INTERVIEW WITH ROBINA COURTIN
This article first appeared in The Age on December 9, 2000
'Buddha says, " honey, you created who you are".' I like it Venerable Robina Courtin thinks that Buddha would call me honey. I also like it that she has in a few sentences managed to make clear to me the concept of karma which I have been trying to wrap my head around for some years.
One can get so caught up in the details of Venerable Robina Courtin's interesting life that they are in danger of losing sight of who she is now. She may well have been a black belt in karate, one of many daughters in a large Queensland catholic family, a supporter of the Black Panthers, a lesbian Separatist feminist and a lot else besides. And yes, as the film she stars in, Chasing Buddha, makes abundantly clear, she is very short, speaks at a million miles an hour and can swear like a truck driver/politician.
But all that is color. The substance is that she is a Buddhist nun and has been for 23 years. Her teachings are fantastic. To talk to her is to suddenly make understand what Buddhism can do, what it is capable of. Complex theologies make sense. She is direct and clear. She knows her stuff and in Buddhism she has found her passion. And her compassion. As she put it to me: 'I know it sounds corny but I had found my heart. I had found what I was looking for. I found what I'd lost. I knew in my heart I had finally found what I had been looking for 32 years.'
There is an ongoing fascination with monastic people and a lot of it revolves around sex, or the lack of it. We come from a culture that is so attached to sex as a way of feeling good about ourselves we are confronted by those who do not live that way.
'The director of Chasing Buddha said that after three months with me my life depressed him a bit - he couldn't see what made it tick. He didn't know what made me happy. I think he has a strong emphasis, the way a lot of people have, that unless you have one personal lover whom you confide in and who is the center of your life you can't be happy. He kept asking "was I lonely".'
By the time Robina became a nun she had already given up sex and given up drugs. 'I recall the time like I made a decision. Made a decision to be monastic. That sounds very corny - the fact I wanted to give myself to everybody - grandiose. But it was just this thought that arose in my mind. It just made sense to me. I was relieved to give up relationships actually.'
Robina sees her spiritual life as a continuation of her political work: 'I can see that I had this wish to make the world a better place. An idealism. I am still the same, it is just my methods are clearer now.
'For many years I had given up being spiritual completely. If you are really strongly leftist that is naturally what you'd be. Anti-religion and things. Then, after many years of political activity I was moving towards something spiritual. I could see really clearly - I talk about this in the film - that I had no one else to blame. All the straight people, all the white people, all the male people there was no one left to blame the troubles of the world. And suddenly I felt myself coming back into myself.
'I was a radical lesbian separatist feminist. I was always at the extreme of things. But I could see that I couldn't hate half of the human race. It was very evident. It was a very strong position. It was very painful for me to realize I'd have to start liking men again.'
Now Robina more than likes men. She shows a compassion towards them, and engages with them in a way that to many is unthinkable. Robina is director of Liberation Prison Project in the United States, which takes care of the spiritual needs of some 400 prisoners in 150 institutions, sending Buddhist books, writing, visiting and giving teachings and advice. Some of these men are on death row or have life sentences, and many have been involved in black or Mexican gangs, both on the streets and in prison. She hopes to extend this work to Australian prisons. This work forms the basis of the lectures she is currently giving around Australia.
There is a quote from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head of FMPT, the organization she works for, which I heard Robina repeat many times. This he wrote in a letter to a young ex-gangster serving life in prison. "Your prison is nothing in comparison with the prison of ordinary people: the prison of ego-grasping, the prison of attachment, the prison of anger, depression and pride.' Robina is aware that that is in danger of sounding patronizing, but has found in this statement, 'incredible truth'. As have many of the prisoners she works with.
'Prison forces you to find the truth of your situation,' she says. 'The environment in prison is great suffering. The senses are denied, affronted. The noise is beyond imagination. These men have an intense desire to transform their minds.' She talks at length about this concept, the importance of recognizing the truth about your own situation and then picking yourself up and getting on with life. 'When you are in sync with reality then you are blissful.'
For some of these men, taking the Buddhist precept not to harm sentient beings means they can no longer be part of the gangs within prisons. They place themselves, therefore, outside protection. To continue their practices of Buddhism is to put their life on the line. They can do this in part because they have no trouble accepting the notion of karma.
Karma is something I get stuck on. I don't understand it. I have trouble believing it. I tell Courtin that. 'What's your problem, Sophie?' she asks me. 'All the answers are there. You notice we all freak out when we hear that we are responsible for our negative karma but we get very happy when we hear we are responsible for our kindnesses? I think we divide the world into victims and oppressors. We all have a view that things are done to us, that they come from the outside. We try and find someone to blame. Karma is saying, "You're to blame". It goes beyond the victim/oppressor mentality. Karma is Buddha's way of explaining how we were created. It is like the Christian view of God. If you internalise this it forces you to take responsibility.'
The way Cortin puts it it makes it sound like taking responsibility is what liberates us, because we are no longer at the mercy of others. She goes on. 'For me one of the things I loved most when I heard it was karma. It's been like an anchor. If I'm responsible that forces me to change. I can't change the fruits that have now ripened, but I can learn from those. Learning from experience is something I find very tasty. You are the fruit of your own past action.'
I ask Robina what difficulties she has faced in becoming a nun. Her answer speaks, I suspect, also for the tests of faith the men she works with face on a daily basis.
'Being a nun has not been the difficult part. But it's difficult being a human being. That is what was challenging for me from day one. Just dealing with my crazy energy, just learning my mind. Learning to see the parts that were harmful to me then learning to work with that and subdue it and change it. Learning to use the positive energy. That's never changed. That is what being Buddhist is anyway.'