IIt’s a Tuesday evening in the small country town of Milton on the New South Wales south coast, and the smell of freshly made chai and homemade soup about to be served wafts through the drafts from the room of the Country Women’s Association as the discussion veers between death, murder, war, abortion, prison and suffering.
About 50 people, some longtime members of the local Buddhist group, other curious newcomers, sit cross-legged on the wooden floor or in plastic chairs, a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II looking down, listening a Buddhist nun. The topic of the evening: “How to stay positive in a negative environment.”
“Our problem is that we think the outside world is the main cause of our suffering – and our happiness,” says Venerable Robina Courtin, a 77-year-old Australian ordained in the Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the late 1970s. .
“We understand that when it comes to becoming a musician, you program yourself and that you you are the main cause of becoming a musician – the work is in your mind, you need precision and clarity and perfect theories, then you practice and practice. We know we are creating ourselves in that sense,” she says.
“But when it comes to becoming a happy person, we don’t believe we have that ability. But the Buddhist approach is that we perform, whether it’s a musician or a happy person. We’re the boss.
But what about all the extra suffering in recent years, asks one woman, citing Covid, floods and the war in Ukraine. Courtin relates the story of two imprisoned Tibetan women who were tortured and sexually assaulted, but who were able to “interpret this experience” in a way that “enabled them to bear it”.
The questioning woman seems dissatisfied. “What is that?” Courtin asks. “Come on, say it, it’s important. Courtin can be both warm and direct. When someone interrupted her mid-sentence at the previous day’s event, she replied, “You don’t hear me trying to answer your question!” — and it takes the woman a moment to reveal what she’s thinking. “It just doesn’t seem practical,” she finally said.
“It’s handy when you’re sexually abused in prison,” Courtin says. “We have the power to change the way we interpret our lives, and they were able to do that. And they were even able to have compassion for their torturers. The result of this? They haven’t lost their minds. It’s not preachy; it’s really practical.
“Honey, listen to me,” said Courtin, softening. “Our problem is that we can’t deal with our own suffering or the suffering that’s out there, so we just want to make it all go away. We can’t. All we can do is do the best we can. in this crazy lunatic asylum we call planet Earth.
From convent school to death row
Earlier in the day, over lunch, Courtin explained, “I’ve always been involved in the world. I love the world and I love crazy humans. She is a “newspaper and news junkie”; his favorite publications include the Financial Times, the Economist and the Washington Post.
Courtin grew up in Melbourne, one of seven children in an exuberant and impoverished Catholic family. “The naughtiest in the family”, she was sent to a boarding school at the age of 12 in a convent. “I was in heaven, it was bliss,” she says. Not only did she finally have her own bed, but “there was no chaos around me, I had discipline. I went to mass every day. I was in love with God, Our Lady and the saints. It was perfect for me.”
At the end of her adolescence, she discovered boys. Realizing that she “couldn’t have God and the boys at the same time”, she “very consciously” decided “goodbye God, hello boys”. A second-hand record, bought for sixpence, led her to jazz. “I had this seven-inch LP that said ‘Billie Holiday’. I had no idea, I wondered who he has been! It opened me up. It just blew me away because it opened me up to this black American experience, of suffering human beings.
In the late 1960s, Courtin traveled to London, “raw and ready for revolution”. There she joined “radical left” protests and supported the Black Panther movement. In 1971, she began working full time for Friends of Soledad, a group of British political activists supporting three black American prisoners charged with the murder of a white prison guard. Then she moved on to the radical feminist movement. Shedding her taste for men, she became a “radical lesbian feminist”, learned martial arts, and moved to the United States to a lesbian-run dojo in New York City.
In 1976, back in Australia, in Queensland, with a broken foot that stopped his practice of martial arts, Courtin, 31, spotted a poster advertising a conference of two Tibetan Buddhists – Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche – and decided to accompany him. “That’s where I found my calling,” she says. “I have always looked for a way to see the world, why is there suffering, what are the causes? And I think I had exhausted all options for who to blame for the suffering in the world.
Since being ordained 44 years ago, Courtin has worked as the editor of Buddhist magazines and books. In 1996, after receiving a letter from a young former Mexican American gangster serving three life sentences in a maximum-security prison in California, she founded the Liberation Prison Project, a nonprofit organization that offers Buddhist teachings and support for prisoners.
Courtin ran the program for 14 years, helping thousands of inmates, and still keeps in touch with his “friends from prison.” Recently she visited a death row inmate in Kentucky since 1983. monster, and he’s a happy guy,” she says. A practicing Buddhist, “he is fulfilled and happy. He worked on his mind, accepted responsibility for his actions, and although he would like to be released from prison, he accepts his reality. “I’m ready for that electric jolt,” he told me.
I ask Courtin if she feels anger at the fate of this man. ” No I do not know. I try to help him where he is. That’s it,” she said. “I remember when I was a radical political activist in London in the early 1970s, that was when I was angry. It was when I was angry. Racism, sexism, injustice are just as bad now, if not worse – the American prison system is outrageous – but I work differently now.
“The problem is that we confuse seeing a bad thing with being angry. We think that if we give up on anger, we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Courtin says she’s “always an activist “, but holding anger is like stabbing yourself with a knife – “it just paralyzes you”. Instead, she practices what she calls courageous compassion. “There’s a saying in Buddhism, a bird needs two wings, wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is internal, pulling itself together. Compassion is when you put your money where your mouth is and help the world.
Live in this world without losing your mind
Since the late 2000s, Courtin has lived out of a suitcase, teaching at Buddhist centers around the world, only stopping in March 2020 in Sante Fe when the pandemic hit. She started teaching on Zoom – “I love Zoom” – and a friend created and manages her social networks. His TikTok account, which has 85,600 followers, offers short videos, sometimes responding to current events, with titles like “How to live in this world without losing your mind”.
“There’s a way to use the world to grow your practice,” she says. Take former US President Donald Trump, for example. “I was looking at Mr. Trump and instead of fuming and raving about how bad he is, I was like, ‘Well, those are lies, I admit it. It’s anger, I admit it. It’s vanity, I admit. It’s arrogance, I admit it. There’s not a single fucking illusion Mr. Trump has that I don’t too. The Buddhist view is that we have all of these states of mind; we are all in the same boat. So I say, “Thank you for showing me how not to be.”
Recently, Courtin shared on social media that her sister, Jan, died following an accident at home. She says the huge response to her post “really touched me, because the people were so nice”. She took a flight from the United States as soon as she heard about the accident. Alongside her siblings in a hospital room in Melbourne as Jan’s life support was removed, Courtin whispered the Buddhist mantras that accompany death as the rest of the family loudly sang the song of the Sydney Swans team.
Once Courtin completes her teaching tour of Australia, she will move to New York, where she plans to settle “for the last years of my life.” She plans to write and edit, continue her personal study and Buddhist practice, and teach via Zoom. Maybe “I’ll go out to a jazz club at night,” she says, before adding, “Just kidding, I probably won’t go to the jazz club.
“I will try not to waste my life. Try to stay useful. Be useful before I die.