I am fortunate to have discovered Lama Rod Owens through the podcast “Duncan Trussell Family Hour”, where Trussell attempts to conceptualize the human experience.
In one episode Trussell speaks with Lama Rod Owens, a Buddhist minister, author, activist, yoga instructor, and authorized Lama. In one word, a teacher. He and Trussell spend their time beginning to unpack Buddhist ideologies linked strongly to ego, identity, and reality.
Buddhist ideologies on the ego, the self, and suffering
The ego depends on the external world to define itself. So in turn, the main aspects that we consider our “identity” are social constructs. Identity, in this case, defines the way that we have come to describe our sexuality, gender, race, religion, etc. These are the labels that feel inseparable from our “self”, ingrained in the way we define ourselves and reflective in our experiences. I call them constructs, not to diminish the importance of all of the transhistorical and intergenerational effects of such identities, but to highlight that it is the unassailable social biases in power that perpetuate the discrimination against certain minority identifications.
A threshold in Buddhist practice is overcoming the conceit of “I am”. On an individual and relative level in life, we do everything within our power to not suffer. We try to rationalize suffering, understand where it comes from, and learn how to stop it–assuming that it is something that can be stopped. It is through what Owens calls our “identity locations”, referring to the disprivileged identities in which we are grounded, that we experience suffering. As if by simply existing, we inherit these loaded identifications which subject us to a social hierarchy that perpetuates systems of discrimination and harmful stereotypes, which largely make up suffering in this human experience.
Owens also discusses the implications of privileged identities. He most powerfully identifies with his blackness and his queerness, and actively examines the intersectionality of these identities and how they shape his view of the world and his own personal experiences. He separates and recognizes his disprivileged and privileged identities, the latter being the way he identifies as a cisgender man.
The ever-evolving patriarchy
The patriarchy is sustainable, in a way that contradicts the word’s usual positive connotation. It is adaptable, malleable, persistent, and at present unassailable. It can and has been evolving, contingent on society itself.
Its power stems from the rigidity of societal constructs. Applying Owens’s previous theory of “identity locations”, the patriarchy prevails because it systematically oppresses ambiguity concerning the gender binary. It conditions us all to breathe in these conveniently constructed gender-specific behavioral norms through all sorts of channels of influence (media, pop culture, music, all things entertaining).
The basis of gender itself is a social construct. More recent feminist theory actively challenges biological determinism, the “theory that all social phenomena are determined by biological factors such as genetics, not social or cultural influences.”, by distinguishing sex from gender. Biological determinism has helped sustain the patriarchy for decades.
Sociologist Patrick Geddes and author J. Arthur Thompson argued that metabolic states were the cause of social, psychological, and behavioral traits. Granted that their book was published in 1889, their influence still lingers. They held that women are anabolic, in that we are conserving energy, making us passive members of society who are unable to productively participate in the ‘public sphere’. This was one of the main reasons to restrict women’s right to vote. On the other hand, men are ‘catabolic’: energetic, passionate, and subsequently interested in political and social matters. As baffling as this sounds, these foundations created a lasting influence on the dichotomy of gender in society today.
The common phrase ‘boys will be boys’ relies on biological determinism to excuse the not natural but conditioned tendencies of men to act as though they are entitled to women and our bodies. We see this sentiment in day-to-day harassment, sexual assault statistics, politics, legal systems, religion, traditions, and much more. Its influence is ubiquitous.
All this is not to say that there has not been much progress made to dismantle the roots of the patriarchy. Most women are now able to vote, work, educate themselves, pursue careers over marriage, and to some extent hold control and expression over their own bodies. Although the latter right of bodily autonomy continues to be challenged by backward legislation and a world that enables a culture of sexual assault. To analyze these advances toward gender equality means to emphasize that this is the life for most women. Women maintaining multiple minority identifications intersecting with that of being a woman are further and disproportionately harmed. There is much more progress to be made but these advances have forced the patriarchal system to readapt and recalibrate the demarcation of gender that pressures individuals to maintain their identities and act as such.
What is liberation? What would it look/feel like?
I don’t know. Through this lens of Buddhism that Lama Rod Owens analyzes, it would take a lot of introspection and time, for it would require a certain detachment from relative identities and many uncomfortable conversations about the forces of privilege in motion daily. Owens states that “real change comes when members of the dominating group where a majority of the violence originates begin to divest from the identity that is conflated with dominance.” This means confronting each of our complacency in the patriarchal system: the “unconscious allegiance to patriarchy”, as Owens calls it. It is crucial that male-identifying people do this introspective work and realize the privilege that they hold, to become uncomfortably aware of their biases and begin to confront them.
The world today functions on patriarchal and racist values to maintain peoples’ differences through identification with social constructs. It is undeniable that this world favors the white cis-gender man. Most other identifications fall victim to “othering”, a term used to explain the in-group bias, a psychological tendency to favor those who maintain similar identifications as oneself and to discriminate against other groups. Since social identification is seemingly inescapable, societies have developed foundational systems of unjust laws and discrimination with biases that influence and sustain all existing inequality. This system is rigid in that it does not make room for much ambiguity and deviation, for people undefined are beyond systemic control.
Buddhism frequently visits the idea of samsara: death and rebirth. Death is necessary to have rebirth– a cyclical cycle. Owens speaks specifically about social rebirth, developing the idea that a system that never worked cannot be fixed. He implies that in order for humans to meaningfully achieve liberation from the social order in power that perpetuates patriarchal values and systemic racism, all that we have ever known will have to collapse. He poses the compelling and equally frightening idea that since our identities are so intertwined and identified with the system, this might feel like we ourselves are dying. These identities are also contingent on society, gradually changing to match the attitudes of people, which, unfortunately, are largely reliant on the current political climate. For these reasons, the patriarchy is still adapting and still prevails.
In ‘Woman Hold My Hand’, Lama Rod Owens stresses the divergence between the relative and the ultimate reality in Buddhist thought. The former being our individual thoughts, emotions, and experiences and the latter being the “true nature of reality: an emptiness and space that reveals the manifestations of the relative to be illusionary in nature.” The disconnect and division between people of different groups stem from ignorance in the relative reality, for in the relative reality only the “identity locations” through which we suffer exist. So, perhaps in this absolute reality lies liberation.
In Orthodox Buddhism, women were not considered a ‘complete entity’, but rather an impediment to achieving enlightenment. It holds that in order for women to become complete we need to assume male form, for being male is a necessary condition to attain enlightenment and become Buddha. Owens recounts the Tibetan female Buddha, who defied this traditional thought, refusing to entertain such weak-minded discrimination, saying that in absolute reality “there is no distinction as ‘male’ or ‘female’, neither of ‘self-identity’, a ‘person’ nor any perception (of such) and therefore attachment to ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is quite worthless”. She became a deity synonymous with love and compassion and was named the Liberator.
All of these words are to encourage introspective questioning in how we identify ourselves and how we engage with others and the world. James Baldwin said in his book Notes of a Native Son: “I am what time, circumstances, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.”