church. And that was really the beginning of—I guess the opening up of space for me to explore different ways of expressing myself, and different ways of identifying. So, I was finally able to really start expressing myself as queer and progressive and radical, and all these things that I really started to explore. But somehow, religion was still very present. And spirituality was still extremely important. I just didn't have the language during that transition, particularly.
I did end up attending, for undergrad, a Christian non-denominational school, which was great. People came to my school, which was called Barry College, to deepen their relationship with God. I didn't see that, particularly on the publicity or in the pamphlet when I was applying. But when I enrolled, I was very directly told that, now you're coming into an environment where you will deepen your relationship with God. I didn't deepen my relationship with God. I broke up with God. So… (laughs) but that was important again. Because I think I did something. I was beginning to do something that a lot of folks back then weren't doing. I was questioning and asking myself, what else?
So, after that really formal break, I just committed myself to the work of justice—really of service and activism. And that took me into a Catholic worker community, which is where my story begins to intersect with Joshua Eaton's story. Which is why this is so special to both be nominated. Because we met in this community, actually when he was still an undergraduate student. And he was pivotal for me because he was a practicing Buddhist at the time. And he gave me this book early on that really, deeply inspired me to really dedicate everything to the path of Dharma and Buddhism. So, he has a really pivotal role in my awakening, particularly into Buddhism as well.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: I’m going to pause here for a moment to remind listeners that last week’s episode featured our interview Joshua Eaton, who shared his story of meeting quote, “the future Lama Rod, the Rod soon-to-be-called Lama.”
AMIE MONTEMURRO: He has wonderful things to say about as well. We met with him on Friday and the love is mutual, for sure. Well, what was the book? Do you mind sharing?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yes. It was a book called Cave in the Snow by Jetsunma Palmo. And he had the book, and I said, Oh, that looks really interesting. So, I asked to borrow it. And reading this book, I realized that this was the path. That I was going to follow this path of multi-year retreating, becoming a teacher, dedicating so much of my work and labor to Dharma and Buddhism. It was just pivotal. It was a pivotal experience.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: That's amazing. Thank you. Thank you.
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah. Absolutely.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, one thing that people may be surprised when they learn, the Divinity School is a non-sectarian multi-faith organization, with a student body that represents 30 plus religious traditions and denominations each year. What's something else that may be surprising about the school? And what would you like the world to know about your time at HDS?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Right. It was such a unique place. I can't quite explain what it's like being in this academic, social environment, where all of these practitioners and scholars are represented from religions and traditions I'd never even heard of before. And just to be in spaces where I didn't feel as if I was being judged or attacked, or where rather I was allowed to be myself. And people were interested in that expression. I had a friend who was a Satanist. I just really love that. And I know that freaks everyone out, but I think the great thing about Divinity School is that you actually are invited, and also expected to move past assumptions to actually get into the lived experience of practitioners—which was incredible. One of my richest memories was Introduction to Ministry, that all the MDivs had to take. And my cohort, my section, was just so—it was like a family.
We get together in section and sit around this long table in Div Hall. And I would just sit there and go, Oh my God, I've never had this experience of sitting around the table with Christians, and Hindus, Satanists, Muslims. It's just in every variety, it's subculture within these major paths. I wish that everyone would have this experience. And I grew up in kinda a monolithic culture but in the South. You were Christian, right. And if you weren't Christian, then you were somehow going to go to hell. That was really how we arranged this kind of thing. And so, when I really stepped onto the path of Buddhism and Dharma, I kind of stepped out of the experiences of many people that I grew up with, including my family.
So, coming to Div School, I just felt like I wasn't alone in that choice. Because there are many converts as well. Yeah, there are many folks who are born into the traditions that they were studying and practicing. And then there are many of us who were converts. Like we were born into one tradition, and we chose another. Or there were several of us who were practicing multiple traditions and paths at the same time, and I felt like that was also really supported. Like you weren't expected to choose. You had the agency in this space to go into spaces and to be whomever you needed to be, in order to have that experience of whatever you consider sacred or divine.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, it took you out of what felt like a false binary?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Exactly. Exactly.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: And this really builds on that beautiful foundation you just gave us about the Divinity School having folks who think about these complex, challenging, ethereal sometimes questions. But they're grounded in action, right? So, with that in mind, how can we as individuals find our way to lead with ethics and with compassion? And especially when weathering difficulties?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Well, I think this is why I do the practice. This is why I chose to study and practice Buddhism. Because it offered me tools and strategies to deal with the suffering of life and living. I came to the Dharma with no other options left. And so, my positionality—and this positionality that I leaned more into even as a student at HDS. But my positionality is that of a practitioner, as students, and a scholar being very secondary. I don't actually identify as a scholar. Everyone else identifies me as a scholar. I have no idea what I'm talking about. But what I'm really good at is telling people, or… you know… expressing how I use the practices of this tradition to suffer less. And that's all I do. So, this is my ministry. Because if I can't use the word ministry in talking about what I do, then I have failed as an HDS student (laughs).
But this is my ministry, right? This is my ministry to reduce suffering and harm for myself and for others around me. And that is my role as a spiritual leader, teacher, and spiritual director for folks. And I think for anyone, I encourage everyone to figure out what their sources of refuge are and lean on those sources. If it's God, or if it's family, if it's friends, if it's texts, if it's beliefs—whatever it may be, take a refuge in these things.
And let these sources of refugees take care of you right now. I don't know what the world is going to be like tomorrow, but I feel held in this second and this moment by my teachers, and by the earth, and by my basic practice. And that's all I know. And that's all I need, really. There's so many people right now in the world who don't even have that. And if you don't have that, the world becomes extremely antagonistic. The world becomes so fatalistic and harsh and uncaring. And that's really hard to endure.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, we’re hearing, find your refuge when you can.
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Do what you can to help alleviate suffering.
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah. And then I would say also, is the compassion as well. I think it's really easy for us to say, those people are the reason why we're all struggling. I mean it's just the heart. That kind of scapegoat in placing a blame on other groups of folks right now. It's at the heart of anti-Asian and Pacific Islander violence. The racial violence against black folks and anti-trans legislation that's arising all over the country and really all over the world. Like all of this stuff arises because we're losing this capacity to experience compassion, and, therefore, we're losing the capacity to empathize. So, we don't actually understand why we choose not to connect to the deep discomfort, the suffering of others around us. And we choose not to take care of our own discomfort. So, we bypass it, and we blame others for it.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Right. Maybe we can go off script for just a second until we get back to—I would love to ask more about your book. But Joshua, when we were talking about ethical leadership, mentioned that there can be an unhealthy attachment to power. And he was describing a lot of what you just talked about from the reverse. That if you were in a position of power, and you are attached or you fetishize the idea of power as one metric of success, especially in a leadership space, that in fact creates more suffering in the world, rather than alleviate that suffering. We like to think people go into positions of power to alleviate suffering. And that is not always the case. Anything you would like to say on that topic before we shift into talking more about your book?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah, absolutely. I think that people can be much more interested in the ability to influence things around them instead of actually centering an ethic of care benefits. That power becomes something that people use to attempt to fill unmet needs. It's the same thing with fame. You know? I was just having this conversation with an artist friend recently where I was like, it seems like
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, we would love to ask you a few questions about how you bring your education to fruition in your day-to-day experience. As a Buddhist teacher and a best-selling author with a master's in Divinity, how do you foster respect for pluralism in your everyday life?
LAMA ROD OWENS: I always come from the perspective that there's so many paths that lead to our understanding of the sacred or the divine. And I always say to the dismay of the general Buddhist community, is that I don't believe that Dharma is the best way. It's a great way, absolutely. But it's not the only way. Buddhism is just this collection of symbols and signs that point us somewhere. So, I think that I struggle with fundamentalism anywhere across the board. No matter what path, fundamentalism actually is a function of rigidity. And that rigidity actually makes it very difficult for us to experience, what I consider, the expansive, voluminous, open nature of alternate reality.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, is this meta-Buddhism? Practicing non-attachment to the Dharma itself.
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah, absolutely! Well…we have this teaching that when you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha—which I love. And there are so many ways, of course, to interpret that. But my interpretation of that when something gets rooted and firm and personified that you have to get rid of it. Another way to look at this as well that comes out of the teachings is that the teachings take you to the threshold. But in order to step over the threshold, you have to give up everything you think you know and understand. Right? But the problem is, we hold on to everything. All the concepts, all the symbols, all the ideas because we're attached to sense of self. Again, that goes back to the rigidity.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Shifting from your thoughts on fear—and please feel free to expand, because I'm guessing there might be a connection here... Can you tell us a little bit more about your newest book, Love and Rage?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Yeah.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: And how you connected the powerful emotions of love and rage through this lens of liberation. And, if you're willing to, how might fear fit in there.
LAMA ROD OWENS: I'll start by saying this: I think what we really fear is freedom. We really fear being free because we don't actually understand what freedom is. We don't get it. But we know what captivity feels like. Let me just have a meaning making moment here, because I want to use the tools of my MDiv… (laughs) I just think about the Exodus. I use the story of the Exodus quite a bit because the Exodus has been an important story for me in my upbringing in the Southern Black community. So, when the Hebrews left Egypt, they were leaving something that they knew, and understand, they could relate to and was entering this desert for 40 years. And being told that, if you do this, you'll be given what you need, but you'll be given what you need when you need it. So, it's not like you're going to go into the desert with a surplus, you have everything. It was like, you'll be given it when you need it. And that's a hard risk to take.
So, in the same way, when we talk about freedom and liberation, you're stepping out into an experience that you just don't understand and know. So, there has to be an experience of trust in something greater. Something that's actually taking care of you. And a lot of folks don't want to take that risk. And I think, for me, when I talk about bringing it back even deeper into Love and Rage, it's like the whole book is a risk. It's a manual or maybe an exploration of the risks I've had to take in order to experience a level of freedom that I experience. And when I talk about freedom and liberation within this context, I mean space. I mean the space to make choices that aren't about self-indulgence. It's not about hurting folks. It's actually making choices to reduce harm and violence. And making choices to be of benefit to others. And the more I make those choices, the closer I get to this most authentic expression of reality itself. And that is my true nature.
And so, I wanted us—in writing this book, I wanted all of us to have tools to begin to cultivate the spaciousness for ourselves. And I wanted us to go into the thing that. where many of us, the thing that for many of us, we feel as if we have every little agency over or with, which is anger and rage. But to bring the experience of love into that. To help people to understand that we're not trying to erase the anger, but we're just trying to remember the love as we're experiencing our anger.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: To wrap up this amazing, empowering, incredible conversation, I wanted to ask you a bit about the Divinity School's focus. Which is often characterized as making a world of difference. We see that in a number of different ways across campus and across our work. What are one or two tangible ways that everyday folks can help bring this HDS focus to fruition? So, in other words, how can we see the vision for ethical leadership in action?
LAMA ROD OWENS: Right, well, I think it's personal responsibility. I think that we're really good at demanding other people change, but not so good at asking ourselves to change. So first and foremost, I have to embody this kind of ethical framework for myself. And we have to do the work to do that. I know this past year, we're really into racial justice, and economic justice, and environmental justice—which is all really important. But we have to understand that the issue that connects all of these struggles, is just us. It's me, actually. It's the ways in which I have not deep and compassion love for myself or my body. And the ways in which I struggle to offer that compassion for people around me and for the environment.
Like, if I can just deepen this love for myself, that will impact the ways in which I over-consumed resources. Which is having a direct impact on the environment, right? And maybe when I deeply embody this ethic, I can just begin to become an example for others around me. So, people can look at me and say, oh, like what's Rod doing. What's he up to? Because I think it's so easy for us to use our intellect. And to deconstruct and analyze, which is what we're trained to do coming out of HDS. Absolutely. Right? But what we have to do is the hardest work. Which is change. Letting go. Mourning the things that we struggle to let go of...
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Many thanks to Lama Rod for his time, for his insight, and for honoring the full spectrum of human emotion as he tends to the spirits of those he serves.
And thanks to you for tuning in to this special episode of Divinity Dialogues. This podcast came together with the help of some remarkable colleagues, including Caroline Cataldo with her editing and producing expertise, Kristin Ponte with her exceptional work with the Gomes awards event, and folks across the Communications and Development teams at the School.
We’ll have a new episode coming out next week featuring a thought-provoking interview with Dr. Omar Sultan Haque—a physician, social scientist, philosopher, and two-time divinity degree earner who studies questions ranging across medicine, religion, and bioethics.
You can find us on the HDS SoundCloud channel or subscribe to Harvard Divinity School on your favorite podcast platform to make sure you never miss a new episode. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to learn more about HDS and our amazing community.
Until next time…