01.01.2004

A Rocky Path to Enlightenment

From her roots in a Catholic household in Melbourneto more than 20 years in the Tibetan Buddhist traditionis the unusual path the Venerable Robina Courtin hastaken in her life. On the way, she has variously servedas a personal bodyguard to His Holiness the Dalai Lama,been the subject of an acclaimed documentary ChasingBuddha and worked with more than 1000 prisoners, manyon death row in the US. Emma Leask spoke to this inspirationalwoman as she prepares for a tour of Australian states.

Most people expect a nun to be demure, softly spokenand angelic. But not Robina Courtin. Her wisdom rollsoff her razor-sharp tongue quickly, straight to thepoint with no nonsense.

Robina lives as a Western Buddhist nun, but not ina monastery in the mountains, studying and praying assome would expect. She has spent the last seven yearsworking as full time editor for an international Buddhistmagazine, and travels around the world teaching Buddhism.However, her life before Buddhism was far from nun-like,which places her in a unique position to relate to thecommon man.

Robina grew up in Melbourne, the second of seven childrenin a Catholic "very crowded, crazy household" dominatedby a violent, alcoholic father and the nightmare ofsexual abuse. Life was busy for the Courtin household,with everyone working in the family printing companyat night and on weekends.

"We had a cousin who was a chemist who would providemy mother with speed," Robina recounts in her matterof fact way. "She'd tell us 'It's OK, take one it'llbe good for you' so we could stay awake all night andwork, then we'd have to go to school the next day. Itsounds a bit shocking now, but in those days speed wasn'tconsidered very bad".

Robina's youth was characterised by her anger andenormous energy. Her driven personality meant she alwayshad complete commitment to whatever she did. Broughtup as a Catholic, she wanted to become a nun at theage of 14. Although happy to avoid school, Robina nevermissed mass, knew every word in Latin and yearned tobe at one with God.

According to Robina's sister in the documentary ChasingBuddha, Robina went through a "man stage", when shewould pick up guys off the street every night and tooklots of marijuana and speed.

When she was 23, Robina went to London to study singingand it wasn't long before she became a hippy. "I wasvery devoted to being a hippy, living on the dole andhanging out and smoking dope," she says. Her next phasewas to become very politically involved, first withleft politics, then black politics and finally as afeminist.

Robina's political activity was inspired by her energyto make the world a better place. "That's why I becameanything. I was always looking for an explanation ofreality, trying to understand why the world was theway it was".

At age 26, the independent, fearless Robina decidedto hitchhike around Europe. Having experienced a greatdeal of violence in her life and being an angry andvolatile person herself, she didn't have the usual fearswhich hold back many from a more sheltered background.

While hitching in Italy she found men gave her trouble,but her mind was made up - it was her life and nobodyelse's business. After one alarming experience whereshe was threatened with rape, Robina realised that fearis a block in anyone's life. Her immediate responseto insult the two men involved turned the situationin her favour.

This experience taught Robina that when there is nofear, everything changes. "The biggest problem is fear,and because I didn't have fear I ended up having controlover it. When you have control over something, thenthe power isn't taken away, then you feel very different".

Back in Australia, Robina was drawn towards a spiritualpath again. At this time she was practising martialarts, which led her to look internally. Then, at 32,she met the Tibetan Lamas, followers of the traditionwhich has provided her with spiritual sustenance forthe past 24 years.

It was clear to Robina even before she became a nunthat the ways people are taught to feel happiness didnot work. "I had already seen the things that most peoplecall happiness were a load of rubbish, that you didn'tget happiness from having sex, drugs, cigarettes, romanceor money".

Her views were crystallised by the philosophy of theLamas. For Robina, who had already given those thingsup, becoming a nun meant gaining something new.

Robina was also attracted to Buddhism because it meantshe could change herself. "I knew I was angry, but Ijust assumed it was my nature, it was my personality.I suppose I felt what can I do about it?"

The essence of Buddhism is about understanding andchanging your mind. "Buddha said we each have this extraordinaryinnate potential and that by changing ourself we changethe world".

According to Buddhism we create our own lives, thereis no God or Creator, which leads many people to mistakenlythink it is not a religion. "People tend to think thatreligion means believing in something, whereas Buddhismsays don't believe a single word I am telling you -check it out, use your intelligence, use your commonsense".

For Buddhists, explains Robina, the word "religion"has a much broader meaning. "It means living your lifein an internal way, looking into yourself and takingresponsibility for yourself and developing your qualities".

Today part of her work involves visiting prisons mainlyin the United States to talk with the inmates, manyof whom are on death row. This new direction came aboutwhen she was working as an editor and received a letterfrom a Mexican prisoner who was a former gangster. "Hewas looking into his mind and trying to find his realityand he was very sincere," she says. Robina sent himbooks, an interest which eventually snowballed intothe Liberation Prison Project. Robina and her team nowseek to take care of the spiritual needs of more than1,000 prisoners and receive and answer as many as 200letters a month.

Having experienced so much violence throughout herlife, going inside maximum-security prisons doesn'tfaze Robina. For instance, she has visited many inmatesin Pelican Bay Prison, California, one of the strictestgaols in the United States.

Her fearlessness and compassion shine through as shespeaks of prisoner friends who have been locked awaysince the age of nine and virtually never see the lightof day. Some inmates she visits are under "permanentlock-down", confined to their cells for 23 hours a day,with a one hour 'break' in another cell.

Robina has helped hundreds of prisoners, but saysthey have no idea how much they truly inspire her. Somewhatironically, she says, the prisoners have this incredibleinspiration to practise Buddhist ideals, despite theirlives being so bleak.

"You have no freedom, it's pretty violent in someof the prisons because of gang activity. Society hassaid you are the scum of the earth, people have convincedyou that you are a bad person - so there is every reasonto have low self-esteem, anger or resentment. And thereyou are really using this as an opportunity to lookat your life and trying to change your life and be useful".

Talking with prisoners about Buddhism encourages themto face up to their own mortality - whether or not theyare on death row. As Robina sees it, Buddhism meanspreparing for death right now and much of the world'ssuffering is because people won't acknowledge life'simpermanence.

When asked about her future plans, no-nonsense Robinagets straight to the point. "You can't predict whatwill happen in the future - no point in having fantasies.I could die tomorrow".

Robina says the aim is to live in the present dayin the context of where you are going, which she likensto gardening. "If you're a gardener, you've got thevision of what you are growing in the future, but yourattention is always on the present, on how to developthose seeds into the plants they will become".

It is best to have "an eye to the future" she says,but not to think about it all the time, which trapsyou into living in the fantasy of the future.

"I don't have a plan for the future, but the themeis the same - all the time to develop my qualities andsecondly to be more and more useful to others, moreskilful in my ability to help others. So that's whatI'll be doing in the future - as for what shape it willtake - not a clue".

Robina will be teaching in Australiafor three months for the Foundation for the Preservationof the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT).
Website: www.fpmt.org
She will also be visiting prisoners as part of the LiberationPrison Project.

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