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What is the ego, and what role might it play in the process of awakening? In this episode we ponder these questions with best-selling author, activist, and Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens, who shares his story of working through trauma, embracing pleasure, and both accepting and letting go of his ego.

Before we dive in, Lama Rod responds to a ritual object called the flaying knife-chopper. In Tibetan Buddhist art, this weapon is typically wielded by a fierce guardian deity who uses the tool to destroy not us but our egos.


Lama Rod Owens is a Buddhist minister, best-selling author, activist, yoga instructor, and authorized Lama, or Buddhist teacher, in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers. Lama Rod holds a master of divinity degree in Buddhist studies from Harvard Divinity School and was included in the 2021 Gomes STB ’68 Distinguished Alumni Honorees List. He is the author of Love and Rage: The Path to Liberation through Anger and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. He is also the co-founder of Bhumisparsha, a Buddhist tantric practice and study community. He has published in Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar, Tricycle, and The Harvard Divinity Bulletin and offered talks, retreats, and workshops in more than seven countries. Lama Rod’s article “Are You Woke?” is featured in the 2021 issue of the Rubin’s Spiral magazine.


Flaying Knife-Chopper Tibet; 15th century Iron, clay The Newark Museum Purchase 1954, 54.350

The skull cup and the flaying knife-chopper are often paired in a wrathful deity’s opposing hands, and practitioners use them in rituals aimed to dismantle their ego. The blade of the knife is curved to match the skull’s cavity. Like a mortar and pestle, these ritual tools are used to reduce all the sense-based constituents of ordinary experience to their ultimate, empty nature. This physical and mental process purifies the wielder from negativities and any false conceptions of an independent, substantial self.


AWAKEN is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art with Vincent Baker, Dawn Eshelman, Jamie Lawyer, Sandrine Milet, Elena Pakhoutouva, and Dawnette Samuels. It was produced in collaboration with Sound Made Public, with Tania Ketenjian, Katie McCutcheon, and Philip Wood.

Special thanks to Karen Sorensen for additional consulting.

All music for AWAKEN was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.


This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, The Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, as well as by generous donations from the Museum’s Board of Trustees, individual donors, and members.

AWAKEN is sponsored by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available.