A Buddhist teacher’s meditations on confronting white supremacy

Lama Rod Owens is a Buddhist activist and author. Photo for The Washington Post by Rick Friedman

Lama Rod Owens, 40, is a Buddhist teacher and activist. His new book is “Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger.”

Q: Can you tell the story of how Buddhism turned out to be the way (for you) to be an activist?

A: We can work socially for liberation, but there’s a different work that’s required for mental liberation. In Buddhism I saw that there’s an ultimate liberation that comes with a mental liberation. The ultimate liberation was an extension of the mental liberation that we cultivated through meditation. And so once I started learning and having experiences in ultimate liberation, I then began to bridge the social liberation work together with the ultimate liberation. Like, yes, social activism – but also spiritual activism. You’re working for freedom on both fronts.

Q: Can mindfulness, which I think of as a spiritual practice, help with the kinds of things social activism deals with – for example, racial trauma?

A: Mindfulness, as it’s taught in the mainstream, will not be enough to undo trauma, racism and so forth. Buddhist mindfulness is about liberation through cultivating awareness and ethics. For me, we have to bring ethics back into secular mindfulness. Ethics means this is what is conducive to liberation, or another way of putting that is, this is what’s conducive to the reduction of violence. This is what is conducive to actually beginning to undo systematic white supremacy.

Q: How do anger and rage connect with trauma and brokenheartedness?

A: Anger and rage are actually trying to point us to the trauma and the brokenheartedness. When I experience anger or rage, for me it’s a sign that I’m hurt and I’m hurting, and there’s a tension there. The tension between being hurt and wanting to take care of myself, that tension is what anger and rage really are. I relate this back to everything that’s going on right now. We’re just hurt. When people are out in the street marching, it doesn’t matter what it’s for. There are people marching for black lives and against police brutality. I see some similarities with the folks, earlier on in the pandemic, white folks who were going out, you know, demonstrating to open up everything. There is a similarity, which is hurt. People are hurt. People are scared. People are frustrated. I think we have to have the conversation to get into the hurt itself.

Q: The anger of people marching for Black Lives Matter is one thing. Then there’s the anger of, say, white men who are threatened or angry at beginning to lose their privilege. Do you judge angers?

A: It all comes from hurt, and for me, I don’t judge the hurt. But as you move away from the hurt into the tension that arises, it’s how we’re channeling that anger. I think that’s where we can judge. What are you actually doing in channeling the energy of this anger, and is that channeling of the energy actually helping you to somehow take care of the hurt? For people who experience a lot of oppression and social marginalization, I think there’s a closer connection to the hurt than I would say for people who experience more social privilege. I think a good example is whiteness, white supremacy. I see white supremacy as trauma. When I’m working with white folks, it’s helping to support white folks in actually connecting to the trauma of whiteness and what whiteness has meant, whiteness as a system that has to be maintained because that’s where identity location has been planted. So the woundedness, the trauma, is actually disrupting the foundation of that identity, and then actually having to sit with the intensity of trying to figure out who you are now, after this identity location of whiteness has been disrupted.

Q: Why is it essential to love our anger?

A: For me love is an expression of acceptance. So when I am loving my anger, I am basically accepting the anger. And when I can accept it, I can get close to it and began to take care of it.

Q: You speak about how it’s time to create a movement, and that black and brown people are in a unique position to understand what suffering is, and that’s why they have the duty (to lead the movement).

A: When you’re close to your suffering you’re close to your humanity, and when you’re close to your humanity you become a mirror that reflects other people’s humanity back to them. This is why I think black and brown people are so situated to be the leaders of liberation and freedom, you know, because we’re closer to what makes us human. We have not been able to wall ourselves off, or to numb ourselves, (in order) to participate in a system of oppressing others. That’s going to keep us empathetic to others. And that empathy is really how that mirror works. It’s like we’re just reflecting back this reality that, yeah, everyone’s hurting, you know, and we’re close to our hurting. But the people who hurt us, they’re the furthest away from their pain. And we’re trying to draw people close, back to their pain, because that proximity is actually going to be the thing that disrupts them, to disrupt their participation in how systems are maintained by not being in a relationship to the suffering.

Q: The white people who are out in the streets now, they don’t feel the same trauma, but they’re animated by something as well. What do you make of where they’re coming from?

A: I think that it’s so important to be an ally, to show up. But at the end of the day, your allyship isn’t the work that’s required to undo whiteness. The work that’s required to undo white supremacy from white people is actually by coming into a relationship with their brokenheartedness and the trauma from whiteness, and learning how to sit with that, you know, and experiencing that. And that experience will slowly begin to divest you from the ways in which you’ve been trained and taught to participate in the system. Without the pain, without getting close to your pain, it’s not going to be changed.

Q: When you say that for white people, the work that has to be done is to sit with the brokenheartedness from white supremacy, what do you mean?

A: To sit with all the manifestations of white supremacy, the manifestation of white supremacy from our ancestors, the disappointment of being born into the system that disproportionately disadvantages brown and black people, to sit with the totality of everything. And you can sit with it. You can do it. But of course it’s difficult to do it. White people doing that work are the white people that I trust the most. Even if it is a struggle, even if it’s hard to stay with the pain, you’re still doing it, and that for me is really encouraging to see.

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