On November 12th, I attended a seminar and guided meditation led by Lama Rod Owens, a Dharma teacher and community leader. Lama Rod was recognized officially by the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism after completing a traditional three-year silent retreat at Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery, located outside of New York City. As a black, queer male, who was born and raised in the south, Lama Rod’s unique life experiences provided an equally unique experience of learning, meditation, and connection both with him and the other participants attending the seminar. I especially appreciated this sense of connection during these times of isolation surrounding COVID. Although we were all just tiles on a screen, there was a feeling of togetherness as all the participants meditated and learned from Lama Rod’s wisdom.
In the first half of the seminar, Lama Rod spoke about his life both inside and outside of the Monastery. It was clear from the beginning what a wealth of knowledge and wisdom he had surrounding self-care, community activism, anti-racism, and connection to the natural land, as he thoughtfully approached each topic and related it to his own life.
Lama Rod emphasized caring for oneself before attempting to address external issues surrounding social justice. He spoke of the trauma shared by humans, such as feelings of self doubt, isolation, anger, and depression. Lama Rod promoted facing one’s own trauma before dealing with that of others. Lama Rod’s early work as an activist in Boston attempted to get to the roots of homelessness, hunger, and instability. In his discussion he candidly talks about how he was experiencing severe depression during this time. His openness and frankness opened the space for those of us in the audience to openly confront our own suffering and trauma.
With this, I realized the importance of caring for myself while working on environmental issues. It is easy for one to ignore their own suffering momentarily and become distracted by a larger cause. In the long run, however, this is not conducive to growth. When dealing with issues as pervasive as social or environmental injustice, it is imperative that we focus on our own health as well.
Lama Rod sees himself as belonging to multiple communities, each of which are tied to his varied life experiences. His confidence in embracing that fact was inspiring to me; I often pressure myself to commit to one practice or identity and devote myself to it fully. Lama Rod revisited the importance of intersectionality often throughout his talk, bringing up the importance of social liberation as well as liberation from the ultimate, or the suffering that all humans experience related to the desires of the physical world.
Lama Rod found his way to Dharma through experiencing his own suffering, which he states was rooted in his own mind. He openly acknowledged that many of us may be undergoing these same struggles. The unrest that has come with this year made examining these struggles especially important, and acted as a point of connection that the entire audience could relate to. He places emphasis on disrupting systems of violence, and this brought my attention to how present these systems are in every aspect of life. These systems of violence stem from the land on which we reside, and the line of thinking that humans have the right to continuously take resources from it without giving anything in return.
As he transitioned into Buddhism, Lama Rod notes that he was surrounded by other practicing Buddhists who, importantly, were socially active as well. He makes it clear that his early mentors in Buddhism were caring humans. Lama Rod emphasizes how they cared for the earth, for humans, and for ending systems of violence. Upon learning this, it was clear the importance they had in Lama Rod’s establishment as a socially active practitioner of Dharma.
For me, the most impactful portion of Lama Rod’s talk was when he focused attention on the importance of caring for one’s own mind. As he spoke about this, I realized that, for the majority of us, this is not something that we are ever taught how to do. Elaborating on this topic, Lama Rod spoke about how he gives care not only to the positive and liberating thoughts, but to the unpleasant and violent thoughts as well. To acknowledge, let alone care for, the negative thoughts in my mind is something of a foreign idea to me. As we transitioned into a practice of meditation, this was a thought that arose multiple times for me.
Lama Rod said that the issue is never in the thing itself, but rather the issue lies in one’s relationship with that thing. As I meditated on that thought, I considered how this might apply to the natural environment. We often see the environment as broken, or sick. But is that really the case, or is it our relationship with the environment that is in need of fixing and healing? By turning inward, focusing on our own thoughts, and caring for ourselves, perhaps we can be of better service to the environment and attempt to repair our relationship with it.